Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all, confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.

Marie Curie

(Source: neuromorphogenesis)

Brain baloney has no place in the classroom
If you want to make a neuroscientist’s head explode, all you need to do is confidently and triumphantly tell them that humans only use 10% of their brains. Or that right-brained people are more creative than left-brained people. Or that jiggling your head around gets more blood to the brain so you can think more efficiently. These are myths about the brain that have now been around for so long, it’s a wonder they haven’t had a congratulatory message from the Queen.
Unfortunately, because they’ve been around for so long, neuromyths have taken hold in a broad range of aspects of everyday life. Nowhere is this more problematic than in the education system. A new article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience this week has cast a critical eye on the issue, and reveals some worrying statistics about the extent to which brain baloney have infiltrated the beliefs of teachers around the world.
The survey, conducted by Paul Howard-Jones at the University of Bristol, asked 938 teachers from five different countries whether they agreed or not with a number of statements relating to popular myths about the brain. The results paint a picture of a global epidemic of neurononsense. In the UK, 91% of teachers surveyed believed that differences in hemispheric dominance could account for differences in preferred learning methods for students – in other words, ‘left-brained’ students think in a different way to ‘right-brained’ students. Among Chinese teachers, 59% agreed that we only use 10% of our brains. Across all five countries – the UK, the Netherlands, Turkey, Greece and China – on average, a whopping 96% of surveyed teachers agreed that students learn most effectively when taught in their preferred learning style (visual, auditory or kinaesthetic).
But why is this the case? Howard-Jones argues that there’s a number of reasons why neuromyths persist, but they essentially all boil down to inadequate communication between neuroscientists, educators and policymakers.
In particular, an ongoing issue is that neuroscientific counter-evidence to dodgy brain claims are difficult to access for non-specialists. Often, crucial information appears in quite a complex form in specialist neuroscientific journals, and often behind an exorbitant paywall – for example, the Journal of Neuroscience charges $30 for one day of access to a single article. And yes, ironically it’s worth noting that the neuromyths paper is, frustratingly, also behind a paywall.
Another problem is misinterpretation – particularly when it comes to neuroimaging studies. Without a proper grounding in how to interpret scans of the brain, images showing different areas ‘lighting up’ perpetuates a misconception that these areas are active but isolated from each other, with the rest of the brain inactive at that point in time. “To non specialists”, Howard-Jones argues in the paper, “apparently well-defined and static islands on one side of a brain are more suggested of a new phrenology than of a statistical map indicating where activity has exceeded an arbitrary threshold.”
And so we’re left with a situation in which neuromyths have largely been left unchallenged in the education system. But, at least there’s a spark of hope that this is changing. Both teachers and neuroscientists alike are starting to see an increased need for better communication. A new field of ‘educational neuroscience’ is starting to develop, in part bolstered by a 2011 report from the Royal Society looking at some of the implications of neuroscience within a teaching and learning setting. And teaching unions are eager to look at the possibilities for using neuroscience – they just need to be careful that they do so in an objective, evidence-based way.
Two things spring to mind that can be done immediately. Wouldn’t it be great if Nature Reviews Neuroscience dropped the paywall for this article, and sent it to as many teachers and schools as possible? Alternatively, let’s give teachers a core textbook of their own: Christian Jarrett’s excellent book Great Myths of the Brain, which came out this week. Required reading before thinking about neuroscience-based education policies. And yes, it will be on the exam at the end of the year.
By the way, if you want to make a psychologist’s head explode, all you need to do is ask them if they can tell what you’re thinking. Or ask them whether it’s a proper science. Just don’t mention anything about p values or replication.

Brain baloney has no place in the classroom

If you want to make a neuroscientist’s head explode, all you need to do is confidently and triumphantly tell them that humans only use 10% of their brains. Or that right-brained people are more creative than left-brained people. Or that jiggling your head around gets more blood to the brain so you can think more efficiently. These are myths about the brain that have now been around for so long, it’s a wonder they haven’t had a congratulatory message from the Queen.

Unfortunately, because they’ve been around for so long, neuromyths have taken hold in a broad range of aspects of everyday life. Nowhere is this more problematic than in the education system. A new article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience this week has cast a critical eye on the issue, and reveals some worrying statistics about the extent to which brain baloney have infiltrated the beliefs of teachers around the world.

The survey, conducted by Paul Howard-Jones at the University of Bristol, asked 938 teachers from five different countries whether they agreed or not with a number of statements relating to popular myths about the brain. The results paint a picture of a global epidemic of neurononsense. In the UK, 91% of teachers surveyed believed that differences in hemispheric dominance could account for differences in preferred learning methods for students – in other words, ‘left-brained’ students think in a different way to ‘right-brained’ students. Among Chinese teachers, 59% agreed that we only use 10% of our brains. Across all five countries – the UK, the Netherlands, Turkey, Greece and China – on average, a whopping 96% of surveyed teachers agreed that students learn most effectively when taught in their preferred learning style (visual, auditory or kinaesthetic).

But why is this the case? Howard-Jones argues that there’s a number of reasons why neuromyths persist, but they essentially all boil down to inadequate communication between neuroscientists, educators and policymakers.

In particular, an ongoing issue is that neuroscientific counter-evidence to dodgy brain claims are difficult to access for non-specialists. Often, crucial information appears in quite a complex form in specialist neuroscientific journals, and often behind an exorbitant paywall – for example, the Journal of Neuroscience charges $30 for one day of access to a single article. And yes, ironically it’s worth noting that the neuromyths paper is, frustratingly, also behind a paywall.

Another problem is misinterpretation – particularly when it comes to neuroimaging studies. Without a proper grounding in how to interpret scans of the brain, images showing different areas ‘lighting up’ perpetuates a misconception that these areas are active but isolated from each other, with the rest of the brain inactive at that point in time. “To non specialists”, Howard-Jones argues in the paper, “apparently well-defined and static islands on one side of a brain are more suggested of a new phrenology than of a statistical map indicating where activity has exceeded an arbitrary threshold.”

And so we’re left with a situation in which neuromyths have largely been left unchallenged in the education system. But, at least there’s a spark of hope that this is changing. Both teachers and neuroscientists alike are starting to see an increased need for better communication. A new field of ‘educational neuroscience’ is starting to develop, in part bolstered by a 2011 report from the Royal Society looking at some of the implications of neuroscience within a teaching and learning setting. And teaching unions are eager to look at the possibilities for using neuroscience – they just need to be careful that they do so in an objective, evidence-based way.

Two things spring to mind that can be done immediately. Wouldn’t it be great if Nature Reviews Neuroscience dropped the paywall for this article, and sent it to as many teachers and schools as possible? Alternatively, let’s give teachers a core textbook of their own: Christian Jarrett’s excellent book Great Myths of the Brain, which came out this week. Required reading before thinking about neuroscience-based education policies. And yes, it will be on the exam at the end of the year.

By the way, if you want to make a psychologist’s head explode, all you need to do is ask them if they can tell what you’re thinking. Or ask them whether it’s a proper science. Just don’t mention anything about p values or replication.

Post Traumatic Stress (PTS)

Over half a million of our Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). It stopped me in my tracks when one of my patients said, “it can happen once in your life, but one hundred times in your mind.” The echoes linger on… This is a very serious dilemma not only for our nations veterans, but for countless individuals that have experienced any variety of serious trauma in their lives.

Traumatic stress is a type of stress that exists on an entirely different level than that of the stress we encounter on a daily basis. Our bodies do not know how to process the impact that these scarring events have had on us, and in return the impression left on the brain is one that needs healing and recovery to restore its natural state of holistic functioning.

Infographic by - Norman Rosenthal, MD. 

we-are-star-stuff:


Why Do Your Pupils Get Larger When You’re On Drugs?
Normally, our pupils dilate in response to changing light; as it gets darker, our pupils get larger. But they expand in size for other reasons as well, including when we’re sexually aroused and when we’re performing complex cognitive tasks. But it’s also known that certain medications — including illicit drugs — can cause pupils to get larger. Here’s why.
Pupil dilation, what’s also referred to as mydriasis, happens when one of two muscle groups become activated, namely the iris sphincter (yes, that’s what it’s called) and the iris dilator. The sphincter response is triggered by the parasympathetic nervous system (what regulates our autonomic bodily processes when we’re at rest), and the dilator by the sympathetic nervous symptom (what controls physiological responses requiring a quick response — like fight-or-flight).
Needless to say, psychotropic drugs can have a profound effect on both of these systems.
Depending on the type of drug taken, therefore, either muscle group can become engaged. Essentially, if a drug can trigger a parasympathetic or sympathetic response, there’s a good chance that it will also impact on pupil dilation. Specifically, mydriasis can be caused by stimulants and any drug that influences the adrenal glands — what can trigger certain parasympathetic responses.
For example, drugs like MDMA, ecstasy, cocaine, amphetamines, and some antidepressants (like SSRIs) can increase serotonin levels in the brain — a crucial neurotransmitter that regulates mood, including feelings of happiness and well-being. Serotonin agonizes to the 5-HT2A receptors in the brain — what has the downstream effect of triggering the mydriasis response, and in some cases, psychedelic episodes.
Consequently, mydriasis also occurs in people who take serotonin-inducing psychedelics like LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin.
Drugs that trigger the release of dopamine, a related neurotransmitter, can also induce mydriasis. Marijuana is a good example. Dopamine cause pupils to dilate by exciting the adrenergic receptors, what in turn increases adrenaline (which the autonomic nervous system is sensitive to).
It’s important to remember that not all drugs will produce the same degree of pupil dilation. For example, MDMA will have a much more profound effect on pupil dilation than, say, an antidepressant.
And interestingly, other drugs, like opiates, cause the opposite effect — pupil contraction, or what’s known as miosis.
[Continue Reading→]

we-are-star-stuff:

Why Do Your Pupils Get Larger When You’re On Drugs?

Normally, our pupils dilate in response to changing light; as it gets darker, our pupils get larger. But they expand in size for other reasons as well, including when we’re sexually aroused and when we’re performing complex cognitive tasks. But it’s also known that certain medications — including illicit drugs — can cause pupils to get larger. Here’s why.

Pupil dilation, what’s also referred to as mydriasis, happens when one of two muscle groups become activated, namely the iris sphincter (yes, that’s what it’s called) and the iris dilator. The sphincter response is triggered by the parasympathetic nervous system (what regulates our autonomic bodily processes when we’re at rest), and the dilator by the sympathetic nervous symptom (what controls physiological responses requiring a quick response — like fight-or-flight).

Needless to say, psychotropic drugs can have a profound effect on both of these systems.

Depending on the type of drug taken, therefore, either muscle group can become engaged. Essentially, if a drug can trigger a parasympathetic or sympathetic response, there’s a good chance that it will also impact on pupil dilation. Specifically, mydriasis can be caused by stimulants and any drug that influences the adrenal glands — what can trigger certain parasympathetic responses.

For example, drugs like MDMA, ecstasy, cocaine, amphetamines, and some antidepressants (like SSRIs) can increase serotonin levels in the brain — a crucial neurotransmitter that regulates mood, including feelings of happiness and well-being. Serotonin agonizes to the 5-HT2A receptors in the brain — what has the downstream effect of triggering the mydriasis response, and in some cases, psychedelic episodes.

Consequently, mydriasis also occurs in people who take serotonin-inducing psychedelics like LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin.

Drugs that trigger the release of dopamine, a related neurotransmitter, can also induce mydriasis. Marijuana is a good example. Dopamine cause pupils to dilate by exciting the adrenergic receptors, what in turn increases adrenaline (which the autonomic nervous system is sensitive to).

It’s important to remember that not all drugs will produce the same degree of pupil dilation. For example, MDMA will have a much more profound effect on pupil dilation than, say, an antidepressant.

And interestingly, other drugs, like opiates, cause the opposite effect — pupil contraction, or what’s known as miosis.

[Continue Reading→]

unexplained-events:

unexplained-events:

Autoimmune Disease Acts Like Demonic Possession
Susannah Cahalan started feeling a bit off. Numbness on one side of the body, losing sleep, crying hysterically one minute and laughing the next. She went to get MRIs but they showed nothing. Things were getting a bit more strange.
Her boyfriend told her how at one point while they were watching a show together she started grinding her teeth, moaning, and biting her tongue until she finally passed out. He took her to the hospital and they found out it was a seizure. Her first of many. Things got worse.
She stopped eating, became paranoid and delusional, had more seizures in which blood would spurt out of her mouth. She was hospitalized (one nurse recalls that in the middle of the night while she was getting blood, Susannah sat up straigh and slapped her). Numerous tests were done and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
That is until Dr. Souhel Najjar came into the picture. He asked her to draw a clock. When she showed him what she had drawn he knew exactly what was wrong with her. All the numbers were written on the right side of the clock face, and no numbers were on the left side.
She had anti-NMDAR encephalitis. The receptors in the frontal lobe, responsible for cognitive reasoning, and the limbic system, or the emotional center of the brain, are under assault by the immune system. In other words, her body was attacking her brain. Nearly 90% of people that suffer from this go undiagnosed and it is more common in women.
SOURCE
SOURCE

Oh, and she wrote a book about it called 
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

unexplained-events:

unexplained-events:

Autoimmune Disease Acts Like Demonic Possession

Susannah Cahalan started feeling a bit off. Numbness on one side of the body, losing sleep, crying hysterically one minute and laughing the next. She went to get MRIs but they showed nothing. Things were getting a bit more strange.

Her boyfriend told her how at one point while they were watching a show together she started grinding her teeth, moaning, and biting her tongue until she finally passed out. He took her to the hospital and they found out it was a seizure. Her first of many. Things got worse.

She stopped eating, became paranoid and delusional, had more seizures in which blood would spurt out of her mouth. She was hospitalized (one nurse recalls that in the middle of the night while she was getting blood, Susannah sat up straigh and slapped her). Numerous tests were done and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

That is until Dr. Souhel Najjar came into the picture. He asked her to draw a clock. When she showed him what she had drawn he knew exactly what was wrong with her. All the numbers were written on the right side of the clock face, and no numbers were on the left side.

She had anti-NMDAR encephalitis. The receptors in the frontal lobe, responsible for cognitive reasoning, and the limbic system, or the emotional center of the brain, are under assault by the immune system. In other words, her body was attacking her brain. Nearly 90% of people that suffer from this go undiagnosed and it is more common in women.

SOURCE

SOURCE

Oh, and she wrote a book about it called 

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

'Hidden brain signatures' of consciousness in vegetative state patients
ientists in Cambridge have found hidden signatures in the brains of people in a vegetative state, which point to networks that could support consciousness even when a patient appears to be unconscious and unresponsive. The study could help doctors identify patients who are aware despite being unable to communicate.

There has been a great deal of interest recently in how much patients in a vegetative state following severe brain injury are aware of their surroundings. Although unable to move and respond, some of these patients are able to carry out tasks such as imagining playing a game of tennis. Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, which measures brain activity, researchers have previously been able to record activity in the pre-motor cortex, the part of the brain which deals with movement, in apparently unconscious patients asked to imagine playing tennis.
Now, a team of researchers led by scientists at the University of Cambridge and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, have used high-density electroencephalographs (EEG) and a branch of mathematics known as ‘graph theory’ to study networks of activity in the brains of 32 patients diagnosed as vegetative and minimally conscious and compare them to healthy adults. The findings of the research are published today in the journal PLOS Computational Biology. The study was funded mainly by the Wellcome Trust, the National Institute of Health Research Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre and the Medical Research Council (MRC).
The researchers showed that the rich and diversely connected networks that support awareness in the healthy brain are typically — but importantly, not always — impaired in patients in a vegetative state. Some vegetative patients had well-preserved brain networks that look similar to those of healthy adults — these patients were those who had shown signs of hidden awareness by following commands such as imagining playing tennis.
Dr Srivas Chennu from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge says: “Understanding how consciousness arises from the interactions between networks of brain regions is an elusive but fascinating scientific question. But for patients diagnosed as vegetative and minimally conscious, and their families, this is far more than just an academic question — it takes on a very real significance. Our research could improve clinical assessment and help identify patients who might be covertly aware despite being uncommunicative.”
The findings could help researchers develop a relatively simple way of identifying which patients might be aware whilst in a vegetative state. Unlike the ‘tennis test’, which can be a difficult task for patients and requires expensive and often unavailable fMRI scanners, this new technique uses EEG and could therefore be administered at a patient’s bedside. However, the tennis test is stronger evidence that the patient is indeed conscious, to the extent that they can follow commands using their thoughts. The researchers believe that a combination of such tests could help improve accuracy in the prognosis for a patient.
Dr Tristan Bekinschtein from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and the Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge, adds: “Although there are limitations to how predictive our test would be used in isolation, combined with other tests it could help in the clinical assessment of patients. If a patient’s ‘awareness’ networks are intact, then we know that they are likely to be aware of what is going on around them. But unfortunately, they also suggest that vegetative patients with severely impaired networks at rest are unlikely to show any signs of consciousness.”
Image: These images show brain networks in two behaviorally similar vegetative patients (left and middle), but one of whom imagined playing tennis (middle panel), alongside a healthy adult (right panel).

'Hidden brain signatures' of consciousness in vegetative state patients

ientists in Cambridge have found hidden signatures in the brains of people in a vegetative state, which point to networks that could support consciousness even when a patient appears to be unconscious and unresponsive. The study could help doctors identify patients who are aware despite being unable to communicate.

There has been a great deal of interest recently in how much patients in a vegetative state following severe brain injury are aware of their surroundings. Although unable to move and respond, some of these patients are able to carry out tasks such as imagining playing a game of tennis. Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, which measures brain activity, researchers have previously been able to record activity in the pre-motor cortex, the part of the brain which deals with movement, in apparently unconscious patients asked to imagine playing tennis.

Now, a team of researchers led by scientists at the University of Cambridge and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, have used high-density electroencephalographs (EEG) and a branch of mathematics known as ‘graph theory’ to study networks of activity in the brains of 32 patients diagnosed as vegetative and minimally conscious and compare them to healthy adults. The findings of the research are published today in the journal PLOS Computational Biology. The study was funded mainly by the Wellcome Trust, the National Institute of Health Research Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

The researchers showed that the rich and diversely connected networks that support awareness in the healthy brain are typically — but importantly, not always — impaired in patients in a vegetative state. Some vegetative patients had well-preserved brain networks that look similar to those of healthy adults — these patients were those who had shown signs of hidden awareness by following commands such as imagining playing tennis.

Dr Srivas Chennu from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge says: “Understanding how consciousness arises from the interactions between networks of brain regions is an elusive but fascinating scientific question. But for patients diagnosed as vegetative and minimally conscious, and their families, this is far more than just an academic question — it takes on a very real significance. Our research could improve clinical assessment and help identify patients who might be covertly aware despite being uncommunicative.”

The findings could help researchers develop a relatively simple way of identifying which patients might be aware whilst in a vegetative state. Unlike the ‘tennis test’, which can be a difficult task for patients and requires expensive and often unavailable fMRI scanners, this new technique uses EEG and could therefore be administered at a patient’s bedside. However, the tennis test is stronger evidence that the patient is indeed conscious, to the extent that they can follow commands using their thoughts. The researchers believe that a combination of such tests could help improve accuracy in the prognosis for a patient.

Dr Tristan Bekinschtein from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and the Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge, adds: “Although there are limitations to how predictive our test would be used in isolation, combined with other tests it could help in the clinical assessment of patients. If a patient’s ‘awareness’ networks are intact, then we know that they are likely to be aware of what is going on around them. But unfortunately, they also suggest that vegetative patients with severely impaired networks at rest are unlikely to show any signs of consciousness.”

Image: These images show brain networks in two behaviorally similar vegetative patients (left and middle), but one of whom imagined playing tennis (middle panel), alongside a healthy adult (right panel).

Smell Turns Up in Unexpected Places

Smell is one of the oldest human faculties, yet it was one of the last to be understood by scientists. It was not until the early 1990s that biologists first described the inner workings of olfactory receptors — the chemical sensors in our noses — in a discovery that won a Nobel Prize.

Since then, the plot has thickened. Over the last decade or so, scientists have discovered that odor receptors are not solely confined to the nose, but found throughout body — in the liver, the heart, the kidneys and even sperm — where they play a pivotal role in a host of physiological functions.

Now, a team of biologists at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany has found that our skin is bristling with olfactory receptors. “More than 15 of the olfactory receptors that exist in the nose are also found in human skin cells,” said the lead researcher, Dr. Hanns Hatt. Not only that, but exposing one of these receptors (colorfully named OR2AT4) to a synthetic sandalwood odor known as Sandalore sets off a cascade of molecular signals that appears to induce healing in injured tissue.

In a series of human tests, skin abrasions healed 30 percent faster in the presence of Sandalore, a finding the scientists think could lead to cosmetic products for aging skin and to new treatments to promote recovery after physical trauma.

The presence of scent receptors outside the nose may seem odd at first, but as Dr. Hatt and others have observed, odor receptors are among the most evolutionarily ancient chemical sensors in the body, capable of detecting a multitude of compounds, not solely those drifting through the air.

“If you think of olfactory receptors as specialized chemical detectors, instead of as receptors in your nose that detect smell, then it makes a lot of sense for them to be in other places,” said Jennifer Pluznick, an assistant professor of physiology at Johns Hopkins University who in 2009 found that olfactory receptors help control metabolic function and regulate blood pressure in the kidneys of mice.

Think of olfactory receptors as a lock-and-key system, with an odor molecule the key to the receptor’s lock. Only certain molecules fit with certain receptors. When the right molecule comes along and alights on the matching receptor, it sets in motion an elaborate choreography of biochemical reactions. Inside the nose, this culminates in a nerve signal being sent to brain, which we perceive as odor. But the same apparatus can fulfill other biological functions as well.

Dr. Hatt was one of the first scientists to study these functions in detail. In a study published in 2003, he and his colleagues reported that olfactory receptors found inside the testes function as a kind of chemical guidance system that enables sperm cells to find their way toward an unfertilized egg, giving new meaning to the notion of sexual chemistry.

He has since identified olfactory receptors in several other organs, including the liver, heart, lungs, colon and brain. In fact, genetic evidence suggests that nearly every organ in the body contains olfactory receptors.

“I’ve been arguing for the importance of these receptors for years,” said Dr. Hatt, who calls himself an ambassador of smell, and whose favorite aromas are basil, thyme and rosemary. “It was a hard fight.”

But researchers have gradually awakened to the biological importance of these molecular sniffers and the promise they hold for the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

In 2009, for instance, Dr. Hatt and his team reported that exposing olfactory receptors in the human prostate to beta-ionone, a primary odor compound in violets and roses, appeared to inhibit the spread of prostate cancer cells by switching off errant genes.

The same year, Grace Pavlath, a biologist at Emory University, published a study on olfactory receptors in skeletal muscles. She found that bathing the receptors in Lyral, a synthetic fragrance redolent of lily of the valley, promoted the regeneration of muscle tissue. Blocking these receptors (by neutralizing the genes that code for them), on the other hand, was found to inhibit muscular regeneration, suggesting that odor receptors are a necessary component of the intricate biochemical signaling system that causes stem cells to morph into muscles cells and replace damaged tissue.

“This was totally unexpected,” Dr. Pavlath said. “When we were doing this, the idea that olfactory receptors were involved in tissue repair was not out there.” No doubt, few scientists ever imagined that a fragrance sold at perfume counters would possess any significant medical benefits.

But it may not be all that surprising. Olfactory receptors are the largest subset of G protein-coupled receptors, a family of proteins, found on the surface of cells, that allow the cells to sense what is going on around them. These receptors are a common target for drugs — 40 percent of all prescription drugs reach cells via GPCRs — and that augurs well for the potential of what might be called scent-based medicine.

But because of the complexity of the olfactory system, this potential may still be a long way off. Humans have about 350 different kinds of olfactory receptors, and that is on the low end for vertebrates. (Mice, and other animals that depend heavily on their sense of smell for finding food and evading predators, have more than 1,000.)

Despite recent advances, scientists have matched just a handful of these receptors to the specific chemical compounds they detect — an effort further complicated by the fact that many scent molecules may activate the same receptor and, conversely, multiple receptors often react to the same scent. Little is still known about what most of these receptors do — or, for that matter, how they ended up scattered throughout the body in the first place.

Nor is it even clear that olfactory receptors have their evolutionary origins in the nose. “They’re called olfactory receptors because we found them in the nose first,” said Yehuda Ben-Shahar, a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis who published a paper this year on olfactory receptors in the human lung, which he found act as a safety switch against poisonous compounds by causing the airways to constrict when we inhale noxious substances. “It’s an open question,” he said, “as to which evolved first.”

neuromorphogenesis:

Three Planes of Human Brain: Coronal, Sagittal and Horizontal.

From Michigan State University - Brain Biodiversity Bank.

Violinist Plays Mozart Through Her Own Brain Surgery

Violinist Naomi Elishuv gave her surgeons their own private Mozart concert Tuesday — as they operated on her brain.

Elishuv performed professionally with the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra before being diagnosed with essential tremor two decades ago, according to the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. The neurological condition can affect muscles throughout the body, but for Elishuv, it meant a trembling of the hands and the end of her orchestral career.

Earlier this week, surgeons inserted a pacemaker into the affected area of Elishuv’s brain to regulate her tremors through electric impulses. According to the hospital’s director of functional neurosurgery, Yitzhak Fried, she was asked to play during the procedure because he and other doctors needed Elishuv’s “active participation in real-time” to implant the pacemaker.

Now, thanks to the life-changing operation, she’s regained her rhythm.

"When we activated the stimulation in the exact location, we found that the tremor had disappeared and Elishuv continued to play Mozart — with great emotion, but without the tremor or side effects,” Fried told Israeli newspaper Haaretz. According toRT.com, it was the first time Fried had operated on someone playing an instrument.

The difference between her playing before and after the surgery is clearly apparent in the video above.

“It’s a shame that I didn’t know about this operation before,” said Elishuv, according to JNS.org. “Now I’m going to live again.” 

Watch the video here!

How to keep your brain healthy
Neuroscience research got a huge boost last week with news of Professor John O’Keefe’s Nobel prize for work on the “brain’s internal GPS system”. It is an exciting new part of the giant jigsaw puzzle of our brain and how it functions. But how does cutting-edge neuroscience research translate into practical advice about how to pass exams, remember names, tot up household bills and find where the hell you left the car in a crowded car park?
O’Keefe’s prize was awarded jointly with Norwegian husband and wife team Edvard and May-Britt Moser for their discovery of “place and grid cells” that allow rats to chart where they are. When rats run through a new environment, these cells show increased activity. The same activity happens much faster while the rats are asleep, as they replay the new route.
We already knew that the part of the brain known as the hippocampus was involved in spatial awareness in birds and mammals, and this latest work on place cells sheds more light on how we know where we are and where we’re going. In 2000, researchers at University College London led by Dr Eleanor Maguire showed that London taxi drivers develop a pumped-up hippocampus after years of doing the knowledge and navigating the backstreets of the city. MRI scans showed that cabbies start off with bigger hippocampuses than average, and that the area gets bigger the longer they do the job. As driver David Cohen said at the time to BBC News: “I never noticed part of my brain growing – it makes you wonder what happened to the rest of it!”
Yet great breakthroughs don’t automatically translate into practical benefits. “Research may give us great insights, but we still can’t cure Alzheimer’s,” points out neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield. “And just because we know more about what parts of the brain do normally, it doesn’t tell us why things go wrong. We still need to know why special cells die in dementia. How come you can have a major stroke with lots of neuronal damage, but not lose your memory? What is the link between Parkinson’s disease and dementia?” In other words, why are some cells damaged but not others?
Lab-based research is key to piecing together the jigsaw of how our brains work and what goes wrong when they don’t. Even scans or postmortem examinations of brains of people who had dementia are of limited value, points out Greenfied, because “degeneration starts 10-20 years before symptoms appear”. So what does neuroscience tell us about keeping the brain fit?
Use it or lose it
It seems obvious that the more you train, use and test your brain, the better it will perform. There is some evidence that people with more education or skills have a lower incidence of dementia. But the picture is complicated; perhaps highly educated people eat better food. And more skilled people may be more likely to be in work, benefiting from exercise, social interaction and mental stimulation. You may build up a “cognitive reserve” while young, which gives you a headstart over less educated people once dementia sets in. Staying physically, mentally and socially active means that even if your brain scan looks as ropey as that of a less active person, you will function better. No one can confirm the benefits, but there is at least no downside to daily sudoku, crosswords, reading, walks and talks.
Neuro-enhancing drugs
Nootropics are also called smart drugs or cognitive enhancers. One of the best known is modafinil, a “wakefulness-promoting” drug that stimulates the central nervous system and is only prescribable in the UK for excessive daytime sleepiness (narcolepsy). Whether it is much more effective than a strong cup of coffee remains debatable, but its effect lasts longer. Modafinil is widely used by academics and students because it makes people feel sharper and more alert. Professor Barbara Sahakian of the University of Cambridge has found that sleep-deprived surgeons perform better on modafinil, and thinks it may have a wider role in improving our memory and mental function. “We found that modafinil improves motivation and working memory in healthy people and makes doing tasks more pleasurable,” she said. But long-term safety, especially for young brains, is still not established. But for a lot of students, the question isn’t whether the drugs are safe or constitute cheating, but how they can get hold of some.
Avoiding damage
Our environment is full of neurotoxins that can interfere with the genes, proteins and small molecules that build and maintain our brains. The younger the brain, the more susceptible it is to neurotoxins. A paper by the US National Scientific Council on the Developing Child says there are three types of neurotoxins that can affect the developing brain: environmental chemicals such as lead, mercury and organophosphates (pesticides); recreational drugs such as alcohol, nicotine and cocaine; and prescription medications such as Roaccutane, used for severe acne. Mature brains can be quite resilient, thanks in part to a barrier of cells that restricts entry of chemicals from the bloodstream into the brain tissue. But drugs, alcohol and cigarettes will poison even the most developed of brains if you take enough of them.
Keep the blood flowing
The brain needs a good blood flow to deliver vital nutrients and oxygen and take away waste products. Smoking, high blood pressure, uncontrolled diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol all sludge up the arteries and impede blood flow. If you care about your brain function, sorting out these risk factors remains the most useful thing you can do.
Effects of diet
Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, and vitamins B and D all have neuroprotective effects, but trials have failed to show that high-dose supplements of these individual nutrients will protect you from dementia. However, eating a tasty Mediterranean diet that combines most of these nutrients can’t hurt.
Future research
Professor Sahakian has identified five areas of neuroscience research that will help our understanding over the next five years.
• Smart and wearable technology to monitor people’s brain health – similar to wristband monitors that track heart rate.
• Brain scanning to monitor changes in mental illness and track changes during treatments such as CBT.
• Trials of neuroprotective drugs such as solanezumab to prevent further deterioration in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
• Connectomics, the study and production of connectomes – neural maps of the brain – will combine a number of techniques to map and study connectivity in the brain.
• Genetics, to understand the genetic mutations that contribute to autism and other conditions.
• This article was amended on 13 October 2014. An earlier version referred to Edvard and May-Britt Moser as Swedish rather than Norwegian.

How to keep your brain healthy

Neuroscience research got a huge boost last week with news of Professor John O’Keefe’s Nobel prize for work on the “brain’s internal GPS system”. It is an exciting new part of the giant jigsaw puzzle of our brain and how it functions. But how does cutting-edge neuroscience research translate into practical advice about how to pass exams, remember names, tot up household bills and find where the hell you left the car in a crowded car park?

O’Keefe’s prize was awarded jointly with Norwegian husband and wife team Edvard and May-Britt Moser for their discovery of “place and grid cells” that allow rats to chart where they are. When rats run through a new environment, these cells show increased activity. The same activity happens much faster while the rats are asleep, as they replay the new route.

We already knew that the part of the brain known as the hippocampus was involved in spatial awareness in birds and mammals, and this latest work on place cells sheds more light on how we know where we are and where we’re going. In 2000, researchers at University College London led by Dr Eleanor Maguire showed that London taxi drivers develop a pumped-up hippocampus after years of doing the knowledge and navigating the backstreets of the city. MRI scans showed that cabbies start off with bigger hippocampuses than average, and that the area gets bigger the longer they do the job. As driver David Cohen said at the time to BBC News: “I never noticed part of my brain growing – it makes you wonder what happened to the rest of it!”

Yet great breakthroughs don’t automatically translate into practical benefits. “Research may give us great insights, but we still can’t cure Alzheimer’s,” points out neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield. “And just because we know more about what parts of the brain do normally, it doesn’t tell us why things go wrong. We still need to know why special cells die in dementia. How come you can have a major stroke with lots of neuronal damage, but not lose your memory? What is the link between Parkinson’s disease and dementia?” In other words, why are some cells damaged but not others?

Lab-based research is key to piecing together the jigsaw of how our brains work and what goes wrong when they don’t. Even scans or postmortem examinations of brains of people who had dementia are of limited value, points out Greenfied, because “degeneration starts 10-20 years before symptoms appear”. So what does neuroscience tell us about keeping the brain fit?

Use it or lose it

It seems obvious that the more you train, use and test your brain, the better it will perform. There is some evidence that people with more education or skills have a lower incidence of dementia. But the picture is complicated; perhaps highly educated people eat better food. And more skilled people may be more likely to be in work, benefiting from exercise, social interaction and mental stimulation. You may build up a “cognitive reserve” while young, which gives you a headstart over less educated people once dementia sets in. Staying physically, mentally and socially active means that even if your brain scan looks as ropey as that of a less active person, you will function better. No one can confirm the benefits, but there is at least no downside to daily sudoku, crosswords, reading, walks and talks.

Neuro-enhancing drugs

Nootropics are also called smart drugs or cognitive enhancers. One of the best known is modafinil, a “wakefulness-promoting” drug that stimulates the central nervous system and is only prescribable in the UK for excessive daytime sleepiness (narcolepsy). Whether it is much more effective than a strong cup of coffee remains debatable, but its effect lasts longer. Modafinil is widely used by academics and students because it makes people feel sharper and more alert. Professor Barbara Sahakian of the University of Cambridge has found that sleep-deprived surgeons perform better on modafinil, and thinks it may have a wider role in improving our memory and mental function. “We found that modafinil improves motivation and working memory in healthy people and makes doing tasks more pleasurable,” she said. But long-term safety, especially for young brains, is still not established. But for a lot of students, the question isn’t whether the drugs are safe or constitute cheating, but how they can get hold of some.

Avoiding damage

Our environment is full of neurotoxins that can interfere with the genes, proteins and small molecules that build and maintain our brains. The younger the brain, the more susceptible it is to neurotoxins. A paper by the US National Scientific Council on the Developing Child says there are three types of neurotoxins that can affect the developing brain: environmental chemicals such as lead, mercury and organophosphates (pesticides); recreational drugs such as alcohol, nicotine and cocaine; and prescription medications such as Roaccutane, used for severe acne. Mature brains can be quite resilient, thanks in part to a barrier of cells that restricts entry of chemicals from the bloodstream into the brain tissue. But drugs, alcohol and cigarettes will poison even the most developed of brains if you take enough of them.

Keep the blood flowing

The brain needs a good blood flow to deliver vital nutrients and oxygen and take away waste products. Smoking, high blood pressure, uncontrolled diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol all sludge up the arteries and impede blood flow. If you care about your brain function, sorting out these risk factors remains the most useful thing you can do.

Effects of diet

Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, and vitamins B and D all have neuroprotective effects, but trials have failed to show that high-dose supplements of these individual nutrients will protect you from dementia. However, eating a tasty Mediterranean diet that combines most of these nutrients can’t hurt.

Future research

Professor Sahakian has identified five areas of neuroscience research that will help our understanding over the next five years.

• Smart and wearable technology to monitor people’s brain health – similar to wristband monitors that track heart rate.

• Brain scanning to monitor changes in mental illness and track changes during treatments such as CBT.

• Trials of neuroprotective drugs such as solanezumab to prevent further deterioration in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

• Connectomics, the study and production of connectomes – neural maps of the brain – will combine a number of techniques to map and study connectivity in the brain.

• Genetics, to understand the genetic mutations that contribute to autism and other conditions.

• This article was amended on 13 October 2014. An earlier version referred to Edvard and May-Britt Moser as Swedish rather than Norwegian.

How Technology Affects Sleep

If you’re addicted to watching television before bed, or frequently get rudely awoken by your mobile in the middle of the night, read on to discover how these factors can influence your sleep, and what you can do to achieve a better night’s sleep.

What happens to your brain when your mind is at rest?

For many years, the focus of brain mapping was to examine changes in the brain that occur when people are attentively engaged in an activity. No one spent much time thinking about what happens to the brain when people are doing very little.

But Marcus Raichle, a professor of radiology, neurology, neurobiology and biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, has done just that. In the 1990s, he and his colleagues made a pivotal discovery by revealing how a specific area of the brain responds to down time.

"A great deal of meaningful activity is occurring in the brain when a person is sitting back and doing nothing at all," says Raichle, who has been funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences in the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. "It turns out that when your mind is at rest, dispersed brain areas are chattering away to one another."

The results of these discoveries now are integral to studies of brain function in health and disease worldwide. In fact, Raichle and his colleagues have found that these areas of rest in the brain—the ones that ultimately became the focus of their work—often are among the first affected by Alzheimer’s disease, a finding that ultimately could help in early detection of this disorder and a much greater understanding of the nature of the disease itself.

For his pioneering research, Raichle this year was among those chosen to receive the prestigious Kavli Prize, awarded by The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. It consists of a cash award of $1 million, which he will share with two other Kavli recipients in the field of neuroscience.

His discovery was a near accident, actually what he calls “pure serendipity.” Raichle, like others in the field at the time, was involved in brain imaging, looking for increases in brain activity associated with different tasks, for example language response.

In order to conduct such tests, scientists first needed to establish a baseline for comparison purposes which typically complements the task under study by including all aspects of the task, other than just the one of interest.

"For example, a control task for reading words aloud might be simply viewing them passively," he says.

In the Raichle laboratory, they routinely required subjects to look at a blank screen. When comparing this simple baseline to the task state, Raichle noticed something.

"We didn’t specify that you clear your mind, we just asked subjects to rest quietly and don’t fall asleep," he recalls. "I don’t remember the day I bothered to look at what was happening in the brain when subjects moved from this simple resting state to engagement in an attention demanding task that might be more involved than simply increases in brain activity associated with the task.

"When I did so, I observed that while brain activity in some parts of the brain increased as expected, there were other areas that actually decreased their activity as if they had been more active in the ‘resting state,"’ he adds. "Because these decreases in brain activity were so dramatic and unexpected, I got into the habit of looking for them in all of our experiments. Their consistency both in terms of where they occurred and the frequency of their occurrence—that is, almost always—really got my attention. I wasn’t sure what was going on at first but it was just too consistent to not be real."

These observations ultimately produced ground-breaking work that led to the concept of a default mode of brain function, including the discovery of a unique fronto-parietal network in the brain. It has come to be known as the default mode network, whose regions are more active when the brain is not actively engaged in a novel, attention-demanding task.

"Basically we described a core system of the brain never seen before," he says. "This core system within the brain’s two great hemispheres increasingly appears to be playing a central role in how the brain organizes its ongoing activities"

The discovery of the brain’s default mode caused Raichle and his colleagues to reconsider the idea that the brain uses more energy when engaged in an attention-demanding task. Measurements of brain metabolism with PET (positron emission tomography) and data culled from the literature led them to conclude that the brain is a very expensive organ, accounting for about 20 percent of the body’s energy consumption in an adult human, yet accounting for only 2 percent of the body weight.

"The changes in activity associated with the performance of virtually any type of task add little to the overall cost of brain function," he continues. "This has initiated a paradigm shift in brain research that has moved increasingly to studies of the brain’s intrinsic activity, that is, its default mode of functioning."

Raichle, whose work on the role of this intrinsic brain activity on facets of consciousness was supported by NSF, is also known for his research in developing and using imaging techniques, such as positron emission tomography, to identify specific areas of the brain involved in seeing, hearing, reading, memory and emotion.

In addition, his team studied chemical receptors in the brain, the physiology of major depression and anxiety, and has evaluated patients at risk for stroke. Currently, he is completing research studying what happens to the brain under anesthesia.

"The brain is capable of so many things, even when you are not conscious," Raichle says. "If you are unconscious, the organization of the brain is maintained, but it is not the same as being awake."

Oxytocin: How ‘love hormone’ regulates sexual behavior

Oxytocin has been called the “love hormone” because it plays an important role in social behaviors, such as maternal care and pair bonding. In a study published by Cell Press on October 9th in the journal Cell, researchers uncover oxytocin-responsive brain cells that are necessary for female social interest in male mice during estrus — the sexually receptive phase of their cycle. These neurons, found in the prefrontal cortex, may play a role in other oxytocin-related social behaviors such as intimacy, love, or mother-child bonding.

"Our findings suggest that social interactions that stimulate oxytocin production will recruit this newly identified circuit to help coordinate the complex behavioral responses elicited by changing social situations in all mammals, including humans," says senior study author Nathaniel Heintz of The Rockefeller University. "Future investigation of the exact mechanisms responsible for activation of this interesting circuit may provide insights into autism spectrum disorder and other social behavioral disorders."

Oxytocin-responsive neurons are found in many brain structures, highlighting the importance of the hormone for a variety of social behaviors. But it is not clear which cells are targeted by oxytocin, or how the hormone affects neural circuits. One potential clue came when lead study author Miho Nakajima of The Rockefeller University discovered a population of neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex that express the oxytocin receptor. When the researchers disrupted the activity of these neurons, female mice lost interest in male mice during estrus and spent about the same amount of time with them as with a plastic Lego block. By contrast, these females retained a normal level of social interest in other females during estrus, and in male mice when not in estrus. Moreover, the social behavior of male mice was unaffected by the silencing of these neurons.

Taken together, the findings show that the new class of oxytocin-responsive neurons regulates an important aspect of female social behavior in mice. “Our work highlights the importance of the prefrontal cortex in social and sexual behaviors and suggests that this critical cell population may mediate other aspects of behavior in response to the elevated oxytocin levels that occur in a variety of different contexts,” Heintz says.

Journal Reference: Miho Nakajima, Andreas Görlich, Nathaniel Heintz. Oxytocin Modulates Female Sociosexual Behavior through a Specific Class of Prefrontal Cortical Interneurons. Cell, 2014; 159 (2): 295 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2014.09.020

For the first time, and to the astonishment of many of their colleagues, researchers created what they call Alzheimer’s in a Dish — a petri dish with human brain cells that develop the telltale structures of Alzheimer’s disease. In doing so, they resolved a longstanding problem of how to study Alzheimer’s and search for drugs to treat it; the best they had until now were mice that developed an imperfect form of the disease.