Chapter 11. Motor Control and Plasticity
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Scientists may have discovered how the most common genetic cause of Parkinson’s disease destroys brain cells and devastates many patients worldwide. The study was partially funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS); the results may help scientists develop new therapies. The investigators found that mutations in a gene called leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2; pronounced “lark two” or “lurk two”) may increase the rate at which LRRK2 tags ribosomal proteins, which are key components of protein-making machinery inside cells. This could cause the machinery to manufacture too many proteins, leading to cell death. “For nearly a decade, scientists have been trying to figure out how mutations in LRRK2 cause Parkinson’s disease,” said Margaret Sutherland, Ph.D., a program director at NINDS. “This study represents a clear link between LRRK2 and a pathogenic mechanism linked to Parkinson’s disease.” Affecting more than half a million people in the United States, Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder that attacks nerve cells in many parts of the nervous system, most notably in a brain region called the substantia nigra, which releases dopamine, a chemical messenger important for movement. Initially, Parkinson’s disease causes uncontrolled movements; including trembling of the hands, arms, or legs. As the disease gradually worsens, patients lose ability to walk, talk or complete simple tasks.
Link ID: 19477 - Posted: 04.12.2014
|By Bret Stetka The data confirm it: farmers are more prone to Parkinson’s than the general population. And pesticides could be to blame. Over a decade of evidence shows a clear association between pesticide exposure and a higher risk for the second most common neurodegenerative disease, after Alzheimer's. A new study published in Neurology proposes a potential mechanism by which at least some pesticides might contribute to Parkinson’s. Regardless of inciting factors — and there appear to be many — Parkinson’s ultimately claims dopamine-releasing neurons in a small, central arc of brain called the “substantia nigra pars compacta.” The nigra normally supplies dopamine to the neighboring striatum to help coordinate movement. Through a series of complex connections, striatal signals then find their way to the motor cortex and voila, we move. But when nigral neurons die, motor function goes haywire and the classic symptoms set in, including namely tremors, slowed movements, and rigidity. Pesticides first came under suspicion as potentially lethal to the nigra in the early 1980s following a tragic designer drug debacle straight out of Breaking Bad. Patients started showing up at Northern California ERs nearly unresponsive, rigid, and tremoring — in other words, severely Parkinsonian. Savvy detective work by neurologist Dr. William Langston and his colleagues, along with the Santa Clara County police, traced the mysterious outbreak to a rogue chemist and a bad batch. He’d been trying to synthesize a “synthetic heroin” — not the snow cone flavorings he claimed — however a powder sample from his garage lab contained traces of an impurity called MPTP. MPTP, it turned out, ravages dopaminergic neurons in the nigra and causes what looks like advanced Parkinson’s. All of the newly Parkinsonian patients were heroin users who had injected the tainted product. And MPTP, it also turned out, is awfully similar in structure to the widely used herbicide paraquat, leading some neurologists to turn their attention to farms and fields. © 2014 Scientific American
by Clare Wilson A genetic tweak can make light work of some nervous disorders. Using flashes of light to stimulate modified neurons can restore movement to paralysed muscles. A study demonstrating this, carried out in mice, lays the path for using such "optogenetic" approaches to treat nerve disorders ranging from spinal cord injury to epilepsy and motor neuron disease. Optogenetics has been hailed as one of the most significant recent developments in neuroscience. It involves genetically modifying neurons so they produce a light-sensitive protein, which makes them "fire", sending an electrical signal, when exposed to light. So far optogenetics has mainly been used to explore how the brain works, but some groups are exploring using it as therapy. One stumbling block has been fears about irreversibly genetically manipulating the brain. In the latest study, a team led by Linda Greensmith of University College London altered mouse stem cells in the lab before transplanting them into nerves in the leg – this means they would be easier to remove if something went wrong. "It's a very exciting approach that has a lot of potential," says Ziv Williams of Harvard Medical School in Boston. Greensmith's team inserted an algal gene that codes for a light-responsive protein into mouse embryonic stem cells. They then added signalling molecules to make the stem cells develop into motor neurons, the cells that carry signals to and from the spinal cord to the rest of the body. They implanted these into the sciatic nerve – which runs from the spinal cord to the lower limbs – of mice whose original nerves had been cut. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 19450 - Posted: 04.05.2014
Walking backward may seem a simple task, but researchers don’t know how the mind controls this behavior. A study published online today in Science provides the first glimpse of the brain circuit responsible—at least in fruit flies. Geneticists created 3500 strains of the insects, each with a temperature-controlled switch that turned random networks of neurons on when the flies entered an incubator. One mutant batch of fruit flies started strolling in reverse when exposed to warmth (video, right panel), which the team dubbed “moonwalkers,” in honor of Michael Jackson’s famous dance. Two neurons were responsible for the behavior. One lived in the brain and extended its connections to the end of the ventral nerve cord—the fly’s version of a spine, which runs along its belly. The other neuron had the opposite orientation—it started at the bottom of the nerve cord and sent its messaging cables—or axons—into the brain. The neuron in the brain acted like a reverse gear in a car; when turned on, it triggered reverse walking. The researchers say this neuron is possibly a command center that responds to environmental cues, such as, “Hey! I see a wall in front of me.” The second neuron functioned as the brakes for forward motion, but it couldn’t compel the fly to moonwalk. It may serve as a fail-safe that reflexively prevents moving ahead, such as when the fly accidentally steps onto a very cold floor. Using the two neurons as a starting point, the team will trace their links to sensory neurons for touch, sight, and smell, which feed into and control the moonwalking network. No word yet on the neurons responsible for the Macarena. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 19445 - Posted: 04.05.2014
For years, some biomedical researchers have worried that a push for more bench-to-bedside studies has meant less support for basic research. Now, the chief of one of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) largest institutes has added her voice—and hard data—to the discussion. Story Landis describes what she calls a “sharp decrease” in basic research at her institute, a trend she finds worrisome. In a blog post last week, Landis, director of the $1.6 billion National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), says her staff started out asking why, in the mid-2000s, NINDS funding declined for R01s, the investigator-initiated grants that are the mainstay of most labs. After examining the aims and abstracts of grants funded between 1997 and 2012, her staff found that the portion of NINDS competing grant funding that went to basic research has declined (from 87% to 71%) while applied research rose (from 13% to 29%). To dig deeper, the staffers divided the grants into four categories—basic/basic; basic/disease-focused; applied/translational; and applied/clinical. Here, the decline in basic/basic research was “striking”: It fell from 52% to 27% of new and competing grants, while basic/disease-focused has been rising (see graph). The same trend emerged when the analysts looked only at investigator-initiated grants, which are proposals based on a researcher’s own ideas, not a solicitation by NINDS for proposals in a specific area. The shift could reflect changes in science and “a natural progression of the field,” Landis writes. Or it could mean researchers “falsely believe” that NINDS is not interested in basic studies and they have a better shot at being funded if they propose disease-focused or applied studies. The tight NIH budget and new programs focused on translational research could be fostering this belief, she writes. When her staff compared applications submitted in 2008 and 2011, they found support for a shift to disease-focused proposals: There was a “striking” 21% decrease in the amount of funding requested for basic studies, even though those grants had a better chance of being funded. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 19440 - Posted: 04.02.2014
by Catherine de Lange Why wait for the doctor to see you? A smart patch attached to your skin could diagnose health problems automatically – and even administer drugs. Monitoring movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease or epilepsy relies on video recordings of symptoms and personal surveys, says Dae-Hyeong Kim at the Seoul National University in South Korea. And although using wearable devices to monitor the vital signs of patients is theoretically possible, the wearable pads, straps and wrist bands that can do this are often cumbersome and inflexible. To track the progression of symptoms and the response to medication more accurately would require devices that monitor cues from the body, store recorded data for pattern analysis and deliver therapeutic agents through the human skin in a controlled way, Kim says. So Kim and his team have developed an adhesive patch that is flexible and can be worn on the wrist like a second skin. The patch is 1 millimetre thick and made of a hydrocolloid dressing – a type of thin flexible bandage. Into it they embedded a layer of silicon nanoparticles. These silicon nanomembranes are often used for flexible electronics, and can pick up the bend and stretch of human skin and convert these into small electronic signals. The signals are stored as data in separate memory cells made from layers of gold nanoparticles. The device could be used to detect and treat tremors in people who have Parkinson's disease, or epileptic seizures, says Kim. If these movements are detected, small heaters in the patch trigger the release of drugs from silicon nanoparticles. The patch also contains temperature sensors to make sure the skin doesn't burn during the process. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By JAMES GORMAN There are lots of reasons scientists love fruit flies, but a big one is their flying ability. These almost microscopic creatures, with minimalist nervous systems and prey to every puff of wind, must often execute millisecond aerial ballets to stay aloft. To study fly flight, scientists have to develop techniques that are almost as interesting as the flies. At Cornell University, for instance, researchers have been investigating how the flies recover when their flight is momentarily disturbed. Among their conclusions: a small group of fly neurons is solving calculus problems, or what for humans are calculus problems. To do the research, the members of Cornell team — Itai Cohen and his colleagues, including Z. Jane Wang, John Guckenheimer, Tsevi Beatus and Leif Ristroph, who is now at New York University — glue tiny magnets to the flies and use a magnetic pulse to pull them this way or that. In the language of aeronautics, the scientists disturb either the flies’ pitch (up or down), yaw (left or right) or roll, which is just what it sounds like. The system, developed by Dr. Ristroph as a graduate student in Dr. Cohen’s lab, involves both low and high tech. On the low end, the researchers snip bits of metal bristle off a brush to serve as micromagnets that they glue to the flies’ backs. At the high end, three video cameras record every bit of the flight at 8,000 frames per second, and the researchers use computers to merge the data from the cameras into a three-dimensional reconstruction of the flies’ movements that they can analyze mathematically. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 19388 - Posted: 03.20.2014
Helen Shen For Frank Donobedian, sitting still is a challenge. But on this day in early January, he has been asked to do just that for three minutes. Perched on a chair in a laboratory at Stanford University in California, he presses his hands to his sides, plants his feet on the floor and tries with limited success to lock down the trembling in his limbs — a symptom of his Parkinson's disease. Only after the full 180 seconds does he relax. Other requests follow: stand still, lie still on the floor, walk across the room. Each poses a similar struggle, and all are watched closely by Helen Bronte-Stewart, the neuroscientist who runs the lab. “You're making history,” she reassures her patient. “Everybody keeps saying that,” replies the 73-year-old Donobedian, a retired schoolteacher, with a laugh. “But I'm not doing anything.” “Well, your brain is,” says Bronte-Stewart. Like thousands of people with Parkinson's before him, Donobedian is being treated with deep brain stimulation (DBS), in which an implant quiets his tremors by sending pulses of electricity into motor areas of his brain. Last October, a team of surgeons at Stanford threaded the device's two thin wires, each with four electrode contacts, through his cortex into a deep-seated brain region known as the subthalamic nucleus (STN). But Donobedian's particular device is something new. Released to researchers in August 2013 by Medtronic, a health-technology firm in Minneapolis, Minnesota, it is among the first of an advanced generation of neurostimulators that not only send electricity into the brain, but can also read out neural signals generated by it. On this day, Bronte-Stewart and her team have temporarily turned off the stimulating current and are using some of the device's eight electrical contacts to record abnormal neural patterns that might correlate with the tremors, slowness of movement and freezing that are hallmarks of Parkinson's disease. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group,
By Gary Marcus and Christof Koch What would you give for a retinal chip that let you see in the dark or for a next-generation cochlear implant that let you hear any conversation in a noisy restaurant, no matter how loud? Or for a memory chip, wired directly into your brain's hippocampus, that gave you perfect recall of everything you read? Or for an implanted interface with the Internet that automatically translated a clearly articulated silent thought ("the French sun king") into an online search that digested the relevant Wikipedia page and projected a summary directly into your brain? Science fiction? Perhaps not for very much longer. Brain implants today are where laser eye surgery was several decades ago. They are not risk-free and make sense only for a narrowly defined set of patients—but they are a sign of things to come. Unlike pacemakers, dental crowns or implantable insulin pumps, neuroprosthetics—devices that restore or supplement the mind's capacities with electronics inserted directly into the nervous system—change how we perceive the world and move through it. For better or worse, these devices become part of who we are. Neuroprosthetics aren't new. They have been around commercially for three decades, in the form of the cochlear implants used in the ears (the outer reaches of the nervous system) of more than 300,000 hearing-impaired people around the world. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first retinal implant, made by the company Second Sight. ©2014 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Link ID: 19371 - Posted: 03.17.2014
By Neuroskeptic A neuroscience paper published before Christmas drew my eye with the expansive title: “How Thoughts Give Rise to Action“ Subtitled “Conscious Motor Intention Increases the Excitability of Target-Specific Motor Circuits”, the article’s abstract was no less bold, concluding that: These results indicate that conscious intentions govern motor function… until today, it was unclear whether conscious motor intention exists prior to movement, or whether the brain constructs such an intention after movement initiation. The authors, Zschorlich and Köhling of the University of Rostock, Germany, are weighing into a long-standing debate in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, concerning the role of consciousness in controlling our actions. To simplify, one school of thought holds that (at least some of the time), our intentions or plans control our actions. Many people would say that this is what common sense teaches us as well. But there’s an alternative view, in which our consciously-experienced intentions are not causes of our actions but are actually products of them, being generated after the action has already begun. This view is certainly counterintuitive, and many find it disturbing as it seems to undermine ‘free will’. That’s the background. Zschorlich and Köhling say that they’ve demonstrated that conscious intentions do exist, prior to motor actions, and that these intentions are accompanied by particular changes in brain activity. They claim to have done this using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a way of causing a localized modulation of brain electrical activity.
Link ID: 19370 - Posted: 03.17.2014
New findings reveal how a mutation, a change in the genetic code that causes neurodegeneration, alters the shape of DNA, making cells more vulnerable to stress and more likely to die. The particular mutation, in the C9orf72 gene, is the most common cause for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), and frontotemporal degeneration (FTD), the second most common type of dementia in people under 65. This research by Jiou Wang, Ph.D., and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) was published in Nature and was partially funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). In ALS, the muscle-activating neurons in the spinal cord die, eventually causing paralysis. In FTD neurons in particular brain areas die leading to progressive loss of cognitive abilities. The mutation may also be associated with Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases. DNA contains a person’s genetic code, which is made up of a unique string of bases, chemicals represented by letters. Portions of this code are divided into genes that provide instructions for making molecules (proteins) that control how cells function. The normal C9orf72 gene contains a section of repeating letters; in most people, this sequence is repeated two to 25 times. In contrast, the mutation associated with ALS and FTD can result in up to tens of thousands of repeats of this section.
By James Gallagher Health and science reporter, BBC News US doctors are warning of an emerging polio-like disease in California where up to 20 people have been infected. A meeting of the American Academy of Neurology heard that some patients had developed paralysis in all four limbs, which had not improved with treatment. The US is polio-free, but related viruses can also attack the nervous system leading to paralysis. Doctors say they do not expect an epidemic of the polio-like virus and that the infection remains rare. Polio is a dangerous and feared childhood infection. The virus rapidly invades the nervous system and causes paralysis in one in 200 cases. It can be fatal if it stops the lungs from working. There have been 20 suspected cases of the new infection, mostly in children, in the past 18 months, A detailed analysis of five cases showed enterovirus-68 - which is related to poliovirus - could be to blame. In those cases all the children had been vaccinated against polio. Symptoms have ranged from restricted movement in one limb to severe weakness in both legs and arms. Dr Emanuelle Waubant, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, told the BBC: "There has been no obvious increase in the pace of new cases so we don't think we're about to experience an epidemic, that's the good news. BBC © 2014
Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 19283 - Posted: 02.24.2014
by Clare Wilson A monkey controlling the hand of its unconscious cage-mate with its thoughts may sound like animal voodoo, but it is a step towards returning movement to people with spinal cord injuries. The hope is that people who are paralysed could have electrodes implanted in their brains that pick up their intended movements. These electrical signals could then be sent to a prosthetic limb, or directly to the person's paralysed muscles, bypassing the injury in their spinal cord. Ziv Williams at Harvard Medical School in Boston wanted to see if sending these signals to nerves in the spinal cord would also work, as this might ultimately give a greater range of movement from each electrode. His team placed electrodes in a monkey's brain, connecting them via a computer to wires going into the spinal cord of an anaesthetised, unconscious monkey. The unconscious monkey's limbs served as the equivalent of paralysed limbs. A hand of the unconscious monkey was strapped to a joystick, controlling a cursor that the other monkey could see on a screen. Williams's team had previously had the conscious monkey practise the joystick task for itself and had recorded its brain activity to work out which signals corresponded to moving the joystick back and forth. Through trial and error, they deduced which nerves to stimulate in the spinal cord of the anaesthetised monkey to produce similar movements in that monkey's hand. When both parts were fed to the computer, the conscious monkey was able to move the "paralysed" monkey's hand to make the cursor hit a target. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Link ID: 19266 - Posted: 02.19.2014
by Clare Wilson SOMETIMES you find out more about how something works by turning it off. That seems to be true for mirror neurons, the brain cells implicated in traits ranging from empathy and learning to language acquisition. Mirror neurons are said to help us interpret other people's behaviour, but this has yet to be shown convincingly in experiments. Now a study that briefly disabled these cells might give a better idea of what they do. Mirror neurons were discovered in the 1990s when an Italian team was measuring electrical activity in the brains of monkeys. In the region that controls movement, some of the neurons that fire to carry out a particular action – such as grasping an apple – also fired when the monkey saw another animal do the same thing. The tempting conclusion was that these neurons help interpret others' behaviour. Further work suggested that people also have this system, and some researchers claimed that conditions where empathy is lacking, such as autism or psychopathy, could arise from defective mirror neurons. Yet there has been little evidence to back this up and critics argued that mirror neuron activity could just be some sort of side effect of witnessing action. Powerful magnetic fields are known to temporarily disrupt brain cell activity, and a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is increasingly used in the lab to dampen specific areas of the brain. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
|By Carl Erik Fisher After 22 years of failed treatments, including rehabilitation, psychotherapy and an array of psychiatric medications, a middle-aged Dutch man decided to take an extraordinary step to fight his heroin addiction. He underwent an experimental brain surgery called deep brain stimulation (DBS). At the University of Amsterdam, researchers bored small holes in his skull and guided two long, thin probes deep into his head. The ends of the probes were lined with small electrodes, which were positioned in his nucleus accumbens, a brain area near the base of the skull that is associated with addiction. The scientists ran the connecting wires under his scalp, behind his ear and down to a battery pack sewn under the skin of his chest. Once turned on, the electrodes began delivering constant electrical pulses, much like a pacemaker, with the goal of altering the brain circuits thought to be causing his drug cravings. At first the stimulation intensified his desire for heroin, and he almost doubled his drug intake. But after the researchers adjusted the pulses, the cravings diminished, and he drastically cut down his heroin use. Neurosurgeries are now being pursued for a variety of mental illnesses. Initially developed in the 1980s to treat movement disorders, including Parkinson's disease, DBS is today used to treat depression, dementia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse and even obesity. Despite several success stories, many of these new ventures have attracted critics, and some skeptics have even called for an outright halt to this research. © 2014 Scientific American
By LAUREN BRADY When I was 18 I watched my father perform what would be his final surgery. It was the summer of 2007 and I had just returned to Colorado after surviving my freshman year of film school at New York University. One day my dad invited me to observe a vitrectomy. And while I hadn’t a clue what this would entail I immediately accepted, honored by the invitation and determined not to faint. My father’s 21 years as an ophthalmologist produced over 15,000 operations, a private practice spanning three offices, and very little vacation time. While I sensed from an early age that the long hours were taxing on him I never felt an absence. In fact, my childhood was picturesque: two loving parents, a rowdy little brother whom I pushed around until he was big enough to push back, family trips in the Jeep to the Rocky Mountains. He was the dad with the Handycam at every soccer game and school play. He worked as a surgeon, but he lived for his children. The morning of the vitrectomy we left extra early because of a limp in my dad’s right leg that had appeared a few months earlier and had gradually worsened. He suspected it was a pinched nerve and had been meaning to get it checked out. In the interim, he had started using a chair during surgery. Walking toward the hospital entrance we encountered a fellow doctor who greeted me with the familiarity of someone who’d been exposed to years of my father’s wallet photos. He asked how I liked Greenwich Village, whether I had directed any films yet and if I had tried a bialy. We walked and talked until I noticed at one point that my dad was no longer part of the conversation. Turning around I realized he was a half block back pushing himself up from the ground. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Keyword: ALS-Lou Gehrig's Disease
Link ID: 19192 - Posted: 02.01.2014
By JAMES GORMAN The question of how moles move all that dirt when they tunnel just under the surface of lawns has never attracted the extensive study that other forms of locomotion — like the flight of birds and insects, or even the jet-propulsion of jellyfish — have. But scientists at the University of Massachusetts and Brown University have recently been asking exactly how, and how hard, moles dig. Yi-Fen Lin, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, reported at a recent meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology that moles seem to swim through the earth, and that the stroke they use allows them to pack a lot of power behind their shovel-like paws. Ms. Lin measured the power of hairy-tailed moles that she captured in Massachusetts and found they could exert a force up to 40 times their body weight. She also analyzed and presented X-ray videos taken of moles in a laboratory enclosure tunneling their way through a material chosen for its consistency and uniform particle size: cous cous. Angela M. Horner recorded the videos while studying the movement of Eastern moles in the lab of Thomas Roberts, a professor at Brown. One reason moles have not been studied as much as some other animals may be that they are not easy to capture or keep in a laboratory. “People said, ‘You won’t be able to catch them and you won’t be able to keep them alive,’ ” said Elizabeth R. Dumont, an evolutionary biologist who is Ms. Lin’s dissertation adviser. Ms. Lin solved the first problem by camping out in mole territory, on golf courses and farms, and marking their tunnels with sticks that she would watch for hours until movement indicated a mole on the move. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 19179 - Posted: 01.29.2014
By Katherine Harmon Courage Unless you’ve eaten sannakji, the Korean specialty of semi-live octopus, you might never have had a squirming octopus arm in your mouth. But you’ve most likely had a very similar experience. In fact, you’re probably having one right now. Octopus arms might seem strange and mysterious, but they are remarkably similar to the human tongue. Known as muscular hydrostats, both of these appendages can easily bend, extend and change shape (remember that time you had to stretch out your tongue to lick that last bit of chocolate pudding from the bottom of the cup?). Researchers are hoping a new interdisciplinary project to look at movement in the octopus arm and the human tongue will shed light on how both of these complex structures are activated. This, in turn, could help scientists understand neurological diseases that affect speech, such as Parkinson’s. “The human tongue is a very different muscular system than the rest of the human body,” Khalil Iskarous, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Southern California who is helping to lead the research, said in a prepared statement. “Our bodies are vertebrate mechanisms that operate by muscle working on bone to move. The tongue is in a different muscular family, much like an invertebrate. It’s entirely muscle—it’s muscle moving muscle.” Both move by compressing fluid in one section of a muscle, creating movement in another part. But we know little about exactly how that movement is initiated and so finely controlled. © 2014 Scientific American
Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 19117 - Posted: 01.11.2014
Just in time for all those New Year’s resolutions to exercise more, scientists have a better idea of how the body turns pain into gain. Exertion stimulates muscles to release a molecule that modifies fat cells, turning them into calorie-burning machines, a research team has found. Exercise works the muscles but affects cells throughout the body, even in the brain. An important player in this process is a protein called PGC-1α. In exercising muscles, it activates genes that ramp up energy use. But its impact extends beyond these tissues. The protein somehow indirectly prompts, for example, white fat—the energy-storing variety that pads our hips and stomachs—to switch on genes that are characteristic of brown fat, a form that burns calories. PGC-1α doesn’t travel outside muscle cells, so researchers aren’t sure how its influence spreads, however. By sifting through the secretions of PGC-1α-making muscle cells, Robert Gerszten of Harvard Medical School in Boston and colleagues have nabbed one molecule that might be doing the protein’s bidding: β-aminoisobutyric acid (BAIBA). They found that BAIBA induces white fat cells to become more like brown fat cells, altering their gene activity patterns. And it stimulates other cell types, stoking fat metabolism in the liver, the team also reveals today in Cell Metabolism. These effects may translate into a healthier metabolism. When mice lapped up water laced with the molecule, the rodents lost weight and were better at absorbing glucose. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Don’t worry about watching all those cat videos on the Internet. You’re not wasting time when you are at your computer—you’re honing your fine-motor skills. A study of people’s ability to translate training that involves clicking and twiddling a computer mouse reveals that the brain can apply that expertise to other fine-motor tasks requiring the hands. We know that computers are altering the way that people think. For example, using the Internet changes the way that you remember information. But what about use of the computer itself? You probably got to this story by using a computer mouse, for example, and that is a bizarre task compared with the activities that we’ve encountered in our evolutionary history. You made tiny movements of your hand in a horizontal plane to cause tiny movements of a cursor in a completely disconnected vertical plane. But with daily practice—the average computer user makes more than 1000 mouse clicks per day—you have become such an expert that you don’t even think about this amazing feat of dexterity. Scientists would love to know if that practice affects other aspects of your brain’s control of your body. The problem is finding people with no computer experience. So Konrad Kording, a psychologist at Northwestern University’s Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago in Illinois, and his former postdoc Kunlin Wei, now at Peking University in Beijing, turned to migrant Chinese workers. The country’s vast population covers the whole socioeconomic spectrum, from elite computer hackers to agricultural laborers whose lifestyles have changed little over the past century. The country’s economic boom is bringing people in waves from the countryside to cities in search of employment. © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 19060 - Posted: 12.21.2013