Chapter 13. Memory, Learning, and Development

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By Hazem Zohny Here is a picture of the nine-dot problem. The task seems simple enough: connect all nine dots with four straight lines, but, do so without lifting the pen from the paper or retracing any line. If you don’t already know the solution, give it a try – although your chances of figuring it out within a few minutes hover around 0 percent. In fact, even if I were to give you a hint like “think outside of the box,” you are unlikely to crack this deceptively (and annoyingly!) simple puzzle. And yet, if we were to pass a weak electric current through your brain (specifically your anterior temporal lobe, which sits somewhere between the top of your ear and temple), your chances of solving it may increase substantially. That, at least, was the finding from a study where 40 percent of people who couldn’t initially solve this problem managed to crack it after 10 minutes of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) – a technique for delivering a painlessly weak electric current to the brain through electrodes on the scalp. How to explain this? It is an instance of the alleged power of tDCS and similar neurostimulation techniques. These are increasingly touted as methods that can “overclock” the brain in order to boost cognition, improve our moods, make us stronger, and even alter our moral dispositions. The claims are not completely unfounded: there is evidence that some people become slightly better at holding and manipulating information in their minds after a bout of tDCS. It also appears to reduce some people’s likelihood of formulating false memories, and seems to have a lasting improvement on some people’s ability to work with numbers. It can even appear to boost creativity, enhancing the ability of some to make abstract connections between words to come up with creative analogies. But it goes further, with some evidence that it can help people control their urges as well improve their mood. And beyond these psychological effects, tDCS of the part of the brain responsible for movement seems to improve muscular endurance and reduce fatigue. © 2016 Scientific American

Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 22205 - Posted: 05.11.2016

By PAM BELLUCK BALTIMORE — Leave it to the youngest person in the lab to think of the Big Idea. Xuyu Qian, 23, a third-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins, was chatting in late January with Hongjun Song, a neurologist. Dr. Song was wondering how to test their three-dimensional model of a brain — well, not a brain, exactly, but an “organoid,” essentially a tiny ball of brain cells, grown from stem cells and mimicking early brain development. “We need a disease,” Dr. Song said. Mr. Qian tossed out something he’d seen in the headlines: “Why don’t we check out this Zika virus?” Within a few weeks — a nanosecond compared with typical scientific research time — that suggestion led to one of the most significant findings in efforts to answer a central question: How does the Zika virus cause brain damage, including the abnormally small heads in babies born to infected mothers? The answer could spur discoveries to prevent such devastating neurological problems. And time is of the essence. One year after the virus was first confirmed in Latin America, with the raging crisis likely to reach the United States this summer, no treatment or vaccine exists. “We can’t wait,” said Dr. Song, at the university’s Institute for Cell Engineering, where he and his wife and research partner, Dr. Guo-Li Ming, provided a pipette-and-petri-dish-level tour. “To translate our work for the clinic, to the public, normally it takes years. This is a case where we can make a difference right away.” The laboratory’s initial breakthrough, published in March with researchers at two other universities, showed that the Zika virus attacked and killed so-called neural progenitor cells, which form early in fetal development and generate neurons in the brain. © 2016 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Neurogenesis
Link ID: 22203 - Posted: 05.11.2016

By Geraldine Dawson There’s a popular saying in the autism community: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Although this phrase is meant to convey the remarkable variation in abilities and disabilities among people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), we’re learning that it also applies to the extraordinary variability in how ASD develops. When I first began doing research on autism decades ago, we thought of it as one condition and aimed to discover its “cause.” Now we know ASD is actually a group of lifelong conditions that can arise from a complex combination of multiple genetic and environmental factors. In the same way that each person with ASD has a unique personality and profile of talents and disabilities, each also has a distinct developmental history shaped by a specific combination of genetic and environmental factors. More evidence of this extraordinary variety will be presented this week in Baltimore, where nearly 2,000 of the world’s leading autism researchers will gather for the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR). As president of the International Society for Autism Research, which sponsors the conference, I am more impressed than ever with the progress we are making. New findings being presented at the conference will highlight the importance of the prenatal period in understanding how various environmental factors such as exposure to alcohol, smoking and certain chemical compounds can increase risk for ASD. The impact of many environmental factors depends, however, on an individual’s genetic background and the timing of the exposure. Other research links inflammation—detected in blood spot tests taken at birth—with a higher likelihood of an ASD diagnosis later on. Researchers suggest that certain factors such as maternal infection and other factors during pregnancy may influence an infant’s immune system and contribute to risk. As our knowledge of these risk factors grows, so do the opportunities for promoting healthy pregnancies and better outcomes. © 2016 Scientific American

Keyword: Autism; Neuroimmunology
Link ID: 22199 - Posted: 05.10.2016

Chris Woolston A story about epigenetics in the 2 May issue of The New Yorker has been sharply criticized for inaccurately describing how genes are regulated. The article by Siddhartha Mukherjee — a physician, cancer researcher and award-winning author at Columbia University in New York — examines how environmental factors can change the activity of genes without altering the DNA sequence. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, posted two widely discussed blog posts calling the piece “superficial and misleading”, largely because it ignored key aspects of gene regulation. Other researchers quoted in the blog posts called the piece “horribly damaging” and “a truly painful read”. Mukherjee responded by publishing a point-by-point rebuttal online. Speaking to Nature, he says he now realizes that he erred by omitting key areas of the science, but that he didn’t mean to mislead. “I sincerely thought that I had done it justice,” he says. Mukherjee’s article, ‘Same But Different’, takes a personal view of epigenetics — a term whose definition is highly contentious in the field. The story features his mother and aunt, identical twins who have distinct personalities. Mukherjee, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for his best-selling book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Scribner, 2010), writes that identical twins differ because: “Chance events — injuries, infections, infatuations; the haunting trill of that particular nocturne — impinge on one twin and not on the other. Genes are turned on and off in response to these events, as epigenetic marks are gradually layered above genes, etching the genome with its own scars, calluses, and freckles.” The article is drawn from a book by Mukherjee that is due out later this month, called The Gene: An Intimate History (Scribner, 2016). © 2016 Nature Publishing Group

Keyword: Epigenetics; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 22197 - Posted: 05.10.2016

By DAN BARRY IDIOT. Imbecile. Cretin. Feebleminded. Moron. Retarded. Offensive now but once quite acceptable, these terms figured in the research for a lengthy article I wrote in 2014 about 32 men who spent decades eviscerating turkeys in a meat-processing plant in Iowa — all for $65 a month, along with food and lodging in an ancient former schoolhouse on a hill. These were men with intellectual disability, which meant they had significant limitations in reasoning, learning and problem solving, as well as in adaptive behavior. But even though “intellectual disability” has been the preferred term for more than a decade, it gave my editors and me pause. We wondered whether readers would instantly understand what the phrase meant. What’s more, advocates and academicians were recommending that I suppress my journalistic instinct to tighten the language. I was told that it was improper to call these men “intellectually disabled,” instead of “men with intellectual disability.” Their disability does not define them; they are human beings with a disability. This linguistic preference is part of society’s long struggle to find the proper terminology for people with intellectual disability, and reflects the discomfort the subject creates among many in the so-called non-disabled world. It speaks to a continuing sense of otherness; to perceptions of what is normal, and not. “It often doesn’t matter what the word is,” said Michael Wehmeyer, the director and senior scientist at the Beach Center on Disability at the University of Kansas. “It’s that people associate that word with what their perceptions of these people are — as broken, or as defective, or as something else.” For many years, the preferred term was, simply, idiot. When Massachusetts established a commission on idiocy in the mid-1840s, it appointed Dr. Samuel G. Howe, an abolitionist and early disability rights advocate, as its chairman. The commission argued for the establishment of schools to help this segment of society, but made clear that it regarded idiocy “as an outward sign of an inward malady.” © 2016 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Development of the Brain
Link ID: 22195 - Posted: 05.09.2016

By Aleszu Bajak In its May 2 issue, The New Yorker magazine published a report titled “Same But Different,” with the subhead: “How epigenetics can blur the line between nature and nurture.” The piece was written by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a physician and author of the Pulitzer prize-winning book “The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” In his New Yorker story, Mukherjee, with deft language and colorful anecdotes, examines a topic that is very much du jour in science writing: Epigenetics. Google defines epigenetics as “the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression, rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.” Merriam Webster’s definition is similar — but not exactly the same: “The study of heritable changes in gene function that do not involve changes in DNA sequence.” The slight variation in definition is telling in itself — and it’s really that “heritable” part that has sparked intense interest not just among scientists, but in the popular mind. Steven Henikoff, a molecular biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, called Siddhartha Mukherjee’s lyrical take on epigenetics “baloney.” It’s the idea that external factors like diet, or stress or even lifestyle choices can impact not just your own genes, but the genetic information you pass down to all of your descendants. Spend your life smoking cigarettes and eating fatty foods, the thinking goes, and you’ll not just make yourself sick, you’ll predispose your offspring — and their offspring, and their offspring — to associated diseases as well. It’s heady stuff, but much of it remains speculative and poorly supported, which is where Mukherjee may have run into trouble. The publication of his story — an excerpt from his forthcoming book “The Gene: An Intimate History” — was met with swift criticism from biologists working in epigenetics and the broader field of gene regulation. They argue that Mukherjee played fast and loose with his description of epigenetic processes and misled readers by casting aside decades of research into how genes are regulated during development. Copyright 2016 Undark

Keyword: Epigenetics
Link ID: 22194 - Posted: 05.09.2016

By Jocelyn Kaiser Gene therapy is living up to its promise of halting a rare, deadly brain disease in young boys. In a new study presented in Washington, D.C., yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy, all but one of 17 boys with adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) remained relatively healthy for up to 2 years after having an engineered virus deliver into their cells a gene to replenish a missing protein needed by the brain. The results, which expand on an earlier pilot study, bring this ALD therapy one step closer to the clinic. About one in 21,000 boys are born with ALD, which is caused by a flaw in a gene on the X chromosome that prevents cells from making a protein that the cells need to process certain fats—females have a backup copy of the gene on their second X chromosome. Without that protein, the fats build up and gradually destroy myelin sheaths that protect nerves in the brain. In the cerebral form of ALD, which begins in childhood, patients quickly lose vision and mobility, usually dying by age 12. The disease achieved some degree of fame with the 1992 film Lorenzo’s Oil, inspired by a family’s struggle to prolong their son’s life with a homemade remedy. The only currently approved treatment for ALD is a bone marrow transplant -- white blood cells in the marrow go to the brain and turn into glial cells that produce normal ALD proteins. But bone marrow transplants carry many risks, including immune rejection, and matching donors can’t always be found. As an alternative, in the late 2000s, French researchers treated the bone cells of two boys with a modified virus carrying the ALD gene. They reported in Science in 2009 that this halted progression of the disease. © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Movement Disorders
Link ID: 22189 - Posted: 05.07.2016

By John Elder Robison Manipulating your brain with magnetic fields sounds like science fiction. But the technique is real, and it’s here. Called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), it is approved as a therapy for depression in the US and UK. More controversially, it is being studied as a way to treat classic symptoms of autism, such as emotional disconnection. With interest and hopes rising, it’s under the spotlight at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Baltimore, Maryland, next week. I can bear witness to the power of TMS, which induces small electrical currents in neurons. As someone with Asperger’s, I tried it for medical research, and described its impact in my book Switched On. After TMS, I could see emotional cues in other people – signals I had always been blind to, but that many non-autistic people pick up with ease. That sounds great, so why the need for debate? Relieving depression isn’t controversial, because there is no question people suffer as a result of it. I too felt that I suffered – from emotional disconnection. But changing “emotional intelligence” to relieve that comes closer to changing the essence of how we think. Yes, emerging brain therapies like TMS have great potential. Several of the volunteers who went into the TMS lab at Harvard Medical School emerged with new self-awareness, and lasting changes. While I can’t speak with certainty for the others, I believe some of us have a degree of emotional insight that we didn’t have before. I certainly feel better able to fit in. As fellow participant Michael Wilcox put it, we have more emotional reactions to things we see or read. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Autism
Link ID: 22187 - Posted: 05.07.2016

By Ann Gibbons We may not be raring to go on a Monday morning, but humans are the Energizer Bunnies of the primate world. That’s the conclusion of a new study that, for the first time, measures precisely how many calories humans and apes burn each day. Compared with chimpanzees and other apes, our revved-up internal engines burn calories 27% faster, according to a paper in Nature this week. This higher metabolic rate equips us to quickly fuel energy-hungry brain cells, sustaining our bigger brains. And lest we run out of gas when food is short, the study also found that humans are fatter than other primates, giving us energy stores to draw on in lean times. “The brilliant thing here is showing for the first time that we do have a higher metabolic rate, and we do use more energy,” says paleoanthropologist Leslie Aiello, president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York City. “Humans during evolution have become more and more hypermetabolic,” says biological anthropologist Carel van Schaik of the University of Zurich in Switzerland. “We turned up the thermostat.” For decades, researchers assumed that “there weren’t any differences in the rate at which different species burned calories,” says biological anthropologist Herman Pontzer of Hunter College in New York City, lead author of the new study. Comparing humans and other primates, they saw little difference in basal metabolic rate, which reflects the total calories used by our organs while we are at rest. © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Obesity; Evolution
Link ID: 22183 - Posted: 05.05.2016

By Marta Zaraska Scientists and laypeople alike have historically attributed political beliefs to upbringing and surroundings, yet recent research shows that our political inclinations have a large genetic component. The largest recent study of political beliefs, published in 2014 in Behavior Genetics, looked at a sample of more than 12,000 twin pairs from five countries, including the U.S. Some were identical and some fraternal; all were raised together. The study reveals that the development of political attitudes depends, on average, about 60 percent on the environment in which we grow up and live and 40 percent on our genes. “We inherit some part of how we process information, how we see the world and how we perceive threats—and these are expressed in a modern society as political attitudes,” explains Peter Hatemi, who is a genetic epidemiologist at the University of Sydney and lead author of the study. The genes involved in such complex traits are difficult to pinpoint because they tend to be involved in a huge number of bodily and cognitive processes that each play a minuscule role in shaping our political attitudes. Yet a study published in 2015 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B managed to do just that, showing that genes encoding certain receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine are associated with where we fall on the liberal-conservative axis. Among women who were highly liberal, 62 percent were carriers of certain receptor genotypes that have previously been associated with such traits as extroversion and novelty seeking. Meanwhile, among highly conservative women, the proportion was only 37.5 percent. © 2016 Scientific American

Keyword: Emotions; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 22182 - Posted: 05.05.2016

By Jessica Lahey Before she became a neuroscientist, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang was a seventh-grade science teacher at a school outside Boston. One year, during a period of significant racial and ethnic tension at the school, she struggled to engage her students in a unit on human evolution. After days of apathy and outright resistance to Ms. Immordino-Yang’s teaching, a student finally asked the question that altered her teaching — and her career path — forever: “Why are early hominids always shown with dark skin?” With that question, one that connected the abstract concepts of human evolution and the very concrete, personal experiences of racial tension in the school, her students’ resistance gave way to interest. As she explained the connection between the effects of equatorial sunlight, melanin and skin color and went on to explain how evolutionary change and geography result in various human characteristics, interest blossomed into engagement, and something magical happened: Her students began to learn. Dr. Immordino-Yang’s eyes light up as she recounts this story in her office at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. Now an associate professor of education, psychology and neuroscience, she understands the reason behind her students’ shift from apathy to engagement and, finally, to deep, meaningful learning. Her students learned because they became emotionally engaged in material that had personal relevance to them. Emotion is essential to learning, Dr. Immordino-Yang said, and should not be underestimated or misunderstood as a trend, or as merely the “E” in “SEL,” or social-emotional learning. Emotion is where learning begins, or, as is often the case, where it ends. Put simply, “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about,” she said. © 2016 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Learning & Memory; Emotions
Link ID: 22181 - Posted: 05.05.2016

By Jennifer Jolly Every January for the past decade, Jessica Irish of Saline, Mich., has made the same New Year’s Resolution: to “cut out late night snacking and lose 30 pounds.” Like millions of Americans, Ms. Irish, 31, usually makes it about two weeks. But this year is different. “I’ve already lost 18 pounds,” she said, “and maintained my diet more consistently than ever. Even more amazing — I rarely even think about snacking at night anymore.” Ms. Irish credits a new wearable device called Pavlok for doing what years of diets, weight-loss programs, expensive gyms and her own willpower could not. Whenever she takes a bite of the foods she wants to avoid, like chocolate or Cheez-Its, she uses the Pavlok to give herself a lightning-quick electric shock. “Every time I took a bite, I zapped myself,” she said. “I did it five times on the first night, two times on the second night, and by the third day I didn’t have any cravings anymore.” As the name suggests, the $199 Pavlok, worn on the wrist, uses the classic theory of Pavlovian conditioning to create a negative association with a specific action. Next time you smoke, bite your nails or eat junk food, one tap of the device or a smartphone app will deliver a shock. The zap lasts only a fraction of a second, though the severity of the shock is up to you. It can be set between 50 volts, which feels like a strong vibration, and 450 volts, which feels like getting stung by a bee with a stinger the size of an ice pick. (By comparison, a police Taser typically releases about 50,000 volts.) Other gadgets and apps dabble in behavioral change by way of aversion therapy, such as the $49 MotivAider that is worn like a pager, or the $99 RE-vibe wristband. Both can be set to vibrate at specific intervals as a reminder of a habit to break or a goal to reach. The $80 Lumo Lift posture coach is a wearable disk that vibrates when you slouch. The $150 Spire clip-on sensor tracks physical activity and state of mind by detecting users’ breathing patterns. If it detects you’re stressed or anxious, it vibrates or sends a notification to your smartphone to take a deep breath. © 2016 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 22171 - Posted: 05.03.2016

By Julia Shaw In the last couple of years memory science has really upped its game. I generally write about social processes that can change our memories, but right now I can’t help but get excited that memory science is getting an incredible new toy to play with. A toy that I believe will revolutionise how we talk about, and deal with, memory. This not-so-new sounding, but totally-newly-applied, neuroscience toy is ultrasound. Ultrasound is also called sonography and is essentially a type of ‘medical sonar’. It has revolutionized medicine since the 1940s, giving us the ability to look into the body in a completely safe way (without leaving icky radiation behind, like xrays). Beyond predicting whether your baby shower will be blue or pink, lesser known applications of ultrasound include the ability to essentially burn and destroy cells inside your body. As such, it has been successfully used to do surgery without making any cuts into the human body. This is a technique that has been used to remove cancerous cells while not affecting any of the surrounding tissue, and without any of the side-effects associated with other kinds of cancer treatment. This is referred to by scientist Yoav Medan as focused ultrasound. If you are unfamiliar with this, you need to watch this TED talk. Non-invasive procedures like this are the future of surgery. Non-invasive procedures are also the future of neuroscience. It is at this point that we find ourselves at the application of this astonishing science to memory research. © 2016 Scientific American

Keyword: Brain imaging; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 22170 - Posted: 05.03.2016

By Karen Weintraub The four members of Asperger’s Are Us decided a long time ago that their main goal would be to amuse themselves. But after nearly a decade of laughing and writing punch lines together, Asperger’s Are Us, which is probably the only comedy troupe made up of people on the autism spectrum, is on the cusp of comedic success. A documentary about the group premiered at the SXSW conference in Austin in March and was recently sold to Netflix. The troupe is also preparing for its first national tour this summer. Comedy might be a surprising choice for someone with Asperger’s syndrome, since stereotypically, people with autism are generally regarded as socially awkward loners. But the four men in the group bonded at summer camp 11 years ago, when one was a counselor and the other three were campers, and are clearly great friends. An “Aspergers Are Us” performance from 2011. Talking recently via Skype, Noah Britton, the former counselor, settles giant black rabbit ears onto his head. Jack Hanke, another member of the troupe, dons his favorite sombrero – the black one he took with him to Oxford University during his recent junior year abroad – accessorized with a red sombrero on top. They slip into their usual banter when asked what they thought of the film, named for the group, which will be shown publicly for the first time on Friday at the Somerville Theater outside of Boston. “I liked the four weird guys in it,” Mr. Britton said. “It was better than ‘Jaws 2,’ but not as good as ‘Jaws 3,’” Mr. Hanke insisted. “I found it kind of annoying myself,” added Ethan Finlan, another member of the group. The fourth member, who changed his first name to New Michael to distinguish himself from his father, Michael Ingemi, didn’t want to join the call. © 2016 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Autism
Link ID: 22169 - Posted: 05.03.2016

Patricia Neighmond Hoping to keep your mental edge as you get older? Look after your heart, a recent analysis suggests, and your brain will benefit, too. A research team led by Hannah Gardener, an epidemiologist at the University of Miami, analyzed a subset of data from the Northern Manhattan Study, a large, ongoing study of risk factors for stroke among whites, blacks and Hispanics living in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. The scientists wanted to see how people in their 60s and 70s would do on repeated tests of memory and mental acuity six years later — and, specifically, what sort of subtle differences a heart-healthy lifestyle might make to the brain, beyond the prevention of strokes. Their findings appear in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Heart Association. In this particular study, the researchers started with more than a thousand people who'd had their cardiovascular health assessed using measures that the American Heart Association has dubbed Life's Simple 7. These seven factors known to benefit the heart and blood vessels include maintaining a normal body weight and good nutrition, not smoking, getting exercise regularly and keeping blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels under control. To measure thinking skills, Gardener's team used a variety of tests of memory, judgement, the ability to plan, mental quickness and other sorts of problem solving. The results were striking: Across all demographic groups, the people who had higher scores on the measures of cardiovascular health did better on the mental tests than those who scored low. © 2016 npr

Keyword: Alzheimers
Link ID: 22167 - Posted: 05.02.2016

Symptoms of depression that steadily increase over time in older age could indicate early signs of dementia, scientists have said. Other patterns of symptoms, such as chronic depression, appear not to be linked, a study found. Dutch researchers looked at different ways depression in older adults progressed over time and how this related to any risk. They concluded worsening depression may signal the condition is taking hold. The research, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, followed more than 3,000 adults aged 55 and over living in the Netherlands. All had depression but no symptoms of dementia at the start of the study. Dr M Arfan Ikram of the Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam said depressive symptoms that gradually increase over time appear to be a better predictor of dementia later in life than other paths of depression. "There are a number of potential explanations, including that depression and dementia may both be symptoms of a common underlying cause, or that increasing depressive symptoms are on the starting end of a dementia continuum in older adults," he said. Only the group whose symptoms of depression increased over time were found to be at increased risk of dementia - about one in five of people (55 out of 255) in this group developed dementia. Others who had symptoms that waxed and waned or stayed the same were not at increased risk. For example, in those who experienced low but stable levels of depression, around 10% went on to develop dementia. The exact nature of depression on dementia risk remains unknown. © 2016 BBC

Keyword: Depression; Alzheimers
Link ID: 22165 - Posted: 05.02.2016

By n. r. kleinfield IT BEGAN WITH what she saw in the bathroom mirror. On a dull morning, Geri Taylor padded into the shiny bathroom of her Manhattan apartment. She casually checked her reflection in the mirror, doing her daily inventory. Immediately, she stiffened with fright. Huh? What? She didn’t recognize herself. She gazed saucer-eyed at her image, thinking: Oh, is this what I look like? No, that’s not me. Who’s that in my mirror? This was in late 2012. She was 69, in her early months getting familiar with retirement. For some time she had experienced the sensation of clouds coming over her, mantling thought. There had been a few hiccups at her job. She had been a nurse who climbed the rungs to health care executive. Once, she was leading a staff meeting when she had no idea what she was talking about, her mind like a stalled engine that wouldn’t turn over. “Fortunately I was the boss and I just said, ‘Enough of that; Sally, tell me what you’re up to,’” she would say of the episode. Certain mundane tasks stumped her. She told her husband, Jim Taylor, that the blind in the bedroom was broken. He showed her she was pulling the wrong cord. Kept happening. Finally, nothing else working, he scribbled on the adjacent wall which cord was which. Then there was the day she got off the subway at 14th Street and Seventh Avenue unable to figure out why she was there. So, yes, she had had inklings that something was going wrong with her mind. She held tight to these thoughts. She even hid her suspicions from Mr. Taylor, who chalked up her thinning memory to the infirmities of age. “I thought she was getting like me,” he said. “I had been forgetful for 10 years.”

Keyword: Alzheimers
Link ID: 22160 - Posted: 04.30.2016

By PAM BELLUCK Alzheimer’s disease can seem frightening, mysterious and daunting. There are still a lot of unknowns about the disease, which afflicts more than five million Americans. Here are answers to some common questions: Sometimes I forget what day it is or where I put my glasses. Is this normal aging, or am I developing Alzheimer’s? Just because you forgot an item on your grocery list doesn’t mean you are developing dementia. Most people have occasional memory lapses, which increase with age. The memory problems that characterize warning signs of Alzheimer’s are usually more frequent, and they begin to interfere with safe or competent daily functioning: forgetting to turn off the stove, leaving home without being properly dressed or forgetting important appointments. Beyond that, the disease usually involves a decline in other cognitive abilities: planning a schedule, following multistep directions, carrying out familiar logistical tasks like balancing a checkbook or cooking a meal. It can also involve mood changes, agitation, social withdrawal and feelings of confusion, and can even affect or slow a person’s gait. How is Alzheimer’s diagnosed? Diagnosing Alzheimer’s usually involves a series of assessments, including memory and cognitive tests. Clinicians will also do a thorough medical work-up to determine whether the thinking and memory problems can be explained by other diagnoses, such as another type of dementia, a physical illness or side effects from a medication. Brain scans and spinal taps may also be conducted to check for corroborating evidence like the accumulation of amyloid, the hallmark protein of Alzheimer’s, in the brain or spinal fluid. The cause is unknown for most cases. Fewer than 5 percent of cases are linked to specific, rare gene mutations. Those are usually early-onset cases that develop in middle age. © 2016 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Alzheimers
Link ID: 22159 - Posted: 04.30.2016

By Nicholas Bakalar Treating pregnant women for depression may benefit not just themselves but their babies as well. A study, in the May issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology, included 7,267 pregnant women, of whom 831 had symptoms of depression. After controlling for maternal age, race, income, body mass index and other health and behavioral characteristics, the researchers found that depressive symptoms were associated with a 27 percent increased relative risk of preterm birth (less than 37 weeks of gestation), an 82 percent increased risk of very preterm birth (less than 32 weeks of gestation), and a 28 percent increased risk of having a baby small for gestational age. They also found that among those who were treated with antidepressants for depression — about a fifth of those with the diagnosis — there was no association with increased risk for any of these problems. But they acknowledge that this group was quite small, which limits the power to draw conclusions. Still, the lead author, Dr. Kartik K. Venkatesh, a clinical fellow in obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard, said that it was important to screen mothers for depression, not only for their health but for that of their babies. “By screening early in pregnancy, you could identify those at higher risk and counsel them about the importance of treatment,” he said. “Treating these women for depression may have real benefits.” © 2016 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Depression; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 22148 - Posted: 04.27.2016

by Laura Sanders Some researchers believe that when memories are called to mind, they enter a fragile, wobbly state during which they are vulnerable to being weakened or changed. One way to erode old memories is to learn something new just after recalling the older memory, scientists reported in 2003 (SN: 10/11/2003, p. 228). But that result itself is wobbly, scientists report April 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In an attempt to replicate the original finding, experimental psychologist Tom Hardwicke of University College London and colleagues didn’t see any memory alterations in people who learned a new sequence of finger taps shortly after recalling an old sequence. Nor did the researchers turn up signs of this memory interference in other tests. The new study focused specifically on new learning, but the findings cast suspicion on the legitimacy of other ways to interfere with people’s memories, Hardwicke says. Approaches such as brain stimulation or drugs might also be flawed, the researchers argue. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016

Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 22141 - Posted: 04.26.2016