Weekly Neuroscience Update

Newly formed emotional memories can be erased from the human brain. This is shown by researchers from Uppsala University in a new study now being published by the academic journal Science. The findings may represent a breakthrough in research on memory and fear.

A growing body of research shows that children who suffer severe neglect and social isolation have cognitive and social impairments as adults. A study from Boston Children’s Hospital shows, for the first time, how these functional impairments arise: Social isolation during early life prevents the cells that make up the brain’s white matter from maturing and producing the right amount of myelin, the fatty “insulation” on nerve fibers that helps them transmit long-distance messages within the brain.

People with psychopathic tendencies have an impaired sense of smell, which points to inefficient processing in the front part of the brain [orbitofrontal cortex]. These findings by Mehmet Mahmut and Richard Stevenson, from Macquarie University in Australia, are published online in Springer’s journal Chemosensory Perception.

According to new research of MRI scans of children’s appetite and pleasure centers in their brains, the logos of such fast-food giants as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Burger King causes those areas to “light up”.

New signs of future Alzheimer’s disease have been identified by researchers at Lund University and Skane University in Sweden. Dr. Peder Buchhave and his team explain that disease-modifying treatments are more beneficial if started early, so it is essential identify Alzheimer’s disease patients as quickly as possible.

A new study from MIT neuroscientists sheds light on a neural circuit that makes us likelier to remember what we’re seeing when our brains are in a more attentive state.

What stress does to your brain

A brain drawing with the prefrontal cortex highlighted.

By watching individual neurons at work, a group of psychologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has revealed just how stress can addle the mind, as well as how neurons in the brain’s prefrontal cortex help “remember” information in the first place.

Read this story in full here

What Stephen Covey taught us about the neuroscience of focus

I was saddened to hear of the death of Stephen Covey yesterday. He was a truly inspirational figure who studied human behaviour and drew up a set of simple instructions for human happiness – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

One of these habits was –‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’

Covey proposed that happiness in life depends not only in having a focus or goal (i.e. the main thing) but in having the discipline to stay focused on that goal (i.e. keeping the main thing the main thing). He contended that one reason why people fail to achieve their full potential was in not staying focused on that goal.

Where in the brain do we create focus and how can we strengthen it?

There are two types of focused attention in two separate regions of the brain. The prefrontal lobes are in charge of goal setting and willful concentration; if you are studying for a test or writing a novel, the impetus and the orders come from there. But if there is a sudden, riveting event – the attack of a tiger or the scream of a child – it is the parietal lobes behind each ear that are activated. Neuroscientists have learned that these two brain regions sustain concentration when neurons emit pulses of electricity at specific rates – faster frequencies for the automatic processing of the parietal cortex, slower frequencies for the deliberate, intentional work of the prefrontal.

Furthermore, studies of seasoned meditators – Tibetan Buddhist monks show that regular meditation – i.e. paying attention on purpose – generates brain wave patterns which synchronise neuronal firing in both the frontal and parietal lobes – a phenomenon which is thought to underlie the sustained concentration involved in focused attention i.e. in keeping the main thing the main thing.  In fact, the ability of mediation to strengthen the connection between these two key brain regions involved in sustained concentration explains the ability of seasoned meditators to stay calm and focused.

These finding on attention in the brain may also radically alter our understanding of attention disorders and provide new opportunities to learn how brains pay attention in real world settings and acquire healthy habits to stay focused and prevent distraction.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

UC Santa Barbara scientists turned to the simple sponge to find clues about the evolution of the complex nervous system and found that, but for a mechanism that coordinates the expression of genes that lead to the formation of neural synapses, sponges and the rest of the animal world may not be so distant after all.

Scientists have discovered a mechanism which stops the process of forgetting anxiety after a stress event. In experiments they showed that feelings of anxiety don’t subside if too little dynorphin is released into the brain. The results can help open up new paths in the treatment of trauma patients. The study has been published in the current edition of the Journal of Neuroscience.

The biological role of a gene variant implicated in multiple sclerosis (MS) has been determined by researchers at Oxford University. The finding explains why MS patients do badly on a set of drugs used successfully in other autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease – something that has been a puzzle for over 10 years.

A clinical trial of an Alzheimer’s disease treatment developed at MIT has found that the nutrient cocktail can improve memory in patients with early Alzheimer’s. The results confirm and expand the findings of an earlier trial of the nutritional supplement, which is designed to promote new connections between brain cells.

An international consortium, has taken cells from Huntington’s Disease patients and generated human brain cells that develop aspects of the disease in the laboratory. The cells and the new technology will speed up research into understanding the disease and also accelerate drug discovery programs aimed at treating this terminal, genetic disorder. 

Stem cells that come from a specific part of the developing brain help fuel the growth of brain tumors caused by an inherited condition, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis report.

Findings from the first study directly examining gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) concentrations in the brains of children with ADHD were published last week in the Archives of General Psychiatry. In this new article researchers report finding significantly lower concentrations of GABA in the cerebral cortexes of children diagnosed with ADHD, compared with typically developing children. GABA is the brain’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter. The differences were detected in the region of the brain that controls voluntary movement.

People who are born deaf process the sense of touch differently than people who are born with normal hearing, according to research funded by the National Institutes of Health. The finding reveals how the early loss of a sense— in this case hearing—affects brain development. It adds to a growing list of discoveries that confirm the impact of experiences and outside influences in molding the developing brain. The study is published in the July 11 online issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

Neuronal abnormalities in the brains of children with obstructive sleep apnea are reversible with treatment, a prospective study has shown.

Although many areas of the human brain are devoted to social tasks like detecting another person nearby, a new study has found that one small region carries information only for decisions during social interactions. Specifically, the area is active when we encounter a worthy opponent and decide whether to deceive them. A brain imaging study conducted by researchers at the Duke Center for Interdisciplinary Decision Science (D-CIDES) put human subjects through a functional MRI brain scan while playing a simplified game of poker against a computer and human opponents. Using computer algorithms to sort out what amount of information each area of the brain was processing, the team found only one brain region — the temporal-parietal junction, or TPJ — carried information that was unique to decisions against the human opponent.


Weekly Neuroscience Update

Scientists have discovered that older honey bees effectively reverse brain aging when they take on nest responsibilities typically handled by much younger bees. While current research on human age-related dementia focuses on potential new drug treatments, researchers say these findings suggest that social interventions may be used to slow or treat age-related dementia.

Although many areas of the human brain are devoted to social tasks like detecting another person nearby, a new study has found that one small region carries information only for decisions during social interactions. Specifically, the area is active when we encounter a worthy opponent and decide whether to deceive them.

Scientists tracked brain activity in 40 people with new back injuries and found a pattern of activity that could predict — with 85% accuracy — which patients were destined to develop chronic pain and which weren’t.

Scientists have discovered a mechanism which stops the process of forgetting anxiety after a stress event. In experiments they showed that feelings of anxiety don’t subside if too little dynorphin is released into the brain. The results can help open up new paths in the treatment of trauma patients.

Research published in Neuron reveals that underdevelopment of an impulse control center in the brain is, at least in part, the reason children who fully understand the concept of fairness fail to act accordingly.

Researchers are developing a robotic system with ability to predict the specific action or movement that they should perform when handling an object.

The widely used diabetes drug metformin comes with a rather unexpected and  side effect: it encourages the growth of new neurons in the brain.

Researchers have long been interested in discovering the ways that human brains represent thoughts through a complex interplay of electrical signals. Recent improvements in brain recording and statistical methods have given researchers unprecedented insight into the physical processes under-lying thoughts. For example, researchers have begun to show that it is possible to use brain recordings to reconstruct aspects of an image or movie clip someone is viewing, a sound someone is hearing or even the text someone is reading.

A new brain scanner has been developed to help people who are completely paralysed speak by enabling them to spell words using their thoughts.

Towards an understanding of synesthesia

Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which information between the senses is blended.  For instance a synesthete (a person who experiences this condition) might see colors when listening to music, or taste flavors when hearing a spoken

In this documentary, Dr. David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine explains synesthesia  and four synesthetes explain how they perceive the world.

Your Weekly Neuroscience Update

Drinking three cups of coffee daily could help keep Alzheimer’s disease at bay, according to the results of a new study.

People who frequently use tanning beds experience changes in brain activity during their tanning sessions that mimic the patterns of drug addiction, new research shows.

A research team at Aalto University and Turku PET Centre has revealed how experiencing strong emotions synchronizes brain activity across individuals.

A new study has begun to unravel one long-observed enigma in major depressive disorder: why, for most patients, it continues to come back, even after it seems to have been cured or gone away on its own.

A recent placebo-controlled study showed evidence of trans-cranial bright light’s effect to brain functions when administered through the ear. Bright light stimulation was found to increase activity in brain areas related to processing of visual sensory information and tactile stimuli. The findings are the first ever published scientific article about functional modulation of the brain with bright light delivered to the brain through the ears. Researchers from the Max Planck Florida Institute (MPFI) and New York’s Columbia University have discovered that the rewiring involves fibers that provide primary input to the cerebral cortex, which is involved in cognition, sensory perception and motor control.

When people close their eyes, they can form mental images of things that exist only in their minds. Neuroscientists studying this phenomenon at medical schools in the Texas Medical Center believe that there may be a way to use these mental images to help some of the estimated 39 million people worldwide who are blind.

A Canadian doctor has found a promising way to detect concussions using a simple blood test that can tell within the first hour after a blow to the head how severe the injury may be.

Know Your Neurons


Different Types of Neurons A. Purkinje cell B. Granule cell C. Motor neuron D. Tripolar neuron E. Pyramidal Cell F. Chandelier cell G. Spindle neuron H. Stellate cell (Credit: Ferris Jabr; based on reconstructions and drawings by Cajal)

The Know Your Neurons series on the  Scientific American website features some great information on the discovery and naming of neurons, alongside some terrific historical images.


Human hippocampus stained with Golgi’s method (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)


Cajal’s drawing of Purkinje cells and granule cells in a pigeon’s brain (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Learn more: click here

Neuroscience News Update

University of Georgia researchers have developed a map of the human brain that shows great promise as a new guide to the inner workings of the body’s most complex and critical organ.

Brains that maintain healthy nerve connections as we age help keep us sharp in later life, new research funded by the charity Age UK has found.

The brain reward systems of women with anorexia may work differently from those of women who are obese, a new study suggests.

Emotional stress caused by last year’s tsunami caused a part of some survivors’ brains to shrink, according to scientists in Japan who grasped a unique chance to study the neurological effects of trauma. On a quest to better understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the researchers compared brain scans they had taken of 42 healthy adolescents in other studies in the two years before the killer wave, with new images taken three to four months thereafter. Among those with PTSD symptoms, they found a shrinking in the orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain involved in decision-making and the regulation of emotion, said a study published in the Nature journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Why Is Yawning So Contagious?

Yawning: A reflex act of opening one’s mouth wide and inhaling deeply.  

Why do we yawn? Snakes do it, fish do it, even babies in the womb do it – but the truth is nobody really knows why.  However the emergence of the new discipline of neuroscience – the scientific study of the nervous system – is investigating why we humans yawn – and the answers might surprise you.

Time to yawn

It happens on hot days more than on cold, which leads to speculation that yawning cools the brain. On the other hand, someone running a fever yawns less than normal, while uncontrollable yawning maybe a symptom of diabetes or a stroke. Yawning often peaks just before bed-time but then, oddly enough, stops when we are lying down – still awake – in bed. Yawning is also common just after we get up – when, presumably, we are not tired at all.  

Theories abound

Different species do it for different reasons – birds may use it as a cooling mechanism while snakes appear to use it to readjust their detachable jaws after swallowing a large meal. In humans yawning is believed to have evolved as a social cue to signal to others – an expectation that something different or novel is about to happen – a kind of non-verbal way of saying ‘time for us all to go to bed’. This might explain the increase in yawning observed in parachutists about to jump and in negotiators – the moment talks take an unexpected turn.

Yawning is catching

But there is another unexpected twist to yawning. Like laughing and vomiting – yawning in humans is a contagious behaviour. Once we see someone else do it we are inclined to copy it.  Yawning is in fact by far the most contagious behaviour for us humans and such a spontaneous copying response to a second person’s signal of mood is an unmistakable sign of empathy; the ability to understand and to react to someone else’s state of mind. This might explain why people with autism or with schizophrenia find it hard to yawn – and they respond less to the yawns of others than do most of us.

Show you care – yawn back

Empathy is what makes us kind and people-friendly and the speed and extent with which a person yawns in response to your yawn may be a fast way of finding out if he or she is on your emotional wavelength – a kind of non-verbal way of saying ‘I feel you brother’.  In this way, yawns are most contagious within families but are less inclined to be copied by strangers. The captain of a football team might yawn in the dressing room before an important game and then watch to see who is ‘with him’.  

Mirror mirror on the wa…. yawn

The recent discovery of the so-called mirror neuron system in the brain which helps us to respond sympathetically and empathetically to others may help explain why yawning is associated with empathy, Mirror neurons help connect us emotionally to other people. They help us to respond sympathetically towards others and allow us to anticipate others intentions. When you watch a good movie with good actors then that’s why you feel the way you do. In this way, yawning may be a powerful non-verbal activator of the mirror neuron system in others – explaining why it is so contagious.

He who dares – yawns

Far from being bad manners, yawning is a sign of our deep humanity. So, go on give a giant yawn for mankind.