Weekly Round-Up

Your brain is more responsive to your friends than to strangers

Researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center have described for the first time how the brain’s memory center repairs itself following severe trauma – a process that may explain why it is harder to bounce back after multiple head injuries.

People with autism use their brains differently from other people, which may explain why some have extraordinary abilities to remember and draw objects in detail, according to new research from the University of Montreal.

Five more genes which increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease have been identified, according to research published in Nature Genetics. This takes the number of identified genes linked to Alzheimer’s to 10 – the new genes affect three bodily processes and could become targets for treatment. If the effects of all 10 could be eliminated the risk of developing the disease would be cut by 60%, although new treatments could be 15 years away.

The sudden understanding or grasp of a concept is often described as an “Aha” moment and now researchers from New York University are using a functional MRI (fMRI) scanner to study how these moments of insight are captured and stored in our brain.

Mark Changizi is asking the question how do we have reading areas for a brain that didn’t evolve to read?

In order to develop new medications for alcoholism, researchers need to understand how alcohol acts on the brain’s reward system. A previously unknown mechanism has been shown to block the rewarding effects of alcohol on the brain, reveals a thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Researchers from the University of Valencia (UV)  investigating the brain structures involved with empathy have concluded that the brain circuits responsible are in part the same as those involved with violence.

And finally…your brain is more responsive to your friends than to strangers, even if those strangers have more in common with you, says a new study. Researchers looked at the brain areas associated with social information. The results of the study show that social connections override similar interests.

Weekly Round Up

The neuroscience of dreaming

In this week’s round-up of the latest discoveries in the field of neuroscience – the neuroscience of dreaming and eureka moments, the teenage brain and new research into Parkinson’s and Alzheimers.

Scientists have long puzzled over the many hours we spend in light, dreamless slumber. But a new study from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests we’re busy recharging our brain’s learning capacity during this traditionally undervalued phase of sleep, which can take up half the night.

Perhaps while sleeping we are gaining new insight into our problems. A new brain-imaging study looks at the neural activity associated with insight. The research, published by Cell Press in the March 10 issue of the journal Neuron, reveals specific brain activity that occurs during an “A-ha!” moment that may help encode the new information in long-term memory.

I’ve written previously about the brain of a teenager being hot-wired to take risk, but now new research shows that just when teens are faced with intensifying peer pressure to misbehave, regions of the brain are actually blossoming in a way that heighten the ability to resist risky behavior.

Brain scans are being used to spot the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease in a UK-based pilot that could revolutionise its diagnosis. Doctors are using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to look at whether particular parts of the brain have started to shrink, which is a key physiological sign of Alzheimer’s. The MRI project is an example of “translational research” – that which will have a direct benefit for patients. And in more translational research news, it emerges that in studies of more than 135,000 men and women regular users of ibuprofen were 40% less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease.

Slow protein clearance ‘clue to Alzheimer’s’

Amyloid plaques build up in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease. Image: BBC Health

The BBC News website this week reports on the latest research to suggest that people with Alzheimer’s disease clear a damaging protein from their brains more slowly than those who are healthy. With an ageing population,  dementia, including Alzheimer’s, is currently seen as one of the main health challenges in Ireland the UK.

Amyloid plaques are one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. Amyloid is a general term for protein fragments that the body produces normally. Beta amyloid is a protein fragment snipped from an amyloid precursor protein. In a healthy brain, these protein fragments are broken down and eliminated. For some reason, in Alzheimer’s disease, the fragments accumulate to form hard, insoluble plaques.

The findings from this study suggests that people with Alzheimer’s disease clear the damaging protein from their brains 30% more slowly than those who are healthy suggesting that  it is the poor clearance of the protein, not the build-up, that is the problem. Admittedly it’s a small study – just 24 people were looked at, but exciting, and could help the understanding of the disease.

Not meaning to blow my own trumpet (ahem!) but in 2008 my research group showed how the amyloid protein might be toxic in higher concentration …by inappropriately increasing the concentrations of a neurotransmitter called glutamate in the hippocampus – a brain region long associated with Alzheimer’s disease*. It’s well known that high concentrations of glutamate can damage local nerve cells and thus impair the functioning of the hippocampus.

It’s exciting to see the pieces of evidence coming together as the search for an effective treatment for dementia continues apace.

*  O’Shea S.D., Smith I.M., McCabe O.M., Cronin M.M., Walsh D.M., O’Connor W.T. Sensors. 2008; 8(11):7428-7437.