By Jennifer Richardson

Smokescreen: Scanning the Addict's Brain

March 11th, 2011 in Uncategorized 9 comments


The neuroscience of addiction has been extensively studied, giving priceless insight into what is happening in the addict’s brain and what keeps people hooked on drug-seeking behavior. Most of the research, though, has been all about the chemical changes in the brain, delving into the molecular level of receptors, neurotransmitters, and reward pathways, etc. But a new approach is being taken from research focusing on extended applications of neuroscience, such as linking neuroscience and “social research and communication studies.” In this video, primary researcher Emily Falk explains the work that is being done at the University of Michigan to try to use the brain as a More

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The Tell-Tale Brain from the neurObama

February 11th, 2011 in Pop Culture 3 comments

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I began writing this post with feelings of guilt and inner turmoil because the article came out just one week too late – apparently V.S. Ramachandran was scheduled to speak about and discuss his new book The Tell Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human in Cambridge at the Harvard Book Store on February 2nd.  If you haven’t heard this man’s name thrown around in any of your neuroscience classes, you have most definitely been asleep.  As an engaged and involved neuro-nerd, I felt like a huge ass not only for missing this event, but also for not alerting my fellow blog nerds!  But the reality of Boston and global climate change lead to this event being canceled.  Upon inquiry I was told that they are trying to reschedule this talk, which would be wonderful, and I will be sure to give a shout-out to the internet crowd if I hear about a new date to see this incredibly influential man in our area.

The main point, though, is not the event, but the brand new book released by this professor/author/neurologist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran.  Currently working as a professor in the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, this man has captured the attention of the neuroscience world for many years and perhaps even more importantly, the attention of those outside the field. His research on oddities such as phantom limbs and synesthesia has vastly contributed to our understanding of the normal and abnormal brain. His previous books, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind and A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers are user-friendly guides to the mind and brain, and have bolstered his research to make Ramachandran a neuro-celebrity.

His new work The Tell-Tale Brain is a 357 page sweep through the structure of the brain, what can happen when it goes wrong, and why we are the way we are when it goes right. He presents the human brain “anatomically, evolutionarily, psychologically, and philosophically” to discover what about our brains creates the human experience.  This follows his approach, as he states in the epilogue of Tell-Tale Brain: “One of the major themes in the book – whether talking about body image, mirror neurons, language evolution, or autism – has been the question of how your inner self interacts with the world (including the social world) while at the same time maintaining its privacy. The curious reciprocity between self and others is especially well developed in humans and probably exists only in rudimentary form in the great apes. I have suggested that many types of mental illness may result from derangements in this equilibrium. Understanding such disorders may pave the way not only for solving the abstract (or should I say philosophical) problem of the self at a theoretical level, but also for treating mental illness.” I would say that this richly multifaceted approach seems ambitious, but reviews say Ramachandran’s book is still a comprehensive and satisfying read.

In The Tell Tale Brain Ramachandran elaborates on his older work on synethseia and phantom limbs with new research. With additional empirical research and case studies he builds the story of the cognitive and physical processes behind Capgras Syndrome, when your own mother or poodle becomes an impostor, Cotard’s Syndrome, when you believe that you are dead, and many other rarities. But along with the oddities he also contemplates the evolutionary significance to our normal everyday actions. For example he offers the “peekaboo principle” as a potential explanation for our seemingly universal draw to puzzles, concealment, and partial nudity. I will let you read into that one on your own. He also relates our desire to color-match clothing and accessories to “the experiences of our ancestors when they spotted a lion in the undergrowth by realizing that those yellow patches in between the leaves are parts of a single dangerous object.” Speculation such as this leaves some skeptical.

The main thesis of this piece, though, seems to be the infamous Mirror Neuron and its astronomical influence on human evolution. He believes mirror neurons may be the key to the emergence of culture and language, and essentially, the distinctive human experience. As if the mirror neuron hype wasn’t wild enough, it is about to be taken to a whole different level.

The New York Times Book Review states that some readers may lose track of what is firmly established in research and literature, and what is tentative speculation. This worries me, especially if Ramachandran is aiming at a generally less informed audience. It is easy for something that is an “interesting idea” to turn into a cultural fact if it is passed around and exaggerated enough by people who are not prepared to look to the research – or lack thereof.

I have yet to read this book but I thought it important to give everyone the heads up that this book is something that will be around – you will hear reviews tossed around amongst your classmates, in Paul Lipton’s office, and, if Ramachandran is really making neuroscience as accessible as he hopes, random people on the T. I personally hope that the book does not rely too much on the “shocking” stories we have all come to know, as I feel like some major and important topics in neuroscience can be turned into gimmicks. I have already heard completely unknowing hipsters act really cool by spitting out entirely incorrect information about mirror neurons to “blow the minds” of their friends, so I hope that Ramachandran’s postulations do not add to the vortex that is the obnoxious overconfidence of the only partially informed.

If any of you have read this new book please leave a review/comment and share your take with us!

Book Review- The Tell-Tale Brain- By V.S. Ramachandran – NYTimes.com

The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientists Quest for What Makes Us Human – BrainPickings.org

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran – Wikipedia.org

The Brain Game: Frolick in the cerebellum, outwit nanobots in the brainstem, puzzle together memories in the hippocampus…

August 13th, 2010 in Uncategorized 2 comments

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Neuromatrix

You are a secret agent infiltrating a top-secret neuroscience research facility. Your mission: to track down and root out the Nanobots that have invaded the brains of the scientists there. If you fail, the Nanobots and the secret entity that spawned them will take over the Earth, reprogramming the human brain into docile submission.

This game is created by Morphonix.

This may not interest everybody, but the video-game-nerd/preschool-teacher in me was embarrassingly excited to stumble upon this site.  The research staff at Morphonix really focus on the idea that they want to design their game to promote learning ABOUT the mind.  The three games available are Every Body Has a Brain for ages 4-6, Journey Into the Brain, an award winning game for children ages 7-11, and a real-time 3D game for 11-14 year-olds called Neuromatrix. The graphics may make this game look a little lame to us, but to a kid, adventure is at their fingertips.

If anyone has a little sibling or younger cousin, it is glaringly obvious that kids love to ask questions, and they really do love knowledge and the ability to be a know-it-all at the dinner table.  It seems that Morphonix has found a great way to make both the scientific facts of neuroscience and the abstract concepts of the brain extremely accessible, concrete, and inherently fun.  Even as a college student, I’d be interested in running through the puzzles, testing what I know, and pretending it counts as studying for my brain anatomy exam.

Each of the games introduces the structure and function of the brain.  They maintain real vocabulary, challenging children with difficult words like “hippocampus” while giving them child-oriented strategies to learn what it looks like, where it is, and what it does.  But more importantly, it gives them the desire to want to remember the hippocampus – because they learn that they have one! As the Morphonix team states on their site, “We hope that Neuromatrix, Journey into the Brain, and Every Body Has a Brain awaken children and teens to the miracle and wonder of their own growing brains, inspire them to take good care of their brains, and nourish their curiosity about the realm of biology as a whole.”

I think developing games that teach children about Neuroscience is an incredible idea.  It is an endlessly intriguing field full of things that affect us everyday but seem intangible to most.  Children often ask questions about those things, and Morphonix knows how to give the answer in a way that they will understand and that will stick with them.  Honestly, I think one of the 12 year olds would probably fair pretty well in PS 101.

Teaching children about the brain and introducing them to the mysterious field of neuroscience gives something powerful to kids wanting to learn, teachers looking to intrigue and inspire, and even scientists seeking new ways to get the information out there (or start training lab assistants early).  An excerpt from the Reviews page of the Morphonix site gives us a pretty good idea of just how inspiring this game can be:

“When Aidan finished playing, Littman sought additional feedback from her pint-sized adviser.

“Where is your heart?” she asked. Aidan pointed to his chest.

“Does your heart think?” He shook his head.

“What keeps the heart beating?”

“The brain stem!” he replied, nearly leaping off the couch with a level of excitement about neuroscience rarely seen in a 5-year-old.

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Left=Language in monkey brains, too

July 19th, 2010 in Uncategorized 1 comment

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I would hate to marginalize the Creationists that may frequent this blog, but, it is becoming difficult to ignore all of the

Ready for a chat, perhaps?

Ready for a chat, perhaps?

evidence for Evolution piling up higher and higher.  This conglomerate of information is contributed to by almost all fields of study- from Archeology to Biology, and in a recent surge in the rapidly growing field, Neuroscience.  Unfortunately for us, submitting to the idea of Evolution forces us to think of ourselves and our fellow humans as a little less awesome or unique- we have always reveled in our species immense capacity for complex language processing, as well as other things of course.  But it didn’t just pop up out of nowhere a couple million years in.

To expand upon the research being done by neuroscience in exploring the evolution of the brain, this article focuses on Wernicke’s area (known for its dedication to processing auditory language information) in chimpanzees.  This study used design-based stereologic methods to estimate regional volumes, total neuron number and neuron density.  When compared to what we know about the human brain, the results are intriguing.

What did they find?  A leftward asymmetry of this language area in the monkey brains.  What does this mean to us?  It suggests that the left lateralization of the language area in the brain (left = language, left = language, first thing to memorize in Psych 101) originated before our cutting-edge human species, prior to the appearance of our modern human language.

This investigation may seem generally boring- these Chimpanzees aren’t Darwin’s finches or anything- but it certainly is significant in showing Neurosciences’ huge potential for contribution to the case of Evolution.  They showed that a language specialization that is key to our unique language capabilities actually evolved prior to the emergence of modern humans, serving as a pre-adaptation to modern human language and speech.  Studies like these are closing the gap between ancestral species, and unfortunately, making us all feel a little less special about our leap to civilized society.  Way to go Evolution.

Original Article:    http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/277/1691/2165.full?sid=912995c2-144b-45bb-b92c-d7c0196d1fef#ref-5

Similar articles investigating monkey brains and language adaptions:  http://current.com/1ri8u4c

Ps.- If anyone studying at BU is really really into Evolution, I highly recommend the Ecuador Study Abroad Program… A trip to the Galapagos Islands (on a private yacht, no less) and to the Charles Darwin Research Station is a chance of a lifetime.

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