The disturbing story of the first use of electroconvulsive therapy

If you were able to glance inside a certain room on the first floor of the Clinic for Mental and Nervous Diseases in Rome on the morning of April 11th, 1938, it might have looked like a small group of physicians was about to commit a murder…READ MORE

The mysterious dancing mania and mass psychogenic illness

Try to imagine yourself walking along the streets of a city (maybe the one you live in, or one you’ve visited, or one you simply make up in your head—as long as you can picture it clearly it doesn’t matter much). Think of the shops and businesses you might pass as you stroll down the sidewalk, the smells of food emanating from nearby restaurants, and the noises you’d hear—intermittent car horns, snippets of conversation, the discordant sounds of construction equipment. Now, imagine you approach a street corner…READ MORE

Optograms: images from the eyes of the dead

On a cloudy fall morning in 1880, Willy Kuhne, a distinguished professor of physiology at the University of Heidelberg, waited impatiently for 31-year-old Erhard Reif to die. Reif had been found guilty of the reprehensible act of drowning his own children in the Rhine, and condemned to die by guillotine. Kuhne’s eagerness for Reif’s death, however, had nothing to do with his desire to see justice served. Instead, his impatience was mostly selfish—he had been promised the dead man’s eyes, and he planned to use them to quell a bit of scientific curiosity that had been needling him for years…READ MORE

How many glial cells are there in the brain?

One of the fundamental principles of scientific thinking is skepticism. A good scientist refuses to accept anything blindly, instead scrutinizing every purported statement of fact to make sure the evidence backs it up. Because this mindset is so pervasive in scientific disciplines, it’s difficult to understand how unsubstantiated claims can be accepted as fact in science. But this does happen occasionally…READ MORE

Sorting out dopamine's role in reward

Since the 1970s, neuroscientists have been confident that dopamine plays an essential role in the brain's processing of rewarding experiences. And many researchers used to be fairly certain they knew exactly what that role was. Dopamine was, as the thinking went, the "pleasure neurotransmitter"---the substance responsible for producing sensations of pleasure in the brain, regardless of whether that pleasure comes from enjoying a good meal, having sex, or snorting cocaine...READ MORE


What are we getting wrong in neuroscience?

In 1935, an ambitious neurology professor named Egas Moniz sat in the audience at a symposium on the frontal lobes, enthralled by neuroscientist Carlyle F. Jacobsen's description of some experiments Jacobsen had conducted with fellow investigator John Fulton. Jacobsen and Fulton had damaged the frontal lobes of a chimpanzee named "Becky," and afterwards they had observed a considerable behavioral transformation. Becky had previously been stubborn, erratic, and difficult to train, but post-operation she became placid, imperturbable, and compliant...READ MORE


What's really the deal with toxoplasma gondii and human behavior?

For a simple protozoan, Toxoplasma gondii has experienced something of a meteoric rise in popularity over the past several years. Actually, to be fair T. gondii has garnered quite a bit of interest since the 1930s, when it was discovered the parasite could be transmitted from a mother to a fetus in the womb, sometimes resulting in severe congenital disorders. Curiosity about T. gondii grew significantly in the early 2000s, however, when it was found that T. gondii infection in mice and rats might influence the behavior of the rodents so as to make them less afraid of cats...READ MORE


The amygdala: Beyond fear

The amygdala---or, more appropriately, amygdalae, as there is one in each cerebral hemisphere---was not recognized as a distinct brain region until the 1800s, and it wasn't until the middle of the twentieth century that it began to be considered an especially significant area in mediating emotional responses. Specifics about the role of the amygdala in emotion remained somewhat unclear, however, until the 1970s and 1980s when it was studied in fear conditioning experiments in rodents...READ MORE


Coal tar, dyes, and the unlikely origins of psychotherapeutic drugs

While it may be difficult to imagine in a day and age when psychiatric medicines are advertised as a way to treat nearly every mental disorder, only 65 years ago targeted and effective psychiatric medicines were still just an unrealized aspiration. In fact, until the middle of the 20th century, the efficacy and safety of many common approaches to treating mental illness were highly questionable. For example, one method of treating schizophrenia that was common in the 1940s and 1950s, known as insulin coma therapy, involved the repeated administration of insulin to precipitate a coma...READ MORE


The neurobiology of headaches

Headaches are one of the most common neurological complaints; most people will experience headaches at some point in their life and close to 50% of the world's population is estimated to be suffering from a headache disorder at any point in time. The World Health Organization considers headaches to be one of the most disabling conditions people experience based on the impact chronic headaches can have on quality of life...READ MORE


History of neuroscience: The mystery of trepanation

In 1867, an archaeologist and diplomat named Ephraim George Squier sought out the help of Paul Pierre Broca, the esteemed anatomist and surgeon. He was trying to solve a mystery about an ancient Incan skull that had been given to him by a wealthy artifact collector in Peru. In addition to its age, the Neolithic skull had a unique feature: on the top of the cranium a rectangular piece of bone had been removed. The presence of several cross-cuts surrounding the hole suggested that it was not a simple battle wound, but instead the result of a surgical procedure known as trepanation...READ MORE


Capgras delusion

Think for a moment about the people in your life whom you are closest to and most familiar with---those whom you see, talk to, and maybe share intimate moments with on a regular basis. Perhaps this would be your spouse, partner, parents, siblings, or friends. Now, try to imagine waking up tomorrow and, upon seeing one of these people, being overcome with an unshakable feeling that it is not really them you are seeing. Even though you know it sounds crazy, you can't stop yourself from thinking that this person you have known for so long has been surreptitiously replaced with an impostor---someone else who looks just like them but is a different person altogether...READ MORE


The neuroscience of traumatic brain injury

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as 1.7 million people in the United States experience a traumatic brain injury (TBI) each year, over 15% of which are thought to be sports-related. Despite the relatively high prevalence of these injuries, however, it seems we are just beginning to appreciate the true extent of the effects they can have on the brain...READ MORE


Microbes and the mind: Who's pulling the strings?

There are many examples throughout nature of microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, and parasites influencing the neurobiology and behavior of their hosts. For example, the rabies virus enters the nervous system almost immediately after a bite or scratch and travels to the brain, where it influences neural activity to make aggressive behavior more likely. This, of course, is beneficial for the virus as it increases the probability its infected host will make contact with another susceptible host...READ MORE


The powerful influence of placebos on the brain

The term placebo effect describes an improvement in the condition of a patient after being given a placebo--an inert substance (e.g. sugar pill) the patient expects may hold some benefit for him. The placebo effect has long been recognized as an unavoidable aspect of medical treatment. Physicians before the 1950s often took advantage of this knowledge by giving patients treatments like bread pills or injections of water with the understanding that patients had a tendency to feel better when they were given something--even if it was inactive--than when they were given nothing at all. In the years following World War II, it became recognized that the placebo effect is more than just a medical curiosity--it is an extremely potent influence on patient psychology and physiology...READ MORE


Deep brain stimulation in Parkinson's disease: Uncovering the mechanism

Parkinson's disease (PD) belongs to a group of diseases that are referred to as neurodegenerative because they involve the degeneration and death of neurons. In PD a group of structures called the basal ganglia, which play a role in facilitating movement, are predominantly affected. The substantia nigra, one of the basal ganglia nuclei as well as one of the most dopamine-rich areas in the brain, is severely impacted; by the end stages of the disease patients have often lost 50-70% of the dopamine neurons in this region...READ MORE


Limitations of the consensus: How widely-accepted hypotheses can sometimes hinder understanding

To those of us who believe strongly in the scientific method, it really is the only approach to understanding the relationship between two events or variables that allows us to make assertions about such relationships with any confidence. Due to the inherent flaws in human reasoning, our non-scientific conclusions are frequently riddled with bias, misunderstanding, and misattribution. Thus, it seems there is little that can be trusted if it hasn't been scientifically verified. The scientific method, however, is a human creation as well, and therefore it is less than perfect...READ MORE


Let there be light: how light can affect our mood

If you're looking for an indication of how intricately human physiology is tied to the environment our species evolved in, you need look no further than our circadian clock. For, the internal environment of our body is regulated by 24-hour cycles that closely mirror the time it takes for the earth to rotate once on its axis. Moreover, these cycles are shaped by changes in the external environment (e.g. fluctuating levels of daylight) associated with that rotation. Indeed, this 24-hour cycle regulates everything from sleep to rate of metabolism to hormone release...READ MORE


The neurobiological underpinnings of suicidal behavior

When you consider that so much of our energy and such a large portion of our behavioral repertoire is devoted to ways of ensuring our survival, suicide appears to be perhaps the most inexplicable human behavior. What would make this human machine--which most of the time seems to be resolutely programmed to scratch, claw, and fight to endure through even the most dire situations--so easily decide to give it all up, even when the circumstances may not objectively seem all that desperate? Suicide is a difficult behavior to justify rationally, and yet it is shockingly common. More people throughout the world end their lives by suicide each year than are killed by homicide and wars combined....READ MORE


New approaches to epilepsy treatment: optogenetics and DREADDs

Epilepsy refers to a group of disorders that are characterized by recurrent seizures. It is a relatively common neurological condition, and is considered the most common serious (implying that there is a risk of mortality) brain disorder, affecting around 2.2 million Americans...READ MORE


Associating brain structure with function and the bias of more = better

It seems that, of all of the behavioral neuroscience findings that make their way into popular press coverage, those that involve structural changes to the brain are most likely to pique the interest of the public. Perhaps this is because we have a tendency to think of brain function as something that is flexible and constantly changing, and thus alterations in function do not seem as dramatic as alterations in structure...READ MORE


Is tanning addictive?

In Walden, his masterpiece about noncomformity and simple living, Henry David Thoreau wrote, "Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new." And while Thoreau was specifically talking about society's capriciousness in embracing new styles of clothing, his quote applies just as well to our preference for one shade of skin color over another. For, while many now consider a medium-dark tan to be both healthier-looking and more attractive than pale skin, only 100 years ago a tanned complexion was shunned just like a pale one is today...READ MORE


The unsolved mysteries of protein misfolding in common neurodegenerative diseases

Throughout the 1970s, biochemist Stanley Prusiner was obsessed with trying to find the causative agent for a mysterious group of diseases. The diseases, which included kuru and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease in humans and scrapie in sheep, were characterized by slowly-developing symptoms and neurodegeneration so severe it eventually caused the brain to take on the appearance of a sponge...READ MORE


Neuromyths and the disconnect between science and the public

When the movie Lucy was released in the summer of 2014, it was quickly followed by a flurry of attention surrounding the idea that we only use 10% of our brains. According to this perspective, around 90% of our neurons lie dormant, all the while teasing us by reminding us that we have only achieved a small fraction of our human potential...READ MORE


Detecting lies with fMRI

In 2006, a company called No Lie MRI began advertising their ability to detect "deception and other information stored in the brain" using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They were not the first to make this claim. Two years prior, a company called Cephos had been founded on the same principle. Both companies were launched by entrepreneurs who hoped to one day replace the polygraph machine and its recognized shortcomings with a foolproof approach to lie detection...READ MORE


Flavanols for brain health

Some degree of memory decline as we get older is an inevitability that many of us dread. Over the years, countless potential treatments have emerged to mitigate the effects of age-related memory loss; some have been the result of legitimate research efforts, many more have not. Regardless of their origins, very few have stood the test of time...READ MORE


Is depression an infectious disease?

Over the past several decades we have seen the advent of a number of new pharmaceutical drugs to treat depression, but major depressive disorder remains one of the most common mood disorders in the United States; over 15% of the population will suffer from depression at some point in their lives. Despite extensive research into the etiology and treatment of depression, we haven't seen a mitigation of the impact it has on our society. In fact, there have even been a lot of questions raised about the general effectiveness of the medications we most frequently prescribe to treat the disorder...READ MORE


Our unclear understanding of ADHD

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, has engendered a great deal of debate over the past several decades. ADHD is a psychiatric disorder that involves symptoms of inattention (e.g. being easily distracted, having difficulty focusing) or symptoms of hyperactivity (e.g. being fidgety or restless), or a combination of both types of symptoms. The controversy surrounding ADHD became a bit louder in the 1990s, when the number of children being prescribed stimulant drugs like methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine (e.g. Adderall) to treat the disorder increased dramatically...READ MORE


Using neuroimaging to expose the unconscious influences of priming

In 1996, a group of researchers at NYU conducted an interesting experiment. First, they had NYU students work on unscrambling letters to form words. Unbeknownst to the students, they had been split up into three groups, and each group unscrambled letters that formed slightly different words...READ MORE


Serotonin, depression, neurogenesis, and the beauty of science

If you asked any self-respecting neuroscientist 25 years ago what causes depression, she would likely have only briefly considered the question before responding that depression is caused by a monoamine deficiency. Specifically, she might have added, in many cases it seems to be caused by low levels of serotonin in the brain. The monoamine hypothesis that she would have been referring to was first formulated in the late 1960s...READ MORE


Prejudice in the brain

Despite the great strides that have been made toward a more egalitarian society in the United States over the past 50 years, events like what occurred in Ferguson last month are a bleak reminder of the racial tensions that still exist here. Of course, the United States is not alone in this respect; throughout the world we can see abundant examples of strain between different races, as well as between any groups with dissimilar characteristics. In fact, it seems that the quickness with which we form a negative opinion about those who are not members of the same group as us may be characteristic of human nature in general...READ MORE


The neuroscience of self-control

In the 1960s, a psychologist at Stanford named Walter Mischel began a series of experiments exploring the dynamics of self-control in children. In one such experiment, Mischel gave preschoolers the choice between two outcomes, one of which was clearly preferable. For example, they were able to choose between 2 marshmallows and 1 marshmallow (the experiments became known as the Stanford marshmallow experiments for this reason)...READ MORE


Can psychopathy be treated?

Some psychological conditions receive a disproportionate amount of attention in popular media relative to how frequently they actually occur in the population. One of those is psychopathy, a personality disorder that is characterized by antisocial behavior, impulsivity, and a lack of empathy. Psychopaths may be charming on the surface but tend towards pathological deception and indifferent manipulation of other people...READ MORE


History of neuroscience: Hodgkin and Huxley

By the late 1930s, researchers had come to understand several important things about the conduction of signals within neurons. For example, they knew that signaling within neurons is electrical in nature (as opposed to signaling between neurons, which is usually chemical), and that it occurs in bursts of activity called action potentials...READ MORE


History of neuroscience: Otto Loewi

Today, the knowledge that neurons communicate with one another using chemicals known as neurotransmitters is a foundational part of our understanding of brain function. We use our awareness of neurochemical transmission to design drugs, investigate the causes of disease, and improve our comprehension of behavior (e.g. through experimental methods like microdialysis). In the first half of the twentieth century, however, the means by which neurons communicated with one another was very unclear...READ MORE


Addiction, anhedonia, and reward processing in smokers

In those who are addicted to drugs (or any other substance or behavior), the desire to re-experience the intoxicating effects they initially felt when they used the drug can be overwhelming. It can lead to compulsive drug-seeking, obsessive thinking, and irrational behavior. In addition to these new thought patterns and behaviors, however, addiction is also associated with a diminished ability to experience pleasure from non-drug rewards...READ MORE


History of neuroscience: Paul Broca

In April of 1861, a 51-year old man was transferred to Paul Broca's surgical ward in a hospital in France. The man, whose name was Leborgne, had epilepsy but was near death due to an uncontrolled infection and the resultant gangrene. There was something curious about Leborgne, however: he had extreme difficulty speaking voluntarily...READ MORE


Optogenetics, memories, and mind control

A few years ago (2010), the journal Nature Methods chose optogenetics as its "method of the year." The fact that optogenetics, in 2010, was already considered a viable approach to studying the brain is impressive in and of itself, considering that all of the seminal work with optogenetics has been done since the year 2000. Because the method is still a relatively recent development, however, it is probably true that the most intriguing work with optogenetics has yet to be done...READ MORE


History of neuroscience: Ramon y Cajal

Although many consider him now to be the "father of modern neuroscience," when Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852-1934) was a boy he dreamed of one day being an artist. His father, who was otherwise very nurturing to Cajal's intellectual development, discouraged the expression of Cajal's artistic aspirations. He saw art as a fruitless endeavor, and he was nothing if not a pragmatist. Nevertheless, Cajal found ways to surreptitiously obtain art supplies...READ MORE


The neurobiological origins of pedophilia

Although many within the scientific community believe that pedophilia has its origins in the brain, the neurobiological underpinnings of the disorder are still very unclear. It is hoped, however, that technologies that allow for the observation of brain activity in real-time, like positron-emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), will provide us with more information about potential abnormalities in the brains of pedophiles...READ MORE


Ecstasy and oxytocin

Although the drug methylenedioxymethamphetamine, better known as MDMA or ecstasy, is often lumped into the category of hallucinogens, it has a unique set of effects that make it very distinct from other drugs in this class. Specifically, along with creating a positive mood state and reducing anxiety, MDMA is known for fostering strong feelings of empathy and compassion...READ MORE


History of neuroscience: Fritsch and Hitzig and the motor cortex

Neuroscience now views the cerebral cortex as a region of the brain that is essential for sensation, movement, and the heightened level of cognition we associate with humans as compared other animals. In the 1700s, however, many scientists considered the cortex to be a functionally insignificant outer shell of the brain...READ MORE


The neuroscience of obsessive-compulsive disorder

As awareness of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) has grown over the years, so has the degree to which the disorder is misunderstood. For example, one common misperception is that individuals who suffer from OCD all engage in repetitious rituals like hand-washing, repeatedly checking the locks, or flicking the light switch on and off a specific number of times. While some people with OCD do experience ritualistic compulsions, this is not a necessary component of an OCD diagnosis...READ MORE


Magic mushrooms and the amygdala

People have been eating psychedelic mushrooms since ancient times. There are indications (although they are impossible to verify) that psychedelic mushrooms played an important role in cultures like the Mayan civilizations of South America thousands of years ago. Of course, the use of "magic" mushrooms has continued into modern times. In 1958, Albert Hofmann (the discoverer of LSD) isolated psilocybin as the active hallucinogenic compound in psychedelic mushrooms...READ MORE


Sex smells: pheromones in humans

By the middle of the 20th century, biologists had become aware of a unique type of communication occurring among insects. The communication involved the secretion of substances that were similar to hormones in some ways, but also very different. While hormones are secreted into the bloodstream to elicit some reaction in the body, these substances exit the body and are used to elicit a reaction in a conspecific (another organism of the same species). They were given the name pheromones, from the Greek pherin (to transfer) and hormon (to excite)...READ MORE


Parkinson's disease and autoimmunity

Parkinson's disease (PD) is the second most prevalent neurodegenerative disease in the world (the first most prevalent being Alzheimer's disease), affecting upwards of 7 million people. The characteristic symptoms of the disease include bradykinesia (slow movement), rigidity, tremor, and postural instability. The appearance of these symptoms corresponds with neurodegeneration, or the death of neurons, which occurs predominantly in a collection of nuclei in the brain called the basal ganglia...READ MORE


Autism, SSRIs, and Epidemiology 101

I can understand the eagerness with which science writers jump on stories that deal with new findings about autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). After all, the mystery surrounding the rapid increase in ASD rates over the past 20 years (see right) has made any ASD-related study that may offer some clues inherently interesting. Because people are anxiously awaiting some explanation of this medical enigma, it seems like science writers almost have an obligation to discuss new findings concerning the causes of ASD...READ MORE


Dear CNRS: That mouse study did not "confirm" the neurobiological origin of ADHD in humans

Late last week the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS - the acronym is based on the French translation) put out a press release describing a study conducted through a collaboration between several of its researchers and scientists from The University of Strasbourg. CNRS is a large (30,000+ employees), government-run research institution in France. It is the largest research organization in Europe, and is responsible for about 1/2 of the French scientific papers published annually...READ MORE


Early brain development and heat shock proteins

The brain development of a fetus is really an amazing thing. The first sign of an incipient nervous system emerges during the third week of development; it is simply a thickened layer of tissue called the neural plate. After about 5 more days, the neural plate has formed an indentation called the neural groove, and the sides of the neural groove have curled up and begun to fuse together (see pic to the right). This will form the neural tube, which will eventually become the brain and spinal cord...READ MORE


Why do I procrastinate? I'll figure it out later

If you are a chronic procrastinator, you're not alone. Habitual procrastination plagues around 15-20% of adults and 50% of college students. In a chronic procrastinator, repeated failure to efficiently complete important tasks can lead to lower feelings of self-worth. In certain contexts, it can also result in very tangible penalties. For example, a survey in 2002 found that 29% of American tax-payers procrastinated on their taxes, resulting in errors due to rushed filing that cost an average of $400 per person...READ MORE


Is ketamine really a plausible treatment for depression?

Last week, a publication in the Journal of Psychopharmacology made international news by reporting that patients with treatment-resistant depression (TRD) showed improvement after being given the dissociative hallucinogenic drug ketamine. Ketamine, which is traditionally used as an anesthetic in humans and other animals, is probably better known for its use as a party drug (in this context it is often called "special K"). However, a growing body of evidence has begun to suggest that ketamine may be effective (at least in the short-term) in treating depression...READ MORE


Is your biological clock ticking? Maybe you should ignore it

As I've transitioned into middle age, I've gotten used to seeing my Facebook feed filled with baby pictures, descriptions of charming family outings, and adorable quotations from the mouths of toddlers. If I knew nothing about what it were like to have a child (mine is just finishing up the terrible twos), I would assume from scrolling through these perfectly tailored social media portraits of others' lives that having kids is a non-stop fun-filled procession of treasured moments...READ MORE


Why do we sleep?

Why do we sleep? Sleep is an activity that takes up about 1/3 of our lives, so you would probably guess that neuroscience has a clear answer to why we do it, right? Wrong. The fundamental reason behind why we sleep is still shrouded in mystery. We know that we have to sleep (without it we would die). But we still don't know what its physiological function is...READ MORE


Is cat poop making us crazy?

When a woman who owns cats finds out she is pregnant, she will probably be warned to stop cleaning out the litter box. This is because cat feces can harbor a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which can cross the placenta and infect an unborn fetus. The infection can increase the risk of premature birth and low birth weight, and is associated with anemia, deafness, hydrocephalus, and mental retardation in the child after birth...READ MORE


Digging a little deeper into American scientific knowledge

This weekend news outlets and social media sites have been abuzz with the story that a quarter of Americans don't know that the Earth revolves around the sun. The story went viral after the National Science Foundation released their annual Science and Engineering Indicators (SEI) report. The SEI report includes data from a collection of sources, but most of the attention being paid to this recent release involves data from the General Social Survey (GSS). The GSS is conducted every other year via in-person interviews with around 1500 people, and consists of questions on a variety of topics ranging from demographic information to belief in the existence of God...READ MORE


DDT and Alzheimer's disease risk

Dichlordiphenyltrichloroethane, also known as DDT, emerged during World War II as something of a miracle chemical. The war had left cities across Europe devastated and struggling to cope with (among other things) poor sanitation, which created a fertile environment for the spread of disease. When Allied forces entered Naples soon after the Germans retreated, they discovered a typhus epidemic that was killing 25% of those infected; the number of infected was into the thousands...READ MORE


Savant syndrome

Savant syndrome is one of the true mysteries of neuroscience. Many people were first exposed to this curious phenomenon when they watched the movie Rain Man. In it, Dustin Hoffman plays a character named Raymond Babbit, who is loosely based on Kim Peek. Peek was (Peek died in 2009) a savant who had a stunningly prodigious memory and the ability to read a book in an hour, retaining virtually all of the information he took in during that short time...READ MORE


Popular science writing and accuracy

This week, an article appeared in the L.A. Times online, and was recycled in the Chicago Tribune and a number of other media sources. It focused on a study that was just published in the Journal of Neuroscience. In the study, Iniguez et al. gave fluoxetine (aka Prozac) to male adolescent mice for 15 days. Three weeks after ending the fluoxetine treatment, the researchers tested the mice on two measures that are purported to assess depression in rodents and one that is a suggested measure of anxiety. They found that the mice previously treated with fluoxetine displayed less “depression-like” behavior, but more “anxiety-like” behavior...READ MORE


Neurologin and autism

The rapid increase in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnoses over the last 15 years is alarming. A number of reasons for the rise have been suggested, some of which have sparked debate that occasionally becomes laden with vitriol. Many people, surprised and frightened by what they see as the unprecedented appearance of a novel disorder, are looking for answers and pointing fingers at parties they feel may be culpable...READ MORE


The many sides of GABA

If you have a superficial level of knowledge about neuroscience, you probably won’t associate psychostimulants with gamma-aminobutyric acid (more commonly known as GABA). Just as you learn in early biology that a mitochondrion is the “powerhouse of the cell”, you learn in early neuroscience that GABA is the “primary inhibitory neurotransmitter of the brain”. And while this is often true (exceptions are being found on a regular basis), it perhaps doesn’t do justice to the diversity of roles that GABA can play...READ MORE


Have a Face Only a Mother Could Love? Without Serotonin She Thinks You're Just as Ugly as Everyone Else Does

As the popularity of antidepressant medication has burgeoned over the past few decades, serotonin has become one of the more publicly recognized neurotransmitters. Along with that popularity has come a trend of attributing a wide variety of behaviors (especially depression) to “serotonin imbalances”. While this is a gross simplification in most cases, it does seem to be clear that there is a correlation between serotonin transmission and behavior...READ MORE


Cocaine and Glutamate, Part Two

Ten years ago, if you had asked a neuroscientist what neurotransmitter is most important to the development of an addiction, nine out of ten times they would have said “dopamine”. Ask the same question today, however, and you’ll probably be told that it is impossible to pin such a complex process on one neurotransmitter, as clearly (at least) both dopamine and glutamate are integral to the addiction process...READ MORE


Why You Can't Remember Where Your Keys Are

Why do we remember? To some this might seem like a ridiculous question. Memory is so intricately intertwined with our conception of existence that it is difficult to objectively ask questions about why we developed the capacity for it, or to imagine the possibility of a life without it. If one is to assume, however, that like every other facet of the human condition, memory evolved from rudimentary beginnings, then “why do we remember?” becomes not only a reasonable question, but an important scientific inquiry...READ MORE


Cocaine's Addictive Influence Begins Even Before Euphoria

It has long been known in the addiction field that exposure to drug-associated stimuli, commonly referred to as relapse triggers, is one of the primary causes of relapse in abstinent addicts. Neuroscience studies have added evidential support for this perspective by providing a molecular explanation for it. It is thought to principally involve two neurotransmitters: dopamine and glutamate, and a region of the reward system called the ventral tegmental area (VTA)...READ MORE


The evolution of schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is one of the more frightening and debilitating mental disorders. It can cause hallucinations, delusions, and social withdrawal, as well as a variety of other cognitive afflictions. While scientists have yet to decipher the etiology of the disease, its high inheritability rate (60-85%) has led many to look for answers in genetics. Since schizophrenia affects cognitive functions that are distinctly human (like language-related abilities), some have begun to consider ways in which the human brain has evolved, and how this could shed light on the causes of schizophrenia...READ MORE


Good news for fruit fly truckers

Science has arrived at credible hypotheses to explain a number of complex waking behaviors. Yet an overtly simpler behavior—one that doesn’t vary much from situation to situation or person to person, and involves a minimal amount of physical and mental activity—baffles us, leaving us with a surfeit of hypotheses that seem to explain some aspect of it, but none that is sufficient to explain it as a whole. That perplexing behavior is sleep...READ MORE


Dopamine and the Bruce effect

If you take a recently impregnated female mouse and place her in a cage with an unfamiliar male, something curious often happens. The female, upon smelling the new male's urine, spontaneously aborts the fetus as her body drastically reduces its production of prolactin (PRL), a hormone responsible for progesterone secretion and thus essential to maintaining a pregnancy. The embryo fails to implant and the female begins ovulating again, making her receptive to copulation attempts by the new male...READ MORE


Gene therapy for prion diseases

Prion diseases are relatively rare in humans. The most common, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), afflicts only about one in every million people. Despite their low prevalence, however, these diseases (also known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs) receive a fair amount of attention from the media and the scientific community. This interest is probably due to their enigmatic mechanism, potential for epidemic spreading, frightening neurodegenerative features, and (as of yet) incurability...READ MORE


The singing bass: kitschy or insightful?

If you were listening in on a discussion about the evolutionary origins of language, you might expect to hear theories bandied about concerning evidence for language-like processes in apes. You probably wouldn’t be too shocked to hear someone bring up an example of language in parrots. You might, however, be a little surprised if the conversation turned to the origins of human vocalization in toadfish...READ MORE


Mirror Neurons May Be Responsible For Global Warming & U.S. Economic Woes

Since their discovery in the 1990s, mirror neurons have experienced a degree of fanfare uncommon to findings in the field of neuroscience. Mirror neurons are so named because they are activated both when a primate participates in a task, and while watching another complete the same task, thus “mirroring” the behavior of the other animal. This unique activation pattern has led some to suggest that mirror neurons are integral not only to imitation, but also to understanding that others have their own mental states...READ MORE


If I beat up a robot, will I feel remorse?

At times, when my computer's performance has transformed it from an essential tool into a source of frustration, I will find myself getting increasingly angry at it. Eventually I may begin cursing it, roughly shoving the keyboard around, violently pressing the reset button, etc. And I can’t help noticing that, during these moments of anger, I have actually begun to blame my computer for the way it is working—as if there were a homunculus inside the machine who had decided that it was a good time to frustrate me and then started fiddling with the wires and circuitry...READ MORE


Computational neuroscience and systems biology

In 1952, Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley published a paper that was the result of several years of experimentation on the axon of the giant squid. They had been measuring action potentials, a task made easier in the giant squid due to the large diameter of its axons (up to 1mm, compared to 1 micrometer, or millionth of a meter, in humans). Using a device (known as a voltage clamp) that allowed them to manipulate the voltage of the axon membrane and measure the resultant current that flowed through its ion channels, they developed a mathematical model that could be used to calculate current flow across excitable membranes...READ MORE


Foreign accent syndrome

Watching someone you know recover from a stroke or other serious brain insult can be extremely difficult. Cognitive deficits (including dementia), apraxia, and speech problems are among the disabilities that these patients may have to endure. At times, these impairments can make it hard to find the individual you knew before the incident in the post-accident patient. This is perhaps the most trying aspect of the experience...READ MORE


Bisexuality in drosophila

The fruit fly, like many organisms, has a stereotypical courtship ritual that precedes mating. After noticing a female, a male fly will follow her with a persistence that is strangely reminiscent to me of behavior that can be observed in any local pub on a busy night. The male will then tap the female with his foreleg, which allows him to sense her pheromones through chemoreceptors on his leg, and verify whether she is sexually receptive. If so, he will extend one wing and vibrate it, producing a species-specific courtship song...READ MORE


The Commonalities of Buffalo Wings, Szechuan Peppers, and Ritalin Snorting

Spicy food—you either love it or hate it. Whichever group you fall into, though, there’s a good chance you’ve never thought about how intriguing a natural deception it really is. When we eat spicy food we may experience a variety of sensations (depending on the specific cuisine) ranging from tingling to numbness to painful burning. Yet, a short time later the feeling disappears, leaving no redness, scarring, or irritation behind, indicating that the previous unpleasantness we experienced was—literally—all in our heads...READ MORE


It's All About Timing: Circadian Rhythms and Behavior

Anyone who has ever tried to drastically alter his or her sleep schedule (e.g. going from working days to working nights) knows that it is one of the more difficult biological tasks we can take on. Even altering one’s sleep patterns by a couple of hours (such as the shift experienced by cross-country travelers) can be disruptive, and enough to make us feel tired, mentally unclear, and grumpy. But why are we so inflexible when it comes to our daily routine? Why are our otherwise diverse bodies so sensitive to an adjustment of our biological clocks by just a few hours? Perhaps it is because millions of years of evolution have led to a daily body clock so fine-tuned that this sensitivity is adaptive...READ MORE


Changes in Gene Expression and Addiction

As I discussed in a post last week, addiction seems to correspond to abnormalities in dopamine (DA) transmission throughout the reward areas of the brain. Specifically, initial uses of a drug tend to correlate with low levels of dopamine receptor availability in the nucleus accumbens (NAc), while long-term use affects DA transmission throughout the entire striatum (the NAc is located in the ventral portion of the striatum, or the part nearer the front of the brain)...READ MORE


My Evolutionarily Adaptive Response to Dog Poop

Any dog owners out there who (like me) don’t have their own yard in which to let their dog run wild, will probably agree that picking up after your dog is the most unpleasant daily aspect of having one. Every time I lean down to scoop up a pile of my dog Zooey’s regular gift to me, my nose wrinkles up, my eyes squint—and occasionally I may gag a little bit. This expression of disgust is a common one...READ MORE


The Darwinian Paradox of Homosexuality

Homosexuality has been an acknowledged aspect of human society since our earliest recorded history. In some civilizations, such as ancient Greece, homosexuality was relatively common and accepted. It is also a behavior that is not specific to humans. It has been documented in over 500 non-human animals, including penguins, bonobos, and grizzly bears...READ MORE


Hox Genes and Neurodevelopment

In the 1980s, scientists knew surprisingly little about the role genes play in the development of an embryo. The discovery of a particular group of genes, however, known as Hox genes, drastically improved our understanding of embryology. At the same time it revolutionized genetics and developmental biology...READ MORE


Why Pretzels and Gunshot Wounds Make Us Thirsty

I re-watched one of my all-time favorite movies the other night: Unforgiven. After William Munney (Clint Eastwood) shoots his first victim, the camera zooms in on the fallen cowboy as he begins complaining about how thirsty he is, begging his companions for water. In a moment of compassion, Munney agrees to put down his gun to allow the cowboy’s friends to bring him a canteen.
You’ve probably all seen a similar scene before in another movie, if not this one (hopefully you’ve never seen it in person). Victims of gunshot wounds, or other wounds that involve a drastic loss of blood, are often portrayed as being very thirsty...READ MORE


Impulsivity and a Predisposition to Addiction

The improved understanding of addiction that has emerged over the past few decades has transformed the question of whether or not addiction is a choice into a search for predisposing factors that make the risk of addiction much higher for some people than for others. This is a drastic improvement from the times when it was even considered that addiction was a voluntary process—a decision made by degenerates who had no motivation to live a successful life. It has also led to a great deal of research in an attempt to isolate specific genotypes and phenotypes that result in a susceptibility to drug abuse...READ MORE


Robots Controlled by Monkeys May One Day Enslave Humans

Or they might just eat all of our marshmallows and fruit. Either way, I’m basing my prediction on research published online this week in the journal Nature. Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine developed a robotic arm that they attached to monkeys, whose actual arms were restrained. Using signals from their brains alone, the monkeys were able to control the robot arms to feed themselves marshmallows and fruit...READ MORE


Improving Electroconvulsive Therapy

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is thought by many in the general public to be a brutal and inhumane form of treatment. This perception likely has a number of causes, including improper use and administration in its earlier days, its depiction as a method of torture in fictional accounts like that found in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and perhaps even as a backlash against invasive psychological procedures, which may have grown out of the disastrous frontal lobotomy experiments. The truth, however, is that when ECT is applied properly, it can be an effective form of treatment for those who suffer from severe depression...READ MORE


The Neuroscience of Distributive Justice

Since the emergence of philosophical thought, an unresolved debate has persisted about a general definition of justice and equity. An aspect of that debate involves distributive justice, or how goods and benefits should be dispersed throughout a society in a fair and just manner. As an extreme example of this dilemma, imagine you are commissioned to deliver 100 lbs. of food to a famine-stricken region that consists of two villages a hundred miles apart. If you deliver half of the food to the first village, then travel to the second, 30 lbs. of the food will spoil during the trip. Would you deliver all of the food to the first village, or provide each village with only 35 lbs. of food in the pursuit of equity....READ MORE


Does Money Affect the Way You Think?

Money, perhaps more so than any other modern symbol, can elicit a vast array of emotions (depending to a large degree on its abundance in one’s life), including yearning, anxiety, pride, greed, envy, depression, and happiness. Of course there is not simply a direct correlation with money and any one of these emotional states, such as more money equaling more happiness or vice versa. In fact, past research has found that the effects money has on one’s well-being can be very disparate...READ MORE


microRNAs and Schizophrenia

Over the past twenty years, our understanding of gene expression has grown tremendously. As is often the case, however, with that increased level of comprehension has come a realization that the process is even more complex than originally thought. Thus, the relatively simple model of mRNA being transcribed from DNA, then traveling to ribosomes where it is translated into proteins (with the help of tRNA and rRNA), is now thought to be just a rough summary of the process...READ MORE


Would You Vaccinate Your Kids Against Drugs?

This is not just a question intended to incite thought or debate, it’s an issue that any future parents, or parents with children under the age of 10 may actually be faced with before your child reaches 18. Clinical trials are currently underway for vaccines intended to treat cocaine and nicotine addiction, respectively. Both have been shown to be effective without any adverse effects in phase I trials, and have moved on to phase II. So, if the treatments continue to demonstrate efficacy without harm, it is conceivable they could be available for use in humans within a decade...READ MORE


Ketamine and Depression

Ketamine is a drug with a very wide range of uses. Developed in 1962 to be an alternative anesthetic to phencyclidine (PCP), it was first used as a battlefield anesthetic. It eventually became a popular veterinary medicine, used for anesthetic purposes with small animals (e.g. cats) and as an analgesic for larger animals like horses. It also became an established recreational drug, known for its psychedelic side effects and commonly referred to as “special K”...READ MORE


Ghrelin and the Omnipresence of Food

It really is difficult to travel a mile in this country without being exposed to something trying to entice you to eat. Billboards, mini-marts, and restaurants have saturated our environment with visual cues that remind us of the importance of feeding. When at home the television, radio, or internet can be helpful if one has a tendency to forget the necessity of food—especially that of the fried, dripping, or cheesy variety. The advertisers behind all of these reminders are hoping that when you encounter them, your stomach will be coincidentally flooding your hypothalamus with ghrelin...READ MORE


Gene Therapy: Struggling to Leave the Past Behind

Gene therapy is a relatively new method of treatment that involves replacing the defective allele of a gene with a functional one. The technique, originally thought to hold great potential for the treatment of genetic diseases, was at first greeted with excitement and enthusiasm. This enthusiasm continued to grow after the first successful administration of gene therapy in 1990, to improve the health of four-year old Ashanthi Desilva (born with severe combined immunodeficiency)...READ MORE


Neuroimaging and the Social Ladder

Social hierarchies, and the corresponding struggles to move up within them, are ubiquitous throughout the animal kingdom. It is common to observe the attainment of dominant, as well as the relegation to submissive, roles in animal groups. As is so often the case, when we turn our attention to our own species, however, we rarely describe ourselves in such ethological terms as dominant and submissive. To do so causes one to draw an uncomfortably amorphous line between the human and nonhuman kingdom, one that many of us avoid as it has a tendency to tarnish the uniqueness of the human condition, allowing for the propagation of the more comfortable idea that we are separate from “lower” forms of animal life...READ MORE


The Serotonin Hypothesis and Neurogenesis

Although it has become a commonly accepted explanation for the neurobiology of depression among the general public (mostly due to misleading advertisements by pharmaceutical companies), the idea that depression is caused primarily by a serotonin “imbalance” is a description of the processes underlying the disorder so simplified it renders itself inaccurate...READ MORE


Using Gene Therapy to Treat Addiction

When you take into consideration the number of ways in which it can manifest itself, addiction is probably the most prevalent mental disorder that we don’t yet have a pharmaceutical treatment for. By identifying common neurobiological substrates that underlie all types of addiction, however, scientists hope to find drug targets that may one day allow it to be treated at least as methodically as other widespread disorders like depression. One of these commonalities found in the brains of addicted subjects involves a reduction of the number of available dopamine receptors in reward areas of the brain...READ MORE


Who's the Decider?

It’s too bad Benjamin Libet didn’t live another year. If he did he would have been able to see the first neuroimaging evidence to support what he found with an electroencephalogram (EEG) almost thirty years ago: what we consider our conscious decisions are preceded by unconscious neural activity, which seems to be the actual—as President Bush would say—decider...READ MORE


Epigenetics and Alcoholism

Many of us, even those without alcohol problems, may feel more inclined to have a drink after a bad day, when stress is building up, or when we are trying to take our minds off of something that’s bothering us. This is one of the reasons alcohol is so popular: it has the ability to relieve anxiety and stress, at least while it’s being served (the next morning is another story). It’s also, however, one of the reasons alcoholism is so insidious. For an alcoholic, periods of alcohol withdrawal involve severe anxiety...READ MORE


Trying to Make Evolutionary Sense of Menopause

This is a bit of a deviation from neuroscience (although neuroscience and evolution are fundamentally related), but I stumbled upon an article in PNAS about menopause that I found interesting, and I wanted to comment on it. I never really thought much about the evolution of menopause, and now that I have, it is a very unusual biological process (as well as a very unpleasant one for women)...READ MORE


A Triumph for Stem Cell Research

Although the potential applications of stem cell therapy are numerous, right now some of its most promising conceivable uses are in the treatment of degenerative brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or Parkinson’s disease (PD). In both of these afflictions, essential brain regions deteriorate, leading to notoriously debilitating symptoms...READ MORE


Imaging Gene Expression in the Brain

An integral aspect of finding better treatment for some of our most intimidating neurological afflictions, like multiple sclerosis (MS) and Alzheimer’s disease (AD), is improving our ability to detect them early. Our capacity to do so has improved drastically with the advent of neuroimaging techniques. But even with neuroimaging, early stages of these diseases may not be discerned if they have not yet caused considerable damage to the brain. What if we could find a way, however, to image the expression of genes that were activated to repair damage done to the brain, however slight it may be...READ MORE


Beta-Blockers May Act on the Brain

When beta-blockers were discovered, they held such promise that the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) halted trials of one such drug nine months early. They felt it was unethical to continue administering placebos to the control group in the study, based on the significantly improved survival rates they were seeing among those who were taking the beta-blockers. By the late 1990s beta-blockers had become a standard facet of therapy for patients suffering from congestive heart failure...READ MORE


Every Sweet Hath its Sour

People, along with many other animals, have a preference for sweet foods. This is putting it mildly, as our love of sugary sustenance has immensely influenced our culture, economy, and health. Even our vocabulary has been affected by an affinity for sugar, as the word “sweet” itself has a positive connotation, in English and other languages (e.g. la dolce vita). But, our predilection for sweetness has come with a cost, as evidenced by a worldwide prevalence of obesity that is over 300 million...READ MORE


The Many Faces of Dopamine

The history of dopamine is full of experimental surprises and paradigmatic shifts. For many years after its discovery, it was thought dopamine’s only role in the brain was in the synthesis of norepinephrine, which is made from dopamine with the help of the enzyme dopamine B-hydroxylase. Around the middle of the twentieth century, however, it began to be recognized as having important physiological effects in its own right, and by the mid 1960s it was found that low levels of it were correlated with Parkinson’s disease. Continued investigation of dopamine led to the realization that it is a neurotransmitter, with its own receptors and pathways, and that its influence on brain activity is profound...READ MORE


fMRI and Counterterrorism

Bioethicists have for years been debating the conscientiousness of using neuroimaging techniques outside of a clinical setting, such as in courtroom situations or interrogations. These discussions are inevitable, as an fMRI visualization of brain activity seems—at least potentially—to be a much more precise indicator of hidden thoughts and emotions than the standard polygraph. Jonathan Marks, an associate professor of bioethics at Penn State recently drew attention to this debate by asserting that fMRI is being used by the United States government in the interrogation of terrorist suspects...READ MORE


Sea Cucumbers on the Brain

Advancements in biomedical science come from the study of all different sorts of organisms, from humans to roundworms, fruit flies, and yes, even sea cucumbers. The authors of a recent study in Science suggest research involving the sea cucumber has potential for improving treatments for Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and spinal cord injuries. They speculate it may conceivably even be used in the development of flexible body armor or bullet-proof vests...READ MORE


Unraveling the Mystery of Mania

Bipolar disorder (BPD) is one of the most prevalent psychiatric disorders in the world, affecting close to six million people in the U.S. alone. It is characterized by severe shifts of mood between stages of depression and mania. The depression involves traditional symptoms of a depressive episode, such as hopelessness, loss of interest in daily activities, and disruption of sleeping patterns. The manic episodes are what you might consider the exact opposite of depression, manifesting as drastically increased energy, euphoria, lack of inhibition, and delusions of grandeur...READ MORE


Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer Do

Even the most successful attempts at artificial intelligence (AI) always seem to lack certain essential qualities of a living brain. It is a formidable task to create a robotic or computerized simulation of a human that seems to display original desires or beliefs, or one that truly understands the desires and beliefs of others in the way people can. This latter ability, often referred to as “theory of mind”, is considered an integral aspect of being human, and the extent to which it has developed in us may be one thing that sets us apart from other animals. Reproducing theory of mind in AI is difficult, but a semblance of it has been demonstrated before with physical robots...READ MORE


This Study Sponsored by Krispy Kreme

The brain’s motivational processes always provide an interesting area for research, as they underlie all of our “voluntary” behavior. Much progress has been made in understanding motivational areas of the brain since the advent of sophisticated neuroimaging techniques. Recently, a group of researchers using fMRI attempted to identify specific activity in the brain that takes place when a person shifts their attention to a relevant object in their environment (the first step in developing motivation to obtain the object). The group focused on hunger...READ MORE


Genes and Happiness, or Free Will Revisited

As I begin writing this post I can’t help but be reminded of the one I wrote a few weeks ago about the troubles one runs into when trying to reconcile present-day understandings of neuroscience and genetics with the traditional concept of free will. A team of researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the Queensland Institute of Medical Research recently conducted a study to investigate how much our subjective sense of happiness is dependent upon our genetic makeup (and thus personality style). Is our ability to be happy solely up to us ("us" being defined as hypothetical beings with complete free will), or is it constrained by the type of person we are, which is determined to a large extent by our genes...READ MORE


Reading Minds With fMRI

Well, it may not be mind reading just yet, but a computer model developed by a group of neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, is perhaps one (tiny) step closer to that sort of technology. In a study to be published in tomorrow’s issue of Nature, the group describes the use of the computer model to accurately identify which photograph—out of a group of many—a subject had just looked at, based only on fMRI data...READ MORE


Experimental Evidence Supports Runner's High; Aromatherapy...Not So Much

For a long time the idea that a “runner’s high” occurs after exercise of a long duration has been obvious to athletes. The physiological reasons behind it, however, have been much more of a mystery to scientists. The most prominent theory to explain it over the last twenty years or so has been the endorphin hypothesis, which suggests that prolonged strenuous activity releases endorphins, causing an elevation of mood and decrease in the perception of pain...READ MORE


Diltiazem Reduces Cocaine Craving in Rats

A seemingly unlikely candidate in the battle against cocaine addiction has emerged from work being done by researchers at Boston University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School. The group administered diltiazem, a drug commonly used to treat hypertension, to cocaine-addicted rats, and found that it significantly reduced their cravings for cocaine...READ MORE


Good News for Ugly Babies

Babies really have it made. They usually have at least one, and sometimes a coterie, of people in their life devoted to figuring out exactly what will make them happy, whether it be food, milk, a pacifier, etc. They also have the privilege of enjoying a warm, cooing welcome from almost anyone they encounter, be it a close relative or complete stranger. Not many of us have the ability to turn away from a smiling baby with cold indifference, and some will stop whatever they are doing just to walk over to tell the infant how cute he/she is...READ MORE


Understanding Memory at the Molecular Level

Probably the most extensively researched facet of cognition, memory has proven to be a process that is as difficult to unravel as it is essential to the human experience. Monumental developments in memory research are occurring regularly, however, although they are often under the public radar as they are only pieces of a puzzle we are still incapable of fully assembling. Regardless, the work being done on these pieces will one day allow for an understanding of memory so extensive it will seem to have little in common with our traditional conceptions of what memory is...READ MORE


Why Some People Didn't Give Up on Gene Therapy

Gene therapy, a treatment for disease that involves the insertion of healthy or disease-fighting genes into a person's cells, has undergone something of a roller coaster ride of public approval. Although hotly contested from its inception due to suggested ethical and methodological flaws, its first use in 1990 on four-year old Ashanti DeSilva to alleviate the symptoms of a rare immune disorder seemed successful. The next decade, however, instead of being one of vindication for gene therapy advocates, was fraught with disappointment due both to technical problems with its application, and to grossly unethical handling of its use in people...READ MORE


Human Flocking Behavior with a Shaky Segue into Mirror Neurons

On occasion, I will be in a public place like an airport, sports stadium, or bar/club, and I’ll pause to look at the sea of people that I’m part of. I then usually start to feel being human is a little less significant than we are inclined to think it is, as I get caught up making zoologically comparative observations. In the case of the airport or large event, I often consider how we resemble herds of cattle, moving in one direction or another with the urging of signs or velvet ropes instead of sheepdogs (or sometimes even with security guards barking at us much like a sheepdog would)...READ MORE


Sisyphus and Science, or History Repeats Itself

Researchers working at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) published a paper online last week in Cell Stem Cell discussing advances they’ve made in trying to coax adult cells to revert to embryonic stem cell-like states, without viruses or oncogenes (cancer-causing genes). They have outlined the molecular process involved in this nuclear reprogramming, something which up until now has been a very nebulous sequence of events. Being able to reprogram cells without viruses or oncogenes is crucial, as their involvement prohibits the use of the resultant embryonic stem cells (ESC) in humans...READ MORE


Can Neuroscience and Free Will Coexist?

Studying neuroscience involves dissecting individual behaviors and separating them into their biological components. For example, imagine yourself sitting in front of the television as dinner time is nearing. You grow hungrier as you wait for the show you are watching to come to end, then when it does you get up and go to the kitchen to make something to eat. If an interviewer were to later ask you why you got up to eat at that moment, you might reply “I was hungry, so I decided to have dinner”...READ MORE


Further Proof "Junk DNA" Has Value

The prevalence of noncoding regions of DNA in the genome of humans and many other eukaryotic organisms has long been a subject of controversy. DNA is composed of alternating areas called exons and introns. When DNA is transcribed to mRNA (the first step of protein synthesis), the introns (from "intragenic regions") are spliced out before the final mRNA sequence is formed. The exons become part of the mRNA and can code for amino acids involved in protein formation. The function of introns has been a mystery, and their ostensible superfluousness has caused some to refer to them as “junk DNA”...READ MORE


Autism May Involve Limited Awareness of Self

As the prevalence of autism continues to rise—for reasons that are still unknown—researchers are frantically trying to understand the disorder. Autism consists of a spectrum of behaviors, such as repetitive or ritualistic behavior, self-injury, impaired language ability, and limited communication skills. One of the most commonly held views on autism has been that those who are afflicted have a decreased capacity to feel empathy, or to understand that other people have their own mental states, desires, and intentions...READ MORE


Baby Math Geeks

There are certain abilities that humans develop with such universality it seems as if our brains might be specifically designed to acquire them. One example is language. About fifty years ago, most psychologists believed children learned language by imitating the adults around them, then refined it by receiving feedback about the accuracy of their utterances. Famous linguist Noam Chomsky was the first to point out, however, that children have an ingenious ability to create sentences they’ve never heard before, and the speed with which they pick up their native language is much quicker than any realistic learning curve...READ MORE


The Chicken and the Egg of Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of elderly dementia, affecting over 25 million people worldwide. Some estimates put new cases of AD at 4-5 million per year (one new case every 7 seconds). The neurodegenerative effects of AD are devastating, causing cognitive deterioration that can lead to invalidism and drastic memory loss. Furthermore, AD is a frustrating disease to scientists and doctors because, although there are signature neurological changes that accompany its progression, the etiology remains unknown...READ MORE


Striatum Found to be Integral to Addiction in Rats

A certain group of brain structures, often referred to as the “reward system”, has long been recognized by scientists as having an important role in addiction. The structures of the reward system are related in that they are all part of a major dopamine network, the mesotelencephalic dopamine system. Dopamine neurons that arise from the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a nucleus in the midbrain, and project to the nucleus accumbens (NAc) are thought to play the largest part in addiction...READ MORE


Sweet Dreams, C. Elegans

Sleep is sometimes a vexing subject for scientists. We spend about 1/3 of our lives doing it. Yet, despite all the progress that has been made in discovering the reasons behind myriad other human behaviors, there is still no consensus on why we sleep. Some believe it has a recuperative effect on the body, allowing energy stores to be replenished. While a good night’s sleep may certainly allow us to feel more rested, this theory doesn’t explain the necessity of sleep, as the same result presumably could be obtained by lying still for eight hours. Others suggest sleep is an evolved, adaptive behavior that protected our ancestors from too much activity during the night...READ MORE


Body Integrity Identity Disorder

There was an article in the last issue of Scientific American: Mind I have been wanting to discuss, but I keep getting sidetracked. So, I’ll return to it now before I forget about it. The article focuses on a disorder that is slowly gaining more attention from both medical professionals and the public. Once resigned to guests appearing occasionally on the Jerry Springer Show and often considered an urban legend, the affliction is now taken seriously and considered very legitimate. It has been termed body integrity identity disorder (BIID), and is characterized by an irrepressible feeling of dissociation from part of your body, along with a desire to have that limb(s) amputated...READ MORE


Unseen Drug Cues Can Still Induce Cravings

People generally look at addiction in one of two ways. Some understand the extreme difficulty inherent in battling a craving, whether it be for drugs, food, cigarettes, etc. This is especially the case with those who have experienced addiction, and to a lesser extent with those who have helped someone else through it or studied it extensively. Others may attribute addiction to a personal choice, as if a drug user is able to simply sit down and decide whether or not he or she wants to do drugs today, and then acts on that decision. The science doesn’t support the latter view...READ MORE


Don't it Make My Brown Eyes Blue

We focus quite a bit on eye color. People find certain eye colors more attractive than others. Whether or not you can remember someone’s eye color is used as a gauge of how well you know them (much to the chagrin of men). In short, we have come to consider variation in eye color as an important part of who we are. Thus, it’s hard to imagine a time when everyone had the same color eyes: brown...READ MORE


I Have the Strangest Feeling I’ve Written this Post Before

We’ve all experienced it, some of us many times in many different places: déjà vu, that nebulous feeling you’ve been somewhere before although you can’t pinpoint exactly when or under what circumstances. A number of explanations have been offered over the years for why déjà vu occurs. They range from the mystical (remnants of memories from a past life) to the scientific. Even within these disparate categories the explanations are numerous...READ MORE


Of Mice and Men and Empathy and Schadenfreude

Scientific American: Mind has an article in their most recent issue about our increasing recognition of empathy in non-human animals. It summarizes the history of the attribution of moralistic emotions to non-humans, with the implication that now more than ever scientists are recognizing homologues of empathy in animals like mice and primates...READ MORE


Equal Time for ESP Enthusiasts

Last week I put up a post about a neuroimaging experiment that studied brain activity associated with extrasensory perception (ESP). I must admit I am biased on this topic, and tend to be pretty dismissive toward belief in the paranormal. I’m sure this had something to do with me deciding to post on that particular study, and I’ll bet a hint of gloating could be detected in my review of an experiment that discredited the existence of ESP. So when I came across this study today I felt obligated to discuss it, in an attempt at providing equal time...READ MORE


Warning to Homophobes: Don't Drink With Fruit Flies

It’s common knowledge that drinking alcohol can lower our inhibitions, causing some of us to occasionally do things we regret the next sobering (in more ways than one) day. One common cause of alcohol-induced remorse is the weakening of sexual restraint. It can lead to a sexual liaison with someone you normally wouldn’t consider sharing your bed with, whether it be a co-worker, friend, or someone you’re just plain not attracted to (hence the scientific term “beer goggles”). While all of this is common knowledge, scientists don’t really understand why it happens. So a group of researchers at Penn State is attempting to make sense of it by studying Drosophila melanogaster, more commonly known as the fruit fly...READ MORE


In the Eye of the Beholder

Imagine you are at work one morning, sitting at your desk (or wherever you may sit at work), and someone begins walking toward you. You look up and their face is a blur, a completely featureless void, that gives you no indication who they might be. You examine their gait, their clothing, and their body shape. This tells you they are a man, but everything else is so nondescript you don’t know if he’s your boss, a visitor, or a co-worker from down the hall. You anxiously look down, hoping the person won’t notice your confusion, as it would seem quite strange since you’ve worked there for years. Only when you hear his voice do you realize he is a friend, simply interested in what you are doing for lunch. Welcome to the world of a prosopagnosiac...READ MORE


Thinking Thin Not So Easy

Our overweight population is arguably the most dangerous health crisis the United States is facing right now, and much of the rest of the developed world is heading down the same path. About 65% of the U.S. population is overweight, and over 30% are obese. Public awareness of this is rising slowly, resulting in half-hearted attempts by fast-food restaurants to add healthy items to their menus and in the proliferation of a diet industry that in many cases probably does as much harm as good. Needless to say, the trend seems to be continuing in the wrong direction. As we grow fatter as a nation, we also find diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer rising at alarming rates...READ MORE


Stem Cells and the Brain

Stem cells are probably one of the least understood (by the public), yet most fascinating, biological entities we have identified. Who of us hasn’t marveled at the ability of a newt to grow back its limbs after they are cut off, or of a starfish to be cut in half and regenerate to form two new starfish? Both organisms are able to do these seemingly miraculous things because of stem cells. So you can understand why some scientists are consumed with understanding and utilizing stem cells, in the hopes of slowing disease and even aging...READ MORE


The Eyes Are the Windows to the...Internet?

This may seem a little off the topic of neuroscience, but ultimately neuroscience is needed to explain perception, and anything related to vision is related to the brain (plus it was just too cool for me to ignore)...READ MORE


Using Neuroscience to Debunk the Paranormal

Extrasensory perception, or ESP, is one of the most widely accepted paranormal phenomena, with almost half of adults in the United States affirming its existence. Under the rubric of ESP fall mental processes that are considered outside the normal range of thought, such as predicting the future, reading other people’s minds (telepathy), and knowing of distant events as they occur (clairvoyance). Detractors claim no reliable evidence of ESP has ever been presented, while supporters assert they have experienced these extraordinary thoughts, such as knowing someone was going to call right before the phone rang...READ MORE


Nature vs. Nurture in Depression

It seems the nature vs. nurture debate has cooled from a fiery argument to some mild bickering over the details (although make no mistake, they are important details). Most scientists today will accept the statement that neither nature nor nurture can be considered solely responsible for one’s behavior, rather it is some combination of both. Just how much each factor contributes to that end product, however, is the detail that continues to be debated...READ MORE


Drugs, Love, & War: All the Same to the Brain?

In many ways, of course, the brain handles drugs, love, and violence drastically differently. Researchers have been aware for some time, however, that love and drugs also have many similarities in how they are processed by the brain. A neurotransmitter called dopamine has been found to be necessary for participation in drug-seeking or love-seeking behavior. In fact, it has been implicated in nearly every experience we consider rewarding, such as love, drugs, eating, and sex...READ MORE


The Neuroimaging Revolution

One of the most exciting scientific advances of the past fifty years has been the development of complex neuroimaging techniques. Since computerized axial tomography (CAT or CT) was introduced in the 1970s we have seen the development of positron emission tomography (PET), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and functional MRIs (fMRI), each more effective than the one before, and each allowing for a drastically improved understanding of the brain and behavior...READ MORE


Spiders, Snakes, and Evolved Fears

Did you ever take a moment to think about some of the common phobias or fears among people and why they are so common? Scientists have wondered about this for some time, and a great deal of research has focused on two widely held fears, those of spiders and snakes. Why do so many of us fear spiders and snakes when 1) a disproportionate number of them are not dangerous to us, and 2) most of us have never had a dangerous encounter with one...READ MORE