How Things You Do Change Your Brain

Ever wonder how ballet dancers can spin and spin and spin, but never seem to get dizzy? Neuroplasticity, that’s how. This short video explains how it works, and how you can use your brain in the same way.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

Credit: Johnson et al.

Researchers recently carried out a large-scale analysis of the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Their findings, published in Nature Neuroscience, unveiled a series of disease-related changes in protein co-expression modules, which were not identified when examining RNA networks in the same brain regions.

A new study, published in the journal PNAS, proposes how the brain stays stable despite changes in the neural code.

Cognitive decline is the biggest factor in determining how long patients with Alzheimer’s disease will live after being diagnosed, according to a new research study. The findings, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, are a first step that could help health care providers provide reliable prediction and planning assistance for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and their families.

An increase in depressive symptoms in adolescence has been linked to ozone exposure as a result of air pollution, even in areas that meet air quality standards.

Seven in ten long COVID patients experience concentration and memory problems several months after the initial onset of their disease, with many performing worse than their peers on cognitive tests, according to new research from the University of Cambridge.

Finally this week, researchers have developed a new method for training people to be creative, one that shows promise of succeeding far better than current ways of sparking innovation.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

Credit: German Primate Center

The precision with which we perceive the real world is not stable in time, rather it rhythmically fluctuates between high precision and low precision states several times per second. These fluctuations follow rhythmic electrical activities in the brain. Electrical rhythms of the brain range across different frequencies, from 1 to 250 hertz.

Brain circuitry responsible for motivation and pleasure is activated when a person experiences pain. The findings reveal a link as to why some people may overeat when they experience chronic pain.

For the first time, neuroscientists have identified a population of neurons in the human brain that lights up when we hear singing, but not other types of music. These neurons, found in the auditory cortex, appear to respond to the specific combination of voice and music, but not to either regular speech or instrumental music. Exactly what they are doing is unknown and will require more work to uncover, the researchers say.

People exposed to more green space during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic reported significantly less depression and anxiety, according to new research published in the journal PLOS One.

A new study links cardiorespiratory fitness in older adults to a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Older adults with higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness have a 33% reduced risk for developing Alzheimer’s.

Finally this week, Nostalgia decreases activity in pain-related brain areas and decreases subjective ratings of thermal pain, according to research recently published in Journal of Neuroscience.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

Credit: Oxford University

Researchers at Oxford University have implanted a novel closed-loop research platform for investigating the role of the pedunculopontine nucleus (PPN)—a brainstem nucleus—in Parkinson’s-like Multiple Systems Atrophy (MSA).

Your brain remains as nimble as ever until you hit your 60s, according to a report published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

A team of researchers has developed a way to create a molecular map of the human blood-brain barrier. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the group describes how they created their map and what it revealed about disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Brain organization differs between boys and girls with autism, according to a new study from the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Children with insomnia symptoms are likely to persist with them as young adults and are significantly more likely to develop an insomnia disorder in early adulthood compared to children who do not have difficulty sleeping, according to new research.

A specific group of fungi residing in the intestines can protect against intestinal injury and influence social behavior, according to new preclinical research.

The University of Oulu Functional Neuroimaging research group has for the first time succeeded in describing how the various types of pulsations in the human brain change when a person sleeps. Brain pulsation changes during sleep and their role in brain clearance have not been previously studied in humans. The results of the study may also help understand the mechanisms behind many brain diseases.

Finally this week, selenium, a natural mineral found in grains, meats, and nuts can reverse cognitive impairment following a stroke and improve learning and memory in the aging brain.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

Ke Wu, a PhD student in BU’s department of mechanical engineering, demonstrates a new magnetic metamaterial device intended to be used in conjunction with MRI machines to boost the quality of brain scans. Credit: Cydney Scott, Boston University

A novel wearable magnetic metamaterial could help make MRI imaging faster, cheaper, and crisper.

While the word “mutation” may conjure up alarming notions, a mutation in brain immune cells serves a positive role in protecting people against Alzheimer’s disease. Now University of California, Irvine biologists have discovered the mechanisms behind this crucial process.

People cannot distinguish between a face generated by Artificial Intelligence – using StyleGAN2- and a real face say researchers, who are calling for safeguards to prevent “deep fakes”.

Minor everyday rises in blood pressure due to short-term stressors can be linked to a brain area that controls conscious and learned motor skills. This discovery, presented by researchers, paves the way for a chance to influence the rises in blood pressure and, in the long run, prevent hypertension.

MRI scans of children aged 9 to 10 years with ADHD showed few differences in structural brain measurements compared to their unaffected peers, according to a new study.

A recent study has shown that the brain has neurons that fire specifically during certain mathematical operations. The findings indicate that some of the neurons detected are active exclusively during additions, while others are active during subtractions. They do not care whether the calculation instruction is written down as a word or a symbol.

New research has shown that a bacterium commonly present in the nose can sneak into the brain and set off a cascade of events that may lead to Alzheimer’s disease.

A research team has discovered that communication between two key memory regions in the brain determines how what we experience becomes part of what we remember, and as these regions mature, the precise ways by which they interact make us better at forming lasting memories.

Finally this week, digital twins are already used in manufacturing, industry, and aerospace. Now a European project called Neurotwin wants to make virtual copies of brains.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

A new study underscores the importance of healthy sleep to prevent the Alzheimer’s related amyloid-beta 42 protein from forming clumps in the brain.

It has long been known that there is an association between food and pain, as people with chronic pain often struggle with their weight. Researchers at the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience may have found an explanation in a new study that suggests that circuitry in the brain responsible for motivation and pleasure is impacted when someone experiences pain.

Researchers have found 90 minutes of mild- to moderate-intensity exercise directly after a flu or COVID-19 vaccine may provide an extra immune boost.

When a person tries to access a memory, their brain quickly sifts through everything stored in it to find the relevant information. But as we age, many of us have difficulty retrieving memories. In a review published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences researchers propose an explanation for why this might be happening: the brains of older adults allocate more space to accumulated knowledge and have more material to navigate when attempting to access memories.

Researchers have discovered a critical role the dorsal precentral gyrus plays in how people use the sound of their voices to control how they want the words they speak to sound.

Finally this week, a new study has uncovered new evidence linking higher levels of neuroticism and anxiety with the ability to experience a deeply relaxing sensation known as the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR).

Weekly Neuroscience Update

Researchers propose forgetting memories or things we have learned may be a functional feature in the brain and actually an additional form of learning.

Scientists have developed a device for recording brain activity that is more compact and affordable than the solutions currently on the market. With its high signal quality and customizable configuration, the device could help people with restricted mobility regain control of their limbs or provide advance warnings of an impending seizure to patients with epilepsy. The article presenting the device and testing results came out in Experimental Brain Research.

A new, large-scale study led by scientists at the Yale School of Public Health has established a robust link between long-term ozone exposure and an increased risk of cognitive impairment in older adults.

A new study found that frailty was a strong risk factor for dementia, even among people who are at a high genetic risk for dementia, and that it might be modified through a healthy lifestyle.

A systematic review published in the scientific journal Addiction has found that cannabis use leads to acute cognitive impairments that may continue beyond the period of intoxication.

Neuroscientists have identified a specific signal that young children and even babies use to determine whether two people have a strong relationship and a mutual obligation to help each other.

Finally this week a new study reveals how the body produces different health-promoting signaling molecules in an organ-specific manner following exercise at different points during the day.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

Running may be a useful activity to undertake for better mental health. Researchers have found that only ten minutes of moderate-intensity running increases local blood flow to the various loci in the bilateral prefrontal cortex —the part of the brain that plays an important role in controlling mood and executive functions.

New research reveals how our immune cells use the body’s fat stores to fight infection. The research could help develop new approaches to treating people with bacterial infections.

Recent cannabis use is linked to extremes of nightly sleep duration—less than 6 hours or more than 9 hours—reveals a study of a large representative sample of US adults, published online in the journal Regional Anesthesia & Pain Medicine.

The risk of developing multiple sclerosis increases 32 fold following Epstein-Barr virus infection.

Living alone for several years and/or experiencing serial relationship break-ups are strongly linked to raised levels of inflammatory markers in the blood–but only in men–finds a large population study published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Long before the onset of dementia, there is evidence for increased activity of the brain’s immune system. Researchers came to this conclusion based on a study of more than 1,000 older adults. 

Sleep deprivation increases the levels of serotonin 2A neurotransmitter receptors within 6 – 8 hours. Abnormal serotonin 2A receptor function is associated with hallucinations, cognitive impairment, and is linked to psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.

Finally this week, work plays an active role in keeping the brain healthy and retaining cognitive abilities as we age, researchers report.

End of Year Neuroscience Update

Welcome to the final research update of the year. 

A new study shows that people who do vigorous physical activities, like jogging or playing competitive sports, in areas with higher air pollution may show less benefit from that exercise when it comes to certain markers of brain disease. The markers examined in the study included white matter hyperintensities, which indicate injury to the brain’s white matter, and gray matter volume. Larger gray matter volumes and smaller white matter hyperintensity volumes are markers of overall better brain health.

Long-term memory consolidation and short-term memory processes that occur during sleep do so at a cost to one another according to new research. 

In a discovery that could one day benefit people suffering from traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia, researchers have identified the characteristics of more than 100 memory-sensitive neurons that play a central role in how memories are recalled in the brain.

An observational study of more than 3,000 adults aged 65 years or older has uncovered a link between cataract surgery and a reduced risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers in Japan used magnetic resonance imaging to study the brains of secondary school students during a task focused on musical observation. They found that students trained to play music from a young age exhibited certain kinds of brain activity more strongly than other students. The researchers also observed a specific link between musical processing and areas of the brain associated with language processing for the first time.

A new theory suggests consciousness is a state tied to complex cognitive operations, and not a passive basic state that automatically prevails when we are awake.

Why do so many children with autism often suffer from epilepsy? Scientists have discovered an important brain protein that quiets overactive brain cells and is at abnormally low levels in children with autism.

A newly developed self-assessment test of cognitive function can help detect early signs of dementia sooner than commonly used office-based cognitive tests.

Scientists have identified a neural mechanism that supports advanced cognitive functions such as planning and problem-solving. The mechanism distributes information from a single neuron to larger neural populations in the prefrontal cortex.

A team of researchers has found a link between the way that cells produce energy for brain function and the mutated genes found in Alzheimer’s disease.

Children with autism have abnormally low levels of the CNTNAP2 protein. The protein, which can be detected in cerebrospinal fluid samples, may serve as a new biomarker for autism and could potentially become a target to treat epilepsy that is commonly associated with ASD.

Finally, this new study brings understanding how the brain processes information one step closer.

 

 

Is Social Media Damaging Your Brain?

Last month, I contributed to an Irish Times article on the question of how, or indeed if, the internet is damaging our brain.

It’s an interesting question.

I view the answer not in terms of damage, but of manipulation. What most people want is not truth but validation.

What the internet companies do is take advantage of our need for nurturing – our need to be liked and to like others.

This manipulation can be disorientating as the human brain was never designed to cater for 10,000 likes from 10,000 individuals, especially not [for] a 13-year-old.

We are not designed for this avalanche of nurturing that comes through social media – this attention.

The dopamine is always on call, and you can be elated or let down at any minute depending on what the latest news is.

Neurogeneticist, Kevin Mitchell, an active Twitter user, is of a similar mind when it comes to framing the question in terms of damage.

“I don’t think we should say that our ‘brains have been rewired’, but our habits and modes of thinking and conceptual metaphors have certainly changed, ” he says. “I think social media, with its very different dynamics and rules, has changed the way we interact with other people, and the way we define our selves, through interactions with others.”

Mitchell believes that our ways of thinking have changed, but this is probably not a new thing. “Our ways of thinking have probably been continually changing over time, with every new technological development – think of Plato decrying the invention of writing and what it would do to young minds.”

I would certainly agree with this.

Brain plasticity is a defining feature of the brain. There is no point in your life when your brain is settled as ‘you’.

This question of personal identity feeds into a long-running philosophical debate about where exactly consciousness lies.

Under the ‘extended mind theory’, consciousness does not reside exclusively in the brain but rather straddles it and the environment.

Philosophers supporting this hypothesis have suggested that the tools which we use to upload information – a notebook, for example, or a search engine – are indistinguishable from the mind itself.

If the extended mind theory is true then it would mean our minds are literally being altered each time Facebook or Google change their algorithm.

But is it true?

Or does it just feel like it’s true because our heads are in such a tizzy from staring at our smartphones?

Before the advent of modern neuroscience, the idea that minds can exist independently from the body was not so farfetched. That belief opened up a niche for people to market all kinds of beliefs about unobservable entities including Gods, messiahs, spirits, souls, angels, devils and so on. These beliefs are for the most part benign if they do not involve making sacrifices that are ultimately irrational or being manipulated by others.

The idea of the mind being separate from the body goes back to Aristotle, but the body and the mind are one and the same thing.

As for theories that place the mind – or part of the mind – outside the brain, supernatural philosophy can be neither proved nor disproved.

Whatever about the internet literally colonising our minds, there’s no denying Big Tech has a profound influence on our thinking.

And if you think about it, there are only two industries that call their customers users: the illegal drugs industry and the software industry.

It’s too simple to say that we love the way social media connects us to the wider world, because it can isolate us too.  It offers us freedom, but only within a closed garden where Big Tech holds the key. To reconcile this contradiction we have to look into ourselves. We need to stop and ask ourselves what we are doing when we buy into social media and what is the full nature of this magical and intimate transaction.