Chapter 15. Brain Asymmetry, Spatial Cognition, and Language

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Ian Sample Science editor Doctors have stumbled on an unlikely source for a drug to ward off brain damage caused by strokes: the venom of one of the deadliest spiders in the world. A bite from an Australian funnel web spider can kill a human in 15 minutes, but a harmless ingredient found in the venom can protect brain cells from being destroyed by a stroke, even when given hours after the event, scientists say. If the compound fares well in human trials, it could become the first drug that doctors have to protect against the devastating loss of neurons that strokes can cause. Researchers discovered the protective molecule by chance as they sequenced the DNA of toxins in the venom of the Darling Downs funnel web spider (Hadronyche infensa) that lives in Queensland and New South Wales. Venom from three spiders was gathered for the study after scientists trapped and “milked exhaustively” three spiders on Orchid beach, about 400km north of Brisbane. The molecule, called Hi1a, stood out because it looked like two copies of another brain cell-protecting chemical stitched together. It was so intriguing that scientists decided to synthesise the compound and test its powers. “It proved to be even more potent,” said Glenn King at the University of Queensland’s centre for pain research. Strokes occur when blood flow to the brain is interrupted and the brain is starved of oxygen. About 85% of strokes are caused by blockages in blood vessels in the brain, with the rest due to bleeds when vessels rupture. Approximately six million people a year die from stroke, making it the second largest cause of death worldwide after heart attacks. © 2017 Guardian News and Media Limited

Keyword: Stroke; Neurotoxins
Link ID: 23384 - Posted: 03.21.2017

By Mike Stobbe, Elderly people are suffering concussions and other brain injuries from falls at what appear to be unprecedented rates, according to a new report from U.S. government researchers. The reason for the increase isn't clear, the report's authors said. But one likely factor is that a growing number of elderly people are living at home and taking repeated tumbles, said one expert. "Many older adults are afraid their independence will be taken away if they admit to falling, and so they minimize it," said Dr. Lauren Southerland, an Ohio State University emergency physician who specializes in geriatric care. But what may seem like a mild initial fall may cause concussions or other problems that increase the chances of future falls — and more severe injuries, she said. Whatever the cause, the numbers are striking, according to the new report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in every 45 Americans 75 and older suffered brain injuries that resulted in emergency department visits, hospitalizations, or deaths in 2013. The rate for that age group jumped 76 per cent from 2007. The rate of these injuries for people of all ages rose 39 per cent over that time, hitting a record level, the CDC found. Falls account for 90 per cent of hip and wrist fractures and 60 per cent of head injuries among people aged 65 and older, Canadian researchers have previously reported. The report, which explored brain injuries in general, also found an increase in brain injuries from suicides and suicide attempts, mainly gunshot wounds to the head. Brain injuries from car crashes fell. But the elderly suffered at far higher rates than any other group. ©2017 CBC/Radio-Canada.

Keyword: Brain Injury/Concussion; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 23370 - Posted: 03.17.2017

By Bob Grant In the past decade, some bat species have been added to the ranks of “singing” animals, with complex, mostly ultrasonic vocalizations that, when slowed down, rival the tunes of some songbirds. Like birds, bats broadcast chirps, warbles, and trills to attract mates and defend territories. There are about 1,300 known bat species, and the social vocalizations of about 50 have been studied. Of those, researchers have shown that about 20 species seem to be singing, with songs that are differentiated from simpler calls by both their structural complexity and their function. Bats don’t sound like birds to the naked ear; most singing species broadcast predominately in the ultrasonic range, undetectable by humans. And in contrast to the often lengthy songs of avian species, the flying mammals sing in repeated bursts of only a few hundred milliseconds. Researchers must first slow down the bat songs—so that their frequencies drop into the audible range—to hear the similarities. Kirsten Bohn, a behavioral biologist at Johns Hopkins University, first heard Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) sing more than 10 years ago, when she was a postdoc in the lab of Mike Smotherman at Texas A&M University. “I started hearing a couple of these songs slowed down,” she recalls. “And it really was like, ‘Holy moly—that’s a song! That sounds like a bird.’” The neural circuitry used to learn and produce song may also share similarities between bats and birds. Bohn and Smotherman say they’ve gathered some tantalizing evidence that bats use some of the same brain regions—namely, the basal ganglia and prefrontal cortex—that birds rely upon to produce, process, and perhaps even learn songs. “We have an idea of how the neural circuits control vocalizing in the bats and how they might be adapted to produce song,” Smotherman says. © 1986-2017 The Scientist

Keyword: Hearing; Language
Link ID: 23369 - Posted: 03.17.2017

By Timothy Revell Who would you get to observe differences in how men, women and children interact? A robot in a fur-lined hat, of course. Experiments using a robotic head, called Furhat, aimed to uncover inequalities in people’s participation when working on a shared activity, and see if a robot could help redress the balance. They revealed that when a woman is paired in conversation with another woman, she speaks more than if paired with a man. And two men paired together speak less than two women. But this only holds for adults. “Surprisingly, we didn’t find this same pattern for boys and girls. Gender didn’t make much difference to how much children speak,” says Gabriel Skantze at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, who is also one of the robot’s creators. Furhat interacted with 540 visitors at the Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology over nine days. Two people at a time would sit at an interactive table with a touchscreen opposite the robot. They were asked to play a game that involved sorting a set of virtual picture cards, such as arranging images of historical inventions in chronological order. The people worked with the robot to try to solve the task. During this time, the robot’s sensors tracked how long each person spoke for. “This turned out to be a really nice opportunity to study the differences between men and women, and adults and children,” says Skantze. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Language; Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 23367 - Posted: 03.17.2017

Jon Hamilton An orangutan named Rocky is helping scientists figure out when early humans might have uttered the first word. Rocky, who is 12 and lives at the Indianapolis Zoo, has shown that he can control his vocal cords much the way people do. He can learn new vocal sounds and even match the pitch of sounds made by a person. "Rocky, and probably other great apes, can do things with their vocal apparatus that, for decades, people have asserted was impossible," says Rob Shumaker, the zoo's director, who has studied orangutans for more than 30 years. Rocky's abilities suggest that our human ancestors could have begun speaking 10 million years ago, about the time humans and great apes diverged, Shumaker says. Until now, many scientists thought that speech required changes in the brain and vocal apparatus that evolved more recently, during the past 2 million years. The vocal abilities of orangutans might have gone undetected had it not been for Rocky, an ape with an unusual past and a rare relationship with people. Rocky was separated from his mother soon after he was born, and spent his early years raised largely by people, and working in show business. "He was certainly the most visible orangutan in entertainment at the time," says Shumaker. "TV commercials, things like that."

Keyword: Language; Evolution
Link ID: 23354 - Posted: 03.14.2017

Susan Milius Catch sight of someone scratching and out of nowhere comes an itch, too. Now, it turns out mice suffer the same strange phenomenon. Tests with mice that watched itchy neighbors, or even just videos of scratching mice, provide the first clear evidence of contagious scratching spreading mouse-to-mouse, says neuroscientist Zhou-Feng Chen of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The quirk opens new possibilities for exploring the neuroscience behind the spread of contagious behaviors. For the ghostly itch, experiments trace scratching to a peptide nicknamed GRP and areas of the mouse brain better known for keeping the beat of circadian rhythms, Chen and colleagues found. They report the results in the March 10 Science. In discovering this, “there were lots of surprises,” Chen says. One was that mice, nocturnal animals that mostly sniff and whisker-brush their way through the dark, would be sensitive to the sight of another mouse scratching. Yet Chen had his own irresistible itch to test the “crazy idea,” he says. Researchers housed mice that didn’t scratch any more than normal within sight of mice that flicked and thumped their paws frequently at itchy skin. Videos recorded instances of normal mice looking at an itch-prone mouse mid-scratch and, shortly after, scratching themselves. In comparison, mice with not-very-itchy neighbors looked at those neighbors at about the same frequency but rarely scratched immediately afterward. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2017.

Keyword: Pain & Touch; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 23341 - Posted: 03.10.2017

By Andy Coghlan Tiny particles secreted in response to head injury in the brains of mice could help explain how inflammation spreads and ultimately boosts the risk of developing dementia. Head injuries are increasingly being linked to cognitive problems and degenerative brain disease in later life. Mysterious particles a micrometre in diameter have previously been found in the spinal fluid of people with traumatic brain injury, but their function has remained unknown. Now Alan Faden at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and his colleagues have discovered that activated immune cells called microglia secrete such microparticles in response to brain injury, and they seem to spread inflammation well beyond the injury site itself. They can even cause brain inflammation when injected into uninjured animals. The particles have receptors that latch onto cells, and are packed with chemicals such as interleukins, which trigger inflammation, and fragments of RNA capable of switching whole suites of genes on or off. When Faden injured the brains of sedated mice, the microparticles spread well beyond the site of damage. Further experiments on cultured microglial cells revealed that the microparticles activate resting microglia, making them capable of triggering further inflammation themselves. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Brain Injury/Concussion; Glia
Link ID: 23339 - Posted: 03.10.2017

By Andy Coghlan In primates such as humans, living in cooperative societies usually means having bigger brains — with brainpower needed to navigate complex social situations. But surprisingly, in birds the opposite may be true. Group-living woodpecker species have been found to have smaller brains than solitary ones. Cooperative societies might in fact enable birds to jettison all that brainpower otherwise needed on their own to constantly out-think, outfox and outcompete wily rivals, say researchers. Socialism in birds may therefore mean the individuals can afford to get dumber. The results are based on a comparison of brain sizes in 61 woodpecker species. The eight group-living species identified typically had brains that were roughly 30 per cent smaller than solitary and pair-living ones. “It’s a pretty big effect,” says lead researcher Richard Byrne at the University of St Andrews in the UK. Byrne’s explanation is that a solitary life is more taxing on the woodpecker brain than for those in cooperative groups, in which a kind of group-wide “social brain” takes the strain off individuals when a challenge arises. Group-living acorn woodpeckers in North America, for example, are well known for creating collective “granaries” of acorns by jamming them into crevices accessible to the whole group during hard times. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Evolution
Link ID: 23328 - Posted: 03.08.2017

By The Scientist Staff For thousands of years, people have appreciated birdsong as one of nature’s most melodic sounds. And for at least a few centuries, researchers have been talking about—and analyzing— birdsong, some attaching the label “music” to the avian behavior. In the mid-17th century, for example, German scholar Athanasius Kircher transcribed bird song with musical notation. Whether singing avian species hear their calls in a musical sense is, of course, anybody’s guess. But still today, it’s fairly uncontroversial to speak about bird vocalizations using terms such as “song” and “music.” Around the animal kingdom, several nonavians also produce sounds that are sometimes discussed using a musical vocabulary. Whale songs echo through the ocean for hundreds of miles, while frogs and crickets chorus on warm summer nights throughout much of the world. The stringency of the criteria for earning a label such as song varies by taxon, however. Birds, whales, mice, and even bats have a vocal repertoire that includes songs and simpler calls, while any insect or fish that produces sound for the sake of communication is considered, at least by some, to be “singing”—though no scientist seriously compares these species’ chirps and grunts to birdsong. Semantics aside, more and more tonal or cadenced animal communication signals are attracting the attention of researchers. Technological advancements have enabled the study of mouse and bat calls that are broadcast in the ultrasonic range, as well as of the love songs of fruit flies, which vibrate their wings to produce sound within the frequency range of human hearing, but do so a million times more quietly than our ears can detect. And research continues to delve into the musical skills of diverse bird species that have long been recognized for their singing prowess, confirming that there is an overlap between the genes and brain areas involved in bird and human vocal learning. © 1986-2017 The Scientist

Keyword: Sexual Behavior; Animal Communication
Link ID: 23321 - Posted: 03.07.2017

Bruce Bower The social lives of macaques and baboons play out in what primatologist Julia Fischer calls “a magnificent opera.” When young Barbary macaques reach about 6 months, they fight nightly with their mothers. Young ones want the “maternal embrace” as they snooze; mothers want precious alone time. Getting pushed away and bitten by dear old mom doesn’t deter young macaques. But they’re on their own when a new brother or sister comes along. In Monkeytalk, Fischer describes how the monkey species she studies have evolved their own forms of intelligence and communication. Connections exist between monkey and human minds, but Fischer regards differences among primate species as particularly compelling. She connects lab studies of monkeys and apes to her observations of wild monkeys while mixing in offbeat personal anecdotes of life in the field. Fischer catapulted into a career chasing down monkeys in 1993. While still in college, she monitored captive Barbary macaques. That led to fieldwork among wild macaques in Morocco. In macaque communities, females hold central roles because young males move to other groups to mate. Members of closely related, cooperative female clans gain an edge in competing for status with male newcomers. Still, adult males typically outrank females. Fischer describes how the monkeys strategically alternate between attacking and forging alliances. After forging her own key scientific alliances, Fischer moved on to study baboons in Africa, where she entered the bureaucratic jungle. Obtaining papers for a car in Senegal, for instance, took Fischer several days. She first had to shop for a snazzy outfit to impress male paper-pushers, she says. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2017.

Keyword: Language; Animal Communication
Link ID: 23315 - Posted: 03.06.2017

By Hanoch Ben-Yami Human intelligence, even in its most basic forms, is expressed in our language, and is also partly dependent on our linguistic capacity. Homer, Darwin and Einstein could obviously not have achieved what they did without language—but neither could a child in kindergarten. And this raises an important question about animal intelligence. Although we don’t expect a chimpanzee to write an epic or a dolphin to develop a scientific theory, it has frequently been asked whether these or other animals are close in intelligence to children in young children. If so, we must wonder whether animals can acquire a language. In the last half century, much effort has been put trying answer that question by teaching animals, primarily apes, a basic language. There have been some limited successes, with animals using signs to obtain things in which they were interested, for instance. But no animal has yet acquired the linguistic capability that children have already in their third year of life. “Why?” This is a question children start asking during by the age of three at the latest. No animal has yet asked anything. “Why?” is a very important question: it shows that those asking it are aware they don’t know something they wish to know. Understanding the why-question is also necessary for the ability to justify our actions and thoughts. The fact that animals don’t ask “why?” shows they don’t aspire to knowledge and are incapable of justification. “No!” © 2017 Scientific American,

Keyword: Language; Evolution
Link ID: 23298 - Posted: 03.01.2017

Bruce Bower Chimps with little social status influence their comrades’ behavior to a surprising extent, a new study suggests. In groups of captive chimps, a method for snagging food from a box spread among many individuals who saw a low-ranking female peer demonstrate the technique, say primatologist Stuart Watson of the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, and colleagues. But in other groups where an alpha male introduced the same box-opening technique, relatively few chimps copied the behavior, the researchers report online February 7 in the American Journal of Primatology. “I suspect that even wild chimpanzees are motivated to copy obviously rewarding behaviors of low-ranking individuals, but the limited spread of rewarding behaviors demonstrated by alpha males was quite surprising,” Watson says. Previous research has found that chimps in captivity more often copy rewarding behaviors of dominant versus lower-ranking group mates. The researchers don’t understand why in this case the high-ranking individuals weren’t copied as much. The spread of new behaviors in groups of monkeys and apes depends on a variety of factors — including an innovator’s social status, age and sex — that can interact in unpredictable ways. “That’s why social learning in groups is so interesting to study,” says Elizabeth Lonsdorf, a primatologist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., who did not participate in the research. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2017.

Keyword: Aggression; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 23269 - Posted: 02.22.2017

By JOANNA KLEIN The good news is, the human brain is flexible and efficient. This helps us make sense of the world. But the bad news is, the human brain is flexible and efficient. This means the brain can sometimes make mistakes. You can watch this tension play out when the brain tries to connect auditory and visual speech. It’s why we may find a poorly dubbed kung fu movie hard to believe, and why we love believing the gibberish in those Bad Lip Reading Videos on YouTube. “By dubbing speech that is reasonably consistent with the available mouth movements, we can utterly change the meaning of what the original talker was saying,” said John Magnotti, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. “Sometimes we can detect that something is a little off, but the illusion is usually quite compelling.” In a study published Thursday in PLOS Computational Biology, Dr. Magnotti and Michael Beauchamp, also a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, tried to pin down why our brains are susceptible to these kinds of perceptual mistakes by looking at a well-known speech illusion called the McGurk effect. By comparing mathematical models for how the brain integrates senses important in detecting speech, they found that the brain uses vision, hearing and experience when making sense of speech. If the mouth and voice are likely to come from the same person, the brain combines them; otherwise, they are kept separate. “You may think that when you’re talking to someone you’re just listening to their voice,” said Dr. Beauchamp, who led the study. “But it turns out that what their face is doing is actually profoundly influencing what you are perceiving.” © 2017 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Attention; Language
Link ID: 23261 - Posted: 02.21.2017

Hannah Devlin Rambling and long-winded anecdotes could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, according to research that suggests subtle changes in speech style occur years before the more serious mental decline takes hold. The scientists behind the work said it may be possible to detect these changes and predict if someone is at risk more than a decade before meeting the threshold for an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Janet Cohen Sherman, clinical director of the Psychology Assessment Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, said: “One of the greatest challenges right now in terms of Alzheimer’s disease is to detect changes very early on when they are still very subtle and to distinguish them from changes we know occur with normal ageing.” Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, Sherman outlined new findings that revealed distinctive language deficits in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a precursor to dementia. “Many of the studies to date have looked at changes in memory, but we also know changes occur in language,” she said. “I’d hope in the next five years we’d have a new linguistic test.” Sherman cites studies of the vocabulary in Iris Murdoch’s later works, which showed signs of Alzheimer’s years before her diagnosis, and the increasingly repetitive and vague phrasing in Agatha Christie’s final novels – although the crime writer was never diagnosed with dementia. Another study, based on White House press conference transcripts, found striking changes in Ronald Reagan’s speech over the course of his presidency, while George HW Bush, who was a similar age when president, showed no such decline.

Keyword: Alzheimers; Language
Link ID: 23259 - Posted: 02.21.2017

Hannah Devlin A transportable brain-scanning helmet that could be used for rapid brain injury assessments of stroke victims and those felled on the sports pitch or battlefield is being tested by US scientists. The wearable device, known as the PET helmet, is a miniaturised version of the hospital positron emission tomography (PET) scanner, a doughnut-shaped machine which occupies the volume of a small room. Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, the neuroscientist leading the project at West Virginia University, said that the new helmet could dramatically speed up diagnosis and make the difference between a positive outcome and devastating brain damage or death for some patients. “You could roll it right to their bedside and put it on their head,” she said ahead of a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston. “Time is brain for stroke.” Despite being only the size of a motorbike helmet, the new device produces remarkably detailed images that could be used to identify regions of trauma to the brain in the ambulance on the way to hospital or at a person’s bedside. The device is currently being tested on healthy volunteers, but could be used clinically within two years, the team predicted.

Keyword: Brain imaging; Brain Injury/Concussion
Link ID: 23244 - Posted: 02.17.2017

By Rachael Lallensack Goats know who their real friends are. A study published today in Royal Society Open Science shows that the animals can recognize what other goats look like and sound like, but only those they are closest with. Up until the late 1960s, the overwhelming assumption was that only humans could mentally keep track of how other individuals look, smell, and sound—what scientists call cross-modal recognition. We now know that many different kinds of animals can do this like horses, lions, crows, dogs, and certain primates. Instead of a lab, these researchers settled into Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Boughton Monchelsea, U.K., to find out whether goats had the ability to recognize each other. To do so, they first recorded the calls of individual goats. Then, they set up three pens in the shape of a triangle in the sanctuary’s pasture. Equidistant between the two pens at the base of the triangle was a stereo speaker, camouflaged as to not distract the goat participants. A “watcher” goat stood at the peak of the triangle, and the two remaining corners were filled with the watcher’s “stablemate” (they share a stall at night) and a random herd member. Then, the team would play either the stablemate’s or the random goat’s call over the speaker and time how long it took for the watcher to match the call with the correct goat. They repeated this test again, but with two random goats. The researchers found that the watcher goat would look at the goat that matched the call quickly and for a longer time, but only in the test that included their stablemate. The results indicate that goats are not only capable of cross-modal recognition, but that they might also be able to use inferential reasoning, in other words, process of elimination. Think back to the test: Perhaps when the goat heard a call that it knew was not its pal, it inferred that it must have been the other one. © 2017 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Animal Communication; Hearing
Link ID: 23229 - Posted: 02.15.2017

After A Stroke At 33, A Writer Relies On Journals To Piece Together Her Own Story On New Year's Eve, 2006, Christine Hyung-Oak Lee developed a splitting headache. She was 33, and her world turned upside down — as in, she literally saw the world upside down. Suddenly, she could hold things in her mind for only 15 minutes at a time. She was a writer who now couldn't recall words or craft sentences. She remembers looking at the phone and thinking to herself: What is the phone number for 911? Days later, she learned she'd had a stroke. "I had a 15-minute short-term memory, like Dory the fish in Finding Nemo," Lee wrote in a Buzzfeed essay chronicling her experience. "My doctors instructed me to log happenings with timestamps in my Moleskine journal. That, they said, would be my working short-term memory. My memento to my mori." Lee used those journals to reconstruct her experience in a new memoir called Tell Me Everything You Don't Remember. She talks with NPR's Scott Simon about the silver linings of memory loss and the unexpected grief that came with her recovery. Interview Highlights On what it's like to have a 15-minute memory You don't even fathom the magnitude of your loss — or at least I didn't. I couldn't plan for the future. I couldn't think of the past. I had no regrets. So it's literally living in the moment. I was experiencing something that people go to yoga and Zen retreats to achieve. So it was quite pleasant. It was not pleasant for the people around me. But in that period of my recovery, where I couldn't remember everything, I think I was incredibly at peace and happy. On having an "invisible" disability It was frustrating. On the one hand, you want people to know: Hey, slow down for me. Hey, I'm going through a crisis. On the other hand, I was also privileged to be disabled in a way that wasn't visible. So people also didn't treat me any differently. So it was very isolating. ... When I told people that I was sick and I needed them to slow down, along with that came this need to explain my position and I ... felt a lot of resentment for having to do with that. © 2017 npr

Keyword: Stroke; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 23213 - Posted: 02.11.2017

By Meredith Wadman A pair of Boston University (BU) brain researchers is pushing back against demands by the National Hockey League (NHL) that they release data, brain pathology slides, and interview records of former NHL players and their families. The scientists accumulated the records during their research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that has been linked to repetitive head trauma. In affidavits unsealed yesterday in a class action lawsuit brought against the league by former players, BU neuroscientists Robert Stern and Ann McKee argued that giving the league the records would compromise both their ongoing research and the privacy of the players and families involved. The affidavits were first reported on yesterday by Rick Westhead of the Canadian sports network TSN. The NHL first subpoenaed the documents in September 2015. Stern and McKee, a neuropsychologist and a neuropathologist, respectively, at BU’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, have studied the brains of former professional athletes, including hockey players, and are currently using MRI imaging to study scores of living National Football League and college football players in a large study funded by the National Institutes of Health. They say that assurances that players’ privacy will be protected are essential for the success of that $16 million study. In the current litigation, the NHL’s medical expert, Rudy Castellani, asked the BU scientists for copies of gross pathology photographs, all brain slides, and clinical data of former NHL players in order to “verify the accuracy of the reports, evaluate for other pathological processes that may be significant, and conduct a full, independent neuropathological analysis of the cases.” (The scientists interviewed the former NHL players in some cases, and, in others, their surviving family members.) © 2017 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Brain Injury/Concussion
Link ID: 23207 - Posted: 02.09.2017

Scientists who spent years listening to the communication calls of one of our closest ape relatives say their eavesdropping has shed light on the origin of human language. Dr Adriano Reis e Lameira from Durham University recorded and analysed almost 5,000 orangutan "kiss squeaks". He found that the animals combined these purse-lipped, "consonant-like" calls to convey different messages. This could be a glimpse of how our ancestors formed the earliest words. The findings are published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. "Human language is extraordinarily advanced and complex - we can pretty much transmit any information we want into sound," said Dr Reis e Lameira. "So we tend to think that maybe words evolved from some rudimentary precursor to transmit more complex messages. "We were basically using the orangutan vocal behaviour as a time machine - back to a time when our ancestors were using what would become [those precursors] of consonants and vowels." The team studied kiss squeaks in particular because, like many consonants - the /t/, /p/, /k/ sounds - they depend on the action of the lips, tongue and jaw rather than the voice. "Kiss squeaks do not involve vocal fold action, so they're acoustically and articulatory consonant-like," explained Dr Reis e Lameira. In comparison to research into vowel-like primate calls, the scientists explained, the study of consonants in the evolution of language has been more difficult. But as Prof Serge Wich from Liverpool John Moores University, a lead author in the study, said, they are crucial "building blocks" in the evolution of language. "Most human languages have a lot more consonants than vowels," said Prof Wich. "And if we have more building blocks, we have more combinations." © 2017 BBC.

Keyword: Language; Evolution
Link ID: 23204 - Posted: 02.09.2017

Squid and their cephalopod brethren have been the inspiration for many a science fiction creature. Their slippery appendages, huge proportions, and inking abilities can be downright shudder-inducing. (See: Arrival.) But you should probably be more concerned by the cephalopod’s huge brain—which not only helps it solve tricky puzzles, but also lets it converse in its own sign language. Right now, you’re probably imagining twisted tentacles spelling out creepy cephalopod communiqués. But it’s not that: Certain kinds of squid send messages by manipulating the color of their skin. “Their body patterning is fantastic, fabulous,” says Chuan-Chin Chiao, a neuroscientist at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. They can display bands, or stripes, or turn completely dark or light. And Chiao is trying to crack their code. Chiao got his inspiration from physiologist B. B. Boycott, who in the 1960s showed that the cuttlefish brain was the control center for changing skin color. Boycott copied his technique from neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, who treated epilepsy patients by burning out the misbehaving bits of their brains. While their grey matter was exposed for surgery, Penfield also applied a gentle current through the electrodes in his patients’ brains. You know, just to see what would happen. A zap in one spot above the ears caused a tingle in the left hand. In another spot, tingles in the leg. And so Penfield discovered that the sensory cortex is a homunculus, with specific brain areas mapping onto different parts of your body. Over time, scientists tried the electrical stimulation technique on all kinds of animals—including Boycott’s cuttlefish.

Keyword: Animal Communication
Link ID: 23199 - Posted: 02.08.2017