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.
On January 17th, the talented Lazaro Arbos, a 21-year-old from Florida, went viral on Youtube for his amazing performance during his American Idol audition. The most impressive part of his beautiful voice? The fact that it was stutter-free.
During normal speech, Arbos involuntarily makes long pauses and extended vowels, using his hands to trace the words he is trying to convey. However, as soon as he starts to sing, the difficulty disappears. His new Twitter fans are calling it a divine miracle, but the phenomenon is well-known to many stutter sufferers – industry legend has it that B.B.King and Carly Simon were among them!
What’s going on here? The disorder is highly varied in its presentation and severity, so science is far from a consensus about the etiology, though there have been some compelling findings. One 2003 study by Van Borsel et al. at the Ghent University Hospital in Belgium showed a marked increase in activation of the right hemisphere during speech in fMRI studies of patients with the speech disorder; more so than in normal speakers, leading to the idea that perhaps this over-activation is interfering with the fluent production of speech on the left. Specifically, a study of stutterers in Frankfurt, Germany found that activity in the right frontal operculum was negatively correlated with the severity of stuttering symptoms in patients, suggesting a compensational role. This area has been associated with timing tasks in speech in healthy controls, adding further possible significance to the specific dysfunction in verbal timing seen in stutterers.
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.
Do you remember telling a lie at 2, 3, or 4? Well, feel guilty no more! Lying is actually a reliable sign of higher cognitive functioning. It was previously accepted that children were able to start lying at 3.5 years and no earlier. However, a recent study by psychologist Angela Evans found that 25% of two-year olds, 50% of three-year olds, and 80% of four-year olds were capable of lies.
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.
The Human Connectome Project (HCP) has started trials on volunteers with a state-of-the-art scanner.
Today’s technology allows neuroscientists to map the brain’s connections on an unprecedented level of detail. The ultimate goal of the HCP is to create a map, or connectome, of every neuron and synapse to better understand how the brain works. A better understanding of the brain means a better understanding of brain disorders like schizophrenia or autism, which in turn means better treatment.
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!)
Recently, 23 year old Kim Suozzi who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer was seeking financial help for cryonic suspension. Diagnosed with an aggressive form of Glioblastoma multiforme, Kim died on January 17th and spent the final two weeks of her life at a hospice in Scottsdale, Arizona, close by to the cryopreservation center that she chose.
Suozzi was seeking financial help for her suspensial, which proved controversial but is now settled since the Alcor board agreed to fund her cryopreservation as a charity case, stating “The board accepted the CEO’s recommendation to accept Kim Suozzi as a charity case, based on arrangements that will reduce Alcor’s costs. The full allocation of $25,000 to the patient care trust fund will be made. Alcor members have contributed to the fundraising effort to enable Kim to be cryopreserved.” More controversial, however, is the possiblilty that many terminally ill patients might seek preservation as charity cases, potentially impacting the viability of the entire operation. Furthermore, cryopreservation is not a cure in itself, terminally ill patients could possibly not be the best test subjects for a successful preservation and revival simply due to the chance of succeeding.
Here’s a great TED Talk to get everyone thinking today.
Tyler DeWitt is a PhD candidate at MIT and an advocate of the idea that science education in high schools needs to take a turn for the less serious if we want kids to really get excited about it. Instead of the highly technical jargon of textbooks, he is in favor of turning science lessons into storytelling. “Science has become that horrible storyteller…who gives us all the details nobody cares about,” DeWitt says, and his goal is to change that. DeWitt also has a growing library of YouTube videos aiming at exposing students to topics in biology, chemistry, physics, and math in a fun, engaging, and (perhaps most importantly) relatable way.