Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Magnet placed near brain can disrupt person's moral compass: scientists

A magnetic field applied to a particular region of the brain can impact a person's ability to decide right from wrong.

A magnetic field applied to a particular region of the brain can impact a person's ability to decide right from wrong.
Imagine you could manipulate a person's sense of morality with a simple magnet.
MIT neuroscientists say it's possible.
"To be able to apply [a magnetic field] to a specific brain region and change people's moral judgments is really astonishing," said MIT's Dr. Liane Young.
A study, originally published in 2007, revealed that a region of the brain called the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ) is highly active when individuals are faced with determining right from wrong.
In the new MIT study, researchers were able to disrupt that activity, using a magnetic field applied to the scalp.
The results showed that the subjects' ability to make moral judgments was impaired.
In several experiments, volunteers were exposed to transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), then asked to make moral judgments based on different scenarios.
The results indicated that, when the magnetic field was applied, subjects would make judgments based on end results, and not the intent of those involved.
For example, volunteers were more forgiving of a boyfriend who walked his girlfriend across an unsafe bridge, despite knowing she could or would get hurt, as long as she ultimately wasn't harmed.
"It's one thing to 'know' that we'll find morality in the brain," Young said. "It's another to 'knock out' that brain area and change people's moral judgments."

The Male Brain: More Complex Than You Think

Despite all that old talk about Mars and Venus, men and women are much more biologically alike than not. But differences in the way our brains are built shed light on everything from the way we flirt, to the way we fight, to how we raise our boys, argues neuropsychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine in her provocative new book, The Male Brain. The author talked to TIME about sex, the daddy brain, and why some men may be built to cheat.

You immediately address the stereotype that guys have one-track, sex-crazed minds. Biologically speaking, is it true?
I think that's probably more emblematic of the female experience of the male than what's actually going on in the male brain. Certainly the male brain is seeking and looking for sex. But it is also very much seeking and looking for partnership and for choosing "the one." (Read "Female Sexual Dysfunction: Myth or Malady?")

One section mentions that the "area for sexual pursuit" is 2.5 times larger in the male brain than the female brain. Do you worry that people will read that and decide your book confirms the stereotype?
I think there is a kernel of truth in stereotypes. But [understanding human biology] doesn't give males a pass on being civilized or any parent a pass on having to train their sons.

You write that sex and love are linked. How?
The sexual circuitry releases huge amounts of dopamine. The reward system in the brain basically gets triggered during sex and orgasm and then feeds back on the rest of the brain, making it want to do that again and again — and wanting to seek out the person that you're having that lovely experience with again and again. So at some point, the love circuits and the sex circuits get gradually bound together. The sexual part of that experience gets more and more attached to that [particular] female, and gradually merges with that circuitry and identifies that person as "the one." Not all men get that, as we know, but the majority of men do. (See the top 10 medical breakthroughs of 2009.)

Let's talk about the ones who don't. You say that one gene in particular — which scientists first started studying in voles — may play a role in infidelity.
It's called the vasopressin receptor gene. The prairie vole, which is monogamous, bonds with one female for life, even if he's presented with other, fertile females. His cousin, the montane vole, is kind of a hit-and-run guy. He doesn't stick around at all. Scientists found that the montane vole had a short version of the vasopressin receptor gene, and the monogamous one had a long version of it. They then took the [long] gene from the monogamous one and injected it into the brains of the promiscuous one — and the promiscuous one became monogamous.

In humans they have identified, so far, about 17 different lengths of [the vasopressin receptor gene]. There are several studies that have shown that those males with the longer version actually are more likely to be married, and their wives are more likely to say that they have a happy, successful marriage and there hasn't been any infidelity. The ones with the shorter ones are more likely to be bachelors.

Doesn't suggesting that a propensity to cheat is hard-wired in some guys give unfaithful husbands the perfect excuse?
I don't think it lets you escape responsibility, but I think it lets one honor that underlying impulse and then realize why it's so important to have all of the religious and social principles that we're all raised with. No matter what [a boy's] genes are, we need to be laying out good role models for how one behaves in one's life. I feel very strongly: this is not an excuse for men to behave badly. But it is something to help men have a deeper insight into themselves, and women to have a deeper insight into men. (See five paths to understanding the brain.)

You write that men and women process emotions differently. How?
The mirror-neuron system (MNS) allows us to [see a facial expression] and know what that person is feeling. When we are looking at either an infant or another person that we care about, women will resonate with that feeling a lot longer than men. This is not to say that men don't do this. They do. They start out very quickly in the MNS and get a quick flash of what's going on. Then they switch into another system called the temporal parietal junction system (TPJ), which quickly allows them to start Google-searching their entire brain circuit for ways to fix the problem.

This type of interaction goes on lots and lots between the couples that come to my office: she just wants him to talk to her about how she's feeling about something before he launches into giving her the solution. And he feels like, well, what good will it do just to wallow in the feelings? I think one of the things that women don't focus on or appreciate is that our men really want to make us happy. He's the fix-it man. He really does want to be our hero, and that's how he expresses his love.

What happens when a guy is becoming a father?
The hormone testosterone is going down and the hormone prolactin is going up in the male brain, because he is smelling the pheromones of his pregnant wife. Prolactin is the hormone in females that makes breast milk. We don't know what it's doing in males yet. We assume it has something to do with making the daddy brain circuits. By the time the baby is born, he's able to hear infant cries much better. So something about his auditory-perceptual system has actually changed. His sex drive has gone down along with his testosterone. Therefore his brain is being primed to be a caretaker. If he doesn't get some alone time [after birth] with the baby, however, the daddy brain won't develop fully.

You write that you think both men and women have deep misunderstandings of what drives the opposite sex. What are the biggest?
I think the biggest is that all men want is sex. The equivalent for women is that we are all emotional, and all we want is commitment.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Study: Psychopaths' Brains Wired To Seek Rewards

Scientists have long known what psychopaths lack: emotions like empathy, fear and remorse. Now, a new study focuses on what they may have, a brain abnormality that may lead them to seek rewards like money, sex or fame at any cost.
Vanderbilt graduate student Josh Buckholtz tells NPR's Guy Raz that psychopaths have a hyperactive reward system in their brains — the same reward system that drives drug addicts to seek another dose. But first, what exactly is a psychopath?
"We can think of psychopathy as a personality disorder," Buckholtz says. "It's a collection of related traits." Psychopaths are considered superficial, lacking fear, regret or empathy, he says, plus they also exhibit profoundly deviant social behavior.
"What prior research has shown is that psychopaths have changes in their brain … that are involved in generating emotional experiences," he continues. "We think that these changes in the brain's reward system might promote a focus on rewar—-- on obtaining a reward."
Buckholtz and team used brain scans to monitor the levels of dopamine — a chemical related to motivation and pleasure — in volunteers' brains during a variety of tests. He found that subjects who'd scored higher in psychopathic traits had correspondingly higher levels of dopamine and greater activity in areas of the brain related to seeking and enjoying rewards.
The correlation might account for the antisocial and aggressive behavior seen in psychopaths. Psychopaths may be so intent on the reward that other concerns — like causing harm or the possibility of punishment — fall by the wayside.
The study used community volunteers who took a test that measured psychopathic traits. "The people in our study might be your Machiavellian mother-in-law, your bullying boss and your conniving coworker, but none of these people were out there committing violent crimes," Buckholtz says. The results, however, still have relevance for diagnosed psychopaths. Turns out, there may be a little psychopath in all of us.
"Currently, it's thought that psychopathic traits operate along a continuum," Buckholtz says. That means you can measure a range of psychopathic traits in volunteers with no diagnosable psychiatric disorders.
And Buckholtz says that's important, because targeting and treating psychopathic behavior can help reduce crime. "Crime is extremely expensive," he says, "and psychopaths commit more crime than anybody else." And unfortunately, scientists know very little about how to treat psychopathy.
"This might lead the way for future studies that target this system as a way of reducing aggression and antisocial behavior," he says.

How the brain constructs morality

WASHINGTON: Our ability to respond appropriately to intended harms - that is, with outrage toward the perpetrator - is seated in a brain region associated with regulating emotions, says a new study.

According to MIT neuroscientists, patients with damage to this brain area, known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), are unable to conjure a normal emotional response to hypothetical situations in which a person tries, but fails, to kill another person. Therefore, they judge the situation based only on the outcome, and do not hold the attempted murderer morally responsible.

The finding offers a new piece to the puzzle of how the human brain constructs morality, says Liane Young, a postdoctoral associate in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and lead author of a paper describing the findings in the March 25 issue of the journal Neuron.

"We're slowly chipping away at the structure of morality," says Young. "We're not the first to show that emotions matter for morality, but this is a more precise look at how emotions matter."

Working with researchers at the University of Southern California, led by Antonio Damasio, Young studied a group of nine patients with damage (caused by aneurisms or tumors) to the VMPC, a plum-sized area located behind and above the eyes.

Such patients have difficulty processing social emotions such as empathy or embarrassment, but "they have a perfectly intact capacity for reasoning and other cognitive functions," says Young.

The researchers gave the subjects a series of 24 hypothetical scenarios and asked for their reactions. The scenarios of most interest to the researchers were ones featuring a mismatch between the person's intention and the outcome - either failed attempts to harm or accidental harms.

When confronted with failed attempts to harm, the patients had no problems understanding the perpetrator's intentions, but they failed to hold them morally responsible. The patients even judged attempted harms as more permissible than accidental harms (such as accidentally poisoning someone) - a reversal of the pattern seen in normal adults.

"They can process what people are thinking and their intentions, but they just don't respond emotionally to that information," says Young. "They can read about a murder attempt and judge it as morally permissible because no harm was done."

This supports the idea that making moral judgments requires at least two processes - a logical assessment of the intention, and an emotional reaction to it. The study also supports the theory that the emotional component is seated in the VMPC.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Santa Clara Valley Medical begins study on traumatic brain injuries

Starting this month, someone rushed to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center with a traumatic brain injury may get a shot of a sex hormone.
The hospital is joining Stanford, San Francisco General and about a dozen hospitals across the country to test if progesterone, a hormone pregnant women produce in abundance, can stop the brain from wreaking self-destruction after an accident.

Neuroscientists say the trial is the most promising in decades to find a drug that can treat traumatic brain injury, or TBI, which afflicts 1 million to 2 million Americans each year. Researchers say the illness has been chronically underfunded and understudied, but is now stepping into the limelight as the signature illness of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Currently, no drug exists to stop the brain from swelling a few hours after a blow to the head, commonly from a car crash, an accidental fall, or in Iraq, a blast from an improvised explosive. Swelling causes bystanding brain cells to die and under extreme pressure, the brain can leak out of the base of the skull, killing the patient. Progesterone may halt the brain from bulging and protect brain cells around the injury.

Few drugs have shown promise to treat TBI. For the past three decades, "all of the clinical trials have failed," said Geoffrey Manley, chief of neurosurgery at San Francisco General Hospital. Two studies were halted when the drugs made patients worse. But in a 100-person trial at an Atlanta hospital between 2001 and 2005, TBI patients given progesterone were more than twice as likely to survive than those given a placebo. Patients with a moderate brain injury were more likely to recover if given progesterone. And progesterone, which occurs naturally in both men and women and is packaged in birth-control pills, has well-understood and limited side effects.

In the next five years, 1,140 patients will be enrolled in the study.

The progesterone must be administered within four hours, about the time it takes a blow to the head to begin perverting the brain's chemistry. Since brain injured patients are likely unconscious when rushed to the hospital and can't give consent, the study has an FDA exception to enroll a patient if a medical proxy can't be found.

The war in Iraq has done more than anything else to elevate traumatic brain injuries to the public consciousness, according to neurosurgeon Dr. Roland Torres at Santa Clara Valley Medical, who oversees about a thousand TBI cases each year. "All of a sudden, there was an incredible amount of money to do studies on brain injury," Torres said. Nearly US$400 million in research grants for TBI were awarded by the Department of Defense, Veteran's Affairs, and Health and Human Services between 2003 and 2008, which doctors say is a dramatic increase from the 1990's. "It was sort of a blessing in disguise," Torres says.

If this trial shows progesterone is effective in treating TBI, soldiers will add injectable progesterone to their medical kits, and paramedics could give it at the site of a car wreck.

Torres believes one reason TBI has been underfunded is that nurses and doctors often see brain injured patients go in wheelchairs to nursing homes, but rarely get to see the patients who recover and return to school or work.

Sex on the brain: 'Doublesex' gene key to determining fruit fly gender

The brains of males and females, and how they use them, may be far more different then previously thought, at least in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, according to research funded by the Wellcome Trust.
In a paper published today in the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Glasgow and the University of Oxford, have shown that the gene known as 'doublesex' (dsx), which determines the shape and structure of the male and female body in the fruit fly, also sculpts the architecture of their brain and nervous system, resulting in sex-specific behaviours.

The courtship behaviour of the fruit fly has long been used to study the relationship between genes and behaviour: it is innate, manifesting in a series of stereotypical behaviours largely performed by the male. The male chases an initially unreceptive female, and 'woos' her through tapping and licking and using wing vibration to generate a 'courtship' song. If successful, the female will slow and present a receptive posture, which allows copulation to occur.

For some time now, the gene 'fruitless' (fru), which is specific to the adult male fruit fly, was thought to be the key to male behaviour and the development of male specific neural circuitry of flies.

However, the researchers have shown that fru does not explain the complete repertoire of male behaviours in the fly: female flies in which the fru gene has been activated demonstrate some, but not all, of the characteristics usually associated with courtship behaviour in males. The researchers have also shown that dsx plays an important role in shaping the neural circuitry involved in this behaviour.

"The dogma was that dsx made fruit flies look the way they did and fru made them behave the way they did," explains Dr Stephen Goodwin from the University of Oxford, who led the research. "We now know that this is not true. dsx and fru act together to form the neuronal networks - the wiring - for sexual behaviour."
fru has so far been found only in insects; dsx, however, is found throughout the animal kingdom, where it plays a fundamental role in sex determination, and so is of particular interest to researchers.

Using a transgenic tool generated in his lab, Dr Goodwin and colleagues were able to map dsx throughout the fly's development using a fluorescent protein marker that illuminates areas where DSX is active. This highlighted profound differences in neural architecture between the sexes. In males, the researchers were able to show that dsx complements fru activity to create a 'shared' male-specific neural circuit; in females (where fru is inactive), dsx forms a female-specific circuit.

Importantly the researchers were able to manipulate these cells, impinging their ability to function, and show that these circuits are responsible for behaviours unique to the individual sexes.

"It has been suggested that there are only minor trivial differences between the neural circuits that underlie behaviour in males and females," explains Dr Goodwin. "We have shown that in fact there is quite a bit of difference in the number of neurons and how these neurons connect, or 'talk', to each other. These differences can have big consequences on the structure and function of the nervous system."

In addition, while dsx was known to establish the gender of the adult fly, the pattern of dsx activity in the adult was unknown. Dr Goodwin and colleagues have shown that this pattern is not ubiquitous, but rather is restricted in a specific and telling manner.

Some tissues, such as blood cells, may not require a defined gender in order to function. However, others such as the 'fat body', which in the adult fly functions in part to produce hormones, and the oenocytes, which produce sex-specific pheromones, require a specified sexual identity. It was unsurprising to Dr Goodwin and colleagues to find dsx expressed in these tissues in both males and females, as they would be key to establishing a normal sexual physiological state.

"Determining gender in a fruit fly seems to be about adding different splashes of ''colour' here or there," he says. "It's not like the canvas, meaning the nervous system, needs to be all blue or pink, just a little bit of blue over here or a little bit of pink over there. Not all cells need to know what sex they are, but those that do need to know will be ones that are important for sex-specific behaviours."

The research performed by Dr Goodwin and colleagues allows greater insight into how a male and female nervous systems may be established and how this may then coordinate the sex-specific physiology needed to create the complete, integrated adult sexual state.
More information: Rideout, E. et al. Control of Sexual Differentiation and Behavior by the doublesex gene in Drosophila melanogaster. Nature Neuroscience, e-pub 21 March 2010.

Scientists rethink chronic pain

London - Barriers to understanding pain are starting to fall and scientists and drug firms say a fresh approach is producing potential new drugs to hit where it hurts.

Millions of people across the world suffer chronic pain - such as nerve, joint or muscle pain that lasts weeks, months or years - and many fail to get adequate relief, partly because doctors have a relatively scant grasp of what causes it.

But new imaging techniques, a recognition that the brain's responses are central to pain and a growing realisation of pain's cost to society, mean the scientific community is now pushing for it to be redefined as a disease in its own right.

As pain moves status from symptom to disease, interest among some of the biggest drug firms is picking up.

All in the mind
Pfizer, the world's mightiest drug maker, has a large pain research team working on a portfolio of drugs, some of which are generating excitement in the field.

"The science has moved on considerably," Martin Mackay, Pfizer's head of research and development, told Reuters.

He said new technologies allow more objective measuring of pain, adding: "Our knowledge of targets and human genetics has taken a real step forward in the last few years."

Science is shifting attitudes too.

Irene Tracey of the Pain Imaging Neuroscience Group at Oxford University published a study last year which reviewed 10 years of imaging research and found chronic pain is linked to functional, structural and chemical changes in the brain.

So, pain is very much in the mind, and the brain's responses to it are key to what it feels like and how long it goes on.

Old medicine
"Pain doesn't exist until the brain gets hold of it. And one of the things brain imaging has been very good at is taking away some of the myths and cultural biases against pain," she said at a meeting of experts in London earlier this month.

"Chronic pain fits the definition of a disease," she said.

Pain, however, can be a tricky condition to medicate, as the numbers of sufferers show, and not all drug makers are convinced it is a profitable area. Britain's GlaxoSmithKline said last month it was cutting research in the field.

Many pain killers around today, from products like aspirin or paracetamol to opiates used for cancer pain, rely on mechanisms of action exploited since Egyptian times or were found as side effects of drugs developed for other things.
When it hurts
The sheer size of the problem shows the need for more effective drugs. Pain hurts, in more ways than one.

In Britain alone, it affects about 7.8 million people, about 13% of the population, and a 2002/03 survey by a group called Pain in Europe estimated that as many as one in five Europeans suffers chronic pain.

Studies show that around 22% of people with chronic pain become depressed and 25% go on to lose their jobs.

Pain is estimated to cost more than €200bn a year in Europe and $150bn in the US.

"It has huge ramifications, not only for the person themselves but also for society as a whole," said Beverly Collett, a consultant in pain medicine at the University Hospital of Leicester in central England.

In recognition of this, the EU's Innovative Medicines Initiative gave some of its first grants to pain researchers to work with pharmaceutical firms to try to speed up the process of finding new drugs.

The pain pipeline
Steve McMahon, director of the London Pain Consortium, said his group and several others in Europe were now working with about 10 major drug companies to push the field forward.
Among the most promising drug prospects is tanezumab from Pfizer, which McMahon says is "the first drug in a long time to have originated from basic science identifying the biological problem and suggesting a therapy".
Pfizer's MacKay is naturally upbeat about the experimental medicine - an antibody currently in late-stage trials for osteoarthritis caused by wear and tear of the joints. He named it among the firm's top picks for "blockbuster potential".

McMahon hopes it will be the first of many.
Another potential from Pfizer is a drug based on work by British scientists who identified a genetic mutation several years ago that prevents those who have it from feeling pain.

In the genes
The gene clue was found in a Pakistani boy - and members of three related families - who had become a local celebrity as a street performer, stunning crowds by plunging knives through his arms and walking on burning coals.

The experimental drug seeks to mimic the gene mutation and block a sodium channel which normally produces nerve impulses that convey pain signals to the brain.

"This is the way that pain (research) is going to go now, where you have very strong human genetic evidence and you're able to mount really large campaigns against tough targets and then take them through to the clinic," MacKay said.

For Tracey, scientific progress will only keep its momentum if society agrees pain is something scientists should fight.

"You can still hear it in the language, with expressions like 'no pain no gain'," she said. "These are real barriers that we have to get over in society if we're really going to accept that we should be treating pain and putting more money into it."

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Brain imaging technique to get inside consumers' heads developed

London, March 20 (ANI): Market researchers seem to have their prayers answered after experts' creation of a technology that will get inside the heads of consumers - literally.
Boffins have come up with neuromarketing, a brain-imaging technique that can allegedly read answers written in the brainwaves.

According to Thom Noble, managing director of Neurofocus Europe, the company running the demo, the technology addresses the biggest issue facing conventional market research.

"What people say and what they think is not always the same," New Scientist quoted Noble as saying.

A forthcoming paper by behavioural economist Gregory Berns of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and cognitive neuroscientist Dan Ariely of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience argued neuromarketing techniques can really work in revealing information hidden to conventional methods.

But the authors also pointed out the ethical risks involved with neuromarketing, such as privacy concerns over "mind reading" and suspicion it will be used to "trick" people into buying things they don't want or need.

Investigating the Effectiveness of Deep Brain Stimulation

Using mild electrical signals to stimulate the brain has helped one musician overcome the neurological condition that prevented him from playing the violin, and experts say that the treatment -- known as Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) -- can be effective for many individuals suffering from essential tremor, Parkinson's disease, and epilepsy.
Roger Frisch, an associate concertmaster with the Minnesota Orchestra who was diagnosed with essential tumor in 2009, recently underwent the procedure at the Mayo Clinic, hoping to put an end to the abnormal cerebral signals that caused his bow-hand to shake as he played. His operation was the topic of an ABC News report, which showed video of Frisch playing the instrument while undergoing deep brain stimulation in an attempt to help doctors find the trouble area.

In Frisch's case, Dr. Kendall Lee, the director of the Mayo Clinic Neural Engineering Laboratory, and his team were able to find the affected area of his brain and fix the problem using a pair of electrodes and a pacemaker they had placed in the brain. According to ABC News reports, Frisch regained full use of his hands before the surgery was even complete, causing the operating room to break out in spontaneous applause.

The Deep Brain Stimulation procedure was developed in Europe and was first used in the U.S. by Mayo Clinic neurosurgeons in 1997. According to the medical center's official website, they have also started to use DBS to treat individuals suffering from OCD, cluster headaches, and chronic pain in cases where other methods of treatment prove unsuccessful.

Furthermore, reports MayoClinic.com, the procedure has "dramatically changed the lives of many patients with uncontrollable tremors. Patients often can resume normal activities, such as feeding and dressing themselves, and can have active and fulfilling lives. The need for anti-tremor medications is often reduced or eliminated."

A study published earlier this month in the journal Epilepsia found that, of 110 epilepsy patients who had been implanted with DBS devices, 54-percent reported that the frequency of their seizures had been reduced by half. Furthermore, 14 of the 110 individuals did not suffer a single seizure over a five month span. The Food and Drug Administration has not officially approved DBS for use in epilepsy patients, but an advisory committee recently recommended that they do so.

Brain receptor behind learning deficits post-puberty identified

A novel brain receptor, alpha4-beta-delta, has been labelled as the culprit behind learning deficits that come with puberty.
It is well known that the onset of puberty marks the end of the optimal period for learning language and certain spatial skills, such as computer/video game operation.
In the new study, Dr. Sheryl Smith, professor of physiology and pharmacology, and colleagues at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn showed that alpha4-beta-delta emerges at puberty in the hippocampus, part of the brain that controls learning and memory.
Before puberty, expression of this receptor is low and learning is optimal. However, at puberty, increases in this receptor reduce brain excitability and impair spatial learning.
Smith has shown that the learning deficit could be reversed with the help of a stress steroid that diminishes the harmful effects of the alpha4-beta-delta receptors, thereby facilitating learning.
"These findings suggest that intrinsic brain mechanisms alter learning during adolescence, but that mild stress may be one factor that can reverse this decline in learning proficiency during the teenage years.
They also suggest that different strategies for learning and motivation may be helpful in middle school.
And it is within the realm of possibility that a drug could be developed that would increase learning ability post-puberty, one that might be especially useful for adolescents with learning disabilities," said Smith.
In 2007, researchers demonstrated that a hormone normally released in response to stress, THP, actually reverses its effect at puberty, when it increases activity of the hippocampus.
While in adults this hormone acts like at tranquilizer, in adolescents it has the opposite effect, an action that may help to explain mood swings in teenagers.
The new report on learning deficits is published in the journal Science.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Medieval child's brain found preserved

Heinz Sonderegger / Institute of Anatomy, University of Zurich
This brain was found inside the skull of a 13th century A.D. 18-month-old child from northwestern France.
Image: Brain

An international team of researchers has identified intact neurons and cerebral cells in a mummified medieval brain, according to a study published in the journal Neuroimage.
Found inside the skull of a 13th century A.D. 18-month-old child from northwestern France, the brain had been fixed in formalin solution since its discovery in 1998.
"Although reduced by about 80 percent of its original weight, it has retained its anatomical characteristics and most of all, to a certain degree its cell structures," anatomist and palaeopathologist Frank Ruhli, head of the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, told Discovery News.
The brain was the only tissue preserved in the infant's skeletonized body.

"It is a unique case of naturally-occurring preservation of human brain tissue in the absence of other soft tissues," Ruhli said.

The brain appeared almost intact. The grooves and furrows — gyri and sulci — that make up the surface of the brain's cerebral cortex were still clearly visible, as well the frontal, temporal and occipital lobe.

Amazingly, the cellular structure had also been preserved to a certain degree. Microscopic examination of the tissue revealed gray and white matter, blood vessels and large neurons near the the hippocampus area, the memory-making region of the brain.

The cells had mostly retained their original shape as well as the dendrites, the short, branched fibers that extend from the cell body of a neuron.
"It is an exceptional find, as cell structures are identified in preserved ancient cerebral tissues," Ruhli said.
Indeed, soft tissue decomposition and brain removal as part of the embalming process in most anthropogenic mummies, make it extremely difficult to even find preserved cerebral tissues from archaeological human remains.
According to the researchers, the amazing preservation of the medieval brain occurred because of the burial's peculiar location.
Wrapped in a leather envelope inside a wooden coffin, with a pillow under the head, the infant was exhumed in Quimper-Bretagne, France. Here acidic clay soil and fresh and briny water (the city lies at the confluence of three rivers amid Atlantic tides) basically preserved the brain like a pickle.
"It's called adipocere and is the result of a chemical reaction. In the presence of bacterial enzymes, body fats react with water and hydrogen and produce a soap-like substance able to slow down or inhibit decomposition," Christina Papageorgopoulou, first author of the study, told Discovery News.
The researchers also investigated the possible cause of death of the infant, dismissing a previous diagnosis of a cerebral hemorrhage.

"Heavy bleeding occurred on the outer surface of the cortex at least several days before the child's death. This is evidence of a skull fracture. Whether it is the cause of death, we can't say for sure," Raffaella Bianucci, an anthropologist in the Department of Animal and Human Biology at the University of Turin, said.
According to Maciej Henneberg, professor of anthropological  and comparative anatomy  at the University of Adelaide, the study is important as an investigations into the evolution of brain morphology and pathology.
"It shows that cell structures can survive for a long time," Henneberg told Discovery News.

Temporary Hearing Loss May Rewire Kids' Brains

Some kids seem to have near-constant ear infections. Even after the pain is gone, a parent's got to wonder: Are there lasting effects from all that muffling of sound in the formative years?
A child's developing brain needs sound from both ears. (iStockphoto.com)

One kid whispers to another.
Research in rats just published in the journal Neuron suggests there might be effects in the brain that, while not permanent, can last for years. Apparently, hearing loss in one ear during critical periods of brain development can rewire the auditory cortex, changing the way it processes sound.
Neurobiologist Dan Polley, who recently moved to Harvard and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, conducted the research with a colleague, Maria Popescu, while at Vanderbilt University.
Polley says that while we don't need two ears to hear sound, figuring out where that twitter of birds or the shout from a friend is coming from requires the sort of depth perception that input from two ears provides. Plus, there are other benefits from a nuanced fusion of the two signals in the brain.
"Our ability to hear speech in a noisy background; to hear the wonderful compliments that your date is paying when you've taken her out to dinner; or when you have multiple people talking to you at once, and you try to home in on one speech source -- all these phenomena depend critically upon integrating signals from each ear," he says.
Polley wondered if the kind of periodic, months-long hearing loss experienced by some children with chronic infections and resulting blockage of the middle ear might actually affect the wiring of the brain. So he and his colleague tried a little test in rats of different ages: In each animal, they blocked the sound in one ear for a couple of months, and then unblocked that ear.
The result: In young rats, the ear that had remained open and clear made a sort of real estate grab in the auditory cortex, developing a much richer network of neural connections. The blocked ear lost influence. And even after both ears were once again sending clear signals to the brain, the imbalance in the brain persisted.
It's the sort of thing, Polley says, that could make triangulating the source of a sound harder, he says, and create subtle, but important deficits in hearing.
"When you don't correctly identify the position of a sound a in space, you may not know it," he says. When you're not able to hear in a noisy background, you may just not go out to dinner as often. You may end up isolating yourself from the environments that really require good hearing."
A child with that sort of problem might withdraw in a noisy classroom, Polley says, or--depending on when the imbalance occurs--might miss milestones in language or learning.Other studies have shown that's just the sort of thing that's been reported among some children with chronic middle ear infections.
Here's some comfort for parents: Though it can take a while, the brain is pretty good at developing workarounds, Polley says. Restore hearing, and the brain will eventually catch up.

Israel approves plan to stop brain drain

Israel's government has approved a plan to lure the country's top scientific minds back home after years of brain drain.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said in a statement Sunday the plan includes incentives for scientists and new research facilities. It did not elaborate.
It said around $250 million have been earmarked for the project.
The plan aims to encourage Israeli scientists and technicians -- many of whom have left Israel for more lucrative research opportunities overseas -- to return to the country.
Netanyahu was quoted as saying science "is an important core of know-how for growth and advancement in Israel."
Israel has a tradition of scientific excellence. Ada Yonath of Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science won the Nobel Prize for chemistry last year.

BrainScope Aims To Help US Military Battle Brain Injuries

Traumatic brain injuries are a problem for the U.S. military, with more than 20,000 cases diagnosed in the first nine months of 2009. Venture-backed BrainScope Co. aims to lessen their impact by making it possible to better assess these injuries in the battlefield.

A traumatic brain injury is a jolt or penetrating blow to the head that disrupts brain function. Severe cases can be assessed by CAT scans, but less-serious injuries, such as concussions, are more difficult to gauge. Untreated, even mild head injuries can increase the risk of depression, dementia and other problems, BrainScope Chief Executive Michael Singer said.

Through three quarters of 2009, there were 20,199 diagnosed traumatic brain injuries in the military, of which 15,828 were mild, according to the Military Health System, a medical network within the U.S. Department of Defense. The number of diagnosed traumatic brain injuries has been rising, with 10,963 cases in 2000 and 27,507 in 2008, according to Defense Department statistics.

BrainScope, which has raised $20 million in venture capital, including $2.4 million in Series B financing closed in February, hopes to begin selling its device within a year or two, Singer said. The system can help doctors determine the severity of these less-serious traumatic brain injuries and give them another tool for deciding who can safely return to duty, he said.

The recent funding came from new investor Brain Trust Accelerator Fund and return backers Alafi Capital, Revolution LLC and ZG Ventures, with all four participating equally, Singer said. The ongoing Series B round, expected to close in mid-April, may go as high as $4 million, he said. This year the company plans seek an undisclosed amount of new financing to support market launch, he said.

While BrainScope’s initial market is the military, it also has its sights on civilians. There are 1.4 million traumatic brain injuries in the U.S. annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many of those injuries are sports-related. The National Football League has recently placed a greater emphasis on head injuries, adopting stricter guidelines for those players who have concussions and finding better ways to prevent the injuries from happening.

The BrainScope system makes it possible to take an electroencephalogram reading in the field. It includes a handheld device connected to a disposable headset placed on the forehead. The reading would complement existing tests of cognitive function performed by the patient.

These cognitive tests are useful but insufficient, Singer said.

“There is nothing out there that would show from a physiological perspective the problems that are in the brain itself,” he said. CAT scans do not reveal the non-structural alterations in the brain that are the hallmark of milder traumatic brain injuries, he said.

BrainScope, based in Bethesda, Md., is testing its technology at nine U.S. medical centers. Data from these studies will help it improve its algorithms and develop new ones for use in its product, Singer said. The company is talking with U.S. regulators about what will be required for marketing clearance, he said.

Brain unable to understand existence of God: expert

In his clinical work, Northoff has found people with strong religious beliefs are not as prone to suicide, because they have a sense of obligation to God.
In his clinical work, Northoff 
has found people with strong religious beliefs are not as prone to 
suicide, because they have a sense of obligation to God.
OTTAWA — One of the world’s foremost neuroscientists is about to tell some of the world’s foremost theologians the bad news: God may exist, but the human brain is simply not capable of knowing that for sure.
Georg Northoff, research director of Mind, Brain Imaging, and Neuroethics at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Mental Health Research, will speak March 23 to several hundred theologians at the University of Marburg, in Germany. The 500-year-old school has produced such towering intellects as theologian Paul Tillich and philosopher Martin Heidegger.
Northoff, internationally recognized for his research into brain function, will be the only scientist to speak to the group.
“We will never be able to answer the existence of God,” he said this week from his office at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. “There is a limit because of the way the brain functions. (That) limit . . . is the price we to pay for consciousness.
“We can research the neuro-mechanism into belief, but we cannot say anything about God. That’s where we have to go to philosophy.”
To any theologian, or simple man of faith, the fact that science doesn’t have all the answers seems laughably self-evident.
But Northoff points out that all our thoughts and feelings, even a transcendent sense of holiness, ultimately emanates from a big, wet, physical brain trapped in a hard skull. The brain is built to focus entirely on the threats and pleasures of its immediate environment — attacking lions, lovely young mating partners — and can never escape to see the larger picture. It cannot see beyond its own life without dying. It cannot even look at itself without ending up in a surreal fractal loop of the mind examining itself, examining itself as it examines itself ad infinitum.
“I would never deny the feelings (of the faithful),” said Northoff. “But what I would deny is that the content of his feelings, God in this case, exists independent of him. That is something that is beyond his knowledge.”
Northoff thinks his reception at next week’s meeting may be a little chilly but it could be worse.
“Many colleagues of mine say all belief is b----- and everything is the brain,” he said.
“I’m not saying that, I have an open position.”
In his clinical work, Northoff has found people with strong religious beliefs are not as prone to suicide, because they have a sense of obligation to God. He had one patient in a deep depression who had nagging doubts about God, “but on the other hand it was the only thing that kept her alive.”
As a young doctor, a psychotic punched him and knocked him down, outraged that anyone would treat Jesus with such disrespect as to suggest he was suffering a mental illness.
Two other psychotics both claimed they were God — and each thought the other was clearly delusional.
Northoff finds spiritual practices can help in some mental illnesses, and he believes it would be worthwhile to study the meaning of religion from a sociological or anthropological point of view.
He has done research on brain activity in people who react emotionally to something positive or negative — a picture of a gun, or a smiling baby, or a prayer.
Of course, religious people reacted to the prayer. But what does that really mean? From a neurological point of view, what is faith? What is belief? What happens when it goes away?
He was raised Catholic, but no longer practises.
“There was a certain coziness, which is lost, an emotional coziness. On the other hand, you substitute it by other things. For me, all this research, and philosophy are as important for me.”
Northoff arrived in Ottawa last year, a major catch for the research institute.
“He’s one of the top psychiatry researchers in the world,” said chief executive officer Zul Merali.
Northoff, who holds doctorates in both neuroscience and philosophy, holds two prestigious Canadian research chairs simultaneously: Canada research chair in mind, brain imaging and neuroethics, and the ELJB-CIHR Michael Smith chair in neurosciences and mental health. The chairs carry with them more than $3 million in funding over the next seven years.
He will be advancing the new technology of brain imaging, which allows the conscious mind to be studied scientifically.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Top medical professionals dispute extent of x-ray crisis

‘It was like a media tsunami," said consultant radiologist Dr Riste├írd O’Laoide about reaction to the news that thousands of x-rays had not been reviewed by radiologists at Tallaght Hospital.

O’Laoide, dean of the faculty of radiologists at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, expressed concern about the ‘‘sensationalist’’ portrayal of the facts.

He said the media coverage and public debate had left the public confused and misinformed, with many people left with the mistaken impression that thousands of x-rays had not been examined by any doctors.

The comments come despite the fact that management at Tallaght Hospital acknowledged that it was a serious issue that had to be rectified.

‘‘To describe it as a national catastrophe was completely over the top. There is also no evidence whatsoever to suggest that this is a misdiagnosis scandal," said O’Laoide.

His views were echoed by the HSE’s national director of clinical care, Dr Barry White.

‘‘As a practice the unopened GP referrals was a more serious issue than the x-rays. That cannot be defended, but the unopened letters was an imperfect response to significant pressure on outpatient waiting lists at the hospital," he said.

Tallaght Hospital chief executive Kevin Conlon said last week that Tallaght Hospital had reviewed 34,752 x-rays of some 57,921 adult x-rays that had not already been reviewed by a consultant radiologist.

Two cancer patients received a delayed diagnosis as a result of the failure to have their x-rays reviewed by radiologists at the hospital. One of these patients has since died, while the other is being treated at the hospital.

‘‘It is very unfortunate that they had a delayed diagnosis. That is extremely difficult for them and their families, but it does not necessarily mean the same thing as a misdiagnosis," O’Laoide said.

The difference between a delayed diagnosis and a misdiagnosis is fairly immaterial to a patient with cancer whose tumour was not spotted at the outset, however.

‘‘In a properly functioning department chest x-rays should always be reviewed by radiologists," O’Laoide said.

It is understood that most of the 57,000-plus x-rays which were not reported on by consultant radiologists at the hospital between 2005 and 2009 related to orthopaedic work, but it remains unclear how chest x-rays slipped through the net.

‘‘I suspect that what happened in Tallaght was that they did some degree of risk stratification and decided that, because of the heavy work load, they would leave orthopaedic x-rays with the orthopaedic consultants at the hospital," said O’Laoide.

He said it was not uncommon for this to happen in hospitals.

‘‘This issue is not unique to Tallaght. Some hospitals have radiologists report everything.

Others do not," he said.

Orthopaedic consultants, for their part, maintained they were well equipped to read the vast majority of orthopaedic x-rays.

David Moore, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Tallaght Hospital, said orthopaedic surgeons were more than capable of reading x-rays in 95 per cent of cases.

‘‘We spend a good deal of our time studying x-rays. An opinion from a consultant radiologist [for orthopaedic patients] is necessary only in a small number of difficult cases," he said.

‘‘There are no absolute rules," said another doctor. Neurologists, for example, are adept at interpreting CT and MRI scans of the brain. Intensive care specialists often interpret their own xrays. Respiratory physicians interpret their patients’ x-rays.

Dr Tony Holohan, chief medical officer at the Department of Health said: " In situations where there is a clear agreement policy in place between radiologists and other consultants, it is perfectly appropriate for those consultants to review x-rays."

However, it is unclear whether there was a clear agreement at Tallaght. While it is understood that a significant number of the controversial x rays were of orthopaedic patients, that was not the case for all of them. It may well emerge that a significant number of x rays in that 58,000 should have been read by a radiologist.

Tallaght Hospital did not respond to numerous requests from this newspaper for clarification regarding the cohorts of patients involved.

The fact that there were no national guidelines or protocols to dictate best practice has confused the public and muddied the waters, but national protocols are being established by a group which had just been set up by the Health Service Executive.

‘‘The Faculty of Radiologists is leading a new National Quality Assurance programme in conjunction with the National Cancer Control Programme and the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.

This will hopefully help to reassure patients, radiologists themselves and the wider public," O’Laoide said. Many jurisdictions have different protocols in place to dictate best practice.

‘‘There is a shortage of radiologists in England. One of the ways they decided to tackle it was to introduce a protocol under which orthopaedic films can be reviewed by orthopaedic consultants. In the United States, they say every x-ray should be reported by a radiologist," said O’Laoide.

Some observers have criticised the workload of radiologists at Tallaght Hospital.

Donal Duffy, assistant general secretary of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association, said he had spoken to radiologists at Tallaght who said the hospital did not have enough consultant radiologists to cover the workload. The hospital is now recruiting more staff.

‘‘What happened at Tallaght is a symptom of a wider problem - resources," Duffy said.

While there is a shortage of radiologists in Ireland, O’Laoide said the failure to deploy radiologists to areas of most demand was of greater concern. He said there was a high concentration of radiologists in the breast area, but a shortage of neuro-radiologists.

He said the workloads of radiologists had increased greatly in recent years, due to more advanced imaging and the time devoted to multidisciplinary team meetings in the cancer arena.

It may well emerge that a significant number of x-rays within the 58,000 x-rays at Tallaght should have been interpreted by a radiologist.

A number of those patients may well have been referred for x ray by GPs. Mistakes were undoubtedly made, but the real scale of the problem and the number of x-rays that fell into that category has yet to become clear.

While it maybe of little comfort to patients and families involved, there is an accepted level of error in radiology. To put it in perspective, the British Institute of Radiology recently held a meeting entitled ‘‘How much error is acceptable in radiology?"

According to O’Laoide, an error incidence of 2 per cent is deemed acceptable.

‘‘People miss cases. I do. Am I alone? No. Everyone does. It can be very difficult to convey that to the media at times like this. The debate is often brought down to individual patients and it is very emotive. It is impossible to advance a good debate on the back of that," he said.

‘‘If the miss rate at Tallaght is two out of some 34,752 x-rays it can only be described as remarkably low. That said, all chest x-rays should be reported by radiologists and that did not happen."

Psychopaths' brains wired to seek rewards, no matter the consequences

Abnormalities in how the nucleus accumbens, highlighted here, processes dopamine have been found in individuals with psychopathic traits and may be linked to violent, criminal behavior. Credit: Gregory R.Samanez-Larkin and Joshua W. Buckholtz
http://cdn.physorg.com/newman/gfx/news/hires/psychopathsb.jpgThe brains of psychopaths appear to be wired to keep seeking a reward at any cost, new research from Vanderbilt University finds. The research uncovers the role of the brain's reward system in psychopathy and opens a new area of study for understanding what drives these individuals.

"This study underscores the importance of neurological research as it relates to behavior," Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said. "The findings may help us find new ways to intervene before a personality trait becomes antisocial behavior."
The results were published March 14, 2010, in Nature Neuroscience.
"Psychopaths are often thought of as cold-blooded criminals who take what they want without thinking about consequences," Joshua Buckholtz, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and lead author of the new study, said. "We found that a hyper-reactive dopamine reward system may be the foundation for some of the most problematic behaviors associated with psychopathy, such as violent crime, recidivism and substance abuse."
Previous research on psychopathy has focused on what these individuals lack—fear, empathy and interpersonal skills. The new research, however, examines what they have in abundance—impulsivity, heightened attraction to rewards and risk taking. Importantly, it is these latter traits that are most closely linked with the violent and criminal aspects of psychopathy.
"There has been a long tradition of research on psychopathy that has focused on the lack of sensitivity to punishment and a lack of fear, but those traits are not particularly good predictors of violence or criminal behavior," David Zald, associate professor of psychology and of psychiatry and co-author of the study, said. "Our data is suggesting that something might be happening on the other side of things. These individuals appear to have such a strong draw to reward—to the carrot—that it overwhelms the sense of risk or concern about the stick."
To examine the relationship between dopamine and psychopathy, the researchers used positron emission tomography, or PET, imaging of the brain to measure dopamine release, in concert with a functional magnetic imaging, or fMRI, probe of the brain's reward system
"The really striking thing is with these two very different techniques we saw a very similar pattern—both were heightened in individuals with psychopathic traits," Zald said.
Study volunteers were given a personality test to determine their level of psychopathic traits. These traits exist on a spectrum, with violent criminals falling at the extreme end of the spectrum. However, a normally functioning person can also have the traits, which include manipulativeness, egocentricity, aggression and risk taking.
In the first portion of the experiment, the researchers gave the volunteers a dose of amphetamine, or speed, and then scanned their brains using PET to view dopamine release in response to the stimulant. Substance abuse has been shown in the past to be associated with alterations in dopamine responses. is strongly associated with substance abuse.
"Our hypothesis was that psychopathic traits are also linked to dysfunction in dopamine reward circuitry," Buckholtz said. "Consistent with what we thought, we found people with high levels of psychopathic traits had almost four times the amount of dopamine released in response to amphetamine."
In the second portion of the experiment, the research subjects were told they would receive a monetary reward for completing a simple task. Their brains were scanned with fMRI while they were performing the task. The researchers found in those individuals with elevated psychopathic traits the dopamine reward area of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, was much more active while they were anticipating the monetary reward than in the other volunteers.
"It may be that because of these exaggerated dopamine responses, once they focus on the chance to get a reward, psychopaths are unable to alter their attention until they get what they're after," Buckholtz said. Added Zald, "It's not just that they don't appreciate the potential threat, but that the anticipation or motivation for reward overwhelms those concerns."

Schizophrenia Takes Major Toll on Children

It's an illness that doesn't strike often, but one that inevitably has a tremendous effect on the lives of those few children who suffer from it.

Schizophrenia is diagnosed in fewer than 1 in 30,000 American kids each year. Symptoms are similar to those seen in the around 1 percent of Americans who suffer from adult-onset schizophrenia: hallucinations, irrational thoughts and even violent behavior.

But schizophrenia will have an added impact on kids, because of the developmental delays it causes. Schizophrenic children won't learn social cues or proper hygiene, and often fail to make friends or perform academically.

Symptoms can also be mistaken for typical childhood phases. Kids often create imaginary worlds, struggle with bed-wetting and cleanliness, or act out in ways that seem irrational to adults.

But while the figments of childhood imagination are usually friendly, kids with schizophrenia often experience violent, scary and threatening delusions. An ABC News report on childhood schizophrenia described the plight of 9-year-old Rebecca Stancil, who "has been haunted by images of wolves, men with monster faces, and shadows and shapes that scamper around a darkened room."

"A lot of the time, the children will say that they have voices that are telling them very unpleasant things," Dr. Judith Rapoport, director of the National Institutes of Mental Health's childhood psychiatry division, said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. "Often the voices are telling them very bad things -- talking about death, talking about things that a child should do or that might be done to them."

And while adult sufferers often have sudden "episodes" that signal a problem, schizophrenia seems to develop progressively in children. Often parents don't recognize that something is seriously wrong until their child experiences a fundamental break from reality.

The root cause of schizophrenia at any age remains unknown. Researchers suspect that brain dysfunction is the culprit, but don't know the precise mechanism, or why it strikes so early in some patients.

Studies have identified several risk factors, including some that might help explain schizophrenia's early onset. A family history of the illness, malnutrition in the womb, and childhood abuse or trauma have all been linked to the development of schizophrenia.

In January, a study of rhesus monkeys confirmed that those whose mothers suffered the flu while pregnant exhibited brain changes typically seen in schizophrenic patients.

Treating childhood schizophrenia is another challenge. Most anti-psychotic drugs haven't been tested on kids, because so few ever need them. Doctors often prescribe the medications off-label, meaning drugs are doled out to an age group that hasn't been FDA approved.

Children also often require special academic, social and hygienic training to grow into adults who can cope with the world around them.

And they'll likely spend the rest of their lives struggling with some degree of dysfunction.

"Very few really ever reach a point that no one knows they have schizophrenia," Rapoport said. "Some degree of impairment remains, and the degree of support that they have from their school, their family, their community, makes a huge difference on what the rest of their life is going to be like."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Brain tumour's 'grow-or-go' switch found

Cancer cells
Brain tumour's 'grow-or-go' switch found (Getty
American researchers have discovered the brain tumour switch responsible for the 'grow-or-go' phenomenon.

Cancer cells in brain tumours have to adjust to periods of low energy or die. When energy levels are high, tumour cells grow and multiply but when levels are low, the cells grow less and migrate more.

Scientists at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center-Arthur G James Cancer Hospital and Richard J Solove Research Institute discovered that a molecule called miR-451 directs the change, and that the change is accompanied by slower cell proliferation and an increase in cell migration.

This behaviour was closely associated to the cancer's ability to invade and spread. Thus, the molecule might be used as a biomarker to predict how long patients with the brain tumour glioblastoma multiforme will survive and may serve as a target to develop drugs to fight these tumors.

The researchers found that glioblastoma cells shift from their typical means of metabolizing glucose, a sugar brought by the bloodstream and usually used for energy, to an alternate means that consumes resources within the cell.

Co-author Dr E Antonio Chiocca, professor and chair of Neurological Surgery at Ohio State, said: "Our study reveals how brain tumor cells adapt to their surroundings and survive conditions that might fatally starve them of energy.

"We have discovered that glioblastoma cells use miR451 to sense the availability of a nutrient - glucose. Levels of miR-451 directly shut down the engine of the tumor cell if there in no glucose or rev it up if there is lots of glucose. This important insight suggests that this molecule might be useful as a biomarker to predict a glioblastoma patient's prognosis, and that it might be used as a target to develop drugs to fight these tumors."

The tumours are highly invasive, which makes them difficult to remove surgically, and respond poorly to radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Average survival for patients is 14 months after diagnosis. MiR-451 belongs to a class of molecules called microRNA, which play a key role in regulating the levels of proteins that cells make. Changes in levels of these molecules are a feature of many cancers, according to the researchers.

Principal investigator Sean Lawler, assistant professor of neurological surgery, said: "The change in miR-451 expression enabled the cells to survive periods of stress caused by low glucose, and it causes them to move, perhaps enabling them to find a better glucose supply.

The migration of cancer cells from the primary tumor, either as single cells or as chains of cells, into the surrounding brain is a real problem with these tumors. By targeting miR-451, we might limit the tumor's spread and extend a patient's life."

For the study, Lawler, Chiocca, Jakub Godlewski, the postdoctoral fellow who was the first author of the study, and their team first compared microRNA levels in migrating and nonmigrating human glioblastoma multiforme cells. The analysis suggested an important role for miR-451.

Experiments with living cells demonstrated that high levels of glucose correlated with high levels of the molecule, and that this promotes a high rate of tumor-cell proliferation. Low glucose levels, on the other hand, demonstrated cell proliferation and increased cell migration.

Moreover, when the scientists boosted levels of the molecule in migrating cells, it slowed migration 60 per cent, and, after 72 hours, almost doubled the rate of cell proliferation compared with controls.

Interestingly, when they forced an increase in miR-451 levels, the cells quickly died, suggesting a possible role in therapy.

Analyses of patient tumours demonstrated that three of five had elevated levels of the molecule. Finally, the researchers compared the survival in 16 patients with high miR-451 and 23 patients with low levels. Those with high levels of the molecule had an average survival of about 280 days while those with low levels lived an average of about 480 days.

Chiocca said: "This suggests that molecule may be a useful prognostic marker."

The findings of the study have appeared in the March 12 issue of the journal Molecular Cell.

Brain Activity Analysis Reveals Memories

They leave a trace in the cortex as they unfold


The brains of volunteers lit up a certain way depending on which 
movie clip they were recalling 
Experts investigating the way in which our brain forms, stores and recalls memory were recently able to demonstrate through imaging techniques that these events leave a trace in the cortex. The real finding is that this trace can be viewed with existing equipment. The discovery could lead to a better understanding of neurological conditions, as well as to the development of potential new cures. Memory impairments, such as those produced by a stroke, an injury, or simply by aging, could also become a thing of the past, the team behind the study is quoted by ScienceNow as saying. 

The investigation was conducted by the same researchers who in a previous study determined the secrets of the hippocampus. This extremely important area of the brain is capable of keeping tabs on where a person is at all times, and is also crucial in learning and memory. Using a proprietary algorithm, as well as the perks of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), British researchers from the University College London (UCL) managed to crack its secrets. The team was led by renowned international expert and cognitive neuroscientst, Eleanor Maguire.

In the new experiments, Maguire and her team shifted their attention from spatial orientation to another, more complex function of the hippocampus. It is called episodic memory of specific experiences, and the group says that a good example for this is the associations formed inside the brain when an individual sees the ocean for the first time. The team wanted to learn whether using their algorithm could allow for the capturing of such memories. The experts selected ten volunteers that shared the memory, and then placed in them in fMRI machine. The imaging method highlights which areas of the brain activate in the presence of a certain stimuli, by analyzing blood flow.

The test participants were shown three different movies, each of them 7 seconds long. They were asked to remember what they saw on a screen while inside the fMRI machine. The computer algorithm was then put to work to determine possible associations between their brain activation patterns. In the end, the computer code managed to identify which of the movies the participants were remembering with an accuracy “considerably higher than would be expected by chance,” Maguire says. “This is really an interesting result, […] it's the closest we've come to reading specific memories,” adds of the work University

Friday, March 12, 2010

First Step in Mind Reading Via Computer Program

Machines that decode your thoughts aren't limited to the realm of science fiction anymore.

A computer program that analyzes brain scans was able to tell which of three short films people were thinking about, according to a study in the journal Current Biology.

(Jon Wilson has been testing his mind-reading device since the 1980's.)
"We were able to predict just from their brain activity which of those memories they were recalling," says Eleanor A. Maguire, one of the study's authors and a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London.

This is a major step forward, Maguire says. But it falls short of what most people would call mind reading. "We can't put somebody in a brain scanner and immediately know what thoughts they are having," she says.

Unlocking Our Memories

The experiment was designed to learn more about a part of the brain 
called the hippocampus, which seems to act as a sort of index for memories of events in our lives, Maguire says.

Library of CongressWhen this poster was printed in 1900, mind reading was still in the realm of magic. A new computer program capable of predicting individuals recollections has brought telepathy a small step closer to science.

Machines that decode your thoughts aren't limited to the realm of science fiction anymore.
A computer program that analyzes brain scans was able to tell which of three short films people were thinking about, according to a study in the journal Current Biology.
"We were able to predict just from their brain activity which of those memories they were recalling," says Eleanor A. Maguire, one of the study's authors and a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London.
This is a major step forward, Maguire says. But it falls short of what most people would call mind reading. "We can't put somebody in a brain scanner and immediately know what thoughts they are having," she says.
Unlocking Our Memories
The experiment was designed to learn more about a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which seems to act as a sort of index for memories of events in our lives, Maguire says.
She and her colleagues wanted to know whether traces of these so-called episodic memories could be detected in brain scans.
So they found 10 volunteers who agreed to watch several very short films. One showed a woman taking a letter out of her handbag and putting it in a mailbox. In another clip, a woman finishes a cup of coffee and throws the cup in a trash can.
The volunteers watched the films over and over, until they had formed a strong memory of each episode. "Then we popped the people in the scanner and had them recall these movies," Maguire says.
Data from these scans of activity in the hippocampus was analyzed by a computer program that looked for distinct patterns of activity associated with each film. And Maguire says the program found them. "In every single case it was able to predict with high accuracy which of the memories those 10 participants were recalling," she says
That was what the scientists expected to find. What surprised them, though, was how similar the patterns were across all 10 brains. The brain activity associated with each film clip "was incredibly consistent," Maguire says.
'Surprising Consistency' Of Our Minds
Other scientists doing similar work have also found surprising consistency from brain to brain. And they say that's the case for lots of thoughts, not just episodic memories.
"We all have very similar patterns for a given concept," says Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Most brains react in pretty much the same way when they see a face, for example, Just says. And by studying a particular brain in detail, it's often possible to get much more specific information, he says. He pointed to the work of researchers at Carnegie Mellon, who have been asking people to think about the faces of various family members. In many cases, "we can decode which one they're thinking about," Just says.
Volunteers From The Audience No Longer Needed?
So far, mind-reading experiments have relied on the cooperation of the people whose minds are being probed, Just says. Volunteers need to make a concerted effort to think about something over and over so the computer program can detect a pattern.
So, at the moment, it's not possible for anyone to use a brain scanner to forcibly search someone's memories, Just says. But he says the ability of machines to detect what someone is thinking is progressing with remarkable speed. "At the extreme, maybe we could decode somebody's dream while they're dreaming," Just says. "Is that possible? Not this year. Not next year. But I think that's doable."
Just says once the technology reaches that point it's likely to touch off a societal discussion about who is allowed to see what's in our brains.

Experiment allows scientists to 'read' volunteers' thoughts

If only it was quite so simple: An antique phrenology chart detailing the purpose of areas of the brain

If only it was quite so simple: An antique phrenology chart 
detailing the purpose of areas of the brainNeuroimaging technique gives a new insight into the location and nature of human memory.

Scientists have read the minds of healthy volunteers using a brain scanner to detect what they were thinking. By placing the volunteers in the scanner after they had been shown three film clips, the researchers were able to tell which clip they were recalling.
The advance brings a step closer the prospect of a "thought machine" to detect what a person is thinking from their brain activity pattern. But the technique is still at an early stage of development and its capacity to discriminate between "thoughts" is limited.
Scientists have searched for evidence of memory traces for almost a century. Although their biological existence is accepted, their precise mechanisms, location and nature remain a mystery. 
Eleanor Maguire, professor of neuroimaging at University College, London, has previously shown it is possible to tell where a person is standing in a virtual reality room by using a brain scanner to detect the pattern of their thoughts. She has also shown that a small area of the brain at the back of the hippocampus was enlarged in male taxi drivers who had done "The Knowledge" – memorising the maze of London streets. These studies focused on spatial memory, the most basic sort.
The results of the latest study take the research further by showing that episodic memory – of the everyday events that make up the autobiography of our lives – can be tracked in the same way even though they are more complex. They demonstrate that these memories are stable and trigger the same brain activity each time they are recalled, making it possible for them to be identified and correctly interpreted on each occasion.
Professor Maguire said: "We've been able to look at actual memory traces for a specific episodic memory. We found that our memories are definitely represented in the hippocampus. Now we've seen where they are, we have an opportunity to understand how memories are stored and change through time. We are not at the point of being able to put people in a scanner and read their thoughts. But we can predict from their brain activity what they are thinking and remembering. The more we understand about how memories are stored, the more we can understand about how people [with brain injuries] can be rehabilitated."
For the study, 10 volunteers were shown three short film clips, lasting seven seconds each. They showed different actresses performing three tasks – posting a letter, throwing a coffee cup in a bin, and getting on a bike. The volunteers were then placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and asked to recall each clip in turn. This was repeated many times and the scans were analysed to detect patterns in the brain activity associated with each clip. In the final stage of the experiment the volunteers were returned to the scanner and asked to recall the clips at random. The researchers found they were able to tell which clip they were thinking about from the pattern of their brain activity.
Although patterns in individual volunteers' brains varied from one another, they showed remarkable similarities in the parts of the hippocampus that were active. The findings are published in Current Biology. "We have documented for the first time that traces of individual rich episodic memories are detectable and distinguishable in the hippocampus. Now that we have shown it is possible to directly access information about individual episodic memories in vivo and noninvasively, this offers new opportunities to examine important properties of episodic memory," the researchers conclude.
Visible recall: How the experiment worked
*Volunteers watched three seven-second film clips of a woman posting a letter, throwing a cup in a bin or getting on a bike, and were asked to recall one of them while in the brain scanner.
*The researchers were able to tell which of the three clips they were recalling by observing their brain activity.
*The brain scan of one volunteer showed where the memories were laid down in the hippocampus – the brightest spots indicate where the memories of the three clips were most distinct from one another.

Renowned biomedical, neuroscience engineer to speak at Louisiana Tech

RUSTON — Dr. Nitish V. Thakor, professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Neuroengineering Training Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, will present “Building Brain Machine Interface: from Monkeys to Men” at 4 p.m. Monday at Louisiana Tech University’s in the Institute for Micromanufacturing (IfM) Auditorium.The presentation is part of the “Today’s Leaders” series hosted by Tech’s College of Engineering and Science and the Center for Biomedical Engineering and Rehabilitation Science (CBERS).
This event is free and open to the public.
Brain Computer Interface (BCI) and Brain Machine Interface (BMI) have captured the scientific imagination, presenting possibilities that range from communication aid for quadriplegics and ALS patients to modern gaming.
Thakor will review the state of the art of the technology and the algorithms in BMI and present the successes and limitations of invasive versus noninvasive approaches and the path of research from building BMI for monkey to man.

Can brain scans reveal your thoughts?

Washington - A scan of brain activity can effectively read a person's mind, researchers said on Thursday.

British scientists from University College London found they could differentiate brain activity linked to different memories and thereby identify thought patterns by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The evidence suggests researchers can tell which memory of a past event a person is recalling from the pattern of their brain activity alone.

"We've been able to look at brain activity for a specific episodic memory - to look at actual memory traces," said senior author of the study, Eleanor Maguire.

"We found that our memories are definitely represented in the hippocampus. Now that we've seen where they are, we have an opportunity to understand how memories are stored and how they may change through time."
The results, reported in the March 11 online edition of Current Biology, follow an earlier discovery by the same team that they could tell where a person was standing within a virtual reality room in the same way.

The researchers say the new results move this line of research along because episodic memories - recollections of everyday events - are expected to be more complex, and thus more difficult to crack than spatial memory.

In the study, Maguire and her colleagues Martin Chadwick, Demis Hassabis, and Nikolaus Weiskopf showed 10 people each three very short films before brain scanning. Each movie featured a different actress and a fairly similar everyday scenario.

The researchers scanned the participants' brains while the participants were asked to recall each of the films. The researchers then ran the imaging data through a computer algorithm designed to identify patterns in the brain activity associated with memories for each of the films.

Finally, they showed that those patterns could be identified to accurately predict which film a given person was thinking about when he or she was scanned.

The results imply that the traces of episodic memories are found in the brain, and are identifiable, even over many re-activations, the researchers said.

The results reinforce the findings of a 2008 US study that showed similar scans can determine what images people are seeing based on brain activity. - Sapa-AFP

Carnegie Mellon research provides insight into brain's decision-making process

PITTSBURGH—Replaying recent events in the area of the brain called the hippocampus may have less to do with creating long-term memories, as scientists have suspected, than with an active decision-making process, suggests a new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Minnesota Medical School.
In a study of rats navigating a maze, the researchers found that replays occurring in the hippocampus were not necessarily recent or frequent paths through the maze, as would be expected if the event was being added to memory. Rather, the replays often were paths that the rats had rarely taken or, in some cases, had never taken, as if the rats were trying to build maps to help them make better navigation decisions.
In a report published March 11 in the journal Neuron, Anoopum Gupta, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute and the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, and his colleagues say their findings suggest replays in the hippocampus are not merely passive echoes of past events, but part of a complex, active process of decision making.
In addition to Gupta, the researchers include Carnegie Mellon Computer Science Professor David S. Touretzky and A. David Redish, associate professor of neuroscience, and Matthijs van der Meer, a post-doctoral researcher, from the University of Minnesota.
"Our work provides clues into how animals construct a complete, fully navigable representation of their environment, even if they've only partially explored that environment," said Gupta, who also is a medical student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "The cognitive maps created in this way may allow animals to plan novel routes or shortcuts. As we learn more about the neural mechanisms that enable animals to flexibly navigate through the world, we hope to apply those lessons to research in robotics that could improve autonomous navigation systems."
The team used electrode "hats" to record brain activity of rats as they navigated a maze. In particular, they monitored certain neurons, called place cells, which fire in response to physical locations. That enabled the researchers to identify where an event that was being replayed was located based on which place cells were firing. During an experiment, a rat might be in one portion of the maze, while the firing of place cells in the hippocampus indicated that the rat was replaying information about a different location.
On a task with two behavioral sequences, A and B, the researchers found that the animals would replay sequence B more often though they spent most of their time running sequence A. In other words, the researchers found that the rats were most likely to replay the path they had experienced less often. This suggests that replay is not just a function of helping an animal remember what it has experienced most frequently or most recently, but an important function in helping it map its whole environment.
During the replay process, the research team also was able to observe the animal making connections between paths that it had never physically traveled before. For example, if the animal had physically traveled from point A to point B, and also from point A to point C, but never from point B to point C, they observed the single sequence B to A to C during the replay process, implying that the rat's brain was able to make the connection between points B and C on its internal map. This further indicates that replay plays a role in helping an animal learn and maintain the entire map of its environment and make connections within it. The rats were not just reviewing recent experience to move it to long-term memory.
"Based on these observations, we have to rethink what is the role of replay for memory," wrote neuroscientists Dori Derdikman and May-Britt Moser of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in a commentary also published in the March 11 issue of Neuron. They suggested that replay in the hippocampus may prove to have a dual role — both for memory consolidation and for making cognitive maps of the environment.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

About Carnegie Mellon: Carnegie Mellon (www.cmu.edu) is a private, internationally ranked research university with programs in areas ranging from science, technology and business, to public policy, the humanities and the fine arts. More than 11,000 students in the university's seven schools and colleges benefit from a small student-to-faculty ratio and an education characterized by its focus on creating and implementing solutions for real problems, interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation. A global university, Carnegie Mellon's main campus in the United States is in Pittsburgh, Pa. It has campuses in California's Silicon Valley and Qatar, and programs in Asia, Australia and Europe. The university is in the midst of a $1 billion fundraising campaign, titled "Inspire Innovation: The Campaign for Carnegie Mellon University," which aims to build its endowment, support faculty, students and innovative research, and enhance the physical campus with equipment and facility improvements.