Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Retinal Art: Appreciating the Beauty of Sensation & Perception

Retinal Art: Appreciating the Beauty of Sensation & Perception
Maria Almoite

Image: Gregadunn.com

Eyes are so fascinating to me. They can convert environmental visual cues and create their own perception of an image. Not to mention, our own eyes can deceive us with what's shown in front of us (e.g., optical illusions) and how our visual experiences actually differ from one another (remember that blue/gold dress debacle?). My recent research also taught me how valuable the eyes are beyond sight. Dysconjugated gaze (the inability to move eyes in a single horizontal/vertical direction) tells us if the brain is healthy or not. In fact, we actually learned that we can detect the severity of brain trauma and its exact location by using sophisticated eye-tracking (Samadani et al., 2015). Another study also found that eye-tracking can detect Alzheimer's. Patients with Alzheimer's made no errors when they were asked to look towards the light, but made errors that they were unable correct when they were asked to look away. Vision is incredibly fascinating both figuratively and literally. hashtagscience hashtagneuroscience

New Brain Region Discovered: Endorestiform Nucleus

New Brain Region Discovered: Endorestiform Nucleus
Maria Almoite

This just in! A new brain region has been recently discovered called Endorestiform Nucleus (Paxinos, 2019). It is located within the inferior cerebellar peduncle— area responsible for fine motor movements. This recent discovery could lead to modern breakthroughs in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and other motor neuron diseases. As of right now, endorestiform nucleus appears to be absent in other animals we have studied. Other than our evidently larger brain size, this region could be one of the distinguishing factors between humans and other animals (e.g., Rhesus Monkeys). hashtagScience hashtagNeuroscience hashtagBrains Source: George Paxinos, Teri Furlong & Charles Watson. Human Brainstem: Cytoarchitecture, Chemoarchitecture, Myeloarchitecture. Academic Press, 2019; ISBN: 9780128141847

3D Printed Cranioplasty Implant

OSSDSIGN’s innovative 3D printed cranioplasty implant. It combines stable and patient-specific titanium skeleton mesh and a biocompatible calcium phosphate material. Often used when a traumatic brain injury occurs and the skull bone can no longer be used. hashtagscience hashtagtraumaticbraininjury hashtagbraininjuryresearchlab

Strong Necks: Are strong necks key to preventing concussion risks?

Strong Necks: Are strong necks key to preventing concussion risks?

Maria Almoite

At a first glance, this photo seems bizarre and absurd. What’s that thing on his head? What is he actually working out? While this photo seems out of ordinary, neck workouts are slowly gaining more traction in sports medicine. Recent studies have shown that those with stronger necks decreases the impact of concussion risks. In fact, women and children have been found to have weaker necks compared to men. Consequently, female concussion rates have nearly doubled compared to their male counterparts (Hootman, Dick, & Agel, 2007). As a result, both women and children are more likely to experience stronger impact of concussions. Strong necks are able to absorb force better which lowers concussion risk. In this image, the man is using an iron neck device to strengthen their neck muscles as preventative percussion against concussions. While there’s still a lot of work to be done to mitigate concussion risks, neck strengthening method serve as an effective preventative measure in the meantime.

Technology Integration in Classrooms: How to Maximize Results -

Maria Almoite
Co-Principal Investigator (w/ Dr. Karla Lassonde) & Lead Researcher

This is a 3-part study in which I piloted and lead from the beginning. I wanted to examine the best way to incorporate technology in classrooms by applying cognitive principles

The aim of this study is to combine a measure of sustained atention (i.e. Sustained Attention Response Test-SART; RObertson, Mandly, Andrade,Baddeley, & Yiend,1997) with repeated quizzing of video lecture content to determine if sustained attention is important for the testing effect. The results will teach us how to best maximize results by applying cognitive principles.

Handwritten notes are known to increase retention during the encoding process by converting information from sensory registers to short and long term memory. Conversely, another study found that typed notes is more effective than handwritten notes on memory retention. Based on encoding processes, we hypothesized that handwritten notes will enhance memory for lecture content compared to typed notes. We also build upon Schoen's (2012) methodology to examine the consistence of their findings on the benefits of laptop use:

Find link of poster here: Poster

Applying cognitive principles in classroom: Is sustained attention important for the testing effect?

Is sustained attention important for the testing effect?
Almoite, Kay, & Lassonde (2014)

*This study has been accepted to Stanford Psychology Undegrad Conference (SUPC)
*I presented this work in 5 poster presentation
*1 oral presentation at SUPC

The aim of this study is to combine a measure of sustained atention (i.e. Sustained Attention Response Test-SART; RObertson, Mandly, Andrade,Baddeley, & Yiend,1997) with repeated quizzing of video lecture content to determine if sustained attention is important for the testing effect. The results will teach us how to best maximize results by applying cognitive principles.

Note: The video is an e-learning video shown to students in class.

Link to dowload poster: Almoite - Sustained Attention in Classrooms

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

How Patient H.M. Fueled My Interest in Memory & Neuroscience

My friend gave me Patient H.M’s book for my  27th birthday dubbed “Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets without knowing my extreme fascination with Patient H.M.’s (Henry Molaison) case and how his story fueled my passion in human memory and cognitive neuroscience. 

Patient H.M. is the most studied individual in the history of neuroscience. His case brought us the knowledge and complexity of what we know about human memory today. Patient H.M. was suffering from epileptic seizures that led surgeons to remove part of his medial temporal lobes (MTL) and a part of his hippocampus (responsible for memory formation) to relieve his severe epileptic seizures (Scoville, 1954, 1968; Scoville et al., 1953; Scoville & Milner, 1957). The surgery cured his epilepsy but he developed anterograde amnesia (inability to create new memories) while keeping his working memory and procedural memory intact.

Patient H.M. performed the Mirror-Drawing Task
Scoville and Millner (1957) conducted a series of tasks to explore patient H.M.’s pre and post knowledge prior the onset of his Amnesia. Researchers discovered that H.M. was able to learn simple sensorimotor skills despite of his pervasive amnesia. Dr. Brenda Milner tested H.M.’s motor skill via mirror drawing. In this task, HM was asked to look in a mirror where he sees both his hand holding a pencil and paper with two concentric outlines of a five-pointed star. The objective is for H.M. to draw a line between the outlines while only looking at the mirror. Since the star and the hand can only be seen in the mirror, the image is obviously reversed (to draw leftward requires moving right hand). In normal subjects, it requires several practices before they can master this task. We found that HM could learn and remember as quickly as normal subjects. However, the most interesting fact is that while HM improved his performance in every trial he does, he had no memory of having seen the star/having done this task before (remember he cannot form new memories due to anterograde amnesia). Scoville and Milner (1957) then concluded that H.M.’s semantic memory (e.g. general knowledge/daily life) was not impaired, but he was unable to develop new declarative (e.g. episodic/factual) memories. The researchers concluded that the anterior hippocampus and hippocampal gyrus (separate or together) are concerned in the retention of experience (Scoville and Milner, 1957).

Patient H.M. left us a gift of a better understanding of the human memory. Because of his case, we learned that we have multiple memory systems (beyond long term/short term memory; declarative, procedural, semantic, and episodic memory) that are located in different parts of the brain which was a huge discovery in the field of neuroscience. The human brain is absolutely fascinating!

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Intellectual Growth & My Love for Stand-up Comedy

Self-reflection is something that I try to frequently engage in. I constantly assess my situation and find ways to improve and grow. That said, one breezy night in October 2016, a thought dawned on me: I should try thing I normally wouldn’t do!

Typically, I can be monotonous, safe, and boring with activities I engage in (don’t worry I’m adventurous elsewhere). I go to the same restaurants and order the same meal, interact with the same people I know, and the list goes on. I decided to put a halt on this monotonous routine and challenged myself to engage in activities outside of my comfort zone. The idea of “Outside the Box Project” was immediately born.  My goal was to try new, unique, and bizarre fads or activities and blog about it. I’ve tried a lot of new things, such as: cryotherapy, cupping, fencing (love), snowboarding, acupuncture, and sensory deprivation tank (super cool). Frankly, this outside of the box project helped me grow as a person and even gain confidence throughout the process (shout out to fencing!).  

Now that this project has ended—the next thing I want to focus on is intellectual growth. Being out of academia for three years has left a hole in my heart. I knew there’s something missing, and that something is research. I was eager to get back up the saddle and get involved in research again. After all, we control our own destiny. Luckily, I got in a neurosurgery lab to study brain injury. My new goal is to gain clinical experience and to get publish in a scientific journal. This additional gig now puts me to a 60-hour week and I am still happy about it. This experience is new for me since it's medical research compared to basic research (theoretical) that I’ve done in the past. I’m excited to learn new systems, devices, good bed side manners, and better quality assurance skills.

Despite of my 60-hour work week, I still manage to do things that I love: watching stand-up comedy. My love for stand-up comedy is not new. In fact, I've followed national headliners that I like: Louis CK, Bill Burr, and Tom Segura as my top 3 (I've seen all 3). But recently, I’ve also learned to love the local Minneapolis comedy scene. You all know my loyalty with stand-up comedy but let me tell you how it started. One snowy night in February 2017, I went to watch an open mic at ACME with a Tinder date (the only good thing I've experienced on Tinder...). I’ve been to ACME before but only when national headliners are in town. So of course, I was extremely skeptical about the quality of the show. After all, it’s free. When the show ended, I was surprisingly very impressed and left wanting for more. ACME’s structure for open mic is really rad. Of course, we have people who are trying stand-up for the first time but half the show are veterans with respectable credits on their arsenal (think Conan, Last Comic Standing, and so on).

People always ask me why I like stand-up comedy. Stand-up comedy to me is art. I know, I know, that sounds cheesy but really, it IS art. Performing in front of an audience to try and make them laugh is not an easy task to do. A recipe for a good comic (IMO) exhibits great style, quality, and stage presence (Brooks Wheelan was amazing at this). The reason why I got hooked to the local Minneapolis stand-up scene is because they are actually freaking good! We’ve had some of the big national headliners start at ACME (Nick Swardson is one of them). But also, I admire stand-up comics in general. I admire the hustle that goes with being a comic. These are people with day jobs who are trying to hone their craft and perform in as many open mics as possible to improve their set. Nowadays, it’s rare to see people go after what they are passionate about so it’s a nice change to see. Supporting local comics is just fun to me. I love supporting extremely talented people in my city trying to make it big. It’s fun to see their jokes evolve as well. I’m not sure whether to be proud or ashamed but I’ve officially watched stand-up comedy for 34 weeks in a row and I go to multiple shows in a week. Annnnnd I’m still not sick of it. Don’t knock my obsession, laughter is proven to be good for you after all. ;) 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Out of the Box 7: Maria Tries Snowboarding

All geared up!
Now that I’ve been living in Minnesota for 11 years, I thought it’s finally time to toughen up and actually try some outdoor winter sports. If you know me, you’ll know that outdoors and winter aren’t exactly my favorite things in the world. But, I am determined for 2017 to be my year of not only trying new things but specifically trying new sports and activities I usually wouldn’t do. (I secretly want to become more “outdoorsy”).
Friday the 13th!
It seems like fate when my cousins Mike and Izzy came to visit from out of town to celebrate Izzy’s 30th birthday with the intent to snowboard. Snowboarding was the perfect bonding experience and not to mention, perfectly fitting for my out of the box series blog posts. So of course, I was nothing but excited. None of us have never been snowboarding so we knew it would be a fun learning experience.

Our snowboard instructor, Matt and I!
Shockingly, despite the fact that I’ve lived here for a decade in this freezing state, I didn’t have snowpants, snow gloves, or any outfit suited for winter activities. So off we go to Dick’s sporting goods and peruse good ‘ol Amazon for some affordable snowpants, hand and body warmers, snow gloves, and anything that will protect us from frostbite.


Initially, we wanted to go to Afton Alps for our first snowboarding endeavor. But let’s be honest, none of us have actually snowboarded before, and Afton isn’t exactly cheap nor is it for newbies. So we decided to be realistic, and go to Buck Hill for our first snowboarding escapade. Our snowboarding package went from $185 (Afton Alps) to $39 (Buck Hill) with a comparable package of  90 mins snowboarding lessons, snow boots, snowboard rental, and helmet.  Whew! With my level of snowboarding skill (or perhaps, lack thereof), $185 is not worth it. For $39 per person at Buck Hill, we were able to receive a private lesson from Matt for 90 mins (pictured on the right in orange jacket). And that’s including our boards and boots! What a steal! I recommend buck hill for your first few snowboarding experience before moving up to Afton Alps. I'll probably go back to Buck Hill if I want another snowboarding lesson or for my first skiing lesson.


Documenting your falls is crucial right? (low left)
Our instructor Matt first taught us how to slide with our snow boards with our dominant foot strapped in and the other doing the kicking. At first, we had trouble identifying if I’m a regular or a goofy. I fence with my right leg dominant. However, in fencing, even though you lunge and attack with your right foot, your left foot is finishing all the action. Of course, I was the first person that the instructor know who fence, he couldn’t tell me whether I’m regular or a goofy. I had to do a trial run and see which one’s I’m more comfortable with and we ended up deciding that I’m a regular. After about 10 minutes of practicing how to slide with our snowboard, we had to drag our boards up to a bunny hill. 

We did that for about 10 minutes until we tried to actually snowboard from a bunny hill. I’d say, the hardest part about snowboarding for me (other than the entire thing, lol) is going up the hill with your snowboard and standing up after strapping your own board/after a fall. The heaviness of the snow boots itself takes a ton of effort to navigate the board itself. Mad respect to real snowboarders out there! This shit aint easy!


"Eternal Cousins" minus my sister Marianne
Highly recommend! I at least recommend trying this sport once, especially if you live in a cold state like Minnesota. If you do well and ended up loving it, great! If not, hey, you tried something new! Not gonna lie, I struggled a ton. Meanwhile, Izzy (far left in blue pants) and Mike (far right) were crushing the lesson. They were pretty natural at it, and it was fun to witness! They even got to try a bigger hill (relative to the small hill that was overwhelming enough for me, =P). It didn’t bother me that I didn’t excel as well as I’d like for my first time. After all, it’s about making memories and trying new things, and I did just that! I’ve always had this overwhelming fear of failure to the point that it actually inhibits me from trying new things and perform well. Knowing this and purposely doing things outside my comfort zone help me face my fears with head on and realizing, hey, it’s ok to try and fail! What’s the worst that could happen? Fall? Tough luck. It won’t hurt me. You just have to get back up after a fall, right? In this activity however, this saying couldn’t be truer…literally.

UP NEXT: Skiing? Skating? Wall climbing? Ahh! Let me know what I should try next. Think activity and sports this time :)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Out of the Box 5: Maria Tries Sensory Deprivation Tank (as seen on Stranger Things)

Photo Credit: Pop Sci 
If you’re up-to-date with pop-culture, you’ve probably seen the TV show Stranger Things and that episode where Eleven was subjected to a sensory deprivation tank. Joe Rogan is trying it, all the hippies are trying it, and now I’ve tried it too! It’s my duty to now report back to you!

Sensory deprivation tank (also known as isolation tank or float tank) was initially invented to promote deep-meditative state, out-of-body experience, and a pain-relief treatment. These tanks contain about 280 gallons of water and 1000 pounds of Epsom Salt. In other words, the water is super dense—as in, 5x denser than the famous Dead Sea! This floatation tank is lightless and soundproof with the goal to shut-off all five senses as a form to meditate, relax, and have an out of body experience.

Back in 1954, John C. Lilly examined the effects of sensory deprivation. He wanted to figure out how to separate the body from the senses (refer to his book, “the deep self"). This study was later revisited by scientists who later renamed sensory deprivation therapy to Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST). Today, the two most colloquial REST methods are Chamber REST and Flotation REST. Both process involve sensory deprivation shutting all five senses; except, those in Chamber Rest lies in a bed, whereas those in Flotation REST lies in a buoyant liquid. For this experience, I chose Flotation REST for a slightly more pizazz experience.

In 2001, scientists investigated whether REST therapy will alleviate muscle tension to those experiencing chronic pain. They enlisted 37 subjects who were suffering from chronic pain, who were then randomly assigned to a control (n=17) or an experimental group (n=20). Those in the experimental group received 9 opportunities to use the flotation-REST techniques over a 3-week period. They found that the most severe perceived pain was drastically reduced, whereas low perceived pain was not impacted at all by floating. Ultimately, they found that such therapy can impact chronic pain suffers temporary pain relief (Kjellgren et al., 2001).  

A more recent study explored the long-term effects of the flotation-REST 4 months after the treatment. They recruited 70 participants (N=70; 54 women and 16 men) who were diagnosed with stress-related pain. Subjects were randomly assigned to either a control group or a flotation-REST group. Those in the floatation-REST group found a decrease in stress, anxiety, depression, and pain. Conversely, there was an increase found in quality of sleep, optimism, and prolactin (a hormone that plays a vital role in sleep). Despite the overall positive outcomes of this study, researchers called out a few limitations in this study. First, they didn’t follow-up with the control group due to financial constraints. Additionally, the small number of prolactin measurement isn’t sufficient (Bood et al., 2016)

Similar to my other conquests, sensory deprivation tank is still considered an alternative medicine. However, unlike the other pseudoscience-like trend that I’ve tried, floatation therapy appeals to me on a meditation standpoint. Think about it, we’re constantly glued to our phones and busy navigating our day-to-day life, when’s the last time that you’ve seriously and consciously shut-off from these distractions? Personally, I can’t recall. I’m hoping to find myself in this process and get in-touch with my subconscious. I’m a very anxiety-driven person and I overthink all the minute details of life. I wanted to subject myself where I’m forced to not think and embrace the silence, and distractions of life.

What to Expect

Floatation at Apotheosis. Photo credit: Apotheosis
Usually, float tanks are chambers where it’s a lot more confined, coffin-like, pitch black darkness with water filled-with epsom salt. The place I went to in Monticello, MN (don’t ask, it was a drunk Groupon purchase, so I traveled for an hour… lol).... =P

Their float room is 8 feet long and 5 feet wide. It features overhead lighting and underwater lighting (which most people turn off; but if you’re afraid, you can leave it on). The water is also skin temperature, so you don’t feel the water, it will feel like you’re simply floating in a near zero gravity environment.

Before you get in the float tank, you’ll have to take a quick shower to remove oils, makeup, and dirt from your body. You’ll do this before and after your session. Once you’re finished showering, you can start your session. Your spa should give you 6 minutes of prep time before they start your session. During that 6 minutes, lights will be on and you can get ready. Once the 6-minutes is up, lights will close and your clock will start. You can wear your swimsuit or your birthday suit, it really doesn’t matter.

In this float room, I decided to float facing the door since it’s a lot narrower that way. I like being coccooned in the corner and bumping in the edges once in a while. Floating in sensory deprivation tank is not the same as floating in a pool. Floating in a pool requires conscious paddling and effort whereas, floating tanks allows you to flow naturally due to the 800-1000 pounds of epsom salt.

The Main Experience

Lights off. Ear plugs in. It’s pitch black. My body naturally floated. It made me anxious for a solid 10-minutes. I was definitely overthinking too much. I was fascinated how I’m actually floating without trying. I tried forcing my weight down but I just keep going back up! It was entertaining, I thought. But I really have to get serious. I took a long and deep breath and attempted not to think.

My arms supported my neck as I float. I was flooded with worry or questions. I was thinking about why I’m doing this. When should I let go of thinking? Will I actually feel tired after 60 minutes? After 5 minutes of excessive worrying, my mind switched to talking to myself. (lol). Logically, I thought, hey, it’s too quiet. Let’s talk. So I tried just talking about my life and what I want and essentially, I figured I should stop talking or thinking for that matter. (If you know me, I’m a chatterbox so quietness intimidates me a little).

It's not until 20-minues of floating (I’m guessing) since I was finally able to let go. All of a sudden, the natural movement of my body no longer bugged me. I forced myself not to open my eyes, and not think. Many equate their floating experience analogous to being in your mother’s womb. Except this time, you’re an adult and have consciousness. You can think of floating as a vacation for your thoughts. Your body will float ever so naturally. As you lay in absolute tranquility, and your muscles/joints/overall body at ease.Essentially, you won’t think about anything. You’ll sleep while floating even. For the first time, your entire body will be completely rested and at ease.


Apotheosis located in Monticello, MN
There were times during my 60-minute float where I was overthinking about how much time I have left. At one point, I thought, shit, I have to do this for 60 minutes?! Once you get into floating however, the time will go by relatively quickly. The blue light will turn back on to signal that your session is over. Since your body is not used to floating—sitting, standing, and opening your eyes will take a while to readjust from the pitch black darkness and weightlessness. Veterans of floating claimed hallucinations or psychedelic like experience. I’ve never really done psychedelic drugs in my life but I could see how veterans of floating experiences this. I’d say, I’ve experience mild-form of out-of-body experience. To me, floating is such an eye-opening experience. It allowed me to let go of all my problems, worries about life, and just…let go. Shutting-off from the world for an hour without seeing or hearing anything sounds terrifying. Though in reality, it’s rejuvenating. After my post-float shower, you walk into this meditation room where you can sit for a while and reflect. I took advantage of that to soak every moment of my post-float high experience.

The Verdict

HIGHLY RECOMMEND. I genuinely have never felt so clear-minded in my life. After I got out of the tank, I was shocked. I was so elated and full of joy. It’s partially due to “I can’t believe I just did that” and also, I’ve never had a chance to reflect/meditate to that extreme. Floating usually cost about $70/60-minute session. But you can get it for cheap (as low as $49) on Groupon for Minneapolis ; (Float with Apotheosis here). I CANNOT wait to go back and do it again. I’m hoping that for my next session, I will be able to relax a lot quicker. It takes a while to adjust, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. I legitimately had the best sleep that night and clearest mind the next morning. I am not endorsing floating as an alternative medicine with the hope of curing whatever ailment you have. I am endorsing it as a mental break from the busy world. Our problems and stresses is mostly mental, but that’s usually the hardest part. It’s worth every dime in my opinion. So if you’re currently stress and need a vacation ASAP but only have $50, this is what you need! I recommend it for everyone! Majority of floaters claims that it’s best to float at night vs day (I floated at night). It definitely calms you down and gets you ready for some good night’s sleep! DO IT!!!!! J