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December 5, 2011

What will they think of next?

Who knew? In the 1960's up until the 1970's ablative stereotactic surgery was used to treat neurologic disorders and neuropsychiatric illness. This treatment was largely abandoned after the 70's due to the development of highly effective drugs to treat these problems, for example, "Levodopa" to combat Parkinson's disorder. Today there seems to be a virtual renaissance of similar techniques used to help those suffering.

The technique being employed uses high-frequency electrical deep brain stimulation (DBS) on specific targets to negate some disorders. Compared to the traditional ablative stereotactic surgery, which consists of lesions and very invasive brain surgery (irreversible), DBS is much less invasive in some respects. By applying high-frequency electrical stimulation to specific brain structures a similar (but different) effect of a lesion is essentially observed. Ever since this technique's rise in popularity (starting in the 1990's) people have the option of a "less permanent". These electrical pulses are delivered by electrodes chronically implanted into a persons brain at specific regions. The exact mechanism of action for DBS still isn't fully understood and clear, but the affects and benefits to patients are both lasting and clear.

Some of the diseases mentioned in the article include Parkinson's, Tourettes syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder and depression. Patients receiving DBS to treat Tourettes syndrome had a >70% decrease of vocal or motor tics with disappearance of sensory urges. 35-70% of patients receiving DBS to treat OCD were benefitted by a significant reduction in obsessive and compulsive thoughts.

In my opinion, and it seems to be the case with most neurosurgical operations, DBS is the latest and greatest treatment available. Anytime patients can avoid a permanent/irreversible effect such as a lesion the better. My reasoning behind is vast. For example if a patient is suffering from body dissociation disorder and doesn't identify with their right arm and right leg and wants to have these two limbs removed. This persons could amputate these limbs without fully understanding the long term consequences involved or even without any benefit mentally. Or perhaps, the doctor could try a different technique, such as lesioning a brain region located using fMRI thought to be triggering body dissociation disorder. There is a chance the lesion might not properly treat the disorder or not treat it at all. Also the lesion may impair the individual in a more negative way in the long run, and since lesions are practically irreversible, the person is worse off. If DBS was used (tmi could be used as a pre-emptive mapping tool) the patient could be treated for their disorder in a non permanent way and avoid negative, unforeseen, long term issues.

I'm not entirely sure how invasive DBS is but the article made it out to be much less invasive as previous surgeries. Which to me makes sense since over time medical practices should become more and more efficient. Something haunts me about the fact little is truly known and fully understood about DBS and TMI. Little red flags go up in my head every time that fact is mentioned. Whether or not it is effective and beneficial I would prefer to know exactly why it is effective and beneficial before doctors implanted electrodes in my brain to deliver pulses of high-frequency electricity. This honestly sounds like something out of a science fiction story but the real freaky part is it seems to actually work. The big question is: Would you ever have DBS performed on yourself? My answer is yes.
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Pay Attention! The Relationship Between Memory and Attention

Memory and attention are not always seen as being related, however Johnson and Chun's article, the connections between the two of these processes are looked at in detail. This article would be considered a meta-analysis of several studies on the topic of memory and the different attention states themselves. Both perceptual and reflective attention was studied and reported, showing interesting results about how the brain categorizes and retrieves memories in relation to these types of attention. The majority of the studies that were focused on within the article had been arranged and performed by the authors of the article, giving an interesting perspective.

Neuroimaging was used to determine the areas of the brain most activated by certain stimuli. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was the technique most referred to in this article; fMRI's are used to visualize the neural activity based on the hemodynamic response of glucose release within the brain. With this technique, it was seen that similar areas of the brain are activated when a stimulus is first observed (what the article refers to as perception) and when the same stimulus is being recalled (referred to as reflection). For instance, a cue for a visual memory will cause a higher activity level in the visual cortex in the same way that the visual cortex was originally stimulated when the cue was first observed. Similar responses are seen in both short term and long term memory recollection.

It has also been observed that certain activities that relate to either perceptual attention, like repetition attenuation, or reflective attention, like reactivating and retrieving, activate areas that are generally similar to the areas activated during the experience of remembering. Beyond the areas originally involved, there are other areas involved in the processes of memory and attention. These areas include frontal and parietal areas such as the hippocampus, the anterior cingulate cortex, and other various areas of the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain. The article demonstrates that refreshing perceptual events, using both types of memory also shows similarity in both activity levels and in the sections that are activated. The studies have shown that there can be severe interference if a participant is told to recall multiple objects or situations that were encoded with similar attention states and that are located in similar areas.

This article could have improved if it had looked at multiple sources of stimulus rather than just visual stimulants, as there could be vastly different results from memories of different senses. Furthermore, reviewing their own experimental studies could give rise to a bias in the analysis of the studies. However, this article did bring up some important ideas.

The conclusions drawn from this article could lead to many other topics of research that could help in the understanding of how the ways of memory, attention, and how they are able to work together. Further knowledge of these relationships could provide information on how to improve educational systems and could promote more effective ways of learning.

Chun, M. M., Johnson, M. K. (2011). Memory: Enduring traces of perceptual and reflective attention. Neuron, 72(4), 520-535. Retrieved from
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A Terrible Mistake Has Been Made

Human Immunodeficiency virus (HIV) today has been wrecking the lives of the people today. Categorized as one of the top world killers in the world, scientists have worked hard to find the cure. For those who are patiently waiting for a cure, many participate in CARTs or combination antiretroviral therapy which uses the combination of different antiretroviral drugs to stop HANDS or HIV associative neurocognitive disorders. Patients participating in this therapy were found to experience increase damage to brain. It was concluded the therapy is not an effective way to combat HANDS. Mihyun and her team exposed hippocampi of rats to gp120 for different lengths of time, than inhibited suspected proteins of the pathway such as CXC4R and then viewed the results with Open Lab software and calcium imaging.

Gp120, a surface protein that functions to bind to T-cells, is a toxin that enhances NMDA activation, but how, no one knows how. Studies found by disrupting the trafficking of NMDA resulted in disorders such as Alzheimer's. Evidence suggested that gp120 assembles NMDA receptors into clumps or modified microdomains. This occurred by increasing the size and stability of lipid rafts which are involved in receptor trafficking. Mihyun and her team used this theory as a baseline to discover the mechanism.

The team was successful in finding a mechanism. First gp120 enhanced the transport of NMDA receptors into the membrane by signaling phosphorylation of the C terminal which regulated transportation of NMDA. Exposure of gp120 to the hippocampi was found to increase the levels of phosphorylation, specifically phosphorylation of serine 897 and serine 896. Finally inhibition of PKA or PKC resulted in halting gp120 activity. PKA and PKC were thus concluded as the kinases activated by gp120 to phosphorylate the C terminal.

Then gp120 stabilized NMDA receptor microdomains by increasing the size of lipid rafts. Ceramide, a substance used by lipid rafts, was believed to be involved in increasing the size and stability of lipid rafts. Ceramide is synthesized by hydrolysis of sphingomyelin, a type of lipid. By blocking hydrolytic pathways in the hippocampi, the lipid rafts were observed not to be increase in size. In particular the enzyme nSMase2 which hydrolyzes sphingmyelin, was found to be the one responsible for increasing lipid raft sizes. Mihyuan took this further and inhibited key factor from a separate pathway that also increased lipid rafts. CXCR4, a protein that HIV uses, was found to increase lipid rafts with the use secondary messengers called IP3 and PKC.

Finally Mihyun and team found that by stabilizing the lipid rafts, NMDAR receptors were prevented from dispersing from the microdomains. Gp120 were first exposed to hippocampi then exposed to Beta cyclodextrin, a drug that is used to disrupt lipid rafts.
Mihyun and her team had made a great contribution which will has brought us one step closer to finding a cure. Though it may seem like only a baby step, at least we are one step closer.

Bae, Mihyun, et al. "The Human Immunodeficiency Virus Coat Protein gp120 Promotes Forward Trafficking and Surface Clustering of NMDA Receptors in Membrane Microdomains." The Journal of Neuroscience 31.47 (2011): 17074-17090
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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
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Practice makes perfect- Training your brain for music

Were you ever forced to learn an instrument as a young child? Did you ever hear the dreadful words "have you practiced today" or did you have to have your parents sign papers indicating that you did indeed practice 1hr of flute each day, so that you may receive an A in music class. Or were you one of the fortunate children who actually enjoyed playing an instrument?
The common notion is that practicing music has beneficial effects. In addition we often say that musicians are wired differently, that they approach problems differently. But what does that mean in the neuroanatomical sense?
A study by Christian Gaser and Gottfried Schlaug compared brain regions of musicians and non-musicians with the voxel-by-voxel morphometirc technique to try and uncover anatomical differences amongst the two groups' brain structures.
Their approach was to say that musicians learn certain motor and auditory skills in their musical practice, and that such learning would evoke some difference in the brains of adult musicians compared to non-musicians. Their results provided grounds that there was indeed a difference in brain anatomy between the test subjects, a volumetric difference in the gray matter. Musicians had a larger gray matter in the motor, auditory and spatial-visual areas of the brain than non-musicians. However the researchers were unable to determine whether or not this difference was predisposed or acquired. The researchers suggest that the difference in gray matter volume is induced through practice rather than being predisposed, however they were unable to prove their hypothesis since their experiment did not specifically focus on the issue.
Several years later one of the researchers, Gottfried Schlaug, teamed up with several other researchers to focus on the brain development of young musicians. This experiment measured the regional brain plasticity of young children. One group received musical training for 15 months while the other didn't. Their results indicated that children with musical training did indeed have a greater voxel size expansion meaning it diverged from the typical brain development.
Even though the results indicated that musical training does result in increasing gray matter of certain anatomical regions in the brain, the researchers could not completely rule out the idea of a genetic predisposition. Meaning the question whether nature or nurture is responsible for the volumetric difference, still stands. Do we have to be born a musician or can we learn to be one. Either way, both papers seem to indicate that there are beneficial factors to learning an instrument at a young age. So for those of us who were forced to learn an instrument, it indicates that no harm was done at least not in the conventional sense. A fear from pianos (pianophobia)_or other instruments (instrumentophobia) due to horrid enslaving teachers is a different story, one that would take us more into the direction of psychology. But if your parents are still disappointed that you didn't turn out to be a great musician, just indicate that nature might still have a role and that maybe you just weren't meant to be the next Beethoven.

Original Sources:
Gaser, C., Schlaug, G; (2003). Brain Structures Differ Between Musicians and Non-Musicians. The Journal of Neuroscience. 23.27.

Hyde, K. L., Lerch, J., Norton, A., Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Evans, A. C., Schlaug, G., (2009). Musical Training Shapes Structural Brain development. The Journal of neuroscience. 29, 10.
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Reasons You Should (not) Text and Read

Tap tap tap tap tap Bam Bam Bam *moaning* TAP TAP TAP TAP BAM BAM BA-BAM BAM BAM!

Take a page out of the Dr. Chun and Johnson book: if your roommate is having wild and kinky sex just next door, find someplace else to write your Civil War research paper. Keep in mind, this advice does extend beyond sex as a distraction and a research paper as a task. In the November 17, 2011 issue of Neuron the review Memory: Enduring Traces of Perceptual and Reflective Attention made several assertions about the aggrandizing body of literature concerned with the networks involved in and interactions between attention and memory. Research concerned with the dynamic interplay of memory and attention, currently, is sparse; until very recently, neuroscience research has focused either on attention or memory. Lately, however, researchers have found that their results about attention or memory phenomena cannot be explained without more information about how they are conjoined. The purpose of this review was to assess advances that have been made, possible applications of the results, and hypotheses to be tested in future studies.

Looking back at the poor sap listening to his roommate get it on not five feet away, while he is attempting to concentrate on how Union soldiers mistreated Confederate women and children, made me wonder if he can pay any attention to the task he is supposed to at the moment (his paper). Thankfully, I do not have to conduct a research experiment myself to see if he will succeed: this question was already answered in A general mechanism for perceptual decision-making in the human brain. The answer is simple: if the task you are concentrating on is easily accomplished then the amount of attention you need to devote to it is low (low load), and, unfortunately, distractions will impact your efforts much more than if the task is not easily accomplished. If the task is difficult, the cognitive load will be high and distractions are not as likely to detract from your concentration. I think the paper he is writing has a high cognitive load, but I also am inclined to think that the amount of sensory input he is getting, from task-irrelevant sources, is not low on the cognitive load scale and, therefore, his reflective attention on the paper will suffer.

Beyond informing us how to respond to demanding situations, this review reflects on various findings that have been made, and steps to be taken, in the exploration of the pathways implicated in memory and attention. A major discovery that was made recently, (July 2011) by a conglomeration of researchers from the Netherlands, is that, not only do attention and memory interact, memories of images, (reflective representations specifically) when retrieved, activate the same pathways as though the image was seen twice. The implications are clear: that picture in your head of your long lost lover perfectly replicates what he or she looks like in real life, right? Not quite, all that Oliver et al. discovered is that the same pathways are activated in the perception and recall of a dot or shape, which cannot be extrapolated any further.

However, that is not to say that none of the studies in this review came to similar conclusions; a few even arrived at conclusions, and observed results, that are salient to the human condition. A few of the more scintillating results include, but are not limited to, the fact that when we are not distracted the amount of and detail in which we remember information is extraordinary (implications for people with ADD/ADHD); the harder a task actually is, the more likely we are to focus on it than on distracting stimuli (studying habits); and, the ability of older adults to enhance memory (learn new things), while simultaneously being unable to distinguish false memories from true memories, and remember salient information from the past (memory loss due to aging).

The study of memory and attention interactions is new and, because of the information already gleaned from studies focused solely on attention or memory, certain questions can already be answered about their interactions. I, like the Civil War historian listening to his obnoxious roommate slam his way to a TBI, am not satisfied to simply sit around and listen (in my case about studies that have been performed, in his case sex). I am interested to learn more about attention-memory interactions and, someday, contribute to this fascinating field of study.

Now, who is ready for a pop quiz on the interactions of memory and attention?

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December 3, 2011

Drinking on the Job: How Flies get Drunk

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night... I know what you're thinking. No class till Monday, no work, what a great night to get ahead on studying and up to date with all the problems in the world. However, I must point out this plan is not the first thing that pops into everyone else's mind (at least those outside the world of the poor soul who is reading this neuroscience blog). Much of western society is based around the beverage/drug/poison we've come to know as alcohol. It has come to the attention of neuroscientist that our race is not the only one that takes pleasure in consuming firewater. It turns out some researchers were playing with the old 160 proof lab ethanol when they came upon an astounding discovery.

It all started when one turned to the other and croaked, "I'm drunkk frog haha." The other slurred back, "weelll thenn, gooood thing I'm not a fly huh?" That's when it hit them. "Eureka!" piped the first. "Oh my god!" yelled the second. "Let's" get the flies wasted!" the second hollered back. They quickly spun off their lab stools and bustled for the fly room stumbling and tripping the whole way. When they got to the room they immediately grabbed the first beaker of flies, ripped out the cork and filled it full of the powerful booze, instantly killing all the flies inside. Once they realized the horrendous massacre they had just committed in front of all the hundreds of thousands of other flies in the room their drunken smiles slipped off. The beaker was placed on the counter as the two somber scientists held each other with silent tears streaming down their cheeks. Then one started laughing; irritated, the other muttered, "How can you laugh at a time like this? We just killed them, in front of their families... drowned them, squashed them like flies... "Look, that one's drunk," the other researcher pointed at a fly that was clearly not adhering to the standard sober drosophila flight pattern. They watched the fly for nearly two hours, they sat on the fly room floor entranced by the fly's drunken escapades. Then as its flight pattern began to return to normal it headed back to the beaker full of booze, and began gulping down, without a thought to the dead brothers, sisters, cousins and children floating on top. Gleeful laughter burst from the researchers as they cheersed and began taking large quaffs of their own. Quickly forgetting their bloody hands they then began pulling the corks of the other beakers, filling up petri dishes with ethanol, and pipetting small volumes of ethanol in for the larvae--so no one was left out. They spent the whole night at the lab with their new found drinking buddies and had a gay old time. A few days later after their handover was gone they decided to write a paper.

It was determined drosophila liked the inebriation caused by excessive consumption of ethanol. Like us, the flies were experiencing their pleasure through the activation of the dopamine pathway. Activating this pathway induced LTP in the flies. Looking further into the flies' neural circuitry the researchers determined the rewarding memories the flies experienced (or the lack of memory if they got too plastered from not getting enough sugar before) were localized, accessed and retrieved with a distinct set of neurons in the mushroom body. With the vast number of flies they got drunk the researchers' found some flies didn't come back to drink. The experimenters were obviously offended and quickly squashed them. However, they didn't stop there; they proceeded to analyze the DNA so they could breed out the bad gene and make sure no other flies would be lame. They found mutations in scabrous were responsible. They commonly call it the party pooper gene around the lab. "This gene encodes a fibrinogen-related peptide that regulates Notch signaling, disrupted the formation of memories for ethanol reward" (Kaun, 2011). The experimenters have been thought to have had a little bit too much fun drinking with the flies, but they have felt the public pressure. Now they're looking into how this research will help their own species and we will undoubtedly be hearing more from them soon.

Hope you enjoyed the read, sincerely Charlie Stewart

"A Drosophila model for alcohol reward"
Karla R Kaun, Reza Azanchi, Zaw Maung, Jay Hirsh & Ulrike Heberlein
Nature Neuroscience April 17th 2011
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Deep Brain Stimulation - A Different Approach

Let's talk about Parkinson's Disease (PD). PD is one of the most prevalent neurodegenerative disorders in the world for people over the age of fifty; as the population has aged and people have started living longer, PD diagnosis has increased significantly. Some of the symptoms include tremor (shaking), akinesia (inability to initiate movement), muscle rigidity, and later in the progression of the disease, slowed speech, blank staring, and dementia. So there are motor and cognitive problems associated with PD, but this post will deal with the reduction of the earlier-onset motor symptoms.

There are two main types of treatment for PD motor symptoms: drugs and deep brain stimulation (DBS). The drugs usually have a compound called L-Dopa, which is a precursor in the formation of the neurotransmitter dopamine, the lack of which has been implicated in inducing the motor symptoms of PD.

The other treatment, DBS, can only be used on some patients, namely those for whom the drugs have had little to no effect and who are also healthy enough to undergo surgery and stay alive for longer than a few years. What they do is create an open-loop (i.e. not a closed circuit) by surgically inserting an electrode into a specific region of the brain, which is connected to a pacemaker-type device called a pulse generator (IPG) that they insert below the neck. Doctors then set the IPG to a certain frequency, so the electrode will send out electrical signals into the brain every so often, and this has been shown to reduce the motor symptoms of PD.

The whole process takes up to a year, with the surgery and adjustments to the properties of the stimulation being continuously modulated until the motor symptoms are reduced and the side effects of the stimulation are not too severe. But, since PD is a progressive disease, the motor symptoms will continue getting worse and the DBS stimulation will continue to need adjustments more and more frequently as the disease progresses.

The issue with this is that no one really knows why DBS works, so all of the adjustments are guesses (systematic guesses, but guesses nonetheless) and patients need to keep coming into the hospital, which costs a lot of money, time, and frustration when their symptoms are not relieved. This is where research in the "closed-loop," or real-time adaptive, DBS comes in. This potential form of DBS also involves a chip that is used to record when natural electrical signaling occurs in the brain region the DBS electrode is in. The recording then sets the properties of the DBS stimulation on the IPG and sets a timer for when the electrode will deliver that stimulation, producing a feedback loop, and decreasing the need for the constant hospital visits.

One study found that given some specific criteria for the wait-time and the number of stimulations, some PD symptoms were reduced (namely akinesia) to a greater extent than with open-loop DBS. However, the study also found many problems with using closed-loop rather than open-loop DBS to alleviate motor symptoms, but these problems have to do with what actually causes the motor problems associated with PD. As such, the study concludes that with more research on the efficacy of closed-loop DBS and on the details of the cause of PD motor symptoms, closed-loop DBS could be used as a potential treatment for PD that will produce not only a more significant reduction of motor problems, but will also enhance the long-term efficacy of using DBS as PD progresses.

Rosin, B., Slovik, M., Mitelman, R., Rivlin-Etzion, M., Haber, S. N., Israel, Z., . . . Bergman, H. (2011). Closed-loop deep brain stimulation is superior in ameliorating Parkinsonism. Neuron, 72(2), 370-384. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2011.08.023 Retrieved from
Posted by      Anna G. at 11:58 AM MST

December 2, 2011

Resonance among corporeal bodies: it might just exist in humans

"Self-construal" refers to how individuals view and make meaning of the self; at least two subtypes have been identified. Interdependent self-construal is a view of the self that includes relationships with others, and independent self-construal is a view of the self that does not include others. An individual's adoptive cognitive processing style with regard to context sensitivity is thought to be affected by the priming of these two types of self-construal. Simply put, the way a person thinks is influenced by how sensitive they are to their immediate context; priming interdependent or independent self-construal affects an individual's contextual sensitivity and by extension how an individual consequently thinks.

We affect how we think.

Okay, so that's not something new. The interesting thing is the notion that context sensitivity affects motor resonance among corporeal bodies. Yes, I'm talking about the human body and yes, we exhibit resonance. Apparently.

If you're having a hard time swallowing that idea for the first time (or if you're like me and find it intriguing in a nerdy way), perhaps a better way of thinking about it is a sort of 'subconscious chatter' of an individual's behavior emanating out from their body and, depending on how responsive we are to these continuously sent little packets of information, we subconsciously "resonate" the chatter in our own bodies in a social setting. It seems to me that resonance is another way of looking at the nonconscious mind and its effects on our behavior in a way we wouldn't normally think about.

A recent article published in The Journal of Neuroscience presents the case that motor resonance occurs between corresponding muscles in two individuals (at least in a passive observation activity conducted in the study). Ten participants (five male, five female; age range 18-39 years) were subjected to focal transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of contralateral motor cortex while watching a video superimposed by an interdependent self-construal prime word, independent self-construal prime word, or no prime word. Focal contralateral motor cortex TMS elicited motor-evoked potentials (MEPs, amplitudes adjusted to ~1 mV at baseline fixation-cross control condition) measured from the abductor pollicis brevis (APB) muscle [the muscle of your palm attached to your thumb] of the participant's right hand. The 'motor resonance' part of the study was the passive observation of the video that showed a model contracting the APB muscle to squeeze a rubber ball between the index finger and thumb. Interdependent priming-elicited MEPs with a greater amplitude than the unprimed action showed greater motor resonance (presumably due to increased context sensitivity), and independent priming-elicited MEPs with a smaller amplitude than the unprimed action showed less resonance (presumably due to decreased context sensitivity).

They found that observation of the videos regardless of the priming condition facilitated MEPs of greater amplitude compared with the baseline fixation-cross condition (no-priming and interdependent priming condition MEP increases > independent priming condition). Little surprise there; watching a video rather engages more thought than watching fixed crosshairs. Interdependent self-construal priming facilitated motor cortical outputs beyond the unprimed-induced facilitation, and independent self-construal priming relatively suppressed unprimed-induced facilitation. Interdependent self-construal priming effects motor resonance; independent self-construal somewhat depresses motor resonance.

That's pretty interesting. So how does that tie to the whole corporeal resonance-subconscious body-to-body chatter thing?

The underlying idea is behavioral mimicry in social settings; 'contextual motor resonance sensitivity' mediates nonconscious mimicry in social settings, presumably involving the mirror neuron system (appropriately named). We resonate with other individuals on some level depending on our sensitivity to those around us. This implies that the reason why we imitate or mimic other individuals' behaviors and actions is not necessarily because we might under the influence of something and more sociable (disinhibited) from how we normally act or but rather being brought to a more resonance-receptive state/less resonance-unreceptive state; how we are brought to a more receptive state is through priming (by ourselves, others, quotes, environment, etc.). Conversely, priming also takes us farther from resonance reception/stronger resonance resistance. This article concludes that the study therefore supports the idea that motor resonant systems in the human brain mediate behavioral mimicry.

A little more on the mirror system. Complications with the mirror neuron system whether deficits or other abnormalities may play a role in disorders of excessive or reduced social influence, such as individuals with autism spectrum disorders, compulsive imitation, or psycho-pathic personality traits. Novel therapeutic interventions based on the findings of this study may benefit such patients greatly, and may even benefit us as well. Inducing interdependent self-construal could potentially make learning by observation more efficient.

Do you think resonance is the reason why we feel smarter when certain people stand next to us (or is that a bit too far of a stretch...)?

Link to the article:
Edited by      Patricia W. at 10:09 PM MST
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Alcoholism: Can it be Cured?

Alcoholism to this day is one of the most deadly and chronic diseases, that is interestingly controversial with regards to symptoms, treatment, diagnosis, and even heritability. How can a disease be so dangerous and historical and yet not even be remotely understood? As medicine, science, and technology move forward we are rapidly moving towards this inconceivable goal, but treatment is still only moderately successful along with progressive pharmacotherapies for all addictions.

A huge part of this lack of understanding of this disease is the fact that alcoholics are all different in a variety of ways; including their symptoms. There are numerous biological mechanisms as a result of alcohol addiction, all of them varying in their manners and withdraw. So recent studies show that these different mechanisms represent different stages of alcoholism, which could be relieved by different treatments. Regardless, these treatments have to block motivation to seek and consume alcohol.

Researchers have determined two categories: relief and reward drinkers. Reward drinkers drink to reward themselves the same way many drugs work, by activating brain reward pathways. Relief drinkers drink to relieve negative emotions, such as anxiety and feelings of withdrawal. Obviously these two varying types of alcoholics require different treatments.

It has also been discovered that alcoholism is marginally heritable. Genetic susceptibility is an alcoholic trait that can be passed down from generation to generation, however these varying types of alcoholism are largely based on environmental factors. These would include things such as how often the individual is exposed to stress or put in a circumstance of reward.

So now, is it possible to treat either one or both of these forms of alcoholism? Studies show that the reward system of alcoholism is mediated by a collaboration of endogenous opioids and dopamine release. Activation of dopamine in the mesolimbic pathway has been correlated to many other sorts of drug addictions. Dopamine is regulated in the corticomesolimbic system by a receptor known as MOR (mu-opioid receptor), which if blocked, prevents dopamine release caused by alcohol consumption. A drug known as naltrexone is an antagonist of opioid receptors, and is currently being researched as treatment for reward alcoholics.

Next is relief drinking. Relief drinkers drink to suppress stress, anxiety, discomfort, pain, and dysphoria. These alcoholics generally end up setting the stage for routine and frequent alcohol consumption to escape negative emotions. Recently, it has been discovered that release of CRF is central to this behavior. CRF (Corticotropin-releasing factor) is a peptide that is released into the anterior pituitary by alcohol consumption in relief drinkers, which in turn releases ACTH and stimulates cortisol release, reducing stress. CRF regulation and function is somewhat genetically determined, which makes a pharmacological cure more difficult and less likely to be successful. However, studies have shown that in individuals with naturally decent regulation of CRF could likely be treated for relief alcoholism; via CRF1 antagonism. Research is still ongoing as to whether this would be a sufficient method to treat alcoholics.

Alcoholism is a very complex disease, by which human understanding is challenged and pushed to therapeutic limits. This blog marks a tremendous step in the right direction towards understanding alcoholism and possibly curing the disease one day, but until that day comes there is plenty more to learn and to gain.

Heilig, Markus, David Goldman, Wade Berrettini, and Charles P. O'Brien. "Pharmacogenetic Approaches to the Treatment of Alcohol Addiction : Article : Nature Reviews Neuroscience." Nature Publishing Group : Science Journals, Jobs, and Information. 20 Oct. 2011. Web. 02 Dec. 2011. .
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October 23, 2011

To sleep or not to sleep

We've all been told that sleep has benefits, especially in college where sleep becomes more of a luxury than anything else. Sometimes there is just not enough time, but more often than not we are unwilling to give up the things we love just to have two more hours of sleep. But nonetheless I think it's safe to say that we have all experienced benefits from a good nights sleep. We need that extra energy so that the next day can suck it right out again. But why is it that we feel rested after sleeping for a decent amount of time?
Scientists have been trying to answer this question for a long time and from various angles. More recently researchers have suggested that a difference in the brain's ATP level might be linked to this phenomena. It's an interesting thought since ATP is the energy source of the body. But why the brain?
The brain only encompasses about 2% of our entire body mass. However it is one of the prime energy users. The brain utilizes about 20% of glucose and oxygen, both prime energy sources for the body. That means that 1/5 of the energy is being used by an organ that only comprises 2% of the body. So it does make sense to take a closer look at the brain when it comes to ATP levels.
A recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience has shown that there are indeed differences in ATP levels during not only awake and sleep states but also the different sleep states and different brain areas. The results showed an ATP surge during the sleep state occurring at the onset hours of sleep.
So what does this surge do? Sadly enough it doesn't magically provide extra information for the next days exam, though that would be nice. The surge serves as nourishment to our brain, so that biosynthetic pathways can be restored. So in a way these surges of ATP are little helpers.
While working on this research, the researchers discovered that the ATP surges showed a correlation to the EEG NREM delta activity in spontaneous sleep. EEG NREM delta activity simply means that the waves generated by the NREM sleep period were of size delta and measured by an EEG. In the NREM period the neuronal activity drops and less energy is consumed which is exactly when the surge of ATP would occur.
Now how is this helpful to us other than just having gained some extra knowledge? The research shows the importance of sleep to our bodies' homeostasis. During the day we (hopefully) have high neural activity thus we are using up a lot of energy/ATP, but during the night we have low neural activity and thus use up less energy. So we get an energy surge at the onset of our sleep to take care of the restoration of biosynthetic pathways; at this point it is important that we are not using that energy surge for other purposes (like neural activity). So if we wake up to early because class might just be about to start, we have not been able to fully restore the biosynthetical pathways before our neural activity sets in again.
So you might argue that sleep is an important factor in test preparation as well. You might have studied as well as possible but if you did not let your body do its work over night, your biosynthetical pathways are not up to date.
So be kind and give your body a decent amount of sleep, that way you only have to worry about the actual studying.

Full article:
Posted by      Rebecca v. at 11:56 PM MDT

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
Posted by      Dylan R. at 11:46 PM MDT
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The Neuroanatomy Behind Sociability

The Neuroanatomy Behind Sociability

People, like all primates, are inherently social animals. We live, work, and play together. We are defined by our relationships. However, individuals have varying degrees of sociability. The size and shape of our social networks varies from person to person. There are social butterflies - people who seem to know someone wherever they go. Who boast large numbers of contacts and network effortlessly. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the wallflowers - those with more modest social networks, who interact mainly with a select handful of people. A person's sociability - whether they are a social butterfly, or a wallflower, or somewhere in between - seems innate. It seems to be a fundamental characteristic of a person.

As a strong introvert, I've often wondered, what makes one person a social butterfly and another a wallflower? What's the difference between a person with 5 friends and person with 50?

According to an article published in the journal Nature Neuroscience in February, the answer lies in part with the Amygdala. Researchers took 58 healthy men and women ages 19 to 83 and measured both the size and complexity of the subjects' social networks using something called the Social Network Index. The results of the analysis were then compared with the relative size of the subjects' amygdalas. There was significant correlation. The authors state,

"We found that amygdala volume correlates with the size and complexity of social networks in adult humans. An exploratory analysis of subcortical structures did not find strong evidence for similar relationships with any other structure, but there were associations between social network variables and cortical thickness in three cortical areas, two of them with amygdala connectivity. These findings indicate that the amygdala is important in social behavior."

In addition, while amygdala volume was found to be correlated specifically with social network size, "amygdala volume did not relate to other measures of social functioning such as perceived social support and life satisfaction." This is important because it means that the findings of correlation are more specific than social functioning as a whole.

These results were not entirely surprising to the researchers. Previous studies in other (nonhuman) primates "strongly support a link between amygdala volume and social network size and social behavior." This latest research is, however, the first study to show correlation within a certain species and between individuals of that species.

So, does this mean that a person's social fate is sealed? That their social network size was dictated at conception along with eye color? Luckily, the answer is no; at least not entirely. Within the study, there were individuals with small amygdalas and enviable social networks as well as individuals with larger amygdalas, yet smaller network sizes. In addition, the results are corollary, and say nothing about social learning or nurture (as opposed to nature). (So, those Dale Carnegie books might prove useful yet!)

The authors' analysis of the study does not seem very focused on the individual. The important thing appears to be the trend - the statistical correlation. The authors hold that the findings are important because they support an evolutionary view called the 'social brain hypothesis'. The social brain hypothesis states that mammals evolved larger brains in part as a response to selective pressures to be more social, which required greater processing capacity. The authors also expect these results to act as preliminary data in future studies looking at larger brain networks that dictate social network size and complexity.

In spite of these more lofty applications, the individual correlation still remains. So, the next time you assess your Facebook friend quota, whether its admirable, or not so much, remember, it might simply reflect your respective amygdala.
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Technology: Virtue or Vice to Our Brains?

It is undeniable that our daily lives are inundated with technology. Our society and this world work hand in hand with technology on a close, almost dependent level. It is only in the last few decades that we have become so co oriented with technology, and it is becoming a more pressing issue than ever that we question the effects of this change. As humans, who we are is shaped by our experiences, and knowing and acknowledging this fact means we have to question both the pros and cons of such a new and close relationship with technology. When looking at this relationship it is not a question of whether or not humans are being affected by technology but how technology is affecting us.

Technology includes a multitude of different things and cannot be considered one single entity. Because it is so multidimensional it is not necessarily a good or a bad thing; a greater breakdown is necessary to determine potentially harmful technology from proven positive facets of technology. It is verified that technology as a whole has the ability to manipulate mood and arousal. It has also been proven that attention, and vision and motor skills can be enhanced while using technology. These improvements are highly dependent based on the type of technology being used and whether or not there is active or passive interaction.

Television has been around for more than sixty years but it's relevance to everyday lives and learning has never been so great. There are learning benefits to technology but three reoccurring traits have surfaced in accordance with being wired. Studies have shown that people are more likely to be violent, exhibit addictive behavior, and get distracted easier. Once again the context of the technology must be taken in to consideration. Influences of technology are starting at earlier and earlier ages these days. In children the television show Telletubbies, research showed a decrease in language proficiency in children who watched this show. However, there was a language proficiency increase seen in children who watched Dora the Explorer.

These numerous concerns and detrimental findings in research also have a flip side. New research shows indications that playing video games is associated with a number of improvements in attention, cognition, vision, and motor control. Playing video games heightens ability to pinpoint small details in chaotic scenes. Playing video games and improving these skills has shown to help people in careers such as pilots or surgeons.
Part of making technology more beneficial than detrimental is learning how to use it and how to allow it to challenge and improve our brains as opposed to letting it become a route to mindlessness. We are seeing that the attractive features of video games such as emotional context, arousing experiences, and richly structured scenarios are what boost our intellectual brain and educational technology tends to exploit the repetitive nature of practice makes perfect. Making moves to shift educational technology toward the more interactive nature of technology could only improve our relationship with technology. It is difficult to study the ways that technology affects the human brain but considering the growing reliability and interaction humans have with it, research in this field is both necessary and critical to society.

Full article can be found at
Posted by      Bethany B. at 9:41 PM MDT
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How You Mother Has Eyes on the Back of Her Head

By all accounts Katie Joe McDonough was the least likely woman to rear progeny. She was independent, stubborn, and adventurous; nothing would hold her back. Her twenties were a thrill ‚?? packed with adventures to India and Nepal, learning French and moving overseas to work for a French oil company, the pursuit and completion of a PhD in Geophysics, and countless hiking, trekking, and boating trips. Katie Joe would not ‚??settle down.‚?? My Dad can attest to this ‚?? he barely got her through the chapel door. Pregnancy didn‚??t change anything ‚?? my mom was in denial for the first four months she was pregnant with me. But the day that I was brought naked and screaming into this world my Dad describes an incredible change that came over my mom. She softened. The minute her senses registered my existence all hesitance was gone. She became uncharacteristically tender. ‚??She got boring!‚?? my brothers and I describe with delight. She became a mother.
Evolution favors this kind of maternal transformation in new mothers ‚?? especially among mammalian females. As soon as the babies arrive, Mom‚??s senses must kick into overdrive. She now has much more to worry about than her own survival. She is now responsible for feeding, protecting, and teaching her offspring, and that takes a massive amount of increased brain function. Adi Mizrahi and his colleagues from the University of Jerusalem have begun to investigate some of these changes in the brains of mouse mothers. Through research on sensory integration between auditory and olfactory neurons in the brain, Mizrahi et al has uncovered evidence that suggests that specific brain plasticity is triggered in mouse females in response to their offspring. Sound familiar? I don‚??t know about yours, but my Mom can always tell when my hand is reaching into the cookie jar ‚?? even without turning around.
So what is responsible for this increased vigilance in new mothers? Mizrahi‚??s experiments demonstrate that in mouse mothers, specific sensory neurons exhibit increased plasticity in response to stimuli from mouse pups. This plasticity causes increased integration between sensory systems leading to hyper-vigilance in the mother. In the Mizrahi experiment, over 400 auditory neurons in new mouse mothers were tested for excitation in response to a variety of frequencies in the presence of (a) fresh air and (b) in the presence of their pups‚?? odor. Mizrahi‚??s findings demonstrate an overwhelming increase in the auditory neurons of new mothers in the presence of pup odor. In addition, the auditory neurons tested did not show the same increased responsiveness to neutral sounds. Instead increased activity in the neurons was triggered by the specific frequencies of mouse pup distress calls. This integrated response to pup calls and odors was not found in virgin female mice. But interestingly, the virgins did begin to show increased integration after prolonged exposure to mouse pups. This suggests that sensory integration plasticity in mice is not triggered by the actual act of birthing offspring, but may instead be linked to exposure to mouse pups. Maybe a similar phenomenon is responsible for the uncontrollable ‚??Awww!‚?? that pours from my mouth every time I see a picture of Jared Polis‚?? s new baby.
Posted by      Stephen B. at 4:47 PM MDT
  Stephen Blaskowski  says:
Source: Lior Cohen, Gideon Rothschild, Adi Mizrahi;
Posted on Sun, 23 Oct 2011 4:50 PM MDT by Stephen B.
  Christina Uhlir  says:

I must admit to a certain degree of confusion, was there no mention of oxytocin in the article you read?
Posted on Sun, 23 Oct 2011 5:21 PM MDT by Christina U.

Flies Like to Get Drunk As Well?

Well, it is unclear whether they get "drunk" or not but they do display hyperactivity after being exposed to intoxicating vapors of ethanol which is similar to that of what humans do after drinking too much. A recent study done by Karla R. Kaun et al shows that flies are attracted to ethanol just as much as humans are. Although humans have various reasons for ingesting alcohol, flies on the other hand, are attracted the rewarding effects that ethanol has on the brain. This attraction towards ethanol and the rewarding effects are so great; one could say that they are addiction to ethanol.
In the study done by Karla R. Kaun et al, they wanted to test whether or not flies displayed addition like behavior such as that in humans. They conditioned flies to be attracted ethanol by various means and tested them for addition like behavior by administering 100 V and 120 V shocks. They found that even after administering shocks to the flies, they were drawn to ethanol. Another test was done with the same voltages except ethanol was replaced with sucrose. This time, the flies only tolerated the 100 V shock and not the 120 V shock. This higher tolerance towards ethanol than sucrose could mean that they associate ethanol as giving them a more rewarding feeling than sucrose and that ethanol is worth the pain.
The flies were, as one could say, addicted to ethanol but why was this? Well, as we know, dopamine plays a role in the reward system and "ethanol amplifies the dopaminergic responses to natural reward and reward-related environmental cues" which causes this attraction and who can blame them, we all like to feel good (Karla R. Kaun et. al, pg. 3). Not only does dopamine play a role in the reward system, but so does memory of that good feeling. Karla R. Kaun et. al also found that the mushroom body and scabrous gene were required for the ethanol reward memory. By blocking various synaptic transmissions in the mushroom body, they found that the formation of ethanol reward memory "may be mediated by dopaminergic innervations of the őĪő≤ neurons (Karla R. Kaun et al, pg 5)." Karla R. Kaun et al also found that within the mushroom body, there was the scabrous gene that was required for the ethanol reward memory. It plays a role in this reward memory in that scabrous sends signals to Notch in which Notch mediates the reward memory. And so with the brain releasing chemicals that make you feel good and memories of that good feeling, who wouldn't be addicted to something that made you feel this way?
So why does studying flies and their addiction towards ethanol matter? Well, by studying flies and what influences them in their addictions, it could help researchers better understand human addiction and possibly allow researchers to find ways to help people with these addiction such as finding genes or circuits that makes a person more susceptible to being more addictive to various substances. By being able to identify these factors that influence a person's addiction, there will be better ways of treating a patient who has a drug abuse/addiction problem and better ways of treating the side effects of going off the drug such as withdrawal.

Posted by      Kou X. at 3:14 PM MDT
  Christina Uhlir  says:

What is the mushroom body, scabrous gene, and Notch?
Posted on Sun, 23 Oct 2011 5:48 PM MDT by Christina U.

One Prick and you are Out

Isn't it crazy with one prick of anesthetics you can be out and then awaken hours later and have no recollection of what just happened? Sleep is like this too except, you have to close your eyes for a little then all sudden "poof", you awake to a morning sun. Sleep and anesthesia seem to be one in the same, but in reality they are not. Researchers in Canada measured the long field potentiation and coherence of cortical neurons in anesthetize and sleeping cats to investigate the differences.

Slow wave sleep (SWS) or what we call sleep is characterized by sleep slow oscillations, a characteristic of anesthesia. These oscillations form by cortical cells alternating between depolarizing and hyperpolarizing states. Depending on these oscillations neurons can either be active, a state of high synaptic activity or a silent state, low synaptic activity. Both aestheticize cats and sleeping cats were found in silent states but the amount of time aestheticizes cats were in the silent state differed.

Cats in SWS were found to have irregular slow waves or slow oscillations within each of the recorded cortical regions. When the anesthesia Ketamine- xylazine was injected into the cats, these regions showed consistent slow oscillations. These findings concluded that during SWS not all the brain regions are in silent states or inactive, so in sense, the brain still can processes information from the outside world. Opposite of that, aestheticize cats cannot process information because most the brain regions are in an inactive phase. So when a person receives anesthetics for surgery, they are not able to process that surgeons are cutting open their bodies, compared to a person who is able to wake up in the middle of the night because he or she processed that there might be a fire outside.

With the use of three different frequencies, regions of the brain could were investigated whether there are synchronous or non synchronous activities in the brain during the SWS and anesthesia. Aestheticized cats were found to have synchronous frequencies in contrast to nonsynchronous activities in SWS cats. These findings explain why a person can recall some of their dreams when they wake up compared to a person waking up from receiving an anesthetic. Because slow waves start to decrease as a person is about to wake up, there is a point in time where the active state is a little longer than a second, allowing a person to somewhat recall their dreams. While when someone is under anesthesia, the time in silent state is double compared to SWS. Synchronous brain activity allows for not time for regions of the brain to become consciousness during the transition from silent to an active state.

With these finding it hoped that further investigation of consciousness and unconsciousness could be understood. With many patients under comas for many days, months, and years, wouldn't it be a miracle if there was a way to wake them up?

Chauvette, Sylvain, Crochet, Sylvain, Tinofeev, Igor, Volgushev, Maxim. "Properties of Slow Oscillation during Slow- Wave Sleep and Anesthesia in Cats." The Journal of Neuroscience. 31 (2011)
Posted by      Erika L. at 2:33 PM MDT
displaying most recent comments (5 ommitted) | Comments (8)
  Anna Gitarts  says:
Not sure if you trust Wikipedia, but: . I can attest that my cat sleeps longer than 12 hours a day, though.
Posted on Mon, 24 Oct 2011 4:43 PM MDT by Anna G.
  Christina Uhlir  says:
Sometimes I think Wikipedia is a credible source. 12 hours seems like a tad of an underestimate for my fat cat. :)
Posted on Mon, 24 Oct 2011 5:27 PM MDT by Christina U.
  milan joy  says:
Before any critical surgery, it is a common procedure that doctors Internet of Things give anesthesia to the patients. You are become unconscious for certain hours after this anesthesia given. It was so nice to see this article that share the details regarding it.
Posted on Mon, 9 Dec 2019 10:51 AM MST by milan j.

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 Z√ľrich 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?

Edited by      Christina U. at 2:03 PM MDT
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October 22, 2011

Sleep and spines modulate your mind...and your brain?

"The mind is the brain doing its job." - Simon LeVay, 1994

We know that sleep is good for us: it's a daily, regularly- or irregularly-scheduled body and brain maintenance check. The sleep/wake cycle maintenance staff in particular is profoundly important in synaptic renormalization (homeostasis) by modulating (decreasing) synaptic size and/or strength in the adult brain. In the adult brain; surprisingly, this doesn't exactly hold for the adolescent brain, where sleep/wake cycle maintenance staff is responsible for more synaptogenesis (synaptic formation) and synaptic pruning (synaptic elimination).

A recent article published in Nature Neuroscience examined the process of cortical development (that involves synaptogenesis and pruning) in adolescent YFP-mice (through two-photon microscopy) as a function of different sleep/wake cycles: W1S2 mice (wake followed by sleep), and S1W2 mice (sleep first followed by wake). Mice were allowed to sleep or kept awake for each behavioral state (sleep/wake) for durations that mimic physiological sleep/wake cycles (6-8 h) and then imaged. Interestingly enough, they found overall decreased spine density in W1S2 mice and increased spine density in S1W2 mice; there was no variation observed in mice in early or late adolescence. Waking results in a net increase in cortical spines, and sleep is associated with net spine loss.
A third experimental group of W1SD2 mice (wake followed by sleep deprivation), to control for decreased spine density as a function of the passage of time showed a net increase in synaptic density.

In summary:
Wake followed by sleep (W1S2) = spine loss
Sleep followed by wake (S1W2) = spine gain
Wake followed by sleep deprivation (W1SD2) = spine gain

Sleep might actually be bad! (...for dendritic spines, that is)

The wake-sleep deprived group presents an interesting case. Sleep-deprivation, akin to pulling an all-nighter, shows a net increase in spine density. Therefore, sleep deprivation is one way to keep your dendritic spine density (that is, until you crash of exhaustion). Sleeping for the recommended 8 hours a night is also a default option. For those of us in adolescence, retaining spine density though sleep-deprivation is still theoretically a viable option. A different experiment conducted by the same researchers imaged the mice after 2-3 hours of sleep (short sleep) or wake (short wake). Both groups showed no net changes after short sleep or short waking. It may be theoretically possible to maintain spine density through a sleep-deprivation following wake with short sleep sleep/wake cycle (power naps anyone?).

This article concludes by suggesting that behavioral state modulates spine turnover in a manner consistent with the need for synaptic homeostasis; in the adult brain this translates into synaptic renormalization, and in the adolescent brain (regardless of exact developmental stage of adolescence) this translates into synaptogenesis and synaptic pruning. Sleep may therefore facilitate spine elimination or spine loss in certain phases of development. Sleep deprivation during adolescence may affect synaptic turnover, as it blocks sleep-related spine pruning; however, it does not result in a further increase in spine density. It is currently unclear to what extent the role of sleep in spine elimination is permissive and/or instructive.

So what does sleep and spine density have to do with anything? In the adult brain, it decreases synaptic size and/or strength; in the adolescent brain, it modulates synaptic pruning during a period of massive synaptic remodeling. Synaptic spine density is a part of how the brain does its job. Spine density therefore affects the mind (the brain doing its job that feeds to the mind). Changes in our minds are therefore a result of the brain doing its job differently, and how the brain does its job differently can involve changes in synaptic spine density. Spine density subsequently affects the different jobs of the brain; spine density affects the mind. Sleep (the sleep/wake cycle), therefore, is especially critical in cortical development during adolescence in modulating synaptic spine density (long-term potentiation anyone?)

I should probably get more sleep myself...

Posted by      Patricia W. at 10:19 PM MDT
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Meditation: New Discoveries of Old Traditions

It isn't often in science that old methods of treatment are re-centered from their otherwise un-scientific past, to present as one of the more progressively favored treatments in modern society. However, it seems as though the old practice of meditation is working to accomplish just that. Chronic pain sufferers have endlessly struggled to find methods of treatment that they are not resistant to, or that their pain does not overcome at some point. Perhaps in favor of a reduction of cost and a more "natural" method of healing, meditation was further studied--and these studies are proving most beneficial. Research has shown that by practicing a state of "mindfulness", one can achieve decreased overall pain, as well as pain intensity.

Such mindful "interventions" have aided our understanding of pain disorders (both acute and chronic). With extensive training of one's mind (meditation), it is found that one's cortical regions that are associated with pain are thickened, perhaps enhancing that persons perception of their pain. This results in changes in their normal evaluation and perception of pain. These effects of mental training can result in a more beneficial method of neuroplasticity.

But how exactly does one measure pain? Surely we do not expose trial studies of non-pain sufferers to painful stimulus in order to further science! Why of course not--in fact, what is generally used in pain studies is not in fact 'pain' at all. Experiments with temperature extremes (hot and cold) are used to test the participant's perception, durability, and sensation of a 'painful' stimulus. In a particular experiment adhering to the purpose at hand, they tested the unpleasantness of the stimulus (hot water) before and after a series of meditative exercises. However, rather than test the person's personal opinion of the pain, they tested the person's brain's perception of the pain through measurements of Cerebral Spinal Fluid, through a method called ASL. ASL is an "MRI pulse sequence that provides a measure of CBF using water as a flow tracer". Using ASL, they found OFC (orbitofrontal cortex) activation, and deactivation of the thalamus. During painful stimulus, usually the opposite occurs--a decrease in OFC and an increase in thalamus activation are seen. This study concluded that short term mediation can decrease the affect pain, and the experience that goes along with it.

It is important to take this discussion with a grain of salt. Even though these studies did work, I believe it is essential to define the term "meditation". Perhaps all it encompasses is distraction from temporary pain, having your mind focused on other things, thus rendering it less activated in the pain 'areas' of the brain. This type of treatment would not necessarily work for those who are suffering chronic pain. However, I feel more work in the field of long term mindful trainings may prove beneficial to act as a sole treatment or a combination treatment to pain disorders.

Another limitation to this experiment is the role of an adequate control group. I felt that they had no data to argue their finding against. The perception of the irritating stimulus may have simply decreased because they had already experience it once, and could therefore were more comfortable experiencing it again. It is crucial to create a group that simply received both tests without any meditation, to see what the conclusion of diminished pain was really measuring. Nevertheless, to whatever degree this breakthrough is effective, one conclusion is for sure--studying mediation and perception of pain enables us to further understand just how our brain handles painful or noxious stimulus. Hopefully we are able to use such methods of research (such as ASL) in order to provide helpful, more affordable treatment for the individuals suffering from pain disorders.

Posted by      Amber S. at 5:15 PM MDT
  Christina Uhlir  says:

This is lovely! My mom had postherpetic neuralgia and japanese accupuncture actually worked wonders for her.
Posted on Sun, 23 Oct 2011 7:46 PM MDT by Christina U.

October 21, 2011

A Mechanism of Auditory Processing

Ever wondered how you're able to distinguish between different sounds and words in conversation? In order to understand the world around you, you not only have to hear all of the sounds together, but you also have to be able to hear the silence between the sounds. But all of this has to occur very quickly, or else you would be stuck having people repeat themselves slowly every time they said something. So, how does it work? The answer is: rapid changes in concentration of ions from cells that are firing electrical signals and turning off.

Previous research has implicated two structures in the brain that are critical in recognizing sounds and silences, namely the superior paraolivary nucleus (SPN, sometimes spelled superior periolivary nucleus) and the medial nucleus of trapezoid body (MNTB), both of which are part of the superior olive in the brainstem. A more current research article ("The Sound of Silence: Ionic Mechanisms Encoding Sound Termination" by Kopp-Scheinpflug, et al.) looks at how these two structures connect to one another and what mechanisms they use for distinguishing sounds.

In general, when a neuron is not being activated, it sends electrical signals at a specific rate, called its basal firing rate. Stimulation can increase or decrease the neuron's firing, and when the stimulation is removed, the firing rate eventually returns to its basal level.

When a sound stimulus is presented, the MNTB neurons continuously fire for the entire stimulation, and then not only cease firing when the stimulation has ended, but also reduce firing to below their normal rate, and return back to normal after a short period of time. On the other hand, SPN neurons have little to no firing when a sound stimulus is presented, and when it stops, the neurons rapidly fire, corresponding to the intensity of the stimulus and then deplete the firing to their normal rate.

The signaling pathways for both SPN and MNTB also involve chloride ions (and possibly potassium ions). The flow of chloride ions into neurons inhibits firing, and is important for recognizing sound in the MNTB, but recognizing silence in the SPN.

The main idea here is that there are multiple mechanisms involved in how we process language and other sounds every day. Without these two brain regions and the chloride signaling between them, we wouldn't be able to communicate. It is necessary to have mechanisms in our brains not only for recognizing sound, but also for recognizing silence, both of which need to communicate with one another to be processed together. This is a very important finding for learning how we acquire language and learn to differentiate syllables and words so readily and easily in early childhood, and more research could possibly help with understanding different speech disorders.

Posted by      Anna G. at 10:54 PM MDT
  Christina Uhlir  says:

Thank you for spelling it out so simply, I understood that we process continuous sounds as discrete but I couldn't understand how that was accomplished, so thank you for elucidating that point for me.
Posted on Sun, 23 Oct 2011 7:44 PM MDT by Christina U.

October 20, 2011

Can we trust Neuroscientists?

October 19, 2011

Typically, neuroscientists, or among all scientists, fail to provide full disclosure of the project to a participant in order to obtain valid knowledge on the phenomena being investigated. Although this methodology is widely used by many scientists, it however proves to be an ethically controversial topic. The idea of deception in human experimentation becomes unethical as the informed consent required by the individual is not completely transparent of the research, thus lacks a degree of respect for the persons utilized in the experiment. Hence, how can the vast majority of psychology and neuroscience projects be approved by ethic committees if deception is a common methodological theme? Are participants rights triumphed by the knowledge gained by the experimentation? To what extent are unethical methods permitted by ethic committees and what makes one idea allowed and another not? These are questions that we should be asking ourselves, knowing that science should not be independent of ethical and moral values.

It comes to my attention that a capacious amount of published articles using deception as a method to obtain valid knowledge by the participant is not specifically stated so in the journal article. Without blatantly stating that this form of research utilized deception, a person that is unaware of ethical issues within research may not realize that some participants were not given proper information.

Understandably, deception in research is a methodology that is not going to leave science any time soon. Therefore, it is necessary to make it prevalent to the public that this occurs and for readers of the research articles to be fully aware of the use of deception. I believe that it is pertinent that if a researcher decides to integrate deception into the procedure, it should be clearly stated within the Materials and Methods section of the journal article. Overall, I believe that the nature of the research should be explained to the participates after the experimentation, such that it will soften the overarching ethical dilemma. This may ultimately limit the participant pool, but it does give a degree of respect from the researcher to the participants that is truly deserved.

Personally, I believe that it is our right and our duty, as readers and future neuroscientists, to take this matter seriously. We should not allow researchers to infringe upon participants rights to be tested when there is a lacking of transparency of the nature of the research. We should encourage our colleagues and higher authorities to demand that experimental deception included in the research should be explicitly stated within published articles and individuals be debriefed of the entirety of the project. Adding these boundaries to published articles will not only provide a more ethically sound publication, but will promote respect for science among readers that are not familiar with the field when full disclosure of the experimentation is available to the public eye.

Original article:
Posted by      Sarah H. at 12:16 AM MDT
  Christina Uhlir  says:

Objectively speaking, would you or wouldn't you trust a neuroscientist?
Posted on Sun, 23 Oct 2011 2:23 PM MDT by Christina U.
  Sarah Ha  says:
Personally, I wouldn't want to be a participant in an experiment if I'm not given full disclosure of the purpose of the experiment. Plus, it makes me more skeptical when I read journal articles of overall results if the published article is fully disclosing their methodology. How can I repeat their experiment if I don't know exactly what they did?
Posted on Tue, 29 Nov 2011 3:56 PM MST by Sarah H.

August 1, 2011

Beauty is only... flesh-deep?

Everyone cares about their appearance to a certain extent. Animals groom themselves while people wear makeup, get piercings, and tattoo themselves to enhance their appearance. Shows like The Swan, Nip/Tuck and Extreme Makeover convey how the use of cosmetic surgery has escalated in this country. Despite the agreement that everyone wants to look good, there is a growing concern that this drive for a certain physical appearance can stem from mental illness rather than social persuasion.
Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental illness in which one is obsessed with what they think is a flaw in their appearance, a flaw that is either insignificant or imagined. With BDD people seek out cosmetic surgery to change their appearance, however, some are never satisfied. About one third of those who desire rhinoplasty (a "nose job") have been found to have BDD symptoms and scarcely 2 percent need rhinoplasty for exclusively medical reasons.
One of the more disturbing forms of BDD is Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID). BIID is a condition where someone desires to have a missing limb. One man with BIID interviewed by claimed that he fantasized about loosing a limb from the age of about 4 years old. Now as an older man, he has admitted to his wife and the public his curious need to "get a leg lopped off." People with BIID have indeed gotten rid of limbs and claimed they feel better and "more complete" afterwards. They say their condition is a lot like what used to be called Gender Identity Disorder (when someone is born male and they feel as if they are female, and vice versa). Surprisingly, the medical community leaves people with BIID very few options. People with BIID have been known to use prosthesis to pretend they have an amputation or will even mutilate their unwanted limbs. A popular example of this is a man who put his legs in 100 pounds of dry ice for six hours until they turned black, then went to the hospital where a surgeon had no choice but to remove the mans legs. Surgeons refuse to surgically remove limbs from people with BIID, and up until May 2011, there has been no medical treatment alternative to surgery.
The first successful long-term psychotherapy to treat BIID was done at the clinical center of the Goethe University in Frankfurt. Up until this introduction to using psychotherapy on BIID patients, there was no medication that seemed to help with the disorder and the only successful treatment for BIID known to work was removal of the limbs. During psychotherapy a 37 year-old man who wanted to amputate both his legs the origin and meaning of the desire to amputate were uncovered. The psychologists concluded that by using psychodynamic oriented therapy in conjunction with cognitive-behavioral elements, further treatment could then be developed to help with the disorder.
There is no consensus by neuroscientists as to why people have BIID, however, one possibility discussed is that something went wrong in the body-mapping regions of the cerebral cortex. One part of the cerebral cortex is the primary somatosensory cortex where sensory information of touch is relayed from the body. In front of this region is the primary motor cortex, the region involved in movement. BIID might have come from lesions or a disruption in these parts of the brain.
The drive people feel to look a certain way can develop with errors and can cause a person to reach such lengths as mutilating their own body to ease their psychological illness. Despite the fact that we should all respect other peoples desire to do what they want with their own body, the medical community should seek out and encourage alternatives that are less physically invasive.

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Better learning based on animal learning!

How many of us have gone through at least 12 years of education if not more in order to get a basic understanding of our future and to be able to carry on to the next portion of our life? Education is a very important aspect of life and as society progresses so does the demand for better education.

In order to understand how neuroscience can help with education a basic understanding of the brain must be used as a foundation. It is important to know that scientists have already found the basic size of the brain (including the average amount of nerve cells that make up the brain) as well as the makeup of a nerve cell. These findings are clearly important in order to truly understand how the brain is functioning and therefore what is actually occurring in the brain while learning is taking place. For now I want to step away from such things because it isn't the main focus of this article. In the article Neuroscience and Education: What can brain science contribute to teaching and learning? By John Hall the idea of neuroscience is used in order to determine if education and learning can be studied in a new way allowing education to increase.

As Hall explains there are three different areas of study that are involved in Neuroscience as explained below.
1) Where scientists are concerned with the inner most mechanisms of the brain, in which they look at the structure organization and the development of the brain.
2) Known as the 'black box' level in which scientists will look at the behavioral impact of input that will be applied in specific contexts.
3) Scientists will look at the application of knowledge about human behavior, this is used in order to help with learning and teaching.

The hope is that scientists will be able to bridge the gap between all three levels in order to help make advances in teaching as well how kids are able to learn based on the findings in the first level of study (the development/organization of the brain).
Some methodological and practical difficulties that Hall expresses within his article come from a report from OECD in which the difficulty of forming these connections that scientists are seeking is examined.

Current research methods in cognitive neuroscience
necessarily limit the types of questions that are addressed.
For example, questions such as 'How do individuals learn to
recognise written words?' are more tractable than 'How do
individuals compare the themes of different stories?'. This is
because the first question leads to studies where the stimuli
and responses can be easily controlled and contrasted with
another task. As such, it becomes understandable in reference
to known cognitive models. The second question involves too
many factors that cannot be successfully separated during
experimental testing. For this reason, the type of educational
tasks favoured by society will remain more complex than the
ones that might suit cognitive neuroscience.
(OECD, 2002)

One of the mains concerns that arise with the use of neuroscience is the basic from of studying the brain. It seems like common sense that humans think, learn, behave and process things differently than say a rodent. So it therefore becomes a concern for most that time and money are being spent on the study of other animals when it is evident that humans are in a completely different league. A common problem in educations is seen in the distress of the 'children' (assuming we are speaking of education at a younger state), such as when a child experiences a loss in the immediate family, or if parents' divorce or even if the child undergoes some other form of traumatic experience. As most people know the child's learning does suffer due to the experience. I don't know about most people but I don't often seen cats undergoing intense education to even have it be impacted by the loss of family, or for that matter one doesn't often seen their cat learn at a slower pace because it no longer has its mother (since it is a common practice for animals to be separated from its parents). Now to bring this back to the main point, how much can be learned from neuroscience testing on animals when clearly they have a very different way or living as well as learning and don't often experience the same 'emotions' that humans do.

Another common issue in which Hall addresses is that it is difficult to make generalization's in order to form a concrete hypothesis in order to apply neuroscience to learning.
Now, making a jump to leaning it has be found that the brain will continue to change as a result of learning (due to environmental changes) which is known as Plasticity, is most commonly seen in early years however it is not localized to this time. Thus it goes back to an old saying "it's never too late to learn" and therefore rules out the idea that "old dogs can never learn new tricks". Hall does however explain that recent studies have concluded that there are certain times within one's life that make learning certain things easier (ie playing an instrument or learning a new language are easier to learn when under the age of 13). Another aspect to learning that has been developed not only in animals but also that human's experience every day that learning new things is a "use it or lose it" thing. Have you ever wondered why you never forget how to talk, walk, eat, write or do our basic day to day activities, well that's it right there we don't forget because we do it every day, however you may forget how to do calculus or historical facts because you never use it once you are finished with that class.

Although Hall explains all these findings very well it seems questionable to from a meaningful study in order to connect all the factors that lie within learning to how the brain functions for these ideas. How is it possible that a scientist can look at how one human learns certain things and compare it to another when all the outside factors are completely different. Although neuroscience is a great idea on paper and is helping to understand so many things about humans it doesn't seem like a realistic practice to cross over into education. Neuroscience is such a new area of science in relation to other areas and since the human brain is such a complex unit it doesn't seem like it can be used to help people with learning anytime soon. I believe that although neuroscience will make ground breaking discoveries it wont be able to truly change the way we learn or better the education system because it is such a complex field that has too many factors for scans and neuro-imaging to truly understand.

Main Article:
Posted by      Cherie T. at 12:21 AM MDT


Apparently having sex can facilitate an increased growth of new dendritic spines in the hippocampus (so memory formation is more readily done). This occurred ?despite? an increase in corticosteroid levels. Ultimately these rats have to remember that event by growing the dendritic spines that they?ve learned facilitate reproduction with their female counterparts. I take interest in this study, because it seems to be especially geared to the short-lived and shallow attentions of a quick Google flick of the wrist. One reader might take only one short apparent fact from this article: ?sex leads to better memory? so sex is good! Let?s have more sex!? Even as I finish reading the title of this article, I find myself making this brief aside as a joke to my comrade and companion. It is important to grasp the truest motives of the Neuroscientists behind this research: that these quick memory upgrades only last the moments of time surrounding the sexual experiences, and that this must be occurring because sex is an evolutionarily advantageous engagement for a mammal (and every other animal on this planet). So, we will remember better the days preceding a more sexy night than the days surrounding a more abstinent night.
I like the motive of this article, and I like the way it catches your attention with its pertinence to our current society, but I think that a follow-up should ensue concerning the sociological components of an everyman?s sexual habit. One what days do most Americans have sex? Does this differ among people with different Socioeconomic Status?? This would be the study of an entirely different realm of science, so it is not included in the discussion of this article. Another study that is very relatable is perhaps a study of the difference in corticosterone levels of the female rats versus the male rats, in the hours surrounding their sexual encounter. Measurements of the hippocampal growth of dendritic spines after sex could also be compared between males and females. This study too, is not specific enough to be combined with the article in question. Instead, the study in question has been specifically catered to get through to the mind of the fast-stimulus-oriented reader, right down to its very title, ?Sexual Experience Promotes Adult Neurogenesis??
This article, along with many other of the front covers of science, suggests to me that this realm of the scientific field is just as short-attention?d, high-socioeconomic-status?d, American, and male-oriented as the other predominant structures in our society (i.e. entertainment, art, religion, politics, media, etc.). This is truly nothing to be ashamed of, however, since we are simply responding to the societal pressures that be ? like molecules in an organism. We may become aware of it though, with the aid of some increased responsibility for our actions that comes with some awareness thereof. Since we scientists are facing similar challenges to the Christian Right and the Mexican Immigrant and the African Indigenous, etc. etc. and we have a similar God who expects similar things of us ? cannot we empathize and thus come together on this situation.
My argument is that the writers of articles such as the one I?ve referenced should not neglect that other 90% of their society in their analyses, though they do indeed feel compelled to by the natural competitive environment of the free market. They mustn?t neglect their own hypermasculinity and quick paced neglect of other social realms than that of the white human. We must try to include the understandings of the rat, in their context, as well as every other domain of species on earth. Also, expressing the article in other languages like Spanish and French would take in consideration the other 90% of the human world (audience) in a more comprehensive and co-aware article. The articles and documentaries and speeches which do tend to bring all the data together do exist in our society, but they are much fewer in number and much less frequently emphasized in our Westernized education. We have extended the silos of scientific knowledge deep into ourselves into understandings of the neutrinos and way out into space to view the large conglomerates of space dust and dark matter. Now, many are claiming, it is time to build bridges between the silos. Perhaps this can be done via a search engine that pairs the article we just discussed with others that are similar to it. Perhaps a sentence here and there to qualify the article or film or other piece of art (as it is done more often in non-western cultures). Fundamentally, what needs to occur in order for this article and many others to become more comprehensively representative of an ideal society is the cohesion of ideas ? relating them to other ideas from other fields, (including even a fair dispersal of those of religious symbolisms and sociopolitical ideologies). Maybe the opposing parties in politics will follow our example.
Posted by      Oliver Y. at 12:01 AM MDT

Upgrading your brain: A critique of Transhumanism

Have you ever wanted to be smarter or have a better memory, say, in the middle of taking an exam? For most of us, these desires seem unrealistic and we accept that our mental abilities have set limits that can?t be changed. However, there are some people who believe in Transhumanism, a philosophy that advocates the use of technology to enhance mental ability. In Future Minds: Transhumanism, Cognitive Enhancement and the Nature of Persons, Susan Schneider, a philosopher at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses the bioethics of the Transhumanist position. In particular, she examines whether mental enhancement is desirable from the viewpoint of personal identity. She believes that given the possibility that radical enhancement of an individual could result in the creation of a new entity that is no longer the same person, enhancement would not be ethical.
The basic tenets of Transhumanism are laid out in the Transhumanist Declaration that was written by members of the World Transhumanist Association. The tenets include:
(1) Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the
feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the
inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.
(4) Transhumanists advocate the moral right for those who so wish to use technology to
extend their mental and physical (including reproductive) capacities and to improve their control over their own lives. We seek personal growth beyond our current biological limitations.
Dr. Schneider believes that Transhumanism should be taken seriously given that many of the technologies that would allow for radical enhancement are in early development now. She provides a possible future scenario hoped for by many Transhumanists. In 2025, people become cyborgs by receiving eye implants connected to the internet and brain implants to improve memory. Life extension through nanotechnology becomes available by 2040. Human beings continue to modify themselves until they become posthumans by 2060. The Transhumanist Frequently Asked Questions by Nick Bostrom describes a posthuman as a being ?whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards?. In this scenario, there is no difference between radically modified human beings and super-intelligent artificial intelligences by 2600 other than origin.
Philosophers have long debated the nature of the person and find many of the scenarios envisioned by Transhumanist to be metaphysically problematic in regards to the continuity of identity. Dr. Schneider argues that the enhancements endorsed by Transhumanism could lead to undesirable results because someone who undergoes more and more mental enhancements would eventually cease to exist. In that light, radical mental enhancement would be unethical being a form of suicide. She then examines the viewpoint on this issue held by many Transhumanists, that of Patternism in which ?enhancements can alter the material substrate but must preserve your memories and your overall psychological configuration.? Several case studies are given which indicate that Transhumanists have a lot of work to do to show that identity can be preserved after mental enhancement.
This article is of interest because it raises the possibility that mental enhancement could be a form of suicide. However, the issue was discussed only in terms of philosophy and did not include much of our current understanding of the brain. Any future brain enhancements would arise from basic neuroscience research and debates of this nature must include specifics regarding the structure of the brain. Hopefully, this article will challenge neuroscientists to address issues regarding identity brought about by radical brain enhancement.
Posted by      David J. at 12:00 AM 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:
Posted by      Nicholas M. at 11:30 PM MDT

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: (Full Text PDF Available on Website)
Posted by      Jordan E. at 10:54 PM MDT
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