How can some lucky ones sleep like a log around a bulldozer?

Well guilty as charged! I’m indeed one of those ‘lucky’ ones that you all envy. I can sleep through almost any din and bustle and wake up fresh as a daisy the next morning. Nothing, other than sudden hunger pangs at odd hours, can disturb my otherwise seamless slumber. The only exception was the night before my Ph.D. defense when I was woken up by a panic attack, and in my three decades of existence, that was probably the only time it happened. My reputation precedes me, and I’m referred to as Kumbhakarna in my close circle.

Yes; bless the man who first invented sleep…..
John Godfrey Saxe (1816–1887);

My sister, sadly, is exactly the opposite! The rustling of bedsheets, the softest tap on the door or the gentlest of breeze are enough to wake her up. She struggles to remain asleep while I snore away to glory in that very room, blissfully unaware of the mundane world around me. But what is it that makes me so impervious to noise? Is my brain wired differently and so responds (or doesn’t) to sound in peculiar ways?

I may not be reacting to sounds around me while I sleep, but the brain is always listening. It continues to register and process sound on a basic level, even when we are sound asleep. It’s actually good, because even though we may not react to all sorts of noise, a firm alarm wakes us up with a jolt.

One of the methods to understand our brain during sleep is electroencephalogram (EEG). It records the ‘brain waves’ which are nothing but the synchronized bouts of electrical activities from masses of neurons talking to each other either to execute a task or not do anything at all. To register these activities, scientists place electrode patches on the scalp of a sleeping person and record, especially from the brain’s thalamocortical system. As we progress through the different stages of sleep, our brain produces different types of brain waves. Every rise, fall, and jitter of these waves tell us a different story about our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

How much noise can disturb our sleep depends on several factors like which stage of sleep we are in. That is the reason why it is more probable that noises will wake us up from light sleep, rather than from deep sleep.

EEG Recording. Lumen Learning

Interestingly, a study led by Thanh Dang-Vu and Ellenbogen found that for “sound sleepers”, specific brain waves may make them more tolerant to noise.

They did a tad bit mean experiment on healthy volunteers in their sleep laboratory for three nights. On the first night, participants could sleep blissfully in their comfy beds. However, for the next two consecutive nights, the researchers placed a speaker behind the beds and played everyday noises, such as alarm clocks or toilets flushing, at varying volumes and noted how loud noise had to be before arousing each person. All these nights Thanh Dang-Vu and team kept recording the brain waves.

They showed that brain activity in the face of noise is controlled by specific brain waves during sleep. In particular, waves called sleep ‘spindles’ prevent the transmission of sounds to auditory brain regions. In contrast, when sounds were associated with brain waves called ‘K-complexes‘, activation of auditory areas was larger, and individuals were prone to waking up.

Those with higher spindle rates on the quiet
night were more stable sleepers on the noisier nights. Wikipedia

In another study, Thanh Dang-Vu resorted to using EEG in combination with functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) imaging on 19 healthy individuals. The idea was to not just monitor the brain waves, but also to visualize which brain areas light up in response to sound during sleep. Here, he and his colleagues found that sound, when the person is awake, activates two main brain regions thalamus and primary auditory cortex. These responses persist during deep NREM sleep, except throughout spindles, during which they became less consistent. When sounds elicited a K complex, the activity in the auditory cortex was enhanced.

“Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone.” – Anthony Burgess;

So, it could be that those who are blessed with more sleep spindles and/or less K-complex, could sleep even in a loud environment. However, during sleep, our brain produces both K-complexes and sleep spindles, depending on the stage of sleep. Therefore, our perception of the environment is not continuously reduced, it rather varies throughout during sleep.

Several other factors may make our brain respond to sound in certain ways as well. Like the time of the day when we go to sleep and even how we associate with specific sound itself. That’s plausibly why a parent can sleep soundly through their partner’s snoring but wakes up immediately when their baby cries at night.

So, the next time you lie tossing and turning in bed thanks to your teenage neighbour’s blaring stereo, you know who to blame for your ordeal.


This article is edited by Rashmi Guha Ray. She is a journalist from India whose undying passion for politics carried her to the western shores to study MA in Conflict, Governance, and Development in the University of York, UK. She is currently working as a research assistant in a project on migration. A trained editor who is hopelessly in love with words, Rashmi loves taking up new challenges in editing and rewriting. 


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‘Pain-Drug-Pain Repeat’ – The Catch-22 of Addiction

The Cobweb Of Addiction. Ipsa Wonders

At some point in our lives, we all must have experienced pain. Do you remember the last time, this unpleasant sensation created absolute emotional havoc for you? However, why does our body need to feel pain? Aren’t we better off without it?

If we draw parallels, the mechanism causing pain is quite comparable to the pipeline during wartime correspondence. Although, health care professionals will argue that pain is far more elegant, complex and faster.

The key players here are the site of injury (the war-front), the nerve cells (the military correspondent), your spinal cord (the operator) and Mr BIG BRAIN (the high commander).

Let’s say you placed your hand on a hot stove (please don’t do it!). Your nerve cells instantaneously gather this information. In response to it, nerve cells fire millions of signals to the spinal cord. This information is then relayed to our brain to make you feel the pain and alerts you to pull your hand away in split seconds, which saves your hand from any further burning.

What a painful save, isn’t it? However, this bugger pain will stay with you for sometime to come.

Many Players Are Invoved To Make You Feel The Pain.

When we think of pain, most of us think of acute pain, which is common and often a temporary condition. With acute pain, you typically know where and why it hurts. For instance, your scrapped knee bothers you, or you feel the pain at the site of an incision, post-surgery. The chronic pain, on the other hand, is defined as pain that lasts more than 12 weeks, sometimes even the whole lifetime. This kind of pain in many cases persists, even when the damage is completely healed or may arise without any initial injury.

The phantom of chronic pain has crumpled one in five of us, i.e., a total of 1.5 billion people around the globe. Leading a meaningful life with chronic pain is taxing, and seems to depend on the patient’s will and assistance from healthcare professionals.

Additionally, these are the patients who are most prone to fall victim to long term drug abuse, in a desperate attempt to find relief. To seek a solution for these patients, it is critical to understand what could trigger pain and addiction, and if these two are co-dependent.

A recent joint study, lead by Lisa R. LaRowe , at the Binghamton and Syracuse University, New York looked into this matter closely.

The group looked at results from over 100 studies on pain and substance abuse. They integrated these two parameters (pain and addiction due to substance abuse), as an empirical inquiry into a reciprocal mathematical model. This way, they could prove that pain and substance abuse interact in the manner of a positive feedback loop, i.e., greater the pain a person experiences greater the maintenance of addiction over time.

This might seem intuitive, however, so far researchers have only examined either how substance use affects pain or how pain affects substance use, separately. This kind of modelling for the first time stitch together two different types of research to demonstrate how pain and substance use affect one another.

It is like a never-ending vicious cycle. While substance abuse can be a potential risk factor for chronic pain, experiencing pain can motivate people to be dependent on substances harder to quit.

This study will be especially important for the cases, where the clinicians treating addictions, might help their patients managing underlying chronic pain or for those patients who self-medicate to cope with pain. Providing their patient’s alternative health strategies could assist their patients to combat substance abuse and cope with pain.

Following up with this study, it will be now up to the biochemists and neuroscientists to understand the underlining mechanism and potential proteins underneath this co-dependency, so as to develop treatments to break this loop.


The cover image is made by a science communicator friend, Ipsa Jain. She uses arts and design to start conversations about science. Ipsawonders is one woman labor of love. She wants to create beautiful things that speak science


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To be or not to be a vegan…

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

― Albert Einstein, in a personal letter to a friend in 1954
To be or not to be vegan. Meghna Chakrabarti

Why are people fascinated by being a strict herbivore? Is this just another fad lifestyle choice, or there is some solid reasoning behind Einstein’s love for his soya chunks?

I’ve to be honest, I’m very skeptical about this quote (like most of the quotes from the pool of WWW). However, it’s unavoidable to not dig more into the latest ‘ism’ in town- this time the Veganism.

The contending argument is, widespread dietary changes are needed if we’re to combat the range of health problems, and the environmental damage caused by modern day industrial farming.

Before we pick up our sides, we must evaluate our options! So, here comes science to our rescue.

A study, in Science Magazine, published a large data-set based on almost 40,000 farms in 119 countries and covering 40 food products that represent 90% of what we eat.

The authors assessed the gross impact of these foods, from farms to our plates, on land use, climate change emissions, freshwater use and water pollution (eutrophication) and air pollution (acidification). Therefore, putting forward the evidence, supporting that “a vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to protect our planet Earth”.

Larger ecological footprint left behind industrial farming of the livestock. It provides just 18% of calories but takes up 83% of farmland.

The author in an interview with The Guardian argued, that the benefits might even be, “ far bigger than cutting down on our flights or buying an electric car”. As it is not just bringing down the greenhouse gases, but also global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.

Several headlines were made last year. Consequently, the number of vegans just in the UK exceeds 3.5 million, which is ~ 7% of the population. These figures indicate that veganism has seen a 700% growth in less than 2 years. If a similar trend is adopted by other nations, multitude of environmental problems in the agriculture industry might be curtailed down.

However, selling the idea to the meat-eaters globally is a tricky trade, and often we confront a dilemma – how would our body react to this switch? Is cutting out animal products the only way out ?

Following increased demand for food, most of the modern farms are now large enterprises. These are run with the intention to maximise profits. They often require higher uses of fertilisers (nitrogen based and synthetic oil-based), as well as pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals. These practices although seen as highly productive, but hidden costs underlie them.

Rather than being lured by the goading to eat more of plant-based foods under the umbrella of industrial farming, we should also be encouraging sustainable forms of meat and dairy products based on methods like rotational systems, permanent pasture and conservation grazing.

In this context, organic farming is gaining the glamour, despite the higher prices. A paper published in Nature Plants reviewed the performance of organic farming vs current farming methods. Four key sustainability metrics: productivity, environmental impact, economic viability and social wellbeing were evaluated.

Preliminary data suggests organic food is supposedly healthier, more natural and more ethical. However, there is no consensus on what do we even mean when we say organic. Pros and cons of this method still need more validation.

So, what is deemed kosher? How do we feed and nourish 7.7 billion people without destroying the planet we call home?

Moving forward, sustainable farming systems with balanced dietary habits are the only way out. When it comes to the establishment of sustainable farming, the grass is not greener on the other side. No single agriculture and animal husbandry systems can safely feed the planet.

Sustainable agriculture can feed the world without killing it.

We need researchers and policymakers, to lay the foundation of sensible agriculture. This will require:

  1. State of the art research bodies and educational units
  2. Enforcement of appropriate environmental rules
  3. Restoring farm programs that do not prioritise the production of artificially cheap livestock feed over fair prices to crop farmers

Most importantly, we need to empower our citizens, who can make a conscious choice to navigate out of this conundrum, because at the turn of the century our species won’t have the luxury to toss and decide ‘To be a vegan or not to be’.


The cover image for this post is made by an aspiring computer artist Meghna Chakrabarti. Follow her stepping stones at Tumblr and Facebook.

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Am I privileged to be multi-lingual?

On a nondescript day, maybe I was 7 that time, I walked the few steps home from my new school, and found my Dad bouncing around in the middle of our living room and hugging my Ma. The reason for the excitement was yet another UN Job. My tiny brain in a rapid-fire fashion learned we were moving again.

Multilingual Children.

Being a daughter of a diplomat, I’ve changed at least a dozen schools. Often these relocations accompanied months of struggle to pick up a new language. So, it became an innate ‘character makeup’ to be multi-lingual for my sibling and me. As time passed, the fear of confronting yet another new language subsidised for us and was replaced by a ‘biased pride’ of multilingualism. However, what often haunts me though:

  • Does it really give us an upper hand over the monolingual children, when it comes to the brain’s executive functions?
  • Can we really deal with real-life and ever-changing academic setups any better than many?

Some studies indeed showed a slight advantage for bilinguals relative to monolinguals on tasks of attentional control (Bialystok, 2006; Bialystok, Craik, Klein, & Viswanathan, 2004).

However, a recent study at the University of Tennessee, led by Nils and Julia Jaekel argued that bilingual children do not have more advantages than monolingual children when it comes to executive functions like remembering instructions, controlling responses, and switching swiftly in between tasks.

In their study design, the scientists used a computer test (Wright and Diamond, 2014) to compare the executive function of two groups of children between the ages of 5-15 living in the German Ruhr region. The first cohort consisted of 242 children who spoke both Turkish and German, and the other group consisted of 95 children who spoke only German. They monitored the time bilingual and monolingual children required to correctly respond to computer-based problems and stimuli. The results showed no difference in the executive functions of the two groups. The researchers carefully, also considered children’s German and Turkish vocabulary size and their exposure to both languages, factors for which previous studies lacked.

So, does this mean there is no value addition in speaking more than one language? Not really!! It can very well be that the bilingual children are not necessarily more focused, speaking another language indeed opens the door to other socio-economic opportunities.

Nevertheless, it is important to extend the research further on this topic, to assist parents, teachers, recruiters and lawmakers not to overstress on the benefits of speaking a second language.

Cover image: Multilingual children.

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The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

I’m Rituparna, currently a postdoctoral researcher at Göttingen and have a PhD in Neuroscience. Having 6+ years’ experience in academic research and publishing, parallel to which I’ve developed strong proficiency in directing global editorial teams, conduct content R&D, and initiating editorial program development. All the ‘’fancy stuff’’ to be expected out of the role of an Editor-in-Chief of an online platform achieving a viewership of 66,000+ STEM professionals annually.

Well, that’s all great for an ego boost for my altruistic self, but most of the time I do not write with any greater altruistic purpose. I write because I’m awe inspired by discoveries and insights to the human brain and our obsession over it.

I just love it! I love talking about science, and sometimes over the top, you can ask my victimised co-passengers in long-distance flights.

This webpage will be a fun mental exercise to take and mould a hardcore scientific manuscript or a mundane Science FYI into something that can spark curiosity.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

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