Weekly Neuroscience Update

Glioma cells tend to congregate at blood vessel junctions, almost as if camping alongside a stream where it joins a river. The ready supply of nutrients would allow the cell to grow into a larger tumor mass. Credit University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Glioma cells tend to congregate at blood vessel junctions, almost as if camping alongside a stream where it joins a river. The ready supply of nutrients would allow the cell to grow into a larger tumor mass. Credit University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Researchers have shed new light on how cells called gliomas migrate in the brain and cause devastating tumors. The findings, published in Nature Communications, show that gliomas — malignant glial cells — disrupt normal neural connections and hijack control of blood vessels.

New details on the NMDA receptor could aid development of drugs for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, other neurological disorders.

In a new study, scientists took a molecular-level journey into microtubules, the hollow cylinders inside brain cells that act as skeletons and internal highways. They watched how a protein called tubulin acetyltransferase (TAT) labels the inside of microtubules. The results, published in Cell, answer long-standing questions about how TAT tagging works and offer clues as to why it is important for brain health.

Patients with persistent ringing in the ears – a condition known as tinnitus – process emotions differently in the brain from those with normal hearing, researchers report in the journal Brain Research.

Pornography triggers brain activity in people with compulsive sexual behaviour – known commonly as sex addiction – similar to that triggered by drugs in the brains of drug addicts, according to a University of Cambridge study published in the journal PLOS ONE. However, the researchers caution that this does not necessarily mean that pornography itself is addictive.

Around half of the genes that influence how well a child can read also play a role in their mathematics ability, say scientists from UCL, the University of Oxford and King’s College London who led a study into the genetic basis of cognitive traits.

Psychologists at Stony Brook University, NY, suggest that about 20% of the population are genetically predisposed to be more aware and empathic. Now, in a new study, they explore which regions of the brain are implicated in this. They publish their findings in the journal Brain and Behavior.

Learning a second language may help improve brain function regardless of when you start, according to a new study.

 

Inside The Decision-Making Brain

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The anterior insula was sensitive to escalating alcohol costs especially when the costs of drinking outweighed the benefits, indicating this could be the region of the brain at the intersection of how our rational and irrational systems work with one another.

Although choosing to do something because the perceived benefit outweighs the financial cost is something people do daily, little is known about what happens in the brain when a person makes these kinds of decisions. Studying how these cost-benefit decisions are made when choosing to consume alcohol, University of Georgia associate professor of psychology James MacKillop identified distinct profiles of brain activity that are present when making these decisions.*

The study combined functional magnetic resonance imaging and a bar laboratory alcohol procedure to see how the cost of alcohol affected people’s preferences. The study group included 24 men, age 21-31, who were heavy drinkers. Participants were given a $15 bar tab and then were asked to make decisions in the fMRI scanner about how many drinks they would choose at varying prices, from very low to very high. Their choices translated into real drinks, at most eight that they received in the bar immediately after the scan. Any money not spent on drinks was theirs to keep.

The study applied a neuroeconomic approach, which integrates concepts and methods from psychology, economics and cognitive neuroscience to understand how the brain makes decisions. In this study, participants’ cost-benefit decisions were categorized into those in which drinking was perceived to have all benefit and no cost, to have both benefits and costs, and to have all costs and no benefits. In doing so, MacKillop could dissect the neural mechanisms responsible for different types of cost-benefit decision-making.

When participants decided to drink in general, activation was seen in several areas of the cerebral cortex, such as the prefrontal and parietal cortices. However, when the decision to drink was affected by the cost of alcohol, activation involved frontostriatal regions, which are important for the interplay between deliberation and reward value, suggesting suppression resulting from greater cognitive load. This is the first study of its kind to examine cost-benefit decision-making for alcohol and was the first to apply a framework from economics, called demand curve analysis, to understanding cost-benefit decision making.

The brain activity was most differentially active during the suppressed consumption choices, suggesting that participants were experiencing the most conflict. We had speculated during the design of the study that the choices not to drink at all might require the most cognitive effort, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Once people decided that the cost of drinking was too high, they didn’t appear to experience a great deal of conflict in terms of the associated brain activity. McKillop

These conflicted decisions appeared to be represented by activity in the anterior insula, which has been linked in previous addiction studies to the motivational circuitry of the brain. Not only encoding how much people crave or value drugs, this portion of the brain is believed to be responsible for processing interceptive experiences, a person’s visceral physiological responses.

It was interesting that the insula was sensitive to escalating alcohol costs especially when the costs of drinking outweighed the benefits. That means this could be the region of the brain at the intersection of how our rational and irrational systems work with one another. In general, we saw the choices associated with differential brain activity were those choices in the middle, where people were making choices that reflect the ambivalence between cost and benefits. Where we saw that tension, we saw the most brain activity. McKillop

While MacKillop acknowledges the impact this research could have on neuromarketing–or understanding how the brain makes decisions about what to buy–he is more interested in how this research can help people with alcohol addictions.

“These findings reveal the distinct neural signatures associated with different kinds of consumption preferences. Now that we have established a way of studying these choices, we can apply this approach to better understanding substance use disorders and improving treatment,” he said, adding that comparing fMRI scans from alcoholics with those of people with normal drinking habits could potentially tease out brain patterns that show what is different between healthy and unhealthy drinkers. “In the past, we have found that behavioral indices of alcohol value predict poor treatment prognosis, but this would permit us to understand the neural basis for negative outcomes.”

*The research was published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology March 3.

Study Suggests Our Brains Have a ‘Sixth Sense’

Scientists may have discovered a “sixth sense” that relates to something called numerosity, which involves the ability to rapidly assimilate the number of objects within one’s field of vision. The team behind the study used fMRI scans to highlight the activity of a key area of the brain, which seemed to alter its response based upon the number of objects perceived.

Dubbed a “number sense,” the phenomenon is believed to manifest in a part of the brain called the posterior parietal cortex, situated around the crown of an individual’s head. The study’s lead researcher, Ben Harvey, who works at the Utrecht University in the Netherlands, explained that most people don’t need to methodically count a small number of objects presented to them, “… we just know how many there are straight away.” This has led many people to maintain that a person’s numerosity powers represent something akin to a “sixth sense.”

Inside The Emotional Brain

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Scientists have found a way to determine what emotions you’re feeling by looking at brain activity measured by imaging technology.

The findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, are important to emotion research because they bring “a new method with potential to identify emotions without relying on people’s ability to self-report,” study researcher Karim Kassam, an assistant professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, said in a statement.

“It could be used to assess an individual’s emotional response to almost any kind of stimulus, for example, a flag, a brand name or a political candidate.”

For the study, researchers used a combination of brain imaging — functional magnetic resonance imaging — and machine learning. They recruited 10 actors from the university’s drama school to act out different emotions, such as anger, happiness, pride and shame, while inside an fMRI scanner, for multiple times in random order.

To make sure that researchers were able to measure the actual emotions and not just the acting out of emotions, they had the study participants also look at emotion-eliciting images while undergoing FMRI brain scans.

“Despite manifest differences between people’s psychology, different people tend to neurally encode emotions in remarkably similar ways,” study researcher Amanda Markey, a graduate student in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at the university, said in a statement.

Source: Huffington Post

This is your brain on improv

Musician and researcher Charles Limb wondered how the brain works during musical improvisation — so he put jazz musicians and rappers in an fMRI to find out. What he and his team found has deep implications for our understanding of creativity of all kinds.

What can neuroscience teach marketers?

Neuromarketing is a new field of marketing that studies consumers’ response to marketing stimuli. Researchers use technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure changes in activity in parts of the brain, electroencephalography (EEG) to measure activity in specific regional spectra of the brain response, and/or sensors to measure changes in one’s physiological state (heart rate, respiratory rate, galvanic skin response) to learn why consumers make the decisions they do, and what part of the brain is telling them to do it.

See inside your brain in real time

Here’s a short video describing how recent advances in brain imaging with fMRI which allows you watch activity in discrete parts of the brain – for instance when in pain can allow you control it.  If true, the implications of this finding are staggering …and liberating for those with seemingly intractable emotional issues.