Tag Archives: neuroscience

living near a forest is good for your amygdala

The amygdala is a part of your brain, and what is good for it is good for you.

“Our results reveal a significant positive association between the coverage of forest and amygdala integrity,” the researchers report. The amygdala is the almond-shaped set of neurons that plays a key role in the processing of emotions, including fear and anxiety.

Perhaps surprisingly, Kuehn and her colleagues found no such association from living close to urban green spaces such as parks, or near bodies of water. Only proximity to forest land had this apparent positive effect…

The study complements the already-strong psychological evidence of the benefits of living close to nature. Previous research has linked access to green space to longer lives, lower levels of aggression, and kids’ cognitive development. One study suggests it even makes for nicer people.

reading and the brain

There is a fair amount of evidence that reading is good for the brain. One of the reasons is that reading narratives and having to get into the characters’ heads helps to build empathy in real life.

Improved theory of mind comes primarily from reading narratives, research suggests. One meta-analysis published by Raymond A. Mar of Toronto’s York University reviews many of the studies demonstrating the effect of story comprehension on theory of mind, and concludes that the better we understand the events in a narrative, the better we are able to understand the actions and intentions of those around us. The kinds of narratives we read, moreover, might also make a difference. One study, conducted by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the New School for Social Research, tested the effect of differences in writing quality on empathy responses, randomly assigning 1,000 participants excerpts from both popular bestsellers and literary fiction.

The type of writing appears to matter, with more literary fiction helping more than best-sellers or non-fiction. A piece of good news is that audiobooks seem to be fine. The article doesn’t get into electronic vs. paper forms of reading, or reading vs. television or video games. It does quote one neuroscientist who questions whether reading is really special compared to other forms of experience.

One hypothesis I have, based on my own experience with people who can’t read in two different corners of the world, is that reading could change the nature of a person’s verbal skills, and not necessarily for the better. People who can’t read sometimes have the “gift of gab”, are good storytellers, and are good at teaching children to speak their native language. And similar to teaching small children, they can be incredibly patient with illiterate foreigners like myself, where an educated person would not have the patience, or somehow, maybe not have the empathy, to do that. So while I think reading and writing and certainly very important to our species, they also may have changed us along the way.

Big-C and Little-C Consciousness

This article in KurzweilAI explains the competing “Big C” and “Little C” theories of consciousness.

Another viewpoint on consciousness comes from quantum theory, which is the deepest theory of physics. According to the orthodox Copenhagen Interpretation, consciousness and the physical world are complementary aspects of the same reality. When a person observes, or experiments on, some aspect of the physical world, that person’s conscious interaction causes discernible change. Since it takes consciousness as a given and no attempt is made to derive it from physics, the Copenhagen Interpretation may be called the “big-C” view of consciousness, where it is a thing that exists by itself – although it requires brains to become real. This view was popular with the pioneers of quantum theory such as Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger.

The interaction between consciousness and matter leads to paradoxes that remain unresolved after 80 years of debate. A well-known example of this is the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, in which a cat is placed in a situation that results in it being equally likely to survive or die – and the act of observation itself is what makes the outcome certain.

The opposing view is that consciousness emerges from biology, just as biology itself emerges from chemistry which, in turn, emerges from physics. We call this less expansive concept of consciousness “little-C.” It agrees with the neuroscientists’ view that the processes of the mind are identical to states and processes of the brain. It also agrees with a more recent interpretation of quantum theory motivated by an attempt to rid it of paradoxes, the Many Worlds Interpretation, in which observers are a part of the mathematics of physics.

electroshock therapy for the brain

Someday you might be able to have a device implanted in your brain which can give it a little electric shock each time it is thinking about reaching for that junk food. This has just been treid in mice.

Closing the loop on impulsivity via nucleus accumbens delta-band activity in mice and man

Reward hypersensitization is a common feature of neuropsychiatric disorders, manifesting as impulsivity for anticipated incentives. Temporally specific changes in activity within the nucleus accumbens (NAc), which occur during anticipatory periods preceding consummatory behavior, represent a critical opportunity for intervention. However, no available therapy is capable of automatically sensing and therapeutically responding to this vulnerable moment in time when anticipation-related neural signals may be present. To identify translatable biomarkers for an off-the-shelf responsive neurostimulation system, we record local field potentials from the NAc of mice and a human anticipating conventional rewards. We find increased power in 1- to 4-Hz oscillations predominate during reward anticipation, which can effectively trigger neurostimulation that reduces consummatory behavior in mice sensitized to highly palatable food. Similar oscillations are present in human NAc during reward anticipation, highlighting the translational potential of our findings in the development of a treatment for a major unmet need.

Maybe pedophiles could be given this option in exchange for getting out of jail. Or maybe it won’t be an option. Maybe it could be implanted at birth and used, just as an example, if someone is thinking of pulling the wrong lever in a voting booth.

music and the brain

Evidence continues to mount that musical training is good for the brain:

According to a new Canadian study led by the Rotman Research Institute (RRI) at Baycrest Health Sciences, older adults who had musical training in their youth were 20% faster in identifying speech sounds than their non-musician peers on speech identification tests, a benefit that has already been observed in young people with musical training…

Among the different cognitive functions that can diminish with age is the ability to comprehend speech. Interestingly, this difficulty can persist in the absence of any measurable hearing loss. Previous research has confirmed that the brain’s central auditory system which supports the ability to parse, sequence and identify acoustic features of speech – weakens in later years.

Starting formal lessons on a musical instrument prior to age 14 and continuing intense training for up to a decade appears to enhance key areas in the brain that support speech recognition. The Rotman study found “robust” evidence that this brain benefit is maintained even in the older population.

fluoride and neurotoxicity

A coalition of groups including the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology is petitioning the EPA to ban the practice of water fluoridation.

EPA should exercise its authority under TSCA to prohibit fluoridation additives because application of the Agency’s own Guidelines for Neurotoxicity Risk Assessment to the existing database on fluoride shows that (1) neurotoxicity is a hazard of fluoride exposure, and (2) the reference dose that would reasonably protect against this hazard is incompatible with the doses now ingested by millions of Americans in fluoridated areas. In fact, the amount of fluoride now regularly consumed by many people in fluoridated areas exceeds the doses repeatedly linked to IQ loss and other neurotoxic effects; with certain subpopulations standing at elevated risk of harm, including infants, young children, elderly populations, and those with dietary deficiencies, renal impairment, and/or genetic predispositions.

The risk to the brain posed by fluoridation additives is an unreasonable risk because, inter alia, it is now understood that fluoride’s predominant effect on tooth decay comes from topical contact with teeth, not ingestion. Since there is little benefit in swallowing fluoride, there is little justification in exposing the public to any risk of fluoride neurotoxicity, particularly via a source as essential to human sustenance as the public drinking water and the many processed foods and beverages made therefrom. The addition of fluoridation chemicals to water thus represents the very type of unreasonable risk that EPA is duly authorized to prohibit pursuant to its powers and responsibilities under Section 6 of TSCA, and Petitioners urge the Agency to exercise its authority to do so.

I admit I hadn’t heard of these particular groups, but at first glance they appear to be reputable. I might have previously lumped the anti-fluoride movement in with the anti-vaccine movement or the anti-global warming movement, as pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo at best and a serious danger to the public at worse. But unlike vaccines, the health benefits of fluoridation might not be all that great. If something is not useful and we are not sure if it is toxic or not, there is a strong argument for erring on the side of caution. Maybe one day we’ll look back at water fluoridation similarly to how we look at leaded gasoline or mercury thermometers today – “what were we thinking?”

“hundreds of mini-brains on a chip”

This Wired article talks about tiny balls of mouse brain cells complete with blood vessels connected to a “microfluidic” chip that essentially acts as a heart.

In the last five years, researchers have engineered lots of dish-dwelling micro-organs, from itsy bitsy intestines to Lilliputian livers. They’ve simultaneously made major advances in biochips: small, Flash-drive-sized structures lined with a layer or two of cells and studded with biosensors and microfluidic channels. Those two-dimensional chips are useful for testing, say, how lung cells react to a piped-in toxin, but they’re too simplistic to truly mimic organs. That’s where organoids like Hoffman-Kim’s brain balls come in. For the first time, 2-D biochips are colliding with 3-D mini-organs—and together they’re making some of the best organ simulations ever.

Using these mashups, the idea is that scientists will be able to take a few of your skin cells, grow miniature versions of all your major organs, and put them on a chip. Then doctors can test out the best compounds for whatever disease you might have—not in a mouse, but in a mini-you. “This will enable a new era of personalized medicine,” says Ali Khademhosseini, a bioengineer at Harvard’s Wyss Institute who has been working on both mini-organs and biochips for the last decade.

In a paper that will be published later this month, Khademhosseini’s team created a series of chips connecting liver organoids and cancer cells with loops of tiny tubes. They pumped an anticancer drug through the system, tracking whether it killed the tumor cells and whether the liver cells could survive the toxic onslaught. That way, they could optimize a drug dosage that maxed cancer-killing power while keeping the liver out of harm’s way.

I can’t help wondering if these body-less mouse brains are sentient on some level, or if they could be. Do they have a natural life span, or can they regenerate and repair themselves indefinitely? Could someone create a human consciousness this way? If so, could it survive and develop in the absence of a body? Could it be plugged into a simulation so it thought it had a body? Could it be plugged into a spacecraft or a submarine and sent out to explore?

wireless ECG

This paper from MIT describes a technology that can read emotions accurately by detecting heartbeats simply by bouncing a wireless signal off a person. It is supposedly as accurate as a an electrocardiogram. Reading emotions this way is pretty amazing, but to me just the idea of reading a heartbeat accurately this way sounds like a pretty big deal in a medical setting. It also could have obvious implications in psychology, and quite possibly disturbing uses in security, intelligence, military and business settings. Imagine something like Google Glass giving you information on the health and emotions of a person you are talking to.

Emotion Recognition using Wireless Signals

This paper demonstrates a new technology that can infer
a person’s emotions from RF signals reflected off his body.
EQ-Radio transmits an RF signal and analyzes its reflections
off a person’s body to recognize his emotional state (happy,
sad, etc.). The key enabler underlying EQ-Radio is a new
algorithm for extracting the individual heartbeats from the
wireless signal at an accuracy comparable to on-body ECG
monitors. The resulting beats are then used to compute
emotion-dependent features which feed a machine-learning
emotion classifier. We describe the design and implementation
of EQ-Radio, and demonstrate through a user study
that its emotion recognition accuracy is on par with state-of-the-art
emotion recognition systems that require a person
to be hooked to an ECG monitor.

The Secret of N.I.M.H.

I remember going to see the rats of N.I.M.H. way too young and being terrified (perhaps second only to my fear of the Wicked Witch of the West). Anyway, the secret is out…

Wong FK, Fei J-F, Mora-Bermúdez F, Taverna E, Haffner C, Fu J, et al. (2015) Sustained Pax6 Expression Generates Primate-like Basal Radial Glia in Developing Mouse Neocortex. PLoS Biol 13(8): e1002217. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002217

The evolutionary expansion of the neocortex in mammals has been linked to enlargement of the subventricular zone (SVZ) and increased proliferative capacity of basal progenitors (BPs), notably basal radial glia (bRG). The transcription factor Pax6 is known to be highly expressed in primate, but not mouse, BPs. Here, we demonstrate that sustaining Pax6 expression selectively in BP-genic apical radial glia (aRG) and their BP progeny of embryonic mouse neocortex suffices to induce primate-like progenitor behaviour.

NIMH stood for “National Institute of Mental Health”. Which was, of course, secretly creating super-intelligent rats.