Neuroscience News Update

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Harvard neuroscience researchers have just confirmed what many of us have suspected all along: social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest are “brain candy” for Internet users. Every status update, every tweet, every pin is a micro-jolt delivered squarely to the pleasure centers of our brains.

Brain networks — areas of the brain that regularly work together — might avoid traffic jams at their busiest intersections by communicating on different frequencies, according to new research.

Researchers at Stanford University have determined from brain-imaging data whether experimental subjects are recalling events of the day, singing silently to themselves, performing mental arithmetic, or merely relaxing.

Recent research has revealed some of the changes that take place in women’s brains during motherhood, and experts say that it could help them figure out what motivates mothers to care for their babies.

A study recently published by a University of Colorado School of Medicine researcher shows that reward circuits in the brain are sensitized in anorexic women and desensitized in obese women. The findings also suggest that eating behavior is related to brain dopamine pathways involved in addictions.

Researchers at the University of Leeds have found a previously unknown mechanism through which pain is signalled by nerve cells – a discovery that could explain the current failings in the drug development process for painkillers and which may offer opportunities for a new approach.

Post-traumatic stress is estimated to afflict more than 300,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, but until now, it’s been labeled a “soft disorder” — one without an objective biological path to diagnosis. That may have changed this week, after researchers at the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis VA Medical Center announced they’d found a distinct pattern of brain activity among PTSD sufferers.

A live tweeted brain surgery this week reached an online audience of more than 14 million people, according to the hospital that used social media to broadcast the operation.

High-impact activities like football are known to cause creeping brain damage that can’t easily be detected until after death. But promising research may give rise to new methods of diagnosing chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Scientists have proven that light intensity influences our cognitive performance and how alert we feel.

Scientists at Weill Cornell Medical College have discovered that the single protein—alpha 2 delta—exerts a spigot-like function, controlling the volume of neurotransmitters and other chemicals that flow between the synapses of brain neurons. The study, published online in Nature, shows how brain cells talk to each other through these signals, relaying thoughts, feelings and action, and this powerful molecule plays a crucial role in regulating effective communication.

Exercise doesn’t just make you fitter – it makes you smarter too!

Exercise is important in keeping your heart and lungs healthy. We know for decades that the effort required in exercise allows life-giving oxygen to travel quicker and in greater amounts to all the tissues of the body – allowing the cells in them to grow and divide. A noticeable exception to this rule is the brain.

Neurons are different

Nerve cells or neurons are notoriously bad at dividing. Rather than divide, a neuron survives by making up to 10,000 connections to neighbouring neurons – and this is the key to how we learn and recall as memories are created and strengthened.  This compromise works well for the first four decades of life however by your 50’s a gradual loss of neurons and their connections starts to take it toll resulting in a noticeable reduction in cognition as we find it harder to remember, especially recent events. 

An unexpected finding

Recent scientific findings from Columbia University show that exercise is important in helping to reverse this age-related loss of neurons. In this study in a small group of middle-aged people, exercising just an hour a day, four times a week, for three months triggers the growth of new neurons – a feat which has previously proved almost impossible for neuroscientists to achieve using drugs. Neuroscientists are still working out the possible reasons why simple exercise is so powerful at triggering the birth of neurons but a clue may be that the brain is very well supplied by blood vessels needed to deliver the food and oxygen to help make and maintain the trillions of synapses in the brain. In fact the brain is one of the most oxygen-sensitive organs of the body. It receives 20% of the cardiac output and accounts for about 25% of overall resting oxygen consumption. In addition, the brain as a highly vascular organ is very sensitive to changes in blood perfusion. It seems the extra increase in blood perfusion and life-giving oxygen associated with exercise may invigorate the brain to such a degree that it starts to actually grow new neurons again.

Exercise is as important as drugs

The finding that exercise triggers the brain to grow new nerve cells is a truly stunning discovery that will have implications for public healthcare policies for an increasingly ageing population. In addition, new treatments for brain illness such as Alzheimer’s disease and head injury may involve a combination of different therapies such as medication, psychological therapies, social support, self-help techniques and now, most importantly exercise. This combined approach will treat the person as a whole, and marks the beginning of the journey back to wellness and a normal life.

So the message is simple –if you want to stay smart just get out there and exercise.