Weekly Neuroscience Update

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Contrary to popular belief, exposing children to stimuli early can help to boost their development, researchers report.

Dementia is more common in people who live within 50 metres of a major road than those who live further away, according to a study looking at 6.6 million people published in The Lancet.

According to a new study, clinically depressed children show a blunted response to reward compared to those who were not depressed.

Cerebral blood flow is reduced in the Broca’s area of people who stutter, researchers report. Additionally, the more severely a person stutters, the less blood flows to this area of the brain.

The same area of the brain can motivate and suppress a learned behaviour at the same time, a new study reports.

Exposure to false information about an event usually makes it more difficult for people to recall the original details, but new research suggests that there may be times when misinformation actually boosts memory.

Using objects when trying to solve problems may help to find new ways of finding a solution, researchers report.

A new study looks at how our brains process information when we pay attention and attempt to ignore stimuli.

Finally this week, researchers report Alzheimer’s can be detected before diagnosis by looking at, and applying mathematical analysis, to their painting styles.

 

 

Why Breaking New Year’s Resolutions Is All In The Mind

Happy New Year!

So have you made any new year’s resolutions this year? Despite the high failure rate of these resolutions – research by British psychologist Richard Wiseman in 2007  has shown that 88% of all resolutions end in failure – many continue to make the same resolutions year in and year out. But just why are our old habits  so hard to break?

The science of willpower

The brain area largely responsible for willpower is the prefrontal cortex (located just behind the forehead). This area of the brain is also in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems.

Author Johan Lehrer writing in the Wall Street Journal proposed that adding new year’s resolutions to an overloaded prefrontal cortex is a sure-fire recipe for failure.

He refered to an experiment led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, where several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

What do you think happened?

The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation. “A tired brain, preoccupied with its problems, is going to struggle to resist what it wants, even when what it wants isn’t what we need.” writes Lehrer.

So instead of blaming our own lack of discipline in not keeping to our resolutions, perhaps this research shows that  the power of will is not enough due to the very nature of the brain.

So now we know what doesn’t work when it comes to keeping those resolutions, let’s take a look at what might help.

How to keep New Year’s resolutions

Lehrer suggests we think of willpower as a muscle that needs to be strengthened. Prof Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University who has pioneered the muscle metaphor, suggests that it might be possible to strengthen willpower by exercising it.

He asked a group of students to improve their posture for two weeks, thereby practicing mental discipline in one area. The students showed a marked improvement on subsequent measures of self-control, at least when compared to a group that didn’t work on posture control.

If this sounds like too much hard work, you could always try the tried and tested goal setting approach to making positive change stick.

Goal Setting

Think about some small changes you could make in your lifestyle that would help to bring about your ultimate goal.  The cumulative impact of a modest change to your daily routine will restore in you the feeling that you are in control.

Above all, don’t use your resolutions as a stick to beat yourself with. Ditch the negative connotations and instead focus on what those small changes will bring to your life in a positive way in the coming year.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

runner-888016_960_720.jpgAccording to researchers, endurance runners appear to have greater functional connectivity in their brains that those who don’t exercise as much.

New research reveals that children begin using olfactory information to help guide their responses to emotionally-expressive faces at about five years of age. The findings advance understanding of how children integrate different types of sensory information to direct their social behaviour.

A new study explores how neurons adapt their function to respond to stimuli quickly.

A distinctive neural signature found in the brains of people with dyslexia may explain why these individuals have difficulty learning to read, according to a new study from MIT neuroscientists.

Brain connections that play a key role in complex thinking skills show the poorest health with advancing age, new research suggests.

Researchers have identified immune cells in the membranes around the brain that could be a ‘missing link’ in the gut-brain axis. The immune cells also appear to have a positive impact on recovery following spinal cord injury.

Therapeutic hypothermia following a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) significantly improves survival rate, a new study reports.

An enzyme found in the fluid around the brain and spine is giving researchers a snapshot of what happens inside the minds of Alzheimer’s patients and how that relates to cognitive decline.

Finally this week,a new study looks at the way in which noise sensitivity is manifested due to changes in the way in which the brain processes auditory information.

 

 

Weekly Neuroscience Update

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Our brain’s changing structure, not simply getting older and wiser, most affects our attitudes to risk, according to new research.

A new study from Center for Music in the Brain (MIB) Aarhus University/The Royal Academy of Music, Denmark, published in Scientific Reports, shows that participants receiving oxytocin – a hormone known to promote social bonding – are more synchronized when finger-tapping together, than participants receiving placebo. This effect was observed when pairs of participants, placed in separate rooms tapped together in a leader/follower relationship.

Researchers have identified a population of neurons that appear to be responsible for muscle paralysis during REM sleep.

A team of scientists has mapped out how our brains process visuals we don’t even know we’ve seen, indicating that the neuronal encoding and maintenance of subliminal images is more substantial than previously thought.

Mutations of the GBA gene, a known risk factor for Parkinson’s disease, appear to also influence the development of cognitive decline, a new study reports.

Women and men look at faces and absorb visual information in different ways, which suggests there is a gender difference in understanding visual cues, according to a team of scientists.

A new neuroimaging study finds iron is distributed in an unusual way in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease.

Scientists have discovered for the first time that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain that enhances emotional judgements and memory recall.

A new study reveals sleep could be used as an early prevention strategy against PTSD.

Finally this week, researchers discover metaphors that involve body parts such as arms or legs, such as ‘twist my arm, engage a brain region responsible for the visual perception of those parts.

 

 

 

Weekly Neuroscience Update

band-691224_960_720.jpgIt may be possible to categorise the brain strategies used by professional musicians based on how they prioritise sight vs. sound when learning to play new music, according to a new study.

When we are in a deep sleep our brain’s activity ebbs and flows in big, obvious waves, like watching a tide of human bodies rise up and sit down around a sports stadium. It’s hard to miss. Now, Stanford researchers have found, those same cycles exist in wake as in sleep, but with only small sections sitting and standing in unison rather than the entire stadium. It’s as if tiny portions of the brain are independently falling asleep and waking back up all the time.

Researchers report the hippocampus isn’t just important for remembering past events, it also plays a vital role in future planning.

According to a new study, the brain blocks the ability for creating new memories shortly after waking in order to prevent the disruption of the stabilisation of memory consolidation that occurs during sleep.

Patients with depression can be categorised into four unique sub-types defined by distinct patterns of abnormal connectivity in the brain, according to new research.

The inability to hear subtle changes in pitch, a common and debilitating problem for people with schizophrenia, is due to dysfunctional N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) brain receptors, according to a study by Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) researchers. The study also shows that this hearing issue can be improved by combining auditory training exercises with a drug that targets NMDA receptors.

Researchers report abnormal activation in areas that respond to normal pain when a person with CRPS witnesses another person experience painful stimuli.

A new study has revealed the way that the brain handles the often noisy environments found on this planet, with the results explaining why animals, including humans, can easily cope with both the still and quiet of early-morning parks to the bustle and hubbub of cafés and streets. The researchers discovered that as auditory neurons become more familiar with a sound environment, they speed up their adaption to the noisiness of that environment.

The human brain is predisposed to learn negative stereotypes, according to research that offers clues as to how prejudice emerges and spreads through society.

Finally this week, researchers have conducted the first study of its kind, using proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to look at brain regions in both adults and children who stutter.

 

Weekly Neuroscience Update

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People have a remarkable ability to remember and recall events from the past, even when those events didn’t hold any particular importance at the time they occurred. Now, researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology on November 23 have evidence that dogs have this kind of “episodic memory” too.

PET imaging of new neurons in the brain promises to advance our understanding and treatment of depression.

Research from Mayo Clinic included in the November issue of JAMA Neurology identifies a new biomarker for brain and spinal cord inflammation, allowing for faster diagnosis and treatment of patients.

The amount of GABA in person’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is linked the ability to keep several things in mind simultaneously. to new research.

A new study offers important insight into how Alzheimer’s disease begins within the brain. The researchers found a relationship between inflammation, a toxic protein and the onset of the disease. The study also identified a way that doctors can detect early signs of Alzheimer’s by looking at the back of patients’ eyes.

An international research team has found that when the brain “reads” or decodes a sentence in English or Portuguese, its neural activation patterns are the same.

In a cross-domain study, researchers have discovered unexpected cells in the protective membranes that enclose the brain, the so called meninges. These ‘neural progenitors’ – or stem cells that differentiate into different kinds of neurons – are produced during embryonic development. These findings show that the neural progenitors found in the meninges produce new neurons after birth – highlighting the importance of meningeal tissue as well as these cells’ potential in the development of new therapies for brain damage or neurodegeneration. A paper highlighting the results was published in the leading scientific journal Cell Stem Cell.

A new study reports that a single stressful event may cause long term consequences in the brain.

Researchers have identified previously unknown neural circuitry that plays a role in promoting satiety, the feeling of having had enough to eat. The discovery revises the current models for homeostatic control — the mechanisms by which the brain maintains the body’s status quo — of feeding behaviour. Published online today in Nature Neuroscience, the findings offer new insight into the regulation of hunger and satiety and could help researchers find solutions to the ongoing obesity epidemic.

Finally this week, learning by taking practice tests, a strategy known as retrieval practice, can protect memory against the negative effects of stress, according to new research.

 

Using your brain to beat addiction

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I was delighted to give a public talk in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, Ireland for National Drug and Alcohol Awareness Week on the topic Using your brain to beat addiction.

The talk was also open to the University of Limerick, the Limerick Institute of Technology, to members of the public, and to those working in services involved in the area of substance misuse.

You can view a slide summary of my talk below.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

eating-796489_960_720.jpgA new study looks at the role the visual system plays in our food decisions.

Neurons found in the human eye naturally display a form of error correction in the collective visual signals they send to the brain, according to a new study in PLOS Computational Biology.

Researchers have created a new optical illusion which helps reveal how our brains determine the material properties of objects – such as whether they are transparent, shiny, matte or translucent – just from looking at them.

Genetic circuits can be isolated within individual synthetic cells, researchers report.

A new study identifies a sub region of the brain that works to form a particular kind of memory: fear-associated with a specific environmental cue or “contextual fear memory.”

Researchers have revealed multiple functions of visual attention, the process of selecting important information from retinal images.

As you age, you may find it more difficult to focus on certain tasks. But while distractions can be frustrating, they may not be as bad as we think. In a review published November 15 in Trends in Cognitive Sciences researchers  suggest that there may be some benefits to reduced focus, especially in people over 50.

Consuming a high fat diet during adolescence could contribute to cognitive impairment as an adult, a new study reports.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Georgia has developed a new technology that may help scientists better understand how an individual cell synchronizes its biological clock with other cells.

A new study could be the first step to developing drugs that targets carbonic anhydrase in mitochondria to help protect against aging and neurodegeneration.

Researchers report altering synaptic plasticity leads to a computational switch in a hippocampal synapse which turns the presynaptic neuron turns into “detonator” mode, causing it to fire more readily.

Finally this week, a new study has revealed how three important brain signaling chemicals affect the way that we handle uncertainty.

 

 

Weekly Neuroscience Update

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A new study finds those “earworm” songs that get stuck in our heads are usually faster, fairly generic and easier to remember, but with unique intervals that set them apart from ‘average’ pop songs.

Researchers have for the first time recorded how cells of the epidermis behave during the regrowth of adult limbs after amputation.

Proper communication between the left and right sides of the brain is critical for the development of advanced language skills, according to new research.

A team of researchers at TU Dresden has examined the underlying neural processes associated with short term task learning in a current imaging study. The results of the study are published today in Nature Communications.

A new study confirms that scanning a person’s brain with an fMRI is more accurate at picking up lies than a traditional polygraph test.

Contrary to popular belief, language is not limited to speech. A  recent study published in the journal PNAS, reveals that people also apply the rules of their spoken language to sign language.

Scientists at The University of Manchester have shown for the first time that if the brain is ‘tuned-in’ to a particular frequency, pain can be alleviated.

A new study appears to build on the previous research that suggests genetic mutations which affect mitochondria function could be critical to the development and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Meanwhile, researchers have also discovered a possible new treatment for the disease after noticing the way in which insulin signaling works in the brains and pancreas of diabetic patients; and in another study degeneration of the basal forebrain appears before cognitive and behavioural symptoms of Alzheimer’s occur.

Researchers were able to predict the orientation preference of individual neurons by adding up the responses of their dendritic spines, a new study reports.

Scientists have mapped what happens neurologically when new information influences a person to change his or her mind, a finding that offers more insight into the mechanics of learning.

The brain regulates social behaviour differently in males and females, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A team of  researchers has uncovered new details about the biology of telomeres, “caps” of DNA that protect the tips of chromosomes and play key roles in a number of health conditions, including cancer, inflammation and aging.

A new study uses retinal prosthetics to assess the brain’s ability to process visual information years after blindness occurs.

People suffering medical conditions causing low levels of oxytocin perform worse on empathy tasks, according to new research. And a new measuring method has detected oxytocin at much higher rates in blood serum and plasma than researchers previously thought.

Researchers believe they may have pinpointed an area of the brain that plays a role in maintaining human consciousness.

Scientists have uncovered new details about how a repeating nucleotide sequence in the gene for a mutant protein may trigger Huntington’s disease and other neurological diseases.

Finally this  week, a new study reports context processing problems could help to explain some of the symptoms and neuroimaging findings associated with PTSD.