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Weekly Neuroscience Update


Children were monitored with EEGs while watching animated characters perform prosocial and antisocial behaviors, and later participated in a task measuring generosity. Credit Jean Decety/University of Chicago.

University of Chicago developmental neuroscientists have found specific brain markers that predict generosity in children. Those neural markers appear to be linked to both social and moral evaluation processes.

Researchers at The University of Western Australia have found that brain stimulation may help retrain unhelpful cognitive habits associated with anxiety and depression. The paper was published this week in the international journal Biological Psychiatry.

Methamphetamine users are three times more at risk for getting Parkinson’s disease than non-illicit drug users, new research shows.

Researchers have developed new technology that can assess the location and impact of a brain injury merely by tracking the eye movements of patients as they watch music videos for less than four minutes, according to a study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery.

Spending less time in slow-wave or deep sleep is linked to the loss of brain cells that can lead to dementia, a new study finds.

Scientists have discovered a new signal pathway in the brain that plays an important role in learning and the processing of sensory input.

New UCLA research indicates that lost memories can be restored. The findings offer some hope for patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

The human brain using colors and shapes to show neurological differences between two people. Credit Arthur Toga, University of California, Los Angeles via NIGMS.

The human brain using colors and shapes to show neurological differences between two people. Credit Arthur Toga, University of California, Los Angeles via NIGMS.

While many different combinations of genetic traits can cause autism, brains affected by autism share a pattern of ramped-up immune responses, an analysis of data from autopsied human brains reveals. The study, published online in the journal Nature Communications, included data from 72 autism and control brains.

Teenagers who have suffered a traumatic brain injury are twice as likely to drink alcohol or use drugs when compared with whose who have never experienced a similar blow or trauma to the head.

Activating the brain’s amygdala, an almond-shaped mass that processes emotions, can create an addictive, intense desire for sugary foods, a new study found. Rewards such as sweet, tasty food or even addictive drugs like alcohol or cocaine can be extremely attractive when this brain structure is triggered. And another study, led by researchers at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, revealed that the brains of obese children literally light up differently when tasting sugar.

Scientists have discovered a link between sleep loss and cell injury. Results of a new study find sleep deprivation causes the damage to cells, especially in the liver, lung, and small intestine. Recovery sleep following deprivation heals the damage.

Neural circuits that activate when we daydream run in the opposite direction to how we process reality, a new study finds.

Yale researchers using a new brain imaging analysis method have confirmed that smoking cigarettes activates a dopamine-driven pleasure and satisfaction response differently in men compared to women.

Whether we’re paying attention to something we see can be discerned by monitoring the firings of specific groups of brain cells. Now, new work from Johns Hopkins shows that the same holds true for the sense of touch.

Serious, long-term stress can have dire consequences for your brain. That’s because the immune system and the brain are intimately related, say researchers at the Ruhr University Bochum, Germany.

In the current issue of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics a new study identifies biological characteristics who may predict who is going to respond to psychotherapy.

Some high school football players exhibit measurable brain changes after a single season of play even in the absence of concussion, according to a study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America. Meanwhile, as debate increases about whether female lacrosse players should wear headgear, a new study reports measurements of the accelerations that stick blows deliver to the head. The study also measured the dampening effect of various kinds of headgear.

Quitting smoking sets off a series of changes in the brain that researchers say may better identify smokers who will start smoking again.

Everyday events are easy to forget, but unpleasant ones can remain engraved in the brain. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identifies a neural mechanism through which unpleasant experiences are translated into signals that trigger fear memories by changing neural connections in a part of the brain called the amygdala. The findings show that a long-standing theory on how the brain forms memories, called Hebbian plasticity, is partially correct, but not as simple as was originally proposed.

The neurons that shaped civilization

Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran outlines the fascinating functions of mirror neurons. Only recently discovered, these neurons allow us to learn complex social behaviors, some of which formed the foundations of human civilization as we know it.

The Scientist Entrepreneur

This is a slide-deck from my recent presentation at last month’s Careers in Neuroscience Symposium (CNS) 2014 in Galway on the topic of the scientist as entrepreneur. This was a one-day event, held in association with Neuroscience Ireland, aimed at early-career researchers engaged in all aspects of neuroscience research.


Inside The Plastic Brain

Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich looks at one of the secrets of the brain’s incredible power: its ability to actively re-wire itself. He’s researching ways to harness the brain’s plasticity to enhance our skills and recover lost function.

Inside The See-Through Brain

Scientists have come up with a way to make whole brains transparent, so they can be labelled with molecular markers and imaged using a light microscope. The technique, called CLARITY, enabled its creators to produce the detailed 3D visualisations you see in this video which takes a look into the brain of a 7-year-old boy who had autism.

How playing an instrument benefits your brain

When you listen to music, multiple areas of your brain become engaged and active. But when you actually play an instrument, that activity becomes more like a full-body brain workout. What’s going on? In this video, Anita Collins explains the fireworks that go off in musicians’ brains when they play, and examines some of the long-term positive effects of this mental workout.


Weekly Neuroscience Update

Electrical and computer engineering professor Barry Van Veen wears an electrode net used to monitor brain activity via EEG signals. His research with psychiatry professor and neuroscientist Giulio Tononi could help untangle what happens in the brain during sleep and dreaming. Credit Nick Berard.

Electrical and computer engineering professor Barry Van Veen wears an electrode net used to monitor brain activity via EEG signals. His research with psychiatry professor and neuroscientist Giulio Tononi could help untangle what happens in the brain during sleep and dreaming. Credit Nick Berard.

As real as that daydream may seem, its path through your brain runs opposite reality. Aiming to discern discrete neural circuits, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have tracked electrical activity in the brains of people who alternately imagined scenes or watched videos.

People with mentally taxing jobs, including lawyers and graphic designers, may end up having better memory in old age, research suggests.

Researchers at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan have identified a key neuronal pathway that makes learning to avoid unpleasant situations possible. Published online in the November 20 issue of Neuron, the work shows that avoidance learning requires neural activity in the habenula representing changes in future expectations.

Combining behavioral and physiologic measures depicts gradual process, may help diagnose sleep disorders. 

Neurophysicists have found that space-mapping neurons in the brain react differently to virtual reality than they do to real-world environments. Their findings could be significant for people who use virtual reality for gaming, military, commercial, scientific or other purposes.

New brain imaging technology is helping researchers to bridge the gap between art and science by mapping the different ways in which the brain responds to poetry and prose.

As methods of imaging the brain improve, neuroscientists and educators can now identify changes in children’s brains as they learn, and start to develop ways of personalizing instruction for kids who are falling behind.

Scientists have identified a weak spot in the human brain for Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia, revealing a connection between the two diseases.

A team of scientists has found a simple method to convert human skin cells into the specialized neurons that detect pain, itch, touch and other bodily sensations. These neurons are also affected by spinal cord injury and involved in Friedreich’s ataxia, a devastating and currently incurable neurodegenerative disease that largely strikes children.

Berkeley lab reports proper copper levels are essential to spontaneous neural activity.

Researchers are using an enhanced MRI approach to visualize brain injury in the blood brain barrier in order to identify significant changes to the blood-brain barrier in professional football players following a concussion.

A new study reports that older learners retained the mental flexibility needed to learn a visual perception task but were not as good as younger people at filtering out irrelevant information.

Finally this week, in the largest study of the genetics of memory ever undertaken, an international researcher team have discovered two common genetic variants that are believed to be associated with memory performance. The findings, which appear in the journal Biological Psychiatry, are a significant step towards better understanding how memory loss is inherited.


Death Of Cricketer Phillip Hughes: Why Are Some Brain Injuries Worse Than Others?

Australian cricketer, Phillip Hughes.

Australian cricketer, Phillip Hughes.

Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes has died two days after being struck in the head by a bouncer while batting for South Australia at the The Sydney Cricket Ground. Hughes, 25, had been in an induced coma since the accident on Tuesday afternoon.

Two of the most tragic events within Australian cricket in just over the past decade have involved catastrophic head injuries: firstly to David Hookes in a hotel altercation, secondly to Phillip Hughes while batting. According to research published in The Lancet, approximately a fifth of adults with a severe traumatic brain injury make a good recovery. But many more die or are left with enduring disability.  

So why are some brain injuries worse than others?

The effects of brain injury fall into three main categories:

  • Cognitive – problems with memory, concentration, information processing
  • Emotional and behavioural problems – anxiety, explosive anger and irritability, lack of awareness or empathy
  • Physical – problems with movement, balance and co-ordination, fatigue, epilepsy

Sometimes a head injury which seems severe is followed by a good recovery while a seemingly small head injury can have very serious, long-lasting consequences.  Why is this?

Location, location, location.

The reason is that brain injury operates a bit like the property market in that the three most important things to consider are location, location and location. When nerve pathways are damaged, those brain areas served by those pathways may wither or have their functions taken over by other brain regions. Nerve pathways are also called ‘white’ pathways or ‘white matter’ because they are covered by an insulating sheath of myelin and appear white to the naked eye.

The challenge is to determine the location of key ‘scaffold’ pathways and to understand what makes them so vulnerable and important. This is not an easy task given the total length of nerve pathways in the average 20-year old human brain is 160,000 km. A recent study provides new findings on the brain’s network scaffold that will help inform clinicians about the neurological impacts of brain diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease and brain injury.


Are We Born Creative?

blue box

Since the dawn of human evolution, our world has been driven by creative flashes of inspiration.  Creativity often appear as a spontaneous burst of new ideas but it is really the ability to derive new ideas from old ones – the reassembly of information that we already possess.  While everyone can learn to be creative to some degree, new research is revealing that the extent to which we inherit our creativity may be greater that previously thought.

This Thursday, November 27, I will be giving a public talk on creativity and how we can foster it. The talk will take place at The Blue Box Creative Therapy Centre in Limerick city centre.  Entrance is free; donations to this worthy cause are welcome.

Book your ticket



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