Wednesday, 29 April 2009


Woke up on Monday with an extremely itchy ankle. By Tuesday it was hugely swollen and bright red and sore, with a little white scab on top. Del badgered me until I went to the doctor today, even though they are always dismissive and only ever tell me nothing's really wrong. Or if it is, they can't fix it. Anyway, the lady at the front desk wanted to give me a Friday appointment, but agreed to let me hang out in the waiting room, be seen by a nurse and maybe sent to a doctor if it was urgent.

So the nurse came along, took one look and went "WHOA! It's a good thing you came in when you did - that thing would be halfway up your leg by Friday!" eek! Anyway, so she sent me straight in to the doctor, who was lovely, and now I have an oral antibiotic and an antibiotic cream, so hopefully my leg won't fall off. Oh, and a talking-to from the nurse about going in to check if I'm still allergic to penicillin, and getting a medic alert bracelet if I am.

In other news, I learned to make quiche from scratch this week! Very exciting. I need to stop making them soon because it is probably sending my cholesterol levels through the roof, but SO GOOD!

Thursday, 16 April 2009


I pruned my vineyard today.

Okay, let's be honest, ERIK pruned my two lines of grapevines. But it was still pretty cool.

Met the neighbour on the other side. Her name is Frankie. Hers is the small yappy dog I keep hearing. Her husband is bedbound and when they tried to take him to the hospital for his lungs, his heart stopped. Now his leg is falling off and one toe is entirely black and they are trying to decide where to amputate. He lost 150 pounds and now he weighs 120, but he can shuffle around the house.

Frankie also told me about the old Italian guy who used to own the house, which explains a LOT. Apparently the downstairs windows are covered with home-made booby tracks to electrocute burglars. Have to keep an eye out for that one...

The other neighbours are having a bonfire tonight, though, so must be off.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

neuroplasticity and addiction

I would like to take the opportunity to say a big huge THANK YOU to my parents for the great job they did of not screwing me up. Seriously. The more I learn about this whole turning genes on and off business (which is referred to as epigenetics, apparently) the more I realize how lucky I am.

Which is to say that I saw a very good talk tonight by Dr. Gabor Maté called The Four Compassions: A humane response to addictions. Lisa, if you haven't heard this guy you should make an effort to check him out. This stuff is right up your alley.

It was a perfect counterpoint to the talk by Bryan Kolb last week. Dr. Kolb was talking about animal models of attachment and stress responses in the context of brain neuroplasticity. Dr. Maté was effectively talking about the exact same thing, except he's talking about the examples he sees every day on the street. He works in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver at the Portland Hotel, working with people with mental health and addiction issues. He took great pains to point out this sort of research that has been done - he cited a study I hadn't heard about. It was an ERP study on six-month-old human infants. He said that they could tell from looking at the pattern of the EEG which babies had depressed mothers. Good lord. It makes perfect sense that this kind of thing would have an effect on infants, but I don't think I ever realized the huge amount of brain plasticity involved. The effects of stress and depression (parental or the child's) can have enormous consequences later in life.

Anyway, Dr. Maté's point was that if you take that into consideration, there is no choice BUT to respond compassionately to addiction. They're not doing it because they're bad people, and they're certainly not doing it just to annoy us. They're doing it because their brains have been changed by (often horrible) childhood experiences, and they are using the drugs to medicate the pain. Criminalizing addiction won't do anything. Of course I've been reading a ton about this stuff from the brain/cognitive side myself, and Dr. Kent Berridge has a theory that addiction represents a dissociation of liking and wanting. Addicts don't like the drugs - they cause nothing but problems. But their brain wants them, and that is a primal kind of craving that is difficult or impossible to resist.

(As a sidenote, I have been thinking about starting a wee side blog where I take the pretty fascinating finds I read about all day and translate them into language a person without a lot of very specific education would understand and sort of write them up that way. I think it would be good for me, plus it's pretty crazy interesting stuff, but hard to get into without access to the databases).

Anyway, this was a very timely lecture for me to hear. Sooner or later I will probably end up working with substance-dependent people at the local treatment facility for my PhD, and it is a bit scary. Let's face it, my main interactions with addicts so far have been scary people shouting at me on the street or demanding money. A whole lecture on "judge not lest ye be judged" was just what I needed.

The lecture, by the way, was at St. George's*. It was billed as "St. George's gift to the city of Guelph". Good on them for getting a speaker addressing this topic, I say.

Besides the drug addiction stuff, my supervisor has asked me to apply for a studentship to do with problem gambling. These things are a huge pain to apply for - letters of reference, research proposal, letter from the university, transcripts, etc etc etc. But if I did get it, that would be amazing, so I guess it's worth a try. There sure isn't much literature out there about problem gambling, either.

In other news, I finally ran out of homemade laundry detergent and had to make a new batch. This time I melted the soap in 6 cups of water and added 9 litres of water after the washing soda and Borax, and stirred it a heck of a lot more while making it and as it was cooling. And it came out so much better! No more clumpiness, this is nice homogenous slime. I added a bit more washing soda (one cup) too, since Guelph's water is so stupidly hard. Have also been busy becoming very well-acquainted with vinegar's hard water deposit-removal properties. Anyway, I think I will declare the experiment a resounding success and not go back to store-bought detergent. This is cheaper and way more fun. Enough said.

Not much else new. Went to church on Easter, which was nice and I was very pleased when we sang the "Christ the Lord is risen today, A-a-alleluia" hymn. But after that it sucked. It was hard not to think of last Easter, in which I got to wander around Britain (and a bit of Ireland) with my family, packed into a tiny car with Lisa in the boot and dad at the wheel, tearing through roundabouts. Man, now THAT was fun. We were going to have a little planting party and plant our peas, but everyone involved either got sick at the last minute or couldn't tear themselves away from schoolwork. We had planned a potluck so I made cabbage rolls, but then only Katie the Newfie and her boyfriend (who was lovely) turned up. And neither of them really eats meat. Sorta disappointing. On the plus side, freezer is now packed with cabbage rolls...

* If you go to the St. George's site, do the virtual Easter egg hunt! It is pretty cool and they have some amazing stained glass windows.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

up and down, up and down

Today I get to learn how to make a wiki to manage a project. Our postdoc made one to write a grant, and I was pretty impressed with it. Everyone can contribute drafts, and you can see the old version too if you're so inclined. I've been told to write a review article on attentional effects in substance dependence with a colleague, and am nerdily excited about this new (to me) use of technology to collaborate. Grad school is fun!

I actually had a really good meeting with my supervisor yesterday that was quite motivating. He cleared up some of the mysteries (like "what exactly am I expected to know by the end of this?") and put forth a pretty good argument for having me switch into the new PSYC + NEURO designation they've just come up with. It's a collaborative program between a whole bunch of faculties and would basically make this into a full-on proper neuroscience degree, as far as I can tell. It will also involve a class that I will probably find pretty challenging given my background (hint: lacks biochemistry), but I think it will be worth it.

He also explicitly said that he's planning to ensure I learn management skills. This appears to translate into Convincing Undergraduate RAs That They Would LOVE To Run My Subjects For Free, so that sounds good to me.

On the minus side, I've been constantly tired for the last week and seem to be fighting something off. I have a bit of a cold, but lately I've been totally wiped and ready for bed by about 3pm. Mysterious. Trying to get sleep, drink fluids and be as supportive as I can to my poor embattled immune system...

Of course I did NOT do this last weekend, when I saw the Weakerthans (finally!!!) and also a great opening act called Bahamas. I was actually motivated to buy this guy's CD, despite the fact that I'm broke. Mark my words, this guy will be worth listening to... I went to the gig by myself, which I hate, but afterwards the neighbours invited me out, so that stopped me from completely feeling like a friendless loser. Er, but possibly contributed a smidgen to any germs I was incubating, as we stayed up till 3am drawing pictures with mustard on the arms of passed-out people.

Monday, 6 April 2009

stupid weather

Gah! SNOW?! I was supposed to be safe from this! The garden committee was going to plant yesterday - thank heavens we didn't (it was determined that the soil was too wet) (and now it's under two inches of snow). The garden committee, by the way, consists of four other people who are going to help me sort out my garden - "help" as in do most of it and tell me how to do the rest. We are going to split seeds and supplies five ways and share the harvest. I am so excited that we can grow tomatoes, peppers (!), and even things like okra and watermelon outside. Two of the committee are currently doing their masters in asparagus, so I'm pleased someone knowledgeable is in charge.

Today is Neuroscience Day at Guelph, and I have to present my poster. Blahhhhh. However, the keynote speaker is Bryan Kolb of undergraduate neuro textbook fame, so I am looking forward to that.