Weekly Round Up

Welcome to the last weekly round-up of 2011. I have enjoyed putting this together each week and look forward to updating you with lots more new and exciting research in the field of neuroscience in the coming year.

New research has shown, for the first time, that the cortex, which is the largest zone of the brain and which is generally associated with high cognitive functions, is also a key zone for emotional learning.

When you experience a new event, your brain encodes a memory of it by altering the connections between neurons. This requires turning on many genes in those neurons. Now, MIT neuroscientists have identified what may be a master gene that controls this complex process.

A new technique for color-coding nerves involved in touch gives neuroscientists a much-needed tool for studying that mysterious sense.

When accidents that involve traumatic brain injuries occur, a speedy diagnosis followed by the proper treatment can mean the difference between life and death. A research team, led by Jason D. Riley in the Section on Analytical and Functional Biophotonics at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, has created a handheld device capable of quickly detecting brain injuries such as hematomas, which occur when blood vessels become damaged and blood seeps out into surrounding tissues where it can cause significant and dangerous swelling.

Shrinkage in certain parts of the brain may herald Alzheimer’s disease long before symptoms arise, according to new research.

At UCLA’s Laboratory of Integrative Neuroimaging Technology, researchers use functional MRI brain scans to observe brain signal changes that take place during mental activity. They then employ computerized machine learning (ML) methods to study these patterns and identify the cognitive state — or sometimes the thought process — of human subjects. The technique is called “brain reading” or “brain decoding.”

Compared to our other senses, scientists don’t know much about how our skin is wired for the sensation of touch. Now, research reported in the December 23rd issue of the journal Cell, a Cell Press publication, provides the first picture of how specialized neurons feel light touches.

Both children and the elderly have slower response times when they have to make quick decisions in some settings. But recent research suggests that much of that slower response is a conscious choice to emphasize accuracy over speed. In fact, healthy older people can be trained to respond faster in some decision-making tasks without hurting their accuracy – meaning their cognitive skills in this area aren’t so different from younger adults.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have made a significant step in the development of a novel therapy that could one day help to slow down, or even halt, the damage caused by Parkinson’s disease, one of the most common neurodegenerative disorders.

Weekly Round Up

Image Source: The Dana Foundation

Our senses of sight and hearing work closely together, perhaps more than people realize, a new UCLA psychology study shows.

A team of neurobiologists  has shown for the first time that cortex, the largest area of the brain that is typically associated with higher functions such as perception and cognition, is also a prominent site of emotional learning.

Tiny electric currents applied across regions of the brain can improve hand movements in recovering stroke patients for a short period, an Oxford University study has demonstrated.

For the first time, scientists have proven that cannabis harms the brain. But the same study challenges previously-held assumptions about use of the drug, showing that some brain irregularities predate drug use.

How might keeping patients awake during surgery lead to the more successful removal of brain tumours? James Keidel, in his shortlisted entry for the 2011 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, explains.

Researchers from the University of Bristol have discovered that a chemical compound in the brain can weaken the synaptic connections between neurons in a region of the brain important for the formation of long-term memories. The findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, may also provide a potential explanation for the loss of memory associated with Alzheimer’s.

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.