I recently wrote about our ongoing study to understand brain activity during sleep in young children with autism and in siblings of older children with autism. Today, I want to give you a look behind the scene and show you our beautiful nap room we built for this study. We kept the room in a soothing light blue and made sure there are enough fun toys to make this a happy place for our study participants. The child naps wherever comfortable, we have a range of options form rocking nursing chair (shown below), full-size bed with a high-quality mattress, pack'n'play, and even a great car seat.
Research to understand child health and development are perhaps the best investment into our future. Unfortunately, most researchers are discouraged from pediatric research. First, it is complicated. Second, there are little financial incentives from the pharmaceutical industry since for a set of complex reasons. When we started this study, many people told us (who themselves have never done child sleep studies) that this research is very difficult and that most kids will not sleep in the lab. We took this as encouragement to prove all these people wrong and I am happy to report that the vast majority of children peacefully nap in our study! Why? We spent a lot of time optimizing all of our processes (including the lab shown below) and we have amazing researchers (postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduate students) who are not only promising junior scientists but also highly skilled and talented at interacting with infants. What is unique about our study is that this is a collaboration with the UNC School of Education, so we are getting the best of both worlds - trusted experience in interacting and studying children and their behavior and cutting-edge neuroscience to analyze and interpret the data we collect.
Interested in participating with your child in the study? Please reach out to us! You find the study flier below. Please contact my student Jessica, who will discuss the study in detail with you. Never hesitate to contact me if you have questions for me about our research.
Here are two upcoming events that I am very excited about and perhaps I will see you there?
Annual Meeting of the North Carolina Academy of Sleep Medicine
Oct. 7th, 2017: 8:00am-5:00pm
The William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
100 Friday Center Dr. Chapel Hill, NC 27599
Note that you need to register for this meeting (costs $145). I am one of the speakers at this event and I am planning on drawing a broad picture of brain state dynamics and how oscillations (during sleep and wake) are targets for network-level interventions such as brain stimulation. Even more exciting is the remainder of the line up. They have Dr. Carskadon (expert on sleep and teenagers), Dr. Maski (narcolepsy in children), and Dr. Spencer (dental sleep medicine). I am very much looking forward to this event!
Music and Brain Plasticity: A Look at Music Therapy
Health Humanities Grand Rounds
Dr. Dorita S. Berger, PhD, MT-BC, LCAT
November 1 at 3:30pm - 5:00pm
UNC-CH Health Science Library, Room 527.
This free event features our collaborator Dr. Berger, a leading expert in the field of music therapy. Here are some of here books, of particular relevance if you are interested in autism spectrum disorder:
One of my favorite activities is building things, especially if electronics are involved. For us a a lab, the ability to build small devices (or at least prototypes) helps us save money and greatly enables our science. How to get started? First, you need a properly equipped workstation, which can be a challenge when you get started. In this post, I will show you what I have for a total of less than $1000. I will follow up with more posts about basic skills and approaches to get you started.
DISCLAIMERS: (1) If you do not know what you are doing, things are potentially dangerous. Applies to everything in life, including tinkering with electronics! (2) I wanted to make your life easy and show you what I use. I have no commercial interest or affiliations with any of these companies. However, Amazon pays me a small fee if you buy any of the products through any of these links.
Let's break the equipment down into few main categories:
Equipment for Testing and Measuring
Equipment for Building
Now that we have spent the majority of our budget on the test equipment, we will use the remainder (ca $250) on tools to build circuits.
Magnifier with LED Light: Electronic components get smaller every year (and/or my eyesight worse). I highly recommend a magnifier with an LED light. Avoid the cheaper ones with a bulb that contains mercury!
Smoke Absorber: Finally, when you solder (please use lead-free solder!) without a smoke absorber you are inhaling fumes that may or may not give you Alzheimer's disease but my approach to environmental toxins is always to play it safe. Thus:
This is the first series of posts in which I give an update on ongoing research studies at our Carolina Center for Neurostimulation.
We are currently performing a research study to better understand the electrical signaling of brain networks during sleep in children (12-30 months) who have either an autism spectrum diagnosis or are at risk by having an older sibling with the diagnosis. We are doing this study since we know that sleep is a poorly understood but clinically very significant piece of ASD. Also, our hope is to find markers that would contribute to early detection and diagnosis based on neurobiological measurements. Finally, our dream is to then translate our non-invasive brain stimulation treatments that we are currently evaluating in adult patients with schizophrenia and depression to ASD.
But before we can do that, there is a lot that needs to be done, including our current study that does NOT include brain stimulation. The study comprises two visits with our friendly research team. One at your home with my super-friendly and skilled graduate student Jessica, followed by a visit to the lab at UNC where the child naps (we have an adult bed, a pack'n'play, a rocking/nursing chair, etc) and we record the EEG. Done! Just to give a you a perspective, we have had really good luck with children napping and giving us great data. But the best of it, you get compensated even if your child does not sleep. Also, you get to watch your child's brain waves ;-) When my daughter got her EEG recorded, she demanded to come back once a month to see how her brain waves change, making me very proud!
As a father of four children, let me answer your most burning question: No, you will never have to leave your child alone and if things do not work out, no worries, we understand your unique challenges.
We are hoping for 20 participants from the Chapel Hill, Durham, and surrounding communities over the next 6 months. Please also see our official flier below for contact details. Lastly, I would like to offer you that if you are interested in participating with your child in the study that I can meet you to discuss the science that motivates this study and share with you my vision of how we can together revolutionize neurology and psychiatry. You can reach me by email.
I will give periodic updates on how we are doing with this study. Please note that we are researchers and not clinicians and cannot answer your clinical questions about your child's health.
Ever looked at your calendar in the morning and thought that you already knew you would get nothing done all day long? Ever planned to work after dinner because meetings will take up your entire day? I know I have - many times. Today, I will share with you what has worked for me to deal with meetings.
Rule 3: Define Purpose and Duration of Every Meeting.
We can only focus for so long. Today, it often seems the period of "joint attention" and "creative problem solving" lasts somewhere between ten and thirty minutes, at most. Yet, most meetings are at least an hour long. What a waste of everyone's time. So here is what I suggest based on my experience and lots of failed attempts of making meetings productive and efficient.
Hope all this helps - good luck!
Weekend is here - finally - time to get some work done! Sounds familiar? You are not alone. So I thought this a great moment to share with you my next rule for improving productivity (and, non, it is not drinking more espresso, this is Rule Zero!)
Rule 2: Block Process Small Items.
Every little item that takes you thirty seconds (email, anyone?) costs you actually more than 30 seconds but rather something around perhaps 5-10 minutes. Why? Switching cost! Getting back into the flow takes time and quality+productivity drop.
Here is the alternative. Treat these small but frequent (and frankly often not that important) items as to be ignored until a pre-scheduled time-window, in which you block process them at once. Do not look at them during other periods. Make sure the really important people in your life have your cell phone number such that they can call you in case of a true emergency.
Make sure you schedule your blocks of emails etc around the time you are the most creative and productive. For sure, do not start the day with a block of email processing. Here is how I suggest you deal with your inbox during one of these block processing sessions:
I hope this helps. Enjoy - hope your weekend brings more than just email block processing!
There are days on which it feels like the flood of things to take care of never ends and that the only solution is to work more and more (Have you ever thought: "Sundays are great to do the work that I wanted to get done on Saturday since the entire week was filled with meetings and low-priority emails" I know I have.). I have tried this approach and it works - up to a point. Unfortunately, the net result at the end of this vicious cycle is an unhealthy stress level which impairs executive function and thus significantly impairs productivity and health. I spent a lot of time over the last few years thinking and reading about this. Over the next few post, I will share with you what I have found and what has and has not worked for me. I hope my observations will help you and make you more productive, happier, and who knows perhaps even healthier!
First of all, there is no way around hard work achieve great things. I advise you do not listen to anyone who claims otherwise. Yet, the way how we organize our work can make a big difference.
Rule 1: Let go of your smartphone.
Yes - I mean it! Although we feel that a smartphone helps us to keep our act together and deal with all the demands that are imposed on us, I argue the exact opposite is the case. I found that many apps are designed (not sure about the intent) or work in a way that you get addicted. I cannot count the number of times I checked miles and status with the different airlines, just had a quick look at the news, checked the response on twitter to something I posted, etc. Sounds familiar? At least I managed to avoid games... The worst is email because most work-related emails I receive requires some action beyond few words of a reply such as filling in a form, modifying/reviewing a document, checking my calendar, or (oh no!) thinking about them etc. All these actions are hard to do on a smartphone so I would in essence look at the email, add what I read to my mental todo list without having resolved anything. This simply added stress but did not resolve anything.
Once I put my smartphone away, I started to notice how the majority of people are glued behind their screens. In contrast, I suddenly had the time to talk with the random stranger waiting for the same bus, daydream, think about my next grant proposal, and so on. I was free! For the first few days, I realized how often my hand would reach for the smartphone that was not there anymore. I think we have come intolerant to even the smallest amount of time that we have to spend with ourselves or the real people around us. Waiting for the elevator - phone out! Waiting for somebody to join a meeting - phone out! Waiting in line to get your coffee - phone out! Once I unlearned this reflex (by replacing my smart phone with an old fashioned flip phone), I started feeling so much better and my various projects started to progress much more smoothly. Now, if you have kids, this is even more important. Just check out this very scary article in the Atlantic about the effect of smart phones on the developing brain.
My main professional goal is to prepare my trainees for a successful and inspiring career in whatever line of work they eventually choose. I enjoy writing letters of recommendation because they give me the chance to reflect on the trajectory members of the lab/center have taken and how much they have developed and grown during their time with us. Similarly, it is truly exciting to see how our alumni are successful in their careers. Yet, I have to admit it is not always easy to see outstanding trainees depart since each of them leave behind a gap in our fabric as a lab, both scientifically and also as a person and member of our family. I guess this is what it will feel like when the kids are grown up and leave for college / their own independent adult lives. Like parenting, the goal of a mentor in science (or whatever field) is to think from day one how to prepare the mentee to become independent and not need the mentor anymore. Anything else I find quite egoistic. In any case, here is what I tell my "lab children": once a member a family, forever a member of the family! Now, that analogy breaks down in the sense that as a PI, I get the chance to recruit the next generation of talent and steadily grow the family. So if you are interested in joining our family, never hesitate to reach out since we are always looking to hire outstanding, dedicated junior scientists!
I had the privilege to get invited to speak at a meeting on brain oscillations at Oxford last week. It was a small (internal) meeting with some of the most exciting researchers in the field invited from all around the globe. Here are my thoughts and comments: