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December 4, 2011

Religious Brains Doing Some Good After All


Although it has been well established that all of our sensory experiences originate from our brains, many still demand that we cannot account for religious extrasensorial experiences that go beyond the limitations of our physical bodies. It is often suggested that our spiritual self is something that remains independent of our physical bodies, and one's faith is something that will remain with the dedicated few throughout their lifetime. While these views on spirituality and religiosity are still held as something so unshakeable and unquestionable as one's DNA - Italian Neuroscientist Dr. Urgesi and colleagues have uncovered yet more data that suggests a link between the very physical parts of the human brain with the creation of these extrasensorial experiences.

The study sought to find a relationship between neural activity within pathways that unify the parietal, frontal and temporal cortices with spiritual (i.e. religious) behavior and beliefs. The temporoparietal areas have already been associated with religiosity after studies on patients with frontotemporal dementia and epilepsy displayed marked increases in spiritual and transcendent beliefs not held prior to their diseased state. These spiritual and transcendent beliefs were measured using the Temperament and Character Inventory personality examination that includes a sub-scale which measures self-reported amounts of Self-Transcendence (ST) displayed by the individual. ST levels were based on responses to questions regarding one's ability to undergo self-forgetfulness and transpersonal identification that goes beyond spatio-temporal dimensions of the human body i.e. experiences with God.

Dr. Urgesi and colleagues performed their study on a group of patients suffering from tumors involving the prerolandic (anterior subgroup and control group) and temporoparietal structures (anterior subgroup.) Dr. Urgesi combined examinations prior to the removal of tumors with MRI to classify participants into groups with High Grade, Low Grade, and Recurring Glioma, as well as a control group of patients suffering from Miningioma. Dr. Urgesi found that pre-surgery, patients with tumors of the posterior subgroup showed higher ST scores amongst the High Grade Glioma and Recurring Glioma group, while no differences between posterior and anterior subgroups were observed amongst the Low Grade and Meningioma groups prior to surgery.

Examinations after the removal of the tumors inferred varying degrees of lesions to the cortical structures of the participants. Dr. Urgesi and his colleague s primary finding was that the ST values of patients with a Low-Grade glioma removal of the posterior subset, showed unusually rapid and long lasting changes in their ST scores post surgery. The same was found in the High Grade and Recurring glioma posterior subgroups. As expected, removal of tumors from non-cortical structures inferred no changes in ST values amongst participants of the Meningioma or anterior groups . Dr. Urgesi suggests that the damaged posterior parietal areas may contribute to altered spiritual beliefs and behaviors. Luckily for those with high ST marks, follow up interviews showed that patients with anterior lesions showed no increase in ST but also showed much less acceptance of their grim conditions than did the posterior /high ST group.

The implications of these findings extend far beyond religious views though, as Dr. Urgesi claims that if such steadfast beliefs and behaviors towards religion and spirituality can be rapidly and drastically altered from mild lesions sustained after brain surgery, then further research into lesion induced personality changes may shed light on other personality disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

So just how dependent on the physical body are these steadfast personality traits, moral views, and religious beliefs when they can be altered simply by changing the wirings within our brain? Maybe it seems that our seemingly concrete religious and moral views that we stand beside throughout our lives are more trivial than we give credit to. Our unshakeable views of the world don t seem to be so deep-seated after all! How rapidly may I covert to Islam or Christianity the next time I hit my head on the concrete? I guess I will just have to wait to find out... but luckily, my lesion induced changes in my circuitry may help me to better cope with the impending doom that my very damaged brain has brought me in the first place.

Urgesi, Cosimo , Salvatore M. Aglioti, Franco Fabbro, and Miran Skrap. "The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence." Neuron 65 (2010): 309-319. Print.
Posted by      Tuttle J. at 5:02 PM MST
Tags: religion

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
Posted by      Charlie S. at 8:15 PM MST
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October 23, 2011

Neurotheology - This is Your Brain on God


Since the dawn of the human species, mankind has maintained a belief in some form of spirituality, of God or Gods and an afterlife. Are we wired to believe in "something greater" than ourselves? Why are some people more likely to believe - to take leap of faith without question - while others resist, blocked by logic and control? What happens to us physically during these moments of spirituality?

Studies in a relatively new neuroscience field dubbed "neurotheology" are exploring the connection between our brains and God.

Neurologist Vilaynur S. Ramachandran explored a long-standing correlation between temporal lobe epilepsy and religious fervor. He asked some of his epilepsy patients to listen to a variety of neutral, sexual, and religious words while measuring brain activity and found that religious words such as "God" elicited a higher emotional response, indicating that people with this type of epilepsy have a greater affinity for spiritual experience. The temporal lobe was found to be a sort of "god spot" in the brain.

Researcher Michael Persinger took this a step further by creating the "God Helmet" which focuses weak electromagnetic fields on specific areas of the brain's temporal lobe eliciting feelings commonly attributed to spiritual experience. Persinger asserted that spiritual experience is merely the result of electromagnetic activity in specific areas of the brain.

Using Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT), leading neurotheology researcher Andrew B. Newberg and his colleagues have taken a peek at the brain areas that are activated during prayer and meditation. Buddhist monks showed decreased activity in a portion of the parietal lobe and increased activity in the right prefrontal cortex. Newberg explained that the lowered activity in the parietal lobe could explain the monks reported feelings of being at one with the universe when meditating while the enhanced activity in the prefrontal cortex was associated with intense concentration.

Quebec neuroscientist Mario Beauregard believes that there is no single "god spot in the brain" or even a few "god spots" as Newberg suggests, but rather a complex network is involved in spiritual experience. To test his theory, he used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of nuns while they altered between religious and control states. He discovered six regions to be involved including increased activity in the caudate nucleus (possibly involved in the nuns' feeling of love for God), neural sparks in the insula (could be associated with pleasurable feelings felt), augmented activity in the inferior parietal lobe(oddly the opposite of Newberg's findings), and other regions involved to a lesser extent were the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the medial temporal lobe.

In order to further test his hypothesis, Beauregard decided to use a faster technique called electroencephalography (EEG). Using this technique, Beauregard reported lower-frequency waves in the parietal cortexes and temporal lobe associated with a trance-like state.

While such research will never be able to prove or disprove the existence of a God, it may lead to a better understanding of the neural activity associated with human religiosity and spirituality-- why we believe.

Main article:
Biello, D., (2007). Searching for God in the Brain. Scientific American Mind, 18, 5.

Further Reading:
Neural Correlates of a mystical Experience in carmelite Nuns. M. Beauregard and V. Paquette in Neuroscience Letters, Vol. 405, No. 3, pg. 186-190; Sept. 25, 2006

Why We Beleive What We Believe. A. Newberg and M. Robert Waldman. Free Press, 2006

The Spiritual Brain. M. beuregard and D. O'Leary. harperCollins, 2007.
Posted by      Samantha H. at 9:49 AM MDT
Tags: religion
displaying most recent comments (2 ommitted) | Comments (5)
  Christina Uhlir  says:
Aren't there myriad confounds with trying to broadly categorize religion, mainly stemming from the fact that there are a variety of religions and the manner in which each religion addresses god(s) and goddesses, prayer, and devotion? Why not address each religion as its own entity, rather than lumping them all together?
Posted on Mon, 24 Oct 2011 7:33 PM MDT by Christina U.
  Samantha Humann  says:
I think most scientists due. But what is really interesting, is that many diverse religions with their own diverse forms of practice are showing many of the same results in the brain. But you are correct. Spirituality is extremely difficult to difine even within one religion.

For example in Christianity (the dominant religion in the United States), there are many diverse forms of practice. Religious practices have been difficult to measure because while prayer is reported as almost universal in the United States, the actions, beliefs and commitment of those who partake varies dramatically. For example, while the majority of Americans claim to pray daily, the type, purpose and intensity of such prayer is not consistent. While some may offer a daily prayer of thanksgiving before a meal, others may engage in intensive prayer. Similarly, regular church attendees may do so for diverse reasons. Studies have used various methods to identify participants in prayer research ‚?? from single scales such as reported frequency of prayer and regular church attendance to devotees‚?? perceptions of God as remote or intimate to most recently, using multidimensional measures which include behavioral, social, psychological pathways to religiousness and spirituality. In addition, research has often focused on participants from a specific Christian denomination. The lack of a clearly defined participant selection for studies on the mental health benefits of prayer combined with reported individual religious experiences complicates and, at times, dilutes the data on the benefits of prayer to mental health.

Social responses to Neurotheology differ greatly.
Posted on Wed, 26 Oct 2011 7:56 AM MDT by Samantha H.
  Christina Uhlir  says:
Do you have any running theories as to why a) scientists tend to generalize their results about religious studies and b) why the results can be translated from religion to religion? And for that matter, why research would focus on Christianity in particular?
Posted on Wed, 26 Oct 2011 7:33 PM MDT by Christina U.




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