August 10, 2022

By Courtney Wise

Good morning, MindSite News readers. In today’s newsletter, scientists at Columbia University have developed a new way to create neural networks in a petri dish, providing a way to study the workings of mental disorders like schizophrenia. Climate anxiety is spawning activism among young Californians. And hearing voices is not always a sign of psychosis.

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Scientists hope lab-grown “modular neural networks” will unlock mysteries of schizophrenia

Image: Shutterstock

So often, breakthroughs in science happen by chance. Five years ago, Angeles Rabadan, an associate research neuroscientist returned to work in Raju Tomer’s lab at Columbia University, and looked in on a tiny tube she had stored in an incubator the night before containing remnants of a cell-rich solution. She was astonished by what she found: “Tiny balls had formed in the tube, and you could see there was something connecting them,” she said, according to a release published in Neuroscience News.

Residual brain cells had amassed together overnight, forming minute neural spheres. After testing the data and showing her findings to Tomer, they realized the spheres had not only spontaneously built a network, but that the network could represent a new tool for neuroscience research. Today, the lab-grown, brain-like cell assemblies are called Modular Neural Networks, or MoNNets, and scientists believe they may unlock a new phase of research into mental illness, especially schizophrenia. “For decades, there’s been very little progress in the treatment of psychiatric disorders,” said Joseph Gogos, a researcher at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute.

Gogos is a co-author, along with Rabadan, Tomer and others, on a paper recently published in Nature Communications studying the use of MoNNets in unlocking some of the mysteries of schizophrenia. “MoNNets could be a great help here because they’re well suited for both teasing out the biological bases of neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders and for efficiently vetting hundreds or thousands of possible pharmacological treatments,” Gogos said. In addition to schizophrenia, scientists hope MoNNets can lead to better understanding and treatments for epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and other neurological disorders.

Young Californians use climate activism to cope with climate anxiety

20-year-old Sim Bilal has struggled with climate anxiety since he was six. Shortly after watching An Inconvenient Truth with his parents, he became overwhelmed with feelings of powerlessness about the growing climate crisis. “I’m not a very emotional person, but this is such a huge existential issue,” he told the LA Times. Recent floods, wildfires, and drought seemed to confirm his fears about what would happen as sea levels rose. “Just seeing the effects of the climate crisis in real time, it’s even more scary,” said Bilal. 

These days though, he and other young people are channeling their grief and anxiety into action, hoping to spur elected officials to enact climate policies that mitigate harm to the planet. They’re representative of youth in a 2021 global research study that found significant numbers of people aged 16 to 25 worried about climate change. MindSite News wrote about their concerns early this year.

Bilal said that organizing with a community of youth activists has tremendously boosted his mental well-being. Their goal is to pressure governments to respect climate change as a current issue affecting the planet now. “For so long, it’s been sold to us as a future issue, and something we have to deal with in 2040, 2050,” he said.

The endless pursuit of happiness … can make you less happy

It’s not all that surprising when you think about it: A win-at-all-costs, hypercompetitive performance mindset isn’t conducive to mental wellbeing. But neither is a focus on passion and happiness. “The passion mindset prioritizes happiness as the ultimate goal of life,” wrote authors Belle Liang and Timothy Klein in an op-ed for Marketplace Watch. “Paradoxically, the more we seek happiness, the more unhappy we become.” When you strive to be happy all the time, it seems, it’s easy to feel even worse when discontent arises. 

The two have written a book that examines the unique challenge that Gen Z, dubbed the Performance Generation, is facing as a result. In How to Navigate Life: The New Science of Finding Your Way in School, Career, and Beyond, Liang and Klein examine  research that suggests that people who expect to love their jobs suffer high rates of depression and anxiety and reduced academic, career, and life satisfaction and performance. The solution? A purpose mindset. Pursuing a life that’s personally meaningful and contributes to the well-being of others leads to fewer feelings of distress. 

In other news…

Auditory hallucinations are not always a sign of psychosis, and in some cases can be helpful. “It is well known that many historical luminaries were voice-hearers, including Socrates and Plato, Joan of Arc, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Martin Luther King, Jr,” says an article in Psychology Today. “External voices are reported to increase in frequency after near-death experiences.”

Miami officials paused a proposal to build 100 tiny homes for homeless people on Miami’s Virginia Key. Mayor Francis Suarez and Commissioner Joe Carollo had put forward the idea because of their dissatisfaction with Miami-Dade County’s efforts to address homelessness. Now, county officials appear to be willing to create more beds in shelters, identify alternative sites for temporary housing, and stop releasing jailed homeless people into the city. The idea could return, though “if the county doesn’t want to live up to the responsibility,” Carollo said, according to the Miami Herald.

After a spate of suicides at Cambridge University, a BBC report found that the school’s mental health services are ineffective. Amongst other findings, “the absence of both a university-wide suicide prevention and response strategy and a central out-of-hours crisis service” were noted in previous reports, according to the BBC.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Courtney Wise

Courtney Wise Randolph is a writer and creative based in Detroit, Michigan.