Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Sniffing and Epilepsy...Why?

Before I start the post

I put this up last week but my PI, (my boss for you non-scientists), sent me an urgent text to take it down ASAP. There's this huge issue in science called 'scooping.' This is where a scientist will see somebody else's work on a project that is similar to their own and race to publish it first, taking all of the credit. This happens far more often than you might think, especially among a group people who are all generally trying to help the world in some way. It's pretty weird and awful. My PI read the first paragraph and to her it looked like what I was saying was putting my work, as well as the other people in our lab, at risk of being scooped. She gave it a full read-through this weekend and gave it the OK. Most of the science and the methodologies that I write about here have actually been known and used for a long time. I wanted to write this thing because I'm really stoked about what we're working on and wanted to spread the word beyond the small circle of scientists that we interact with at talks and conferences. It turns out that you should at least ask somebody whether its alright before you launch their ideas out to wherever they go on the internet. Lesson learned. 
Now let's talk about this sniffing stuff.

I spent the last few months applying for a grant through the NIH to study...sniffing

If all goes as planned, some of your hard-earned tax dollars are going to directly to me to spend a couple of years investigating sniffing. Some scientists study the science of olfaction, or how your brain forms perceptions of odors from the chemicals that enter your nose. My research isn't so much about that. I'm literally going to study how people sniff stuff. 

If that isn't weird enough for you, I plan to work with epilepsy patients at Northwestern Hospital and ask them to smell a bunch of heinous odors while I record electrical signals from their brains and breathing waveforms from their noses.

So this obviously seems pretty insane. 

Neuroscientists should probably work on important problems like Alzheimer's Disease and MS. What reason could ever justify this trash?

My mentor, lab mates, and I believe that the results of this project could actually have pretty significant implications for understanding and treating epilepsy. In the rest of this post I'm going to walk you through our logic and hopefully prove to you that I haven't completely lost my mind. I'm going to start by explaining the basics of epilepsy.

Epilepsy and SUDEP

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that is characterized by the recurrent tendency for one to have seizures. Seizures can come in many forms. For instance, someone having an absence seizure will appear to space out for a few seconds. These can be so subtle that many people who have absence seizures don't even realize that they have epilepsy for a long time. On the other hand, someone having a grand mal seizure will experience violent convulsions for up to about two minutes.

If you look someone's brain activity while they have a seizure, you will see that neurons in one area of the brain will start to fire more rapidly and synchronously than they ever normally would. In more severe seizures, this rampant abnormal activity can spread across the brain, sometimes reaching areas far from where it started. For example, in a grand mal seizure, the seizure activity reaches the motor cortex, which is responsible for many aspects of controlling movement. These neurons are mostly silent when you’re resting. But when you chose to move part of your body, a select group of these neurons will activate in a complex, finely-tuned pattern, sending signals down your spinal cord, precisely controlling which muscles to flex. However, when seizure activity sweeps across the motor cortex, tons of neurons are simultaneously activated, causing the erratic, unintentional muscle movements seen in grand mal seizures. 

The main takeaway here is that seizures disrupt the neural activity in the parts of the brain that they spread to and can initiate (or modify) the processes that neurons in those areas are involved in. 

Lots of great people are working on understanding seizures and epilepsy. I'm particularly excited about brain implants that can predict and disrupt seizures. Few people know that these exist and are actually inside some peoples' heads right now! 
(seriously awesome right?)  My work is related to SUDEP, a fatal complication of epilepsy that afflicts people with severe, medication-resistant cases. It is the leading cause of death for people with severe epilepsy.

SUDEP stands for Sudden Unexpected Death in EPilepsy. If you can guess by the name, we really have no idea how to predict SUDEP and we have just a vague idea of its cause. This is clearly a huge problem and we want to make a big dent in it. 

My brilliant supervisor had the idea that studying the neurons that control sniffing might actually help us understand SUDEP, and hopefully prevent it in the future. 

So why in tarnation would anyone think that?

Epilepsy and Breathing

One of the first key clues about the cause of SUDEP is evidence suggesting that these people may die because they stop breathing, which is soon followed by cardiac arrest [1,
2]. This is a huge step forward but it is also rather unexpected.

More often than not, seizures begin in the temporal lobes of the brain, while breathing is controlled by a few small patches of neurons far away in the brainstem. Therefore, the first big question that we need to answer is, how would disrupted activity in these epileptic brain regions trigger neurons in a totally different area of the brain to make somebody stop breathing?

how tho?
Basically, for this to happen, there has to be an anatomical pathway linking epileptogenic neurons in the temporal lobe to respiratory neurons in the brainstem. I wasn't taught any such pathways in my neuroscience education, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. After some research, we came across some previous work that identified such a pathway in rats [3] and non-human primates [4], suggesting that we may have it in our brains as well. The amygdala, a brain region within each temporal lobe, contains a subregion called the central nucleus, which appears to have neurons that directly project to respiratory areas in the brainstem through the amygdalofugal pathway! Therefore, it seems plausible that when a seizure propagates to neurons in the central amygdala, this activity may reach respiratory neurons in the brainstem where it could disrupt — and maybe halt — ongoing breathing rhythms.

Now, anatomical evidence is good but it’s critical that we to test whether this connection matters. In other words, we need to experimentally test the hypothesis that activating neurons in the central amygdala causes people to stop breathing.

Testing this hypothesis is tricky because you can't just go around making people undergo brain surgery to stick wires in their amygdala and mess with their neurons. In the face of this completely reasonable constraint, many neuroscientists choose to do experiments on non-human animals. This is a totally valid approach but there’s always going to be uncertainty about whether something found in the brain of another species is going to be present in our brains as well. In the end we’re really going to have to test any hypothesis about humans directly in humans to be sure. Fortunately, there is actually a rare and special condition where we can do this. 

Doing Neuroscience with Epilepsy Patients

This kind of surgery has been done
since the 40's!
If you have debilitating, treatment-resistant epilepsy, sometimes neurologists will recommend that you undergo surgery to remove the part of the brain where your seizures originate. This is a difficult and involved procedure that can take days and sometimes weeks. During this treatment, electrodes are surgically implanted in the patient’s brain. Then, the patient is taken off their anti-seizure drugs and monitored 24/7, until they experience several clinical seizures. During the seizures, the electrodes in their brain record data that neurologists and technicians use to try to figure out where the seizures originate. Using up to around one hundred contact sites electrodes they create a 3D map of the epileptogenic site, or the seizure’s starting point, and follow where it spreads through the brain. Once the neurologists are confident that they have found the epileptogenic site, they perform another step before surgically removing it.

The electrodes implanted in the patient’s brain can stimulate as well as record. With electrical neurologists can perturb areas around the resection site to test whether they are responsible for major cognitive functions like language and memory. This is really important because everybody’s brain is a little different and if a part of the patient’s brain that is responsible for say, forming new memories, overlaps with the epileptogenic site, the neurologists can modify the surgery plan to avoid negatively affecting the patient.

Perhaps the craziest part of this process is that these patients have to be awake while the neurologists assess these other cognitive functions with and without stimulation. The only way to be confident that the patient can still use language after parts of their brain are removed is to have them perform various tasks that they have to be awake to do—like reading or talking— while electrically stimulating these areas.

You might think it would be super painful to have a bunch of metal wires running an electrical current through your brain while you are conscious, but it actually isn't. We can sense pain in lots of the tissue in our head but the brain itself doesn't have any pain receptors, so surprisingly, stimulating most areas isn't painful. I say ‘most’ only because there are just a few areas that receive signals from neurons that are sensitive to pain, so stimulating these select areas could actually induce 
sensations of pain. It's super interesting and I could go on but we’re quickly getting off topic.

We work closely with lots of neurologists at Northwestern to do experiments with epilepsy patients. It goes without saying that we are extremely aware of the ethical considerations we must take with these patients and everything we do is approved by an internal ethics review board. 

Stimulating the central amygdala (left) but 
not the hippocampus (right) caused patients
to stop breathing.
Members of my lab recently published an experiment that they conducted with epilepsy patients to test this hypothesis—that directly stimulating the central amygdala causes people to stop breathing. It turns out that their hypothesis was correct; every single patient that was tested instantly stopped breathing when the central nucleus of the amygdala was stimulated. We think this is specific to the central amygdala because stimulating neighboring regions had no effect on breathing. Interestingly, breathing only stopped when the patients were instructed to breathe naturally through their nose, not their mouth. There were several fascinating things we noticed. For one, patients stopped their breathing for as long as the stimulus was applied and sometimes longer. However, they were able to resume breathing during stimulation if they were instructed to. Also, (anecdotally) all but one of the patients were totally unaware that they had stopped breathing at all! This is all really exciting and builds on the findings of others [5] [6] but, like most science, raises more questions than it answers. 

The Amygdala and Breathing?

The amygdala has been well-defined as a brain area that is crucial for a lot of emotional processes. If you get rid of someone's amygdalae (the plural of amygdala that nobody uses), they exhibit hypoemotionality, or a lack of emotions. These people can recognize if something is meant to be scary but they don't experience the fear associated with it or exhibit fear-induced behaviors like sweating or elevated heart rate. There have been numerous studies that have shown that people with anxiety disorders, depression, and PTSD all seem to have differences in their amygdalae compared to healthy controls. 

So why the heck is this emotional brain region talking to respiratory areas in the brainstem in the first place? 

We know that when we're emotional, we breathe very differently. For example, laughing and crying are respiratory behaviors that are induced by specific emotional states. Laughing and crying are both so freaking weird and just get weirder the more you think about them. I'm sure that you've laughed so hard that you couldn't breathe, likewise with crying, but hopefully far less often. But that doesn't answer the question. Why is emotion so tied to breathing and how would this be helpful at all? If you were building a brain from scratch, why would you ever give this emotional brain region the authority to override and halt a vital process that keeps you alive

I wanted to get my head around this brain region a little better so I asked if I could sit in on my program's neuroanatomy lab. Something I didn't realize is just how tiny the amygdala is! 

In the picture on the left, I'm holding a section of a medical donor's right temporal lobe, which I have sliced coronally. (or at least attempted to)
In picture on the right you can see that the amygdala is only visible in two of these ~1 cm slices. 

Why does this glob of cells, that is roughly the size and shape of an almond, have so much control when we have one of the largest brains in the animal kingdom?

It’s possible that this connection between the amygdala and breathing is some vestigial circuit leftover from evolution or development. A colleague suggested that pausing breathing could help you avoid being detected by a predator, which is very plausable. But maybe, just maybe, the reason that this connection exists might have something to do with smell.

More About The Amygdala and Also Sniffing

"The amygdala is the emotion part of the brain", is a platitude that I've read more times than I can remember. While this is mostly true, I think that the amygdala may be more accurately described as the brain region responsible for determining the hedonic value of stimuli and triggering adaptive responses. In English, that means that when you sense something, your amygdala determines whether it is good for you or bad for you. If you present people with pleasant stimuli, their amygdalae activate. If you show them images of landscapes, or play simple tones, the amygdala doesn't do much. If you show people scary images, their amygdalae go nuts. The amygdala has bidirectional connections with tons of brain areas including the sensory cortices, prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, basal ganglia, hypothalamus, brainstem, and other areas as well. It is like your own personal Central Intelligence Agency that is always gathering intel from all over the brain and monitoring whether things are OK. If your amygdala detects a threat, it sends signals to activate areas of the brain that do things like potentiating reflexes and releasing hormones, which help you react quickly and avoid most kinds of immediate danger [7].

Something that few people know about the amygdala is that it receives extensive, direct input from the olfactory bulb - which is the first area in the brain that processes information about odors. When you smell something awful your amygdala activates like it would if you saw or heard something aversive. However, if you smell something unpleasant you also reflexively stop sniffing [8] [9]. Most things that smell bad are also harmful to you, like rotten food or noxious gasses. Rapidly halting your nasal breathing when you detect potentially dangerous chemicals in your nose prevents you from breathing them into your lungs, where they could be absorbed into your body and harm you. This reflex is key because it demonstrates that olfactory information can rapidly halt ongoing breathing rhythms. This reflex is extremely fast, which has led some researchers to hypothesize the existence of an 'olfactomotor' circuit ('olfacto' meaning olfaction and 'motor' referring to respiratory motor neurons) [10]. The anatomy of the olfactomotor circuit not been investigated yet but I'm bringing this up here because this behavior has amygdala written all over it.

Now I feel like I need to recap what I've told you so far because I've introduced a bunch of pretty tricky ideas in neuroscience that relate to each other in ways that I maybe didn't chain together as well as I could have.

The Story So Far
  1. People with severe epilepsy can die from SUDEP.
  2. SUDEP seems to be caused largely by fatal cessation of breathing.
  3. For a seizure to cause changes in breathing, it must affect the activity of neurons in the respiratory areas of the brainstem.
  4. The central amygdala is located in the temporal lobe, where seizures resulting in SUDEP tend to originate, and directly connects to neurons in the brainstem that control breathing.
  5. Activating neurons in the central amygdala, both with direct electrical stimulation and seizure activity, causes people with epilepsy to stop breathing.
  6. We have a circuit that links information about olfactory hedonic value to respiratory control but its location is unknown.

Here's is the kicker: it seems like the central nucleus of the amygdala is poised to be a key node in this olfactomotor circuit. If this is true, the reason that people stop breathing during a seizure could be because the seizure reaches the central nucleus of the amygdala, activating the olfactomotor circuit, which disrupts nasal breathing. 

So in an ironic and deeply dark way, it could be the case that the circuit that protects us from breathing in harmful chemicals by halting our nasal breathing can be 'hijacked' by a seizure, causing breathing to stop for as long as the seizure persists - potentially leading to SUDEP

It's important to point out that these last two statements are theories, not facts. It would be so awesome if we could prevent SUDEP by electrically suppressing activity in the central amygdala. Preventing SUDEP could even be as simple as telling someone who is having a seizure to just breathe through their mouth. However, when you do science, your ideas are wrong far more often than they are right. In fact, it's kind of incredible that we're ever right. Nature is confusing as hell and we're just this weird, emotional primate species trying to figure it all out. The best way to test whether a theory is correct is, un-intuitively, to conduct experiments designed to prove that your theory is wrong. In other words, my research is all about investigating these ideas but every day at work my lab mates and I try to prove ourselves wrong.

These days we're running experiments to see if the central amygdala is not part of the olfactomotor circuit. Specifically, we're trying to identify what chemosensory properties of odors activate this circuit, whether activating the central amygdala actually leads to activation of the brainstem respiratory groups, and how the trigeminal system (something I haven't even mentioned here) might participate in these processes as well. If we successfully fail at proving ourselves wrong, the next steps will be working on treatments for how to use this knowledge to intervene and hopefully prevent SUDEP altogether.

Final Thoughts

I came into grad school almost exclusively interested in brain-computer interfaces, the benefits of which are incredible and obvious. But three years in, I find myself in the hospital, wearing a lab coat, politely asking people undergoing epilepsy surgery to smell a bunch of disgusting odors for me. It's certainly not what I had expected to be doing but I think that I'm a lot happier doing this compared to just about anything else. I think these ideas are fascinating, important, and worth a whole lot of my time to work on, even if I someday have the misfortune of proving all of them wrong. 

...I also really hope that whoever is reading my 64 page grant right now agrees. 

Thanks for reading and I hope that the rest of your day is filled with deep, healthy sniffs of exclusively pleasant odors.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Creator's Game: Lacrosse and The Brain

I've had a hard time putting my finger on exactly what makes me love lacrosse so much but I think I've figured it out. I love lacrosse because this game is all about the brain. From the outside it looks like manchildren running around hitting each other with sticks...and it is, but to play this game well requires a broad and deep level of cognitive abilities unlike just about every other sport or activity.

Here I'm going to argue that lacrosse is both intellectual and spiritual. This is something all experienced lacrosse players know to be true, but this idea isn't taken seriously anywhere else. The Iroquois, who invented this game nearly a millennium ago, were getting at something special about human thought. This game and the mental framework it cultivates is something that I use to think about how our brains work almost every day.

Last weekend I was at the Lake Tahoe Lacrosse Tournament with roughly over a thousand other people who have been playing this game since they were kids but just can't seem to put their sticks down. I'm not aware of any other sport that draws so many people to train and compete after the glory of high school and college is long gone. (But actually, is there any other sport that does this kind of stuff?) Tournaments like this, of which there are dozens, often have masters divisions (for people over 30), some have grandmasters (50+), and one even has a zenmasters division for 60 year olds+ (!!!). I'm convinced that there is something really special about this game and I'm starting to put together why that might be. 

My Squad

My squad in 40 years

I played at a competitive level in college and I think that I know something about how brains work, but unfortunately I am a mere sub-sub-sub-zenmaster at lacrosse and I certainly don't completely understand how our brains work. My experience playing lacrosse has facilitated thinking about my own mental processes and other peoples' in new, invaluable ways. This post is going to be half 'my gushing love letter to lacrosse' and half 'all brain scientists must play lacrosse if they want to understand how our brains work'. Team sports, and especially lacrosse, aren't taken seriously in academia and most scientists I know didn't really play team sports. I hope that maybe one person who reads this and becomes a teacher won't roll their eyes when student athletes have to miss class for sports - something I've experienced my share of.

Lacrosse is the Creator's game 

Last weekend a teammate told me to read the origin story of lacrosse, something I had never been exposed to in roughly 15 years of playing. When I read it, many of my feelings towards lacrosse fell into place. Lacrosse was invented by the Iroquois tribe somewhere around what is now upstate New York and sometime around 1100 AD. Some sources say it was invented to prepare young men for war but the way the Iroquois describe it characterizes lacrosse as something much more spiritual that connects them to their minds, nature, and each other. There's a beautiful origin story of lacrosse that you can read here (, or you can read my little oversimplification below. Also, what other sport has a mythology? How f**cking cool is that?

The first legendary game of lacrosse was a competition between the four-legged animals and the winged birds. The Bear, The Deer, and The Turtle were the captains of the four-legged animals. The Bear was strong and could overpower any opponent physically, The Deer was quick and could cover long distances, and The Turtle was strong and could withstand blows from any opponent and still advance the ball forward. The Owl, The 
Eagle, and The Hawk, were the captains of the winged birds. The Owl could keep track of the ball, while The Eagle and Hawk were swift and agile. The four-legged animals shunned The Mouse and The Squirrel because they were small but the birds recognized their unique value and added them to their roster. And beautiful, epic, long story short - while the four-legged animals were physically stronger, the birds won the first game of lacrosse with the help of their new teammates by appreciating each other's skills and working together.

Lacrosse was not designed for war and victory, but to recognize each individual's gifts and for a group to use their skills together to achieve a common goal. In Iroquois mythology The Creator made lacrosse so that he could watch all of his children enjoy the game. I can vouch that it is certainly fun to play and its easy to imagine a Creator proudly watching his children playing with literally the best toy ever made. The Creator also invented lacrosse as a 'medicine game' they could use to heal. I can also attest to the healing aspect to this game but it is hard to explain without experiencing it. Obviously the physical exercise involved in lacrosse is good for you but there is a substantial mental health component to this game. 

The four-legged animals represent the physical nature of the game but the winged animals, the more successful team, use a subtle, harmonizing collection of mental skills to succeed. Playing this game well requires one to think critically about his own abilities, develop the understanding that other players' skills are often different than his, and that we can create beautiful things by combining our unique abilities together. 

Other team sports become algorithmic. I'd argue that lacrosse is a much, much higher entropy game than any other team sport.  Clear strategies, with few degrees of freedom, emerge in basketball, where you pretty much have to be tall and football, where you pretty much have to be a freak athlete ...or a kicker. Soccer is a creative game, but lacrosse is like a parent class or superset of soccer. The fields are the same size and you can kick the ball in both, but lacrosse adds many more elements like tools and more contact which allow much more creativity. In lacrosse there are multitudes of viable strategies that different phenotypes of players can use - even Mouse and Squirrel can play.

In playing such an open ended, creative game, participants have to engage in an always updating process of self reflection as well as evaluation of other players' ideas and strategies. Psychology calls this idea of attributing mental states to others 'theory of mind.' I don't have data to prove this but thinking about how I and others think while solving flurries of novel physical and mental challenges makes me feel like I'm expanding my own cognitive toolbox.

That's all pretty abstract but here's an example. In lacrosse, an ironclad strategy has been to throw the ball with both hands on your stick ...obviously. Conversely, defensive players are taught to force attackers' hands off of their sticks so they can't pass or shoot. This is Mark Matthews. This friggin guy figured out how to do just about everything with only one hand on his stick - which totally changes how defenders have to face him. Also, by having only one hand on his stick he can score goals when his body is behind the goal by using the extra length the one-handed strategy affords him. But by doing this, he has to string his stick in an unorthodox way that limits other aspects of his game and changes how he fits into an offense. Both offensive and defensive players have to adapt their strategies to interact with a player like this. While Matthews found a pretty rare strategy, players constantly create and innovate on this game. Over the course of a game, players learn the habits of their opponents so they have to adapt and create if they want to win. The importance (or salience) of different features of the game are constantly shuffled in the players' cognitive landscape.  The mind of a good lacrosse player has to actively resonate with the game.

Brain Sciences and Lacrosse - Experience Matters

I missed a little bit of class in college because of lacrosse commitments, but I'd argue that I was using my brain more than my classmates with that time. I was exercising different cognitive skills that I don't normally get to use in school regurgitating the answers to contrived science exams or writing boilerplate five paragraph essays for english class.

In neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science, we study brains by observing what they do and we try to reverse engineer how it might have worked. In lacrosse you're presented with rich, complex experiences of high-level brain function but in neuroscience we simplify these kinds of complicated mental phenomena and study their components. The difference is that in lacrosse, players have to exercise almost all of their cognitive abilities: sensory decoding and integration, motor coordination, language, tool/body schema interactions, emotional regulation, planning and prediction, awareness of time - I'm having trouble thinking of something our brains can do that isn't a critical component of lacrosse. In a neuroscience experiment, you pretty much have to choose part of just one winged-bird skill to study.
 Not so surprisingly, the foundational work describing how our brains can connect the location where a sound originates from to an eye movement towards that location, was all found by studying juvenile owl brains. Thanks Owl. 
Thanks Owl
see here for more if you have access:

When I play lacrosse, I can feel each of these cognitive components churning together in my sensorium. I'm using my entire brain at once and learning about it as I engage with the game. My thoughts are on fire and it feels awesome. My neurons churn through ATP, carefully modulating circuits that keep my mental representation of everything on the field updated. I use my long-term memory knowledge of the game and modify it with novel aspects of the current context. I have to regulate my emotions towards blatantly incorrect, unjust, and stupid calls from the ref. I'm constantly trying to read my opponent's mind and predict what will happen next in the game, while he knows I'm doing this and is actively trying to trick me. Then I integrate all of this information and more into multitudes of small decisions and actions that impact the game in this giant, complex, recursive, loop that I'm a part of. It's not like I'm not some sort of brainiac, I'm just one of twenty people on the field who also all have brains doing the exact same thing but with each metallization flavored like a different kind of ice cream. A good lacrosse game is like a free-for-all at a Baskin Robbins. 

This presents a catch-22 for me where I can have these rich experiences of combining many mental processes playing lacrosse that I've learned to intuit but I want to understand mechanistically. And the only way we know how to study how our brains do such cool shit is to simplify and isolate these complex, interacting systems and study them in artificial laboratory environments. Rigorous, detailed science is necessary to understand the brain but we lose the 'lacrosse-ness' of our cognitive abilities by studying them in pristine experiments in labs with simple circuits of neurons and explain our ideas to each other using diagrams and powerpoint slides. 

Do you think that a blind person will ever be able to fully comprehend vision even if a scientifically complete explanation of it is available to them? Seriously. I really don't think so. There is something fundamental to the experience of a cognitive phenomenon compared to analyzing data about it. 
Taking this a step further, I'd argue that someone who spends time engaging and pushing their mental faculties at a high level in an evolving, dynamic, natural environment might have a better intuition for studying the system scientifically than someone who only studies it in a lab. I read somewhere that as you learn new words, your mental representations of the concepts they refer to become more detailed and complex. I believe that playing lacrosse might have a similar ability to expand conceptual space.

This is a strong assertion and I don't have evidence to support it besides my obviously biased experience. Focused, 
detailed research into neural circuits is necessary to understand the brain but there is something about playing lacrosse or otherwise, fully engaging with other people using their mental skills at their limits - that facilitates gaining deep insights into cognition. Each time I play, I learn a little more about each of these processes and whether they worked in the specific situation that I used them. I want other brain scientists to share these experiences and learn from their perspectives.

Lax vs. The Creator's Game

Like every mention of lacrosse, its important to note its place in contemporary culture as a caricature of elite, east coast, overprivileged, private school, white, male culture - which is just such a bizarre contrast to its origins. I'm conflicted because I'm not sure if I would have been exposed to neuroscience otherwise. A significant admissions bump from the lacrosse coach separated me from swaths of applicants and got me into an elite college with a great neuroscience program that I was only starting to get interested in. Lacrosse has pushed me, and continues to push me, to think in new ways. It has given me a rich bank of experiences I use to think about how our brains work every day at work

Lacrosse culture is strange and sometimes disappointing but I find myself constantly inspired by the incredible things people do with this game. It's definitely easier to be good at lacrosse if you start out as a Bear or a Deer but I see Squirrels outplay them all of the time by engaging their mind - learning, practicing, and understanding their own gifts.


I hope I get to see this kid out at an open tournament some day. I bet even the zenmasters might even have something to learn from him.

Lacrosse is Both Intellectual and Spiritual

I guess that the conclusion of this whole thing is that lacrosse is special to me and it is deeply intertwined with my professional work of studying our brains. I spend most of my time with people who live their lives in their head and forget that it is connected to a body that is optimized to do a lot more than pipette solutions into test tubes and press computer keys. I, and I'm sure most of my lacrosse friends, are met with furrowed brows when we say we're traveling across the country for an extended weekend to play a game that we're obviously too old for with other manchildren. They don't understand why this experience is so special. The Iroquois discovered a game that is so damn good at pushing our human cognitive abilities that coaches and players constantly find new spaces and edges in this game that break traditions and redefine the game nearly a millennium after it was created.

He does everything that's hard about using a lacrosse stick except it's also upside-down and backwards and there's this whole other team trying to put him on the ground.

Not only is lacrosse highly intellectual, it just might just be the most intellectual thing to do. Unlike any singular activity I can think of right now, it requires that one develop, flexibly modify, and rapidly deploy this huge breadth of cognitive functions. I want people who study brain sciences to have these kinds of experiences and not just read about them. Using your brain is different than reading about brains. I think I've beat this point into the ground but the last point I want to make is that this game is just as spiritual as it is cognitive. I'm a pretty strident atheist and I have difficulty connecting with most religious ideas but learning this game with my teammates has a spiritual component that I can understand. Not to say that this is something magical, lacrosse just sometimes feels like a group meditation more than a game.

I'm happy that I found lacrosse and that it led me to think about the ideas that got me interested in neuroscience. Lacrosse played an invaluable role in finding my self and I love seeing other players use lacrosse to discover their own abilities and apply them to their lives in a unique way. I don't understand this game the same way that the Iroquois, the zenmasters, and lots of people at my level do. This is the unique but shared perspective I bring to the game, and I think that's what lacrosse all about.

Thanks to Evan Xanthos, Derrick Kravitz, Alex Moffit, and everyone at Tahoe for the feedback and ideas!