In some situations, we end up surprising ourselves by how we act. These are the moments when we act automatically without thinking. It is as if we really didn’t know what was going to happen.
We have different narratives running through our minds, even without our conscious awareness. Underlying these narratives are complex networks of axonal tracts, synapses, and feedback loops. They interconnect and correspond in ways we don’t yet know, revealing explanations for human behavior that cannot otherwise be explained. One such explanation proposes that moral judgment and moral action are two separate entities, processed differently within and across individuals.
A study conducted at Plymouth University reveals compelling evidence for separate processes defining moral judgement and action. By comparing predicted action in textbook moral paradigms and actions in virtual reality moral paradigms, the research team revealed divergent results that suggest separate mechanisms.
In the textbook paradigms, most predicted that they would not sacrifice others for a greater good, whereas in the virtual reality paradigm, they did act in a utilitarian manner. Interestingly, antisocial traits in subjects were also examined, and such traits only predicted actions in the virtual reality paradigm. These findings show that there can be stark differences between what we say we would do and what we would actually do. It also shows that to get better insight regarding what people might actually do, virtual reality is a useful tool and testing paradigm compared to other non-realistic methods.
Clearly, morality is a complex human trait. A study like this shows us why we may have such difficulty making hard moral decisions. Trying to reconcile what we think we would do versus what we would actually do might be so hard simply because our brains make it that way.
~ Jackie Rocheleau
What exactly is oxytocin? You may have heard it referred to before as the “love hormone,” since it is commonly associated with good feelings and emotions, but in truth, oxytocin serves as both a complex hormone and neurotransmitter, producing a variety of responses particularly in the brain.
The oxytocin that affects behavior is produced in the brain and spinal cord, specifically their centrally projecting oxytocin neurons, as oxytocin secreted from the pituitary gland cannot re-enter the brain due to the blood-brain barrier. The neurons expressing oxytocin receptors can be found in various regions of the brain such as the amygdala, brainstem, and ventromedial hypothalamus.
Since the 1970s, various studies have recorded how oxytocin affects social interaction in different species. Oxytocin has been shown to influence monogamous pair bond formation in voles, mother-infant bonding in sheep, and trust in humans. Thus, the molecule has earned a reputation as a “cuddle” hormone capable of improving social interaction, which has resulted in some clinicians to try to use it in order to treat certain psychiatric conditions such as autism spectrum disorder. However, since the early trials have had mixed results, scientists are currently striving to obtain a better understanding of how oxytocin works in the brain.
More recent studies have shown that oxytocin suppresses inhibitory neurons (which reduce neural activity), thereby allowing excitatory cells to respond more strongly and reliably. As a result of improved signal transmission, oxytocin appears to overall enhance the brain’s response to socially relevant stimuli. In addition, oxytocin has been shown to work along with the serotonin neurotransmitter to increase inhibition in the nucleus accumbens, a brain region involved in the reward circuit.
Although scientists have begun to realize the importance of oxytocin in analyzing social information, more research must be done in regards to how the molecule helps the brain to process social stimuli and how it affects various neural circuits before it can effectively be used along with behavioral therapies to treat psychiatric conditions.
~ Nathaniel Meshberg
Reading and responding to emotions often tends to be a very humanistic thing to do. To be able to understand how one is thinking and how one will respond appropriately, typically is what many would regard as making people human. Recently however, researchers have found that computers may be able to read a person’s body language to see whether they are bored or interested in what is happening on the screen. Dr. Harry Wichel, Discipline Leader in Physiology at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, has shown in his new study that by measuring a person’s movement through a computer, a person’s interest can be judged by following tiny movements; while someone is fully engaged in what they are doing – small involuntary movements decrease, and vice versa. It is said that with this technology, future applications such as online tutoring could be better used as they can be adjusted based on the person’s interest.
This progression in technology is a giant leap for the prospect of artificial intelligence. Having computers respond to emotions and interests of an individual and act accordingly makes it so that humans do not have to control the computer, but rather the computer has control over itself. Examples of artificial intelligence, or at least the very beginnings of it, have already been made – such as with automatic car controls, or flying drones. This is a new leap for artificial intelligence and the question now becomes whether we are able to continue on this path without any consequences. What will artificial intelligence be like in a few decades? How will we prepare for that day? Only time will be able to tell, but we are progressing fast.
Recent research has discovered new ways to deliver drugs to the brain through the blood brain barrier. This blood brain barrier is created by specialized cells that safeguard the brain from unwanted substances. Cornell researchers were able to create a drug called Lexiscan, which activates receptors that are on the blood brain barrier. Their goal in developing this drug was to open the barrier for a brief amount of time, just enough to deliver the pharmacological treatment to the brain in order to treat neurological disorders. They were able to make headway by delivering chemotherapy drugs into the brains of mice with Lexiscan and then having the antibodies bind onto the Amyloid-β plaques present in Alzheimer’s disease. This new breakthrough shows not only a new development in the pharmaceutical industry, but a new approach to treat diseases that would otherwise be left untreated because of the inability of other therapies to pass through the blood brain barrier. Diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism, and brain tumors that were otherwise unable to be treated with drug therapy, all have a new potential to be cured as drugs are now able to cross the blood brain barrier.
Good news! If you have no motivation to exercise, it may not be your fault. Blame your mom instead! Studies at Baylor College of Medicine with pregnant mice show that mice that exercise more (on a volunteer basis) are more likely to produce offspring that are also physically active in adulthood. This study correlates with observational studies in humans that have shown that more physically active pregnant women produce physically active children. In addition, physical exercise when pregnant could also lead to higher neural functioning in the offspring.
The experimenters at Baylor Medical postulate that exercise chemically influences fetal brain development, providing the offspring with a neurological impetus for exercise. This study examines what is referred to as “developmental programming,” or how actions during pregnancy can influence fetal development. During fetal development, the brain undergoes A LOT of development with complex cell division and migration choreography occurring throughout the duration of pregnancy. This means that there is ample time for the mother to influence, positively or negatively, the neural development of her child, as seen in babies born addicted to certain drugs. Although physical activity of the mother does not influence the fetus in the same way that drugs do, it does appear to be quite impactful, visibly influencing the baby after birth and throughout life.
Doctors have recommended exercise for pregnant women for years, and these findings provide another motivation for the prescription. The study also notes that aside from inducing a propensity for physical activity, exercising during a pregnancy can also increase the child’s short-term memory and spatial learning capacities. Not only can exercise influence exercise affinity, but it can also affect how a child learns.
The award-winning movie “Rain Man” tells a story about a car dealer and his autistic brother, Raymond, who go on a life-changing, cross-country trip. The character Raymond from this popular movie was inspired by Kim Peek, a savant in real life. Savant Syndrome is a condition in which someone with a mental disability demonstrates profound and exceptional abilities beyond what is considered normal, and it is incredibly rare. In fact, there are currently fewer than 50 savants existing in the world. Although savant syndrome is commonly associated with autism, such as in “Rain Man,” many savants are not autistic and most people with autism are not savants.
Kim Peek, or “Rain man,” suffered from FG syndrome, a genetic condition that affects intelligence and behavior. He also lacked a corpus callosum, which is the bundle of nerve fibers connecting the two hemispheres of the brain, and was born with macrocephaly—a condition in which the brain is enlarged. Due to these brain abnormalities, Kim developed many special abilities, such as an astounding memory and advanced mental calculation and speed-reading skills. Kim was able to read both pages of a book simultaneously while retaining 98 percent of the information. On the other hand, Kim also had difficulties with many tasks, such as logistical math problems, following certain directions, and reduced physical coordination.
If you are interested in finding out more on this topic, this documentary gives a more in-depth look into Kim Peek’s life.
Professor Somers’s Lectures
Most of us rely on our eyes in order to help us interact with the world on a daily basis. Yet the visual system often distorts what we see, so what we think we see is actually an altered reality. According to Dr. Mareschal, as quoted in an article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, “[i]n fact a lot of it is distortion, and it is occurring in the early processing of the brain, before consciousness takes over. Our [researchers from the University of Sydney’s School of Psychology and The Vision Centre] work shows that the cells of the primary visual cortex create small distortions, which then pass on to the higher level of the brain, to interpret as best it can…And we found that even the higher brain cannot always correct for them, as it doesn’t in fact know they are illusions.”
In agreement with previously discovered results, Dr. Mareschal and her colleague Professor Clifford found that these illusions were occurring during early processing in the brain, prior to consciousness. They then went on to be the first labs to report being able to connect the origin of the tilt illusion to the cells of the primary visual cortex, a highly specialized region in the occipital lobe of the brain. Let me take this chance to explain what the tilt illusion is. Take a look at this image before reading on:
What direction do the lines of the inner circle appear to be rotated in: clockwise, counterclockwise, or not at all? Notice how the lines in the inner circle appear to be tilted counterclockwise. Here’s the catch though: they’re actually vertical.
Why is this? According to Mareschal and Clifford, the brain looks to the surroundings for contextual information in order to determine the pattern and alignment of an image. Therefore, because the lines in the outer circle are tilted clockwise and because the lines in the inner circle are tilted away from those of the outer circle, the brain concludes that they must be sloped counterclockwise, while the truth is they are simply vertical.
Here is an example of how our brain utilizes context clues to help us form images in our brain: What are these broken pieces a part of?
Can you see it now?
The only thing that changed between the first picture and the second picture is the presence of the spilled ink. In the first image, there is too much empty space for the brain to piece together the image because the missing pieces of the image and the background are both white. However, in the second image, the black ink connects the pieces of the image, allowing our brain to put them together into a familiar object – the letter B. Here, we use the presence of contextual clues to trick our brains into recognizing the image.
Here is a final example of how our brain can be tricked by contextual information: Is square A or square B darker?
Trick question! The two squares are actually the same shade of grey, despite the fact that they appear different. We are able to see this by connecting the two squares with grey strips of the same shade throughout.
In order to explain this, we need to discuss the successes demonstrated by our visual system as well as the failures while interpreting this image. Notice that square A is supposedly a dark checker and square B is a light one. Due to the arrangement of squares on a checkerboard, lighter checkers will be surrounded by darker checkers and, likewise, darker checkers will be surrounded by lighter ones. Despite the presence of the shadow, ultimately making all of the checkers within the shadow a “darker shade of paint,” square B is still surrounded by darker tiles. This contextual information cues our brain to recognizes B as a light checker and A as a dark one, although we have now proven that they are actually the same shade of grey.
So to summarize: “All I know is that I know nothing” ~ Socrates
Professor Gavornik’s Principles of Neuroscience Lectures – Thanks!
During our introductory neuroscience courses, we’re taught that the brain has very poor healing capabilities following an injury. This has always stuck with me because of how terrifying it sounds—if something happens to your brain, it’s pretty much goodbye to that part of the brain. Putting this harrowing thought aside, new research has shown that astrocytes, star-shaped neurons, are of a greater adaptability and plasticity than what was originally believed, playing an important role in healing the brain following an injury.
A study performed at McGill University revealed that following an injury, surrounding neurons can adjust astrocytes in a way similar to the turning of a dial, changing the function and capabilities of the astrocyte. The Researchers used Bergmann glia, a type of astrocyte, and Purkinje cells, a neuron that secretes a protein referred to as Sonic Hedgehog, to study these effects. They found that the release of this specially named protein induces significant changes in astrocytes that promote healing.
This discovery is significant for two reasons: firstly, we believed the brain to have very poor recovery capabilities and secondly, we formerly believed that neuronal cells were hardwired during development to perform a single, specific function. Both of these are wrong. Not only does this study show that astrocytes are quite active in neural healing, but it also shows that they are not limited to one specific function, and can adapt to whatever the environment demands based on the Sonic Hedgehog signaling pathway.
On a personal level these findings are exciting because maybe it means I don’t need to be as paranoid about getting a head injury. Sonic the Hedgehog is on my side if anything bad goes wrong up there.
Coffee. Tea. Energy drinks. Almost everyone drinks at least one to get an energy boost; we have caffeine, the active ingredient in such beverages to thank for that boost. But how exactly does caffeine work – how does it affect the brain and its functions?
Caffeine is considered a stimulant; the drug temporarily improves either mental functions, physical functions, or both. Studies performed by the European Food Safety Authority show that there is a cause and effect relation between improved alertness, attention, and concentration, and 75mg of caffeine (the amount in a regular cup of coffee). The energy boost obtained from caffeine comes from a multitude of neural circuits becoming activated, resulting in the release of adrenaline – the “fight or flight” hormone – from the adrenal gland. Some studies also show that caffeine improves memory based performance, although excessive intake may actually decrease performance, possibly due to overstimulation.
Despite improving mental performance, caffeine has been shown to negatively affect sleep patterns, because the drug reduces the activity of the neuromodulator adenosine, which is responsible for facilitating sleep and slowing down neural activity. Research suggests that if one’s sleep quality declines as a result of high caffeine intake, one can regain sleep quality by abstaining from caffeinated beverages for a whole day.
According to the World Health Organization and several studies, caffeine does not induce dependence. In fact, brain mapping technology shows that caffeine is not linked to the brain’s circuit of dependence. However, caffeine increases the production of dopamine in the brain’s pleasure circuits so that abrupt cessation of caffeine consumption may lead to withdrawal symptoms in some regular caffeine consumers, resulting in headaches, reduced awareness, and drowsiness. These symptoms are generally not severe though, and are transient. If caffeine intake is decreased progressively instead of abruptly, these symptoms can be avoided altogether.
Amyloid Beta Plaques are bundles of protein that accumulate at certain locations within the body, commonly leading to Alzheimer’s Disease, and sometimes other diseases. As a result, scientists are trying to study Amyloid Beta proteins to understand the disease, and any other neurodegenerative diseases related to Alzheimer’s Disease. As for whether the protein itself is toxic or not, that depends on the shape of the Amyloid beta. Amyloid beta (ABeta) only becomes toxic when it forms small bundles, and it become less toxic as they form larger fibrillar structures. The effects of shape on toxicity were discovered by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in India, where scientists used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and froze the samples of ABeta to determine the structure during the different times of evolution. They also found that the toxicity begins to occur due to a transition from intramolecular to intermolecular beta sheets, which makes them less toxic. Discovering how to manipulate the toxic form may ultimately lead to the reduction in the toxicity of certain drugs and also a greater understanding of the molecular basis of man diseases.
Another way to reduce plaque formation is with a new candidate for a drug – a molecule in snake venom that is able to activate the enzymes that break down the plaques in the brain. It was recently discovered by Dr. Sanjaya Kuruppu and Professor Ian Smith from Monash University’s Biomedicine Discovery Institute that this one molecule was able to enhance the enzymes’ ability to break down plaque in the venom of a pit viper from South America. As more discoveries are being made about amyloid beta plaques, we get closer to unraveling its molecular mystery, and hopefully soon we will be able to reduce the harmful side effects of certain drugs or even prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s from occurring at all.