Your Winter Brain

Is there seasonality in our brain responses? Is your winter brain any different from your summer brain?

At least one study suggests that our brain function goes through seasonal cycles. Seasons just might have an effect on cognitive brain function.

The volunteers spent four and a half days in a laboratory “devoid of seasonal cues.” Then they did brain scans as they performed cognitive tasks, one measuring sustained attention, and another executive function. The researchers were looking to see if the season in which the fMRI scan took place was correlated with brain activity during the tasks.

There were some significant correlations and across several brain areas neural activity followed a seasonal cycle.

I'm sure that you "feel" different in different seasons, but do you notice any difference if you cognitive performance?

I had a professor years ago that said that no great research comes from places where it is always summer. He was half, but only half, joking.

The study's abstract:
Daily variations in the environment have shaped life on Earth, with circadian cycles identified in most living organisms. Likewise, seasons correspond to annual environmental fluctuations to which organisms have adapted. However, little is known about seasonal variations in human brain physiology. We investigated annual rhythms of brain activity in a cross-sectional study of healthy young participants. They were maintained in an environment free of seasonal cues for 4.5 d, after which brain responses were assessed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they performed two different cognitive tasks. Brain responses to both tasks varied significantly across seasons, but the phase of these annual rhythms was strikingly different, speaking for a complex impact of season on human brain function. For the sustained attention task, the maximum and minimum responses were located around summer and winter solstices, respectively, whereas for the working memory task, maximum and minimum responses were observed around autumn and spring equinoxes. These findings reveal previously unappreciated process-specific seasonality in human cognitive brain function that could contribute to intraindividual cognitive changes at specific times of year and changes in affective control in vulnerable populations. 

I wasn't able to find which season showed the best performance. And the seasons did not hinder the participants’ overall performances. But the surprise was that the brain activity mapping suggests that different areas of the brain activate based on the season.

More research needs to be done, and there are skeptics about these early finding. Up next for the researchers is to understand how biochemical changes and specific seasonal cues, such as temperature, humidity, and the length of the day also have an impact on brain activity.

I think this post would have been better if I hadn't written it during winter.

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