Weekly Neuroscience Update

forest-868715_960_720.jpgA neuroimaging study reveals city dwellers who live closer to forests were more likely to have healthier amygdala structure and were better able to deal with stressful situations.

New research has found that a specific combination of techniques will increase people’s chances of having lucid dreams, in which the dreamer is aware they’re dreaming while it’s still happening and can control the experience.

A new study reports women who are exposed to trauma and suffer post-traumatic stress are at an increased risk of developing Lupus.

When mental and physical tasks are put in direct competition, cognition tends to win out. Researchers suggest more energy is directed to the brain than the body, supporting the ‘selfish brain’ theory of evolution.

Researchers have revealed the neural signatures for explicit and implicit learning.

A delayed neurological response to processing the written word could be an indicator that a patient with mild memory problems is at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, research led by the University of Birmingham has discovered.

A new study reveals MRI brain scans can help identify neurological changes associated with multiple sclerosis before symptoms appear in children.

Researchers have shown for the first time a comprehensive picture of cell diversity in the amygdala, a vital brain region involved in the regulation of emotions and social behavior, as well as in autism spectrum disorders, depression and other mental disorders. As part of the study, the team also reported on a new method for systematically linking the distinct types of brain cells to specific behavioral functions.

Using three different training models, researchers report mental training, mindfulness and meditation can induce structural brain plasticity and reduce social stress.

Most cases of autism appear to be associated with the appearance of new mutations that are not inherited from the child’s parents, researchers from the University of Washington School of Medicine report.

A new brain-imaging study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry suggests scientists may be able to predict how likely children are to develop depression. 

Researchers have developed a new assessment model that breaks emotional regulation into three different elements. The MAS assessment will provide clinicians a new way in which to diagnose mood and mental health disorders.

A new study reports transcranial magnetic stimulation of the prefrontal cortex improves a person’s ability to evaluate their performance during a working memory task.

Researchers at Salk Institute report astrocytes initiate communication between pairs of neurons during early development, inducing specific neural changes. Findings may have implications for neurodevelopmental disorders such as ASD and ADHD.

Researchers have discovered a cellular mechanism that may contribute to the breakdown of communication between neurons in Alzheimer’s disease.

 

 

Weekly Neuroscience Update

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This is a simulated seizure activity on cortical tissue. NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Y. Wang.

A new study explores which of the two main patterns of brain activity may be seen during the onset of an epileptic seizure.

Researchers link obsessive behaviours in frontotemporal dementia (FTD) to immune pathways and suggest targeting the immune system could be a new strategy for the treatment of FTD.

Scientists have identified a gene that plays a vital role in the production of neurons and glial cells in the brain.

Reviewing brain scans of bipolar patients, researchers observe notable differences in the thickness of gray matter in areas of the brain associated with motivation and control inhibition compared to those without the disorder.

Researchers use optogenetics to study impairment to the CA2 region of the hippocampus.

Stimulating the brain by taking on leadership roles at work or staying on in education help people stay mentally healthy in later life, according to new research.

Our brains process foreign-accented speech with better real-time accuracy if we can identify the accent we hear, according to a team of neurolinguists.

The puzzle of how the brain regulates blood flow to prevent it from being flooded and then starved every time the heart beats has been solved with the help of engineering.

Researchers say stroke prevention strategy is also helping to reduce dementia in people aged 80 and over.

Finally this week, a new study reveals the amygdala has distinct neurons that can judge ambiguity and intensity of facial expressions.

 

What can we learn from Robin Williams’ death?

robin

I was saddened this week to read of the tragic death of Robin Williams.  The 63-year-old talented actor and performer struggled with substance abuse since the 1980s. He previously admitted to cocaine and alcohol addiction and entered rehab in 2006 for alcoholism after 20 years of sobriety and had again voluntarily checked himself into rehab in June.

Anxiety and depression – a potentially lethal mix

Over the past two decades I have visited high schools and colleges to talk on mental health and how stress can affect the brain and it still amazes me how little the general public understand just how damaging the effects of stress are on the brain can be and how important it is to manage stress in a positive way. While we cannot know Robin’s motivation to take his own life we know that he complained of anxiety and depression and was also suffering the early effects of Parkinson’s disease in the weeks preceding his tragic death.

The amygdala – the brain’s house alarm

Anxiety is brain state associated with the over-activation of two tiny brain regions – no bigger than a thumb nail – called the amygdala (Latin; the almond). These two regions located deep in the brain behind the nose – one on the left side and one on the right side – contain nerves that help to convert alarm into action. Once activated, the amygdala triggers the brain into a state of high alert usually associated with imminent danger.  Under normal conditions the amygdala is there to save your life for instance by avoiding oncoming traffic when crossing a busy road.  However, you only have to endure one sleepless night as a result of the noise from a neighbour’s house/car alarm to understand the exhausting effect of an overactive amygdala. It is no coincidence then that anxiety which may also include unpredictable panic attacks can lead to the emotional exhaustion found in depression which is a profound lowering of the mood and an inability to appreciate anything positive.

Anxiety is a prelude to depression

If anxiety is not nipped in the bud then emotional burnout sets-in and a spiral of depression starts to take hold.  Depression is not to be confused with sadness which is a natural response to the normal ups and downs of life. It is through sadness that we learn and become wise. In contrast, depression is suffocating and blocks us off from the world by making us focus only on the negative aspects of everyday life including for example a loss of self-worth. This phenomenon is also known as situational bias. This type of negative thinking backed-up by a low mood can lead to a dangerous fatalism where the sufferer feels that life is not worth living. In Robin’s case his depression was probably not helped by a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease – for which it is unclear if he was receiving medication.

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). Parkinson’s disease can be genetic but it can also be triggered by prolonged exposure to some drugs. 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.

The core defect

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

Trapped and disconnected

We need dopamine to survive. Dopamine allows us to talk, sing, socialize, 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 Robin Williams perform at the height of his career to see dopamine in action as his brain effortlessly converted his thoughts and moods into the mesmerizing performances that made him so loved by a generation. Without dopamine we feel trapped and disconnected.  It is not surprising therefore that mood can become low and anxiety and depression are often associated with this illness.

What can we learn from Robin’s death?

Since Robin’s death some media have reported that it is a pity that something like this has to overshadow what he achieved during his life and  that a tragedy like this in not of any benefit to anyone.

While I agree with this to an extent, I do think that Robin’s death might be of some benefit if it opens up a debate on how we as a society deal with stress. We have heard that Robin was under a great deal of stress in the days and weeks leading up to his death.  In this he is not alone. As the world economy continues on its downward slide, and unemployment and financial worries beset us, are we going to turn more and more to quick fixes to handle our dis-stress?

Probably the most important lesson to be taken from Robin’s death is the realization that the stresses of life and how we manage them IS the difference between life and death. I look forward to developing this theme in greater detail including drug-free tips on how the avoid worry and stress in future posts, but in the meantime, my deepest sympathy go to Robin’s loved ones at this difficult time.

Further Reading

Emotions are habits so pick a good one

World Mental Health Day

Why Parkinson’s Disease Has Robbed Linda Ronstadt Of Her Voice

 

 

Weekly Neuroscience Update

painThe problem with diagnosing and treating pain is that it’s so subjective. But a new paper in Pain says that brain structure may hold some answers.

Adding cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to the treatment of migraines in children and adolescents resulted in greater reductions in headache frequency and migraine-related disability compared with headache education, according to a new study.

Scientists have discovered how salt acts as a key regulator for drugs used to treat a variety of brain diseases including chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease, and depression.

Research focused on the amygdala can help identify children at risk for anxiety disorders and depression.

Whales, bats, and even praying mantises use ultrasound as a sensory guidance system – and now a new study has found that ultrasound can modulate brain activity to heighten sensory perception in humans.

Scientists have shown that there are widespread differences in how genes, the basic building blocks of the human body, are expressed in men and women’s brains.

A new study shows a leftward asymmetry of the choroid plexus in two-thirds of first-trimester human fetuses. This is the earliest brain asymmetry so far identified and may be a precursor to other asymmetries, including that of the temporal planum, which is evident from the 31st week of gestation.

Researchers have discovered the mechanism in the brain responsible for the motor and vocal tics found in Tourette Syndrome.  The study, published in the British Psychological Society’s Journal of Neuropsychology, could at some point lead to new non-drug therapies.

A new study by neuroscientists is the first to directly compare brain responses to faces and objects with responses to colors.

A study begun in Mexico with the collaboration of university students has analysed the effect of weekend alcohol consumption on the lipids comprising cell membrane and its genetic material, i.e. DNA.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

Conceptual scheme of controlled release of ODN from a hydrogel composed of a CyD-containing molecular network by mechanical compression. (Credit: Image courtesy of National Institute for Materials Science)

A research group has succeeded in developing a gel material which is capable of releasing drugs in response to pressure applied by the patient.

New findings about how the brain functions to suppress pain have been published in the leading journal in the field Pain, by National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway) researchers. For the first time, it has been shown that suppression of pain during times of fear involves complex interplay between marijuana-like chemicals and other neurotransmitters in a brain region called the amygdala.

Researchers report that they have found a biological mechanism that appears to play a vital role in learning to read. This finding provides significant clues into the workings behind dyslexia — a collection of impairments unrelated to intelligence, hearing or vision that makes learning to read a struggle.

A new study suggests neural ‘synchrony’ may be key to understanding how the human brain perceives.

Sleep plays an important role in the brain’s ability to consolidate learning when two new potentially competing tasks are learned in the same day, research at the University of Chicago demonstrates.

New research for the first time explains exactly how two brain regions interact to promote emotionally motivated behaviors associated with anxiety and reward. The findings could lead to new mental health therapies for disorders such as addiction, anxiety, and depression.

Researchers have designed a decoded functional MRI neurofeedback method that induces a pre-recorded activation pattern in targeted early visual brain areas that could also produce the pattern through regular learning.

A new study conducted by monitoring the brain waves of sleeping adolescents has found that remarkable changes occur in the brain as it prunes away neuronal connections and makes the major transition from childhood to adulthood.

New research suggests that depression, even in children, can increase the risk of heart problems later in life. Teens who were depressed as children are far more likely than their peers to be obese, smoke cigarettes and lead sedentary lives, even if they no longer suffer from depression.

Alcohol consumption affects the brain in multiple ways, ranging from acute changes in behavior to permanent molecular and functional alterations. The general consensus is that in the brain, alcohol targets mainly neurons. However, recent research suggests that other cells of the brain known as astrocytic glial cells or astrocytes are necessary for the rewarding effects of alcohol and the development of alcohol tolerance.

New research published in The Journal of Neuroscience suggests that modifying signals sent by astrocytes, our star-shaped brain cells, may help to limit the spread of damage after an ischemic brain stroke.

The prefrontal cortex is a region of the brain that acts like a filter, keeping any irrelevant thoughts, memories and perceptions from interfering with the task-at-hand. In a new study, researchers have shown that inhibiting this filter can enhance unfiltered, creative thinking.

A new study suggests that depression results from a disturbance in the ability of brain cells to communicate with each other. The study indicates a major shift in our understanding of how depression is caused and how it should be treated.

 

 

Weekly Neuroscience Update

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Composite of the scans of 20 individuals. Regions in yellow and red are linked to the parietal lobe of the brain’s right hemisphere.

Scientists say they have published the most detailed brain scans “the world has ever seen” as part of a project to understand how the organ works.

Psychologists at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) have discovered that changes in patterns of brain activity during fearful experiences predict whether a long-term fear memory is formed.

New findings about how the brain functions to suppress pain have been published in the leading journal in the field Pain, by National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway) researchers. For the first time, it has been shown that suppression of pain during times of fear involves complex interplay between marijuana-like chemicals and other neurotransmitters in a brain region called the amygdala.

Some of the dramatic differences seen among patients with schizophrenia may be explained by a single gene that regulates a group of other schizophrenia risk genes. These findings appear in a new imaging-genetics study from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

Research published in the March 2013 journal GENETICS explains a novel interaction between aging and how neurons dispose of unwanted proteins and why this impacts the rising prevalence of dementia with advancing age.

The brain adds new cells during puberty to help navigate the complex social world of adulthood, two Michigan State University neuroscientists report in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The first large, population-based study to follow children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder into adulthood shows that ADHD often doesn’t go away and that children with ADHD are more likely to have other psychiatric disorders as adults. They also appear more likely to commit suicide and to be incarcerated as adults.

The infant brain does not control its blood flow in the same way as the adult brain, researchers have discovered.

Hypnosis has begun to attract renewed interest from neuroscientists interested in using hypnotic suggestion to test predictions about normal cognitive functioning. To demonstrate the future potential of this growing field, guest editors Professor Peter Halligan from the School of Psychology at Cardiff University and David A. Oakley of University College London, brought together leading researchers from cognitive neuroscience and hypnosis to contribute to this month’s special issue of the international journal, Cortex.

Latest research on PTSD shows smaller brain area regulating fear response

CAT scans. Recent combat veterans who are diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder have significantly smaller volume in an area of the brain critical for regulating fear and anxiety responses. (Credit: © svedoliver / Fotolia)

Recent combat veterans who are diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder have significantly smaller volume in an area of the brain critical for regulating fear and anxiety responses, according to research led by scientists at Duke University and the Durham VA Medical Center.

The finding, published Nov. 5, 2012, in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry, for the first time provides clear evidence that smaller amygdala volume is associated with PTSD, regardless of the severity of trauma. But it’s not clear whether the physiological difference was caused by a traumatic event, or whether PTSD develops more readily in people who naturally have smaller amygdalas.

Read the full story here

Money Troubles? Blame your Brain!

What can neuroscience teach us about financial risk?

Neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology report that the amygdalae – two almond-shaped clusters of tissue located deep in the brain and which register rapid emotional reactions – are responsible for the fear of losing money.

In a previous blog post I described how the size of your amygdala (plural; amygdalae) is related to the size of your social network. Well it gets a lot more interesting!  A recent study of amygdala-damaged patients – described in a paper entitled Amygdala damage eliminates monetary loss aversion in the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) – may also offer insight into the state of your monthly bank balance.

The study involved an examination of two patients whose amygdalae had been destroyed due to a very rare genetic disease; those patients, along with individuals without amygdala damage, volunteered to participate in a simple gambling task.

In the task, all individuals were asked whether or not they were willing to accept a variety of gambles, each with a different possible gain or loss.

For example, all individuals were asked to choose from the following three gambles.

  1. Take a gamble to win $20 or lose $5 (a risk most people will choose to accept).
  2. Take a gamble to win $20 or lose $20 (a risk most people will not choose to accept).
  3. Take a gamble to win $20 or lose $15 (a risk most people will reject even though the net expected outcome here is positive).

It turns out that both of the amygdala-damaged patients took risky gambles much more often and showed no aversion to monetary loss whatsoever, in sharp contrast to those individuals of the same age and education who had no amygdala damage.

The findings suggest that the amygdala is critical for triggering a sense of caution toward making gambles in which you might lose – similar to its role in fear and anxiety. Your brain’s very own Fort Knox!

Who knows but sometime in the future we may be required to undergo a brain scan to check the size of our amygdalae in order to qualify for a credit card, enrol for a business degree or manage a bank!

Maybe the next ten years of brain research should be dedicated – the decade of the amygdala – to help us relearn a healthy sense of respect for money and get us back into the black?

Weekly Round Up

A part of the human brain that’s involved in emotion gets particularly excited at the sight of animals, a new study has shown. The brain structure in question is the amygdala: that almond-shaped, sub-cortical bundle of nuclei that used to be considered the brain’s fear centre, but which is now known to be involved in many aspects of emotional learning.

Studies have shown that ­meditating regularly can help relieve chronic pain, but the neural mechanisms ­underlying the relief were unclear. Now, ­researchers from MIT, Harvard, and Massachusetts General ­Hospital have found a possible explanation.

Men and women differ in the way they anticipate an unpleasant emotional experience, which influences the effectiveness with which that experience is committed to memory according to new research.

New research has contradicted a 40-year-old theory of how the brain controls impulsive behavior

Head trauma may increase the risk of developing schizophrenia, a new study says. The results show people who have suffered from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) are 1.6 times more likely to develop schizophrenia compared with those who have not suffered such an injury.

Researchers from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and Beaumont Hospital have conducted a study which has found striking brain similarities in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The brains of older people are not slower but rather wiser than young brains, which allows older adults to achieve an equivalent level of performance, according to research undertaken at the University Geriatrics Institute of Montreal by Dr. Oury Monchi and Dr. Ruben Martins of the University of Montreal.

A new study testing alcohol’s effects on brain activity finds that alcohol dulls the brain “signal” that warns people when they are making a mistake, ultimately reducing self control.

Researchers in the Netherlands have been able to shed more light on how combat experiences change the brains of soldiers.

And finally, new research from MIT suggests that there are parts of our brain dedicated to language and only language, a finding that marks a major advance in the search for brain regions specialized for sophisticated mental functions.  And this week,new research makes the case that language is not a key part of thinking about numbers, but the key part, overriding other influences like cultural ones.