Saturday, December 29, 2007

Testosterone Fuels Humor

I saw an interview with Jerry Seinfeld recently and he remarked that "crankiness is at the essence of all comedy". Seinfeld stated that all comedy is based in anger - not only that, but anger over things that didn't matter at all and that it was all about trying to express that anger in a way that convinced people. Well, according to a study published in the Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal, Jerry seems to be right on target. What Jerry may not understand is that it is testosterone that fuels the comedic anger.

Professor Sam Shuster recorded the responses of more than 400 people as he rode a unicycle through the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne. He noted that most people responded with a wave or a stare, and about half of them responded verbally. Men were more likely to respond verbally and in a more derisive way. Whereas women expressed admiration of his skill, encouragement or even fears for his safety, only 25% of men responded this way. 75% of men responded with comedic attempts, usually snide or combative. The male response changed with the age of the individual, and the reason Shuster says, is male hormones.

Responses became more verbal during the later teens, turning into disparaging 'jokes' or mocking songs. This then evolved into adult male humour -- characterized by repetitive, humorous verbal put-downs concealing a latent aggression. Young men in cars were particularly aggressive. Professor Shuster notes that this is the age when men are at the peak of their virility. The 'jokes' were lost with age as older men responded more neutrally and amicably with few attempts at a jovial put-down.

I am not convinced that it is true that all humor stems from aggression, for that would not necessarily cover more intellectual humor and it cannot all stem from male agression as one considers the number of female comics that have become part of the culture, but it may be a common human trait that we make fun of things that irk and annoy us. Perhaps comedy is a way to avoid real anger by diverting our anger over seemingly unimportant things into derisiveness which allows us to validate the aggression that something causes us while dismissing it.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

For A Good Night's Sleep, Turn off the Computer

Everyone knows that getting sufficient and restful sleep is essential to good physical and mental health, but still we shortchange ourselves. Worse, some of us have difficulty sleeping even when we are willing to devote the necessary hours. According to the Edinburgh Sleep Center, there are 10 things you can do to help you get a good night's sleep:

1. Have and stick to a regular bedtime and wake up schedule
Try to go to bed and get up about the same time each night and morning.

2. Make sure the time that you set for your bedtime, is a time in which you are sleepy.
Do not go to bed too soon or you may have trouble falling asleep or your sleep may be restless.

3. Do not nap
Napping can disrupt normal sleep cycles. Try skipping your nap and see if your regular sleep patterns improve.

4. Make your bedroom a "quiet" room
Do not watch television in your bedroom. Use it for sleeping or quiet reading.

5. Establish relaxing before-bed routines
Take a bath, a glass of warn milk, or do some light reading before bedtime.

6. Develop relaxation techniques
Learn yoga, deep breathing, quiet mediation or listen to soft music while trying to fall asleep.

7. Avoid troubling news right before bed.
Violence in newspapers or on television may bother some people making it difficult to fall asleep. Try reading a book instead.

8. Avoid stimulants.
Do not use stimulants or drink things that contain caffeine(tea, coffee, cola etc.) 6 hours before bedtime.

9. Do not use alcohol or tobacco products close to bedtime.
Use of these products may calm you at the time of use, but they can have disrupting effects on your sleep during the night.

10. Exercise regularly.
Regular activity helps the body and mind healthy, but be sure to avoid vigorous exercise right before bedtime.

And according to Dr. Chris Idzikowski, director of the Edinburgh Sleep Center, as reported here, working at your computer or reading emails can also keep you awake. Apparently even the light from your computer can cause sleep difficulties.

"Work-related stress is a major factor causing a sleepless night; checking your work e-mails before bed on any electronic device is essentially the equivalent to drinking double espresso last thing," Idzikowski said. "We have shown that light from a laptop or Blackberry is concentrated enough to signal the brain to stop secreting melatonin, the natural hormone that produces sleep."

Dr. Idzikowski recommends that you spend at least an hour away from work-related activity before bedtime.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Rooting for the Underdog

In any contest, why are we more likely to support the person or team that is expected to lose? What makes the underdog more appealing, and the topdog less appealing? We cheered for Rocky Balboa, the boxer who should have had no chance to win, but wanted it so badly. Research conducted by Joseph A. Vandello, Nadav P. Goldschmied, and David A. R. Richards (of the University of South Florida) shows that it seems to be our sense of fair play and justice that causes us to root for the underdog.

The researchers used both political and sports examples to survey participants. For instance, in questioning participants on the Israel - Palestine conflict, those first shown a map with Israel appearing larger and light-colored, were more sympathetic to the Palestinians. Those who had been shown a map with Israel as smaller and surrounded by other Middle East countries, tended to be more sympathetic to Israel. The researchers also used sports examples, as in the Olympics. In every scenario, the majority of participants tended to support the contender they perceived as the underdog.

The only time that those expected to lose did not garner greater support and sympathy is when it was perceived that they had equal or greater resources, indicating that it is a sense of viewing the underdog as disadvantaged that gains our sympathy and support.

The abstract and full text of the article "The Appeal of the Underdog" can be found at Sage Publications

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Wired To Shiver

We know that the brain performs many functions that we are not consciously aware of. We don't have to remind our heart to beat or keep constant watch over blood pressure, nor do we forget to breathe. But while the brain controls these functions subconsciously, it is constantly taking readings on changes in other parts of our bodies.

Shivering is just another involuntary function that the brain controls, but when the brain decides to turn on your shivering is determined by information on changes in temperature that the brain gets from the skin.
Wiring in the brain allows us to be both consciously and subconsciously aware of the cold at the same time.

Shivering is just a defense against cold and is actually heat production in skeletal muscles. Because it takes a good deal of energy, it is one of the last strategies the body will use to maintain its temperature. The brain has other strategies, such as reducing heat loss by restricting blood flow to the skin.

Research conducted with rats allowed scientists to trace the shivering sensory pathway from the skin to specialized cells in a the lateral parabrachial nucleus in the brain. This information is then transmitted to the preoptic area of the brain, which is the part of the brain that decides when the body should start shivering.

"This research is a fundamental science discovery that furthers our knowledge about one of the many functions that our brains are constantly monitoring, responding to and adjusting to keep us alive and healthy," explained Morrison. "It is noteworthy, however, that there are conditions, such as hypothermia and hyperthermia, in which thermal sensory pathways come into play and knowledge of the brain's wiring can provide important clues to locating dysfunction in patients with abnormal thermal sensation. In addition, our ability to sense and respond to temperature changes degrades as we age."

Shivering: Body's Wiring For Sensing, Responding To Cold Explained

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Neurology of Belief

Is truth beauty and beauty, truth? Do we have feelings of disgust over a lie or false statement? Researchers Sam Harris, Mark Cohen and Sameer Sheth have recently conducted studies using fMRI which show that different regions of the brain are involed in belief, disbelief and uncertainty.

Volunteers were asked to rate a series of statements as true, false or undecidable. The reserachers studied the areas of the brain involved in belief, disbelief and uncertainty. When belief and disbelief were compared, the investigators saw differences principally in a region known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), near the front of the brain, along its midline.

"The involvement of the VMPFC in belief processing suggests an anatomical link between the purely cognitive aspects of belief and human emotion and reward," the authors said. "The fact that ethical belief showed a similar pattern of activation to mathematical belief suggests that the physiological difference between belief and disbelief may be independent of content or emotional associations."

The areas especially engaged in disbelief included the limbic system's cingulate areas and the anterior insula, a brain region known to report visceral sensations such as pain and disgust and to be involved largely in negative appraisals of sensations like taste and smell.

"Our results appear to make sense of the emotional tone of disbelief, placing it on a continuum with other modes of stimulus appraisal and rejection," the authors said. "False propositions might actually disgust us."

Uncertainty produced increased signal in a different portion of the cingulate cortex. The anterior cingulate cortex shows up in studies of conflict monitoring. Uncertainty also showed a decreased signal in the caudate, which plays a role in motor action.

"What I find most interesting about our results is the suggestion that our view of the world must pass through a bottleneck in regions of the brain generally understood to govern emotion, reward and primal feelings like pain and disgust," Harris said. "While evaluating mathematical, ethical or factual statements requires very different kinds of processing, accepting or rejecting these statements seems to rely upon a more primitive process that may be content-neutral. I think that it has long been assumed that believing that two plus two equals four and believing that George Bush is President of the United States have almost nothing in common as cognitive operations. But what they clearly have in common is that both representations of the world satisfy some process of truth-testing that we continually perform. I think this is yet another result, in a long line of results, that calls the popular opposition between reason and emotion into question."

Wiley InterScience

Sunday, December 9, 2007

How The Brain Interprets the Scene

The picture below is a fairly well-known one. It's an example of an optical illusion or rather, it is two pictures. One is a beautiful young woman, but if you change your focus, it appears to be an old woman. How does the brain decide how to interpret this drawing and why does it choose to see it one way or the other?

According to a study at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at John's Hopkins University, it all comes down to a region in the brain called V2. By studying activity in nerve cells in the V2 region of macaques, neuroscientist Rudiger von der Heydt, was able to determine that the V2 region assigns foreground and background.

"Because of their complexity, images of natural scenes generally have many possible interpretations, not just two, like in Escher's drawings," he said. "In most cases, they contain a variety of cues that could be used to identify fore- and background, but oftentimes, these cues contradict each other. The V2 mechanism combines these cues efficiently and provides us immediately with a rough sketch of the scene."

According to von der Heydt, our conscious mind can command the brain to switch perspective and view the scene a different way. That is why we can switch between interpretations of the old woman/young woman drawing.

Discovering and understanding how this visual system works could eventually lead to understanding and treating visual disorders such as dyslexia.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Viewing Violence Causes Brain Changes

Researchers at Columbia University have found a direct correlation between watching violent television shows and movies and actual violent behavior in real life.

The study, using fMRI, showed that watching violence caused a decrease in activity in the region of the brain responsible for suppressing aggressive behavior.

The right lateral orbitofrontal cortex, or right ltOFC, and the amygdala became less active after subjects watched violent clips. Additionally, the researchers found that after repeated viewings of violence, an area of the brain responsible for planning behaviors became more active. According to researchers, this supports the theory that exposure to violence diminishes the brain's ability to inhibit behavior-related processing.

“Depictions of violent acts have become very common in the popular media,” said Christopher Kelly, the first author on the paper and a current CUMC medical student. “Our findings demonstrate for the first time that watching media depictions of violence does influence processing in parts of the brain that control behaviors like aggression. This is an important finding, and further research should examine very closely how these changes affect real-life behavior.”

Monday, December 3, 2007

Do I Have Your Attention?

We usually think we can tell if we have someone's attention by watching their eyes. But research published in Nature Neuroscience shows that "covert orienting" of our attention may allow someone to shift their attention without moving their eyes. Dr. Brian Corneil, of the Centre for Brain and Mind at The University of Western Ontario in London, Canada has found a way of actually measuring covert attention.

Dr. Cornell's research indicates that neck muscles are recruited in covert orienting, without there being a gaze shift.

So if you think that someone is listening just because they are looking at you, you could be wrong, they may have already shifted their attention elsewhere.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Brain Patterns Indicate OCD Risk

For the first time, scientists have discovered distinct brain patterns in individuals with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and close family members. This discovery could lead to more effective identification and diagnosis of individuals who are at risk of developing the disorder which is known to run in families.

Obsessive compulsive disorder is a prevalent illness that affects 2–3 % of the population. OCD patients suffer from obsessions (unwanted, recurrent thoughts, concerns with themes of contamination and ‘germs', the need to check household items in case of fire or burglary, the symmetrical order of objects or fears of harming oneself or others) as well as compulsions (repetitive behaviours related to the obsessions such as washing and carrying out household safety checks). These symptoms can consume the patient's life, causing severe distress, alienation and anxiety.

The research involved OCD patients and healthy close family members as well as a control group of unrelated healthy individuals.

Researchers at Cambridge University used both MRI and a computerized test that measured the ability of the participant to stop repetitive behaviors. Those with OCD and their family members scored worse on the test. This was associated with decreases of grey matter in brain regions important in suppressing responses and habits.

Lara Menzies, in the Brain Mapping Unit at the University of Cambridge, explains, “Impaired brain function in the areas of the brain associated with stopping motor responses may contribute to the compulsive and repetitive behaviours that are characteristic of OCD. These brain changes appear to run in families and may represent a genetic risk factor for developing the condition. The current diagnosis of OCD available to psychiatrists is subjective and therefore knowledge of the underlying causes may lead to better diagnosis and ultimately improved clinical treatments.

Brain pattern associated with genetic risk of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Mirror Therapy Relieves Phantom Limb Pain

Up to 90% of all amputees suffer from phantom pain - that is, they experience pain from the missing limb. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine examines the effectiveness of "mirror therapy" in relieving phantom pain.

Participants were assigned to one of three groups. One group viewed themselves in a mirror, a second group viewed a covered mirror and a third group was trained in mental visualization techniques. Neither the covered mirror nor the mental visualization techniques effectively alleviated phantom pain symptoms. Only 17% of those viewing the covered mirror reported less phantom pain with 50% reporting worsening pain. 67% of those utilizing mental visualization reported worsening pain. But 100% of those amputees who viewed the mirror image of themselves reported less phantom pain after a month's time.

The study found that mirror therapy reduced phantom limb pain in patients who had undergone amputation of the lower limbs. Such pain was not reduced by either covered mirror or mental visualization treatments. These results suggest that mirror therapy may be helpful in alleviating phantom pain in lower limbs.

Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. "Phantom Limb Pain May Be Reduced By Simple Mirror Treatment." ScienceDaily 24 November 2007

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Brain Exercises Make Brains Ten Years Younger

An important new study shows that for seniors, doing the right kind of brain exercises can improve memory and enhance cognitive abilities, effectively taking ten years off the age of your brain.

The study involved two groups of people over age 65. Half of them completed up to 40 hours of the computer-based Posit Science Brain Fitness Program. The other group of participants completed up to 40 hours of a computer-based educational training program. The group doing the brain exercises showed significant improvement as opposed to the control group using just the educational program.

The study was conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Zelinksi of the University of Southern California. According to Zelinksi, participants using the Brain Fitness program saw improvements in their daily lives as a result of increased cognitive agility.

The group that relied on cranial calisthenics showed “significantly superior improvements in standardised clinical measures of memory gains of approximately 10 years,” said Dr Zelinksi, who did the work with Dr Glenn Smith of the Mayo Clinic, Minnesota.

“The changes we saw in the experimental group were remarkable – and significantly larger than the gains in the control group” Dr Zelinski said. “From a researcher’s point of view, this was very impressive – people got better at the tasks trained, those improvements generalized to various standardized measures of memory, and people perceived improvements in their lives.”


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Mind Reading Translates Thoughts to Sound for Paralysis Victim

Eric Ramsay's car accident 8 years ago left him completely paralyzed. His mind is active and alert, but he is unable to communicate in any way except through eye movement. Now scientists believe that they will be able to give him back his "voice" using an electrode implanted in his brain.

The electrode is implanted in the area of Eric's brain that controls movement of the mouth and tongue. Scientists are recording the signals created in Eric's brain when he thinks about speaking. By having Eric concentrate on making certain sounds they have been able to identify the signal patterns associated with three vowel sounds.

A computer will be brought in to analyze and translate Eric's thoughts into sounds. Scientists hope to add more vowels and consonants, important steps to realizing their goal of giving Eric Ramsay the ability to fully communicate.

Mind-reading brain implant could give paralysed man a voice

Monday, November 12, 2007

Fish Really is Brain Food

For years mothers have been encouraging kids with scrunched-up noses to eat their fish, advising them that it's "brain food". Well now researchers are proving that Mom was right.

Three separate studies showing that Omega-3 fatty acids improve cognitive function in older adults are reported on in the November issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

A Norwegian study, a Dutch study and a study done in New Zealand, all found that there was a link between eating fish and improved mental skills as well as improved physical health in older adults.
The Dutch study found less mental decline in participants whose Omega-3 blood levels were highest at the start of the study.

A report on all three studies can be found here.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Key to Hunger is in the Brain

What is the difference between being physically full and being satisfied? Mood, stress and other factors often lead to overeating, but what gives some people a larger appetite than others all the time? Can scientists tell when we are hungry by looking at our brains?

Researchers at Imperial College London have reported that they can measure how full or how hungry mice are by imaging neurons in the hypothalamus area of the brain which regulates appetite. Using a contrast agent of manganese ion made the neurons visible on a magnetic resonance imaging scan.

The mice in the study were also given one of two hormones, ghrelin, which is known to increase appetite and pancreatic peptide YY (PYY) which inhibits appetite. As expected, the mice give the ghrelin showed greater intensity of signals in the "hunger neurons" and the signal decreased in the mice given PYY.

Professor Jimmy Bell, corresponding author of the study from the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre at Imperial College London, said: "Appetite and appetite control are important components of why people put on weight. We know very little about the mechanisms behind these processes and why they can vary so much between individuals. In the past we have had to rely on asking people how hungry they feel, this can be very subjective. Furthermore, sometimes your sense of satiety can be significantly affected by other factors such as your mood.

"Our new method is much more reliable and completely objective. With murine models, we can now look directly at neuronal activity in the brain. We are working on developing similar methods to study neuronal activity in the appetite centers in people," he added.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Brain Myths

What are the realities and myths when it comes to brain fitness? It is true that our brain health and development are largely related to genetic makeup or can we influence brain fitness by what we do and learn?

11 leading neuroscientists debunk 10 common brain myths in a new whitepaper from SharpBrains, Inc. Among the myths that are challenged is the concept that brain exercises are just for ageing brains and are only for improving memory. The experts say that people of all ages can benefit from brain exercises. Even better, you don't need to buy expensive computer programs to retrain your brain, every time we learn a new skill or fact or have a new experience, the brain's neuroplasticity allows it to rewire itself, changing the physical composition of the brain.

“Learning is physical. Learning means the modification, growth, and pruning of our neurons, connections–called synapses– and neuronal networks, through experience...we are cultivating our own neuronal networks.” - Dr. James Zull, Professor of Biology and Biochemistry at Case Western University,

Read 11 Sharp Brains Debunk 10 Myths on the Science Behind The Nascent Brain Fitness Industry

Friday, November 2, 2007

Stem Cells Enhance Memory After Brain Injury

There may be new hope for patients with brain injuries. Stem cells have been shown to improve memory after a brain injury according to new research at UC Irvine. In fact, with the use of stem cells, the memories of brain-injured mice were returned to the level of healthy mice. Frank LaFerla, Mathew Blurton-Jones and Tritia Yamasaki performed the experiments and the report is published in the October 31 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

Moreover, researchers found that memory was enhanced although very few of the stem cells (about 4%) turned into neurons. A major focus of stem cell research has been how to turn stem cells into different types of cells, including neurons.

In the study, researchers destroyed brain cells in the area of the hippocampus, a region vital to memory formation. Both the brain-injured mice and healthy mice were tested on memory for both place and object. Before stem cell treatment, the brain-injured mice remembered their surroundings only 40% of the time as compared with 70% for the healthy mice.

Three months after implanting the stem cells, the mice were tested on place recognition. The researchers found that mice with brain injuries that also received stem cells remembered their surroundings about 70 percent of the time – the same level as healthy mice. In contrast, control mice that didn’t receive stem cells still had memory impairments.

The new research could lead to better and more effective treatments for patients who have suffered from brain injury.

“We know that very few of the cells are becoming neurons, so we think that the stem cells are instead enhancing the local brain microenvironment,” Blurton-Jones said. “We have evidence suggesting that the stem cells provide support to vulnerable and injured neurons, keeping them alive and functional by making beneficial proteins called neurotrophins.”

If supplemental neurotrophins are in fact at the root of memory enhancement, scientists could try to create a drug that enhances the release or production of these proteins. Scientists then could spend less time coaxing stem cells to turn into other types of cells, at least as it relates to memory research.

Stem cells can improve memory after brain injury

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Social Activity Improves Cognitive Function

Being a hermit, at any age, may be detri-mental to your cognitive function. A new study at the University of Michigan, suggests that social interaction improves memory and cognitive function. In fact socializing proved to be just as effective as mental exercises in improving memory retention and intellectual performance. Conversely, they believe that social isolation may have a negative effect on cognitive function.

The first study involved participants aged 24 to 96. The participants were asked about their level of social interaction with friends and family, how often they talked on the phone or got together. They were then given a mini mental exam - a widely used test that measures knowledge of personal information and current events and that also includes a simple test of working memory.

The higher the level of participants' social interaction, researchers found, the better their cognitive functioning. This relationship was reliable for all age groups, from the youngest through the oldest.

Researchers conducted a second experiment involving only college students. The students were divided into three groups and participated in one of three activities before an examination. One group discussed a social issue for ten minutes, the second group did a reading comprehension test and a crossword puzzle and the third group watched ten minutes of Seinfeld. All three groups then took two tests to measure working memory and mental processing speed.

"We found that short-term social interaction lasting for just 10 minutes boosted participants' intellectual performance as much as engaging in so-called 'intellectual' activities for the same amount of time," Ybarra said.

"To our knowledge, this experiment represents the only causal evidence showing that social interaction directly affects memory and mental performance in a positive way."

Watching Seinfeld did not improve cognitive function

After reading about these results, I wondered whether the researchers considered including online social interaction. With an increasing number of people experiencing much of their social interaction online, it would be interesting to see if it was effective in staving off cognitive decline or if it had less effect or no effect compared with real life social interaction.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Brain Controls Inflammatory Response

It was an 11-month old girl, burned over 75% of her body by boiling water that gave Dr. Kevin Tracey an insight into why it was that the body sometimes turned on itself. The life-changing experience of caring for this little girl, who lost her fight for life to severe sepsis, that sent Dr. Tracey into research that led him to find none other that the human brain to be the culprit.

Dr. Tracy, of The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, discovered that the brain communicates directly with the immune system, sending the commands that control the body's inflammatory response in cases of infection and autoimmune disorders.

According to Tracy, the vagus nerve "talks" directly to the immune system through acetycholine, a neurochemical. Dr.Tracey has begun clinical trials to test his theory that stimulating the vagus nerve might block the inflammatory response to diseases, including sepsis. The vagus nerve originates in the brainstem and continues down to the heart and abdomen. Tracey wants to know if adjusting the brain's acetycholine system could control the inflammatory response.

Dr. Tracey has written a book called Fatal Sequence: The Killer Within, that tells the story of the little girl's fight for life, why she lost it and how it spurred him on to research that may lead to greater understanding of the brain's role in severe sepsis.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Video Game Changes Social Perspectives

There has been a lot of concern about violent video games and the effects they have on the young people who play them. But at McGill University, researchers have developed a video game that aims to train people to change their perception of social threats and boost self-confidence in a healthier way.

The game, called The Matrix, is designed to train players how to focus more on positive feedback and to avoid being distracted or deterred by slights and criticism in social situations. Our perceptons of social situations accounts for a significant part of our daily stress.

The game has even been shown to lower levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol. People who played a game which involved finding the one smiling face in a display of neutral or frowning ones and clicking on it, were found to have learned to focus on more positive aspects of social situations. The players in the study, employees of a call center, had their stress and self-esteem levels assessed daily using questionnaires and saliva analysis to measure cortisol levels. After playing the game for one week, there was a 17 percent reduction in cortisol levels compared to a control group that did not play the smiling faces game.

The game led to the creation of MindHabits Trainer, a game that is scheduled to be released this month. You can also preview and play the game at their website. The game is interactive in that it requires you complete "trackers" every time you play the game, to measure how much quicker your responses are to the positive images. You can also purchase the video game from the site.

Go give it a try at MindHabits.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Think Standing on Your Head

The headlines declare "Standing on your head helps you think"! Based on a new hypothesis by Christopher Moore at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, that may be a fair assumption.

We all know that blood carries oxygen and fuel to the brain but Moore believes that blood may actually modulate how neurons process information. "If it does modulate how neurons relay signals, that changes how we think the brain works", Moore said.

According to Moore's Hemo-Neural Hypothesis, blood is not just a physiological support system but actually helps control brain activity. Specifically, localized changes in blood flow affect the activity of nearby neurons, changing how they transmit signals to each other and hence regulating information flow throughout the brain. Ongoing studies in Moore's laboratory support this view, showing that blood flow does modulate individual neurons.

Practitioners of Yoga have long taught that standing on your head and increasing blood flow to the brain calms your thinking and increases alertness. Recent studies have linked exercise with improved memory and cognitive performance, and we all know that exercise gets the heart pumping and increases blood flow.

Moore believes that new studies into blood flow and the Hemal-Neural link may lead us to better treaments and greater understanding of many neurological and psychiatric diseases -diseases like schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer's that feature an associated change in brain vasculature.

"Most people assume the symptoms of these diseases are a secondary consequence of damage to the neurons. But we propose that they may also be a causative factor in the disease process, and that insight suggests entirely new treatments."

Source MIT

Friday, October 19, 2007

Simulator Experience Can Carry Over To Real Life

To be a Formula One race car driver, you must have lightning quick reflexes, extraordinary control over the complex, technological wonder that is the race car and the ability to make the decisions that win the race while keeping you safe as you travel at speeds that can reach 200 mph.

Lewis Hamilton at 22 years old stands poised to win the World Championship in F1 in his rookie season. One man says he knows why Lewis is so good. He has trained his brain.

Dr. Kerry Spackman, sports psychologist and a former mathematician and neuroscientist, says that Hamilton's many hours in the simulator have helped him train his brain in a way that produces good decisions and quick reactions in real-life situations.

Dr. Spackman says anyone can train their brain to respond more quickly. By training on simulated experiences in a controlled environment, the brain can learn to react just as quickly in the real world.

Dr Spackman said: 'This ability to take something from the real world to the virtual world – to analyse it, rehearse it and put it back into your unconscious mind – is a very great advantage.'

Hamilton - The Fastest Mind on the Planet

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Brain Stops Growing Before Old Age Sets In

The bad news is that our brains start to age and experience diminished cell growth fairly early in adulthood. The good news (or not so bad news) is that neurogenesis does continue, albeit at a slower rate.

Neuroscientists working with marmoset monkeys found that soon after the monkeys reach adulthood, the rate of new neural cell formation in the hippocampus (associated with both learning and memory) begins its decline. Marmoset monkeys reach sexual maturity at 18 months and the decline was noted at an average of age 8 years. A marmoset in the wild has a lifespan of about 11 to 12 years, although they can live up to age 20 in zoos.

Although it sounds rather disheartening to find that your mental decline begins in middle age rather than after old age has set in, the news isn't all bad. The rate of new brain cells growth may slow down but does not stop altogether. As Elizabeth Gould, team member and a professor of psychology and co-director of the Program in Neuroscience at Princeton University said, "It's not over till the last neuron dies".

"This news isn't entirely negative, though it seems to be at first glance," Gould said. "The silver lining here is that neurogenesis continues long past puberty and does not stop entirely, even in older primates. What's more, it can be stimulated with experience."

"Someday we hope this kind of research will help us discover what keeps brain cells growing, so we can both keep our minds vibrant and help people with neurodegenerative illnesses," Gould said. "In the meantime, it's safe to say that staying physically active and providing new experiences for your mind will not hurt. The brain doesn't have to stop growing."

Princeton University

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Microsoft Wants To Read Your Mind

Microsoft has filed a patent application for a mind-reader. That is, Microsoft wants to be able to read your brain waves as you use your computer. This would be accomplished with an electroencephalograph (EEG) which involves attaching electrodes to the scalp which feeds information about electrical impulses in the brain to the machine. The EEG signals contain data and patterns of data associated with brain states, which can be used to infer the existence of thought processes.

Microsoft wants to be able to judge the effectiveness of computer-user interfaces without having to rely on a question and answer format. Questions asked during use are distracting and humans poor historians, so answers to questions given following a task may be missing details or incorrect. Microsoft wants to get the information on the user's brain state before, after and during the time they are using the interface.

But lots of other non-cognitive activities going on in the brain may cause artifacts that can interfere with reading of cognitive states. To this end Microsoft is working on a way to train users in neurofeedback, for use along with other filtering to isolate the brain activity associated with use of the computer interface only. Users will be asked to think about anything, as long as they can sustain the thought and create a stable, recognizable and reproducible brain state. They will then be able to more effectively recognize cognitive brain states and filter out non-cognitive artifacts.

Read the patent application here.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Rejection and Low Self-Esteem

Low self-esteem can turn the unpleasant experience of rejection into a "fight or flight" reaction. According to a new study at UC Berkley, people with low self-esteem are less able to bounce back from social rejection and more likely to respond defensively. The study was conducted by Anett Gyurak, a graduate student and Ozlem Ayduk, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of psychology.

Subjects in the study were first given a questionnaire known as the Rosenberg self-esteem scale. They were rated as to low, normal or high self-esteem. They also completed a questionnaire on their ability to focus on tasks at hand without distraction.

The participants then viewed images with a variety of themes, positive, neutral, negative and themes of rejection. During the time they viewed the images, loud noises were sounded sporadically. The subjects were fitted with startle probes that measured eye blinks. Eye blinks accompanied the startle noise. All participants blinked more when exposed to disturbing images such as mutilated bodies or dead animals but for those with low self-esteem, eye blinks also increased when viewing themes of loneliness or rejection.

"The potency with which rejection activates the threat system in people with low self-esteem suggests that fear of rejection runs extremely deep in low self-esteem people," Gyurak said. On a more encouraging note, however, those with low self-esteem who scored higher for attention control, including the ability to focus, were able to tone down their knee-jerk reactions to perceived threats, the study found.

"These results show how maladjustment, such as low self-esteem, is determined on many levels, and that having a vulnerability factor such as low self-esteem can be overcome by the ability to control attention, opening the possibility for interventions in populations at risk for mental health problems," Ayduk said.

UC Berkeley

Friday, October 12, 2007

Keep Your Brain Alive Through Exercise

Everyone occasionally forgets where they left their car keys or the name of someone they met recently, little lapses of memory like where you parked the car can happen regardless of your age.

It's no secret that as we get older, these lapses can seem to be more frequent and we notice them more, possibly because it is normal to fear the age-related memory loss we may expect.

But we don't have to let our brains age, we can keep them fresh and active. In their book Keep Your Brain Alive Dr. Lawrence Katz, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center, and Manning Rubin, author of 60 Ways to Relieve Stress in 60 Seconds, offer 83 neurobic exercises to sharpen your mind. Exercising the brain releases neurotrophins which keep the mind active and fit.

The premise is simple. By doing things differently from your routine, you cause the brain to experience new sensations and learn new things. If you are right-handed, try brushing your teeth with your toothbrush in your left hand, for example. Close your eyes while trying to put the key in the ignition when you start your car. The book offers brain exercises that can be done at home, at work, at the market, etc. that will help you change your routine, open neural pathways, learn new ways of doing things and keep your brain alive.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Control Video Games With Your Mind

Brain-computer interfaces used to be the stuff of science fiction but the reality is just around the corner and may one day be used for more than helping paraplegics control devices. One day soon, your brainwaves may replace your thumbs in your video games. This video shows a test of a brain interface system from Emotiv.

NASA developed brain-computer interface technology back in the 90s for use in simulators. The technology has been used in medical science in the retraining of paralysis victims. Today several companies are working on similar technology to create a brain-computer interface device that will replace hand-held controllers on video game systems.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Body-mind Meditation Improves Attention, Reduces Stress

We have long known that relaxation techniques help alleviate the symptoms of stress when practiced regularly. But can Integrated Body-Mind Meditation (IBMT) do a better job of improving a person's attention and response to stress?

A team of researchers from China and the University of Oregon conducted experiments involving 40-person groups who were assigned to either five days of relaxation training or five days of IBMT training. Both groups were tested involving attention and reaction to mental stress before and after the training.

The group receiving IBMT training showed greater improvement in an attention test than did the relaxation training group. Both groups showed elevated release of the stress hormonone cortisol. After the IBMT training, subjects showed a lesser release of cortisol, which indicates better stress regulation. the IBMT-trained group also had lower levels of anxiety, depression and fatigue.

The IBMT approach was developed in the 1990s. Its effects have been studied in China since 1995. The technique avoids struggles to control thought, relying instead on a state of restful alertness, allowing for a high degree of body-mind awareness while receiving instructions from a coach, who provides breath-adjustment guidance and mental imagery while soothing music plays in the background. Thought control is achieved gradually through posture, relaxation, body-mind harmony and balanced breathing. The authors noted in the study that IBMT may be effective during short-term application because of its integrative use of these components...

In summary, the 11-member team wrote: "IBMT is an easy, effective way for improvement in self-regulation in cognition, emotion and social behavior. Our study is consistent with the idea that attention, affective processes and the quality of moment-to-moment awareness are flexible skills that can be trained."

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Video Games Increase Spatial Skills in Women

Research at the University of Toronto uncovered some unknown difference in spatial skills between men and women, but say that they have also discovered how to close the gap.

The researchers found that women are not as good as men at switching their attention among different objects and speculate that this may be a reason women do not do as well at spatial tasks as men. However, in their experiments which involved playing a video game, the researchers found that both men and women quickly improved their spatial skills and that women do catch up to the men. The improved performance was maintained when the subject were assessed again after five months.

Professor Ian Spence, director of the engineering psychology laboratory in the Department of Psychology, speculates that the action video game experience “may cause the expression of previously inactive genes which control the development of neural connections that are necessary for spatial attention. Clearly, something dramatic is happening in the brain when we see marked improvements in spatial skills after only 10 hours of game playing and these improvements are maintained for many months.”

“One important application of this research could be in helping to attract more women to the mathematical sciences and engineering. Since spatial skills play an important role in these professions, bringing the spatial skills of young women up to the level of their male counterparts could help to change the gender balance in these fields that are so important to our economic health,” Spence added.

The study will be published in the October issue of Psychological Science and was funded by October issue of Psychological Science.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Negative Influences Stronger than Positive Ones

One things humans prize above all is the ability to make up our own minds. When presented with a new product, for instance, we assume we will be able to form our own opinion of it without influence from others. However, a study at the University of Chicago seems to indicate that not only are our opinions influenced by others, we are more likely to be influenced by a negative opinion than a positive one.

The researchers gave consumers information on a new product and they were allowed to independently form opinions. Some were negative and some positive. But when presented with the opinions of others in the study, original opinions were influenced and were influenced more often by negative attitudes than positive ones. When asked to participate in a forum, those who held negative opinions initially became even more negative.

With the advent of the Internet and social networking sites, the dissemination of negative attitudes towards products could have an affect on sales for companies. But what of the implications for individuals? We should be aware that these social influences exist and can significantly impact our perceptions and attitudes.

Friday, October 5, 2007

High Uric Acid Levels Cause Mini Strokes

Uric Acid seems to play contradictory roles in the brain. On the one hand, it is a powerful anti-oxidant and may be protective against diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. But a report on a study from Johns Hopkins indicates that normal-high levels of UA may cause small and undectectable strokes that over time, lead to cognitive decline.

The study, which was published in the October 2 issue of Neurology links high levels of uric acid in the brain to an increase in areas called white matter hyperintensities, or WMH. These are small dead areas of the brain which have been oxygen-deprived.Lack of oxygen due to clots or burst blood vessels in the brain are hallmarks of classic large strokes. Over a lifetime it is common to have a number of these mini-strokes which go unnoticed, but the cumulative effect may interfere with our ability to think quickly and learn.

In the study, Schretlen and his team obtained and analyzed brain MRI scans of 85 men and 92 women between 20 and 92 years of age. All participants had normal levels of UA. However, those with high-normal levels showed 2.6 times the volume of WMH than those with average or low UA. Among subjects 60 years of age or older, those with high-normal levels of UA had four to five times the volume of WMH than others.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

What's Your Brain's Sex ID?

Men and women ARE different and it's not just the obvious differences that we can see. According to researchers, there are differences in the brain and how we think and process information although some researchers say a man can have a "woman's brain" and some women may think more like men.

If you want to find out about your "brain sex" differences, the BBC has this interesting and fun test online. The test takes a bit of time but you can come back to it more than once in order to finish. Have something handy to measure your fingers - you'll find out why when you take the test.

Take the Sex I.D. test and get the lowdown on your brain sex.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Nicotine Dependency is in the Brain

Scientists studying nicotine dependency have discovered what makes quitting so difficult and why even smokers who have abstained for a long period may still relapse. 80% of persons who quit smoking relapse within one year.

Experiments with rats at the Scripps Research Koob lab revealed that chronic nicotine use recruits a major brain stress system, the extrahypothalamic corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) system, which contributes to continued tobacco use by exacerbating anxiety and craving upon withdrawal. By administering a compound that blocked the receptors involved in this stress system, researchers found it alleviated withdrawal symptoms.

"We reduced the need to take nicotine by blocking CRF-1 receptors in the brain. We were surprised by the compound's dramatic effectiveness. We don't know yet if the same mechanism is involved in humans with tobacco dependence, but it is very promising," said Olivier George, a research associate in the Scripps Research Koob lab who conducted the study with Sandy Ghozland and other colleagues.

"The key in nicotine addiction is that the positive pleasurable effects of nicotine are instantaneous and short lasting, while the negative effects are delayed and long lasting. Even if nicotine may transiently induce a relief from a negative emotional state, its long-term consequences are disastrous," he added.

In the study it was found that rats deprived of nicotine, overloaded on it when allowed to self-administer. This overloading caused them to take in an amount of nicotine in only six hours that previously would have been spread out over 12 hours. This is the equivalent of a light smoker who, after quitting, relapses and becomes a chain smoker.

The research indicates that future nicotine withdrawal treatments may not be dependent on nicotine replacements like gum and the patch.

The study has been published in an advance online issue of the Journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Monday, October 1, 2007

Seasonal Affective Disorder - Why are you SAD?

As the days grow shorter in the northern hemisphere with the onset of fall and its transition into winter, everyone laments the loss of those bright, sunny days of summer. But for some, the changing of the seasons can bring depression, listlessness, anxiety, withdrawal and even trouble with concentration and the processing of information. The cause? SAD, or seasonal affective disorder.

It is estimated that one in five Americans suffers from some changes in mood or behavior from the change of the seasons but an estimated 6% display the more serious symptoms of SAD. The occurrence of the disorder is measurably higher in the more northern latitudes such as the Arctic and Scandanavia.

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression. Researchers have several theories on why it occurs. It may be the dearth of sunlight interferes with our natural circadean rhytms and throws of our body's natural interal biological clock. Some researchers have investigated the roles that melatonin and serotonin production may play in the disorder. The production of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, increases during long winter nights and has been tied to depression. Serotonin, essential for mood regulation, sees its levels drop in periods of reduced sunlight.

Whatever the cause, there are treatments available. These can include light therapy, medications such as antidepressants and supportive psychological counseling. If you believe you are suffering from the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, consult your health practitioner for screening and diagnosis.

According to the Mayo clinic, these are some of the symptoms of SAD:

* Depression
* Hopelessness
* Anxiety
* Loss of energy
* Social withdrawal
* Oversleeping
* Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
* Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
* Weight gain
* Difficulty concentrating and processing information

The symptoms and risks of seasonal affective disorder can wreak havoc in the life of the sufferer and possibly lead to serious complications, including substance abuse and suicide. Seek the advice of a doctor or other health professional.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Carbs Help You Think

Following a lower-calorie diet causes improvement in mood regardless of whether it is of the low-fat, high-carb variety or a diet with lower carbs and higher fat intake. But the diet that seems to improve your cognitive abilities is the one with higher carbohydrate intake.

Research done at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization-Human Nutrition, in Adelaide, Australia, found that those eating a higher carb diet performed better on intelligence and reasoning tests.

The study done on overweight adults measured mood and cognitive abilities after they were put on either a high-carb, low-fat diet or a high-fat low carb diet. Mood improved with reduced body weight in both groups but the group eating more carbohydrates showed slight improvement in cognitive function.


Friday, September 28, 2007

Time of Day Influences Learning

Studies on mammals have suggested that their ability to learn varies with the time of day and that for humans, disruption of their biological clocks can hamper learning at particular times of the day. A study at Vanderbilt University has found that for cockroaches, their ability to learn and retain information peaks at night, and is much lessened in the morning hours.

The article, Cockroaches are morons in the morning, details experiments with teaching cockroaches to prefer the scent of peppermint by associating it with sugar water. Those that were trained at night retained this information for several days, as did those trained in the evening. But cockroaches trained in the morning were unable to form a memory.

“Studies like this suggest that time of day can have a profound impact, at least in certain situations. By studying the way the biological clock modulates learning and memory we may learn more about how these processes take place and what can influence them."

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Brain Network for Intelligence Identified

We all know intelligence is a function of the brain, but where in the brain is it found? Researchers looking for the seat of intelligence have discovered a pathway that information in the brain follows. Their Parieto-Frontal Integration Theory (P-FIT) identifies a brain network related to intelligence, one that primarily involves areas in the frontal and the parietal lobes.

The findings are the result of a review of 37 imaging studies related to intelligence by Richard Haier of the University of California, Irvine and Rex Jung of the University of New Mexico .

“Recent neuroscience studies suggest that intelligence is related to how well information travels throughout the brain,” said Haier, a professor of psychology in the School of Medicine and longtime human intelligence researcher. “Our review of imaging studies identifies the stations along the routes intelligent information processing takes. Once we know where the stations are, we can study how they relate to intelligence.”

The report includes peer commentary from 19 researchers and appears online in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Teaching Old Dogs (and Humans) New Tricks

We have all heard the saying: "You can't teach an old dog new tricks". But according to a study at Oregon State University, researchers found that the addition of two supplements to an older dog's diet did increase his ability to learn new tasks, and they think they may have the same effect in humans.

The two supplements, acetyl-l-carnitine and alpha lipoic acide are antioxidants that are believed to play a role in slowing mitochondrial decay in the cell.

In the tests, one group of dogs was given the supplements and another were given a normal diet. After 15 weeks of training, 80% of the dogs receiving supplements were able to learn the new task while only 50% of those on normal diets succeeded.

The scientists suggested in the paper that long-term supplementation “may be effective in attenuating age-associated cognitive decline by slowing the rate of mitochondrial decay and cellular aging.” Enhancing the function of mitochondria - which provide almost all of a cell’s energy - could literally be providing animals with more “mental energy,” leading to improved memory and learning, the study indicated. The compounds may also cause increased synthesis of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine.

The beneficial effects were seen within only days or weeks of being given the supplements.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Obesity in Old Age Does Not Cause Memory Problems

Obesity in middle age carries a health risk that includes a higher risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Past studies have also indicated that obesity in middle age increases a person's risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer's disease. But a six-year study of 3,885 people over the age of 65 found that obesity in old age was not a risk factor for Alzheimer's.

In fact, the results of this study agree with earlier studies that found a correlation between a low BMI (body mass index) and Alzheimer's.

"While past studies have found obesity in middle age increases a person's risk for dementia or Alzheimer's disease, our findings show obesity in old age has no effect on a person's memory. These findings are consistent with previous studies showing that weight loss or low BMI in old age may be a precursor of cognitive decline or Alzheimer's disease."

The study was supported by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Environmental Health Science and published by the American Academy of Neurology.


Monday, September 24, 2007

Music Training Enhances Verbal Skills

Musical training may be more important than phonics in learning language and communication skills, says a Northwestern University study.

Studying music enhanced sound encoding mechanisms that are also relevant for speech. In the Northwestern Study, scalp electrodes worn by test subjects fed data on multi-sensory brain responses to a cellist playing and a person speaking.

“Audiovisual processing was much enhanced in musicians’ brains compared to non-musician counterparts, and musicians also were more sensitive to subtle changes in both speech and music sounds,” said Nina Kraus, Hugh Knowles Professor of Communication Sciences and Neurobiology and director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, where the work was performed. “Our study indicates that the high-level cognitive processing of music affects automatic processing that occurs early in the processing stream and fundamentally shapes sensory circuitry.”

Music Training Linked to Enhanced Verbal Skills

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sound Space Region of Brain Mapped

Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem believe they have identified a region of the brain responsible for perceiving "sound space". "Sound space" refers to the location from which sounds originate, an ability the listener displays, even when concentrating on something else.

In tests, subjects watched a movie with the sound turned off or were give button-pushing tasks while wearing headphones. The subjects were instructed to ignore the sounds they were being played through the headphones and to concentrate on the other tasks. The headphones had the ability to present a large variety of sounds with accurate reproduction of sound location. During the test, the brains of the subjects were scanned with functional MRI.

The researchers found that the planum temporale, which was previously thought to be responsible for only intentional processing of information was activated when bursts of noise were played to the subjects in the test. The researchers concluded that the planum temporale was responsible for automatic and non-intentional processing of sound location as well as intentional processing.

Atrophy in Older Brains Decreases Inhibitions

Do changes in the brain as we age lead to more depression, racism and compulsive behaviors like gambling?

According to a study published in the October issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, the atrophy in the frontal lobes of aging brains makes it more difficult to control unwanted thoughts and behaviours.

These inhibitory losses may also cause socially inappropriate behaviors, such as asking personal questions in a public setting. Although the older adults knew that to ask questions about private issues, like weight, family problems and such were socially inappropriate, they were more likely to break those social rules.