Author Archives: Editor

Scientists Identify Key Cells in Touch Sensation

Ellen Lumpkin, PhD, professor of somatosensory biology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, explains how her lab revealed how cells in our skin help us feel fine textures and details.

Touch is the last frontier of sensory neuroscience. The cells and molecules that initiate vision—rod and cone cells and light-sensitive receptors—have been known since the early 20th century, and the senses of smell, taste, and hearing are increasingly understood. But almost nothing is known about the cells and molecules responsible for initiating our sense of touch.

This study is the first to use optogenetics—a new method that uses light as a signaling system to turn neurons on and off on demand—on skin cells to determine how they function and communicate.

The team showed that skin cells called Merkel cells can sense touch and that they work virtually hand in glove with the skin’s neurons to create what we perceive as fine details and textures.

The findings not only describe a key advance in our understanding of touch sensation, but may stimulate research into loss of sensitive-touch perception.

Several conditions—including diabetes and some cancer chemotherapy treatments, as well as normal aging—are known to reduce sensitive touch. Merkel cells begin to disappear in one’s early 20s, at the same time that tactile acuity starts to decline. “No one has tested whether the loss of Merkel cells causes loss of function with aging—it could be a coincidence—but it’s a question we’re interested in pursuing,” Dr. Lumpkin said.

In the future, these findings could inform the design of new “smart” prosthetics that restore touch sensation to limb amputees, as well as introduce new targets for treating skin diseases such as chronic itch.

“The new findings should open up the field of skin biology and reveal how sensations are initiated,” Dr. Lumpkin said. Other types of skin cells may also play a role in sensations of touch, as well as less pleasurable skin sensations, such as itch. The same optogenetics techniques that Dr. Lumpkin’s team applied to Merkel cells can now be applied to other skin cells to answer these questions.

Source: Columbia University Medical Center


Vital research into the illness of mind and brain

In this short seven-minute video Stephen Gentleman, Professor of Neuropathology at the Hammersmith Hospital in London dissects a recently preserved human brain according to international protocol.The brain sections are then stored in a ‘brain tissue bank’ for further research.

The brains are donated by people who suffered from Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis (both degenerative and incurable diseases of the central nervous system), but sometimes ‘control’ samples of healthy brains (also donated) are required too for accurate comparisons.

While some viewers may find this video unsettling it is important to stress that this type of research is vital in discovering safer and more effective treatments for illnesses of mind and brain. Brain dissections may also be performed in autopsy when the cause of death is unclear.


Weekly Neuroscience Update

The hippocampus is a region of the brain largely responsible for memory formation. Credit Salk Institute.

The hippocampus is a region of the brain largely responsible for memory formation. Credit Salk Institute.

Scientists have created a new model of memory that explains how neurons retain select memories a few hours after an event. This new framework provides a more complete picture of how memory works, which can inform research into disorders liked Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, post-traumatic stress and learning disabilities.

A switch in the brain of people with epilepsy dictates whether their seizures will be relatively mild or lead to a dangerous and debilitating loss of consciousness, Yale researchers have found.

By predicting our eye movements, our brain creates a stable world for us. Researchers used to think that those predictions had so much influence that they could cause us to make errors in estimating the position of objects. Neuroscientists at Radboud University have shown this to be incorrect. The Journal of Neuroscience published their findings – which challenge fundamental knowledge regarding coordination between brain and eyes.

Extreme and traumatic events can change a person — and often, years later, even affect their children. Researchers have now unmasked a piece in the puzzle of how the inheritance of traumas may be mediated.

Artists have structurally different brains compared with non-artists, a study has found. Participants’ brain scans revealed that artists had increased neural matter in areas relating to fine motor movements and visual imagery. The research, published in NeuroImage, suggests that an artist’s talent could be innate. But training and environmental upbringing also play crucial roles in their ability, the authors report.

Certain errors in visual perception in people with schizophrenia are consistent with interference or ‘noise’ in a brain signal known as a corollary discharge, a new study shows.

Finally this week,  a recent study has shown that use of abstract gestures is a powerful tool for helping children understand and generalize mathematical concepts.

 

 


Are Pessimistic Brains Different?


The ability to stay positive when times get tough – and, conversely, of being negative – may be hardwired in the brain, finds new research led by a Michigan State University psychologist.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, is the first to provide biological evidence validating the idea that there are, in fact, positive and negative people in the world.

“It’s the first time we’ve been able to find a brain marker that really distinguishes negative thinkers from positive thinkers,” said Jason Moser, lead investigator and assistant professor of psychology.

For the study, 71 female participants were shown graphic images and asked to put a positive spin on them while their brain activity was recorded. Participants were shown a masked man holding a knife to a woman’s throat, for example, and told one potential outcome was the woman breaking free and escaping.

The participants were surveyed beforehand to establish who tended to think positively and who thought negatively or worried. Sure enough, the brain reading of the positive thinkers was much less active than that of the worriers during the experiment.

“The worriers actually showed a paradoxical backfiring effect in their brains when asked to decrease their negative emotions,” Moser said. “This suggests they have a really hard time putting a positive spin on difficult situations and actually make their negative emotions worse even when they are asked to think positively.”

The study focused on women because they are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety related problems and previously reported sex differences in brain structure and function could have obscured the results.

Moser said the findings have implications in the way negative thinkers approach difficult situations.

“You can’t just tell your friend to think positively or to not worry – that’s probably not going to help them,” he said. “So you need to take another tack and perhaps ask them to think about the problem in a different way, to use different strategies.”

Negative thinkers could also practice thinking positively, although Moser suspects it would take a lot of time and effort to even start to make a difference.

- See more at: http://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2014/positive-negative-thinkers-brains-revealed/#sthash.PHIphaY2.dpuf


Mental Health and Well-Being for Mind and Brain

Why do some of us show only minor effects of stress while others show a more severe and disabling mental and physical decline? This slide share presentation explains how you can use your brain to recognise stress and manage it so as to benefit yourself and others in your lives.

Topics addressed include (i) understanding the brain and how it processes emotions, (ii) understanding psychological stress including its sources and consequences and (iii) reducing and preventing stress through the practice of mindfulness (awareness), cognitive restructuring (recognising your thoughts), diet, exercise and progressive relaxation.

Click here for audio recording of a workshop presentation to students and faculty at the Flinders University Department of Education, Adelaide, South Australia.

 


Weekly Neuroscience Update

Neuroscience research demonstrates that the brain regions underpinning moral judgment share resources with circuits controlling other capacities such as emotional saliency, mental state understanding and decision-making. Credit: Jean Decety

Neuroscience research demonstrates that the brain regions underpinning moral judgment share resources with circuits controlling other capacities such as emotional saliency, mental state understanding and decision-making. Credit: Jean Decety

People who care about justice are swayed more by reason than emotion, according to new brain scan research from the Department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. Researchers have discovered a gene that is likely to play a role in the risk of psychosis in bipolar disorders.

A new way to artificially control muscles using light, with the potential to restore function to muscles paralysed by conditions such as motor neuron disease and spinal cord injury, has been developed by scientists at UCL and King’s College London.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and the Allen Institute for Brain Science have published a study that gives clear and direct new evidence that autism begins during pregnancy.

A new study is the first documented study that shows cognitive behavioral therapy in a group setting is capable of changing the brain structure in patients with chronic pain.

By examining the sense of touch in stroke patients, a University of Delaware cognitive psychologist has found evidence that the brains of these individuals may be highly plastic even years after being damaged.

A new chemical messenger that is critical in protecting the brain against Parkinson’s disease has been identified by scientists.

Scents and smells can form the basis of some of the most significant memories humans form in their lives, a new study suggests

In the first study of its kind, two researchers have used popular music to help severely brain-injured patients recall personal memories.


Inside The Developing Brain: Clues To Schizophrenia and Autism

Images of the developing fetal brain show connections among brain regions.  Allen Institute for Brain Science and Bruce Fischl, Massachusetts General Hospital

Images of the developing fetal brain show connections among brain regions.
Allen Institute for Brain Science and Bruce Fischl, Massachusetts General Hospital

A high-resolution map of the human brain in utero is providing hints about the origins of brain disorders including schizophrenia and autism.

The map shows where genes are turned on and off throughout the entire brain at about the midpoint of pregnancy, a time when critical structures are taking shape. The human brain is often called the most complex object in the universe. Yet its basic architecture is created in just nine months, when it grows from a single cell to more than 80 billion cells organized in a way that will eventually let us think and feel and remember.

Having a map like this is important because many psychiatric and behavioral problems appear to begin before birth, even though they may not manifest until teenage years or even the early 20s.

The resulting map, which is available to anyone who wants to use it, has already led to at least two important findings. The first is that many genes that are associated with brain disorders are turned on early in development, which suggests that these disorders may have their origin from these very early time points.

And the map tells researchers who study these disorders where in the brain they should be looking for signs of trouble. For example, the map shows that genes associated with autism appear to be acting on a specific type of brain cell in a part of the brain called the neocortex. That suggests we should be looking at this particular type of cell in the neocortex, and furthermore that we should probably be looking very early in the prenatal stages for the origin of autism.

Source: NPR


How the Brain Recognises Speech Sounds

UC San Francisco researchers are reporting a detailed account of how speech sounds are identified by the human brain, offering an unprecedented insight into the basis of human language. The finding, they said, may add to our understanding of language disorders, including dyslexia.


Weekly Neuroscience Update

neuronal-heat-maps-in-brain

Scientists at CSHL have developed a new mathematical model that makes predictions about where different types are neurons are located throughout the brain. Here are “heat maps” of the brain, made using the mathematical model to predict the distribution of different neurons. Each row represents one neuronal type, and different sections of the brain are shown in each column. Color indicates the likelihood of a particular neuronal type appearing in that area of the brain (white, most likely; black, least). Credit Mitra et al.

A new mathematical model uses gene expression data to predict where neurons are located throughout the brain.

Researchers have studied the acquisition and development of language in babies on the basis of the temporary coordination of gestures and speech. The results are the first in showing how and when they acquire the pattern of coordination between the two elements which allows them to communicate very early on.

The problems people with autism have with memory formation, higher-level thinking and social interactions may be partially attributable to the activity of receptors inside brain cells, researchers have learned.

A new study documents the brain activity underlying our strong tendency to infer a structure of context and rules when learning new tasks (even when a structure isn’t valid). The findings, which revealed individual differences, shows how we try to apply task knowledge to similar situations and could inform future research on learning disabilities.

Researchers have discovered impaired neuronal activity in the parts of the brain associated with anticipatory functioning among occasional 18- to 24-year-old users of stimulant drugs, such as cocaine, amphetamines and prescription drugs such as Adderall.

Why do some teenagers start smoking or experimenting with drugs — while others don’t? In the largest imaging study of the human brain ever conducted — involving 1,896 14-year-olds — scientists have discovered a number of previously unknown networks that go a long way toward an answer.

New research shows that, contrary to what was previously assumed, suppressing unwanted memories reduces their influence on behaviour, and sheds light on how this process happens in the brain.

For our brain, animate and inanimate objects belong to different categories and any information about them is stored and processed by different networks. A study shows that there is also another category that is functionally distinct from the others, namely, the category of “social” groups.

A new technique provides a method to noninvasively measure human neural networks in order to characterize how they form.

Education significantly improves mental functioning in seniors even four decades after finishing school, shows a new study. The study shows that people who attended school for longer periods performed better in terms of cognitive functioning than those who did not.

 


Neurosurgeons successfully implant 3D printed skull

3D printed skull implant Photo Credit: UMC Utrecht

3D printed skull implant Photo Credit: UMC Utrecht

A 22-year-old woman from the Netherlands who suffers from a chronic bone disorder — which has increased the thickness of her skull from 1.5cm to 5cm, causing reduced eyesight and severe headaches — has had the top section of her skull removed and replaced with a 3D printed implant.

The skull was made specifically for the patient using an unspecified durable plastic. Since the operation, the patient has gained her sight back entirely, is symptom-free and back to work. It is not known whether the plastic will require replacing at a later date or if it will last a lifetime.

The operation was performed by a team of neurosurgeons at the University Medical Centre Utrecht and the university claims this is this first instance of a successful 3D printed cranium that has not been rejected by the patient.

It is hoped this technique can also be used for patients with other bone disorders or to repair severely damaged skulls after an accident or tumour.

Source: Wired UK


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