Author Archives: Editor

Virtual Finger

In this video, The Allen Institute for Brain Science’s Hanchuan Peng, Ph.D., gives an overview of Virtual Finger, a revolutionary new way to digitally navigate three-dimensional images. The new technology allows scientists to move through digital images of small structures like neurons and synapses using the flat surface of their computer screens.


Weekly Neuroscience Update

Glioma cells tend to congregate at blood vessel junctions, almost as if camping alongside a stream where it joins a river. The ready supply of nutrients would allow the cell to grow into a larger tumor mass. Credit University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Glioma cells tend to congregate at blood vessel junctions, almost as if camping alongside a stream where it joins a river. The ready supply of nutrients would allow the cell to grow into a larger tumor mass. Credit University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Researchers have shed new light on how cells called gliomas migrate in the brain and cause devastating tumors. The findings, published in Nature Communications, show that gliomas — malignant glial cells — disrupt normal neural connections and hijack control of blood vessels.

New details on the NMDA receptor could aid development of drugs for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, other neurological disorders.

In a new study, scientists took a molecular-level journey into microtubules, the hollow cylinders inside brain cells that act as skeletons and internal highways. They watched how a protein called tubulin acetyltransferase (TAT) labels the inside of microtubules. The results, published in Cell, answer long-standing questions about how TAT tagging works and offer clues as to why it is important for brain health.

Patients with persistent ringing in the ears – a condition known as tinnitus – process emotions differently in the brain from those with normal hearing, researchers report in the journal Brain Research.

Pornography triggers brain activity in people with compulsive sexual behaviour – known commonly as sex addiction – similar to that triggered by drugs in the brains of drug addicts, according to a University of Cambridge study published in the journal PLOS ONE. However, the researchers caution that this does not necessarily mean that pornography itself is addictive.

Around half of the genes that influence how well a child can read also play a role in their mathematics ability, say scientists from UCL, the University of Oxford and King’s College London who led a study into the genetic basis of cognitive traits.

Psychologists at Stony Brook University, NY, suggest that about 20% of the population are genetically predisposed to be more aware and empathic. Now, in a new study, they explore which regions of the brain are implicated in this. They publish their findings in the journal Brain and Behavior.

Learning a second language may help improve brain function regardless of when you start, according to a new study.


Your Brain On Social Media #SMDay

social media day

To mark the fifth global Social Media Day today, here are my thoughts on predicting the future of social media.

Internet companies are looking for ways to get inside our heads – to tinker with the very thing that makes us human – our brain.  As Facebook gets ready to take-on new challengers after its recent launch on the stock market, is it possible that the battle for future dominance on the Internet will be won or lost inside our heads?  Knowledge about human behaviour, emotion and sensory stimulation is starting to flow through to the actual strategies of the leading Internet competitors.

Neuroscience – front and centre

Neuroscience – the scientific study of the nervous system – once at the periphery of the way we thought about the Internet, is suddenly in the spotlight. Just by understanding how the human brain works – Internet companies can get more users.

It’s all in your head

The Internet takes advantage of the two most important features within the human brain – that social behaviour elicits pleasure and that vision triggers memories and emotions deep within our unconscious minds – and quite simply, the key to the future success of the Internet and future billion-dollar valuations will depend on how the Internet can get that neuroscience right.

The reward pathway

The first feature is that social activity triggers a nerve pathway deep in our subconscious – the mesolimbic dopamine pathway – also called the reward pathway, releasing a chemical called dopamine which bathes the brain’s pleasure centres – similar to other activities with intrinsic value such as food, sex and getting money. People like talking about themselves on social media because it has intrinsic value by generating a warm emotion of being part of something important. In other words, we like sharing because it is enjoyable for its own sake as a social activity. In this way sharing is deeply sensory – we humans literally ‘get high’ on social activity.


To the left is a view of the human brain cut down the middle. The reward pathway – shown in red above – is activated by a rewarding stimulus. The major structures in the reward pathway are highlighted: the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex. The VTA sends information along its connections to both the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex. The neurons of the VTA contain the neurotransmitter dopamine which is released in the nucleus accumbens and in the prefrontal cortex. The pathway shown here is not the only pathway activated by rewards, other structures are involved too, but only this part of the pathway is shown for simplicity. (Adapted from the American Society for Neuroscience).

Humans – the ultimate party animals

Even 80 year olds look forward to their weekly bingo or bridge game or to just simply meet up with family/friends and having a chat.  From cooking a favourite meal to getting together with friends, it’s the smells and the stories and the smiles that make human connections so essential to psychological wellbeing. This is why we humans are the most social of the apes – no question about it – we love to party. No surprise then about the popularity of the Internet as it has taken our ability to socialise to a new level. Every comment, post, status update and tweet is a tiny jolt that triggers the pleasure centres of our brains.  On top of that – time and location are no longer impediments to social contact with like-minded friends.

Seeing is believing

The second feature is that over 70% of the human brain is dedicated to vision which means that our brains think in terms of visual images.

In fact, the visual system is the first to mature in the human brain so that by the age of five, children are able to compete on visual games with their grandparents …and win! This explains why the newer social networks like Instagram and Pinterest that use images have the potential to become even more popular for Internet users that the text-based Facebook and Twitter. Viewed from this perspective, Mark Zuckerberg’s recent billion-dollar bid for Instagram suddenly makes a lot of sense. It’s not just that Instagram is a hugely popular mobile network with millions of users; it’s that the company understands that retro filters and beautiful light effects actually trigger visual associations and associated memories deep within our unconscious minds.

The future of the Internet is a neurofuture

Future Internet innovations is not in a mobile or social experience that’s just smaller but something more intimate, and more expressive – one which embraces a sensor-rich Smartphone including touchable screen and high-density display. The future will be wrapped in an envelope of sensation – vision, touch, taste, smell and sound – where companies will compete with each other to rush out new innovations that flood our pleasure centres with dopamine. Narrowing the gap between our physical and digital worlds – making our digital worlds as visual, tactile and emotional as the real world – such as the world’s first cyber-hug – is just around the corner. Today’s new Android and iPhone mobile app “sense and soul” that takes the orderly, linear and rational layout of Google+ and transforms it into something beautifully nonlinear,  unstructured and stimulating might be an important step in this direction.


Weekly Neuroscience Update

MIT neuroscientists found that brain waves originating from the striatum (red) and from the prefrontal cortex (blue) become synchronized when an animal learns to categorize different patterns of dots.  Illustration: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT

MIT neuroscientists found that brain waves originating from the striatum (red) and from the prefrontal cortex (blue) become synchronized when an animal learns to categorize different patterns of dots.
Illustration: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT

The human mind can rapidly absorb and analyze new information as it flits from thought to thought. These quickly changing brain states may be encoded by synchronization of brain waves across different brain regions, according to a new study from MIT neuroscientists.

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examines what happens to the brain when it recovers from the effects of anesthetic.

A new study finds that meditation strongly stimulates parts of the brain that help with memory and emotion processing, which in turn lowers stress. A team of researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the University of Oslo, and the University of Sydney found that “nondirective” meditation, in which someone achieves a relaxed focus of attention by repeating a mantra or sound and lets his or her mind wander, is the most effective kind of meditation.

New research touts the ability of PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans to identify patients in a minimally conscious state (MCS) far more accurately than other imaging technologies.

How Meditation Reshapes Our Brain

Neuroscientist Sara Lazar’s talk reveals how meditation can actually change key regions of our brain, improving our memory and making us more empathetic, compassionate and resilient under stress.

Walking Again At The World Cup

Thanks to an international collaboration between universities such as Colorado State University, the Technical University of Munich and the Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal in Brazil, a paralyzed teen is set to open next month’s World Cup event by kicking a football while wearing a motorized exoskeleton controlled by his or her brain. The demonstration, known as the Walk Again project, will take place during the opening ceremony June 12 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Colorado State University  recently published a video of its portion of the Walk Again Project, describing just how the mind-control helmet was 3D-printed layer-by-layer in order to fit the wearer’s head and connect the electrodes. This video is a fascinating glimpse into how advances in robotics and 3D printing can improve people’s lives.



Weekly Neuroscience Update


MRIs work by aligning the magnetic spin of the hydrogen molecules in the body. Credit: Image courtesy of MGH-UCLA Human Connectome Project.

Brain scans are now starting to peer down to the molecular level, revealing what brain cells are telling one another, researchers say.

A new study has provided insight into the behavioral damage caused by repeated blows to the head. The research provides a foundation for scientists to better understand and potentially develop new ways to detect and prevent the repetitive sports injuries that can lead to the condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Sufferers of a common sleep-breathing disorder have diminished activity among neurons responsible for keeping heart rate low, reveals a new study published in The Journal of Physiology. The research discovered that in obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), neurons in the brainstem that control heart rate experience a blunting of their activity. The reduction of neuronal activity likely contributes to the increased heart rate,blood pressure and risk of adverse cardiovascular events that occur in patients with OSA.

A variant of the gene KLOTHO is known for its anti-aging effects in people fortunate enough to carry a copy. Now researchers have found that it also has benefits when it comes to brain function.

Humans who lack the corpus callosum, a bundle of 200 million fibers that connect the left and right hemispheres of the brain, have long fascinated physicians, neuroscientists and other curious minds. Now, a group of researchers puts an end to the Sperry’s paradox, which describes major differences between individuals born with reduced or absent brain connections and those who acquire this condition later in life.

A study has shown that a long-overlooked form of neuron-to-neuron communication called miniature neurotransmission plays an essential role in the development of synapses, the regions where nerve impulses are transmitted and received.

The way that your heart rate increases in response to alertness in the brain has been recently discovered by researchers. Specifically, this study looked at the interactions between neurons that fire upon increased attention and anxiety and neurons that control heart rate to discover the “why,” “how,” and “where to next” behind this phenomenon. The results may have important implications for how certain conditions are treated in the future, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic anxiety, or even stress.

A growing body of evidence suggests nonhuman animals can group living and inanimate things based on less than obvious shared traits, raising questions about how creatures accomplish this task.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool found musical training can increase blood flow in the left hemisphere of the brain, suggesting the area of the brain responsible for music and language share common pathways.

Change Your Brain, Change Your Life

A compelling presentation by American psychiatrist and brain disorder specialist, Daniel Amen, wich shows how brain health and innovation are intimately connected and that we need to create a more brain-healthy world.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

By using a novel technique to test brain waves, researchers are discovering how the brain processes external stimuli that do and don’t reach our awareness. Credit Beckman Institute.

By using a novel technique to test brain waves, researchers are discovering how the brain processes external stimuli that do and don’t reach our awareness. Credit Beckman Institute.

Researchers at the Beckman Institute are using a novel technique to test brain waves to see how the brain processes external stimuli that do and don’t reach our awareness. A group of international scientists has for the first time identified genetic mutations that suggest that schizophrenia and autism share underlying mechanisms. The research could help with future understanding of both conditions and may contribute to the development of treatments. Two psychologists have made a discovery that could revolutionize doctors’ perception and treatment of attention-deficit disorders. A newly identified disorder affecting the human nervous system is caused by a mutation in a gene never before implicated in human disease, according to two studies published in the journal Cell. By performing DNA sequencing of children affected by neurological problems, two research teams independently discovered that a disease marked by reduced brain size, as well as sensory and motor defects, is caused by a mutation in a gene called CLP1. Insights into this rare disorder may have important implications for the treatment of common disorders.

Scientists at the Salk Institute 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.

Stanford scientists have developed faster, more energy-efficient microchips based on the human brain – 9,000 times faster and using significantly less power than a typical PC. This offers greater possibilities for advances in robotics and a new way of understanding the brain. For instance, a chip as fast and efficient as the human brain could drive prosthetic limbs with the speed and complexity of our own actions.

Finally this week, laughter triggers brain waves similar to those associated with meditation, according to a small new studyThe study included 31 people whose brain waves were monitored while they watched humorous, spiritual or distressing video clips. While watching the humorous videos, the volunteers’ brains had high levels of gamma waves, which are the same ones produced during meditation, researchers found.


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


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