Weekly Neuroscience Update

Maps of the brain based on genetic correlation clusters, when only two clusters are specified. This approach solution identified a dorsal-ventral (D-V, i.e., top to bottom) division as the most distinct partition in the genetic patterning of cortical thickness. By contrast, for surface area the two genetic clusters form an anterior-posterior (A-P, i.e., front to back) division. Abbreviations: D, dorsal; V, ventral; A, anterior; P, posterior. Credit: Chi-Hua Chen, Ph.D., UCSD

Maps of the brain based on genetic correlation clusters, when only two clusters are specified. This approach solution identified a dorsal-ventral (D-V, i.e., top to bottom) division as the most distinct partition in the genetic patterning of cortical thickness. By contrast, for surface area the two genetic clusters form an anterior-posterior (A-P, i.e., front to back) division. Abbreviations: D, dorsal; V, ventral; A, anterior; P, posterior. Credit: Chi-Hua Chen, Ph.D., UCSD

An international research team studying the structure and organization of the brain has found that different genetic factors may affect the thickness of different parts of the cortex of the brain.

Johns Hopkins researchers say they have pinpointed a site in a highly developed area of the human brain that plays an important role in the subconscious recognition of which way is straight up and which way is down. The finding, described online in the journal Cerebral Cortex, may help account for some causes of spatial disorientation and dizziness, and offer targets for treating the feelings of unsteadiness and “floating” people experience when the brain fails to properly integrate input from the body’s senses.

The discovery of the first chemical to prevent the death of brain tissue in a neurodegenerative disease has been hailed as the “turning point” in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.

A bedside scan could reveal an active mind hidden inside an unresponsive body. The method provides another tool for recognising consciousness in people who have been wrongly diagnosed as being in a vegetative state. Tests are also under way to use it to monitor people under general anaesthetic, to make sure they do not regain consciousness during an operation.

The more you want to use your brain – and the more you enjoy doing it – the more likely you are to stay sharp as you age. This is according to findings recently published in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.

A team of scientists have identified neural circuits that modulate REM sleep. 

People who are depressed may have triple the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, according to a study published in the October 2, 2013, online issue of Neurology

Scientists have discovered a process by which the “power plants” of the brain – tiny mitochondria found inside cells – signal that they are damaged and need to be eliminated. This is according to a study published in the journal Nature Cell Biology.

The hormone vasopressin may play a key role in jet lag, new research suggests.

Researchers have gained new insight into how localized hearing works in the brain. Their research is published in the Oct. 2, 2013 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

Why my ultimate exam tip is an exam sip!

As the Junior and Leaving Certificate exams kick off today, I want to wish you all good luck and to remind you not to forget to bring a bottle of water with you into your exams!

It’s that time of the year again when the two big state exams – junior and leaving certificates kick off for a generation of Irish youths.  The leaving cert is the hardest exam I’ve ever had to sit  – throughout my years as a student in University, and afterwards working in a laboratory as a neuroscientist, nothing really compared to the intensity of that exam.  

Drink water to improve your grade!

Scientists from the University of East London report that bringing a bottle of water with you into your exam boosts your grade. Students who brought water with them did better in the exam than those without water.  The researchers accounted for the 447 undergraduate students’ prior grades, so it’s not just a matter of smarter students being more likely to bring a bottle of water into the exam.

Drinking water makes you smarter

Controlling for ability from previous coursework results, scientists found those who drank water during the exam scored an average of 5% higher than those who did without.

The ultimate exam tip – is an exam sip!

Scientists explain that there may be a few reasons for this link between bringing water (and presumably drinking it) and better grades:

  1. Previous studies have shown that a dehydration level of just 1% of your body weight reduces your thinking functions, so it makes sense that drinking water improves mental performance.
  2. The desire to drink water (thirst) is driven by a small protein (a peptide) called vasopressin in the brain. Vasopressin has also been implicated in making new memories and with the positive feelings associated with social behaviour thereby leading to a better performance by reducing anxiety in an exam situation,
  3. By offering a momentary distraction – taking a sip of water – drinking water may also break a chain of thoughts and free the mind to focus on the task at hand, leading to better performance – thereby reducing anxiety during the exam.
  4. Drinking water might also just activate a placebo affect – if you believe water boosts your brain power, that belief alone could improve your performance.

The research continues – either way, don’t forget that bottle of water on your next exam.

References 

Lim MM, Young LJ (2004). “Vasopressin-dependent neural circuits underlying pair bond formation in the monogamous prairie vole”. Neuroscience 125 (1): 35–45.