Researchers have pinpointed a catalytic trigger for the onset of Alzheimer’s disease – when the fundamental structure of a protein molecule changes to cause a chain reaction that leads to the death of neurons in the brain.
For the first time, scientists at Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry have been able to map in detail the pathway that generates “aberrant” forms of proteins which are at the root of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
They believe the breakthrough is a vital step closer to increased capabilities for earlier diagnosis of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and opens up possibilities for a new generation of targeted drugs, as scientists say they have uncovered the earliest stages of the development of Alzheimer’s that drugs could possibly target.
The study, published today in the journal PNAS, is a milestone in the long-term research established in Cambridge by Professor Christopher Dobson and his colleagues, following the realisation by Dobson of the underlying nature of protein ‘misfolding’ and its connection with disease over 15 years ago.
The research is likely to have a central role to play in diagnostic and drug development for dementia-related diseases, which are increasingly prevalent and damaging as populations live longer.
“There are no disease modifying therapies for Alzheimer’s and dementia at the moment, only limited treatment for symptoms. We have to solve what happens at the molecular level before we can progress and have real impact,” said Dr Tuomas Knowles, lead author of the study and long-time collaborator of Professor Dobson.
“We’ve now established the pathway that shows how the toxic species that cause cell death, the oligomers, are formed. This is the key pathway to detect, target and intervene – the molecular catalyst that underlies the pathology.”
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On “probably the most exciting day” of David Keays’ life, his research team found microscopic iron balls in the thinly sliced neurons of a pigeon’s inner ear. For four years, Keays’ team had been searching for the cellular receptor that allows birds to sense magnetic fields. This ability allows some birds to migrate thousands of miles, but no scientist has definitively found the anatomical structure responsible.
In May of last year, however, a study published in the journal Science suggested that pigeons sense magnetic fields with neurons in their inner ears. So Keays, of the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna, and his colleagues looked in this region, and all of the sudden, they struck iron. (Keays’ team was looking for this metal since it’s one of the few substances in the body that is magnetic.)
“As far as we know, they are the only iron-rich sensory neurons that have been described … and this is why it’s such an exciting discovery,” Keays told LiveScience.
These iron-containing membranes were found inside so-called “hair cells,” which play a role in hearing and sensing movement and acceleration. So far, it’s unclear exactly what they do, although Keays said the iron-imbued neurons are the most promising candidates for explaining birds’ ability to sense Earth’s magnetic field.
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While we all can appreciate getting some peace and quiet every now and then, you might be surprised to learn that there’s only so much of it the brain can take.
That’s what scientists have discovered based on the reported experiences of those who have spent some quality alone time in Orfield Laboratory’s anechoic chamber, a room that’s so soundproof, it’s officially listed as the “Quietest place on earth,” according to Guinness World Records.
Located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the acoustic chamber is comprised of 3.3-foot-thick fiberglass acoustic wedges, double walls of insulated steel and foot-thick concrete, which enables it to be 99.99 per cent sound absorbent with a decibal rating of −9.4 dBA. Any sounds below the threshold of 0 dBA is undetectable by the human ear. And at such a low decibal level, the environment becomes so disconcerting that people have actually started to hallucinate.
“When it’s quiet, ears will adapt. The quieter the room, the more things you hear. You’ll hear your heart beating, sometimes you can hear your lungs, hear your stomach gurgling loudly, Steven Orfield, the lab’s President and founder, told The Daily Mail. “In the anechoic chamber, you become the sound.”
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A group at Tokyo Institute of Technology, led by Dr. Osamu Hasegawa, has succeeded in making further advances with SOINN, their machine learning algorithm, which can now use the internet to learn how to perform new tasks. The system, which is under development as an artificial brain for autonomous mental development robots, is currently being used to learn about objects in photos using image searches on the internet. It can also take aspects of other known objects and combine them to make guesses about objects it doesn’t yet recognize.
The adventurous among us have been hunting for the fountain of youth since the dark ages. As it turns out, it just might exist, though not in Bimini or Florida, as we once thought. It exists in our brains. Specifically, the hypothalamus, because it is there, that resides a peculiar signaling pathway — one like no other that we have discovered to date.
This pathway has the power to slow down or speed up the aging process. No foolin’. It’s already been proven to do so in mice. By messing with this pathway’s ability to do its job (which just might be to age you faster than you would without it) researchers have extended the lives of lab mice by 20 percent. And these mice didn’t just live longer. They lived younger. They remained youthful and vibrant longer than a mouse has any warrant to.
From a scientific point of view, it all comes down to the blocking of a particular protein complex named NF-κB (short for “nuclear factor kappa-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells”). NF-κB, when activated, speeds up aging by blocking the gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). By injecting the brain with GnRH and simultaneously blocking NF-κB, scientists have effectively struck a two-punch combo against aging and death itself. Even mental aging showed signs of slowing down.
What’s more, this might only be the tip of the iceberg. The team of scientists, based out of Johns Hopkins University, who discovered this scientific “fountain of youth” doesn’t quite yet have a handle on exactly how NF-κB and GnRH do what they do and whether or not this applies to humans. Theoretically, they surmise, further understanding of the process could eventually lead to reversing the cellular aging process, leaving your cells as healthy as they were the day you were born. Now that’s a fountain of youth we can get behind.
A glimpse of consciousness emerging in the brains of babies has been recorded for the first time. Insights gleaned from the work may aid the monitoring of babies under anaesthesia, and give a better understanding of awareness in people in vegetative states – and possibly even in animals.
The human brain develops dramatically in a baby’s first year, transforming the baby from being unaware to being fully engaged with its surroundings. To capture this change, Sid Kouider at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, France, and colleagues used electroencephalography (EEG) to record electrical activity in the brains of 80 infants while they were briefly shown pictures of faces.
In adults, awareness of a stimulus is known to be linked to a two-stage pattern of brain activity. Immediately after a visual stimulus is presented, areas of the visual cortex fire. About 300 milliseconds later other areas light up, including the prefrontal cortex, which deals with higher-level cognition. Conscious awareness kicks in only after the second stage of neural activity reaches a specific threshold. “It’s an all-or-nothing response,” says Kouider.
Adults can verbally describe being aware of a stimulus, but a baby is a closed book. “We have learned a lot about consciousness in people who can talk about it, but very little in those who cannot,” says Tristan Bekinschtein at the University of Cambridge, who was not involved in the work.
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Neuroscientists at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) have taken a major step in their efforts to help people with memory loss tied to brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Using sea snail nerve cells, the scientists reversed memory loss by determining when the cells were primed for learning. The scientists were able to help the cells compensate for memory loss by retraining them through the use of optimized training schedules. Findings of this proof-of-principle study appear in the April 17 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.
“Although much works remains to be done, we have demonstrated the feasibility of our new strategy to help overcome memory deficits,” said John “Jack” Byrne, Ph.D., the study’s senior author, as well as director of the W.M. Keck Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and chairman of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the UTHealth Medical School.
This latest study builds on Byrne’s 2012 investigation that pioneered this memory enhancement strategy. The 2012 study showed a significant increase in long-term memory in healthy sea snails called Aplysia californica, an animal that has a simple nervous system, but with cells having properties similar to other more advanced species including humans.
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Specific DNA once dismissed as junk plays an important role in brain development and might be involved in several devastating neurological diseases, UC San Francisco scientists have found.
Their discovery in mice is likely to further fuel a recent scramble by researchers to identify roles for long-neglected bits of DNA within the genomes of mice and humans alike.
While researchers have been busy exploring the roles of proteins encoded by the genes identified in various genome projects, most DNA is not in genes. This so-called junk DNA has largely been pushed aside and neglected in the wake of genomic gene discoveries, the UCSF scientists said.
In their own research, the UCSF team studies molecules called long noncoding RNA (lncRNA, often pronounced as “link” RNA), which are made from DNA templates in the same way as RNA from genes.
“The function of these mysterious RNA molecules in the brain is only beginning to be discovered,” said Daniel Lim, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurological surgery, a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF, and the senior author of the study, published online April 11 in the journal Cell Stem Cell.
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Listening to new music is rewarding for the brain, a study suggests.
Using MRI scans, a Canadian team of scientists found that areas in the reward centre of the brain became active when people heard a song for the first time.
The more the listener enjoyed what they were hearing, the stronger the connections were in the region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.
The study is published in the journal Science.
Dr Valorie Salimpoor, from the Rotman Research Institute, in Toronto, told the BBC’s Science in Action programme: “We know that the nucleus accumbens is involved with reward.
“But music is abstract: It’s not like you are really hungry and you are about to get a piece of food and you are really excited about it because you are going to eat it – or the same thing applies to sex or money – that’s when you would normally see activity in the nucleus accumbens.
“But what’s cool is that you’re anticipating and getting excited over something entirely abstract – and that’s the next sound that is coming up.”
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Scientists report that the meditating brain can control core body temperature, a finding that could help in boosting immunity to fight infectious diseases or immunodeficiency.
A team of researchers led by Associate Professor Maria Kozhevnikov from the Department of Psychology at the National University of Singapore (NUS) studied Tibetan nuns practising a form of meditation known as g-tummo.
G-tummo meditation is believed by adherents to control “inner energy”. Tibetan practitioners consider g-tummo meditation as one of the most sacred spiritual practices in the region and monasteries maintaining g-tummo traditions are very rare, mostly located in the remote areas of eastern Tibet.
The scientists observed a unique ceremony in Tibet, where meditating nuns were able to raise their core body temperature and dry up wet sheets wrapped around their bodies in the cold Himalayan weather of minus 25 degree Celsius.
While g-tummo meditation practitioners have been studied before, previous results showed only increases in peripheral body temperature in the fingers and toes. Now, publishing in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers document reliable core body temperature increases in the meditating Tibetan nuns.
Using electroencephalography (EEG) recordings and temperature measures, the team observed increases in core body temperature up to 38.3 degree Celsius. A second study was conducted with Western participants who used a breathing technique of the g-tummo meditative practice and they were also able to increase their core body temperature, within limits.
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A team of neuroscientists announced a pretty cool creation on Wednesday: a completely transparent brain. Using a new technique involving something called hydrogel, the visionary crew turned an entire mouse brain into a rather durable substance that has the consistency of transparent jello. The best part? It still works (for the most part). They call it Clarity.
This is a big deal. The new see-through brains aren’t exactly functional enough to serve as transplants, but the new technique does maintain the brain’s basic biochemistry. That means that scientists can inject it with chemicals with dye attached and watch what happens. In the past, the main way scientists could see what was happening inside of a brain in real time was through the two-dimension MRI images, which has its limitations. The transparent brains offer a third dimension and a sense of perspective that science has never before seen.
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Instead of typing your password, in the future you may only have to think your password, according to School of Information researchers. A new study explores the feasibility of brainwave-based computer authentication as a substitute for passwords.
The project was led by School of Information professor John Chuang, along with Hamilton Nguyen, an undergraduate student in electrical engineering and computer science; Charles Wang, a first-year I School MIMS student; and Benjamin Johnson, formerly a postdoctoral scholar at the I School. Chuang presented the team’s findings this week at the 2013 Workshop on Usable Security at the Seventeenth International Conference on Financial Cryptography and Data Security in Okinawa, Japan. Since the 1980s, computer scientists have proposed the use of biometrics for computer authentication.
Systems requiring fingerprint scans, retina scans, or facial or voice recognition are far more secure than passwords, since fingerprints are hard to forget and harder to steal. But such systems are also slow, intrusive, and expensive. Biometric authentication has never gained wide acceptance; other than a few high-security settings, it remains more science fiction than science fact. In recent years, security researchers have proposed using electroencephalograms (EEGs), or brainwave measurements, for computer authentication, replacing passwords with “pass-thoughts.”
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Metacognition, or the ability to think about thinking, is not an ability solely limited to humans according to a new study. Scientists at Georgia State University and the University of Buffalo recently revealed that chimpanzees, humans’ closest relatives, also appear to have the ability.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, is the work of Michael J. Beran and Bonnie M. Perdue of the Georgia State Language Research Center (LRC), and J. David Smith of the University at Buffalo.
“The demonstration of metacognition in nonhuman primates has important implications regarding the emergence of self-reflective mind during humans’ cognitive evolution,” the research team noted.
The ability to recognize one’s own cognitive states is called metacognition. An example of this ability is a game show contestant judging his or her own confidence level to decide if they should risk it all or “phone a friend.”
“There has been an intense debate in the scientific literature in recent years over whether metacognition is unique to humans,” Beran said.
The scientists at Georgia State’s LRC have trained chimpanzees to use a language-like system of symbols to name things. This gives researchers a novel way to investigate the animals’ states of knowing or not knowing.
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Scientists are beginning to understand how people tune in to a single voice in a crowded, noisy room.
This ability, known as the “cocktail party effect,” appears to rely on areas of the brain that have completely filtered out unwanted sounds, researchers report in the journalNeuron. So when a person decides to focus on a particular speaker, other speakers “have no representation in those [brain] areas,” says Elana Zion Golumbic of Columbia University.
The ability to extract sense from auditory chaos has puzzled scientists since the 1950s, Golumbic says. “It’s something we do all the time, not only in cocktail parties,” she says. “You’re on the street, you’re in a restaurant, you’re in your office. There are a lot of background sounds all the time, and you constantly need to filter them out and focus on the one thing that’s important to you.”
But until a few years ago, how the brain did this was a mystery. That’s changing, Golumbic says, thanks to new technology that allows scientists to monitor many different areas of the brain as they listen to multiple voices.
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It is now possible to map the activity of nearly all the neurons in a vertebrate brain at cellular resolution. What does this mean for neuroscience research and projects like the Brain Activity Map proposal?
In an Article that just went live in Nature Methods, Misha Ahrens and Philipp Keller from HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus used high-speed light sheet microscopy to image the activity of 80% of the neurons in the brain of a fish larva at speeds of a whole brain every 1.3 seconds. This represents—to our knowledge—the first technology that achieves whole brain imaging of a vertebrate brain at cellular resolution with speeds that approximate neural activity patterns and behavior.
Interestingly, the paper comes out at a time when much is being discussed and written about mapping brain activity at the cellular level. This is one of the main proposals of the Brain Activity Map—a project that is being discussed at the White House and could be NIH’s next ‘big science’ project for the next 10-15 years.
The details of BAM’s exact goals and a clear roadmap and timeline to achieve them have yet to be presented, but from what its proponents have described in a recent Science paper the main aspiration of the project is to improve our understanding of how whole neuronal circuits work at the cellular level. The project seeks to monitor the activity of whole circuits as well as manipulate them to study their functional role. To reach these goals, first and foremost one must have technology capable of measuring the activity of individual neurons throughout the entire brain in a way that can discriminate individual circuits. The most obvious way to do this is by imaging the activity as it is occurring.
With improvements in the speed and resolution of existing microscopy setups and in the probes for monitoring activity, exhaustive imaging of neuronal function across a small transparent organism was bound to be possible—as this study has now shown.
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From the makers of the Necomimi cat ears and Tailly robotic tail comes the “Mico,” a new kind of headphones that are controlled using your brainwaves. Unveiled at South By Southwest (SXSW), Neurowear’s Mico connects to an iPhone through Bluetooth and selects songs that have been “neuro-tagged” using a special music app.
The Mico headphones are like a giant iPod shuffle — the app only has 100 tracks to pick from — except it chooses songs based on your mood. Feeling sad? The Mico will play some blues. Feeling super hyper? Maybe the Mico will play some dance or dubstep. Youcan change the chosen song by shaking your iPhone, but that kind of defeats the purpose of letting your brain tell you what kind of music you should be listening to.
According to Neurowear:
“‘mico’ frees the user from having to select songs and artists and allows users to encounter new music just by wearing the device. The device detects brainwaves through the sensor on your forehead. Our app then automatically plays music that fits your mood.”
Engadget got to try the prototype headphones on and walked away feeling like the Mico was “kind of a crapshoot” as it thought their mood was always “focused.” As with the company’s other products, it’s difficult to say if the Mico has any real purpose aside from being a fun gimmick. From our experiences with brain-controlled gadgets, they’re almost always wrong in predicting what we want or feel. We’re not saying the Mico isn’t a fun little toy, we’re just saying the technology will have to get a lot more sophisticated before it truly understands how we’re feeling.
The Mico is reportedly “coming in the near future,” and Neurowear may eventually partner with Spotify to create a larger neuro-tagged library.
In a breakthrough research, Yale researchers have found a way to turn an old brain young.
The flip of a single molecular switch helps create the mature neuronal connections that allow the brain to bridge the gap between adolescent impressionability and adult stability.
Now, the Yale School of Medicine researchers have reversed the process, recreating a youthful brain that facilitated both learning and healing in the adult mouse.
Scientists have long known that the young and old brains are very different. Adolescent brains are more malleable or plastic, which allows them to learn languages more quickly than adults and speeds recovery from brain injuries.
The comparative rigidity of the adult brain results in part from the function of a single gene that slows the rapid change in synaptic connections between neurons.
By monitoring the synapses in living mice over weeks and months, Yale researchers have identified the key genetic switch for brain maturation.
The Nogo Receptor 1 gene is required to suppress high levels of plasticity in the adolescent brain and create the relatively quiescent levels of plasticity in adulthood. In mice without this gene, juvenile levels of brain plasticity persist throughout adulthood. When researchers blocked the function of this gene in old mice, they reset the old brain to adolescent levels of plasticity.
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Researchers at Brown University have made the first wireless, implantable, rechargeable brain-computer interface. Humans might be next in line for testing of the device, after 13 months of successful trials in monkeys and pigs.
Made out of hermetically sealed titanium, the new BCI doesn’t have to be attached to a computer, so the wearer doesn’t have to be strapped into a seat and can move about freely. BCIs are often used to aid people who are paralyzed or have diminished motor functions by connecting them control of a robotic arm, for example, so it’s important that they don’t have to be strapped into a chair to use this new BCI. Plus, it allows scientists to monitor the brain during more complex tasks. In the case of a monkey, this has come down to things like social activities or foraging.
The device looks a lot like a pacemaker, with a li-lion battery, an inductive charging loop, a chip that digitizes brain information, and an antenna to transmit that info to a computer. ExtremeTech explains what’s inside:
The BCI is connected to a small chip with 100 electrodes protruding from it, which, in this study, was embedded in the somatosensory cortex or motor cortex. These 100 electrodes produce a lot of data, which the BCI transmits at 24Mbps over the 3.2 and 3.8GHz bands to a receiver that is one meter away.
Another critical feature of this portable BCI is it consumes relatively little power (around 100 milliwatts), and it takes just two hours to charge up for six hours of use. That’s key for making the BCI something that people can feasibly use, because a subject could wear it all day without needing to power up. It hasn’t been approved for human use yet, but that might be the ultimate goal, in order to better study people with brain disorders, and help them be more mobile, like the woman Brown equipped to move a bottle of soda with her mind.
Scientists have long been dreaming about building a computer that would work like a brain. This is because a brain is far more energy-saving than a computer, it can learn by itself, and it doesn’t need any programming. Privatdozent [senior lecturer] Dr. Andy Thomas from Bielefeld University’s Faculty of Physics is experimenting with memristors – electronic microcomponents that imitate natural nerves. Thomas and his colleagues proved that they could do this a year ago. They constructed a memristor that is capable of learning. Andy Thomas is now using his memristors as key components in a blueprint for an artificial brain.
Memristors are made of fine nanolayers and can be used to connect electric circuits. For several years now, the memristor has been considered to be the electronic equivalent of the synapse. Synapses are, so to speak, the bridges across which nerve cells (neurons) contact each other. Their connections increase in strength the more often they are used. Usually, one nerve cell is connected to other nerve cells across thousands of synapses. Like synapses, memristors learn from earlier impulses. In their case, these are electrical impulses that (as yet) do not come from nerve cells but from the electric circuits to which they are connected.
The amount of current a memristor allows to pass depends on how strong the current was that flowed through it in the past and how long it was exposed to it. Andy Thomas explains that because of their similarity to synapses, memristors are particularly suitable for building an artificial brain – a new generation of computers. ‘They allow us to construct extremely energy-efficient and robust processors that are able to learn by themselves.’
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