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December 5, 2011

Your Brain on Nirvana


Any student has experienced that moment in class when he cannot for the life of him recall what the professor has just said seconds before. Whether it was because he was distracted watching a gnat fly around the light overhead or because his furiously working writing hand wasn't taking notes quite quickly enough to keep up with the lecture, there are always a few intervals which we miss in our daily lives, because our brains lack adequate attentional resources - unless you happen to be an expert in Buddhist meditation, that is. Among its various purported benefits, which include changes in metabolism and blood pressure, meditation also has been shown to result in altered brain structure and function. In other words, meditation induces neuroplasticity. In much the same way that one can obtain expert proficiency in a foreign language, mental training via meditation can result in increased information processing capacity in the brain.

Meditation is used by an increasing percentage of people to promote relaxation and a heightened sense of well-being. In a study published by the IEEE Signal Processing Society, researchers showed that meditation also leads to increased levels of concentration and reduced attention blink, as well as resulting in enhanced cortical area, in a manner similar to other forms of skill acquisition. The study made the distinction between two types of meditation - Focused Attention (FA) meditation and Open Monitoring (OM) meditation. Utilizing fMRI to measure hemodynamic changes in various areas of the brain, FA meditation was shown to be correlated with activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; the visual cortex; and the superior frontal sulcus, supplementary motor area and intraparietal sulcus. These areas are associated with our ability for monitoring, engaging attention and attentional orienting, respectively. When an individual meditates regularly and becomes an "expert", the cortical area of these regions in the brain increases. This would seem to indicate that attention is a trainable skill.

In addition to being able to pay focused, long-term attention to a chosen object, meditation experts were also shown in the study to undergo less activation in their amygdalas in response to emotional stimuli. This would seem to imply that emotional behaviors are not compatible with a stable state of advanced level concentration, and also that our emotional state can be consciously controlled, to some extent.

The implications of attention as a trainable skill appear to be numerous. For example, let us consider Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). It would seem that individuals who suffer from a seeming lack of ability to focus for prolonged periods of time might benefit from practicing meditative techniques, where the mind is calm and focused for prolonged periods of time. In addition, the general population might also benefit from the ability to reduce "neural noise" and thus pick up more information from the environment more quickly, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the constant data input. For students, their ability to focus in class and process more information more efficiently could have considerable impact on their learning. Many aspects of the impact of meditation on the human brain are as yet still unknown, but it would appear that it has profound effects on attention learning through the creation of novel synaptic connections, in addition to its role in promoting cultivation of general mental and emotional health.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2944261/
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Apple or Kit-Kat?


Obesity and addiction have been increasingly detrimental health conditions affecting the American people. Can these diseases be solved by simple verbal cues which trigger top-down processing in the brain to lead to more healthy/abstinent choices? A study by Hare et al found that, indeed, they can. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), the inferior frontal gyrus (IFC) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) are three brain regions that have been implicated in behavioral choices and decision making. Will the influence of health cues on self-control processes impact decision making in a more healthy and positive way?

Hare hypothesized that dietary choices will be improved by engaging the self-control processes in the DLPFC and IFG and that these choices will be affected by the value signals of the VMPFC, enhanced by the health attributes put into light during the experiment. Subjects were given four types of food to choose from, ranked healthy-tasty, healthy-untasty, unhealthy-tasty and unhealthy-untasty. It was insinuated before the decision making process that the subjects should either make a choice based on health factors or tastiness. fMRIs were used to observe the neural mechanisms at work during decision making. The study yielded a positive correlation between the VMPFC and the subjective stimulus value of each food option.

To understand the works at the neural level, let us find out what role the DLPFC plays in this cascade. The DLFPC has two regions, one, the DLFPC-M, guides the subject to make a healthy decision no matter what. This goal to be healthy is reenergized by health cues which in turn jumpstart a cascade of top-down control processes which govern decision making. The DLPFC-U however, is meant to take into consideration task instructions and to make a decision based on what the individual prefers regardless of the attribute values associated with them. These two areas of the brain come into conflict during this task. When the subjects were told to pick tasty foods, the DLPFC-M M signals to the IFG, which signals to the VMPFC to put more emphasis on the health attributes during decision time. In conclusion, health cues rendered the healthiness of food more important in the VMPFC and increased the likelihood that subjects will behaviorally pick the healthy-untasty food option.

This experiment proves that self-control processes in the DLPFC and IFG triggered by health cues are active during dietary choice and increase the subjective stimulus value of an item in the VMPFC, hence biasing behavioral choice. This study can be incorporated when developing treatments for obesity and addiction.
Posted by      Dora P. at 4:41 PM MST
Tags: fmri

Optimism: Is too much a bad thing?


We've all been told at one point or another in our lives to look on the brighter side of a given situation. Most of the time we do because the brighter side brings some sort of happiness and therefore when look on the brighter side of a situation, it helps us by easing the negative feeling we have towards that situation. And so by looking on the brighter side, we keep ourselves positive and our stress levels down a bit. But how can you still be optimistic even though there is information that goes against what you believe? As I go through the article, How unrealistic optimism is maintained in the face of reality, I will hopefully answer this question.
In this article, Sharot et. al. tries to explain why it is that some of us are so optimistic and could it be a bad thing? The article focuses on the events in which people do not take the necessary precaution they need to in order to protect themselves, that being the underestimation of future negative events, and why they were adamant about not changing (Sharot et. al.). So the way the experiment was conducted was Sharot et. al. took participants and told them to estimate the probability that an event would happen to them and then measured their brain activity. There was a total of eighty events that were "tested" all of which were adverse life events such as house hold accident, adultery, owing a large amount of debt, etc. They then combined a learning task with fMRI. This allowed Sharot et. al. to identify how blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) signals track estimation error in response to whether the information given lead to optimism or pessimism (Sharot et. al). To determine estimation error, they used the equation: estimation error = estimation - probability presented. They also used questionnaires to see if people changed their beliefs of an event based off of some kind of emotional arousal, how bad an event is, if they were familiar with the event, or if they have encountered such an event before.
Their results were that there was this region of the brain, right inferior frontal gyrus, in which showed a reduction for neural coding of undesirable error regarding the future for people who were optimistic. They also found that the reason there was this asymmetry in people changing their beliefs was due to a reduced expression of an error signal in the region implicated in processing undesirable error regarding the future (Sharot et. al.). The questionnaire that was administered showed that people didn't change their beliefs due to the severity of the event, if it is familiar or not, or if they have encountered it or not. The BOLD signal tracking showed that people with the largest optimistic update bias failed to show any undesirable error meaning the relationship between undesirable error and BOLD signaling was close to zero, where as people who did not show a selective updating in belief showed a strong relationship between undesirable error and BOLD signaling.
So it didn't matter whether how bad the future event was going to be, whether it was familiar or not, or if it has been encountered before but due a lack of not being able to code and process this undesirable error regarding the future. So really being optimistic or being optimistic even after information has disproved your belief isn't in your absolute control because if your brain fails to code and process it you can't really do much about it. Though you possibly could in theory but that raises questions for another time.

Sharot, Tali, Christoph W. Korn, and Raymond J. Dolan. "How Unrealistic Optimism Is Maintained in the Face of Reality." Nature Neuroscience. Nature America, Inc., 9 Oct. 2011. Web. 3 Dec. 2011. .
Posted by      Kou X. at 4:15 PM MST
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December 4, 2011

Your mom was right: Videogames rot your brain.


Okay, so maybe the title is a little over the top; video games don't actually cause your brain to rot, but they do appear to have a negative affect on the function of certain parts of your brain. The area of research surrounding this topic has been in the limelight over the course of the last couple of years. Some individuals were even so vehemently opposed to the presence of violent videogames in households with young children that the topic was brought in front of the Supreme Court last year. However, there has been little, if any, scientific findings that substantiated these claims until now.

The groundbreaking research behind this new assertion was conducted by members of the Wang Lab in the Department of Radiology and Imaging at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Here's how Dr. Wang described his most recent results: "For the first time, we have found that a sample of randomly assigned young adults showed less activation in certain frontal brain regions following a week of playing violent video games at home." He also stated that the aforementioned brain regions play important roles in the regulation of aggressive behavior and emotion.

In his study, Wang studied 28 healthy males between the ages of 18 and 29 that had very little previous exposure to violent video games. These males were split into two groups with one group being assigned to play 10 hours of shooting games per week, while the other group functioned as a control (no video games). Each individual was imaged using fMRI at the start of the study, and then once each week for the next two weeks. While they were undergoing the fMRI, the subjects participated in an emotional interference task, where they pressed buttons depending on the color of the words that were shown on a screen. Words that had violent connotations were displayed occasionally between nonviolent action words. Furthermore, the men engaged in a cognitive inhibition counting task.

The results of these studies indicated that after the men played just one week of violent videogames that they had decreased activation in the left inferior frontal lobe during the emotional interference task and that they displayed less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex while they were performing the cognitive inhibition counting task, when compared to the controls. These areas have been linked to control of aggression and emotion.

While the results of this study may be pretty convincing, I think it's going to take a few more studies with similar results before people are willing to give up their beloved violent videogames. Also, if these results do prove to be valid, who would want to try to separate the gamers from their videogames, what with their propensity for increased violence and all?
Posted by      Justin E. at 10:08 PM MST
  Justin Eagles-Soukup  says:
Tom A. Hummer, Yang Wang, William G. Kronenberger, Kristine M. Mosier, Andrew
J. Kalnin, David W. Dunn & Vincent P. Mathews (2010): Short-Term Violent Video Game Play by
Adolescents Alters Prefrontal Activity During Cognitive Inhibition, Media Psychology, 13:2, 136-15
Posted on Sun, 4 Dec 2011 10:09 PM MST by Justin E.

The Joy of Laughter


Laughter. Its something we humans do almost on a daily basis in order to express pleasure yet it is composed of a series of grimaces and loud shrieks. How is it that such a strong, blissful emotion can be connected with such obtuse behaviors? Furthermore where does this feeling of joy come from? The scientists at Stanford say they have it all figured out.

In the December 4 2003 issue of Neuron a study done by the Stanford University School of Medicine asserted that laughter and humor activate the mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system. In this study sixteen adult subjects viewed 42 funny and 42 non-funny cartoons in a random order and were asked to press a button depending on if they found the cartoon funny or not. Prior to the experiment a separate group of subjects with a background similar to the test group chose 42 of the funniest cartoons from a selection of 130 cartoons. 42 non-funny cartoons were then found to match these.

In order to find the areas of the brain that were active when a cartoon was presented to the subject an event related fMRI (efMRI) was used. The areas were determined active if there was an increase in blood flow in that region of the brain. The unpredictable nature of random efMRI designs, the fact that activation was examined on a subject-by-subject and cartoon-by-cartoon basis, an the use of post scan humor ratings ensured that pure reward was being measured while consideration and measurement of individual differences in humor were taken into a account.

The researchers discovered that the regions activated included the ventral tegmentum area, nucleus accumbens, and amygdala, all which are vital to the mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system. Other areas such as the supplementary motor area, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, and inferior frontal gyrus (including Broca's area) were also activated in the left hemisphere which suggests that this hemisphere plays a large role in the processing of reward and positive emotional stimuli. It also suggests that this hemisphere is responsible for the physical display of humor such as smiling and laughter.

Thus when we laugh, we do so because of the release of dopamine which causes the feel good feeling and stimulates the necessary areas that cause the actual behavior of laughing. Dopamine also keeps us laughing due to the reward system it employs.

These discoveries make it is possible to further studies on the use of laughter as medicine. One possible way to study if laughter has beneficial effects is through the use of optogenetics. By activating the areas discovered here with optogenetics, it would be possible to measure the effects laughter has on the immune and cardiovascular systems. It would also be possible to see if laughter could be used to effectively treat forms of depression that are due to a lack of dopamine release within the brain. Another, more necessary study using optogenetics would be to simply test if these areas alone account for humor or if it is the combination of the areas that make something appear funny. By doing these tests it would be possible to see if laughter really is the best medicine or if it is simply a social construction that promotes good feelings.

Citation:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=MiamiImageURL&_cid=272195&_user=10&_pii=S0896627303007517&_check=y&_coverDate=2003-12-04&view=c&_gw=y&wchp=dGLzVlS-zSkzV&_valck=1&md5=2af750b3e08a955b3e8f9c81abfaadc2&ie=/sdarticle.pdf
Posted by      Mari W. at 4:31 PM MST

October 24, 2011

Caught in a Lie: The Role of the Brain in Detecting Deception


Vital to everyday social and economic interactions is the ability to accurately discern whether other individuals are being honest or deceitful. While recognizing dishonesty is no easy matter, it is nonetheless possible even in the absence of signals from facial expression, through careful attention to nonverbal cues. Researcher Julie Grèzes and her colleagues have identified the brain mechanisms that underlie detection of deceptive intent through the use of fMRI technology.

The study involved imaging 11 participants as they viewed videos of actors with blurred faces lifting boxes, and evaluated whether the actors were attempting to deceive them regarding the weight of the box. The results from this experiment were compared to the results from a previous study in which participants were asked to judge whether actors' expectations of a box's weight were false. The key contrasting variable was the judgment of of deceptive intent in the current study, versus the judgment of a false belief resulting in accidental deception in the previous study.

Their research concluded that the amygdala and rostral anterior cingulate cortex were both significantly activated when the participants judged the actors as being intentionally deceptive, yet not when the actors were judged to have unknowingly erroneous beliefs that led to accidental deception.

The amygdala is known to be a critical aspect of the neural circuitry concerning emotion and value appraisal. Additionally, the anterior cingulate cortex is activated when there is intent to directly communicate with the participant, indicated by eye contact and use of the participant's name. Based on such, the researchers speculate that activation of the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex may be suggestive of the observers' valuation of social intentions towards themselves, and could thereby reflect an emotional response to being misled.

Whether activated by an internal sense of fairness or rather an assessment of social intention, the amygdala and rostral anterior cingulate cortex are working together to help catch liars everywhere, red handed.

The original paper can be viewed at: http://www.jneurosci.org/content/24/24/5500.full?sid=4dc151cf-6709-4dae-b031-69ba24dc61c4
Posted by      Anjali C. at 12:00 AM MDT
  Gino Ciarroni  says:
Interesting Anjali,
I find this article to be very intuitive. I question if the concept of deception is an evolved basic instinct. The Amygdala and and rostral anterior cingulate cortex both are triggered in basic survival based learning. The dorsal and rostral areas of the ACC both seem to be affected by rewards and losses associated with errors. The rostral ACC seems to be active after an error commission, indicating an error response function.

While the Amygdala, as part of the limbic system, deals with emotional learing, memory modulation, and social interaction. In regards to social interaction, The amygdala volume correlates positively with both the size (the number of contacts a person has) and the complexity (the number of different groups to which a person belongs) of social networks. Individuals with larger amygdalae had larger and more complex social networks. These people were also better able to make accurate social judgments about other persons' faces. It is hypothesized that larger amygdalae allow for greater emotional intelligence, enabling greater societal integration and cooperation with others. Can Deception be a survival interpretation of where or not we see a stimuli/person as threatening or benefiting? I wonder using the basic parameters, if animals can detect deception.

The amygdala processes reactions to violations concerning personal space. These reactions are absent in persons in whom the amygdala is damaged bilaterally.[42] Furthermore, the amygdala is found to be activated in fMRI when people observe that others are physically close to them, such as when a person being scanned knows that an experimenter is standing immediately next to the scanner, versus standing at a distance
Posted on Fri, 28 Oct 2011 12:02 PM MDT by Gino C.

October 23, 2011

In the eye of the beholder


Optic illusions are fascinating. Sparking curiosity, intrigue and doubt in minds gazing at the impossibilities spawned by them. Most people have been exposed to a variation of the famous "which object is bigger" illusion. If you don't know what I'm talking about, there are two objects of equal size physically, surrounded by various contextual components. These various components give the viewer a false sense of subjectivity in which one object appears larger than the other, even though both objects are identical. It turns out neuroscientists want to better understand the cause behind these false perceptions and even predict human subjectivity in object size.

Your brain contains a primary visual cortex, let's call this thing V1. The size and surface area of V1 has a large range of variability from person to person. Scientists have correlated the surface area of V1 to the subjectivity in object size. Experimentation took place during September 2010 with 30 subjects with the hypothesize correlating V1 surface area and conscious perception differences via FMRI technology. Subjects viewed a "Ebbinghaus" illusion as well as a "Ponzo" illusion. Both are forms of physically identical objects appearing different sizes due to contextual differences surrounding the objects. The Ebbinghaus illusion appears larger due to different size circles surrounding the center circle. While the Ponzo illusion appears larger due to the 3-D context surrounding the images. The resulting data showed a strong and negative correlation between V1 surface area and subjective object size. Meaning: The less V1 surface area, the bigger the difference between the identical objects perceived by subjects. It should be noted that the Ebbinghaus illusion yielded better data for relation than the Ponzo illusion. "The ability to judge fine visual differences in physical stimuli (Vernier acuity) is correlated with the degree of cortical magnification in primary visual cortex".

The article also addressed V1 surface area and brain size do not have a direct relationship. Meaning a bigger brain doesn't constitute greater V1 surface area. Therefore having a larger brain doesn't mean a person is better at correctly determining visual stimuli. V1 actually tended to be smaller in larger brains.

Consider the possibilities of predicting human behavior, opinions and subjectivities by knowing who is more susceptible to illusions and visual stimuli based on brain structure. Knowing exactly how well people can perform certain tasks depending on their brain structure may be far off in the future but it's roots seem to have a firm plantation in the field of research.

Most people like to believe they are in total control of their thoughts, subjectivities and opinions. Yet in this experiment, it showed that people having less surface area of the V1, perceptions of object size were distorted. Your perspective and opinions may not be as genuine as you original believed them to be. Rather just by products of the human brain analyzing stimuli. As neuroscience continues to unravel the mysteries of the human mind ideas such as free will, consciousness and perception may need to be redefined.

(All information was taken from http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v14/n1/full/nn.2706.html)
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The Urge to Experience, How We Respond to Novelty


Human beings once were localized to a a few locations on earth, and yet over time they explored and expanded. The need to travel and experience new areas and landscapes and discover new worlds is what led the polynesians to discover all the islands in the south pacific, Columbus to the new world, and Niel Armstrong to our own moon, and that same desire to experience the unknown is the topic of interest in Brian Knutson's and Jeffrey C. Cooper's article The Lure of the Unknown in the 51 volume, issue 3 of the August 3 2006 copy of the Neuron.

Before this study, the Ventral Tegmental Area and the Substantia Nigra were heavily implicated in the process of conferring salience onto a stimuli. For the purpose of this experiment, the researchers defined salience as one of 4 different pictures presented. One set of pictures depicted novel scenes, one set showed negative scenes, one set was behavioral in nature, as when showed the picture the subjects then were expected to perform a simple action, and one set were simply neutral, and repeated for the last portion of the experiment. These different pictures represented the different forms of salience that could be conferred onto such stimuli. It turns out that the novel pictures through use of fMRI showed the most activity in the VTA and SN, as well as portions of the striatum and the hippocampus, implicating that we place the most salience onto novel pictures and stimuli as opposed to others. Other pictures then showed increased activity in different regions of the brain, such as the negative stimulus activating the locus coeruleus and the amygdala while the neutral pictures activating the hippocampus and the anterior cingulate.

The question of memory stimulation was raised, and contrary to the prediction made due to the fact that the hippocampus was stimulated by novel pictures, memory of novel pictures was not higher than that of repeated pictures. However, an interesting outcome of a related study showed that repeated pictures with the prescence of a few novel pictures thrown in were granted a temporary memory boost, undetectable 1 day later but present after 20 minutes. This contrasted with studies showing that stimuli coupled with reward cues also received memory enhancements implies the possibility that novel stimuli elicit a reward response throughout the brain. Unfortunately the study did not have a category designated for positive pictures which could have played the role as the reward response and then compared to the novel pictures to look for any similarities in the response of the VTA and the SN, as well as the effect it has on memory to see whether novel pictures play reward roles.

These studies collectively form a new basis for further study into the human response to novelty, potentially discovering whether we gain a reward sensation from novelty and whether that even makes us go in search of it, just as historical examples such as Galileo and Niel Armstrong would seem to suggest in their descriptions of experiencing the novelties of space and the limits of the world.

Full Article: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627306005575
Posted by      Christopher R. at 11:22 PM MDT
Tags: amygdala, fmri, memory

True or False: Emotions and Electrons Are Alike (Answer: true)


Remember that one time your girlfriend or boyfriend got ketchup on their nose while eating French fries and you thought it was hilarious, but immediately afterwards you felt guilty because they glared at you and growled for a napkin?

There is a word for that: ambivalence. The word ambivalence means that you feel two contradictory emotions (hilarity and guilty) simultaneously. Look a little more closely at the word ambivalence and you can probably guess what electrons and emotions have in common: valences. Emotional valences, like valence electrons, are shown outwardly on a persons face and they either attract (positive valence) or repel (negative valence) the person at which they are directed.

Many studies, since the advent of the fMRI, have examined the underlying circuitry involved in the expression and perception of emotion, especially negative valence emotions such as anger, sadness, and fear. The paper I analyzed is no exception to this rule: researchers from Kings College London, University College London, and the University of Zürich worked together to a) ascertain the circuitry that underlies the processing of emotionally negative facial expressions, and b) determine whether or not the amygdala is involved in the conscious processing of emotive faces. Basically, they wanted to know if our first response to facial expressions is to think or react.

In the study, a pool of 40 subjects (selected based on a range of nonspecific qualities) were shown a set of 60 faces and a corresponding number of fixation crosses (an image of a white screen on which a + is superimposed), while in an fMRI. Each of the 60 faces displayed either a neutral expression or a negative expression (anger, fear, or sadness) and the subjects used a clicker to indicate whether the face did or did not show an emotion. For each face, the response time and accuracy was recorded and was used in concert with the data provided by the fMRI images. In addition to the tests performed using the fMRI, a battery of statistical tests corrected for noise and anatomical dissimilarities among participants.

The findings are significant: the amygdala is not the only cranial structure that modulates facial processing. To be more specific, their results show that while the amygdala is involved in the processing of facial affect(Dima et al 1) there are also pathways to and from the fusiform gyrus, the inferior occipital gyrus, and the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which do not involve the amygdala. Most notably, anger was mediated by the inferior occipital gyrus and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, not the amygdala.

What does all of that mean?

Basically, our brains have evolved for cognition for so long that we now respond to physical or emotional danger (anger in this case) in a cognitive fashion. We think before we react to a potentially harmful event.

Now think back for a second to your girlfriend or boyfriend with ketchup all over their nose. If this research holds, you will not immediately react and give them the napkin; you will, in fact, think about the potential harm that could come to you if you do not (minimal: they probably will not punch you), and the potential benefits you will reap if you do not (photographic evidence of the event). As far as I am concerned this decision is easy: memory is leaky; emotions are transient; but a picture lasts a lifetime.

What would you do?

Source: https://cuvpn.colorado.edu/content/31/40/,DanaInfo=www.jneurosci.org+14378.full.pdf+html?sid=20ba56d1-84f2-4fdb-b108-83aed6437270
Edited by      Christina U. at 2:03 PM MDT

July 31, 2011

Trust Me. It'll Feel Good.


Trustworthiness has always been a revered personality trait. So much so that most of us are willing to look past any number of distasteful attributes if somebody proves to be 'trustworthy.' Ask the next person you see what they're looking for in a partner, plumber, or political candidate and they're guaranteed to put trust near the top of the list.

Trust is an emotion that's difficult for most people to define; like love. People just know when they feel it. No doubt, most of us would include words like 'truthful,' 'ethical, and 'dependable' in our definitions of what it means to be trustworthy. Such words, though, are themselves abstractions that don't define what it means to trust another person.

How is it, then, that we know when we can trust somebody? What do people do that earns them the distinction of being trustworthy? Why is it that some people are awash with trust, and others reserve the emotion for only a few, select people? And what is it about trust that makes it such an exalted trait?

Like so many other neuropsychological questions, the answers appear to lie within our good friend, dopamine: the ever-present, ever-pervasive, and always welcomed neurotransmitter that provides its host with a strong sense of reward and pleasure. It's the magic brain-gravy that's responsible for things like our desire to eat high-calorie foods and our motivation to perform self-benefiting tasks. According to some recent research, though, dopamine may also be responsible for the establishment of trust between two people.

A team of neuroscientists, Brooks King-Casas and Read Montague, et. al., designed an experiment that centered on a simple economic game in which receiving a reward required participants to trust one another with their money. If a player was feeling a bit greedy, he or she could steal from the pot at any time and, in doing so, erase the trust that had been established. By using a technique called 'hyper-scanning,' researchers were able to monitor subjects' brains as they interacted with other subjects in separate fMRI scanners. It wasn't long before the scientists were able to predict whether or not a player would steal from the pot several seconds before the theft actually took place. The secret to the researchers' clairvoyance was found in imaging of the caudate nucleus during gameplay.

The c-shaped caudate nuclei - found in both of the brain's hemispheres - play key roles in memory formation and the processing of external feedback. They are also heavily innervated by dopamine neurons. As each player participated in the game, it was the caudate nuclei that monitored the actions of the other players.

Initially, the caudate didn't activate until the subjects actually trusted one-another. It was then that each player received their dopamine reward and the caudate nuclei came alive. However, the caudate began to expect those rewards and started firing long before the player received any money from the other participants. The bonds of trust would then strengthen every time the player received their money; reassuring them that they weren't going to be let down.

These findings suggest that trust may not be such a noble trait after all. It appears that the highly regarded emotion may be little more than a gluttonous system designed to satisfy our primitive dopaminergic needs. When I say that someone is trustworthy, I'm really saying that they reliably satisfy some need I have. If you show that you are willing to satisfy that need - thereby flooding all the right parts of my brain with happy juice - I will trust you. And trust me, it feels good.

Main Article: http://www.hnl.bcm.tmc.edu/articles/Read/Getting_TO_Know_You2005.pdf
Posted by      Nicholas M. at 11:30 PM MDT

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
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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

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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