By Natalie Banacos

The Birds

March 26th, 2013 in Arts + Media, Opinion 0 comments

In my vision modeling class this week, we were learning about the structure of the (primate) visual cortex and one of my classmates posed an interesting question: how is it that birds sustain such amazing visual acuity when they don’t seem to have the cortical volume to process that detailed information? In other words, how does a bird brain deal witha bird’s eye view? I’m curious – and I still am, because so far I have not found a lot of research on the topic. Indeed, I imagine it’s difficult to come up with a definitive way to determine what a bird is experiencing for the sake of a laboratory experiment. Although, if I had to hazard a guess, perhaps much of a bird’s reaction to what it sees relies on more primitive structures – maybe birds rely more on instinct than interpretation? While this seems to remain mysterious, scientists do know some neat stuff about how birds’ eyes function in ways that allow them to see what we can’t. Check it out!

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Looking for Fear

February 11th, 2013 in Article 0 comments

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!)


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Happy Holidays!

December 18th, 2012 in Uncategorized 1 comment

Pretty music with pretty pictures: all of our brains love that (nothing new to neuroscience there)! Have a fantastic holiday season everyone!





A Chocolate Curiosity

November 9th, 2012 in Article 2 comments

It is certainly satisfying to see scientific evidence that your favorite foods are really good for you.  And I’m not just talking about chocolate. That’s next, I promise. But check out all of these delicious things that can improve your cardiovascular health and as a result, cognitive function! Miracle blackberries, anyone?

(Circulation. 2009;119:1433-1441)

All of these wonderful things contain flavanols (a group of plant-derived flavanoids that exist as either one of the monomers catechin or epicatechin that go on to form polymers). This class of molecules appears to improve circulation by increasing nitric oxide (NO) -induced vasodilation (NO is released in response to stress, and works within cells to trigger an intracellular increase in cGMP which in turn relaxes smooth muscle) in both healthy patients and patients at risk for cardiovascular disease. More

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More Buzz For Your Buck: Maximizing Your Caffeine Intake

October 9th, 2012 in Article 2 comments

While up to our ears in physics homework last week, my roommate and I had a chat or two about caffeine. And I wondered (as I poured a cup of coffee), is there a way to brew this stuff to maximize the caffeine I end up drinking? After Wednesday, exam day, a day that included a shameful amount of caffeine, I became curious as to its nutritional or even neurological value…or perhaps just hopeful that it had some. Maybe this isn’t neuroscience news per say, but it’s certainly a curiosity, and certainly relevant to my success in “Elementary Physics I”.


I was sure I wasn’t alone in my caffeine-chemistry quest and figured there must be sufficient research published to generate some answers. As it turns out, in 1996, Leonard Bell et al. at Auburn University conducted a study with the aim of improving epidemiological analyses of caffeine intake by allowing researchers to control for the effect of brewing methods on caffeine content. It’s an interesting read, perhaps in part because the “Materials and Methods” section starts out with buying coffee beans at a local grocery store and proceeds to (very methodically) describe various ways of making coffee. More

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The Finger Phenomenon

March 21st, 2012 in Article 1 comment

We all know androgens and estrogens as sex hormones, right? You know, those chemicals that regulate reproductive behavior and ensure the continuation of species. There is definitely behavioral evidence of the biological importance of these steroid hormones, but could there be a way to quantitatively measure exposure to them? There is research that says yes, or at least, possibly. More

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Scared Stiff: The Story Behind "Fainting Goats"

November 30th, 2011 in Uncategorized 6 comments

Have you ever seen a goat (or any animal, for that matter) do this?

Neither had I. But these are the sorts of things that come up at family parties and pique my curiosity. Perhaps the nickname and title of the YouTube video “fainting goats” is a misnomer (as National Geographic pointed out) as the goats are not actually losing consciousness when they go rigid and topple over. So why the wipe-outs? More

Le Horla

October 27th, 2011 in Arts + Media 0 comments

This semester I decided it was a good idea to take up French again. So I signed up for “LF 303,” which is now where I sit for fifty minutes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday trying to convince my professor (and myself) that I am a halfway-competent French speaker. Which, it turns out, I could be. I have a feeling it won’t be long before I start dreaming in French again, at which point I’m sure I will have something neuroscience-related to say about that.

That hasn’t happened yet, but French class has actually had some direct mind and brain content. Last month we read a short story called “Le Horla” by Guy de Maupassant. The story is written from the perspective of Dr. Marrande, a psychiatrist who comes across an interesting case and calls on some of his colleagues for their opinions. Dr. Marrande introduces his coworkers to the patient (referred to as such - “le malade”), and he lets the patient tell his own story. More

Vineyard Brains

July 11th, 2011 in News 3 comments

Going on vacation with my family for thirteen days was both exciting and daunting. The West Coast adventure was extremely appealing and I couldn’t wait to see the Grand Canyon, explore Yosemite National Park, and drive a convertible down the Pacific Coast Highway. But where was I going to get my brain fix? The Scientific American issue I bought for the flight to Phoenix wasn’t doing it for me. Some hope was gained at The Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum in San Francisco that managed to convince my thirteen-year-old sister that neuroscience might be almost potentially cool, but it wasn’t until a trip to Sonoma County that my curiosity was finally piqued.

Tiger the horse and I were riding along on a vineyard tour and I was talking to the tour guide about school. I’ve got yet another new response to “I’m studying neuroscience”: the tour guide told me about his son’s mysterious mental illness that may or may not be schizophrenia and we rode through wine country discussing psychiatrists, Thorazine, thought disorders and SSRIs. All in all, a good day.

This conversation got me wondering about the kinds of challenges psychologists and psychiatrists face when having to diagnose patients with schizophrenia. All the clinicians have to go on are whatever behavioral abnormalities make themselves apparent. But how do you weed out schizophrenia from other kinds of psychosis (some of which may respond to the typical treatment for schizophrenia)? More

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From Skin Cells to Brain Cells

April 13th, 2011 in Article, News 1 comment

As much fun as I had exploring psychology last time I set out to write a blog post, this article from Science Daily caught my eye last week and I had to revert to my biology-related posting habit. Evidently, researchers at Oxford in the UK are using skin cells to grow induced pleuripotent stem (IPS) cells to use in their study of Parkinson’s Disease. What’s so useful about this technique is that skin cells are easily accessible, in contrast to the hard-to-reach tissues of the brain. With the skin cells obtained, the scientists plan to grow dopaminergic neurons and work on techniques for early detection of PD, perhaps finding ways to diagnose it before patients start showing symptoms. The skin cells will be from early-stage Parkinson’s patients, so they can be compared to the dopaminergic cells of healthy individuals to determine where things go wrong in the neurons affected by the disease. More

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