A topic that has become more and more prevalent over the last few years is the effect of anxiety on attentiveness. How anxiety affects attention depends on the type of anxiety that is experienced. Most people experience state anxiety, in other words, a higher threat value is placed on a particular situation or stimulus. Feeling anxious during a very important midterm is an example of state anxiety. Another type of anxiety is trait anxiety, which is the tendency to focus one’s attention towards the stimulus causing the anxiety. In other words, to think only about the exam, instead of non-anxiety inducing stimuli.
Attention itself is composed of three independent networks: the alerting network, the orienting network, and the executive network. The alerting network is responsible for maintaining an appropriate level of sensitivity to the stimulus through activation of the right frontal and parietal areas of the brain. The orienting network attends to information coming from a specific stimulus among numerous sensory stimuli. This network is associated with activation in the superior parietal lobe, frontal eye fields, and temporoparietal junction. The executive network is responsible for conflict resolution and voluntary action control of the stimulus, and is related to the medial frontal areas of the brain, as well as the cingulate gyrus and lateral prefrontal cortex.
Two experiments were performed by the Department of Psychology and Physiology at the University of Granada and the Department of Neurology at Washington University School of Medicine to learn more about the relationship between these two different types of anxiety and attention. The first focused on trait anxiety, while the second focused on state anxiety.
The first experiment featured a group of individuals with either high or low trait anxiety, and another group of individuals with average trait anxiety. The two groups were made to perform various computer tasks that played to each specific network of attention. What the researchers found was that individuals with high-trait-anxiety had a more difficult time controlling interference in the computer tasks than those with low-trait-anxiety. However, the results of the alerting and orienting tasks were very similar for both groups. Those with high-trait anxiety had a difficult time responding to the task’s demands.
The second experiment also separated participants into two groups for anxious mood induction and non-anxious mood induction. One group was shown pleasant pictures and the other was shown unpleasant pictures, both groups were tasked with becoming emotionally involved in what they were seeing. In the group shown the negative stimuli (the unpleasant pictures), more emphasis was put on the lack of control over the negative circumstances represented in the image. The positive stimuli (the pleasant pictures) in the other group focused more on goal achievement. The individuals shown the negative stimuli revealed higher levels of anxiety than those shown the positive stimuli.
The results of the experiments revealed that both state and trait anxiety have a significant impact on attentional networks. State anxiety was found to have a greater impact on the alerting and orienting networks of attention, because they are more closely related to contextual sensitivity and vigilance processes. High state anxiety was found to be the result of a heightened response in the amygdala and superior temporal sulcus (regions activated during the assessment of valence facial expressions). It was also found that the executive network was less efficient in those with high-trait-anxiety than those with low-trait-anxiety because the executive network determines control, which is what those with high-trait-anxiety were lacking. High trait anxiety was related to a reduced prefrontal response (the region related to controlling complex processes). It was concluded that trait anxiety was responsible for a “reduced-general cognitive control capacity”.
1. Attention and Anxiety: Different Attentional Functioning Under State and Trait Anxiety
Memory has always been and still is a subject of interest for many neuroscientists. Whether it pertains to increasing memory or finding cures to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, memory is always a topic of interest for neuroscientists. Recently, there have been studies conducted by both the Institute of Basic Science and Advancing Science, Serving Society (AAAS) that have found genes that are suppressed or inhibited that prevent the formation of these long term memories. Increased hippocampal activity also is shown to have treatments toward age related memory loss, which could relate to the genes found by the AAAS and the IBS.
The IBS Center, using a technique called Ribosome profiling, was able to analyze the hippocampus of a mouse model and showed that gene regulation actually suppressed the formation of memory. According to the article “When an animal experiences no stimulus in an environment the hippocampus undergoes gene repression which prevents the formation of new memories”, showing activity of the neurons help prevent this gene regulation which allows the formation of memory. Natasha Pinol from the AAAS also found a similar action in his studies however showed that one estrogen receptor actually helped regulate the memories after learning instead of inhibiting it, as Jun Cho for IBS has found.
Although these particular genes themselves might still have their purposes unknown to the world, these findings can definitely be used to help with age related memory loss such as Alzheimer’s disease. Through a study done at Northwestern University by Marla Paul, it is shown that decreasing certain activity and increasing other activity could lead to an increase in memory formation. Although they did not target the same genes that Cho and Pinol targeted, this really shows how much more we are learning about the hippocampus, as memory is formed through a moderation of genes.
– Albert Wang
Music has been scientifically proven as beneficial, having effects such as reducing stress, enhancing blood vessel function, improving sleep quality, and improving cognitive performance. However, one thing that music does not improve is one’s ability to focus. In a recent study conducted at Georgia Institute of Technology, researchers found that listening to music decreased the efficiency of remembering names.
Participants in this study were asked to match faces to names, a task that involves associative memory. In associative memory, a memory of an event or place is triggered by the recollection of something associated with it. Music is heavily involved in associative memory, which is why it can be upsetting to listen to certain songs if you have associated them with an ex-significant other. Much like other types of memory, associative memories are processed in the hippocampus of the brain.
Some participants completed this name-face test in silence, while others had non-lyrical music playing in the background. All age groups of participants agreed that the music was distracting from the test, but only the scores of the older adults were affected by it.
How would you feel if you had the choice of having billions of tiny robots injected into your body? A pretty unpleasant thought, am I right? What if I told you that these tiny robots could repair any mutation you may have in your DNA? Sound far-fetched? Well, scientists have been making huge breakthroughs in this! It’s called nanotechnology. These small robots are like tiny computers that are coded to attach to specific cells in your body and carry them from point A to point B. These tiny robots, 1-100nm in size (or 1 and 100 billionth of a meter!), are like transporters; they pick up the target cell at point A and move it to point B. Point B can be anything from the trash, (cell death) if the cell is not needed anymore, to another part of the body where the cell is needed. They also have the ability to reprogram a cell’s biology. If more of one cell is needed in a particular area it can bring that cell to the specified area and “tell” it to replicate. Basically, nanotechnology will eventually perfect every single cell in your body.
When I read a book, I get so immersed in the lives of the characters, I find myself anxious and on edge even though I know Katniss’ and Peeta’s tragic romantic life have no bearing on my reality. The fact that characters fabricated from mere words can have this effect on us is pretty incredible. Roel Willems and Annabel Nijhof thought so too apparently, as they recently published a study revealing the neurological effects of listening to audiobooks.
In the experiment, researchers had the subjects listen to chapters of several different audiobooks and recorded their neurological responses using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). By analyzing the results, Willems and Nijhof determined that the subjects focused most on either the actions of characters or the feelings and intentions of characters. In the subjects that reported to prefer empathizing with the characters more, the fMRIs showed heightened activity in the anterior medial prefrontal cortex, whereas those that reported enjoying the action aspect of the story more had elevated activity in the motor cortex. More
Shaking hands dates back centuries, with many cultural explanations to back up the ancient customs. One study suggests that the true reason we shake hands is to find out what this new friend smells like. Why? Smell is a “socially significant chemical signal,” used by many other species in social interactions. The researchers conducting this Weizmann Institute study hypothesize that shaking hands is a subliminal way for us to register the smell of others, a primal social custom that survived evolution.
To begin the experiment, the researchers needed to determine if a handshake was enough to transfer detectable body odor. One subject wore a glove on their right hand and the other did not. When the glove was tested after the two subjects shook hands, odor residues containing “meaningful chemical signals” were found on the glove. The next step was to determine the amount of time (if any) spent sniffing the right hand after shaking hands. Around three hundred volunteers, unaware of the purpose of the experiment, were greeted by researchers via a handshake. Surveillance cameras in the room recorded the scene and showed how much time subjects spend sniffing their hands after the encounter. To ensure the subjects were actually subconsciously smelling their hands, nasal air flow was also recorded.
Did anyone read that article in BU today last week called “Untangling the Connectome?” In case you didn’t, here’s a brief synopsis. Dr. Kasthuri and his lab members are working on identifying the connections between the neurons in the human brain. This has been done before for C. elegans, which have only 302 neurons (compared to our 100 trillion). So, imagine how complex this project is and how much data is contained in one tiny slice of human brain?! In the article, Kasthuri said that a brain slice with the volume of “a millimeter cubed, at the resolution we would like, is about two million gigabytes of data” .That’s crazy. The Kasthuri lab implemented a clever method (Figure 1) to take images of 30 nm brain slices that provide the high resolution pictures they’re looking for.
Basically, the brain volume is immersed in plastic and cut with a diamond knife to ensure precision. Since the slices are somewhat floppy, they are collected in water then picked up by a conveyor belt. While on the conveyor belt, an electron microscope takes a quick shot of the brain tissue and next a collection of images is put together to create a accurate image of the initial brain volume. Methods can be used to break down the image of the brain volume into components such as axons, dendrites, etc. (Figure 2). Pretty cool, right? The implications of this research is that understanding the connections in our brain can teach us about brain development and memory functions.
The Human Connectome project at Mass General Hospital (MGH) is working on developing high resolution neuroimaging methods. They’re working on figuring out how varying white matter fiber connectivity correlates to brain function and how cytoarchitectonics (the pattern of neuron organization/density in different areas of the brain, used to decipher Brodmann’s areas in the brain) can influence brain connectivity . Methods they’re using include diffusion spectrum imaging (DSI), which is similar to diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) as both allow scientists to observe white matter connectivity since water diffuses parallel to white matter tracts. DTI measures the preferred and mean direction of the diffusion of water while DSI measures it in many different directions . Scientists at MGH are also working on developing tools for high angular diffusion imaging (HARDI), which “address[es] the challenge of imaging crossing fibers by applying a stronger magnetic gradient for a longer time and capturing many more images of diffusion in various directions” .
Researchers are hoping to find patterns of connectivity by deciphering how our 100 trillion neurons are linked. This information could help scientists better understand the roots of different neurological or neurodegenerative diseases where perhaps neural connectivity differs significantly. This is a challenging project but the results of it could be a major breakthrough for neuroscience.
~ Srijesa K.
When I read a book such as the one about the romantic life of Peeta and Katniss, I delve into the lives of the characters so much that I worry about myself because I relate myself to the characters’ fantastical lives. All readers face this and that is incredible. Neuroscientists like Roel Willems and Annabel Nijhof would completely agree. In fact, they recently published a study revealing the neurological effects of listening to audiobooks.
In the experiment, researchers had the subjects listen to chapters of several different audiobooks and recorded their neurological responses using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). According to the results, the subjects focused mostly on either the actions of characters or the feelings and intentions of the characters. In the subjects that reported to prefer empathizing with the characters more, the fMRIs showed heightened activity in the anterior medial prefrontal cortex, whereas those that reported enjoying the action aspect of the story more had elevated activity in the motor cortex. Interestingly enough, the subjects that showed higher activation of the anterior medial prefrontal cortex displayed lower activation of the motor cortex when listening to the action parts of the stories. On the contrary, the subjects that engaged more with the actions of the story were applicable. This study provides neurological evidence that people relatively have different strengths and preferences when it comes to reading.
These findings imply this study could be used to know how people engage with literature. If we master what literature people prefer, we might be able to turn literature into a very fun activity. This research also offers further understanding on how we process language. As stated above, it shows that when listening to narration some people focus more on empathizing aspects while others focus more on the action-packed plot. Not only this teaches how we read books, but also how we process written and oral stories.
The Mentioned Experiment: http://neurosciencenews.com/literature-neuroimaging-psychology-1748/
Have you ever searched for a ringing phone, feeling your anxiety increase with each ring? Or experienced a mini heart attack when you thought you lost your phone only to discover it was in a different pocket? Most older generations would criticize you for being so obsessed with technology, but recent studies have shown that ‘iPhone separation anxiety’ is a real disorder – and it is plaguing the younger generations of today’s society.
The average person spends about two hours and fifty-seven minutes on a smartphone or tablet every day. Most of us get stressed out if we misplace our phone, are constantly checking for notifications, and even feel ‘phantom vibrations’ – a sensation that we have received a notification when we really have not. Most people would dismiss this anxiety as an unhealthy obsession with technology, but research has shown that these feelings are legitimate and smartphone separation can have serious psychological and physiological effects.
Scientists have known about rhodopsins that are responsible for sensing light for a while. What if there was a way to insert those rhodopsins inside neurons? That’s exactly what scientists were experimenting with in the early 2000s and it’s this idea that lead to the birth of optogenetics. By taking the DNA of channel rhodopsins from algae and inserting them into the membrane of neurons, scientists were able to make neurons sensitive to particular wavelengths of light. Channel rhodopsin and halorhodopsin are among the opins inserted into neurons by injecting viruses. Channel rhodopsin activates neurons while halorhodopsin silences them. Once the neuron expresses the light-gated cation channel channelrhodopsin-2 in its cells membrane, shining light on it for as little as a few milliseconds has a profound effect. It causes the opening of the channelrohodopsin-2 molecules, allowing positively charged ions to enter cell and cause the cell to fire.
Check out this video to see how optogenetics works.
Many experiments today use optogenetics to selectively turn neurons on and off in mice. What makes this method mind blowing is the high spatial and temporal resolution it gives scientists when working with the brain. It can be used on neurons in on a petri dish or within a living animal. It could be used to learn more about the function of particular brain regions. For instance, one could temporarily inactivate one region to observe how it impacts activity in other connected brain regions.
Furthermore, it’s minimally invasive: once the virus containing the rhodopsin has been injected, all the scientist needs to do is shine a pulse of light. Researchers at Stanford have used optogenetics to induce muscle contractions in mice. At Case Western Reserve University, researchers implemented it to restore motor function in rats paralyzed by spinal cord injuries. Could optogenetics be used to recover vision loss, something most humans deal with as they age? Experiments conducted on mice with a lack of photoreceptors shows that shining light on bipolar cells (containing channelrhodopsin-2) causes action potentials to fire in the visual cortex. It would be amazing if scientists could overcome biomedical and technical obstacles to make this work in humans too.
Across the river at MIT, members of the Tonegawa lab have taken the technique of optogenetics one step further. Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu have been working to localize memories in the brain and activate them with a light “switch”. And they have accomplished this feat in mice. Promising experiments with mice suggest optogenetics can be used to turn off traumatizing memories and activate pleasant once. This could have implications for PTSD, where horrific memories could be suppressed. They also have experimented with the idea of implanting false memories into the brain, which they call “Project Inception.” For more information on this work (and a good laugh), check out Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu’s TED talk.
Seems to me like optogenetics is a promising technique that can lead to breakthroughs in neuroscience.
 “The Birth of Optogenetics” http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/30756/title/The-Birth-of-Optogenetics/
 “Potential Benefits of Optogenetics” http://optogenetics.weebly.com/what-is-it1.html