Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Johns Hopkins Medical School, the University of Maryland, and Weizmann Institute’s Neurobiology Department have all developed new and improved brain scanning techniques. These new methods allow scientists to monitor brain activity in fully-awake, moving animals.
At Brookhaven, researchers combined light-activated proteins that stimulate specific brain cells, a technique known as optogenetics, with positron emission tomography (PET) to observe the effects of stimulation throughout the entire brain. Their paper in the Journal of Neuroscience describes this method, which will allow researchers to map exactly which neurological pathways are activated or deactivated downstream by stimulation in specific brain areas. Hopefully, following these pathways will enable researchers to correlate the brain activity with observed behaviors or certain symptoms of disease.
The Pasteurian Revolution of the 1800′s heralded in a new paradigm of disease. Previously unexplained health phenomena could now be shown to be derived from “germs” – microorganisms invisible to the naked eye. The term “germ” quickly took on a negative connotation and until recently the microbial world has been seen primarily as a breeding ground for invisible enemies to human health. Its pretty incredible actually, the distaste the word “bacteria” instills in us, when really, it simply refers to a domain of prokaryotes. So, is the entire microbial world bent on our demise? I think the answer to this question can be summed up in one simple statistic:
Inside of you there are 1013 human cells and 1014 bacteria cells.
In other words, for every one cell of you there are ten that are not you…Wait, what? The first question this recent discovery may fuel is a stumbled WHAT? But lets digress for a moment and ask, why?
“Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons….In fact there was only one species on the planet more intelligent than dolphins, and they spent a lot of their time in behavioural research laboratories running round inside wheels and conducting frighteningly elegant and subtle experiments on man. The fact that once again man completely misinterpreted this relationship was entirely according to these creatures’ plans.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
As tempting as it may be to believe the science fiction version of the intelligence rankings, real-life science has spoken and suggests (much to my displeasure) that humans may actually be the highest on the intelligence scale.
Uh-oh, urine trouble! Well, now that that’s out of my system (ahem), how would you feel if you learned that you’ve been flushing away potential brain cells? I’m not talking about the copious amount of hours you’ve logged online or kicked back in front of the television just this past month. On a daily basis, you’re expelling 1-2 liters of a possible source of neurons in a way you’ve never expected – through urinating.
Back in 2009, stem-cell biologist Duanqing Pei demonstrated that kidney epithelial cells, a common component of urine, could be converted into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which have the ability to differentiate into any cell type found in the body. Recently, Pei and his colleagues at China’s Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health took this technique a step further by converting iPS cells into functioning neurons. More
“White Mike and his father moved after his mother died of breast cancer. It ate her up and most of their money. They can’t control the old radiators and its very hot in the spring time. In White Mike’s room, old unpacked boxes stick out of the closet so he can see them. Maybe you know how it is, maybe you don’t? But sometimes if you can’t see what you’re finished with its better. White Mike stripped to his shorts and laid down on the floor so he felt a little cooler. That’s how it was the first night in his new room and that’s how it still is. White Mike is thin and pale like smoke. White Mike has never smoked a cigarette in his life, never had a drink, never sucked down a doobie. He once went three days without sleep as a kind of experiment. That’s as close as he’s ever gotten to fucked up. White Mike has become a very good drug dealer.
In light of the Obama Administration’s decision to commit $3 billion over 10 years to NIH’s Brain Activity Map project, we thought it may be important to go back to our roots.
Who are we? This is the ultimate question posed by all of Western thinking and perhaps NIH’s Brain Activity Map is the culmination of our efforts. The goal of the project, in a nutshell, is “mapping the activity of every neuron in the human brain in 10 years.” Absurd, outrageous, momentous, profound! Okay, so when did we decide that this was possible, or even that we should try? In their modern form, these beliefs spring from a movement in cognitive science called Connectionism.
We have many different types of neurons within our peripheral somatosensory system. In addition to basic mechanoreceptors, we have neurons corresponding to pain sensations, and channels that are temperature sensitive. However, one phenomenon that was not explained at the neuronal level until recently, is the sensation of stroking. On the behavioral level, we know that stroking or grooming is pleasurable in such phenomenon as maternal care. But how is this transduced at the molecular level?
Researchers in David Anderson’s lab at Caltech recently discovered a class of neurons that selectively responds to “massage-like” stimulations. Experiments were performed in-vivo to directly measure the effect of certain stimulations. Calcium imaging, a type of imaging designed to study activity of neurons, was used in the spinal cord, where the cell bodies of neurons projecting to the periphery are located. After mice were pinched, poked, and light-touch stroked on their paws, the researchers found that a subset of neurons was selectively activated to only the light-touch stimulus.
If I wanted to write about addiction today, my own NPR habit would be an excellent place to begin. News, blogs, radio, podcasts, it’s just so accessible! Today’s entry is not about addiction, but this story does start with “so I was reading NPR News…”
So I was reading NPR News, namely an article titled “What Makes You Feel Fear?” which turned out to be even more intriguing than I expected when I decided to read it. Evidently, researchers have used carbon dioxide inhalation to elicit panic and anxiety in patients with amygdala damage in both hemispheres: patients with no fear centers. How could this be?
This startling discovery comes from a paper published this month in Nature Neuroscience by scientists at the University of Iowa. They tested three patients with Urbach-Wiethe disease (which resulted in bilateral amygdala lesions) by having them inhale CO2. All three experienced panic attacks as a result, and showed significantly increased respiration rates – even with respect to healthy controls. This finding lead the authors to hypothesize that the amygdala may even be able to temporarily inhibit panic, as it has many GABAergic outputs to brainstem regions responsible for panic responses. All of this is pretty stunning. (Of course, the results would have been more stunning if there were a larger group of lesioned patients – all three of them did experience panic attacks in response to the CO2 but so did three of the controls. Fortunately, though, people with bilateral amygdala damage are hard to come by. One could see how a lack of fear could be dangerous!)
Neuroscience researchers in China have created a method of transforming brainwaves into music by combining EEG and fMRI scans into sounds that are recognizable to human beings. The EEG adjusts the pitch and duration of a note, while the fMRI controls the intensity of the music. According to Jing Lu and his associated colleagues from the University of Electronic Science and Technology in China, this brain music, “embodies the workings of the brain as art, providing a platform for scientists and artists to work together to better understand the links between music and the human brain.”
Applying EEG and fMRI data to make better music represents the limitless opportunities of the brain, potentially leading to improvements useful for research, clinical diagnosis or biofeedback therapy. In fact, researchers at the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate have already looked at a form of neuro-training called ‘Brain Music’, which uses music created from an individual’s brain waves to help the individual move from an anxious state to a relaxed state.
Sometimes, writing is tough. The passion isn’t there, and every word is a struggle. We’ve all had those moments when forced to do something artistic or creative, whether it be writing or drawing or playing an instrument (or anything really). We’re just not into it, we don’t feel the pulse of the art pounding in our blood. Yet at other times, it’s like our blood rushes in a massive torrential pour, as if it had been held back by a massive dam for a thousand years. Whether its a subject that makes you jump for joy, a song you can head-bang to, or some other Picasso, some things just burst forth in a sudden and fervent explosion of productivity and creativity.
I think we’ve all had those moments when the pieces all click together, and a piece of work flows from us as easily as a hot knife through butter. During those moments, we feel alive, throbbing with a vibrant energy as our whole being is focused onto a single task. It’s an exhilarating feeling, yet at the same time, when you finally come down out of this strange natural high, it feels as though there was something slightly wrong about that, as if those who are capable of reaching that level often must have something wrong with them.