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'Language Gene' Has a Partner

Few genes have made the headlines as much as FOXP2. The first gene associated with language disorders , it was later implicated in the evolution of human speech. Girls make more of the FOXP2 protein, which may help explain their precociousness in learning to talk. Now, neuroscientists have figured out how one of its molecular partners helps Foxp2 exert its effects.

The findings may eventually lead to new therapies for inherited speech disorders, says Richard Huganir, the neurobiologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, who led the work. Foxp2 controls the activity of a gene called Srpx2, he notes, which helps some of the brain's nerve cells beef up their connections to other nerve cells. By establishing what SRPX2 does, researchers can look for defective copies of it in people suffering from problems talking or learning to talk.

Until 2001, scientists were not sure how genes influenced language. Then Simon Fisher, a neurogeneticist now at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and his colleagues fingered FOXP2 as the culprit in a family with several members who had trouble with pronunciation, putting words together, and understanding speech. These people cannot move their tongue and lips precisely enough to talk clearly, so even family members often can?t figure out what they are saying. It “opened a molecular window on the neural basis of speech and language,” Fisher says.

Photo credit: Yoichi Araki, Ph.D.


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by Douglas Heaven Hijacking how neurons of nematode worms are wired is the first step in an approach that could revolutionise our understanding of brains and consciousness CALL it the first brain hack. The humble nematode worm has had its neural connections hot-wired, changing the way it responds to salt and smells. As well as offering a way to create souped-up organisms, changing neural connectivity could one day allow us to treat brain damage in people by rerouting signals around damaged neurons. What's more, it offers a different approach to probing brain mysteries such as how consciousness arises from wiring patterns – much like exploring the function of an electronic circuit by plugging and unplugging cables. In our attempts to understand the brain, a lot of attention is given to neurons. A technique known as optogenetics, for example, lets researchers study the function of individual neurons by genetically altering them so they can be turned on and off by a light switch. But looking at the brain's connections is as important as watching the activity of neurons. Higher cognitive functions, such as an awareness of our place in the world, do not spring from a specific area, says Fani Deligianni at University College London. Deligianni and her colleagues are developing imaging techniques to map the brain's connections, as are other groups around the world (see "Start with a worm..."). "From this we can begin to answer some of the big questions about the workings of the brain and consciousness which seem to depend on connectivity," she says. Tracing how the brain is wired is a great first step but to find out how this linking pattern produces a particular behaviour we need to be able to see how changing these links affects brain function. This is what a team led by William Schafer at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, is attempting. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Brain imaging; Aggression
Link ID: 19877 - Posted: 07.24.2014

By JAMES GORMAN Any dog owner would testify that dogs are just as prone to jealousy as humans. But can one really compare Othello’s agony to Roscoe’s pique? The answer, according to Christine Harris, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, is that if you are petting another dog, Roscoe is going to show something that Dr. Harris thinks is a form of jealousy, even if not as complex and twisted as the adult human form. Other scientists agree there is something going on, but not all are convinced it is jealousy. And Roscoe and the rest of his tribe were, without exception, unavailable for comment. Dr. Harris had been studying human jealousy for years when she took this question on, inspired partly by the antics of her parents’ Border collies. When she petted them, “one would take his head and knock the other’s head away,” she said. It certainly looked like jealousy. But having studied humans, she was aware of different schools of thought about jealousy. Some scientists argue that jealousy requires complex thinking about self and others, which seems beyond dogs’ abilities. Others think that although our descriptions of jealousy are complex, the emotion itself may not be that complex. Dog emotions, as owners perceive them, have been studied before. In one case, Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist who is an adjunct associate professor at Barnard College and the author of “Inside of a Dog,” found that the so-called guilty look that dogs exhibit seemed to be more related to fear of punishment. Dr. Harris ventured into the tricky turf of dog emotion by devising a test based on work done with infants. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Emotions; Aggression
Link ID: 19876 - Posted: 07.24.2014

by Helen Thomson How do you smell after a drink? Quite well, it turns out. A modest amount of alcohol boosts your sense of smell. It is well known that we can improve our sense of smell through practice. But a few people have also experienced a boost after drug use or brain damage. This suggests our sensitivity to smell may be damped by some sort of inhibition in the brain, which can be lifted under some circumstances, says Yaara Endevelt of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. To explore this notion, Endevelt and her colleagues investigated whether drinking alcohol – known to lower inhibitory signals in the brain – affected the sense of smell. In one odour-discrimination test, 20 volunteers were asked to smell three different liquids. Two were a mixture of the same six odours, the third contained a similar mixture with one odour replaced. Each volunteer was given 2 seconds to smell each of the liquids and say which was the odd one out. The test was repeated six times with each of three trios of liquids. They were then given a drink that consisted of 35 millilitres of vodka and sweetened grape juice, or the juice alone, before repeating the experiment with the same set of liquids. In a second experiment with a similar drinking structure, the same volunteers were asked which of three liquids had a rose-like odour. The researchers increased the concentration of the odour until the volunteers got the right answer three times in a row. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 19875 - Posted: 07.24.2014

By Phil Plait From the twisted mind of brusspup comes another brain-hurting illusion. This one is really, really convincing, so tell me: When you look at this video, you’re seeing a circle of eight dots rotating as it spins around inside a bigger circle, right? No, you’re not. As brusspup shows, each individual white dot is moving in a straight line! The trick here is two-fold: One is that the dots aren’t moving at constant velocity (you can see that in the video at the 0:44 mark), and that combined their motion mimics what we’d see if a smaller circle is rolling around inside a big one. Try as I may, when I look at this video I can’t make my brain see the dots moving linearly; it looks like a circle rolling. If I focus on one of the dots I can see it moving back and forth along a line, but the others still look like the rim of a circle rolling around. For most illusions there’s a moment when your brain can see what’s going on and the illusion shatters, but not with this one. It’s maddening. When I was a kid, Spirograph was a very popular “game.” It wasn’t really a game, but a set of clear plastic disks with gear teeth around them (or rings with teeth on the inside). They had holes in them; you’d pin a ring down on a piece of paper, then take another disk, place it inside the ring, put your pencil tip in a hole, and roll the inner disk around inside the outer ring. The results were really lovely and graceful interlocking and overlapping curves. If you’re a lot younger than me and missed this craze, here’s a video that’ll help you picture it: © 2014 The Slate Group LLC.

Keyword: Vision
Link ID: 19874 - Posted: 07.24.2014

By Emily Underwood The Broad Institute, a collaborative biomedical research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has received a $650 million donation from philanthropist and businessman Ted Stanley to study the biological basis of diseases such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The largest donation ever made to psychiatric research, the gift totals nearly six times the current $110 million annual budget for President Barack Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Stanley has already given Broad $175 million, and the $650 million will be provided as an annual cash flow on the order of tens of millions each year, with the remainder to be given after Stanley’s death. The gift accompanies a paper published online today in Nature from researchers at Broad and worldwide, which identifies more than 100 areas of the human genome associated with schizophrenia, based on samples from almost 37,000 people with schizophrenia and about 113,000 without the disease. Researchers are likely to find hundreds of additional genetic variations associated with the disease as the number of patients sampled grows, says psychiatrist Kenneth Kendler of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics in Richmond, a co-author on the study. Identifying the variants themselves is unlikely to lead directly to new drug targets, Kendler says. Instead, the hope is that researchers at Broad and elsewhere will be able to use those data to reveal clusters of genetic variation, like placing pins on a map, he says. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Schizophrenia; Aggression
Link ID: 19873 - Posted: 07.23.2014

by Bethany Brookshire Even when we love our jobs, we all look forward to some time away. During the week, as stress builds up and deadlines accumulate, Friday looks better and better. Then, with a sigh of relief, the weekend arrives. But come Monday, it seems like the whole weight of responsibility just comes crashing down again. It’s not just you. Rats feel it, too. Rats given a two-day break from a stressful procedure show more signs of strain on “Monday” than rats who never got the weekend, researchers report July 11 in PLOS ONE. The results show that in some cases, an unpredictable getaway can cause more stress than just working through the pressure. Wei Zang, J. Amiel Rosenkranz and colleagues at the Rosalind Franklin University of School of Medicine and Science in Chicago wanted to understand how changes to a stressful situation alter an animal’s response to stress. Normally, when rats are exposed over and over to a stress such as a restraint (in which a rat is placed in a small tube where it can’t turn around or get out), they begin to get used to the stress. Over a few days, rats stop avoiding the tube and stay calmly in the restraint without struggling, until they are set free. Hormones like corticosterone — which spikes in response to stress — go down. This phenomenon is called habituation. Zhang and colleagues wanted to see what happens when this pattern of stress is interrupted. They restrained rats for 20 minutes each for five days. By day five, the animals were hanging out comfortably in the tubes. Then, the scientists introduced an interruption: They gave half of the rats two days off, a science-induced weekend. The scientists continued to restrain the other group of rats daily. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013

Keyword: Stress
Link ID: 19872 - Posted: 07.23.2014

By Janice Lynch Schuster I have never been one to visit a doctor regularly. Even though I had accumulated my share of problems by age 50— arthritic knees, poor hearing — I considered myself to be among the mostly well. But 19 months ago I developed a perplexing problem that forced me to become not only a regular patient but also one of the millions of Americans with chronic pain who struggle to find relief, in part through treatment with opioids. The trouble began with a terrible and persistent pain in my tongue. It alternately throbbed and burned, and it often hurt to eat or speak. The flesh looked red and irritated, and no amount of Orajel or Sensodyne relieved it. My doctor suggested I see my dentist; my dentist referred me to an oral surgeon. The surgeon thought the problem was caused by my being “tongue-tied,” a typically harmless condition in which the little piece of tissue under the tongue, called the frenulum, is too short. It seems I have always had this condition but had never noticed, because it hadn’t affected my ability to eat or speak. Now things had changed. The doctor recommended a frenectomy, a procedure to remove the frenulum and relieve tension on the tongue. “Just a snip,” he promised. It sounded trivial, and I was eager to be done with it. Although I make a living writing about health care, I didn’t even bother to do a Web search on the procedure. It never occurred to me that “a snip” might entail some risks. I trusted the oral surgeon.

Keyword: Pain & Touch
Link ID: 19871 - Posted: 07.23.2014

By Sid Perkins Forget the phrase “blind as a bat.” New experiments suggest that members of one species of these furry flyers—Myotis myotis, the greater mouse-eared bat—can do something no other mammal is known to do: They detect and use polarized light to calibrate their long-distance navigation. Previous research hinted that these bats reset their magnetic compass each night based on cues visible at sunset, but the particular cue or cues hadn’t been identified. In the new study, researchers placed bats in boxes in which the polarization of light could be controlled and shifted. After letting the bats experience sundown at a site near their typical roost, the team waited until after midnight (when polarized light was no longer visible in the sky), transported the animals to two sites between 20 and 25 kilometers from the roost, strapped radio tracking devices to them, and then released them. In general, bats whose polarization wasn’t shifted took off for home in the proper direction. But those that had seen polarization shifted 90° at sunset headed off in directions that, on average, pointed 90° away from the true bearing of home, the researchers report online today in Nature Communications. It’s not clear how the bats discern the polarized light, but it may be related to the type or alignment of light-detecting pigments in their retinas, the team suggests. The bats may have evolved to reset their navigation system using polarized light because that cue persists long after sunset and is available even when skies are cloudy. Besides these bats (and it’s not known whether other species of bat can do this, too), researchers have found that certain insects, birds, reptiles, and amphibians can navigate using polarized light. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Vision; Aggression
Link ID: 19870 - Posted: 07.23.2014

By Katherine Harmon Courage Octopuses do the darndest things. Like kill their mate during mating—by strangling him with three arms, according to new observations from the wild. Enterprising scientists Christine Huffard and Mike Bartick watched wild octopuses in action. They found that, for males, mating can be a dangerous game. Especially when your lady has long limbs. Some of the more dicey encounters are detailed in a new paper, published online July 11 in Molluscan Research. Hold on a second, you say. Strangling octopuses? Octopuses don’t even have necks—or inhale air. So how, exactly, does that work? The strangulation seems to happen when “an octopus wraps at least one arm around the base of the mantle of the competitor” (or mate), Huffard wrote in 2010. This constriction then keeps the octopus from taking in fresh water to run past its gills—starving the animal of its oxygen source. Octopuses are not known to get cuddly with one another on a day-to-day basis. In fact, “octopuses touch each other with their arms primarily in the context of mating and aggression,” the researchers write. And in this case it seems to have been both. Huffard came across a pair of mating day octopuses (Octopus cyanea) near Fiabacet Island in Indonesia. The female, as is often the case in this species, was larger—with a body about seven-and-a-half inches long; the male was closer to six inches long. They were positioned on a reef, outside the female’s den, the male’s mating arm (hectocotylus) inserted into the female’s mantle from a (presumably) safe distance. © 2014 Scientific American

Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 19869 - Posted: 07.23.2014

By Virginia Morell Dogs, most of us think, have the best noses on the planet. But a new study reveals that this honor actually goes to elephants. The power of a mammal’s sniffer hinges on the number and type of its olfactory receptor genes. These genes are expressed in sensory cells that line the nasal cavity and are specialized for detecting odor molecules. When triggered, they set off a cascade of signals from the nose to the brain, enabling an animal to identify a particular smell. In the new study, scientists identified and examined olfactory receptor genes from 13 mammalian species. The researchers found that every species has a highly unique variety of such genes: Of the 10,000 functioning olfactory receptor genes the team studied, only three are shared among the 13 species. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the length of its trunk, the African elephant has the largest number of such genes—nearly 2000, the scientists report online today in the Genome Research. In contrast, dogs have only 1000, and humans and chimpanzees, less than 400—possibly because higher primates rely more on their vision and less on their sense of smell. The discovery fits with another recent study showing that Asian elephants are as good as mice (which have nearly 1300 olfactory receptor genes) at discriminating between odors; dogs and elephants have yet to be put to a nose-to-trunk sniffer test. Other research has also shown just how important a superior sense of smell is to the behemoths. A slight whiff is all that’s necessary, for instance, for elephants, such as those in the photo above, to distinguish between two Kenyan ethnic groups—the Maasai, who sometimes spear them, and the Kamba, who rarely pose a threat. They can also recognize as many as 30 different family members from cues in their urine. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 19868 - Posted: 07.23.2014

By PETER ANDREY SMITH Sweet, salty, sour and bitter — every schoolchild knows these are the building blocks of taste. Our delight in every scrumptious bonbon, every sizzling hot dog, derives in part from the tongue’s ability to recognize and signal just four types of taste. But are there really just four? Over the last decade, research challenging the notion has been piling up. Today, savory, also called umami, is widely recognized as a basic taste, the fifth. And now other candidates, perhaps as many as 10 or 20, are jockeying for entry into this exclusive club. “What started off as a challenge to the pantheon of basic tastes has now opened up, so that the whole question is whether taste is even limited to a very small number of primaries,” said Richard D. Mattes, a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University. Taste plays an intrinsic role as a chemical-sensing system for helping us find what is nutritious (stimulatory) and as a defense against what is poison (aversive). When we put food in our mouths, chemicals slip over taste buds planted into the tongue and palate. As they respond, we are thrilled or repulsed by what we’re eating. But the body’s reaction may not always be a conscious one. In the late 1980s, in a windowless laboratory at Brooklyn College, the psychologist Anthony Sclafani was investigating the attractive power of sweets. His lab rats loved Polycose, a maltodextrin powder, even preferring it to sugar. That was puzzling for two reasons: Maltodextrin is rarely found in plants that rats might feed on naturally, and when human subjects tried it, the stuff had no obvious taste. More than a decade later, a team of exercise scientists discovered that maltodextrin improved athletic performance — even when the tasteless additive was swished around in the mouth and spit back out. Our tongues report nothing; our brains, it seems, sense the incoming energy. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 19867 - Posted: 07.22.2014

Sarah C. P. Williams The wheezing, coughing, and gasping for breath that come with a sudden asthma attack aren’t just the fault of an overactive immune system. A particularly sensitive bundle of neurons stretching from the brain to the lungs might be to blame as well, researchers have found. Drugs that alter these neurons could provide a new way to treat some types of asthma. “This is an exciting confirmation of an idea that’s been around for decades,” says Allison Fryer, a pulmonary pharmacology researcher at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, who was not involved in the new study. An asthma attack can be brought on by a variety of triggers, including exercise, cold temperatures, pollen, and dust. During an attack, a person’s airways become inflamed, mucus clogs their lungs, and the muscles surrounding their airways tighten. Asthma is often considered a disease of the immune system because immune cells go into overdrive when they sense a trigger and cause inflammation. But a bundle of nerves that snakes through the neck and chest, the vagus nerve, has long been suspected to play a role; the cells it contains, after all, control the airway muscles. Studying which cell types and molecular pathways within the thick nerve bundle are involved, though, has been tough—the vagus contains a multitude of different cells that are physically intertwined. Working together at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, neurobiologists Dimitri Tränkner, now at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and Charles Zuker of Columbia University turned to genetics to work out the players. They selectively shut off different sets of the neurons in mice based on which genes each neuron expressed, rather than their physical location. Then, through a series of injections, they gave the animals an egg white allergy that causes asthmalike symptoms. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Stress
Link ID: 19866 - Posted: 07.22.2014

By DONALD G. MCNEIL Where was I? Sorry — must have nodded off for a decade. Ten years ago, I spent two nights in a sleep lab at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, taking the test for sleep apnea, and wrote about it for Science Times. Back then, “sleep technicians” wired me up like the Bride of Frankenstein: 15 sensors glued or clamped to my scalp, lip, eye sockets, jaw, index finger, chest and legs, two belts around my torso, and a “snore mike” on my neck. As I slept, an infrared camera watched over me. And I ended up spending 23 hours in that hospital bed because the test wasn’t over until you could lie in a dark room for 20 minutes without dozing off. I had such a sleep deficit that I kept conking out, not just all night, but all the next day. So this year, when a company called NovaSom offered to let me try out a new home sleep-test kit that promises to streamline the process, I said yes. In the decade since my ordeal, the pendulum has swung sharply in the direction of the home test, said Dr. M. Safwan Badr, past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, which first recognized home testing for apnea in 2007. Insurers prefer it because it costs only about $300, about one-tenth that of a hospital test, and many patients like it, too. “Lots of people are reluctant to let a stranger watch them sleep,” said Dr. Michael Coppola, a former president of the American Sleep Apnea Association who is now the chief medical officer at NovaSom. Doctors estimate that 18 million Americans have moderate to severe apnea and 75 percent of them do not know it. Home testing is not recommended for those with heart failure, emphysema, seizures and a few other conditions. And because it does not record brain waves as a hospital lab does, a home test can be fooled by someone who just lies awake all night staring at the ceiling. But it’s useful for many people who exhibit the warning signs of apnea, such as waking up exhausted after a full night’s sleep or dozing off at the wheel in bright daylight. And severe apnea can be lethal: starving the brain of oxygen all night quadruples the risk of stroke. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Sleep
Link ID: 19865 - Posted: 07.22.2014

Sara Reardon Broad population studies are shedding light on the genetic causes of mental disorders. Researchers seeking to unpick the complex genetic basis of mental disorders such as schizophrenia have taken a huge step towards their goal. A paper1 published in Nature this week ties 108 genetic locations to schizophrenia — most for the first time. The encouraging results come on the same day as a US$650-million donation to expand research into psychiatric conditions. Philanthropist Ted Stanley gave the money to the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The institute describes the gift as the largest-ever donation for psychiatric research. “The assurance of a very long life of the centre allows us to take on ambitious long-term projects and intellectual risks,” says its director, Steven Hyman. The centre will use the money to fund genetic studies as well as investigations into the biological pathways involved in conditions such as schizophrenia, autism and bipolar disorder. The research effort will also seek better animal and cell models for mental disorders, and will investigate chemicals that might be developed into drugs. The Nature paper1 was produced by the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (PGC) — a collaboration of more than 80 institutions, including the Broad Institute. Hundreds of researchers from the PGC pooled samples from more than 150,000 people, of whom 36,989 had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. This enormous sample size enabled them to spot 108 genetic locations, or loci, where the DNA sequence in people with schizophrenia tends to differ from the sequence in people without the disease. “This paper is in some ways proof that genomics can succeed,” Hyman says. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group

Keyword: Schizophrenia; Aggression
Link ID: 19864 - Posted: 07.22.2014

Most of the genetic risk for autism comes from versions of genes that are common in the population rather than from rare variants or spontaneous glitches, researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health have found. Heritability also outweighed other risk factors in this largest study of its kind to date. About 52 percent of the risk for autism was traced to common and rare inherited variation, with spontaneous mutations contributing a modest 2.6 percent of the total risk. “Genetic variation likely accounts for roughly 60 percent of the liability for autism, with common variants comprising the bulk of its genetic architecture,” explained Joseph Buxbaum, Ph.D., of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS), New York City. “Although each exerts just a tiny effect individually, these common variations in the genetic code add up to substantial impact, taken together.” Buxbaum, and colleagues of the Population-Based Autism Genetics and Environment Study (PAGES) Consortium, report on their findings in a unique Swedish sample in the journal Nature Genetics, July 20, 2014. “Thanks to the boost in statistical power that comes with ample sample size, autism geneticists can now detect common as well as rare genetic variation associated with risk,” said Thomas R. Insel, M.D., director of the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). “Knowing the nature of the genetic risk will reveal clues to the molecular roots of the disorder. Common variation may be more important than we thought.”

Keyword: Autism; Aggression
Link ID: 19863 - Posted: 07.22.2014

By JAN HOFFMAN As it has for decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week released its annual National Health Interview Survey on the health of Americans. But this year, there was a difference: For the first time, the respondents were asked about their sexual orientation. Of 34,557 adults ages 18 and older, the survey reported, 1.6 percent said they were gay or lesbian. Some critics say the numbers are low, but they fall in the range of other surveys. In the new survey, however, only 0.7 percent of respondents described themselves as bisexual; other studies have reported higher numbers. Adults who identified themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual reported some different behaviors and concerns — for example, more alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking — than those who said they were straight. But it can be difficult to elicit information that many people consider private. The New York Times spoke about such challenges with Gary J. Gates, a demographer at the Williams Institute at the U.C.L.A. School of Law, which focuses on law and policy issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Some of Dr. Gates’s findings were echoed in the new survey. This interview was edited and condensed. Q.How was this survey conducted? A.Survey takers had a computer that guided them through questions which they asked the respondent in person, and they used flash cards to show them potential answers. Q.Why do you think the figure for bisexuality was lower than in other surveys? A.There is evidence that bisexuals perceive more stigma and discrimination than gay and lesbian people. They are much less likely to tell important people around them that they are bisexual. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 19862 - Posted: 07.22.2014

By HENRY L. ROEDIGER III TESTS have a bad reputation in education circles these days: They take time, the critics say, put students under pressure and, in the case of standardized testing, crowd out other educational priorities. But the truth is that, used properly, testing as part of an educational routine provides an important tool not just to measure learning, but to promote it. In one study I published with Jeffrey D. Karpicke, a psychologist at Purdue, we assessed how well students remembered material they had read. After an initial reading, students were tested on some passages by being given a blank sheet of paper and asked to recall as much as possible. They recalled about 70 percent of the ideas. Other passages were not tested but were reread, and thus 100 percent of the ideas were re-exposed. In final tests given either two days or a week later, the passages that had been tested just after reading were remembered much better than those that had been reread. What’s at work here? When students are tested, they are required to retrieve knowledge from memory. Much educational activity, such as lectures and textbook readings, is aimed at helping students acquire and store knowledge. Various kinds of testing, though, when used appropriately, encourage students to practice the valuable skill of retrieving and using knowledge. The fact of improved retention after a quiz — called the testing effect or the retrieval practice effect — makes the learning stronger and embeds it more securely in memory. This is vital, because many studies reveal that much of what we learn is quickly forgotten. Thus a central challenge to learning is finding a way to stem forgetting. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 19861 - Posted: 07.21.2014

|By Nathan Collins Time, space and social relationships share a common language of distance: we speak of faraway places, close friends and the remote past. Maybe that is because all three share common patterns of brain activity, according to a January study in the Journal of Neuroscience. Curious to understand why the distance metaphor works across conceptual domains, Dartmouth College psychologists used functional MRI scans to analyze the brains of 15 people as they viewed pictures of household objects taken at near or far distances, looked at photographs of friends or acquaintances, and read phrases such as “in a few seconds” or “a year from now.” Patterns of activity in the right inferior parietal lobule, a region thought to handle distance information, robustly predicted whether a participant was thinking about near versus far in any of the categories—indicating that certain aspects of time, space and relationships are all processed in a similar way in the brain. The results, the researchers say, suggest that higher-order brain functions are organized more around computations such as near versus far than conceptual domains such as time or social relationships. © 2014 Scientific American

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 19860 - Posted: 07.21.2014

By Kelly Clancy In one important way, the recipient of a heart transplant ignores its new organ: Its nervous system usually doesn’t rewire to communicate with it. The 40,000 neurons controlling a heart operate so perfectly, and are so self-contained, that a heart can be cut out of one body, placed into another, and continue to function perfectly, even in the absence of external control, for a decade or more. This seems necessary: The parts of our nervous system managing our most essential functions behave like a Swiss watch, precisely timed and impervious to perturbations. Chaotic behavior has been throttled out. Or has it? Two simple pendulums that swing with perfect regularity can, when yoked together, move in a chaotic trajectory. Given that the billions of neurons in our brain are each like a pendulum, oscillating back and forth between resting and firing, and connected to 10,000 other neurons, isn’t chaos in our nervous system unavoidable? The prospect is terrifying to imagine. Chaos is extremely sensitive to initial conditions—just think of the butterfly effect. What if the wrong perturbation plunged us into irrevocable madness? Among many scientists, too, there is a great deal of resistance to the idea that chaos is at work in biological systems. Many intentionally preclude it from their models. It subverts computationalism, which is the idea that the brain is nothing more than a complicated, but fundamentally rule-based, computer. Chaos seems unqualified as a mechanism of biological information processing, as it allows noise to propagate without bounds, corrupting information transmission and storage. © 2014 Nautilus,

Keyword: Biological Rhythms
Link ID: 19859 - Posted: 07.21.2014

By Meeri Kim Babies start with simple vowel sounds — oohs and aahs. A mere months later, the cooing turns into babbling — “bababa” — showing off a newfound grasp of consonants. A new study has found that a key part of the brain involved in forming speech is firing away in babies as they listen to voices around them. This may represent a sort of mental rehearsal leading up to the true milestone that occurs after only a year of life: baby’s first words. Any parent knows how fast babies learn how to comprehend and use language. The skill develops so rapidly and seemingly without much effort, but how do they do it? Researchers at the University of Washington are a step closer to unraveling the mystery of how babies learn how to speak. They had a group of 7- and 11-month-old infants listen to a series of syllables while sitting in a brain scanner. Not only did the auditory areas of their brains light up as expected but so did a region crucial to forming higher-level speech, called Broca’s area. A year-old baby sits in a brain scanner, called magnetoencephalography -- a noninvasive approach to measuring brain activity. The baby listens to speech sounds like "da" and "ta" played over headphones while researchers record her brain responses. (Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, University of Washington) These findings may suggest that even before babies utter their first words, they may be mentally exercising the pivotal parts of their brains in preparation. Study author and neuroscientist Patricia Kuhl says that her results reinforce the belief that talking and reading to babies from birth is beneficial for their language development, along with exaggerated speech and mouth movements (“Hiii cuuutie! How are youuuuu?”). © 1996-2014 The Washington Post

Keyword: Language; Aggression
Link ID: 19858 - Posted: 07.21.2014