Weekly Neuroscience Update

The study revealed that EGFR signaling is suppressed in a subset of glioblastomas. This image is for illustrative purposes only and shows an MRI brain scan of a person with glioblastoma brain cancer. Credit The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

The study revealed that EGFR signaling is suppressed in a subset of glioblastomas. This image is for illustrative purposes only and shows an MRI brain scan of a person with glioblastoma brain cancer. Credit The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

Researchers have found one of the keys to why certain glioblastomas – the primary form of a deadly brain cancer – are resistant to drug therapy. The answer lies not in the DNA sequence of the tumor, but in its epigenetic signature. These findings have been published online as a priority report in the journal Oncotarget.

It has been proposed that green tea extract may have a beneficial impact on cognitive functioning, suggesting promising clinical implications. However, the neural mechanisms underlying this putative cognitive enhancing effect of green tea extract still remain unknown.

According to researchers at the University of Montreal, the regions of the brain below the cortex play an important role as we train our bodies’ movements and, critically, they interact more effectively after a night of sleep.

Researchers find that the risk of future stroke is 39% higher among patients with cognitive impairment than those with normal cognitive function, according to a new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

A study is shining new light on a sleep disorder called “sleep drunkenness.” The disorder may be as prevalent as affecting one in every seven people. The research is published in Neurology.

A mindfulness-based therapy for depression has the added benefit of reducing health-care visits among patients who often see their family doctors, according to a new study.

In what may be the largest study of sleep problems among individuals with multiple sclerosis (MS), researchers at UC Davis have found that widely undiagnosed sleep disorders may be at the root of the most common and disabling symptom of the disease: fatigue.

Scientists have provided the first evidence that the lack of a naturally occurring protein is linked to early signs of dementia.

Digital Literacy May Protect Against Cognitive Decline

Originally posted on HealthCetera - CHMP's Blog:

Can digital literacy delay cognitive decline?

Researchers think it might. In a recently published study in The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences they found that digital literacy — the ability to engage, plan, and execute digital actions such as web browsing and exchanging e-mails — is an independent protective factor against cognitive decline.

Using data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, they followed 6,442 participants in the UK between the ages of 50 and 89 for eight years. The data measured delayed recall from a 10-word-list learning task across five separate measurement points. Socioeconomic status, including wealth and education, comorbidities, and baseline cognitive function were included in the models.

senior-computerHigher wealth, education and digital literacy improved delayed recall, while people with functional impairment, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, depressive symptoms or no digital literacy showed decline.

Those who reported being nonusers of Internet/E-mail and intermittent…

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Inside The Virtual Brain

Find out how scientists at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute are collaborating with 10 sites across the globe to develop the world’s first integrated computer model of a fully functioning human brain

Neuroscience and Education



During my recent sabbatical I had the pleasure of speaking to the staff of Mount Barker High School in Adelaide.

Originally posted on Mount Barker High School:

Jenni Cook
Assistant Principal

On the first day back at school this term staff enjoyed a presentation from Neuroscientist, Professor Billy O’Connor, a passionate researcher into neuroscience and education.

Billy is the head of Teaching and Research in Physiology at the University of Limerick Graduate Entry Medical School, and was on sabbatical at Flinders University. We were fortunate enough to have him visit us on his last day in Australia.

Billy talked about recent research into the neuroplasticity of the brain and how it is possible to rewire the pathways of the brain through ‘exercise’, much as we exercise any muscle to build its strength.

Research shows that during adolescence the brain is rewiring itself as children become adults. During this process there can be feelings of loss and grief, uncertainty and confusion and excessive emotions. As we all know, adolescents can sometimes be temperamental!

The last part of…

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Message to Richard Dawkins: Human Happiness Is Not Determined By Circumstance


The eminent geneticist Richard Dawkins caused controversy last week with his remarks that it would be immoral to carry on with a pregnancy if the mother knew the foetus had Down’s syndrome.  His remarks implied that a child with Down’s syndrome has little to add to the world and the condition overshadows any achievement the child might make.

As a neuroscientist and Professor myself  I would suggest that he has missed something important namely that human happiness/ mental health /quality of life/ well-being is not determined by what happens/does not happen to us or indeed by what we have/don’t have.

Genetics may be difficult but humans are even more complex!

It is an astonishing fact that the recipe for human happiness can be summarised into just one sentence and here it is. Happiness is determined by an ability to engage and respond appropriately to the people, things and events that surround us.  Notice from this, that your own happiness depends on YOU alone and not the people, things and events that surround you.

What is empathy?

The ability to engage and respond appropriately to people, things and events is the basis of empathy. Furthermore, the quality of your engagement and the appropriateness of your response determine your level of empathy. Empathy allows human beings to not only interact with each other effectively, but also to predict the actions, intentions, and feelings of others.  A useful trait indeed for a happy life.

Where is empathy in the brain?

The recent discovery of mirror neurons  – a cluster of neurons that help connect us emotionally to other people, respond sympathetically towards others and allow us to anticipate others intentions  is believed to be the basis of human empathy

Empathy – you either use it or lose it.

How can we learn to better engage and respond?  The recent discovery that the practice of meditation changes the shape of those brain areas involved in empathy  – allowing those discrete areas in the brain to grow or change – by adding a tiny fraction of the brain’s neural circuitry and eliminating old ones. This finding has established a new field of contemplative neuroscience – the brain science of meditation – and it helps to explain how meditation acts to improve mental health by cultivating the empathy needed to lead a more compassionate and loving outlook in life.

Happiness or heartbreak.

I do think that Professor Dawkins’s statement might be of some benefit if it opens up a debate on how we deal with what life serves up to each of us. At various times we may experience a great deal of stress in our lives and in this we are not alone. The question is – as events and worries beset us, are we going to turn more and more to quick fixes to handle our dis-stress?

Probably the most important lesson to be taken from Richard Dawkins/ Down’s syndrome controversy is the realization that the stresses of life and how we manage them IS the difference between happiness and heartbreak.

I look forward to developing this theme in greater detail including drug-free tips on how the avoid worry and stress in future posts.

Other posts on this topic

Emotions are habits, so pick up a good one

Mental health and well-being for mind and brain

What can neuroscience teach us about consciousness,mental health and well-being?

The empathic brain

Your brain and the art of confusion



Weekly Neuroscience Update


brain-white-matter-child-fitness (1)

The team used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI, also called diffusion MRI) to look at five white-matter tracts in the brains of the 24 participants. This method analyzes water diffusion into tissues. For white matter, less water diffusion means the tissue is more fibrous and compact, both desirable traits. This image shows an MRI of white matter in the human brain. The image is for illustrative purposes only, and is not connected to the research. Credit Kubicki et al.

A new study of 9 and 10-year-olds finds that those who are more aerobically fit have more fibrous and compact white-matter tracts in the brain than their peers who are less fit. “White matter” describes the bundles of axons that carry nerve signals from one brain region to another. More compact white matter is associated with faster and more efficient nerve activity. The team reports its findings in the open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

In a new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers report that the amygdala — a part of the brain associated with decision making, memory and emotion — plays a part in telling us who to trust almost instantly.

The latest research on sports concussions in teens has been the focus of recent study.

Depression is known to be a common symptom of Parkinson’s disease, but remains untreated for many patients, according to a new study.

Following another person’s gaze can reveal a wealth of information critical to social interactions and also to safety. Gaze following typically emerges in infancy, and new research looking at preterm infants suggests that its visual experience, not maturational age, that underlies this critical ability.

fMRI scans reveal brain differences in risk-taking teens

Children and adolescents with autism have a surplus of synapses in the brain, and this excess is due to a slowdown in a normal brain “pruning” process during development, according to a study by neuroscientists at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC).

While much attention has focused on the link between violent video game playing and aggression among youths, a new study finds significantly increased signs of depression among preteens with high daily exposure to violent video games.

An imaging study of chronic users of codeine-containing cough syrups (CCS) has found deficits in specific regions of brain white matter and associates these changes with increased impulsivity in CCS users.

New treatments for multiple sclerosis (MS) using common anti-psychotic agents have been discovered by Victoria University of Wellington researchers.

People with schizophrenia struggle to turn goals into actions because brain structures governing desire and emotion are less active and fail to pass goal-directed messages to cortical regions affecting human decision-making, new research reveals.

Inside The Depressed Brain

What goes on inside the brain of a depressed person? This video looks at the scientific basis for depression, and sheds light on the fact that it is a disease with biological, psychological, and social implications.

What can we learn from Robin Williams’ death?


I was saddened this week to read of the tragic death of Robin Williams.  The 63-year-old talented actor and performer struggled with substance abuse since the 1980s. He previously admitted to cocaine and alcohol addiction and entered rehab in 2006 for alcoholism after 20 years of sobriety and had again voluntarily checked himself into rehab in June.

Anxiety and depression – a potentially lethal mix

Over the past two decades I have visited high schools and colleges to talk on mental health and how stress can affect the brain and it still amazes me how little the general public understand just how damaging the effects of stress are on the brain can be and how important it is to manage stress in a positive way. While we cannot know Robin’s motivation to take his own life we know that he complained of anxiety and depression and was also suffering the early effects of Parkinson’s disease in the weeks preceding his tragic death.

The amygdala – the brain’s house alarm

Anxiety is brain state associated with the over-activation of two tiny brain regions – no bigger than a thumb nail – called the amygdala (Latin; the almond). These two regions located deep in the brain behind the nose – one on the left side and one on the right side – contain nerves that help to convert alarm into action. Once activated, the amygdala triggers the brain into a state of high alert usually associated with imminent danger.  Under normal conditions the amygdala is there to save your life for instance by avoiding oncoming traffic when crossing a busy road.  However, you only have to endure one sleepless night as a result of the noise from a neighbour’s house/car alarm to understand the exhausting effect of an overactive amygdala. It is no coincidence then that anxiety which may also include unpredictable panic attacks can lead to the emotional exhaustion found in depression which is a profound lowering of the mood and an inability to appreciate anything positive.

Anxiety is a prelude to depression

If anxiety is not nipped in the bud then emotional burnout sets-in and a spiral of depression starts to take hold.  Depression is not to be confused with sadness which is a natural response to the normal ups and downs of life. It is through sadness that we learn and become wise. In contrast, depression is suffocating and blocks us off from the world by making us focus only on the negative aspects of everyday life including for example a loss of self-worth. This phenomenon is also known as situational bias. This type of negative thinking backed-up by a low mood can lead to a dangerous fatalism where the sufferer feels that life is not worth living. In Robin’s case his depression was probably not helped by a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease – for which it is unclear if he was receiving medication.

What is Parkinson’s disease?

Over 4 million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease – a so-called hypokinetic disorder (Greek; hypo = lack of; kinetic = movement). Parkinson’s disease can be genetic but it can also be triggered by prolonged exposure to some drugs. It is a progressive disease - the symptoms start out small and get progressively worse but it is rarely fatal. With Parkinson’s disease one minute you are working away in the garden and the next you are literally stuck to the spot – totally unable to move. In these situations daily life can become a challenge that can be difficult to endure.

The core defect

The ‘core defect’ in Parkinson’s disease is a loss of a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine acts like hydraulic oil which lubricates those nerve networks involved in executing a movement. In Parkinson’s disease he supply of dopamine dries-up and like a car out of oil the engine seizes-up and movement grinds to a halt.

Trapped and disconnected

We need dopamine to survive. Dopamine allows us to talk, sing, socialize, improvise and take risks. When dopamine flows we don’t see things as being limited by circumstance. We have boundless energy and literally anything is possible! One only needed to watch Robin Williams perform at the height of his career to see dopamine in action as his brain effortlessly converted his thoughts and moods into the mesmerizing performances that made him so loved by a generation. Without dopamine we feel trapped and disconnected.  It is not surprising therefore that mood can become low and anxiety and depression are often associated with this illness.

What can we learn from Robin’s death?

Since Robin’s death some media have reported that it is a pity that something like this has to overshadow what he achieved during his life and  that a tragedy like this in not of any benefit to anyone.

While I agree with this to an extent, I do think that Robin’s death might be of some benefit if it opens up a debate on how we as a society deal with stress. We have heard that Robin was under a great deal of stress in the days and weeks leading up to his death.  In this he is not alone. As the world economy continues on its downward slide, and unemployment and financial worries beset us, are we going to turn more and more to quick fixes to handle our dis-stress?

Probably the most important lesson to be taken from Robin’s death is the realization that the stresses of life and how we manage them IS the difference between life and death. I look forward to developing this theme in greater detail including drug-free tips on how the avoid worry and stress in future posts, but in the meantime, my deepest sympathy go to Robin’s loved ones at this difficult time.

Further Reading

Emotions are habits so pick a good one

World Mental Health Day

Why Parkinson’s Disease Has Robbed Linda Ronstadt Of Her Voice



Weekly Neuroscience Update

Scientists used gene chips to help discover new genes that may be involved with Parkinson’s disease. Credit National Human Genome Research Institute.

cientists used gene chips to help discover new genes that may be involved with Parkinson’s disease. Credit National Human Genome Research Institute.

Using data from over 18,000 patients, scientists have identified more than two dozen genetic risk factors involved in Parkinson’s disease, including six that had not been previously reported.

Latest research says depression is a risk factor for dementia.

The happiness of over 18,000 people worldwide has been predicted by a mathematical equation, with results showing that moment-to-moment happiness reflects not just how well things are going, but whether things are going better than expected. And in another study, research suggests the right kind of happiness can change the code that defines our very being: our genes.

New research has mapped out the complex set of genes which interact with the environment to crystalise  reading and math abilities.

Children who have been abused or neglected early in life are at risk for developing both emotional and physical health problems. In a new study, scientists have found that maltreatment affects the way genes are activated, which has implications for children’s long-term development.

Scientists have discovered which brain networks are responsible when frustration leads to rage.

Adolescents who behave aggressively are more likely to drink alcohol and in larger quantities than their peers, according to a recent study completed in Finland. Depression and anxiety, on the other hand, were not linked to increased alcohol use. The study investigated the association between psychosocial problems and alcohol use among 4074 Finnish 13- to 18-year-old adolescents. The results were published in Journal of Adolescence.

New findings suggests that mild concussion may cause cognitive and memory problems.

Finally this week research conducted at the University of Adelaide, suggests that at least one part of the human brain may be able to process information the same way in older age as it does in the prime of life.


Weekly Neuroscience Update

Granule cells connect with other cells via long projections (dendrites). The actual junctions (synapses) are located on thorn-like protuberances called “spines”. Spines are shown in green in the computer reconstruction Credit DZNE/Michaela Müller.

Granule cells connect with other cells via long projections (dendrites). The actual junctions (synapses) are located on thorn-like protuberances called “spines”. Spines are shown in green in the computer reconstruction Credit DZNE/Michaela Müller.

New findings on the link between nerve cells at the interface to the hippocampus may have an influence on learning and memory.

People choosing between two or more equally positive outcomes experience paradoxical feelings of pleasure and anxiety, feelings associated with activity in different regions of the brain, according to research at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute at Princeton University.

Latest findings on how stress hormones promote the brain’s building of negative memories.

Researchers have studied the changes in the brain that are associated with impulsiveness, a personality trait that causes difficulties in inhibiting a response in the face of a stimulus and leads to unplanned actions without considering the negative consequences. These patterns can serve as an indicator for predicting the risk of behavioural problems.

People taking dopamine for Parkinson’s disease sometimes begin to generate a lot of artwork. New research differentiates their expressiveness from obsessive or impulsive tendencies.

Researchers have uncovered more than 100 genetic markers linked to developing schizophrenia.

A type of immune cell widely believed to exacerbate chronic adult brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis (MS), can actually protect the brain from traumatic brain injury (TBI) and may slow the progression of neurodegenerative diseases, according to research published in the online journal Nature Communications.


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