Courtesy Mark RyanIs the circuitry of an addict's brain different because of drug abuse or is drug abuse caused by innate differences in the brain? This is one of the questions raised during a new study out of the University of Cambridge. Researchers there compared the brains of 50 addicted individuals with the brains of a non-addicted brother or sister. What they found was that both the addict and their non-addict sibling display the same abnormalities in the brain areas that control behavior. Yet, despite possessing this similar inborn brain disorder, the non-addict siblings somehow managed to avoid getting hooked into a self-destructive lifestyle. If the scientists can figure out how the siblings did that, it could open up new ways of treating addiction. The study appears in the journal Science.
"Many of us spend more waking hours at our desk than anywhere else. Writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks explains what his desk means to him. From lumps of metal to lemurs, Sacks describes some of his treasures, his preferred method for writing his books and why he takes comfort in dense metals."
What's on your desk? And why?
Courtesy Wikimedia CommonsA new study appearing in the journal Nature Neuroscience explains how learning a new complex visual-motor skill, such as juggling, can lead to a significant change in the brain’s white matter. A team from Oxford's Department of Clinical Neurology did the research. Half of the study’s 24 subjects were trained to juggle in the classic three-ball cascade (see animation). They were also asked to practice the skill each day for 30 minutes. After six weeks, MRI scans revealed that the brains of those who learned to juggle showed a marked change in the white matter, the area responsible for networking the pathways in the brain’s grey matter. This new knowledge could lead to aiding in the treatment of neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
Ever wonder how monarch butterflies navigate. They use the sun you might say. The sun is constantly moving, though. Well, maybe a built in clock helps. How important are the eyes compared to the antennas?
To figure out what was important scientists dipped some antennas in clear varnish and some in black paint. The ones with clear varnish had no trouble navigating. The ones with black paint covering their antennas could not.
That not only showed the antennas were sensing light for navigating, it also showed that the sense of smell isn't involved in finding the way, since both paints blocked that ability. USA Today
The study was led by Dr. Steven M. Reppert, chairman of neurobiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. I urge you to visit his faculty web page which explains how his team is using anatomical, cellular, molecular, electrophysiological, genetic and behavioral approaches to more fully understand the biological basis of monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) migration.
The incredible detail and depth of their research made me appreciate how understanding one little thing like butterfly migration can lead to better understanding how complex things like the human brain works. This recent paper published in science was titled, Antennal Circadian Clocks Coordinate Sun Compass Orientation in Migratory Monarch Butterflies.
Courtesy Mark RyanOne of the strangest behaviors observed in nature is the honey bee “waggle dance”. Foraging bees use this get-down-get-funky display to communicate to their hive mates the discovery of a new food source. It usually takes place whenever the food is of a high quality or when the hive’s pantry is growing bare. The dance is performed on a special “dance floor” in the hive and is a way for the foragers to let the other bees know what’s been found and how to get there.
“The honey bee dance is this incredibly complex set of activities,” said University of Illinois entomology and neuroscience professor Gene Robinson. “It’s a very integrated communication system, very elaborate and very elegant, one of the seven wonders of the animal behavior world.”
Check it out for yourself:
Robinson and his colleagues wondered what motivated such behavior in foraging honey bees. Did they experience some sort of pleasure response, just like we humans do when we do something nice for others? To find out, the researchers decided to shake things up and see what happens when the celebration gets kicked up to another level and party drugs are thrown into the dance mix.
Robinson became interested in the waggle dance during a previous study investigating the role of octopamine in insect eating and movement behaviors. Octopamine is a biogenic amine (like histamine and serotonin) that’s found in higher levels in the brains of foraging honey bees than any other bees in the hive.
“The idea behind that study was that maybe this mechanism that structures selfish behavior – eating – was co-opted during social evolution to structure social behavior – that is, altruistic behavior,” Robinson said. “There are various lines of thought that indicate that one way of structuring society is to have altruistic behavior be pleasurable.”
Altruism is known to trigger a motivating pleasure response in the human brain, but the question remained whether the same reward mechanism existed in an insect’s brain.
So, in this new study Robinson and his research team at UI in Urbana-Champaign took things a step further. They found that when a foraging bee gets all hopped up on cocaine, it doesn’t matter how good the found food is or how much is stockpiled in the hive’s cupboards, bees just “Gotta Dance”.
Not only that, but the study’s results have also led the researchers to theorize that insects have motivating reward centers in their brains, just as humans do.
“This study provides strong support for the idea that bees have a reward system, that it’s been co-opted and it’s now involved in a social behavior, which motivates them to tell their hive mates about the food that they’ve found,” Robinson said.
Because cocaine causes honey bees to dance more – an altruistic behavior – the researchers believe their results support the idea that there is a reward system in the insect brain, something that has never before been shown.
A second set of experiments showed some interesting results. Non-foraging bees, it seems, were strict wallflowers: they never danced at all – no matter if they were on cocaine or not. And the coked-up foraging bees didn’t move about any more than non-foragers except when dancing, and when they did dance they only did so at appropriate times and only on the “dance floor”, no place else.
The honeybees, unfortunately, also seemed to suffer cocaine withdrawal symptoms, but the results of the study could lead to a better understanding of substance abuse in humans, and that’s fortunate for us.
The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
IUUC news release
Courtesy Sanjay SharmaDo you prefer paying for things with cash or credit card? It seems fairly common sense that paying with a credit card, instead of cash, makes it easier to overspend. Paying with a plastic card, which looks and feels the same no matter how much you spend on it, creates a lot less immediate guilt than paying with cash. Interestingly enough, scientists have pinpointed the part of the brain that is responsible for this phenomenon, called the insula. Also, the way in which you spend (i.e. overspending to combat sadness, buying luxury items just because they're on sale, etc.) is controlled by this part of the brain. Click here for the full article in Newsweek.
Here's musician Eddie Adcock playing the banjo while having brain surgery to eliminate a hand tremor. Eddie wasn't just passing the time picking out tunes. Doctors needed Adcock's help pinpointing the region of his brain that was causing the tremor. A pacemaker in his chest now sends electric currents to the brain that eliminate the tremor. The operation took place in Nashville where Adcock works as a highly regarded musician.
A new Swedish study reports that brain scans of gay men resembles those of heterosexual women, while the brain scans of lesbians resembles those of heterosexual men. This adds strong evidence to the idea that sexual orientation is established in the fetal stage.
Courtesy rbrwrWhat a boring title for something kind of awesome.
So--synaesthesia. It's where people associate (to varying degrees) one sense with another. Like maybe a certain musical note sounds yellow, or, more frequently, certain letters will always be seen as certain colors.
Well, in this study it was revealed that color/letter synaesthetic associations aren't totally arbitrary. "A," for instance, is most often associated with the color red, "V" with purple.
What's more, there seems to be a link to how often the colors and letters are used in language. Both "A" and "red" are common in language, while "V" and "purple" are proportionately less common. Common letters and common colors are usually paired to each other, with the same going for less common letters and colors.
The brain is so weird.
Neurologists used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to study the brain function of a woman who'd been in a coma for five months. To their surprise, when they asked her to respond to commands or imagine things, her brain "lit up" in the same way that the brains of healthy subjects did. The scientists caution that this is likely not the situation for many vegetative patients.