At the age of 82, Laura Cuartas is watching her four children deteriorate in front of her eyes. Starting around the age of 45, they developed what she describes as “the most terrifying illness of the world”, Alzheimer’s disease (AD). This early onset of the disease is due to a genetic mutation and it progresses rapidly. Within a few years after symptoms arise, around the age of 45, almost all sensation and function is gone. At age 61, Cuarta’s daughter Maria Elsy, is mute and fed by a nose tube. Her son, Dario, is 55 and babbles incoherently. Laura Cuarta is not the only parent who must take care of her children as they fall victim to this disease. In Antioquia, Colombia, she is a part of the largest known extended family to have this familial Alzheimer’s disease. Of the 5,000 members, about a third of them have the presenilin-1 dominant genetic mutation, guaranteeing they will get the disease.
Familial Alzheimer’s only accounts for about 10% of cases of AD. Most cases come from a genetic mutation at presenilin-1, presenilin-2 or the APP gene. Mutations to these genes almost guarantee that an individual will get the disease. For many years, this extended family’s strain of the disease was thought to be isolated, giving us no information about the Alzheimer’s most of us are familiar with- Sporadic Alzheimer’s Disease. This form has an onset of 65 years old. Other than age and family history, there has been no solid risk factor to explain why more than five million American’s are suffering. The APO4 gene has found to be a risk gene, meaning that mutations to this will increase your chances of developing AD, but the disease is not guaranteed. While Sporadic and Familial Alzheimer’s may have different causes, they both result in the same brain changes and symptoms. Plaques and tangles occur in the brain, along with a reduction of synaptic density and neuronal loss.
Ever wonder why children can learn certain things, such as languages, faster than adults? There is a time in every human’s life called the critical period, and it takes place during the most intense period of development, childhood. During this time a child’s brain has high neuroplasticity, almost like a sponge. Many new pathways are formed as the child experiences new things. It has always been believed that when our critical period ends it never comes back but recent study has been done with the drug Valproate that increased neural plasticity in adults and may have reopened this critical period.
Valproate is a drug most commonly used for bipolar disorder and epilepsy. It is also known to inhibit an enzyme called histone- deacetylase, or HDAC. HDAC is an enzyme in the brain that slows down neural plasticity. Inhibition of this enzyme by Valproate allows the reopening of pathways in the brain, increasing neuroplasticity, thus reopening the critical period.
If you have ever noticed that men tend to forget things quite often, especially compared to women, you are not alone. A research team led by Professor Jostein Holmen in Norway conducted a large, longitudinal population health study called Hunt3 to reach the conclusion that men are more forgetful than women, regardless of their age. This is one of the largest health studies ever performed, with answers from over 48,000 people leading to their conclusions.
The participants were asked at the beginning of the study if they had problems remembering things, if they had problems remembering dates and names, if they had a memory of what they did one year ago, and if they could remember details about specific conversations.
What if you were able to erase all of your painful memories by simply taking a pill? While this might sound like something out of a sci-fi film, a recent study conducted by a group of researchers at MIT suggests that it may be possible in the future.
The researchers say that they’ve identified a gene known as Tet1 that appears to be important in the process of “memory extinction.” Memory extinction is the natural process of older memories being overridden by newer experiences. In this process, conditioned responses to stimuli can change: what once elicited a fearful response doesn’t always need to if the danger has ceased.
In the study, researchers compared normal mice to mice without the Tet1 gene. The researchers conditioned all of the mice to fear a particular cage where they received a mild shock. Once the memory was formed, the researchers then put the mice in the cage but did not shock them. After a while, mice with the Tet1 gene lost their fear of the cage as new memories replaced the old ones. However, mice lacking the Tet1 gene remained fearful.
“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.
A research team led by Laura Matzen at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuqurque, NM has demonstrated that it is possible to predict how well people will remember information by monitoring their brain activity while studying. Matzen’s team monitored test volunteers with electroencephalography (EEG) sensors to make accurate predictions. Why bother making a prediction if the result will show how well someone remembered the information anyways? Matzen brought up this example, “if you had someone learning new material and you were recording the EEG, you might be able to tell them, ‘You’re going to forget this, you should study this again,’ or tell them, ‘OK, you got it and go on to the next thing.” Essentially providing a real-time performance metric, the applications of which many students would appreciate. More
What comes to mind when you think of Friday? Friends. A night off from work. Movies. Fun. Rebecca Black? Yikes. I don’t mean to remind you of such a low point in the history of American pop-culture but there is, in fact, a small amount of useful information to be extracted from the phenomenon that is Rebecca Black. Why did her music spread like an epidemic through the minds of millions of teens and adults worldwide? This event can be loosely related to what the Germans like to call an öhrwurm.
The term öhrwurm literally translates in English to “earworm”, and can be described as that inescapable occurrence of getting a song stuck in your head for an hour, a day, or even months at a time. The term is misleading in that the repetition of music does not occur in the ear but within the brain. For an experience that is so familiar to most people there is still much unknown as to how and why one contracts this stuck song syndrome. More
Scientists at the Bewundgen University in Germany discovered that a diet rich in petrolatum, a substance of hydrocarbons, can greatly improve performance on a wide variety of cognitive tasks.
The research, led by neuroscientist Dr. Hans Schweinstucken, followed three groups of human subjects for over a year. The first group was instructed to eat regularly, but to also consume 500 grams of petrolatum per day, in the morning after breakfast. The second group was given an energy-deficient supplement of sugar substitutes; and the third were not given anything at all. All groups were tested periodically on tasks of memory, abstract thinking, cognitive speed, and general agility. To their surprise, the researchers found that regular consumption of petrolatum improved subjects’ recall, memory retrieval and abstract thinking while reducing overall agility, motivation and ability to make decisions. In contrast, the group eating sugar substitutes performed significantly worse over time on tests of memory and abstract thinking, with 50% of the subjects hitting an all-time low of 25% correct responses on recall (vs. their performance prior to the experiment).
Dr. Schweinstucken speculates that the first group’s reduced motivation and agility may have something to do with their major weight gain, which by itself remains a mysterious side-effect. As for the mechanisms of action, Dr. Schweinstucken proposes that petrolatum acts via inhibitory GABAergic interneurons in neocortex, the brain part thought to be important in higher cognition, antagonizing GABA action and thereby reducing overall levels of inhibition in the brain. However, he warns that at higher doses than 500 grams per day, petrolatum may actually have a detrimental effect on cognition because it may saturate GABA receptors and the corresponding neurons, causing massive seizures; he is currently conducting experiments to test this hypothesis.
Meanwhile, for all you folks who have exams to study for, I recommend a trip to your local CVS, where petrolatum is sold over-the-counter as “Vaseline,” or petroleum jelly.
With the Pancakes for Parkinson’s event at Boston University nearing, on April 2nd, I thought it would be a good time to check up on the latest in Parkinson’s research.
Firstly, Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is a motor disorder that affects dopaminergic neurons of the brain, which are necessary in the coordination of movement. Onset is usually around age 60, starting with symptoms including tremor, stiffness, slowness of movement, and poor balance and coordination. While current treatments can help alleviate the symptoms in patients, none provide a cure.
Second off, the mission of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and other support groups is to find better treatments for those suffering from the disease. With the Baby Boomer generation entering late adulthood and old age, more research needs to be done to better understand the disease and help those with it find relief. Consider stopping by the GSU Alley for some pancakes to show your support for the Foundation and its cause next month!
Ranging from studying food intake to using technology, many approaches have been used in PD research. More
Do you ever wonder how you are able to remember the name of your third-grade teacher, or the skills you use to ride a bike, or even lines from your favorite movie? Well, if you haven’t then you should, because it takes the workings of many regions of our brain to combine all the different aspects of one memory into a cohesive unit.
The first step in this complex process deals with our perceptions and senses. Think about the last time you visited the beach. Recall the sound of the wind and birds, the sight of the sun and ocean, the smell of the salt water and the feeling of the hot sand and shells underfoot. Your brain merges all of these different perceptions together, crafting them into the “memory” that we are able to recall.
All of these separate sensations travel to the part of our brain called the hippocampus. Along with the frontal cortex, the hippocampus plays a huge part in our memory system. These two regions decide what is worth remembering and then store this information throughout the brain.
Perception starts the processes leading up to encoding and storage, which takes place through our brains’ synapses (or the gaps between neurons). Through these synapses, neurons are able to electrically and chemically transmit information between themselves. When an electric pulse is fired across the gap, it triggers the release of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.
From there, the spread of information begins. The neurotransmitters diffuse to neighboring cells and attach to them, forming thousands of links. All of these cells process and organize the information as a network. Similar areas of information are connected and are constantly being reorganized as our brain processes more and more.
Changes are reinforced with use. So let’s say you are learning to play a sport. The more you practice, the stronger the rewiring and connections will become, thus allowing the brain to do less work as the initiation of pulses becomes easier with repetitive firing. This is how you get better at a certain task and are able to perform at a higher level without making as many mistakes. But again, because our brain never stops the process of input and output, practice needs to be constant in order to promote strong information retention.
Knowing all of this, it probably comes as no surprise that the most basic function for ensuring proper memory encoding is to pay specific attention to what you are doing. We are exposed to thousands of things in very short amounts of time, so the majority of it is ignored. If we pay more attention to select, specific bits of information, we’ll have a higher potential to remember certain things (try it out for yourself in lecture).
Since the actual process has been discussed, we’ll go into greater detail about the types of memory we have and how they differ. There are three basic memory types that act as a filter systems for what we find important. This is based on what we need to know and for how long we need to know it.
The first is sensory memory, which is basically ultra-short-term memory. It is based off of input from the five senses and usually lasts a few seconds or so. An example would be looking at a car that passes by and remembering what color it was based on that split second intake. The effect is vaguely lingering, and is forgotten almost instantly.
Short-term memory is the next category. People sometimes refer to it as “the brain’s Post-it note”. It has the ability to retain around seven items of information for about less than a minute. Some examples would include telephone numbers or even a sentence that you quickly glance over (such as this one). You have to remember what is being said at the beginning to understand the context. Likewise, numbers are usually better remembered, and have longer staying power in the brain, when split up (800-493-2751 instead of 8004932751 for instance).
Repetition and conscious effort to retain information leads to the transformation of short-term memory into long-term memory. By rehearsing information without interference or disturbances, one is better able to remember things and ingrain them into his/her brain. This is a gradual process, but it proves why studying is important! Unlike the other two memory categories, long-term memory has the ability to retain unlimited amounts of information for a seemingly indefinite amount of time.
A piece of information must pass from both sensory and short-term memory to successfully be encoded in long-term memory. Failure to do so generally leads to the phenomenon known as “forgetting”, something that many of us are all too familiar with ironically enough!
To give a common example of long-term encoding and memory retrieval, consider trying to recall where you have put your keys down. First, you must register where you are putting your keys and attention while putting them down so that you can remember later. Accomplishing all of this helps a memory to be stored, retained, and ready for retrieval when necessary.
Forgetting may deal with distraction, or simply just failure to properly retrieve a memory. That being said, it should be noted that there is no predisposition to having a “good” or a “bad” memories. Most people are good at remembering certain things (numbers, procedures and mechanisms for example) better than others (names, phrases, or even entire plays) and vice versa. It all depends on where you are able to focus your interests and your attention.
Hopefully, you will be able to remember some of this so that you can use your understanding of the complexities of the brain and memory encoding to your advantage. After all, your brain does all the hard work for you! Now you just need to pay attention and focus on what you find important and what you want to remember to best suit your own needs.
How Human Memory Works – Discovery Health
Types of Memory – The Human Memory
How Does Human Memory Work? – USATODAY.com