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July 31, 2011

Taking A Brake: Making Driving Easier/Safer Through Neuroscience


It appears as though we're going back to the future, again, through the help of neuroscience. This time around, there is no time travel involved...just brain waves. A group of German researchers have recently used drivers' brain signals to assist in automated car braking, resulting in quicker reaction times and a potential solution to prevent thousands upon thousands of car accidents each year caused by human error.

The braking system is actually quite simple: through an EEG connected to the scalp and with modern traffic sensors equipped in most luxury cars today, the scientists could detect a driver's intention to break nearly 130 milliseconds faster than they would manually braking themselves. This 130-millisecond difference is phenomenal in that it nearly circumvents all the 'thinking' a human has to do to perform the same braking action.

Crunching Numbers: At 100 km/h, this means that the automated braking system would spare the average driver approximately 12 feet in space compared to manual breaking, which is just about the size of a standard compact vehicle. The twelve feet of distance gained by the driver could be the difference between a minor fender bender and a fatal car crash, or even no car accident at all.

But, this arising technology certainly isn't foolproof. For this reason, the scientists at Berlin Institute for Technology added a second component to their braking system: EMG. Instead of relying on brain signals for car braking, they also use human leg muscles for the same purpose. The scientists measure leg muscle tension associated with braking and are able to sense when a person is going to brake before their legs even reach the brake pedal. Thus, adding another safety dynamic to the overall automatic braking system.

Unfortunately, this technology is still new and undergoing initial testing. Most trials are conducted through simulations and computer programs and haven't been integrated into real working vehicles.

According to the lead author of the study: "We are now considering to test the system online in a real car however if such a technology would ever enter a commercial product, it would certainly be used to complement other assistive technology to avoid the consequences of false alarms that could be both annoying and dangerous." I think it is important to note that under no circumstances are the scientists trying to replace human function, they are only trying to strengthen and improve it.

The thought of automated braking and driving is actually kind of frightening. Where should we draw the line in terms of technology replacing what we do as humans? Are there any caveats that we simply can't predict with this automated driving technology?

As far as I'm concerned, I would love for this technology to gain funding and respect in the scientific community. But until we actually know what we're doing with it, I'd prefer for it to remain on computer simulations until I know I can trust my life or other people's lives with it.

Sources: http://iopscience.iop.org/1741-2552/8/5/056001/ (Full Text PDF Available on Website)
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Small, thin, and Silver; it will save your life


For years, controversy has raged throughout Medical Journals that explore key pivotal issues in cardiology. Stents are a 4 billion dollar a year business, as it should be, considering that it has saved the lives of millions of people. This piece of meshed metal that props open arteries has prevented and provides a greater chance of recovery for heart related issue.

With a lot of money at stake, medical technology companies continually push hard to develop new products. So when criticism is brought against them, it is natural to have some resistance and push hard against research suggesting that products do not work correctly, are overused, or whether we generally need it in the first place.

It is continually necessary for industry research to develop technologies and implement them into practice. Whether it is met with controversy needs to be seen. I don't believe that omitting information showing older technology is worse than newer technology, is a good thing, however there always needs to be a continual strive to do better. With published series of articles that compare drug eluting stents, such as those by Abbott and their Xience product, it has put them on the map and a current market leader.

However, despite major improvements in antiplatelet therapy, thrombotic events remain the primary cause of death after percutaneous coronary interventions. Sirolimus-eluting stents and polymer-based paclitaxel-eluting stents have been shown to reduce neointimal hyperplasia and risk of restenosis without increasing the risk of stent thrombosis. Operators are now using drug-eluting stents for a wide variety of clinical and anatomic situations, many of which have not been evaluated in randomized studies. With this increase use of Drug eluting stents (DES), it was initially praised as a great step forward and advancement. However, with a high number of stents being put in, benefits and disadvantages have been able to become clearer. These stents, as opposed to bare metal stents are able to deliver drugs when implanted into the arteries, hopefully reducing inflammatory responses.

However, many times, only negatives are brought forward and challenges are brought against the industry leaders. Doctors are always "practicing" medicine, so it takes time to determine whether a product works or not. There are always questions of whether some stent implantations are necessary, however there has to be a usage to determine whether the stents work or not.

Each year there are about 700,000 people in the United States will have a stent implanted either after they have a stroke or a heart attack. This will help one from happening again or relieve chest pain. These devices are medical breakthroughs, and whether doctors are implementing too many, is to be seen. I would never want something happening to someone when it could be avoided easily with this procedure. I don't think that we are paying too much as a society, but we will have to see what future experts have to say.

Sources:
http://www.dotmed.com/news/story/15635?p_begin=0

Incidence, Predictors, and Outcome of Thrombosis after Successful Implantation of Drug-Eluting Stent - American Medical Association
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Synthetic Telepathy: The Army's Bold Plan


Many controversies on the table for neuroscience look at the emerging role of neuroscience, and how it will fit into our futures. This article by time magazine, '''The Army's Bold Plan to Turn Soldiers Into Telepaths''' hones in on the idea that the ways in which neuroscience could impact us are ever growing. Although at first neuroscience seems to find general roles in our emerging everyday lives, soon it will also fill in very specific corners and responsibilities; such as being used in the Army as a means of increasing our variability of weapons.

The article starts by bringing attention to the fact that the concepts associated with the future of neuroscience are just that- very futuristic. Many of the ways in which neuroscience and its findings could be applied to everyday life are concepts that have been talked about for generation but seem to be 'too far out' to be realistic and plausible. The foundations of these roles also need to be reestablished. For instance, the article points out that at first one might think a mind reading individual would be going through ones thoughts collecting memories and associations, when in fact the mind reader can be collecting information which will help protect him or help him protect a fellow solider. This idea is coined by the article as part of a U.S. Army project which is building "thought "helmets' (1).

The basis of synthetic telepathy is relying on research which is currently looking into which regions of the brain are responsible for the various processes of storing and processing thoughts. The overall goal of the US Army project would be to build a helmet which would be embedded with such technologies that can scan a brain similar to in the large scale fashion which are used for the research to identify these regions. The technology that would be embedded into the helmet would be able to carry out such functions as to be able to "target specific brain waves, translate them into words, and transmit those words wirelessly to a radio speaker or an ear piece worn by other soldiers" (1).

The idea and basis for the thought helmets and synthetic telepathy originated from the science fiction book Skylark of Space, a 1946 classic which was read by Elmar Schmeisser. The concepts and potential that neuroscience hold have been around forever, it is now taking the courage f individuals to speak up and realize that these ideas are plausible which is moving neuroscience both in a forward and controversial direction. Schmeisser began to progress with his idea of the thought helmet after a 2006 lecture when he realized the up and coming world of recording individual neurons and extracting signals from the surface of the brain. Although at first the army thought it to be hallucination that such an idea could work, they asked for evidence of its proof and Schmeisser and others are most definitely delivering results. After research results and new findings in the field, Schmeisser had won over many individuals and organizations and began working more in depth on the thought helmet for the Army.

Ultimately Schmeisser wanted to produce answers to big neuroscience questions which would in turn allow future researchers to capture complicate thoughts and ideas (1). He realized though that the rudimentary though helmet, capable of discerning commands, would be a valuable achievement and a step in the right direction to continue to gain supporters and funding for such a project. This point in the article paves way to where most neuroscience controversies come from- the ideas they are based on are as ever growing as the field. Many of the applications of neuroscience to real life open doors for more and more complex application to be found, and therein lies why the topics become so controversial.

Schmeisser himself points out that in actuality little is known about how the brain really functions, more so just about all the players that are present, contributing or not. "This project is attempting to make the scientific breakthrough that will have application for many things. If we can get at the black box we call the brain with the reduced dimensionality of speech, then we will have made a beginning to solving fundamental challenges in understanding how the brain works- and, with that, of understanding individuality" (1).

(1) http://discovermagazine.com/2011/apr/15-armys-bold-plan-turn-soldiers-into-telepaths
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Are you a Night Owl?


I cannot count the number of nights I lie in bed unable to fall asleep because I am too stressed about an exam, but I am too tired to study. Last year, I could not get through the day with at least a couple cups of coffee and Red Bull. I always knew this was far from healthy, but recent studies have found just how detrimental this behavior is on the physical and mental health of the college population.

Over one thousand students from an urban Midwestern university were surveyed about their sleep habits using roughly eight different scales [1]. The results proved that more than 60% of college students are technically poor-quality sleepers. This is not a surprise, for caffeine is like oxygen for some of us. The implications? Students classified as poor-quality sleepers reported considerably more problems with physical and psychological health than did good-quality sleepers.

Some students are lucky enough to have a consistent schedule over the week, but delayed bedtimes and risetimes during the weekends take its toll on one's circadian rhythm. Furthermore, sleep is negatively impacted by the overwhelming amount of emotional and academic stress that smothers college students on the regular. Frequent use of prescription, over the counter, and recreational psychoactive drugs to alter sleep/wakefulness are usually the answer, but are by no means a cure.

Interestingly, multiple tests reveal that tension and stress accounted for 24% of the variance in the PSQI score, whereas alcohol, exercise and caffeine consumption, and consistency of sleep schedule were not significant predictors of sleep quality. Thus, it is vital that students manage their stress levels if there is going to be any improvements in one's quality of sleep. The results of these studies suggest that intervention programs for sleep disturbance in the college population should be considered. But who has time for sleep therapy when we have our GPAs, bills, juggling work with class, and attempts of a social life to worry about?

I have never considered myself a morning person, and another study of almost seven thousand adolescents proved even more bad news for me. They surveyed two sample groups, one morning type and one evening-type. Evening-types are associated with later bedtime and wake-up time, especially on weekends, shorter time in bed during the week, and longer weekend time in bed. Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, the reality of this is that the outcome is characterized by daytime sleepiness, increased attention problems, reduced school achievement, more injuries, and increased emotional upset than the other chronotype. They referred also greater caffeine-containing beverages and substances to promote sleep consumption [2]. The good news to this is perhaps there is a chance for us night owls by making a constant effort to go to bed and wake up earlier. And as for the rest of college students that lie awake at night with thoughts racing through their minds, science has proved that stress management is your best solution.


[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20113918
[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12220314
Posted by      Rebecca R. at 9:37 PM MDT

Look Ma, No Hands


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to actually control something, using just the power of thought? Of course you have! The best thing is, scientists are putting this awesome Sci-Fi superpower to the test. With the help of neroscientist Christof Koch of Caltech and neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried of UCLA one can start controlling a computer based on harnessing the power of a certain neuron in the human brain.

This neuron functions similarly to how a computer functions allowing it to "recognize people, landmarks, and objects." These scientists have been working with persons diagnosed with epilepsy and with the help of Moran Cerf (a postdoctoral fellow) they have found that individuals have been able to "consciously control the firing of these single neurons...and in doing so manipulate the behavior of an image on a computer screen."

It is already amazing what the brain can do, but the truly remarkable thing is that there is so much more to it that we don't know. This is truly the beginning of the brain era where we will start to unravel and discover more than we ever have about the human race. Unlocking the secrets of our full potential is on the horizon as we dig deeper for an understanding of how our brain functions.

These scientists were able to find one neuron amongst billions, and this neuron can be controlled by the patient and turned into a controller for a computer. In around 70 percent of the trials the subjects were successful in separating two images on a screen by focusing on the target image and fading out the "distractor" image. This breakthrough is so fascinating it is almost to good to be true, but the study stands and the patients felt the task to be "incredibly fun as they started to feel that they control things in the environment purely with their thought."

So surely these types of studies should be continued in a lab setting so that it can be tweaked and perfected. The discovery of this neuron can be used for a greater purpose than the sole entertainment of bringing out our childhood fantasies of controlling things with our minds; but how could it not be one of the coolest things ever? Yes, it can be used to play a new type of videogame, but it can also be expanded and used as a built-in controller for any electronic devise that can be synced to your brain. One may no longer need the use of a keyboard as they write an article, just by thinking. They are not at all shocked to see their thoughts written out on the screen in front of them with no more of an effort than to will it.

Though this is just the baby stage of what can one day be a great and dependent part of everyday life the questions of the consequences are always lingering. What the brain fully has to offer once mixed with technology is still unknown. The fact of the matter is, are we ready for this great responsibility as a race?


http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101027133158.htm
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What Does a "Senior Moment" Really Imply?


How many of us have been wary of getting into a conversation with a senior citizen because it may take too long and we are in a hurry? When an older person can't remember a name or a specific event, how often does someone think that that person has Alzheimer's or dementia? Why is it that seniors do not get the benefit of the doubt that their brains may be working, just a little bit more slowly? It seems that our society needs to take into account that seniors? brains do experience a certain amount of decline, but that doesn?t mean that the person is losing their mind.

It is a well known fact that as people age they will have trouble remembering to some degree, but how much of that is normal aging and how much is Alzheimer's Disease. It is common to hear about sons and daughters getting frustrated with their older parents when they forget an appointment or a name. The children will have concerns that their parents are getting Alzheimer's. How much of that forgetfulness can be attributed simply to aging? The distinction between normal aging and dementia has always been fuzzy, until just recently.

Dementia, especially Alzheimer's Disease, has been the main focus of gerontological neuroscience for the purposes of diagnosis and treatment. Just recently, a new focus of neuroscience has been to look at what is normal aging for the brain. Through a battery of studies and tests, there seems to be some understanding of what happens to the brain during normal aging.

Long-term memory is one of the most well known types of age related cognitive decline. The left inferior prefrontal region shows less activity in seniors than in young adults during memory tasks. The activity level in this brain region could be increased with cues and "encoding strategies" (Park & Reuter-Lorenz, 2010). Another one of the main deficits that is associated with aging is a decrease in cognitive speed in memory retrieval. This has been shown to be associated with decreased axonal volume or white matter volume (Park & Reuter-Lorenz, 2010). The implications of the research on cognitive speed could be as simple as wait and give them time. There could one day even be a pharmacological treatment that combats the decrease in white matter volume.

There seems to be a simple way to combat some of the decline in the aging brain. Park and Reuter-Lorenz were able to find that "investments made earlier in life, in the form of intellectual, social, and physical enrichment, may increase neural reserve and potential for effective scaffolding as people meet increasing challenges later in life" (2010). With that said, living a rich and thought provoking life in all the above mention areas of life may lead to brain structure that can withstand the negative effects of aging on the brain.

These advances in research could be monumental for every aspect of a senior's life, such as visits to the doctor, daily interactions, and even long term care. Medical care can be simplified by the simple understanding that cognitive deterioration is automatically Alzheimer's Disease or another form of dementia. If a person exhibits normal cognitive aging, a doctor trained in neuroscience would know not to automatically medicate that individual. The doctor would know to educate the senior and his or her family members about ways to better function everyday, like using the cues and encoding strategies. Seniors with normal aging entering long term care would benefit because the care staff would have a better understanding of how to care for them after becoming educated themselves or consulting with the doctor.

The huge advances in gerontology and neuroscience have allowed us as a society to gain a better understanding of what is going on in our grandparents' brains. It has also allowed us to extend the research and the possible benefits to areas outside gerontology to help the entire lifespan.

From the paper by Park, D.C., Reuter-Lorenz, P.A. "Human Neuroscience and the Aging Mind: A New Look at an Old Problem" in Journal of Gerontology.
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Honey, Does This Brain Make Me Look Fat?


Let's face it, our country is fat. The concept of normal weight seems to be an idea of the past in America. In 2010, there were 9 states with an obesity rate falling over 30% and about 10% of all medical expenses in the US are spent to combat obesity. Overweight people are everywhere, and the fight against fat seems to be failing despite the effort of diet books, weight loss programs, and supplements. Are we doomed in this battle against the obesity epidemic? We are if our brains have any say in the matter. Overtime, our brains have evolved to promote hunger and fat storage in the body. Before the times of fast food restaurants on every corner, humans had to hunt for food and there was great uncertainty surrounding the time and size of the next meal. From this, our brain learned to resist weight loss in preparation for long periods of time without food.

There are many different factors, both structures and molecules, working together in the brain that encourage eating. Recently, scientists have discovered fat cells release a hormone known as leptin that travels to the hypothalamus (a brain structure involved in the regulation of hunger, thirst, and sleep) and signals to reduce the sense of hunger so we stop eating. If this hormone has been identified in reducing hunger, why not pump as much as we can into the obese population and watch the pounds shed? Although this theory seems plausible, trials have shown no significant weight loss in humans injected with the hormone. To understand why, we have to remember where the hormone begins its journey to the hypothalamus: fat cells. A person is deemed "obese" when they have a high percentage of fat cells in their body. Level of leptin is directly proportional to the amount of fat in someone's body; therefore, obese people already have a great deal of fat cells actively releasing leptin. The use of synthetic leptin injections has proved to be useful in maintaining weight loss but it does not work to help a person lose the original weight. Hope in hormones is not completely lost as a source of weight loss though.

Researchers in Japan identified another hormone named ghrelin that is also involved in hunger. Ghrelin is actively released from the gut before a meal and levels of this hormone fall immediately after eating. Scientists in Washington took this information and began to study the levels of ghrelin in people who have lost weight due to dieting compared to those who experienced weight loss by means of gastric bypass surgery. They found that those who lost weight with diet had increased levels of ghrelin while those who underwent surgery saw ghrelin levels decrease significantly. The bodies of the dieting weight losers still have cells that release ghrelin and they seem to be trying to tell the brain to gain back what it has lost. Locating and removing specific regions of the gut that release this hormone could be highly effective in helping people lose weight and keep it off in the future.

We are a ways away from knowing exactly which hormones in which combinations will help millions lose weight, but something as simple as altering sleep patterns could be a solution. According to the article, research done at Harvard University found that when healthy volunteers were subjected to disruption in their usual sleep-wake cycle, they developed prediabetic blood sugar levels; giving evidence that circadian cycle has metabolic effects. The American lifestyle involves staying up late and being active for long days which could be contributing to increased instances of metabolic disease. "But I have a set sleep cycle and I am still constantly struggling to lose weight." Well maybe you just love food too much. No, seriously. A study done by the Oregon Research Institute found that overweight participants showed higher levels of activity in regions of the brain that encode the sensory experience of food on an fMRI while consuming a chocolate milkshake. So obese people get more pleasure from food? Sort of. Similar to a drug addict who needs more drugs to experience the same high they once got, the brain needs more and more food to experience that original pleasure from food.

As our country continues to expand its waist line, we will continue to search for a way to lose weight despite the efforts of our brain. Multiple drug combination therapies are being studied by pharmaceutical companies every day and universities are attempting to rewire parts of the brain involved in triggers of hunger. One thing is for sure: there is no magical diet or weight loss program that will cure obesity. Instead, maybe that magic we are searching for exists in neuroscience.



From the article "The Hungry Brain" by Dan Hurley, Discover Magazine, June 2011
Posted by      Shelby S. at 7:53 PM MDT
  Caitlin Winkler  says:
Good blog post! I think it's great, because I've spent my entire summer in Japan working in a biology lab that studies ghrelin and gastric motility and gastrointestinal endocrinology, and I think they might be the same as the ones you reference! :)
Posted on Sun, 31 Jul 2011 8:09 PM MDT by Caitlin W.

The Google Effect - Why the Internet May Hurt Your Memory


Want to know how many movies Johnny Depp has been in throughout his career? How about the President's birthday? Or the perfect temperature to cook a turkey? Easy, just Google it!

The advent of the Internet has brought us an infinite amount of information, readily available at the click of a button. From dancing birds and obscure trivia to real-time updates on global affairs - you name it, you can find it online. Educators make use of the availability of online information frequently as learning tools for students, and the plethora of scholarly information accessible by students allows for the synthesis of a very rich body of knowledge. It is abundantly clear that the Internet has had incredibly positive effects on the exchange of information on both a local and global scale.

However, the availability of this massive body of information has also had some unexpected negative effects. Several studies by Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner on the effects of having all of this information so readily available reports that people do experience a deficit in recall when they know information will be available to them online. They show how subjects from four different studies are actually primed to think about computers when given difficult questions. Furthermore, when participants expected to be able to access the information later, they not only had lower rates of recall than for information they would not be able to access later, but (and most interestingly) they also showed enhanced recall for where to access this information in the future.

While the article does not directly site any cognitive deficits that arise from the availability of information on the Internet, it is easy to speculate on potential damages. One concern is that students of the "information age" may not be using their brains to encode information as fully as students of generations past. Does this lack of brain "exercise" have further negative consequences for its ability to process information? Little is known about the consequences of always being "plugged in". Or, does this external storage space allow our brains more processing capacity for other, perhaps more important tasks and allow us to store more useful information? More likely, as the authors of this study argue, we are simply evolving. Our brains are adapting to use the Internet as an extra storage space, which has given us the advantage of having a virtually limitless amount of information at our fingertips.

This adaptive phenomenon is also an eloquent demonstration of the social nature of human beings. The Internet is a social form of information storage - we share information with others, and depend on others sharing information with us. We have begun to integrate technology into every bit of our lives, and we feel disconnected from work and our peers without our cell phones and Internet.

As the authors state, "we are becoming symbiotic with our computers", and whether this is a good thing is still up for debate. It will be interesting to see how the use of the Internet and the continuing development of more and more ways to stay connected affect our brains' ability to process and learn new information, and change the way we deal with information in the years to come.

Reference: Sparrow, Betsy, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wegner. "Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips." Sciencemag.org. AAAS, 14 July 2011. www.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/science.1207745
Posted by      Sophie L. at 7:39 PM MDT
Tags: learning, memory

Brain Scans as Evidence


The spectrum of possibilities that neuroscience is taking into the world of law is both advantageous and dangerous. What sort of effects will this have when putting a murder suspect on trial? What sort of rights does he have and will the new technologies of neuroscience violate these rights in order to discover the truth behind what is going on? Questions such as this are what lawyers have to take into effect when deciding on whether or not to bring neuroscience into the court room. Not only can it be used for this purpose though, it can help someone plead the insanity defense, it takes into question if someone is willing or not to go through the testing in order to find out the truth, and also measure the maturity of the person on trial and capacity of what is going on.

In the article by Francis Shen and Owen Jones it looks further into what is going through the criminals mind in order to make them murder someone for example. Brain scanning gives the jury a way to look into their mind and see what has made them capable of preforming such an act. According to the administration of justice it is important to look at two things when looking into brain scanning. First what the brain was going through when performing the act. Basically, what was going on in the criminals mind to make them justify what was going to happen. Second it looks how the brain recollects these past events that have happened.

One of the tests used in this article to help tell if someone is lying or not is a fMRI. This stands for a functional magnetic resonance imaging. It is able to 'detect changes in hemodynamic properties of the brain as a subject engages in specific mental tasks (pg.865, Shen and Owen).' It breaks down which regions of the brain are doing what for a specific task and for how long they are working. But several issues have been discovered with this such as a person memorizing a lie and repeating it over and over that it becomes natural to say and therefore the fMRI won't pick up on any sort of difference between it and the truth. This has the possibility of being useful it court and was used in the case of United States v. Semrau.

The case of United States v. Semrau was one of the first cases in which brain scanning was used in order to help decide if Dr.Lorne Semrau was committing Medicare/Medicaid fraud. Over six years they stated that he was aware of inflating payments in order to receive approximately 3 million dollars in fraud. Around this time the first fMRI was being developed and it was used to tell if Dr. Semrau was claiming the truth when he said he did not willingly commit fraud. This test became later ruled out because it wasn't able to satisfy certain standards the judge had set.

As the advances in science continue, brain scanning will be able to lead into areas we have not yet discovered in the scientific realm of possibilities. The article goes into further detail of other challenges that neuroscience is being faced as it tries to enter into the world of law.


http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1710952##
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1736288&rec=1&srcabs=1710952
Posted by      Alexa M. at 5:27 PM MDT
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Posted on Fri, 13 Dec 2019 3:25 AM MST by Tyler W.

Dancing Cockatoo


It?s doubtful that anyone would find a dancing cockatoo relevant to neuroscience, but we would all be wrong in assuming otherwise. Apparently, YouTube videos of a dancing cockatoo named ?Snowball? not only entertain bored college kids during their classes, (not me of course), but also give neuroscientists new insight about animals? response to music. Kathrine Haycock writes, ?No one had ever documented an animal processing and reacting to the beat of music,? noting that these YouTube videos gave clear evidence that animals could do just that.
Until just recently, understanding music was a trait that only belonged to humans; many believed that we evolved historically with the ability because it somehow helped us to survive, (though it?s hard to think of a way in which music aides in survival). These new videos are giving neuroscientists hope that animals have a circuitry similar to our own when it comes to understanding and responding to music. It?s hard to believe, though, that a simple YouTube video with a dancing bird can prove anything other than the fact that we have too much time on our hands. Ani Patel, a neurologist, apparently felt the same way and conducted an experiment to determine whether Snowball really could react to the beat of the music. By playing the same song at twelve different speeds, nine of which Snowball kept rhythm with; Patel showed that it wasn?t merely coincidence that a bird could possibly be able to understand music.
I couldn?t think of a whole lot that could be done with this information besides playing more music for my neighbor?s dog in hopes that it?d dance instead of bark, but Patel explains otherwise. According to Patel, studies involving music therapy could use the idea that animals can comprehend music to further their investigations by studying animal models as well as humans. Also, Alzheimer?s patients may benefit from these findings through animal models, which could potentially explain patients? ability to remember music rather than their own spouses (must make the spouse feel important).
I?m hoping that by using animal models to further research in these departments some breakthroughs will be found. The notion that Alzheimer?s patients remember music very well throughout the progression of the disease raises the idea that perhaps the part of the brain that stores musical memories isn?t necessarily part of the brain that is primarily affected by Alzheimer?s. Using animal models could possibly provide insight as to where exactly music is understood and stored. On the other hand, assuming that animals can process music exactly like humans just because a cockatoo named Snowball can dance to one song no matter how fast it?s played seems na´ve at best. The significance of this finding is certainly debatable, and neither jumping to conclusions nor writing off the fact that animals can understand music are good ideas. Just as with any scientific discovery, further research must be done involving animal?s ability to understand and react to music before any conclusions can be drawn. Until then, try to just enjoy the fact that a cockatoo likes to dance.

http://www.allpetnews.com/cockatoo-key-to-breakthrough-discovery-in-neuroscience-and-music-videos
Posted by      Daniel H. at 5:03 PM MDT

Are GMOs the new Tobacco?


Did you know that 92% of soy, 80% of corn and 86% of cotton grown in the United States are classified as genetically modified organisms? These plants contain the genes from other organisms such as bacteria and viruses that help them better survive harsh environments and predators. While the use of GMOs has increased in recent years, many people have begun to question how safe these plants are for humans to consume.

Unfortunately, very little scientific evidence has been established supporting either view- Pro or Anti GMO. It is clear that most GMO crops harvested have shown no significant difference in nutrition compared to their non-GMO cousins. There is much speculation about how these crops have been deemed healthy in the first place and there is much public suspicion about the motives of the scientists who are working on this project. Many people feel this pattern is suspiciously similar to the path of big tobacco companies.

First, a new product is glorified, hailed as a solution to health issues, a benefit for all and certainly not harmful. Then scientific studies (from the companies themselves) back up these claims with 'data' until it turns out all of these things were false. By then, countless people will have lost their lives. One of the leading GMO producers, Monsanto, allegedly attempted to cover up research that showed three of their corn strains contributed to increased blood sugar and triglyceride levels in mice. Personally, I'm not convinced Monsanto and other GMO companies are akin to big tobacco. In fact, I'm convinced GMOs are all that was promised and more.

There have been some GMOs that demonstrate great health benefits. ?Golden rice? is rice that is naturally enriched with B vitamins and Iron, helping to alleviate nutritional deficits in poor populations. In addition, plants immune to certain pests will have no need for pesticide spray- preventing environmental damage. GMO crops have become increasingly popular because they promise many benefits of higher yields, improved maturation time and resistance to pests. Farmers of GMO crops need not spray harmful and expensive pesticides and can feel secure that harsh weather will not immediately kill their crop (depending on the specific GMO variety and which genes it contains). Higher yields and security might help support the growing human population.

However, there is a great fear that cross-pollination between GMOs and natural plants (such as the occasional cross pollination with corn and natural grass varieties) can lead to the ?escape? of these ill-placed genes into the wild. Many individuals feel the emergence of GMOs have contributed to a rise in allergic reactions. These fears contribute to the feeling that Monsanto and other companies will end up like big tobacco, ultimately exposed for endangering the public. Unfortunately for those people, GMO use continues to increase because it is becoming more and more financially difficult to not do so. A farmer who increases his yield per acre can also increase his profits, and if the corn does not need to be sprayed with pesticide, given extra fertilizer or be protected from harsh weather, it makes little sense not to use them.

Ultimately, it is still unclear how these GMO strains might impact our health but one thing is for sure: this debate will continue to rage and become ever-more heated. For more information, please see: http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/agri_biotechnology/gmo_planting/393.usa_cultivations_2008_increase_gm_maize.html and http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/gmfood.shtml
Posted by      Jennie S. at 4:51 PM MDT

How Smart Are Smart Pills?


Let me guess: You woke up this morning, dragged your feet downstairs, and first things first, poured yourself a nice, hot cup of coffee. It's no surprise, as shown by the overwhelming number of Starbucks across the globe, that many adults rely on the stimulating effects of caffeine on a day-to-day basis. The boost in alertness, focus, and mood are extremely attractive. However, the overly jittery cardiac stimulation and diuretic properties are not. So, what other options are there for those of us that just can't seem to stay awake throughout the day without our morning cup of joe? The answer is smart pills.

They've been around for years. In the 1940s, they were popularized under the name "pep" pills and "speed" and frequently used by armed forces pilots to stay alert for their many dangerous tasks. Today, "speed" (dextroamphetamine) is no longer used because of its serious side effects, but the prescription drugs Adderall and Ritalin are commonly used. They are prescribed to people suffering from ADHD, to alleviate the frustrating inability to focus. However, in a study conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland in 2008, it was found that 18% of 1,208 college students were taking ADHD medications in order to help them study, even though they had not been prescribed. Not only that, but many people over the age of 35 also reported to be using these drugs in a survey carried out in Nature magazine.

The latest and most talked about pharmaceutical neuro-enhancer is called Provigil and is marketed by the company Cephalon. It contains the compound modifinil, which is known to inhibit the reuptake of neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, thus enhancing attention and memory skills. Modifinil also influences the action of glutamate in sending signals across neurons. Researchers using fMRI scans to study the effects of modifinil have found that the use of the drug helps shift the brain into what is called the "exploitation mode", during which neurons are acting in a highly coordinated system to complete a complex task. As scientists begin to isolate which areas of the brain affect which types of concentration and memory, these drugs may be customized to target certain forms of ADHD and memory-deficient diseases, such as Alzheimer's.

But, surely, taking these smart pills can't be quite as intelligent as it sounds. Otherwise, why aren't they already on the market, unregulated, like caffeine? Well, the reason for it is also the number one problem facing neuroscience today, which is that it's still a developing science and we're not really sure of the negative effects that it may have. Perhaps a memory-enhancer of this might is capable of causing a condition called hyperthymestic syndrome, in which the person can remember every moment of his or her life, even the most trivial or minute. Or, as Oliver Sacks reported in a case about a musician who took a drug to cure Tourette's syndrome, which ended up putting a total damper on his musical creativity, it will inhibit us from reaching our highest creative potential. Is it even ethical to consume something that alters our natural abilities to think, remember, and create?

The questions continue to be asked, the scientists continue to search for answers, and all the while, college students are popping pills and downing energy drinks to finish those last-minute papers for their Intro to Neuroscience course. Who knows if smart pills will be the way of the future, as the increasingly competitive global economy and medical world seek new ways to "get ahead" ... All I know is I need another cup of coffee.

From the article, "Rx for Genius" in Discover Magazine: The Brain, by Sherry Baker.
Posted by      Anna V. at 1:36 PM MDT
Tags: fmri, memory

Your Brain on Yoga: Better than an Antidepressant?


Depression [1] is a disease that afflicts millions of people and costs billions of dollars every year, and it is getting worse. One has to ask: besides the obesity epidemic, is our sedentary lifestyle contributing to a depression epidemic? Is exercise necessary for a healthy psyche? Can physical activity 'cure' depression?

In the last decade, a new kind of brain chemical has been discovered that plays a pivotal role in the healthy balance of the other chemicals in our brain. This chemical is called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) [2] and is discussed by Rassmusen, et al. in the article 'Evidence for a release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor from the brain during exercise.' BDNF has been found to regulate the maintenance, growth and survival of neurons; to influence learning and memory; is low in patients with Alzheimer's Disease and clinical depression; and affects body weight, energy homeostasis, and blood glucose levels. In addition, genetic mutations of the BDNF gene are associated, in both mice and humans, with the entire laundry list of metabolic syndrome problems. Where does BDNF come from in our brain? Why does it affect so many aspects of a healthy self? What can we do to 'balance' our brain chemicals without resorting to Prozac« or Abilify«, which we are beginning to find out are more like temporary bandaids for a much deeper problem of brain chemical imbalance and are only slightly better than a placebo [3]?

Recent studies have shown that exercise raises circulating BDNF levels. Exercise has been found to enhance BDNF transcription [4] in the brain and to effectuate brain uptake [5] of insulin-like growth factor 1, which is a necessary ingredient for increasing mRNA expression of BDNF. BDNF has also been shown to promote [6] the health of serotonin-responsive neurons and to interact with serotonin-producing genes. Instead of a prescription for an antidepressant, should doctors be prescribing 30 minutes a day at the gym? And what if the exercise had the added benefit of reducing stress? What if doctors prescribed yoga classes instead of Prozac«? Could we expect to see even more benefits than exercise alone: reduced stress, improved mood, thinner waistlines, less Type II diabetes, and better sex lives? If I was depressed and yoga could do any of those things, it would be enough to undepress me, BDNF levels aside.

Recent studies show that there is a positive correlation between yoga and circulating BDNF levels. In his master's thesis [7], NL Pan discovered that a form of yoga called Sudarshan Kriya yoga (SKY) increased serum BDNF level in patients that had high initial depression indices, and as an added bonus, reduced cortisol. This effect was determined to be independent of circadian rhythm levels. Other researchers have investigated the effect of yoga on depression with positive results (Pilkington, et al. [8], Javnbakht, et al. [9], Janakiramaiah, et al. [10]) but linking yoga to BDNF levels is a more recent finding.

As controversial as the idea sounds, maybe it is time for doctors to stop doing the easy thing by prescribing a pill and just tell patients to get off the couch and go to yoga class. And if patients don't believe their own doctor, while they are sitting on the couch they can just tune into Dr. Oz, our new national guru of all things health, who promotes exercise as a cure for many ills. I don't mean to trivialize the problem of depression, but the idea that it is we ourselves who are responsible for our health, even our mental health, should not be revolutionary or controversial. But depression is like a lot of things these days: someone else or something else is supposed to provide an easy fix.

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-leahy-phd/the-cost-of-depression_b_770805.html
[2] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1113/expphysiol.2009.048512/full
[3] http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2010/01/28/the-depressing-news-about-antidepressants.html
[4] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9795193
[5] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10751445
[6] http://www.nature.com/npp/journal/v33/n1/full/1301571a.html
[7] http://ethesys.lib.ncku.edu.tw/ETD-db/ETD-search/view_etd?URN=etd-0808107-104238
[8] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165032705002570
[9] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1744388109000048
[10] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165032799000798
Posted by      Anne H. at 12:07 PM MDT
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Neurotherapeutics: Helpful or Harmful?


Who wouldn't want to take a pill that would enhance their mental capabilities? Instead of studying for hours and hours, how much more enjoyable would it be if you took a pill, enhanced your memory making capabilities and thus only had to spend an hour or two studying for that big cumulative exam? These days research and scientific developments have allowed the range of pharmaceuticals to alter mood, cognition and other cognitive skills such as memory to go beyond what we previously would have believed to be to be impossible. Drugs that have been developed to treat some of the most heinous diseases now bring the promise of, not only treating illness, but enhancing performance. Today, the debate between treatment and enhancement has already begun to be a hot button topic in neuroscience.

According to an article by Paul Root Wolpe, there are two fundamental questions that we must address pertaining to this issue. First, "what do terms such as average or normal functioning or even disease and enhancement mean when we can improve functioning across the entire range of human capability?" Second, "should we encourage or discourage people to ingest pharmaceuticals to enhance behaviors, skills and traits? What are the social implications of using drugs or other neurotechnologies to micromanage mood, improve memory, to maintain attentiveness or improve sexuality?"

Enhancement has been defined by medicine and its implications. Medicine treats disease but what it does not treat is enhancement. So if we begin allowing or encouraging people to take pharmaceuticals in order to enhance their well-being, where do we draw the line? A good example used in this article is the use of Prozac and other anti-depressant drugs. If drugs like Prozac can increase a user's mood, what emotional state then becomes normal? If it becomes normal for everyone to take mood enhancing drugs, than does being in a sad state become taboo? Furthermore, if more people start taking drugs like Prozac, will insurance companies still cover these sorts of drugs? Insurance companies pay for treatments and injurious events, but if everyone is using a drug does this drug then become a commonality such as the use of Advil, which is not covered by insurance companies?

As humans, we have always been able to find techniques to enhance our performance and general functioning. We go to school, take vitamins, and go through training programs. But is it acceptable to bypass all of these "external" strategies and directly alter our brains? Sure, the drugs we have currently developed may help us increase cognitive function but what about the long term side effects? Take the use of drugs that are supposed to treat disabilities like ADD and ADHD. Drugs like Adderall and Ritalin prescribed for attention deficit disorder are becoming more and more popular among students. These drugs boost cognitive function and enable the user to study for hours with full concentration without getting tired or distracted. But at what cost? Long term use of cognitive enhancers like Ritalin cause serious side effects such as severe sleep deprivation and heart problems. More troubling, however, is that these drugs can be highly addictive. Users can get to the point where what we now define as "normal" cognitive function is unachievable without the use of cognitive enhancers. So if drugs like Adderall can have these results, can our pharmaceutical strategies backfire on us and destroy the delicate balance in our brains?

On the other hand, think about a world where we have not only found a cure for degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, but where people in general have a higher standard of living because our brains are functioning at the fullest extent! It's a fine line between helpful and hurtful when it comes to our emerging neurotechnologies and pharmaceuticals.

For more information on this debate check out the article by Paul Root Wolpe at: http://www.chem.arizona.edu/courseweb/081/CHEM4361/reading_pdfs/guest_lecturers/treatment_enhancement.pdf
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Cosmetic Neuro-tinkering


Altering your body for aesthetic reasons has become social norm in society. What if you could alter your brain functions to improve motor skills, attention, learning, and mood, would you do it? Advances in neuropharmacology are beginning to progress to the point that they are able to use drugs to enhance these abilities. This emerging technology is becoming known as cosmetic neurology.

In an article entitled, "Cosmetic Neuorlogy: The Controversy Over Enhancing Movement, Mentation and Mood," Anjan Chatterjee MD outlines three general categories, motor systems, attention/learning/memory, and mood, that could have a prospect for better bodies and mind.

Chatterjee says that all three of these areas of improvement already have neuophamagological drugs that can improve them. For example, Insulin-like growth factors (IGF) can be given to men over 60 to increase muscle mass, decrease body fat, and improve skin. This in turn improves the quality of life of these people? In addition to IGFs, there are drugs that can improve plasticity, block receptors that cause depression, and decrease unpleasant memories.

Unfortunately, any time you wish to alter the brain there are several ethical dilemmas. In this case safety, individuality, distribution and coercion become the prominent issues.

Safety is a main concern with any form of drug treatment. In disease, a person weights the risks against the potential benefits. Which is why people with terminal cancer are willing to endure toxic chemotherapies to prolong life. Where as in a healthy state any risk is harder to accept because the alternative is "normal" health (Chatterjee 2004). This is where ethics plays in. Is it ethical to treat someone with something that does not save them for something else? Some people think it is, as long as that person is equipped with enough information about the potential side effect. But then again where did the information come from and did the person use it?

Another issue in this cause is individuality; Chatterjee says that a major concern is that chemically changing the brain threatens to eliminate personhood. This then leads into a more ethical issue of if tinkering with brain chemistry is going to threaten what it means to be human?

As in most discussions, who gets them becomes an important question to ask. Because these mind-altering drugs are expensive it is unlikely that the government or insurance companies are going to pay. Does that mean that the rich prevail again? Then we have to ask ourselves? what happens when the rich get stronger, smarter, and sweeter than "normal" people? A critical ethical issue when talking about new drugs is distribution.

Finally, we must look at how choices can evolve into forces of coercion (Chatterjee 2004). One form of this is the common feeling that you want to be better or at least maintain your position in society. As people become smarter, fast, and stronger, pressures increase and smaller groups of people will be competing for larger prizes. Imagine what you could do if you could work 100 hours a week without becoming tired! Another issue is demand for superior performance. Pilots taking donepezil preformed better in emergencies than those on a placebo. Should that then mean that all pilots should take it, or that people will pay more for flights where their pilot takes it?

It does not take much imagination to see how the media will advertise for "better brains." We must look follow these topics and developments. Up until now, I did not realize the extent of these mind-altering substances. Did you?
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July 30, 2011

Do Criminals Commit Crimes- A Question for Neuroscience


For years criminal defense attorneys have been arguing over the objections of prosecutors that their clients are not guilty by reason of insanity, but scientific evidence now indicates that criminals might not be to blame for any of the crimes that they commit. While conclusive proof on this point would be welcomed by the prison population in the United States, this evidence, discussed by Michael Gazzaniga in his paper available at (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627308008957), creates a whole host of potential problems for the criminal justice system in the United States. Specifically, if a criminal has no control over his own actions, should he be punished? If so, should the form of that punishment change? According to Gazzaniga, the current system of punishment is based on retribution. Would a system of rehabilitation be more appropriate? And does it even matter?

The whole criminal justice system, which has developed over hundreds of years and is modeled after the English common law system, is based on the concept that each individual is a rational actor that is responsible for his actions. However, evidence cited by Gazzaniga suggests that decisions are made before the actor becomes conscious of the decision. Gazzaniga suggests that this supports determinism, the view that our decisions are products of our circumstances rather than a product of our own free will. For me this evidence raises the question of whether there is a way to train our subconscious selves to make the correct decisions. Are we culpable for our subconscious decisions or are we slaves to them?

Additional evidence cited by Gazzaniga suggests that if certain parts of the brain are impaired, an actor can recognize a bad decision but cannot reject the bad decision.

Ironically, Gazzaniga claims that if criminals are not actually responsible for their crimes, then it is immoral to blame a criminal for his criminal or immoral behavior. If determinism really does rule the day, can we actually blame the blamers? If people are not responsible for their choices, then the blamers would not be any more morally responsible for assigning blame than the recipients of that blame. The implications of determinism are truly endless.

Gazzinga also points out the fact that criminals and schizophrenics can follow rules because they stop at red traffic lights. Clearly, there is some innate or developed ability to follow rules. If this is a developed trait, perhaps the criminal justice system can be used to enhance the development of this ability in criminals. Maybe neuroscience will discover the ways in which this ability can be enhanced and this will allow the criminal justice system to focus on rehabilitation rather than retribution. This would also not require as complete of change in the criminal justice system so a focus on this area could be very fruitful.

While Gazzaniga discusses the problem he does not offer any clear solution or conclusions. Indeed, his article (like my blog post) seems to raise more questions than answers. In the end, it is clear that if determinism becomes the accepted philosophy of the criminal justice system, that system will need to be completely rethought.
Posted by      Jessica S. at 10:25 PM MDT
Tags: law

Saying No to the Death Penalty: The Excuses of Adolescence


Most adolescents spend their time going to school. But some adolescents spend their time murdering people.
Most adults spend their time working. But some adults also spend their time murdering people. In many states, these adults are often executed.
So where, and more importantly, with what reasoning, do we draw the line between adolescent and adult? And, especially in cases of murder, what should that line mean?

Usually in cases such as this we want to turn to scientific evidence. But in issues of law it is never that simple.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has made many rulings regarding the death penalty, there have been two prominent cases regarding juveniles. Thompson vs. Oklahoma (1988) outlawed the death penalty for individuals who were under sixteen when a crime was committed, and Roper vs. Simmons (2005) outlawed the death penalty for individuals who were under eighteen when a crime was committed. With Roper vs. Simmons, the courts finally had some scientific data (although still not completely conclusive) to work with. But the issue of the death penalty is far from over. That ruling was 5-4.

"Crime, Culpability, and the Adolescent Brain" is an article written for "Science" in 2004 by Mary Beckman, just before the Roper vs. Simmons decision was made. It clearly outlines the neurological data compiled to support the case of Christopher Simmons.
Although there is more data relevant to the case now, this article is particularly interesting because we can look at the 2005 ruling that followed.
His case was quite grisly, involving robbing, tying up, and throwing a woman off of a bridge.

The defense presented the argument that the death penalty was cruel and unusual because the defendant's brain was not functionally identical to that of an adult. The article states, "Structurally, the brain is still growing and maturing during adolescence, beginning its final push around 16 or 17" (Beckman, 2004). Neural connections of adulthood are shaped during the teen years, involving a decrease in gray matter and an increase in white matter. Perhaps the most significant data presented was that on frontal lobe maturation. There is an apparent, "wave of brain change moving forward into the front of the brain", seen using MRIs in an NIMH study (Beckman, 2004). This is integral to the case because the frontal lobe is linked to impulse control. Erratic behavior is also more prevalent in adolescents; "the brain switches from relying heavily on local regions in childhood to more distributive and collaborative interactions among distant regions in adulthood" (Beckman, 2004).

Arguments for and against the death penalty always seem to be a muddled combination of personal belief, religion, experience, science, and history. And to complicate the matter, we're talking about some very grisly crimes. In the 2005 opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood. It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest" (Kennedy, 2005). There is no doubt that the scientific evidence presented had an effect on the ruling. But, unfortunately, it is not likely that such evidence will ever provide us with an infallible answer. The 2004 article ends with a quote from neuroscientist Elizabeth Sowell of UCLA, "We couldn't do a scan on a kid and decide if they should be tried as an adult" (Beckman, 2004). Six years later we have more data, but this remains true.

Beckman, Mary. "Crime, Culpability, and the Adolescent Brain." Sciencemag.org. AAAS, 30 July 2004. Web. 30 July 2011. .
Posted by      Jessica L. at 8:24 PM MDT
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A Clockwork Character: Molding the Mozg


It is not hard to imagine a futuristic dystopian society. Constructing dystopias seems to be one of the main methods by which those of a sci-fi persuasion can offer poignant social commentary. However, some of these dystopias are far more horrific than others. One would be hard pressed to find a dystopia more controversial than the one presented in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (adapted from Anthony Burgess's novel of the same name); watching Alex DeLarge and his small gang of droogs terrorize futuristic Britain with "ultra-violence" is more than enough to make your insides squirm in revulsion. In perhaps the film's most infamous scene, Alex and his droogs beat a man so severely as to cripple him for life, and then proceed to rape his wife - all while happily singing "Singin' in the Rain". And yet there's hope for this futuristic Britain, a way to clean ultra-violence from the streets by rehabilitating those delinquent youths like Alex: an experimental aversion therapy called the Ludovico technique. If you were in charge of such a dystopia as the one depicted in A Clockwork Orange, where the fabric of society was being viciously ripped apart by rampant ultra-violence, wouldn't you be desperate for a way to stop it? And rather than just locking up criminals and social delinquents, wouldn't it be better if you could help those individuals by eradicating their anti-social behavior? Wouldn't this allow your dystopia to rapidly evolve into a utopia?

For those familiar with the film, we know that it's not just the use of ultra-violence that makes the film so controversial. Controversy also lies in the film's social commentary on morality and behavioral psychology, which is far too deep and expansive of a discussion for the scopes of this post. However, A Clockwork Orange does raise an interesting question (in fact, it raises many interesting questions): how close are scientists to understanding human behavior? Are they close enough to know which parts of the brain are responsible for certain behaviors? Are they close enough to actually control behavior?

The answer: yes. Scientists can switch social behaviors on and off as easily as flicking a light switch, at least in mice.

In an effort to understand what causes social-behavior deficits in humans, particularly those with social disorders like autism and schizophrenia, researchers from Stanford University are using pulses of light to toggle social behaviors on and off in mice. Led by Dr. Karl Deisseroth, researchers used optogenetics to test an established yet untested hypothesis about social dysfunction: that "elevation of in the ratio of cortical cellular excitation to inhibition (cellular E/I balance), for example through increased activity in excitatory neurons or reduction in inhibitory neuron function, could give rise to the social and cognitive deficits observed in diseases such as autism" (Yizhar et al, Nature, 2011). So, "when facing social stimulus people with social disorders experience an imbalance wherein too many excitatory nerves fire (or not enough inhibitory nerves fire) resulting in a kind of over-responsiveness" (Dillow, Popular Science). In order to test this theory, scientists used optogenetics to bioengineer excitatory and inhibitory nerve cells in the parts of the brain responsible for social function to fire on command. Specifically, the researchers looked at excitatory and inhibitory nerve cells in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in processes such as planning, execution, personality and social behavior. When compared to normal mice, the experimental mice exhibited no difference in their anxiety levels, their tendency to move around, or their curiosity about new objects. However, the experimental mice whose medial prefrontal cortex excitability had been optogenetically stimulated lost all interest in engaging with other mice. Their social behavior was largely abolished. Further, the brains of these mice showed the same gamma-oscillation pattern that is observed among many autistic and schizophrenic patients, meaning that this study could have implications in getting to the root of the behavior seen in those with social deficits, like those with autism. It's possible that this research could provide valuable information for finding a treatment for behavioral disorders like autism and schizophrenia.

Researchers at CalTech, too, have been altering mouse behavior. They have located the brain's trigger for aggression, a cluster of cells in the ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH), an area that previous studies have associated with sexual behavior. It's not so surprising that aggressive and sexual behavior stem from the same area of the brain (at least, it's not so surprising when considered in the context of A Clockwork Orange); they come from intermingled yet separate clusters of neurons in the VMH. By identifying these clusters of neurons in the VMH, scientists found that aggression is triggered by a specific tangle of neurons, which they could turn on and off in mice by using light (after making the region photosensitive via a process of inserting custom-made viruses carrying a modified piece of DNA into the brain). When the nerve cluster was excited, no matter what they put in the cage with the experimental mouse, the mouse would attack - be it another male mouse, a female mouse, or even a dummy mouse. The opposite also held true; when the nerve cluster was silenced, the experimental mouse was completely non-aggressive, even in the presence of a threatening male. And, because mice have cognitive function and physiology that is quite similar to ours, then perhaps aggression in humans, too, could be toggled on and off like a light switch.

These findings could have quite the positive potential for us humans. Not only does it allow us to better understand our own minds, but it could offer cures for behavioral disorders like autism and schizophrenia. And in the future, who knows? Maybe scientists will discover switches for other behavioral problems as well, such as anxiety or phobias or OCD or ADHD.

And yet, we shouldn't ignore the warnings provided to us through (albeit potentially paranoid) social commentary. Though A Clockwork Orange offers an extreme example of behavioral modification, it is still an example of behavioral modification nonetheless, and a real possibility of what could happen if scientific advancements are taken out of control and used to pursue corrupt political agendas. On what A Clockwork Orange is all about, Kubrick said the following: that it is "a social satire dealing with the question of whether behavioral psychology and psychological conditioning are dangerous new weapons for a totalitarian government to use to impose vast controls on its citizens and turn them into little more than robots." Again, extreme. We shouldn't live in a paranoid static state of fear that every scientific discovery made could lend itself to ultimately crippling humanity in some manner. The pursuit of knowledge should not be hindered by fear or ignorance; finding cures for behavioral disorders like autism and schizophrenia would be ultimately beneficial, and would help many people live better, more fulfilling lives. However, it should always by the obligation of the scientist to make sure that the truths they discover are not somehow corrupted to advance personal agendas, and to make sure that they educate the public as to their discoveries. To combine the words of Francis Bacon and Spider-man: knowledge is power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature10360.html
http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-07/scientists-switch-social-behaviors-and-mice-shedding-light-human-social-disorders
http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-07/caltech-researchers-find-switch-mouse-and-perhaps-human-aggression
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Molding the Plastic Brain


The plasticity of the human brain can be directly related to the deteriorating effects of Alzheimer's disease. Recently conducted studies lead to the implication that one of the most successful approaches to a healthy aging human brain includes consistent prevention early in one?s lifetime. The power of developing Alzheimer?s disease and other forms of dementia lies in our hands every day as we mold our plastic brains to fulfill their final functions.

Alzheimer?s disease can be classified as the most prevalent form of dementia in the human population, affecting over 4.5 million Americans alone (Society for Neuroscience 2011). Alzheimer?s disease comes with memory loss and inability to properly learn and retain new information. As the disease progresses, certain discoveries reveal biochemical changes within the human brain including increased number of beta amyloid deposits, neurofibrillary tangles of hyper phosphorylated tau, and the presence of ApoE4 proteins. As these biochemical changes begin to increase, the strength of synapses between neurons in the brain begins to diminish.

Current research regarding Alzheimer?s disease indicates an explanation for these waning effects by the forever changing human brain. The decline in plasticity of the human brain can directly be correlated to the extreme loss of function these patients encounter. Neurogenesis, the process of developing new neurons, serves to be an extremely important scientific discovery about plasticity in the human brain. Research that involves taking advantage of our brain?s ability to mold into a healthy functioning organ has indications that it could possibly be the most effective and critical treatment in treating not only Alzheimer?s patients, but people with healthy brains just as well.

In order to sustain healthy brain function, one must make a conscious effort to prevent deterioration. Although it may seem taxing and unimportant in a healthily functioning brain, prevention at this point seems to be the best treatment in maintaining one?s dynamic brain. Unpretentious efforts in prevention include simple processes such as consistent social interaction, eating a healthy and well balanced diet, and regular stimulation of one?s cardiovascular system through physical exercise in efforts to promote the process of neurogenesis. With creation of an enriched environment, the plasticity of the human brain is constantly molding into its most healthful state and therefore preventing the loss of proper synaptic connections between neurons in the brain.

Research studies and discovered knowledge indicate some of the essential brain areas involved in learning and memory, and therefore, scientists can use this information as a treatment plan, alongside continuous prevention which seems to be critical in a developing brain. Specifically, the hippocampus is largely affected in Alzheimer?s patients. For example, if scientists can find a way to target the hippocampal region of the brain to reverse or stabilize the proper biochemical properties of its functional region, strides can be made to decrease and possibly eliminate deteriorating forms of dementia in the human population. The plasticity of the human brain is our biggest hope and progressing research sets a positive spotlight in developing a cure for such diseases.
Posted by      Kaci C. at 12:56 PM MDT
Tags: learning, memory

Reading Your Mind


Have you ever wondered what the world will be like when someone can read your mind? If so, maybe you should pay attention to this paper. As you well know, technology is changing in such a rapid pace, you can?t buy a computer without a newer one coming out before you even get it home. The same goes for neuroscience.

There is a lot going on in the neuroscience community right now. One major area is the mapping of minds and memories. Henry T. Greely outlines these studies in a paper entitled Neuroethics: The Neuroscience Revolution, Ethics, and the Law. In the paper, Greely discusses the various ways in which mind mapping will affect the world. Though currently mapping is being used to advance the way in which doctors predict diseases in patients, mapping can lead to predicting behaviors in the future. This will be revolutionary to many areas. As Greely points out, the way criminals are convicted, businesses are run, and how students are tested will all be affected by mind mapping.

On a criminal level, the author does an outstanding job describing the history of predictive measures and the law; Lie detection being the most prominent. In comparison to future techniques, he makes the polygraph tests look primitive and crude. It would have strengthened the paper if more methods were introduced in mapping and imaging. Greely seems to focus on the history and the implications of these methods,. Additionally, he makes the material accessible to the average person without frightening them into thinking the future is the plot of the movie ?The Minority Report?. The article offers possible ways that crimes will be predicted in people, as well as how trials will be held regarding mind and memory mapping.

In schools, long gone will be major tests like the SAT and the MCAT. Brain imaging will go a long way into measuring the aptitude of a student?s mind without having to put a pencil to paper. These methods sound to be decades away, but Greely describes them in a realistic manner, making the author?s take on the future more believable.

Finally, Greely points out that with any new area of study, someone is going to try to make money off of it. These prediction methods are a dream for marketers who may be able to predict the exact reaction a product will get, or the best way to appeal to a specific market. Again, this future seems very possible in the way that Greely describes. I have no doubts that the in the creation of new prediction methods, new ways to buy and sell will emerge in the United States and the rest of the world.
After finishing reading this article, as a prospective neuroscientist I was amazed at all of the possibilities that I haven?t even considered that are covered. As a citizen I was just as amazed. With Greely?s prediction of the way that prediction will affect the world, I strongly believe that the world will change as long as neuroscience advances. I encourage everyone to follow these developments as they will certainly be a part of our world. Maybe sooner than we think.
Posted by      Anthony F. at 12:40 PM MDT

July 29, 2011

Excuse me. Are you a neuroscientist?


Please talk to me...
I am a parent. What can neuroscience tell me about multisensory learning? Can neuroscience tell me how to enrich my child's environment so their brain will develop properly?

Please talk to me...
I am a high school teacher. I'm having a hard time engaging the teens in my classroom. Can neuroscience help me to develop lessons that keep them engaged? Can neuroscience help me to expand their executive judgment capabilities so they realize why school is so important?

Please talk to me...
I am a school principal. The parents at my school think that our school day starts too early. The school board wants to make budget cuts that will eliminate gym class and music class. Can neuroscience provide evidence on how sleep, music and physical education affect learning?

A new discipline, Neuro-Education, is asking neuroscientists and educators to open up a dialogue and to initiate research aimed at finding the best ways to educate our children. This invitation stretches globally from the U.S. to Japan. Neuroscientists already have an abundance of information on the mechanisms of learning and memory that when shared with educators, may bring about more effective evidence-based education practices for children. For example, neuroscientists know testing helps to reinforce learning. Neuroscientists also know that a good night's sleep enhances memory and that too much stress compromises memory and learning. Teachers and neuroscientist can certainly find some common ground when it comes to the retrieval of memories and the consolidation of learning.

The September 9, 2010 edition of Neuron highlights a few of the aspects of this new and exciting avenue for the advocacy of neuroscience. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627310006380) However, this new endeavor is not without barriers. You guessed it! MONEY! According to this article "Less than one-half of one percent of the federal education budget is spent on research." This is unsatisfactory!

Educators and parents are at risk of teaching and parenting based on miss information. Myths like the belief that people are either 'right-brained' or 'left-brained' is an oversimplification of the way brain hemispheres work and it needs to be debunked. 'Critical periods' in development also run the risk of being oversimplified leading parents to feel guilty if they feel they've missed a window of opportunity. Research and open communication is needed to ensure that information is not only correct but that the information is also correctly understood.

Money is not the only barrier to linking neuroscience and education. Developing a common language and consistency in terminology used also needs to be developed. It is not easy to translate what is learned in the lab into information that the mainstream population can use and understand. And, information gained in the lab is not always immediately ready for practical application.

I find Neuro-Education both fascinating and challenging. As I prepare for graduate school, where I will study Occupational Therapy (OT), I find myself trying to take what I am learning about neuroscience and figure out where the practical applications might be. Are you interested in a dialogue about practical applications to understanding the brain? It is my opinion those in multidisciplinary fields, such as OT or psychology, might be able to help bridge the gap and build a link between neuroscientists and educators.
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July 28, 2011

A Neurobiological View of Universal Moral Dilemmas


Imagine a small boat stranded in the middle of the ocean. There is no one around for miles and no one can even signal for help. There is a limited amount of food and water, but there is a more pressing matter. The boat is sinking. Slowly, but surely, the boat will fill completely with water unless one person jumps out. The boat is only made for 5 passengers, and there are six people on board: a priest, a young woman, her baby, a famous celebrity, an old man, and a person convicted of numerous crimes. Who should be sacrificed to save the rest?

According to Joshua Greene, Ph.D., an analytic philosopher, there are two different ways of viewing moral situations like the one of above. Some questions require people to logically assess the situation and come up with a reasonable solution. This might require sacrificing a few people to save many. This view supports a type of utilitarian morality, which would allow a few to die as long as some greater good is achieved. Other questions require a more emotional response. They, what we would call deontologists, would argue that killing, of course, is wrong, no matter what circumstances arise. They would protect every life, even the smallest, such as the baby, or the most undeserving, perhaps the criminal.

In an article entitled, "An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment," in the journal Science, Greene performed a study posing two very similar situations, each evoking a different response out of his subjects. He then took scans of their brains as the two questions were asked. He notes:
"A runaway trolley is hurtling down the tracks toward five people who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. The only way to save them is to hit a switch that will turn the trolley onto an alternate set of tracks where it will kill one person instead of five. Ought you to turn the trolley in order to save five people at the expense of one? Most people say yes. Now consider a similar problem, the footbridge dilemma. As before, a trolley threatens to kill five people. You are standing next to a large stranger on a footbridge that spans the tracks in between the oncoming trolley and the five people. In this scenario, the only way to save the five people is to push this stranger off the bridge, onto the tracks below. He will die if you do this, but his body will stop the trolley from reaching the others. Ought you to save the five others by pushing this stranger to his death? Most people say no."(Greene, 2105-8)

Using the fMRI, Greene found that in the footbridge scenario, the regions of the brain associated with emotional processing were activated and therefore lit up. With the trolley scenario, those same areas were not activated. Some moral questions require a more logical approach. These become impersonal to us, so we can perhaps justify killing a few to save many. Therefore, we would choose to allow the one person to die to save the five on the tracks from the train. Others can be answered with a more emotional and personal touch. If we apply universal morality to the situation, such as respect for fellow human beings, then how could we ever allow one person to be killed?

Greene observed high activity in brain regions associated with emotion when they were asked about killing babies, even if such an action would save a small town from invading soldiers, for example. Where utilitarian thinking dominates, he observed high activity in regions associated with cognitive function. In one such area, the right anterior dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, activity increases for those who would consider more rational or utilitarian choices, in this case, chose to smother the baby. Greene stated that there are two opposing views in our brains. One, the ancient emotional brain, embodies the view of universal morality of the deontologists, who disapprove of killing. Two, the new brain, equipped with higher-power cognitive function, indicates the utilitarian's "for the greater good." He argues not for the dichotomy of reason and emotion, but an evolved view of "areas associated with cognitive control and working memory," vs. "areas associated with emotion," with obvious bias towards the prior.

There are some obvious flaws to using fMRI to study the neurology of thoughts and emotion. The fMRI signal correlates to a function in the brain. If a particular region lights up, it doesn't mean that the signal originated at that region. According to "Does Neuroscience refute ethics?" published by mises.org, "In fact, the fMRI signal does not even provide a direct measure of the spiking of neurons, so we do not know whether it reflects the inputs or outputs of the activated area." Even with hard data, like the fMRI scans, it is hard to decipher a moral meaning. We cannot find meaning where there isn't from data. For example, we cannot prove that candy is evil because dentists have proved that the sugar can cause cavities. On the flip side, human emotions, like love and hate, cannot be disregarded as less useful than hard facts, especially in matters such as relationships and family. Just because we have fancy scans to prove brain activity, we cannot prove that the outcome of cognitive functions in the brain leading to a more utilitarian decision is morally superior to emotionality, because reason always trumps emotion and feelings. Greene's thinking that a moral relativism is far more applicable than universal morality. We can each follow our own moral compass, so long as it leads to some sort of benefit in the end. We cannot be held accountable for things if every person's beliefs about murder and stealing vary. If you don't support this, then your brain must be more prone to emotional thought, or your "emotional brain is overdeveloped." The article sarcastically comments that though Greene uses fMRI scans to support his findings about opposing brain function with regards to thought and morality, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. He concludes that " 1) there are no moral facts, it's all a matter of opinion; and 2) we should all become utilitarians and donate to charity."
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