Tag Archive: Brain


defense-large

Scientists funded by the Defense Department have just announced a breakthrough that could allow researchers to create in 220 days an extremely detailed picture of the brain that previously would have taken 80 years of scans to complete.

The military has been looking to build better brain hacks for decades with results that ranged form the frightening to the comical. This latest development could revolutionize the study of the brain but also the national security applications of neuroscience.

Scientists at Stanford University who developed the new way to see the brain in greater detail, outlined in the journal Nature Protocols, said that it could mark a new era of rapid brain imaging, allowing researchers to see in much greater detail not only how parts of the brain interact on a cellular level but also to better understand those interactions across the entire brain.

“I absolutely believe this is going to transform the way that we study the brain and how we perform neuroscience research,” said Justin Sanchez, program manager for the Neuro Function, Activity, Structure, and Technology, or Neuro-FAST, program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which funded the research. “What we’re saying here today is that we can develop new technology that changes how we observe and interact with the circuits of the brain.”

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magnetic resonance imaging, xray

Brain scans are now starting to peer down to the molecular level, revealing what brain cells are telling one another, researchers say.

This new technique could illuminate the behavior of the human brain at its most fundamental level, yielding insights on disorders such as addiction, the scientists added. Right now the technique has been tested only on rats.

“This demonstrates a new way to study the brain — no one has ever mapped brain activity in this way before,” said study author Alan Jasanoff, a bioengineer and neuroscientist at MIT.

One of the key ways researchers use to scan brains is magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. These scanners immerse people in strong magnetic fields and then hit them with radio waves, encouraging atoms — usually hydrogen atoms — to emit signals that yield insights on the body.

By using MRIs to look at the hydrogen atoms in water, scientists can follow the flow of blood in the brain, shedding light on brain activity. However, this strategy, known as functional MRI, or fMRI, essentially reveals only what parts of the brain are talking, not what different areas of the brain are saying to each other.

Now scientists are using novel molecules that can help them use fMRI to see what specific messages brain cells are sending each other.

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This image shows an astrocyte.

Scientists studying brain diseases may need to look beyond nerve cells and start paying attention to the star-shaped cells known as “astrocytes,” because they play specialized roles in the development and maintenance of nerve circuits and may contribute to a wide range of disorders, according to a new study by UC San Francisco researchers.

In a study published online April 28, 2014 in Nature, the researchers report that malfunctioning astrocytes might contribute to neurodegenerative disorders such as Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), and perhaps even to developmental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.

David Rowitch, MD, PhD, UCSF professor of pediatrics and neurosurgery and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, led the research.

The researchers discovered in mice that a particular form of astrocyte within the spinal cord secretes a protein needed for survival of the nerve circuitry that controls reflexive movements. This discovery is the first demonstration that different types of astrocytes exist to support development and survival of distinct nerve circuits at specific locations within the central nervous system.

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ravenous_brain_rect

Scientists have developed an “off-switch” for the brain to effectively shut down neural activity using light pulses.

In 2005, Stanford scientist Karl Deisseroth discovered how to switch individual brain cells on and off by using light in a technique he dubbed ‘optogenetics’.

Research teams around the world have since used this technique to study brain cells, heart cells, stem cells and others regulated by electrical signals.

However, light-sensitive proteins were efficient at switching cells on but proved less effective at turning them off.

Now, after almost a decade of research, scientists have been able to shut down the neurons as well as activate them.

Mr Deisseroth’s team has now re-engineered its light-sensitive proteins to switch cells much more adequately than before. His findings are presented in the journal Science.

Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded the study, said this improved “off” switch will help researchers to better understand the brain circuits involved in behavior, thinking and emotion.

“This is something we and others in the field have sought for a very long time,” Mr Deisseroth, a senior author of the paper and professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioural sciences said.

“We’re excited about this increased light sensitivity of inhibition in part because we think it will greatly enhance work in large-brained organisms like rats and primates.”

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Illustration by Jamie Cullen.

Sitting in a small, computer-lined room trying to remember a succession of different-coloured words scrolling past on a screen doesn’t sound like the cutting edge of scientific research. However, academics at the University of East London are using word tests to assess the impact synaesthesia can have on memory – and the potential it might have to ward off the decline in cognitive function that can affect the elderly.

Synaesthesia, the neurological condition that causes a blending of the senses – colours can be connected to letters and numbers, smells and tastes to music or touch to vision – has long been linked to creativity: famous synaesthetes include Sibelius and more recently Pharrell Williams.

But among the wider population it has remained a mysterious condition, although it is known to affect at least 4.4% of adults across its many forms.

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Illustration of an astrocyte

Everything we do — all of our movements, thoughts and feelings – are the result of neurons talking with one another, and recent studies have suggested that some of the conversations might not be all that private. Brain cells known as astrocytes may be listening in on, or even participating in, some of those discussions. But a new mouse study suggests that astrocytes might only be tuning in part of the time — specifically, when the neurons get really excited about something. This research, published in Neuron, was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health.

For a long time, researchers thought that the star-shaped astrocytes (the name comes from the Greek word for star) were simply support cells for the neurons.

It turns out that these cells have a number of important jobs, including providing nutrients and signaling molecules to neurons, regulating blood flow, and removing brain chemicals called neurotransmitters from the synapse. The synapse is the point of information transfer between two neurons. At this connection point, neurotransmitters are released from one neuron to affect the electrical properties of the other. Long arms of astrocytes are located next to synapses, where they can keep tabs on the conversations going on between neurons.

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If you thought the post on twins sharing consciousness was awesome, wait until you hear this.

A 44-year-old French man one day went to the trip to the doctor’s because he felt a pain in his left leg. He’s a married man with two kids and a steady job. Doctor’s found that he had hydrocephalus as a child (when your brain is filled with fluids) so they decided to run some brain scans.

What they found was that the majority of his head was filled with fluid. Over time, the buildup caused his lateral ventricles to swell so much that his brain had been flattened to a thin sheet. Doctors estimated that his brain mass had been reduced by at most 70%, affecting the areas in charge of motion, language, emotion, and, well, everything.

Shockingly, he was fine. While his IQ was only 75, he wasn’t mentally challenged. He held a steady job, raised a family, and didn’t have trouble interacting with others. Over time, his brain had adapted to all that pressure, and even though he had fewer neurons that most, Jacques was still a fully functional human being. The doctors drained the fluid and while his brain is much smaller now, he is still a healthy individual with a normal life.

3D Brain Visualizations Let People Watch Their Neurons Firing In Real-Time [Video]

Philip Rosedale, creator of Second Life, and Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California San Francisco, have created a way for you to see each thought as it flies through your mind. The Glass Brain project was on display at SXSW, and gave visitors a chance to see how their brains react to different stimuli.

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Scientists unlock mystery of out-of-body experiences (aka astral trips)

Some people claim that they have experienced out-of-body experiences—aka “astral trips”—floating outside of their bodies and watching themselves from the outside. A team of scientists found someone who says she can do this at will and put her into a brain scanner. What they discovered was surprisingly strange.

Andra M. Smith and Claude Messierwere from the University of Ottawa described this subject’s ability in their paper, published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience:

She was able to see herself rotating in the air above her body, lying flat, and rolling along with the horizontal plane. She reported sometimes watching herself move from above but remained aware of her unmoving “real” body. The participant reported no particular emotions linked to the experience.

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Why does the brain remember dreams?

Some people recall a dream every morning, whereas others rarely recall one. A team led by Perrine Ruby, an Inserm Research Fellow at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center, has studied the brain activity of these two types of dreamers in order to understand the differences between them. In a study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, the researchers show that the temporo-parietal junction, an information-processing hub in the brain, is more active in high dream recallers. Increased activity in this brain region might facilitate attention orienting toward external stimuli and promote intrasleep wakefulness, thereby facilitating the encoding of dreams in memory.

Jonction-temporo-parietal

The reason for dreaming is still a mystery for the researchers who study the difference between “high dream recallers,” who recall dreams regularly, and “low dream recallers,” who recall dreams rarely. In January 2013, the team led by Perrine Ruby, Inserm researcher at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center, made the following two observations: “high dream recallers” have twice as many time of wakefulness during sleep as “low dream recallers” and their brains are more reactive to auditory stimuli during sleep and wakefulness. This increased brain reactivity may promote awakenings during the night, and may thus facilitate memorisation of dreams during brief periods of wakefulness.

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The Alpha IMS retinal prosthesis, implanted in a human patient

DARPA, at the behest of the US Department of Defense, is developing a black box brain implant — an implant that will be wired into a soldier’s brain and record their memories. If the soldier then suffers memory loss due to brain injury, the implant will then be used to restore those memories. The same implant could also be used during training or in the line of duty, too — as we’ve reported on in the past, stimulating the right regions of the brain can improve how quickly you learn new skills, reduce your reaction times, and more.

The project, which DARPA has wittily named Restoring Active Memory, is currently at the stage where it’s seeking proposals from commercial companies that have previously had success with brain implants, such as Medtronic. As yet, we don’t know who has submitted proposals to DARPA, but it’ll probably be the usual suspects. Medtronic, which creates deep-brain simulation (DBS) implants that are almost miraculous in their ability to control the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease (video embedded below), is surely interested. Brown University, which famously created a brain-computer interface that is implanted into the brain and communicates wirelessly with a nearby computer, must be a contender. Companies with big R&D budgets, like IBM and GE, might be involved as well.

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New research suggests children have a strong sense they existed before they were conceived.

womb

We’ve all ruminated about the possibility of life after death. But what about the notion of life before birth—or even conception?

While Christian theology denies such a thing is possible, the concept that life precedes physical fertilization is a given for people who believe in reincarnation. But is such an idea learned? Or is it based on an innate feeling about our own immortality?

Newly published research that analyzes answers given by two groups of children—one urban, one rural—suggests the latter. It finds youngsters intuitively believe that their own existence, at least in the form of feelings and wants, pre-dated their conception.

“Even kids who had biological knowledge about reproduction still seemed to think that they had existed in some sort of eternal form,” lead author Natalie Emmons, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Boston University, told the institution’s news service. “And that form really seemed to be about emotions and desires.”

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A review and update of a controversial 20-year-old theory of consciousness published in Physics of Life Reviews claims that consciousness derives from deeper level, finer scale activities inside brain neurons. The recent discovery of quantum vibrations in “microtubules” inside brain neurons corroborates this theory, according to review authors Stuart Hameroff and Sir Roger Penrose. They suggest that EEG rhythms (brain waves) also derive from deeper level microtubule vibrations, and that from a practical standpoint, treating brain microtubule vibrations could benefit a host of mental, neurological, and cognitive conditions.

The theory, called “orchestrated objective reduction” (‘Orch OR’), was first put forward in the mid-1990s by eminent mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose, FRS, Mathematical Institute and Wadham College, University of Oxford, and prominent anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, MD, Anesthesiology, Psychology and Center for Consciousness Studies, The University of Arizona, Tucson. They suggested that quantum vibrational computations in microtubules were “orchestrated” (“Orch”) by synaptic inputs and memory stored in microtubules, and terminated by Penrose “objective reduction” (‘OR’), hence “Orch OR.” Microtubules are major components of the cell structural skeleton.

Orch OR was harshly criticized from its inception, as the brain was considered too “warm, wet, and noisy” for seemingly delicate quantum processes.. However, evidence has now shown warm quantum coherence in plant photosynthesis, bird brain navigation, our sense of smell, and brain microtubules. The recent discovery of warm temperature quantum vibrations in microtubules inside brain neurons by the research group led by Anirban Bandyopadhyay, PhD, at the National Institute of Material Sciences in Tsukuba, Japan (and now at MIT), corroborates the pair’s theory and suggests that EEG rhythms also derive from deeper level microtubule vibrations. In addition, work from the laboratory of Roderick G. Eckenhoff, MD, at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that anesthesia, which selectively erases consciousness while sparing non-conscious brain activities, acts via microtubules in brain neurons.

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Supercomputer takes 40 mins to calculate a single second of human brain activity

One of the world’s largest supercomputers has accurately mapped one second’s worth of activity in a human brain, in what researchers claim is the most accurate simulation to date.

Scientists in Japan simulated one per cent of the neuronal network in the brain using the K computer, the fourth most powerful supercomputer in the world.

With 705,024 processor cores and 1.4 million GB of RAM at its disposal, the K computer took 40 minutes to model the data in a project designed to test the ability of the supercomputer and gauge the limits of brain simulation.

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A new study suggests the existence of a state of mind called dysanaesthesia, which is neither consciousness nor unconsciousness.

Man in a coma

With anesthetics properly given, very few patients wake up during surgery. However, new findings point to the possibility of a state of mind in which a patient is neither fully conscious nor unconscious, experts say.
This possible third state of consciousness, may be a state in which patients can respond to a command, but are not disturbed by pain or the surgery, according to Dr. Jaideep Pandit, anesthetist at St John’s College in England.
Pandit dubbed this state dysanaesthesia, and said the evidence that it exists comes partly from a recent study, in which 34 surgical patients were anesthetized, and had their whole body paralyzed except for their forearm, allowing them to move their fingers in response to commands or to signify if they are awake or in pain during surgery.

Can inhaled stem cells fix your brain?

In certain neurosurgical procedures, like fixing pituitary glands, surgeons can remove a tumor through the nose with minimal damage to surrounding tissue. It turns out, that passing things in the other direction—into the brain through an intranasal route—has many advantages too. Everything from drugs, proteins, and gene vectors, to stem cells, can now by administered in this way. The major question for today, is not so much what do these agents do, but where do they go once they are inside? StemGenex, a La Jolla-based company, has recently announced their new hopes for a treatment which could potentially address several neurological diseases. They are now offering a therapy for patients with multiple sclerosis in based on the intranasal delivery of mesenchymal stem cells.

The preferred medical term for act of snorting is insufflation. While insufflation is an obvious choice to deliver drugs to the sinuses or lungs, it is now appreciated that many bioactive agents can get much further than that. One major advantage of this method is the low barrier of entry through the mucous membranes into the bloodstream. Although some pro-drugs, like codeine, require absorption through the gut to pass to the liver where they can be metabolized into an active form, many other drugs are compromised by a digestive passage. What’s more important though here for the brain, is that the normally-intact blood brain barrier can by bypassed either by slipping around the perineural sheath cells, or getting endocytosed and retrogradely transported along either the olfactory nerves, or the trigeminal nerves.

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Your Brain Sees Things You Don’t

A new study by UA doctoral student Jay Sanguinetti indicates that our brains perceive objects in everyday life of which we may never be aware. The finding challenges currently accepted models about how the brain processes visual information.

A look inside the mind: Davi Vitela dons a cap used to take EEG scans of her brain activity while she views a series of images. Jay Sanguinetti's study indicates that our minds perceive objects in everyday life of which we are never consciously aware. (Photo by Patrick McArdle/UANews)

University of Arizona doctoral degree candidate Jay Sanguinetti has authored a new study, published online in the journal Psychological Science, that indicates that the brain processes and understands visusal input that we may never consciously perceive.

The finding challenges currently accepted models about how the brain processes visual information.

A doctoral candidate in the UA’s Department of Psychology in the College of Science, Sanguinetti showed study participants a series of black silhouettes, some of which contained meaningful, real-world objects hidden in the white spaces on the outsides.

Saguinetti worked with his adviser Mary Peterson, a professor of psychology and director of the UA’s Cognitive Science Program, and with John Allen, a UA Distinguished Professor of psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience, to monitor subjects’ brainwaves with an electroencephalogram, or EEG, while they viewed the objects.

“We were asking the question of whether the brain was processing the meaning of the objects that are on the outside of these silhouettes,” Sanguinetti said. “The specific question was, ‘Does the brain process those hidden shapes to the level of meaning, even when the subject doesn’t consciously see them?”

The answer, Sanguinetti’s data indicates, is yes.

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have demonstrated that our brains could process new situations by relying on a method similar to the “pointer” system used by computers.

Pointers are used to tell a computer where to look for information stored elsewhere in the system.

For the study, the research team relied on sentences with words used in unique ways to test the brain’s ability to understand the role familiar words play in a sentence even when those words are used in unfamiliar, and even nonsensical, ways.

For example, in the sentence, “I want to desk you,” we understand the word “desk” is being used as a verb even though our past experience with the word “desk” is as a noun.

“The fact that you understand that the sentence is grammatically well formed means you can process these completely novel inputs,” said Randall O’Reilly, a professor in CU-Boulder’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and co-author of the study.

This shows that human brains are able to understand the sentence as a structure with variables — a subject, a verb and often, an object — and that the brain can assign a wide variety of words to those variables and still understand the sentence structure.

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In 2005, artist Jennifer Kanary’s sister-in-law committed suicide while suffering from a psychotic episode. This event led Kanary to develop Labyrinth Psychotica, an experience designed to give people more insight into how it feels to suffer through psychosis.

Users are strapped into virtual reality gear and transported into the mind of a psychotic girl named Jamie. The whole experience lasts twelve minutes, during which ‘normal’ reality gets increasingly intertwined with Jamie’s psychotic reality, making it more and more difficult to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not.

With Labyrinth Psychotica, Kanary wants to provide family members and mental healthcare workers with means to better understand what someone in a psychotic state goes through. She hopes this will lead to more understanding and better treatments.

According to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science, the width of blood vessels in the retina – a light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye – may indicate brain health.

A schematic section through the human eye with a schematic enlargement of the retina (University of Utah)

A schematic section through the human eye with a schematic enlargement of the retina (University of Utah)

Previous studies showed that younger people who score low on intelligence tests, such as IQ, tend to be at higher risk for poorer health and shorter lifespan.

In the current study, psychological scientists led by Dr Idan Shalev of Duke University wondered whether intelligence might serve as a marker indicating the health of the brain, and specifically the health of the system of blood vessels that provides oxygen and nutrients to the brain.

To investigate the potential link between intelligence and brain health, they borrowed a technology from a somewhat unexpected domain – ophthalmology.

The team used digital retinal imaging to gain a window onto vascular conditions in the brain by looking at the small blood vessels of the retina. Retinal blood vessels share similar size, structure, and function with blood vessels in the brain and can provide a way of examining brain health in living humans.

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