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!
At his State of the Union address nearly two months ago, President Obama announced plans for the Brain Activity Map (BAM) project (see The Nerve blog Part 1 and Part 2), a billion-dollar ten-year research initiative to gain a better understanding of the brain and to provide deeper insights into diseases like Alzheimer Disease, Parkinson Disease, and Autism Spectrum Disorder.
On Tuesday, April 2nd, the President announced that he plans to include the BAM project – now termed the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative – in his 2014 budget proposal. The director of the NIH, Dr. Francis Collins, notes that one of the major goals of the project is to simultaneously sample from many neurons in real-time. Although existing technology can measure the activities of single neurons and of brain regions, it cannot measure those of circuits. Because existing technology has not yet advanced to a level that allows such complex analysis, the BRAIN initiative will be initially funded $100 million for the year of 2014 to develop and advance neuroscience technologies. Yearly negotiations will take place to determine future funding.
“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.
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.
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.
Whether you’ve read an article, listened to the radio, watched the news, or heard from a friend, I’m sure you already know that President Obama and his administration have been planning to enrich our future as mind and brain enthusiasts. However, if you have been under a rock, studying for midterms, or working (way too much), you may be asking – how? Well, do you know the whole Human Genome Project thing? How it revolutionized genetics? Just like geneticists who were able to map the complete human genome by 2003, neuroscientists will be given the goal of more fully understanding the human brain by building a map of its activity.
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.