When sleep becomes a person’s worst nightmare!

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 19.39.49At the end of a long, hard day, many of us relish the comfort of our beds. We snuggle under the covers and with a satisfying sigh, welcome the sweet onset of sleep. But for some people, sleep is not such a pleasant experience. Here’s three conditions likely to turn sleep into someone’s worst nightmare:

1) Sleep paralysis

Waking up and not being able to move or speak is a terrifying prospect. But for some people, this nightmare can actually be a reality. People who suffer from sleep paralysis may experience periods, either as they wake up or when they are falling asleep, when they feel conscious but are unable to move a muscle, sometimes for up to a few minutes. During this time, the individual may also experience a crushing sensation in their chest or disturbing hallucinations.

Despite being described in various ways throughout history, the term “sleep paralysis” was first coined in 1928 and is believed to be caused by a disturbance in a person’s normal sleep pattern. Briefly, our sleep occurs in approximately 90 minute cycles consisting of two stages: the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) stage, which makes up about 75–80% of our sleep, and the REM stage. It is while we are in REM sleep that we experience our most vivid dreams. During this sleep-stage, our brain also sends signals to our muscles inhibiting movement. People with sleep paralysis tend to wake during REM sleep, therefore finding they cannot move or speak as their muscles are still paralysed. As a consequence, this disorder is often associated with risk factors that affect one’s sleep (e.g. stress and narcolepsy) and treatment tends to focus on addressing the related conditions.

2) REM behaviour disorder

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 19.39.57In contrast to sleep paralysis, REM behaviour disorder is characterised a by a lack of muscle inhibition while a person is in the REM stage of sleep. Consequently, people with REM behaviour disorder tend to act out their dreams physically and verbally (e.g. kicking out, screaming, etc.). This can be both distressing and potentially dangerous to themselves and any poor souls sharing a bed with them. In fact, 35–65% of people with this condition report having caused injury to themselves or their bed partner. As one may expect, diagnosis of REM behaviour disorder often follows as a result of such injuries.

REM behaviour disorder usually occurs in people over 50 years old, and may be a risk factor of disorders associated with neurological decline (e.g. Parkinson’s disease). At present, treatments for the condition focus on symptom control using medication (e.g. clonazepam) and ensuring one’s sleep environment is safe.

3) Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious, and highly distressing, condition where someone will intermittently stop breathing repeatedly while they sleep. This is often accompanied by heavy snoring and disrupted sleep resulting in excessive daytime tiredness. There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea which, as the name suggests, occurs when a person’s airway becomes blocked due to the muscles and soft tissue collapsing during sleep; and central sleep apnea, a rare form of the condition, where the brain fails to signal to the muscles telling them to breathe. If left untreated, both forms of sleep apnea can lead to serious medical conditions, such as high blood pressure (hypertension), low oxygen blood levels (hypoxemia) and stroke.

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 19.40.11Diagnosis of sleep apnea is primarily based on measuring the number of times a person stops breathing per hour (≥15 or ≥5 in combination with other symptoms e.g. excessive daytime tiredness) while they sleep. Doctors will also look for the presence of risk factors, such as obesity and high blood pressure, as indicators of the condition. Sleep apnea is usually a lifelong condition but can be managed in a number of ways from making lifestyle changes (e.g. losing weight or sleep on one’s side) to using a therapy called continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), a mask linked to a ventilator which applies mild air pressure to keep the airways open.

Despite the obvious differences between these three conditions, sleep paralysis, REM behaviour disorder and sleep apnea all have one thing in common – they make going to sleep distressing, and sometimes harmful, for those living with them. So don’t take for granted a good night’s rest; for people with these sleep disorders, sleep may be a nightmare waiting to happen.

Post by: Megan Barrett

Rock pooling isn’t just for children!

First year Marine Biology students exploring the rock pools. Photo by Jack Davis
First year Marine Biology students exploring the rock pools. Photo by Jack Davis

Just recently, my University course took a trip down to Plymouth, during which we went down to a rocky shore covered with rock pools. Now, on a field trip at University level, you would probably expect some complex sampling, evaluation and weird but wonderful science experiments to take place. Amazingly, however, our assignment was simply to look into the pools.

As someone did joke, that is something toddlers do when they are on their summer holidays. But the lecturers did have a point with this apparently simple exercise: rock pools are not as basic as they might first seem.

The variety of life found in these isolated little lagoons was astounding. In a pool of water measuring just 1 square foot, you could find animals and organisms from so many different phyla: crustaceans, Macro algae, polychaetes, echinoderms, molluscs, bryozoans, hydrozoans. Such a diverse cross-section of life in such a relatively tiny home, and each organism with its own stories to tell and secrets to keep.

The Wordly and the Wary
Now, if there was ever an old man with a tale to tell it would be the chiton. The one we managed to find was only 2cm long and crawled around showing off its species’ distinctive body armour-plated back, which made it look almost like a cross between a woodlouse and a limpet. Incredibly, the chiton species evolved over 400 million years ago (in comparison, humans only just came along around 250,000 years ago). For me, that is an incredible thought. This species has seen so much and lived through so much, whilst it’s unlikely that the human race will survive for that long itself.

Next we come to the crabs, probably the best-known of the rock pool dwellers. Fast in their movements and partial to hiding beneath seaweed, they can evade rock-pooling beginners. However, in just one trip, we uncovered members of 3 different species: a velvet swimmer crab (Liocarcinus depurator), an edible crab (Cancer pagurus) and a common shore crab (Carcinus maenas). All display the same stereotypical crab shape, but each has its own variations. Edible crabs have blac-tipped claws and, like the name suggests, the velvet swimmer crab’s back feels velvety if you are lucky enough to get close. Of the three crabs this one is the most aggressive, so watch out for the claws!

Balanus sp. Photo by Xanthe Ginty

The Well-Endowed Barnacle
Barnacles covered the area we explored and, whilst they usually close their shells when isolated in rock pools, we were lucky enough to find a couple actively feeding. It’s a strange sight to see – the barnacles open their shells and stick their ‘feet’ out (yes, they technically lie on their backs with their legs in the air) which look like tiny rakes that fan through the water before being pulled back inside again.

Speaking of probing protuberances, I’m very sorry, gentlemen, but prepare to feel emasculated. If a barnacle grew to the size of a human then its penis would be over 20m long! Very impressive but also a clever adaptation. Barnacles are sessile organisms (meaning they don’t move) so a male’s large penis allows him to reach females that might not be right next to him.

Actinia sp. Photo by Xanthe Ginty

Tentacles and Terrors
Moving on, we also found in our rock pool a number of alien-like anemones, tentacles ready and waiting for something to float by to pull in and eat. The most common anemone we found was the usually red, occasionally green, beadlet anemone (Actinia equine). It’s simple to distinguish beadlet anemones from other species – just stick your finger in (gently, so as not to hurt them)! Dangle your fingers amongst their tentacles and you’ll feel them trying to pull you in. You might even feel a slight painless tingle as they try to sting you  However, once they realise you’re too big, they will close up to hide away. It’s this closing up that reveals their identity, as other species can’t draw completely into themselves.

Finally, we came across a ferocious predator – the dog whelk (Nucella lapillus). This mollusc hunts related species and drills a hole in the shell of its prey before injecting digestive enzymes. Trapped by its own shell, the prey is completely helpless as the enzymes break it down whilst it’s still alive. Once it’s reduced to a soup of body parts, the dog whelk sucks out the juices, leaving behind the coffin of its victim.

These were just a few of the different species we found on our trip to Plymouth. Our lecturers were right though, spending time just looking in rock pools can really teach you a lot. You don’t need to be an expert to enjoy rock pooling and you certainly don’t need to be an expert to identify things. A sea shore identification guide will cover the basics.

So, next time you’re heading down to a beach in England, look out for that rock pool and go exploring in a whole different world. Don’t overlook the small white barnacles clinging to the rock, keep a careful eye open for what treats you may find hidden in the cracks, and don’t forget to play with the anemones. Even 30-year-old marine biologist lecturers can’t resist that temptation!

Post by: Jennifer Rasal


The theory of feeling good

Psychology, especially in the context of health care, is usually associated with treatments for mental illness and attempts at relieving misery and suffering. There is, however, an area of psychology that looks beyond what goes wrong in human mind, instead focusing on understanding and enhancing good things such as happiness and positive emotions. You might ask: why would anybody concern themselves with studying something that stems naturally from good fortune and achievements? Well, some research suggests that it is the other way round: that happiness itself can lead to blessings such as good relationships and financial security (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005)

Enjoying time with others can lead to valued relationships. Image courtesy of panuruangjan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Enjoying time with others can lead to valued relationships. Image courtesy of panuruangjan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One theory which attempts to explain the link between happiness and good fortune is the ‘broaden –and –build’ theory of positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2001). According to this stance, feelings of joy, pride, contentment, love and interest help us build long-term resources such as health and job satisfaction by broadening of our thoughts and actions. You might have noticed that stressful situations focus your thoughts on the immediate problem. On the other hand, joy is often associated with playfulness and creativity, interest and exploration, contentment, pride, dreaming about future success, playing, exploring and savouring experiences with those close to you. Further, curiosity can become expertise, whilst affection and enjoying time with others might turn into valued friendships. These resources can increase our resilience, helping us to deal with the difficulties of life.

Resilience can be thought of as the ability to find opportunities, adapt to limitations and recover from misfortune (Cohn et al., 2009). According to some research, this skill of living through changing circumstances is an important link that connects positive emotions and life satisfaction. In other words, joy, pride, gratitude and other good feelings might increase life satisfaction indirectly, through strengthened resilience. And remember that happiness or satisfaction do not equal the absence of negative feelings (Cohn et al., 2009). We can experience sadness or anger during one part of the day and joy or enthusiasm during another. For example, when a loved one dies, resilient people still experience positive emotions amidst their longing and grief (Bonanno et al., 2005). Evidence also suggests that the strengthening effect of good feelings on resilience is stronger than the weakening effect of negative emotions (Cohn et al., 2009). So we don’t have to avoid feeling bad; we just need to also feel good.

Happiness may increase activity and well-being. Image courtesy of nenetus at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Happiness may increase activity and well-being. Image courtesy of nenetus at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Not all studies conclude that the link between positive emotions, resilience and happiness is definitely causal. Some researchers found that when they asked participants to write down their feelings at different points in time, they could see a correlation between positive emotions and resilience. This approach raises the question of causality. However, another study showed that people can influence their own wellbeing by practicing certain approaches to life. For example, after ten weeks of counting their blessings participants slept better, exercised more and felt physically better (Emmons and McCullough, 2003). This suggests that experiencing positive emotions such as gratitude can actually improve wellbeing. It remains to be seen, however,  whether these effects apply to people with mental illness, e.g. depression, those with extremely high negative emotions or extremely low positive emotions, or those affected by a long-term, intensely stressful events (Cohn et al., 2009).

Post by: Jadwiga Nazimek


Bonanno, G. A., J. T. Moskowitz, A. Papa, and S. Folkman, 2005, Resilience to loss in bereaved spouses, bereaved parents, and bereaved gay men: J Pers Soc Psychol, v. 88, p. 827-43.

Cohn, M. A., B. L. Fredrickson, S. L. Brown, J. A. Mikels, and A. M. Conway, 2009, Happiness unpacked: positive emotions increase life satisfaction by building resilience: Emotion, v. 9, p. 361-8.

Emmons, R. A., and M. E. McCullough, 2003, Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life: J Pers Soc Psychol, v. 84, p. 377-89.

Fredrickson, B. L., 2001, The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions: Am Psychol, v. 56, p. 218-26.

Lyubomirsky, S., L. King, and E. Diener, 2005, The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success?: Psychol Bull, v. 131, p. 803-55.

Prepare for the winter home invasion.

As the weather gets colder and the nights draw in it’s not just you and I who like to spend our days snuggled up inside, a whole host of mini-beasts are also clambering to join us in the warmth. So, as a public service the Brain Bank wants to introduce you to some of these unwanted winter lodgers and provide a few tips for evicting them.


8007321219_a02962338f_zArachnophobes beware because autumn is prime breeding season for spiders and you are more than likely to see a number of hopeful young males patrolling your home in search of a suitable mate. But, if playing host to arachnid speed dating isn’t scary enough, a number of residents from the town of Macclesfield have reported finding spiders the size of mice joining in the dating game. These giant house spiders thrived during our disappointingly wet summer and are now looking to reproduce. The average size of a giant house spider is three to four inches (measured diagonally from front to back leg) but residents are reporting much larger specimens. With dark hairy bodies, an impressive leg span and a bite akin to a bee sting (although luckily with fangs unable to penetrate human skin) these giant invaders are without doubt unwelcome guests. Experts suggest that the best way to deter spiders from entering your home is to be fastidious about your dusting. Male spiders find a mate by sampling the silk females spiders leave behind, so where there is no female silk there shouldn’t be any expectant males!

Other Insects:

To survive the freezing UK winters many insect species alter their biochemistry creating high levels of glycerol which lowers the freezing point of their blood – a bit like having their own internal antifreeze. However, despite these adaptations many will still seek out sheltered accommodation to weather the worst of the winter and can end up entering your home. Thankfully, most of your new winter lodgers will stay hidden away until spring. 6599552079_25c20b628d_zHowever, it is not uncommon for warm winter days and central heating to trick your guests into waking up. Insects use cues from their environment to know when to hibernate and when to wake, this can be length of day or temperature and indoor insects can be easily tricked by central heating. This means it’s not uncommon to find the occasional butterfly, moth or ladybird flitting around the house mid winter after being confused by central heating. The majority of wintering insects will remain safely tucked away under your radar. However, if you would rather deter their intrusion the best way is to create physical barriers, sealing up all entry points to your home and ensuring outside plants do not sit too close to your walls. Also be aware that your Christmas tree may be home to a whole array of dormant critters (especially ladybirds) so you may get more than you bargained for when you bring it inside.

Mice and rats:

8365895042_95f8ec379d_zAs the weather gets colder and food sources dwindle mice and rats are more likely to enter our homes in search of sustenance and shelter. These cheeky invaders are happy to make their nests in attics, cellars or under kitchen cabinets emerging at night to nibble on whatever delicacy has been left unprotected. Many also use the warmth and abundant food to continue breeding throughout the winter (Note that a female mouse can have a new litter of 6-8 babies every 3/4 weeks!). The best way to deter these unwanted pests is to secure your home, make sure there are no gaps around doors or in the walls of your house (remember mice and young rats can squeeze themselves through very small spaces). Experts suggest that you plug up existing holes with wire wool – mice and rats can chew through most barriers but are deterred by the texture of this. Also, make sure any food in your kitchen is stored out of reach and in chew proof containers (a loaf of bread in a ground level cupboard is practically an open invitation).

Post by: Sarah Fox