Author Archives: Editor

How do neurons connect to each others?

One of the greatest challenges in neuroscience is to identify the map of connections between neurons. In a landmark paper published in PNAS, the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)  Blue Brain Project (BBP) has identified key principles that determine synapse-scale connectivity by virtually reconstructing a cortical microcircuit and comparing it to a mammalian sample.

Weekly Neuroscience Update


Sending text messages on a smartphone can change the rhythm of brain waves, according to a new study published in Epilepsy & Behavior.

An international research team has found that our perception is highly sensitised for absorbing social information. The brain is thus trained to pay a great degree of attention to everyday actions. The results are reported in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

A new study unravels the mechanisms driving excess brain growth that affects as many as 30 percent of people with autism.

Researchers have developed a new technology that could lead to new therapeutics for traumatic brain injuries. The discovery, published in Nature Communications, provides a means of homing drugs or nanoparticles to injured areas of the brain.

Researchers have coupled machine learning with neuroimaging to detect early forms of dementia.

Neuroscientists have come up with a way to observe brain activity during natural reading. It’s the first time researchers have been able to study the brain while reading actual texts, instead of individual words. The research has potential implications for understanding dyslexia and other reading deficits.

A new study links hippocampal inflammation in multiple sclerosis with an increased risk of developing depression.

In a partnership melding neuroscience and electrical engineering, researchers have developed a new technology that will allow neuroscientists to capture images of the brain almost 10 times larger than previously possible – helping them better understand the behavior of neurons in the brain.

Researchers report acquiring new memories can interfere with old ones, making them more likely to be forgotten.

A European study has shown that the dopamine D2 receptor is linked to the long-term episodic memory, which function often reduces with age and due to dementia. This new insight can contribute to the understanding of why some but not others are affected by memory impairment. The results have been published in the journal PNAS.

Finally this week, a new study shows how new linguistic information is integrated into the same brain areas used for your native language.

Alzheimer’s And The Brain

Weekly Neuroscience Update


Cheese contains a chemical found in addictive drugs, scientists have found.

Chronic marijuana use disrupts the brain’s natural reward processes, according to researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas.

Understanding the relation of dopamine to network activity could improve schizophrenia treatment.

Using MRI brain scans, researchers have determined there is an association between the extent of disruption to the blood-brain barrier and the severity of bleeding following a stroke.

Researchers have proposed a computational model that could help explain multisensory integration in humans.

Scientists have developed a blood test that could identify which people with depression will respond to treatment so that patients can avoid spending months taking antidepressants that do not help them.

Researchers have discovered a unique pattern of scarring in the brains of those who were exposed to blast brain injuries that differs from those exposed to other types of head injury.

Intensive physical exercise four hours after learning is the key to remembering information learnt, say Dutch researchers.

Scientists have discovered a new cause of Parkinson’s disease – mutations in a gene called TMEM230. This appears to be only the third gene definitively linked to confirmed cases of Parkinson’s disease.

Finally this week, a protein called Scribble appears to orchestrate the intracellular signaling process for forgetting, a new study reports.


Was dopamine the secret to Muhammad Ali’s greatness?


I was saddened this week to read of the death of Muhammad Ali. The 74 year old whose outrageous talent in the ring was matched by his political significance and cultural impact, struggled with Parkinson’s disease which began during his boxing career in the late 1970’s. He was hospitalised several times in recent years and died of respiratory problems related to his disease. I have spent over 30 years investigating the effects of Parkinson’s disease on the brain and I am happy to report that during this period I have seen great strides in our understanding and treatment of this illness.

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). 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.

Causes of Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease can be genetic but it can also be triggered by what happens to you as you live your life such as prolonged exposure to chemicals like insecticides, weed killers and some drugs. Significantly in the case of Muhammad Ali, the disease can also be triggered by brain injury. However in most cases Parkinson’s disease arises ‘out of the blue’ as the so-called idiopathic Parkinson’s disease.

The core defect

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

The Muhammad Ali we all remember was dopamine in action

We need dopamine to survive. Dopamine allows us to talk, socialise, be brave, 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 Muhammad Ali’s awesome talent at the height of his career to see dopamine in action as his brain effortlessly converted his thoughts into the mesmerising performances inside and outside the ring that made him so loved by a generation. Ali’s ability to ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ was all down to the dopamine in his brain.


As a child in the 1960s I thought this 6’ 3’’ giant was the closest thing to Superman. Later I watched him take on the establishment over the political and cultural discrimination against his African American heritage knowing full-well that they were going to make him pay for it. It was then that I realised that Muhammad Ali was not just a gifted athlete but also a courageous human being – that he was in fact, a real, live Superman. Again, Ali’s deeply-held convictions and his bravery in standing by them was another expression of the dopamine in his brain.

Was boxing to blame?

Since Muhammad Ali’s death some media have reported that it is a pity that his illness had to overshadow what he achieved during his amazing life. Without dopamine Ali must have felt trapped and disconnected at times. While neurologists cannot definitively say whether Ali’s symptoms were a result of his boxing career, what is known for certain is that head trauma increases the risk of getting Parkinson’s disease.

Boxing and brain injury – a potentially lethal mix

Probably the most important lesson to be taken from Ali’s illness is that we need to open up a debate on how we as a society deal with traumatic brain injury and its causes. Even a minor concussion is dangerous because repeat concussions have cumulative effects on the brain, resulting in brain swelling, permanent brain injury, and long-term disability including Parkinson’s disease, personality change, epilepsy or even death.

By its very nature, a concussion is unexpected, so it is difficult to prevent. Here are three common-sense precautions you can take to lessen the possibility of traumatic brain injury.

1. Wear protective head gear. Participation in high-contact, high-risk sports such as all types of boxing, football, hurling and hockey can increase the likelihood of a concussion. Skateboarding, snowboarding, horseback riding, cycling and roller-blading are also a threat to your brain health. Wearing headgear, padding, and mouth and eye guards can help safeguard against traumatic head injuries. Wearing a bike helmet can lower the risk of traumatic head injury by 85%. Ensure that the equipment is properly fitted, well maintained, and worn consistently.

2. Drive smart. Always wear a seatbelt even as a passenger in a back seat, obey posted speed limits, and don’t use drugs or alcohol when driving, because they can impair reaction time.

3. Don’t fight. Concussions are often sustained during a punch-up, and more males than females report traumatic head injuries.

Funding for research into illness of mind and brain

We also need to highlight the realisation that a deeper understanding of the brain IS the difference between a good and a bad quality of life for the sufferers of brain illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease.

I hope that Muhammad Ali’s loved ones will take hope from the on-going research into Parkinson’s disease by teams of dedicated scientists worldwide.

Click on this link to hear Professor Billy O’Connor talk about Parkinson’s disease on Mind Matters – a science program on Irish National radio (RTE).

You might also like to read:

Emotions are habits so pick a good one

World Mental Health Day

Why Parkinson’s Disease robbed Linda Ronstadt of her singing voice



Weekly Neursocience Update


Brain glucose metabolism shows a dramatic drop from full consciousness to the minimal conscious and persistent vegetative states.

Brain scans strongly predict return of consciousness in vegetative patients.

Researchers report a surgically implanted neuroprosthetic devices that coordinates the activity hip, knee and ankle muscles led to improved walking speed and distance for a patient with limited mobility following a stroke.

According to new research, dopamine signalling within the cerebral cortex can predict changes between neural networks during working memory tasks.

A region of the brain that responds to bad experiences has the opposite reaction to expectations of aversive events in people with depression compared to healthy adults. The study, published in Molecular Psychiatry, found that the habenula, a pea-sized region of the brain, functions abnormally in depression. The same team previously showed that the habenula was activated in healthy volunteers when they expected to receive an electric shock.

Researchers have identified a mechanism that keeps the brain clean during neurodegenerative diseases.

Older people are less willing to take risks for potential rewards and this may be due to declining levels of dopamine in the brain, finds a new UCL study of over 25,000 people funded by Wellcome.

Neuroscience researchers have identified a gene critical for human brain development.

According to a new study, the brains of people with schizophrenia may be able to reorganize and fight the illness.

Researchers report we recognize patterns in music automatically, even with no musical training.

Finally this week, a new study has identified a neural pathway involved in switching between habitual behavior and deliberate decision making.



Managing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease With Technology

Weekly Neuroscience News


Researchers have created a ‘virtual partner’ that is able to elicit emotional response from humans in real time.

New research, presented this week at the European Society of Human Genetics conference in Barcelona, Spain, demonstrates that men whose red blood cells lack Y chromosomes are more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease. The team hopes that, in the future, these findings might help develop an early warning system for Alzheimer’s.

A new study explores the role microtubles play in neurodevelopment.

According to researchers, people with major depressive disorder could have altered purine metabolism.

Researchers report we recognize patterns in music automatically, even with no musical training.

According to a new study, during sensory stimulation, increases of blood flow are not precisely tuned to local neural activity, and this can have implications for fMRI neuroimaging.

New evidence reveals the powerful role of experience in linking language and cognition in infants.

Researchers report microglia may actually protect the brain against Alzheimer’s disease by containing the spread of amyloid plaques.

A new study reports microglia can diminish the adverse changes to neural circuitry bought on by chronic cocaine use.

Researchers report they have solved the puzzle as to how antibodies enter the nervous system to control viral infections.

A new study from the University of Rochester suggests that human intelligence might have evolved in response to the demands of caring for infants.

Researchers have investigated how the human brain implements hierarchical structures in order to design more clever algorithms for machine learning.

new study reports having high blood pressure can raise the risk of developing vascular dementia.

A new study from MIT neuroscientists reveals that a gene mutation associated with autism plays a critical role in the formation and maturation of synapses—the connections that allow neurons to communicate with each other.

Finally this week, a new study reports a number of different areas of childrens’ brains become activated when they hear their mother’s voice. This response predicts a child’s social communication ability.

Mapping the Brain

Trailblazers in neuroscience Dr. Christof Koch and Dr. John Donoghue reveal mind-blowing insights on how the brain turns thought into voluntary behaviors and how that knowledge is empowering victims of neurological trauma with regained physical abilities.

Weekly Neuroscience Update


Running barefoot is better than running with shoes for your working memory, according to a new study.

A new study from King’s College London offers clues as to why chronic pain can persist, even when the injury that caused it has gone. Although still in its infancy, this research could explain how small and seemingly innocuous injuries leave molecular ‘footprints’ which add up to more lasting damage, and ultimately chronic pain.

New findings demonstrate that a five-minute measurement of resting-state brain activity predicted how quickly adults learned a second language.

Danish research is behind a new epoch-making discovery, which may prove decisive to future brain research. The level of salts in the brain plays a critical role in whether we are asleep or awake. This discovery may be of great importance to research on psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia and convulsive fits from lack of sleep as well as post-anaesthetization confusion.

Research sheds light the neural structure that controls our sleep, eating habits, hormones and more.

A new study has found that Foreign Accent Syndrome, a condition which results in patients to be perceived as non-native speakers of their mother tongue, may be caused by the impaired connections between the language centres in the front part of the brain and the cerebellum.

Symptoms of depression that steadily increase over time in older age could indicate early signs of dementia, according to new research. 

A newly discovered pathway leading to neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) may unlock the door to new approaches for treating the disease.

Some adults learn a second language better than others, and their secret may involve the rhythms of activity in their brains.

Finally this week, researchers report they have discovered a backup for memory storage that comes into play when the molecular mechanism for primary long term memory storage fails.


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