What’s new this week…

Hi blog readers, I hope everyone is doing great. Firstly, please accept my apologies for an extremely late second post. I have just finished four weeks of assignments and exams, the last of which were a couple of giant neuroanatomy exams that consumed the last of my brain cells. So while I am waiting for them to recover, I thought I’d post an update. I have a few great blog posts in the pipeline, including how caffeine affects our brains, some of the basics of neuroscience and tips on how to interpret health research presented in the news. Please stay tuned for those! In Australia we are currently in the midst of a federal election and science has been notably absent from the news. So here’s a little dose of science for you, just to get you through.

New to my blog this week:

  • The science behind mindfulness meditation
  • The neuroscience of exercise (a bit of a longer read)

I hope you enjoy these. I have a good 5 weeks of uni break, so will be feverishly writing away to bring you lots of new stuff.

Thanks for reading!


The Science Behind Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation and related techniques are starting to gain mainstream popularity due to their potential positive impacts on our health. Check out the infographic below to find out the current scientific evidence behind the effects of mindfulness meditation on our bodies. Scroll right down to the end to find a list of sources if you are interested on discovering more!

(For the pdf version click here – Meditation infographic )

Meditation Infographic

Reference List:

Barnes, V. A., Davis, H. C., Murzynowski, J. B., & Treiber, F. A. (2004). Impact of meditation on resting and ambulatory blood pressure and heart rate in youth. Psychosomatic medicine, 66(6), 909-doi: 10.1097/01.psy.0000145902.91749.35

Black, D. S., O’Reilly, G. A., Olmstead, R., Breen, E. C., & Irwin, M. R. (2015). Mindfulness meditation and improvement in sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults with sleep disturbances: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA internal medicine, 175(4), 494-501. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8081

Bower, J. E., & Irwin, M. R. (2016). Mind–body therapies and control of inflammatory biology: A descriptive review. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 51, 1-11. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2015.06.012

Brand, S., Holsboer-Trachsler, E., Naranjo, J. R., & Schmidt, S. (2012). Influence of mindfulness practice on cortisol and sleep in long-term and short-term meditators. Neuropsychobiology(3), 109-118. doi: 10.1159/000330362

Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: A review and meta-analysis. The journal of alternative and complementary medicine, 15(5), 593-600. doi:10.1089=acm.2008.0495

Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2010). A systematic review of neurobiological and clinical features of mindfulness meditations. Psychological medicine, 40(08), 1239-1252. doi:10.1017/S0033291709991747

Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., . . .Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic medicine, 65(4), 564-570. doi:10.1097/01.PSY.0000077505.67574.E3

Fox, K. C., Nijeboer, S., Dixon, M. L., Floman, J. L., Ellamil, M., Rumak, S. P., . . . Christoff, K. (2014). Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 43, 48-73. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.03.016

Hasenkamp, W., & Barsalou, L. W. (2012). Effects of meditation experience on functional connectivity of distributed brain networks. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 6. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00038

Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Evans, K. C., Hoge, E. A., Dusek, J. A., Morgan, L., . . . Lazar, S. W. (2009). Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, nsp034. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006

Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006

Jacobs, T. L., Epel, E. S., Lin, J., Blackburn, E. H., Wolkowitz, O. M., Bridwell, D. A., . . . MacLean, K. A. (2011). Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36(5), 664-681. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.09.010

Jevning, R., Wallace, R., & Beidebach, M. (1992). The physiology of meditation: a review. A wakeful hypometabolic integrated response. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 16(3), 415-424.

Maintain your brain with training

Most of us know that exercise will help us live longer and have a better quality of life. According to the latest research, exercise can even help to combat mental illness and improve our focus, memory, mood and protect our brain as we age. Erin Gray investigates what is really going on inside our brains when we exercise.

Many of us know all too well the heartache of seeing an elderly loved one affected by dementia. We are forced to watch helplessly as the wisdom that guided our youth and shaped golden childhood memories fades away into confusion. For patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, the prognosis is poor. The disease is progressive and debilitating, and there is no known cure.

However, emerging evidence from the field of neuroscience is suggesting that we might be able to reduce our risk of developing dementia by being physically active. An extensive body of research now tells us that regular exercise can also improve the symptoms of other mental and neurodegenerative disorders, such as depression, anxiety and Parkinson’s, and can even reduce the risk of developing one of these diseases. “Exercise can make you smarter, happier and have more neurons depending on the [intensity] of the training program,” say researchers from Spain’s Cajal Institute (Frontiers in Neuroscience, vol 10, article 93, p1). So what exactly is happening in our brains while we exercise?

Made to move

Research into the neuroscience of exercise is ongoing, but scientists are getting closer to finding out why and how our brains respond so positively to exercise. One popular theory is based on our evolutionary history. Many of our day-to-day activities that are essential for sustaining life once involved a significant amount of physical activity. These are basic survival functions like finding food or escaping from predators. While this is no longer the case for most of us, our bodies have evolved to be physically active. These survival activities required early humans to think, assess the environment and plan accordingly. So it is perhaps no surprise that we are seeing links between exercise and cognition.

Plastic brains

There are many ways that exercise can influence the biology of our brains, and this research remains one of the frontiers of neuroscience. What we do know is that during acute exercise, blood flow to the brain increases and parts of our brain become more active. Chemicals called neurotransmitters and growth factors are released.

Neurotransmitters help to transmit messages between nerve cells in the brain. Reduced levels and activity of specific neurotransmitters are implicated in the underlying causes of diseases such as major depression and Parkinson’s disease. Exercise increases the availability and effectiveness of these neurotransmitters, explaining why we see an improvement in symptoms associated with these illnesses when exercise is part of the treatment regime. The mood boost we receive when we exercise is also caused by the release of these neurotransmitters, and the increased blood flow improves our ability to focus.


“Exercise can make you smarter, happier and have more neurons.”


Growth factors, which are responsible for maintaining and supporting nerve cell function, are also released during exercise. Growth factors stimulate the growth of new blood vessels and nerve cells, and promote improved connections between nerve cells. Collectively, these effects contribute to something called neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the ability of our brain to rewire connections and change its’ structure so it can adapt to new situations. Neuroplasticity is important for learning, thinking and the protection of our cognitive abilities as we age. Exercised promotes neuroplasticity in a particular region called the hippocampus (one of the regions of the brain associated with long-term memory) resulting in the memory improvements we see in people who regularly exercise.

The protective effects of exercise on our brains may, in part, come from an unsuspecting source. Exercise causes the body to release an inflammatory chemical called reactive oxygen species. Counterintuitively, low level exposure to this chemical can stimulate the release of antioxidants and trigger the repair of DNA. Much like the exposure to low doses of inactive viruses in vaccines can strengthen our immune systems, regular exercise can make our brains and bodies more resilient to further stress.

Pleasure and pain

So far, we have seen that exercise improves our memory, focus and mood, and can protect our brains from ageing. Along with the known physical effects, that is a pretty long list of benefits. It’s fairly clear that our brains really like exercise. In fact, our brains like exercise so much, we are wired to seek it out regularly.

Exercise activates our pleasure and reward system, driven by the neurotransmitter dopamine. When we exercise at a moderate to high intensity, receptors in the reward centres in our brains are activated enhancing the release of dopamine. Dopamine causes feelings of euphoria, and reduces pain and anxiety levels. If you have ever experienced the exhilaration of a ‘runner’s high’, you might have first-hand experience of this neurotransmitter rush.

Not only does exercise make us feel good, but it can also reduce our levels of pain. During exercise, a different group of neurotransmitters also act on the nerve endings outside our brain. These neurotransmitters can reduce the activity of special nerve endings that sense tissue danger and contribute to pain.

There are other convincing arguments to get up and get moving. People who are physically fit have a reduced risk of developing age-related cognitive disorders and are more mentally healthy. The harmful effects of being physical inactive are also sobering. Physical inactivity has been likened to that of moderate cigarette smoking when it comes to your risk of dying.

The good news is you don’t need to be running marathons. Benefits can be gained simply doing by low to moderate intensity exercise such as walking. Of course, this depends on how fit you are to begin with, and the effect does level out with large amounts of exercise.  Nonetheless, the benefits are clear.

So while we may have little control over the suffering of loved ones at the hands of neurodegenerative diseases, we may be able to influence our own fate and that of generations to come. Exercising consistently over long periods of time can protect our bodies and our brains. Future research into these effects may also lead researchers to improvements in treatments and drugs, as they uncover the incredible inner workings of our brains.




Abbott, R. D., White, L. R., Ross, G. W., Masaki, K., Curb, J. D., & Petrovich, H. (2004). Walking and dementia in physically capable elderly men. Journal of the American Medical Association, 292, 1447-1453. doi:10.1001/jama.292.12.1447

Anderson, H. S. (2016). Alzheimer’s Disease. Retrieved from       http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1134817-overview#showall

Chapman, S. B., Aslan, S., Spence, J. S., DeFina, L. F., Keebler, M. W., Didehbani, N., & Lu, H. (2013). Shorter term aerobic exercise improves brain, cognition, and cardiovascular fitness in aging. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 5, 1-9. doi:10.3389/fnagi.2013.00075

Deslandes, A., Moraes, H., Ferreira, C., Veiga, H., Silveira, H., Mouta, R., . . . Laks, J. (2009). Exercise and mental health: many reasons to move. Neuropsychobiology, 59(4), 191-198. doi:10.1159/000223730

Dishman, R. K., & Holmes, P. V. (2012). Opioids and Exercise: Animal Models. In H. Boecker, H. C. Hillman, L. Scheef, & K. H. Strüder (Eds.), Functional Neuroimaging in Exercise and Sport Sciences (pp. 45-58). New York, NY: Springer New York.

Gradari, S., Pallé, A., McGreevy, K. R., Fontán-Lozano, Á., & Trejo, J. L. (2016). Can Exercise Make You Smarter, Happier, and Have More Neurons? A Hormetic Perspective. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 10, 93, 1-16. doi:10.3389/fnins.2016.00093

Hillman, C. H., Erickson, K. I., & Kramer, A. F. (2008). Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 9(1), 58-65. doi:10.1038/nrn2298

Konopka, L. M. (2015). How exercise influences the brain: a neuroscience perspective. Croatian Medical Journal, 56(2), 169-171. doi:10.3325/cmj.2015.56.169

Matta Mello Portugal, E., Cevada, T., Sobral Monteiro-Junior, R., Teixeira Guimarães, T., da Cruz Rubini, E., Lattari, E., . . . Camaz Deslandes, A. (2013). Neuroscience of Exercise: From Neurobiology Mechanisms to Mental Health. Neuropsychobiology, 68(1), 1-14.             doi:10.1159/000350946

Pixabay. (2014) [Feature Image] Untitled. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/running-runner-long-distance-573762/

Raichlen, D. A., Foster, A. D., Gerdeman, G. L., Seillier, A., & Giuffrida, A. (2012). Wired to run: exercise-induced endocannabinoid signaling in humans and cursorial mammals with implications for the ‘runner’s high’. The Journal of experimental biology, 215(8), 1331-1336. doi:10.1242/jeb.063677

Raichlen, D. A., & Polk, J. D. (2013). Linking brains and brawn: exercise and the evolution of human neurobiology. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 280(1750). doi:10.1098/rspb.2012.2250

Reiner, M., Niermann, C., Jekauc, D., & Woll, A. (2013). Long-term health benefits of physical activity – a systematic review of longitudinal studies. BMC Public Health, 13(1), 1-9. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-813

Rice, A. S. C., Farquhar-Smith, W. P., & Nagy, I. (2002). Endocannabinoids and pain: spinal and peripheral analgesia in inflammation and neuropathy. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids (PLEFA), 66(2–3), 243-256. doi: 10.1054/plef.2001.0362

Schuch, F. B., Deslandes, A. C., Stubbs, B., Gosmann, N. P., da Silva, C. T. B., & de Almeida Fleck, M. P.    (2016). Neurobiological effects of exercise on major depressive disorder: A systematic review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 61, 1-11. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2015.11.012

Warburton, D. E., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 174, 801-809. doi:10.1503/cmaj.051351

Zogopoulos, P., Vasileiou, I., Patsouris, E., & Theocharis, S. E. (2013). The role of endocannabinoids in pain modulation. Fundamental & clinical pharmacology, 27(1), 64-80. doi:10.1111/fcp.12008

Welcome to Brains, Sprains and Olivine Grains!

Welcome readers! This is the first blog post of my brand new science blog. I am new to blogging so hopefully you will stay with me through this journey and can help me grow. Firstly, I should introduce myself. I am a scientist with a PhD in geology but have committed myself to further study – a double major in neuroscience and science communication (with a few detours through sport science and physiotherapy along the way). So the title of my blog represents my learning journey. Yes, I am your typical perpetual student, feel free to judge me – I too, question my life choices every time mid-semester exams come around! Aside from this, I love science, which is why I am still learning and looking for new challenges. Both neuroscience and science communication are incredibly interesting and engaging fields, constantly offering up new perspectives and interesting experiences.

I am quite broadly trained as a scientist, so will be posting on lots of different science topics. Naturally I will probably talk about rocks quite a bit, but you will find all sorts of topics here. I intend for my posts to be conversational (and in plain English), so I hope you can engage with my writing and learn something. If not, please let me know! I hope to post fortnightly (at least), as I’m a busy gal, so hang in there with me! I will also be posting feature interviews of scientists, giving them an opportunity to tell us about their science their way.

So now I have introduced myself, it’s your turn. Please feel free to say hi in the comments below. And stay tuned for my next post! I will be looking at the neuroscience behind caffeine, what it does to our brains and why we all love it so much.