Welcome to BrainBug: Reports From Substantia Nigra

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My name is Andy Weatherwax. I am a retired business owner, a poet, musician and sculptor. And I have a BrainBug.

This site, BrainBug.com, will serve primarily as an outlet for my creative work. If you dig in a bit you’ll notice that much of my work, these days, is inspired by Parkinson’s disease (PD), with which I was diagnosed in 1999. That said, this site, BrainBug.com, will serve primarily to raise awareness of PD through my work – poetry, music, essays, and so on.

I hope you enjoy your time at BrainBug.  Metta.
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Parkinson’s Treatment Can Trigger Creativity

Parkinson’s experts across the world have been reporting a remarkable phenomenon — many patients treated with drugs to increase the activity of dopamine in the brain as a therapy for motor symptoms such as tremors and muscle rigidity are developing new creative talents, including painting, sculpting, writing, and more.

Prof. Rivka Inzelberg of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicinefirst noticed the trend in her own Sheba Medical Center clinic when the usual holiday presents from patients — typically chocolates or similar gifts — took a surprising turn. “Instead, patients starting bringing us art they had made themselves,” she says.

Inspired by the discovery, Prof. Inzelberg sought out evidence of this rise in creativity in current medical literature. Bringing together case studies from around the world, she examined the details of each patient to uncover a common underlying factor — all were being treated with either synthetic precursors of dopamine or dopamine receptor agonists, which increase the amount of dopamine activity in the brain by stimulating receptors. Her report will be published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience.

Dopamine is involved in several neurological systems, explains Prof. Inzelberg. Its main purpose is to aid in the transmission of motor commands, which is why a lack of dopamine in Parkinson’s patients is associated with tremors and a difficulty in coordinating their movements.

But it’s also involved in the brain’s “reward system” — the satisfaction or happiness we experience from an accomplishment. This is the system which Prof. Inzelberg predicts is associated with increasing creativity. Dopamine and artistry have long been connected, she points out, citing the example of the Vincent Van Gogh, who suffered from psychosis. It’s possible that his creativity was the result of this psychosis, thought to be caused by a spontaneous spiking of dopamine levels in the brain.

There are seemingly no limits to the types of artistic work for which patients develop talents, observes Prof. Inzelberg. Cases include an architect who began to draw and paint human figures after treatment, and a patient who, after treatment, became a prize-winning poet though he had never been involved in the arts before.

It’s possible that these patients are expressing latent talents they never had the courage to demonstrate before, she suggests. Dopamine-inducing therapies are also connected to a loss of impulse control, and sometimes result in behaviors like excessive gambling or obsessional hobbies. An increase in artistic drive could be linked to this lowering of inhibitions, allowing patients to embrace their creativity. Some patients have even reported a connection between their artistic sensibilities and medication dose, noting that they feel they can create more freely when the dose is higher.

Therapeutic value

Prof. Inzelberg believes that such artistic expressions have promising therapeutic potential, both psychologically and physiologically. Her patients report being happier when they are busy with their art, and have noted that motor handicaps can lessen significantly. One such patient is usually wheelchair-bound or dependent on a walker, but creates intricate wooden sculptures that have been displayed in galleries. External stimuli can sometimes bypass motor issues and foster normal movement, she explains. Similar types of art therapy are already used for dementia and stroke patients to help mitigate the loss of verbal communication skills, for example.

The next step is to try to characterize those patients who become more creative through treatment through comparing them to patients who do not experience a growth in artistic output. “We want to screen patients under treatment for creativity and impulsivity to see if we can identify what is unique in those who do become more creative,” says Prof. Inzelberg. She also believes that such research could provide valuable insights into creativity in healthy populations, too.

Path of Boundless Compassion

The BuddhaDeepen your Zen Practice and Understanding Though the Exploration of Shin Buddhism with Mark Unno

Saturday, April 26 9:00 am – 4:00 pm
Greater Boston Zen Center
288 Norfolk Street
Cambridge, MA.
Suggested Donation
$20 – $40 per person
Join us for a day of exploration into the Shin tradition of Buddhism, the practice of living a Dharma  life that emphasizes entrusting  ourselves to the realization of boundless compassion.
This special program of dharma talks and practices as well as group discussion will cover a variety of topics including the following:
  • The fundamentals of Shin Buddhism—key teachings, chanting, bowing, and deeply hearing the Dharma.
  • The primal vow and the Bodhisattva vows—What is the true nature and source of the vows and how to we make it come alive in our daily lives?
  • We’ll look at some of the leading Zen and Shin  teachers including Dogen, Ryokan, Honen,  and Shinran,the founder of Shin Buddhism. We will discover surprising connections and the historical context of their time. What can we learn that can inform our lives in the 21st century?

 

Bermuda to Newport One Last Time

It had been four or five years since my diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, and my symptoms were now for all to see. My “off” states were on the rise. Let me explain…

The initial symptoms of Parkinson’s disease—resting tremor, muscle stiffness, slowness of movement—are quite effectively treated with a drug called levodopa, which the brain coverts to dopamine,  and a class of drugs called dopamine agonists, which activate dopamine receptors in the absence of dopamine. They are usually the first line of defense against PD, and are very good at improving and controlling these symptoms for several years.

Over time, however, patients start to develop motor fluctuations, the result of variations in the individual’s response to levodopa. Motor fluctuations oscillate between “off” times, a state of decreased mobility, and “on” times, or periods when the medication is working and symptoms are controlled. It is estimated that 40 percent of Parkinson’s patients will experience motor fluctuations within 4-6 years of onset increasing by 10 percent per year after that.

These fluctuations are not limited to the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s. Also affected are the non-motor symptoms, such as sensory symptoms (e.g. pain, fatigue, and motor restlessness); autonomic symptoms (e.g. urinary incontinence and profuse sweats); and psychiatric disorders (e.g. depression, anxiety and psychosis). These symptoms are more disabling than motor changes in as many as one third of fluctuating patients.

So, my “off” states were on the rise and I was  flat out. I had just launched BrainBug (v2.0), a full service digital marketing consultancy and I was balls-to-the-wall (such an odd phrase). I had consulting engagements in place with IBM, MetLife, Priceline and WebMD. On top of that I had just begun work on the technical and UE (user experience) design for Yahoo!’s paid search program. I was swamped.

So why, my wife Josa wondered, why the heck would I jeopardize these relationships—relationships that in some cases took years to cultivate? Why? Why risk it? These were great companies.  Big companies with deep pockets! And they were not small engagements.  There were deadlines looming and it was just me in our spare bedroom (Shhh. Don’t tell anyone! I may have over stated the size of BrainBug just a bit ;-)   Why,  in the middle of my most successful (IE: lucrative) year, would I drop everything l to go sailing?

The simple  answer:  I’m an idiot!

I’ve never been one given to consequence. My wife is a saint to have put up with me all these years.  Looking back, I can see clearly now how much worry and stress I routinely  placed on her plate every time I’d open my mouth and  announce some new venture or adventure. Admittedly, some of my decisions have been questionable. I may be an idiot but, I am an idiot who realizes that sailing is second to none…uh, well second only to music, and maybe mountain climbing… No, sailing is it! Music is it too…

What I’m trying to say is I’m addicted to feeling alive! It was four or five years since my diagnosis and I was really slowing down. Parkinson’s disease was winning and my sailing days where numbered. Especially the blue water, off-shore, shorthanded, shake you by the lapels, driving rain and howling wind type of I’m alive sailing!

So, when my good friend Jay called and asked if I had one more passage in me, I jumped at the opportunity.

I now had to inform my clients. If you’ve ever worked with large companies you know that they can get lost in a world where what they do or make, is the most important thing ever. Each deadline is taken very seriously, as if they were surgeons and it was life-or-death. I understand the power of this delusion, so I have two simple rules when it comes to account management:

  1. Communicate often and honestly, even if there is nothing to report. Email doesn’t count. Let them here your voice.
  2. Under promise and over deliver. It’s far easier to take your lumps up front. When the client says I need it if four weeks and you say it will take five, they might kick a bit. But when you deliver in three and a half weeks you’re golden.

Do this and you’ll be in their good graces.

I called each client and despite some concern the overall reaction was “Go for it!”
And I did.

So, on June 3, 2003 I flew to Bermuda. We were to set sail the following day. Jay and I on his Doug Peterson Metal Mast 36′. I will never forget this passage. I will be posting my journal from this passage in the coming days.

 

iI am addicted to feeling alive