May 3, 2013
It may have been the word retrieval adventure I had the other night when I couldn’t remember the name of thinly sliced cured ham. (I nailed the “p,” but didn’t come close to conjuring up “prosciutto.”) Or it could have been the annoying pain I feel in a knuckle on my right hand these days. Probably both.
All I know is that when I read about a recent study in which scientists were able to slow down the aging process in mice, I was more than a little intrigued.
According to the researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, the key to stalling the harsh march of aging is likely deep inside your brain, specifically the almond-size section called the hypothalamus.
It has long been associated with our sense of hunger and thirst, our body temperature and feelings of fatigue. But the scientists, in the study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, say they found that by deactivating a molecule found in the hypothalamus called NF-kB, they were able to get mice to live 20 percent longer, and also show fewer physical signs of aging.
More specifically, when they blocked the substance from the hypothalamus, the animals lived up to 1,100 days, about 100 days longer than the normal limit for mice. But when they gave other mice more NF-kB, they all died within 900 days. The mice without NF-kB also had more muscle and bone, healthier skin and were better at learning.
During the study, the researchers also determined that NF-kB lowered levels of a hormone called GnRH. And when they gave the mice a daily treatment of that hormone, it too helped to extend the animals’ lives and even caused new neurons to develop in their brains.
This is where I need to raise the caveat about research with mice, namely that what works with them often doesn’t carry over to humans. Or as io9 noted, “comparing the aging processes of mice to humans is a precarious proposition at best.”
That said, the lead scientist for the study, Dongsheng Cai, says he’s excited by what the research suggests. “It supports the idea that aging is more than a passive deterioriation of different tissues,” he told The Guardian in an interview. “It is under control and can be manipulated.”
Thanks for my memory
Then there is Theodore Berger. He’s a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and he believes that one day in the not too distant future, it may be possible to use electrical implants in the brain to help people retrieve long-term memories.
So far, Berger and his research team have been able to show how a silicon chip externally connected to rat and monkey brains by electrodes can process information as actual neurons do. And last fall, the researchers demonstrated that they could help monkeys bring back long-term memories.
They focused on the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that retrieves the memories created by the hippocampus. The scientists placed electrodes in the monkeys’ brains to capture the neuron code formed in the prefrontal cortex that, the researchers believed, allowed the animals to remember an image they had been shown earlier. Then they drugged the monkeys with cocaine, which impaired activity in that part of their brains. Next they used the implanted electrodes to send electrical pulses carrying the captured code to the monkeys’ prefrontal cortex, and that, according to Berger, significantly improved the animals’ performance on a memory test.
Of course, the more you study the brain, the more complex it gets. And it’s quite possible that Berger hadn’t captured a code for how all memories are stored, but rather a code related only to the specific task of recalling an image. He says that within the next two years, he and his colleagues plan to implant a memory chip in animals, one that should, once and for all, determine if they have indeed cracked the code of creating long-term memories of many different situations and behaviors.
As he told M.I.T.’s Technology Review, ““I never thought I’d see this go into humans, and now our discussions are about when and how. I never thought I’d live to see the day, but now I think I will.”
The ticking clock
Here’s other recent research on aging and memory:
- Be still, my heart: After tracking more than 5,000 men for 40 years, Danish scientists concluded that those with high resting heart rates–above 80 beats per minute–were considerably more likely to die at a younger age, even if they were considered healthy.
- Not to mention it was a lot safer than actually having them drive: According to a study at the University of Iowa, elderly people who played a video game called “Road Tour” for as little as 10 hours, were able to measurably sharpen their cognitive skills.
- And throw in a side of olive oil: More kudos for the Mediterranean diet. A study published in the journal Neurology earlier this week found that people who followed the diet, built around eating fish, olive oil and vegetables and very little meat, were 19 percent less likely to suffer memory problems or cognitive decay.
- Although now they only dream in pink: And then there’s this report from German scientists: By having people listen to “pink noise” sounds that matched their brain wave oscillations as they slept, researchers were able to help them remember things they had learned the previous day.
- Dead and famous: Research by Australian scientists based on obituaries published in the New York Times over a two-year period found that people who were famous were more likely to die younger, particularly performers and athletes. The study also determined that performers were at a particularly high greatest risk of dying of lung cancer.
- We’re gonna need more fists: And finally, scientists at Montclair State University in New Jersey say their research shows that by clenching your right fist before memorizing something, and then your left when you want to remember it, you have a better chance of your memory coming through for you.
Video bonus: Here’s a short tutorial on why we age, told through the magic of whiteboard and markers:
Video bonus bonus: And a little visual proof that no one ages quite like a rock star.
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April 24, 2013
In one those strange twists of modern life, we were reminded last week of the power of music–at a hockey game.
It was at Boston’s TD Garden, two days after the explosions that contorted so many lives, and as singer Rene Rancourt began the Star Spangled Banner before the game between the hometown Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres, he noticed that many in the crowd were joining in. Rancourt got only as far as …”what so proudly we hailed” before he pulled the microphone away from his mouth and motioned to those in the stands to carry on. They did, in full voice, building to a stirring finish.
Yes, it would have been a powerful moment had those 17,000 people stood and cheered in unison. But they sang together, without restraint, and that moved us in a way we can’t fully comprehend.
Welcome to the pleasure center
Why is it that music can affect us in such profound ways? “Because it does” seems like a pretty good answer to me, but scientists aren’t that easy. They’ve been wrestling with this for a long time, yet it was not that long ago that two researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre, came up with an explanation, at least a physiological one.
Based on MRI scans, they found that when people listened to music they liked, the limbic and paralimbic regions of the brain became more active. They’re the areas linked to euphoric reward responses, the same ones that bring the dopamine rush associated with food, sex and drugs. (Right, so throw in rock and roll.)
Okay, but why? Why should a collection of sounds cause the brain to reward itself? That remains a bit of a mystery, but a favorite theory, proposed almost 60 years ago, posits that it’s about fulfilled expectations. Put simply, music sets up patterns that causes us to predict what will come next and when we’re right, we get a reward. Some have suggested this has its roots in primitive times when guessing wrong about animal sounds was a matter of life or death. What was needed was a quick emotional response to save our skin, rather than taking a time to think things through.
And so, the theory goes, our response to sound became a gut reaction.
And the beat goes on
The truth is we’re learning new things about music all the time. Here are eight studies published in just the past few months.
1) But can you dance to it?: Toronto researcher Valorie Salimpoor wanted to know if our strong emotional response to a song we like is due to the music itself or some personal attachment we have to it. So she had a group of people listen to 30-second samples of songs they’d never heard before, then asked them how much they’d be willing to pay for each track. And she did MRI scans of their brains while they listened. The result? When the nucleus accumbens region became active–it’s a part of the brain associated with pleasant surprises or what neuroscientists call “positive prediction errors”–they were more willing to spend money. In other words, if a song turned out better than they had expected, based on pattern recognition, they wanted more of it.
2) Drum solos not included: Two McGill University psychologists in Montreal say that soothing music can actually be more effective than Valium when it comes to relaxing people before surgery.
3) Unless their favorite song is by Metallica: And it helps even the tiniest of babies. A study at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York found that when parents turned their favorite songs into lullabies and sang or played them on an instrument, it reduced stress levels in the infants and stabilized their vital signs.
4) The ultimate mind meld: Back to brain scans. Stanford neuroscientist Daniel Abrams determined that when different people listened to the same piece of music–in this case a little known symphony–their brains reflected similar patterns of activity. And those similarities were observed not just in areas of the brain linked with sound processing, but also in regions responsible for attention, memory and movement.
5) You know you love “Gangnam Style”…Ooops, sorry about that: Yes, scientists are even doing research on earworms or as most of us know them, songs that get stuck in our heads. And the latest study found that contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s usually not awful songs that we can’t seem to get rid of. Most often, it’s songs we actually like, even if we don’t want to admit it. Researcher Ira Hyman also has suggestions for how to get rid of an earworm–you need to engage in a task that requires the auditory and verbal components of your working memory–say, reading a good book.
6) No language barrier here: Previous research has shown that people with a musical background are more likely to be able to learn a second language, and now a new study suggests that people who speak a language that’s tonal, such as Cantonese, may be better suited to learning music. Understanding Cantonese requires a person to master six different tones, each of which can change the meaning of words. On musical tests taken by non-musicians as part of the study, those who spoke Cantonese scored 20 percent higher than English-speaking participants who didn’t play music.
7) Some day you’ll thank me for this, kid: A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that musical training before the age of seven can have a major effect on brain development. Those who learned how to play chords at an early age tend to have stronger connections between the motor regions of their brains.
8) Say what?: So loud music may not ruin your hearing after all. At least that’s the conclusion of New South Wales scientist Gary Houseley, who says his research showed that loud music causes hearing to diminish for only about 12 hours. His study was able to demonstrate that when sound levels rise, the inner ear releases a hormone which reduces the amount of sound transmitted by the ear hair’s cells. That reduces our hearing sensitivity for a while, but it also keeps our ears from being permanently damaged.
Video bonus: Then there are the people who can improvise music. Researcher Charles Limb took a look inside their brains.
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March 8, 2013
This weekend, most of us Americans will lose an hour of sleep when we push the clocks ahead to swing into Daylight Saving Time.
That may not seem like much–the Academy Awards were three and a half times that long–but research suggests our bodies wouldn’t agree. A recent study by two Michigan hospitals found that they treated almost twice as many heart attack victims on the first day of Daylight Saving than on a typical Sunday. And if past behavior holds true, there will be a bump in traffic accidents on Monday because, as researchers have suggested, more people take “microsleeps” that day, due to the disruption of their body clocks.
Clearly sleep, or lack thereof, is a key component of psychic and physiological balance, although it wasn’t all that long ago that most scientists felt it wasn’t worth a lot of attention because frankly, it didn’t seem like all that much was going on. Now we know better–there’s a lot happening inside our brains and, apparently, our bodies, too when we’re snoozing.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t made us act much smarter when it comes to our sleeping habits. We’ve been hearing for years that our bodies need a good eight hours a night, but, according to a Centers for Disease Control report released last year, almost a third of working adults in America get only six.
So as David Randall, author of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, noted in a Wall Street Journal column, we’re seeing a boom in sleep aids, energy drinks, expensive mattresses designed to help us find our right “sleep number”, sleep-tracking devices and “fatigue management consultants.” That’s right, fatigue management consultants. A lot of Fortune 500 companies are now using them to track how sleep habits are affecting employee performance and safety records.
When cells go bad
Most of us are painfully aware of the mental and emotional costs of cheating ourselves of sleep. Who among us hasn’t felt the stupidness of fuzzy brain? The physical effects, though, are harder to distinguish. There’s plenty of research now that links poor sleeping habits to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. But they develop over time–which would seem to suggest that it would take years of bad sleeping to damage our health.
Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. A study just published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that getting too little little sleep just a few nights in a row can disrupt hundreds of genes, including those tied to stress and fighting diseases.
Scientists at the Surrey University Sleep Research Center in England subjected 26 volunteers–men and women between the ages of 23 and 31–to two very different weeks of sleeping. One week they were permitted to stay in bed only six hours each night. The other week they were allowed to sleep as long as 10 hours every night. Then the researchers analyzed cells in the volunteers’ blood, focusing on changes in RNA, the molecule that carries out DNA instructions through the body.
What they found surprised them. They discovered that not getting enough sleep changed the patterns in the way genes turned on and off. Overall, 711 genes were expressed differently when people were sleep-deprived: 444 genes were suppressed, 267 were stirred up. And the ones that became more active were genes involved in inflammation, immunity and protein damage.
Plus, when sleeping time was limited to six hours, the genes that govern the body clocks of the volunteers changed dramatically. Almost 400 genes stopped cycling in a circadian rhythm altogether, a disruption that could throw sleep patterns even more out of whack.
Not even Derk-Jan Dijk, the director of the Surrey sleep center, expected to see that. “The surprise for us,” he said, “was that a relatively modest difference in sleep duration leads to these kinds of changes. It’s an indication that sleep disruption or sleep restriction is doing more than just making you tired.”
You snooze, you don’t lose
In honor of National Sleep Awareness Week, which ends Sunday, here are six other recent sleep studies of which you might want to be aware:
- One man’s pizza is another man’s slice: A study at Uppsala University in Sweden determined that men who were sleep-deprived invariably chose larger portions of food than they did when they had a good night’s sleep.
- So that’s why my pillow hurts my head: According to research at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, not getting enough sleep can lower your tolerance for pain. Volunteers who were allowed to sleep nine hours a night for four nights were able to hold their fingers to a source of heat 25 percent longer than study participants who weren’t permitted to sleep more than seven hours.
- Now that’s a vicious cycle: Meanwhile, at the University of California, Berkeley, scientists said they’ve found a clear link between aging brains, the poor sleep of elderly people and memory loss. After comparing the brains and memory skills of young study participants and older ones, the researchers determined that age-related brain deterioration contributes to poor sleep and that leads to memory problems.
- But wait, there’s more bad news: And in Norway, analysis of the medical histories of more than 50,000 people showed that people who said they had trouble falling asleep or remaining asleep were three times more likely to develop heart failure than those who reported no trouble sleeping.
- If only they could sleep right through it: Research from Harvard Medical School suggests that nursing home residents who take sleep aids, such as Ambien, are more likely to fall and break a hip than residents who aren’t taking any meds for insomnia.
- Did I mention that it makes you stupid about food?: Finally, two studies last year showed why sleep deprivation can lead to excess pounds. One discovered that lack of sleep can prompt bad decisions about what food to eat. The other study found that when subjects were permitted to sleep for only four hours, the reward section of their brains became more active when they were shown pictures of pizza and candy.
Video bonus: Here’s a recent ABC News piece on why bad sleep leads to bad memory.
Video bonus bonus: Okay, after all this grim science news, the least I can do is share an oldie-but-goodie stop motion clip of real fun in bed. Sleep tight.
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February 25, 2013
A year and a half into his presidency, John F. Kennedy challenged U.S. scientists to get Americans to the moon by the end of the decade. At his recent State of the Union address, Barack Obama hinted at what could become his version of reaching for the moon–he’d like scientists to solve the mystery of the brain.
Obama’s mission would be a heavier lift.
He didn’t go into much detail, other than citing brain research as a stellar example of how government can “invest in the best ideas.” But last week a story in the New York Times by John Markoff filled in a lot of the blanks. Obama’s grand ambition is something called the Brain Activity Map–it’s already being referred to simply as BAM–and it would require a massive collaborative research effort involving neuroscientists, government agencies, private foundations and tech companies, with the truly daunting goal of figuring out how the brain actually generates thoughts, memories and consciousness.
An answer for Alzheimer’s?
The White House is expected to officially unveil its big plan as early as next month as part of its budget proposal. The speculation is that it could cost as much as $3 billion over the next 10 years.
Now, it may seem a strange time to be pitching projects with a $300 million-a-year price tag, what with the budget-hacking sequestration expected to kick in later this week. That’s why even though Obama was light on the details, he did make a point of comparing the brain-mapping mission to the Human Genome Project–a major research initiative financed by the federal government to map all of the genes in human DNA. It ultimately cost $3.8 billion, but it reached its goal two years early, in 2003, and through 2010, according to an impact study, returned $800 billion to the economy.
No question that BAM could have a profound impact in helping scientists understand what goes on in the brain to cause depression or schizophrenia or autism. And it certainly could be a boon to pharmaceutical companies that have spent billions, without luck, to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Since 1998, there have been more than 100 unsuccessful attempts to find a treatment for Alzheimer’s, which by 2050, is expected to affect 115 million people around the world.
It’s all about the tools
Clearly there are plenty of medical reasons to try to unravel the brain, but what, realistically, are the prospects? Sure, brain scans have helped scientists see which parts of the brain are more active during different types of behavior, but that’s a 30,000-foot view. It tells them next to nothing about how individual brain cells transmit information and even less about how neural networks transform that into behavior.
In recent years, researchers have made big strides in understanding how the brain is organized through the Human Connectome Project, funded by the National Institutes of Health. But that’s designed to create more of a static map of neural connections.
The next crucial step is to be able to see, in real time, how information is processed through those connections and which different neurons become part of that process. Or as Harvard biologist George Church, one of the scientists who proposed BAM in a paper last year, has explained it: “We don’t just want to see the wires, but also the messages going over the wires.”
The key is how quickly technology can be developed that will allow scientists to follow a thought process by recording every blip of every one of the thousands, and possibly millions, of neurons involved. Current technology enables them to record the activity of roughly 100 neurons at a time, way too small a slice of the neural network to help explain much of anything. But, as Greg Miller noted in a recent piece on the Wired website, several cutting-edge biological or nano-tools are in the works, including one that could “pack hundreds of thousands of nanowire electrodes into flexible sheets that conform to the surface of the brain and eavesdrop on neurons with minimal tissue damage.”
Is bigger really better?
A lot of neuroscientists will be thrilled if BAM gets funded. But not all. Some have already pointed out that you really can’t compare it to the Human Genome Project, nor the mission to the moon, for that matter. Both of those endeavors, while very challenging, had clearly definable goals. But how do you identify success for BAM? Would being able to record the activity of hundreds of thousands of neurons really explain how thinking happens? No one really knows.
Other scientists are concerned that BAM, with its high profile, could drain dollars from other neuroscience research. Some writers have even raised the specter of mind control, particularly since one of the government agencies that would be involved is DARPA, the Defense Department’s agency that funds experimental technology.
Gary Marcus, writing in the The New Yorker, makes the case that a project like BAM might be more effective if it wasn’t so monolithic. He argues that it should be broken up into five smaller projects, each one focused on a different aspect of brain function.
But he also warns that should Congress balk at ponying up the money for a major neuroscience project, it runs the risk of sparking, ironically, a brain drain. In January, a group of European countries committed more than $1 billion to their own huge neuroscience endeavor called the Human Brain Project , which will try to simulate all the processes of a brain within a computer.
“Whether it meets its grand goal or not, the European project will certainly lead to a significant number of smaller scientific advances. If the U.S. doesn’t follow suit, we will lose our lead in neuroscience, and will likely be left playing catch-up in some of the biggest game-changing industries on the horizon, like human-level artificial intelligence and direct brain-computer interfaces–even though both fields originated in the United States.”
Here are some other recent findings from brain research:
- Of mice and men watching mice: Researchers at Stanford were able to follow the brain activity of mice in real time after lacing their brains with fluorescent proteins. They were able to watch which parts of their brains glowed as they ran around a cage.
- Does that mean a bird can get a song stuck in its head?: And a team of scientists at Duke University found that birds that can sing and mimic sounds have genes in their brains that can turn on and off in ways similar to human brains.
- She lights up a womb: For the first time, MRIs of developing human fetuses showed communication signals between different parts of their brains. Scientists at Wayne State University in Michigan hope their research will lead to early treatments for autism and ADHD.
- Nothing yet, though, on how foot gets in mouth: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, had mapped the process of speech, laying out the neural network that makes it happen, from the nerves that control the jaws, lips and tongue to those that manipulate the larynx.
- Talk about a protein boost: There’s a biological explanation for why women talk more than men. Studies have shown that women speak an average of 20,000 words a day, while men average about 7,000. According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience last week, it may be because they tend to have higher levels of a protein in their brain that’s been linked to verbal communication.
Video bonus: A BBC journalist gets a tour of the wiring on his own brain.
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December 14, 2012
There are times when I wonder why so many scientists are spending so much time trying to recreate something as fickle and full of fogginess as the human brain.
But who am I kidding? Those dyspeptic moments inevitably pass, as anyone who’s been following this blog knows. Every few months, it seems, I’m back writing about the latest attempt to build machines that can learn to recognize objects or even develop cognitive skills.
And now there’s Spaun.
Staying on task
Its full name is the Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network, but Spaun sounds way more epic. It’s the latest version of a techno brain, the creation of a Canadian research team at the University of Waterloo.
So what makes Spaun different from a mindboggingly smart artificial brain like IBM’s Watson? Put simply, Watson is designed to work like a supremely powerful search engine, digging through an enormous amount of data at breakneck speed and using complex algorithms to derive an answer. It doesn’t really care about how the process works; it’s mainly about mastering information retrieval.
But Spaun tries to actually mimic the human brain’s behavior and does so by performing a series of tasks, all different from each other. It’s a computer model that can not only recognize numbers with its virtual eye and remember them, but also can manipulate a robotic arm to write them down.
Spaun’s “brain” is divided into two parts, loosely based on our cerebral cortex and basal ganglia and its simulated 2.5 million neurons–our brains have 100 billion–are designed to mimic how researchers think those two parts of the brain interact.
Say, for instance, that its “eye” sees a series of numbers. The artificial neurons take that visual data and route it into the cortex where Spaun uses it to perform a number of different tasks, such as counting, copying the figures, or solving number puzzles.
Soon it will be forgetting birthdays
But there’s been an interesting twist to Spaun’s behavior. As Francie Diep wrote in Tech News Daily, it became more human than its creators expected.
Ask it a question and it doesn’t answer immediately. No, it pauses slightly, about as long as a human might. And if you give Spaun a long list of numbers to remember, it has an easier time recalling the ones it received first and last, but struggles a bit to remember the ones in the middle.
“There are some fairly subtle details of human behavior that the model does capture,” says Chris Eliasmith, Spaun’s chief inventor. “It’s definitely not on the same scale. But it gives a flavor of a lot of different things brains can do.”
The fact that Spaun can move from one task to another brings us one step closer to being able to understand how our brains are able to shift so effortlessly from reading a note to memorizing a phone number to telling our hand to open a door.
And that could help scientists equip robots with the ability to be more flexible thinkers, to adjust on the fly. Also, because Spaun operates more like a human brain, researchers could use it to run health experiments that they couldn’t do on humans.
Recently, for instance, Eliasmith ran a test in which he killed off the neurons in a brain model at the same rate that neurons die in people as they age. He wanted to see how the loss of neurons affected the model’s performance on an intelligence test.
One thing Eliasmith hasn’t been able to do is to get Spaun to recognize if it’s doing a good or a bad job. He’s working on it.
Here are a few other recent developments in brain research and artificial intelligence:
- I can’t get this song out of your head: Scientists in Berlin wired guitarists playing a duet with electrodes and found that when they had to closely coordinate their playing, their brain activity became synchronized. But when they weren’t coordinated, when one was leading and the other following, their brain activity was distinctly different.
- One day the brain may actually understand itself: A team of MIT neuroscientists has developed a way to monitor how brain cells coordinate with each other to control specific behaviors, such as telling the body to move. Not only could this help them map brain circuits to see how tasks are carried out, but it also may provide insight into how psychiatric diseases develop.
- Deep thinking is so yesterday: The top prize in a recent competition sponsored by pharmaceutical giant Merck went to a team of researchers from the University of Toronto who used a form of artificial intelligence known as deep learning to help discover molecules that could become new drugs.
- So robots will learn how to stare at smart phones?: To teach robots how to function in social situations, scientists at Carnegie-Mellon University are tracking groups of people with head-mounted cameras to see when and where their eyes converge in social settings.
- Unfortunately, they keep trying to hide nuts: By using the deceptive behavior of birds and squirrels as a model, researchers at Georgia Tech have been able to develop robots that can trick each other.
Video bonus: Check out a demo of Spaun in action.
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