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. (

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.