By J. Daniel Bireley
What’s the latest on all that news about concussions in the NFL? It’s been a while since this story initially made its way into headlines and penetrated news and popular culture around the country. The neuroscience world continues to bustle over the story and research on the disease now known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, remains a priority right here at the Boston University School of Medicine in the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) directed by Dr. Robert Cantu, Dr. Anne McKee, and Mr. Chris Nowinski. Especially with the release of the Frontline documentary released last October titled “League of Denial” (see below), aimed at exploring the possibility that the NFL has mishandled the concussion issue for a number of years, have more and more families in the United States and all over the world begun to understand the potential repercussions of traumatic head injury.
Intelligence is classically thought of as an immutable characteristic of each individual, pre-determined by genetics and permanent for a person’s entire life. But what if this is not true? It is an appealing idea to think that somehow, one can voluntarily, and naturally, boost his or her level of cognitive performance. Research has already shown that the brain is more plastic than originally thought. Parts of the hippocampus, a subcortical brain structure implicated in tasks of memory and other cognitive control functions, as well as the olfactory bulb (smell center) have been shown to generate new neurons after initial neurogenesis in the mammalian brain. These findings play into the idea that there is a way to somehow become smarter, even though you aren’t necessarily born with such cognitive gifts.
There are now apps and other computer programs that claim to improve brain function with excessive use. One of the bigger names in this field, Lumosity, runs advertisements that their brain-training program is backed by research and is “based on neuroscience.” The purpose here is not to discredit such apps like Lumosity and Brain Fit, but to take a closer look at the legitimacy of these claims of cognitive improvement, examine some actual research being done, and encourage a critical approach to a topic that popular culture REALLY wants to be true.
The science community received big news out of California last week as Karl Deisseroth and his team of researchers from the Department of Bioengineering at Stanford University had their paper concerning their newly developed CLARITY brain imaging technique published in Nature. The most astounding aspect of the newly released technique is that is creates a “see-through” brain that can be anatomically analyzed in a number of ways. This method truly is a game-changer as it revolutionizes how neuroscientists are able to view brain tissue and allows for a clearer view of the big picture. In this case the big picture is an intact, whole brain.
The technique operates on the idea lipids in the bilayer of a cell’s plasma membrane block visible light. This is why the brain is normally not transparent. Removing these lipids but still keeping the other parts of the cell and its environment intact would render the brain “see-through” and allow for much easier imaging of large pieces of brain tissue, if not the whole brain at once. This idea is carried out by taking the brain and infusing it with acrylamide, which binds proteins, nucleic acids and other molecules, then heating the tissue to form a mesh that holds the tissue together. The brain is then treated with SDS detergent to remove the light-blocking lipids resulting in a stable brain-hydrogel hybrid. From here the transparent tissue can be fluorescently labeled for certain cells and analyzed. Through the whole process there is less than 10% protein loss in the brain tissue compared to around 41% for other current methods. This is an amazing improvement!
Affective disorders are those disorders of the brain that are characterized by severe and inappropriate shifts in mood or emotion. These shifts are often to extreme ends of the emotional spectrum where an affected individual is constantly full of energy and confidence (mania) or withdrawn, fatigued, and excessively sad with little interest in usually enjoyable activities (depression). Both of these conditions have been observed and recorded in human history for thousands of years but only recently have they been recognized as brain disorders, given names like major depression and bipolar disorder, and treated as medical conditions.
In the past 150 years it has been noted that the onset of depression is occurring at higher rates and at younger ages that ever before. This data could be the result of factors including an increase in patients coming forward to be diagnosed, improved diagnoses, or simply better record keeping. Whatever the reason, it is estimated that 15 to 20% of the population is experiencing symptoms of major depression at any given time, with a greater occurrence in women than in men. Many are affected by this disorder and a cure has yet to be found. But before we continue, a distinction must be made between major depression and “reactive depression” in which a person may feel depressive symptoms because of a single event like the loss of a loved one or a failure of some kind. Major depression is a prolonged state in which an individual may display a number of symptoms including depressed mood, loss of interest in most activity, change in body weight or appetite, changes in sleep patterns, psychomotor agitation or retardation, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, and suicidal thoughts. Depending on the severity of the depression a patient may display many, or only a few of these possible symptoms.
It may be an age-old saying that makes most people groan whenever a friend or family member feels the need to say it, but there are actual psychological benefits that come from simply putting on a smile. Researchers have been examining this phenomenon for a few decades now and even though it is not a new age, 21st century discovery, it is nonetheless amazing and unexpected. One would intuitively assume that facial expressions are an external representation of what is going on inside the brain. Classically, facial expressions are considered to be influenced by mood and thought. It seems to be a one-way street in which the brain controls the face, but this is not the case.
Charles Darwin hypothesized that emotional facial expressions are an innate and universal human characteristic. A happy face is a happy face no matter where you are in the world. This theory has been thoroughly explored and psychologists have produced evidence that supports this century-old speculation. This is convenient in a way, because if facial expressions were specific to a geographic region, people would have to learn faces as if they were learning a new language. What a challenge that would be! But the more interesting aspect to these universal facial expressions is that the physical expression can directly influence one’s emotions.
Social interaction and communication are essential characteristics of the human experience. As humans, we desire to create and develop relationships with each other. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological developmental condition that impairs this ability to relate. The spectrum refers to the fact that there are multiple conditions characterized by similar features all grouped together under this one disorder. These conditions include “classic” autism, Asperger syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. There are also varying degrees of severity associated with ASD. So, depending on the disorder and degree to which a person suffers from this disorder, there is truly a wide spectrum of possible conditions created by ASD that many people around the world must deal with. More
In the United States alone there are about a quarter of a million people affected by spinal cord injury with over 10,000 new injuries resulting in conditions such as paraplegia and quadriplegia each year. Spinal cord injuries can be completely debilitating and can occur when least expected. Drawing from a high school memory of mine, a hockey player from a town nearby was pushed head first into the boards one night during a game and sustained a severe neck injury, permanently impairing his motor skills and changing the course of his life. More
Art is popular. There are many people that enjoy, support, or make a living off of art. It has the power to evoke emotion and also to allow one to express emotion through shapes, color, and patterns. Brains are popular too, but in a different sense. Everyone has a brain. Some may use it more than others, but it is something that all humans possess. This is, of course, excluding the various other life forms on earth that make use of a brain. What is not so popular is brain art. Especially brain art that is anatomically correct. The Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art claims to be the largest collection of anatomically accurate representations of the brain made entirely from fabric. How exciting! The inspiration for each piece comes from dissections of the brain, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), neuroscience research, and positron emission tomography or PET (another medical imaging technique). These self-deemed “neuroartists” employ traditional art techniques such as quilting, knitting, and rug hooking to create their cranial masterpieces. Although extremely talented, these artists do warn not to use the accuracy of their art as a guide for any kind of surgical medical endeavor. More
What comes to mind when you think of Friday? Friends. A night off from work. Movies. Fun. Rebecca Black? Yikes. I don’t mean to remind you of such a low point in the history of American pop-culture but there is, in fact, a small amount of useful information to be extracted from the phenomenon that is Rebecca Black. Why did her music spread like an epidemic through the minds of millions of teens and adults worldwide? This event can be loosely related to what the Germans like to call an öhrwurm.
The term öhrwurm literally translates in English to “earworm”, and can be described as that inescapable occurrence of getting a song stuck in your head for an hour, a day, or even months at a time. The term is misleading in that the repetition of music does not occur in the ear but within the brain. For an experience that is so familiar to most people there is still much unknown as to how and why one contracts this stuck song syndrome. More