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Did Head Injuries Cause Henry VIII’s Bad Behavior?

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British School via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Head injuries are a pretty big deal at the moment. Between the lawsuits brought by ex-players against the NFL and the piles of research exposing the long-term consequences of concussions, it’s hard to ignore the dangers inherent in contact sports. We know now that repeated traumatic brain injuries (TBI) can lead to aggression, mood swings, depression, headaches, and amnesia—conditions that just happen to have plagued Henry VIII. A team of neurologists outline the evidence in a forthcoming paper in the journal Clinical Neuroscience. Mental_floss received a copy of the paper in advance of its publication.

From all accounts, as a young man, Henry was a pretty happy dude, and a pleasure to be around. By 1536, he was decidedly … not. The King Henry VIII we think of today was a bloodthirsty tyrant, impulsive, unpredictable, and murderous—the kind of man who would send two of his six wives to the executioner. So what happened?

This isn't the first time researchers have proposed a medical explanation for the king's dramatic transformation. Cushing syndrome, syphilis, hypothyroidism, diabetes, and McLeod syndrome with infertility and psychosis have all been suggested as the cause. 

But a trio of behavioral neurologists from the Yale School of Medicine have a different diagnosis. They read every journal article they could find on Henry, several biographies, and the king’s own collected letters and papers. (One of the great things about researching royalty is that we have a record of pretty much everything they’ve ever said, done, or eaten.)

Historians generally agree that Henry sustained at least three serious blows to the head. In 1524, the lance of Henry’s jousting opponent pierced the king’s visor and splintered against his face. The king fell off his horse, recovered, got back on, and went back to jousting. Just one year later, while out hunting, the king decided he would pole-vault over a hedge, like you do. But the pole broke, and Henry fell into a ditch full of water. He was too out of it to stand, and had to be dragged out by his feet. But the most severe blow came in 1536, during another jousting match. Henry was unhorsed. He fell to the ground, and his horse fell on top of him. The king was out cold for two hours.

That same year, Henry’s reign of terror commenced. His unpredictable, inexplicable explosions made him the terror of his own court, for he was just as likely to order the execution of a friend as he was a foe. His behavior was erratic and violent, and he often flew into rages for reasons that were unclear to those around him. He became impulsive—and if you need more evidence of that, just look at his six marriages and two dispatched queens. 

Henry started suffering bouts of bizarre amnesia, which led to dangerous contradictions in his commands. As the city of Boulogne was under siege, Henry reportedly demanded on paper that the city be protected, while saying aloud he wanted it to be demolished. In 1546, the king assured his sixth wife Catherine Parr that he would protect her, forgetting that the day before he had ordered his guards to take her to the Tower of London.

The king was also subject to migraine headaches and deep depressions, as well as a number of seeming endocrinological problems that could have been triggered by TBI. His rages, his erratic behavior, even his impotence later in life—there may be a simple explanation for it all, lead author Arash Salardini said in a press release: “It is intriguing to think that modern European history may have changed forever because of a blow to the head.” 

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Anesthesia May Not Work the Way We Thought It Did
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You lie back, and a nurse fits a mask over your face. Somebody tells you to count backward from 100. Your eyelids grow heavy. The next thing you know, you’re waking up. We thought we knew why this happens, but new research published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology suggests we may have had it wrong.

The brains of people on general anesthesia are far quieter than those of folks who haven’t been drugged. Previous studies have suggested that this quieting happens when anesthesia interferes with conversations, or couplings, between different parts of our brain. Less information is exchanged, and the volume of the conversation drops.

It seemed like a solid enough explanation. But a team of German neuroscientists saw a possible flaw in the logic. The amount of information being exchanged often depends on the amount of information available, not on the strength of the connection.

To explore this puzzle further, they brought two female ferrets into the lab and hooked them up to brain activity monitors. (Ferret brains’ similarity to primates’ makes them a good lab substitute for humans, at least in initial studies.)

Both ferrets went through three rounds of anesthesia and recovery, receiving slightly more of the drug each time as the scientists watched their brains produce, process, and exchange information.

As in previous studies, the conversations in the ferrets’ brains were indeed more subdued while they were anesthetized. But it wasn’t interference that quieted their brains. The brain regions that ordinarily do the listening were just as active as usual. But the talkative brain regions seemed to have less to say. They were making and sending less information.

Lead author Patricia Wollstadt is a neuroscientist at the Brain Imaging Center at Goethe University Frankfurt. "The relevance of this alternative explanation goes beyond anesthesia research,” she said in a statement, "since each and every examination of neuronal information transfer should categorically take into consideration how much information is available locally and is therefore also transferable."

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Why Coloring and Doodling Make Us Feel Good
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Quit your judging and give in. You know you want a coloring book, and now researchers know why. They published their findings in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy.

Art therapy experts at Drexel University and The College of New Jersey wondered if there was a neurological basis for the relaxation-inducing powers of coloring, doodling, and drawing.

The best way to find out, they figured, would be to watch people’s brains as they tooled around on the page.

The researchers recruited 26 people, eight of whom self-identified as “artists.” They fitted each person with a special brain-imaging headband and gave them markers and paper. The participants then had three mini art sessions lasting three minutes: one each of doodling, coloring, and drawing whatever they felt like. Between sessions, they left the headbands on and rested their hands. Afterward, the researchers asked participants how they felt about each activity and about themselves.

As human experiments go, this one was pretty sweet for its participants, many of whom said the arts-and-crafts experiment made them feel like they had more good ideas and were better at solving problems afterward. But three minutes was not long enough, some said. They wanted more time.

Their brains seemed similarly into it. All three activities produced an increase in blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, a region that plays a central part in the brain’s reward system. During rest periods, blood flow slowed until it reached normal resting rates.

Some people did enjoy the process more than others. The self-described artists actually reported finding the coloring portion of the experiment kind of stressful.

"I think artists might have felt very constrained by the pre-drawn shapes and the limited choice of media," lead author Girija Kaimal said in a statement. "They might also have felt some frustration that they could not complete the image in the short time."

In general, though, Kaimal and her colleagues found that people enjoyed these basic low-pressure, creative tasks.

“Sometimes, we tend to be very critical of what we do because we have internalized, societal judgments of what is good or bad art and, therefore, who is skilled and who is not," she said. "We might be reducing or neglecting a simple potential source of rewards perceived by the brain. And this biological proof could potentially challenge some of our assumptions about ourselves."

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