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Alison Abbott Six years might seem like a long time to spend piecing together the structure of a scrap of tissue vastly smaller than a bead of sweat. But that is how long it has taken a team led by cell biologist Jeff Lichtman from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to digitally reconstruct a tiny cube of mouse brain tissue. The resulting three-dimensional map1 is the first complete reconstruction of a piece of tissue in the mammalian neocortex, the most recently evolved region of the brain. Covering just 1,500 cubic microns, it is still a far cry from reconstructing all 100 billion or so cells that make up the entire human brain. But Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, notes that the various technologies involved will speed up “tremendously” over the next decade: “I would call this a very exciting promissory note,” he says. Lichtman’s team already has its eyes on a much bigger challenge: reconstructing a cubic millimetre of rodent neocortex — a piece of tissue around 600,000 times larger than the present achievement. The researchers will be doing this as part of a consortium that earlier this month received preliminary approval for major funding by the US government agency IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity), which promotes high-risk, high pay-off research. The goal of the consortium, based at Harvard and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, is to map the function as well as the anatomy of this tiny brain volume, while also working out how it computes information as an animal learns. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group,
Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 21249 - Posted: 08.01.2015
By David Noonan Leaping through the air with ease and spinning in place like tops, ballet dancers are visions of the human body in action at its most spectacular and controlled. Their brains, too, appear to be special, able to evade the dizziness that normally would result from rapid pirouettes. When compared with ordinary people's brains, researchers found in a study published early this year, parts of dancers' brains involved in the perception of spinning seem less sensitive, which may help them resist vertigo. For millions of other people, it is their whole world, not themselves, that suddenly starts to whirl. Even the simplest task, like walking across the room, may become impossible when vertigo strikes, and the condition can last for months or years. Thirty-five percent of adults older than 39 in the U.S.—69 million people—experience vertigo at one time or another, often because of damage to parts of the inner ear that sense the body's position or to the nerve that transmits that information to the brain. Whereas drugs and physical therapy can help many, tens of thousands of people do not benefit from existing treatments. “Our patients with severe loss of balance have been told over and over again that there's nothing we can do for you,” says Charles Della Santina, an otolaryngologist who studies inner ear disorders and directs the Johns Hopkins Vestibular NeuroEngineering Laboratory. Steve Bach's nightmare started in November 2013. The construction manager was at home in Parsippany, N.J. “All of a sudden the room was whipping around like a 78 record,” says Bach, now age 57. He was curled up on the living room floor in a fetal position when his daughter found him and called 911. He spent the next five days in the hospital. © 2015 Scientific American
Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 21248 - Posted: 08.01.2015
Mo Costandi When we say that we are “in pain”, we usually mean that an injured body part is hurting us. But the phenomenon we call pain consists of more than just physical sensations, and often has mental and emotional aspects, too. Pain signals entering the black box of the brain can be subjected further processing, and these hidden thought processes can alter the way we perceive them. We still know very little about these non-physical aspects of pain, or about the brain processes responsible for them. We do know, however, that learning and mental imagery can both diminish and enhance the experience of felt pain. Two new studies now extend these findings – one shows that subliminal learning can also alter pain responses, and the other explains how mental imagery can do so. It’s well known that simple associative learning procedures can alter responses to pain. For example, newborn babies who have diabetic mothers and are repeatedly exposed to heel pricks in the first few days of life exhibit larger pain responses during subsequent blood tests than healthy infants. Learning also appears to explain the placebo effect, and why it is often so variable. Several years ago, Karin Jensen, who is now at Harvard Medical School, and her colleagues showed that subliminal cues can reactivate consciously-learned associations to either enhance or diminish pain responses. In their latest study, the researchers set out to determine the extent to which this type of learning can occur non-consciously. © 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited
Michael Sullivan It's 5:45 in the morning, and in a training field outside Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat, Cambodia's demining rats are already hard at work. Their noses are close to the wet grass, darting from side to side, as they try to detect explosives buried just beneath the ground. Each rat is responsible for clearing a 200-square-meter (239-square-yard) patch of land. Their Cambodian supervisor, Hulsok Heng, says they're good at it. "They are very good," he says. "You see this 200 square meters? They clear in only 30 minutes or 35 minutes. If you compare that to a deminer, maybe two days or three days. The deminer will pick up all the fragmentation, the metal in the ground, but the rat picks up only the smell of TNT. Not fragmentation or metal or a nail or a piece of crap in the ground." That's right: Someone using a metal-detecting machine will take a lot longer to detect a land mine than a rat using its nose. There's plenty of work for the rats here in Cambodia. The government estimates there are 4 million to 6 million land mines or other pieces of unexploded ordnance — including bombs, shells and grenades — littering the countryside, remnants of decades of conflict. Neighboring Vietnam and Laos also have unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War. Dozens of people are killed or maimed in the region every year — and there's a financial toll as well, since the presence of these potentially deadly devices decreases the amount of land available to farmers. © 2015 NPR
By Robert Gebelhoff Just in case sea snails aren't slow enough, new research has found that they get more sluggish when they grow old — and the discovery is helping us to understand how memory loss happens in humans. It turns out that the sea snail, which has a one-year lifespan, is actually a good model to study nerve cells and how the nervous system works in people. How neurons work is fundamentally identical in almost all animals, and the simplicity of the snail's body gives researchers the chance to view how different the system works more directly. "You can count the number of nerve cells that are relevant to a reflex," said Lynne Fieber, a professor at the University of Miami who leads research with the snails at the school. She and a team of researchers have been using the slimy little critters to learn how nerve cells respond to electric shock. They "taught" the snails to quickly contract their muscle tails by administering electric shocks and then poking the tails, a process called "sensitization." They then studied the responses at various ages. The scientists, whose work was published this week in the journal PlOS One, found that as the senior citizen specimens do not learn to contract from the shock very well. As the snails grow older, their tail startle reflex lessened, and then disappeared. So I guess you could say the frail snails' tails fail to avail (okay, I'll stop).
Kill, Fido! Docile ants become aggressive guard dogs after a secret signal from their caterpillar overlord. The idea turns on its head the assumption that the two species exchange favours in an even-handed relationship. The caterpillars of the Japanese oakblue butterfly (Narathura japonica) grow up wrapped inside leaves on oak trees. To protect themselves against predators like spiders and wasps, they attract ant bodyguards, Pristomyrmex punctatus, with an offering of sugar droplets. The relationships was thought to be a fair exchange of services in which both parties benefit. But Masaru Hojo from Kobe University in Japan noticed something peculiar: the caterpillars were always attended by the same ant individuals. “It also seemed that the ants never moved away or returned to their nests,” he says. They seemed to abandon searching for food, and were just standing around guarding the caterpillar. Intrigued, Hojo and his colleagues conducted lab experiments in which they allowed some ants to interact with the caterpillars and feed on the secretions, and kept others separate. Ants that ate the caterpillar’s secretions remained close to the caterpillar. They didn’t return to their nest. And whenever the caterpillar everted its tentacles – flipped them so they turned inside out – the ants moved around rapidly, acting aggressively. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Bret Stetka The brain is extraordinarily good at alerting us to threats. Loud noises, noxious smells, approaching predators: they all send electrical impulses buzzing down our sensory neurons, pinging our brain’s fear circuitry and, in some cases, causing us to fight or flee. The brain is also adept at knowing when an initially threatening or startling stimulus turns out to be harmless or resolved. But sometimes this system fails and unpleasant associations stick around, a malfunction thought to be at the root of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). New research has identified a neuronal circuit responsible for the brain’s ability to purge bad memories, findings that could have implications for treating PTSD and other anxiety disorders. Like most emotions, fear is neurologically complicated. But previous work has consistently implicated two specific areas of the brain as contributing to and regulating fear responses. The amygdala, two small arcs of brain tissue deep beneath our temples, is involved in emotional reactions, and it flares with activity when we are scared. If a particular threat turns out to be harmless, a brain region behind the forehead called the prefrontal cortex steps in and the fright subsides. Our ability to extinguish painful memories is known to involve some sort of coordinated effort between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The new study, led by Andrew Holmes at the National Institutes of Health, however, confirms that a working connection between the two brain regions is necessary to do away with fear. Normally mice that repeatedly listen to a sound previously associated with a mild foot shock will learn that on its own the tone is harmless, and they will stop being afraid. Using optogenetic stimulation technology, or controlling specific neurons and animal behavior using light, the authors found that disrupting the amygdala–prefrontal cortex connection prevents mice from overcoming the negative association with the benign tone. In neurobiology speak, memory “extinction” fails to occur. They also found that the opposite is true—that stimulating the circuit results in increased extinction of fearful memories. © 2015 Scientific American
Five men with complete motor paralysis were able to voluntarily generate step-like movements thanks to a new strategy that non-invasively delivers electrical stimulation to their spinal cords, according to a new study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health. The strategy, called transcutaneous stimulation, delivers electrical current to the spinal cord by way of electrodes strategically placed on the skin of the lower back. This expands to nine the number of completely paralyzed individuals who have achieved voluntary movement while receiving spinal stimulation, though this is the first time the stimulation was delivered non-invasively. Previously it was delivered via an electrical stimulation device surgically implanted on the spinal cord. In the study, the men’s movements occurred while their legs were suspended in braces that hung from the ceiling, allowing them to move freely without resistance from gravity. Movement in this environment is not comparable to walking; nevertheless, the results signal significant progress towards the eventual goal of developing a therapy for a wide range of individuals with spinal cord injury. “These encouraging results provide continued evidence that spinal cord injury may no longer mean a life-long sentence of paralysis and support the need for more research,” said Roderic Pettigrew, Ph.D., M.D., director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at NIH. “The potential to offer a life-changing therapy to patients without requiring surgery would be a major advance; it could greatly expand the number of individuals who might benefit from spinal stimulation. It’s a wonderful example of the power that comes from combining advances in basic biological research with technological innovation.”
Link ID: 21242 - Posted: 08.01.2015
By JESSE McKINLEY ALBANY — In a case watched by animal rights activists and courtroom curiosity seekers, a State Supreme Court judge in Manhattan on Thursday denied a request to free a pair of chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, being held at a state university on Long Island. The unorthodox petition — which sought a writ of habeas corpus, an age-old method of challenging unlawful imprisonment — was the latest attempt by the nonprofit Nonhuman Rights Project to establish that apes are “legal persons.” The group argues that chimps are self-aware and autonomous, a contention it has supported by submitting affidavits attesting to the animals’ intelligence, language skills and personalities, among other traits, in several cases filed in New York on behalf of various imprisoned primates. In what the group hoped was a positive sign, Justice Barbara Jaffe of State Supreme Court in April ordered a hearing on whether Hercules and Leo, 8-year-old apes living as research subjects at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, could be released and transferred to an animal sanctuary in Florida. Arguments were heard in late May. But while Justice Jaffe took the case seriously — her 33-page decision cited the long history of habeas corpus and included references to discrimination against women and African-American slaves — she could not quite see Hercules and Leo as people in the eyes of the law. “For the purpose of establishing rights, the law presently categorizes entities in a simple, binary, ‘all or nothing,’ fashion,” the justice wrote, noting: “Persons have rights, duties, and obligations. Things do not.” “Animals, including chimpanzees and other highly intelligent mammals, are considered property under the law,” she continued. “They are accorded no legal rights,” beyond being free from mistreatment or abuse. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 21241 - Posted: 07.31.2015
Ewen Callaway Our ancestors were not a picky bunch. Overwhelming genetic evidence shows that Homo sapiens had sex with Neanderthals, Denisovans and other archaic relatives. Now researchers are using large genomics studies to unravel the decidedly mixed contributions that these ancient romps made to human biology — from the ability of H. sapiens to cope with environments outside Africa, to the tendency of modern humans to get asthma, skin diseases and maybe even depression. The proportion of the human genome that comes from archaic relatives is small. The genomes of most Europeans and Asians are 2–4% Neanderthal1, with Denisovan DNA making up about 5% of the genomes of Melanesians2 and Aboriginal Australians3. DNA slivers from other distant relatives probably pepper a variety of human genomes4. But these sequences may have had an outsize effect on human biology. In some cases, they are very different from the corresponding H. sapiens DNA, notes population geneticist David Reich of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts — which makes it more likely that they could introduce useful traits. “Even though it’s only a couple or a few per cent of ancestry, that ancestry was sufficiently distant that it punched above its weight,” he says. Last year, Reich co-led one of two teams that catalogued the Neanderthal DNA living on in modern-day humans5, 6. The studies hinted that Neanderthal versions of some genes may have helped Eurasians to reduce heat loss or grow thicker hair. But the evidence that these genes were beneficial was fairly weak. To get a better handle on how Neanderthal DNA shapes human biology, Corinne Simonti and Tony Capra, evolutionary geneticists at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, turned to genome-wide association studies (GWAS) that had already compared thousands of DNA variants in people with and without a certain disease or condition. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group,
Link ID: 21240 - Posted: 07.30.2015
By Ariana Eunjung Cha Think you have your hands full making sure your baby is fed and clean and gets enough sleep? Here's another thing for the list: developing your child's social skills by the way you talk. People used to think that social skills were something kids were born with, not taught. But a growing body of research shows that the environment a child grows up in as an infant and toddler can have a major impact on how they interact with others as they get older. And it turns out that a key factor may be the type of language they hear around them, even at an age when all they can do is babble. Psychologists at the University of York observed 40 mothers and their babies at 10, 12, 16 and 20 months and logged the kind of language mothers used during play. They were especially interested in "mind-related comments," which include inferences about what someone is thinking when a behavior or action happens. Elizabeth Kirk, a lecturer at the university who is the lead author of the study, published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology on Monday, gave this as an example: If an infant has difficulty opening a door on a toy, the parent might comment that the child appears "frustrated." Then researchers revisited the children when they were 5 or 6 years of age and assessed their socio-cognitive ability. The test involved reading a story and having the children answer comprehension questions that show whether they understood the social concept -- persuasion, joke, misunderstanding, white lies, lies, and so forth -- that was represented.
Tara Haelle To tell if a baby has been injured or killed by being shaken, the courts use three hallmark symptoms: Bleeding and swelling in the brain and retinal bleeding in the eyes. Along with other evidence, those standards are used to convict caregivers of abusive head trauma, both intentional and unintentional, that can result in blindness, seizures, severe brain damage or death. But in recent years a small cadre of experts testifying for the defense in cases across the country has called into question whether those symptoms actually indicate abuse. Though they are in the minority – disputing the consensus of child abuse experts, pediatricians and an extensive evidence base – they have gained traction in the media and in courtrooms by suggesting that shaking a child cannot cause these injuries. Instead, they argue that undiagnosed medical conditions, falls or other accidents are the cause. So researchers have developed and validated a tool doctors can use to distinguish between head injuries resulting from abuse and those from accidents or medical conditions. The method, described in the journal Pediatrics Monday, asks doctors to check for six other injuries, each of which increases the likelihood that a head injury resulted from severe shaking, blunt force or both. "It is vitally important that abuse head trauma is diagnosed accurately so that the team looking after the child can ensure that they receive appropriate support and are protected from further harm," lead study author Laura Elizabeth Cowley, a PhD student at the Cardiff University School of Medicine in the U.K., said in an email. "However, it is also important that accidental head injury cases are not wrongly diagnosed as abusive," she continues, "because this can have devastating consequences for the families involved." © 2015 NPR
By Katie Free Shouting during a nightmare. Struggling to balance a checkbook. A weakened sense of smell. Hallucinations. Chronic constipation. This bizarre mix of symptoms often stumps doctors, but they are some of the telltale signs of Lewy body dementia—the second most common type (after Alzheimer's disease), affecting an estimated 1.4 million Americans. Lewy bodies are protein clumps that kill neurons. Depending on where they cluster in the brain, they can cause either Parkinson's disease or Lewy body dementia, although the two conditions tend to overlap as they progress. Lewy body dementia is more difficult to diagnose and treat, in part because the earliest warning signs have remained unknown. Now a new study finds that certain sensory and motor symptoms can help predict who will acquire the disease, paving the way for targeted studies. Researchers at the Center for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine (which is associated with the University of Montreal) and at McGill University followed 89 patients with a history of acting out their dreams—not sleepwalking but moving or vocalizing in bed during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The failure to suppress such nighttime activity can be an early sign that something is going wrong in the brain; past studies have shown that up to 80 percent of patients who act out their dreams will eventually develop some form of neurodegeneration. Over 10 years the McGill researchers carefully tracked the patients' other potential symptoms of neural disease, such as mild cognitive impairment, depression and movement problems. They found a cluster of symptoms—abnormal color vision, loss of smell and motor dysfunction—that doubled the chance that a person with the REM sleep disorder would develop Parkinson's or Lewy body dementia within three years, according to the study published in February in Neurology. © 2015 Scientific American
Link ID: 21237 - Posted: 07.30.2015
By Sophia Kercher As Kathleen Emmets was undergoing cancer treatment in New York over the past few years, her weight began to drop. Even though she was often nauseated and paralyzed by chemotherapy-induced neuropathy, she joked that thinness was the “bonus of cancer,” and found herself looking in the mirror and admiring her deep and hollow collarbone. Ms. Emmets, now 39, filled her closet with extra-small size clothes. At night she pressed her fingers against her protruding bones, saying to herself, “I’m finally skinny.” But it was only when her cancer treatment changed that it became clear that the body-image issues she had been grappling with since her early 20s — when she would eat next to nothing and walk for six hours a day to deal with stress — had begun to resurface. When the new treatment didn’t make her sick, her appetite returned, and she began to gain weight. But instead of celebrating this sign of improving health, Ms. Emmets says she missed her size 2 jeans and was appalled by her round belly and full breasts. Her husband watched with concern as her body appeared stronger but she began imposing her own food restrictions and started shrinking again. “During your cancer treatment, you have no control over your body — you give up your body to your doctor,” said Ms. Emmets, who wrote about her experiences on the website The Manifest-Station. “You are willing to do it because you want to live. Food restriction is the one thing that you can do to have some sense of control when everything is chaotic.” While it isn’t known how often cancer triggers or reawakens an eating disorder, doctors and nutrition experts who work with cancer patients share anecdotal reports of patients who emerge from a difficult round of cancer treatment and weight loss only to begin struggling with a serious eating disorder that threatens their postcancer health. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Anorexia & Bulimia
Link ID: 21236 - Posted: 07.30.2015
by Anil Ananthaswamy Science journalist Anil Ananthaswamy thinks a lot about "self" — not necessarily himself, but the role the brain plays in our notions of self and existence. In his new book, The Man Who Wasn't There, Ananthaswamy examines the ways people think of themselves and how those perceptions can be distorted by brain conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease, Cotard's syndrome and body integrity identity disorder, or BIID, a psychological condition in which a patient perceives that a body part is not his own. Ananthaswamy tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about a patient with BIID who became so convinced that a healthy leg wasn't his own that he eventually underwent an amputation of the limb. "Within 12 hours, this patient that I saw, he was sitting up and there was no regret. He really seemed fine with having given up his leg," Ananthaswamy says. Ultimately, Ananthaswamy says, our sense of self is a layered one, which pulls information from varying parts of the brain to create a sense of narrative self, bodily self and spiritual self: "What it comes down to is this sense we have of being someone or something to which things are happening. It's there when we wake up in the morning, it kind of disappears when we go to sleep, it reappears in our dreams, and it's also this sense we have of being an entity that spans time." Interview Highlights On how to define "self" When you ask someone, "Who are you?" you're most likely to get a kind of narrative answer, "I am so-and-so, I'm a father, I'm son." They are going to tell you a kind of story they have in their heads about themselves, the story that they tell to themselves and to others, and in some sense that's what can be called the narrative self. ... © 2015 NPR
Link ID: 21235 - Posted: 07.29.2015
By Emily Underwood My childhood hamster, Hamlet, seemed pretty depressed. He didn’t seem to enjoy his colorful cage, complete with a tunnel, wheel, and ramp. The only thing he did with zest was gnaw at the plastic, trying to escape, which he eventually did. A few days later, my mother found him lying on the bathroom floor, dead. I have wondered ever since: Was Hamlet suicidal? Or was he simply displaying normal hamster behavior? Now, a new study suggests a scientific method for gauging hamsters’ emotional states. Hamster emotions don’t just baffle pet owners; they also bedevil scientists who use the fluffballs as subjects in their experiments. One of the most frustrating things about trying to study animal emotion in general is that you can’t take behaviors at face value. If a hamster runs madly on its wheel all night, for example, how do you know if it is running out of joy, or boredom? (Or just for the heck of it.) To bypass that problem, the researchers decided to measure something called judgment bias—essentially, the way that mood affects behavior and decision-making. As humans, our decisions are influenced by our emotions all the time—witness stress-eating, or revenge-shopping. Similar biases have been found in primates, rats, mice, and many other animals, but never before in hamsters. In the experiment, researchers split 30 Syrian hamsters into two groups. One group lived the high life, in cages bedecked with extra toys, ramps, bedding, and hammocks. The second group had the minimum in hamster hospitality, with some light bedding and a wheel. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Link ID: 21234 - Posted: 07.29.2015
By JULIE SCELFO Kathryn DeWitt conquered high school like a gold-medal decathlete. She ran track, represented her school at a statewide girls’ leadership program and took eight Advanced Placement tests, including one for which she independently prepared, forgoing the class. Expectations were high. Every day at 5 p.m. test scores and updated grades were posted online. Her mother would be the first to comment should her grade go down. “I would get home from track and she would say, ‘I see your grade dropped.’ I would say, ‘Mom, I think it’s a mistake.’ And she would say, ‘That’s what I thought.’ ” (The reason turned out to be typing errors. Ms. DeWitt graduated with straight A’s.) In her first two weeks on the University of Pennsylvania campus, she hustled. She joined a coed fraternity, signed up to tutor elementary school students and joined the same Christian group her parents had joined at their alma mater, Stanford. But having gained admittance off the wait list and surrounded by people with seemingly greater drive and ability, she had her first taste of self-doubt. “One friend was a world-class figure skater. Another was a winner of the Intel science competition. Everyone around me was so spectacular and so amazing and I wanted to be just as amazing as they are.” Classmates seemed to have it all together. Every morning, the administration sent out an email blast highlighting faculty and student accomplishments. Some women attended class wearing full makeup. Ms. DeWitt had acne. They talked about their fantastic internships. She was still focused on the week’s homework. Friends’ lives, as told through selfies, showed them having more fun, making more friends and going to better parties. Even the meals they posted to Instagram looked more delicious. Her confidence took another hit when she glanced at the cellphone screen of a male student sitting next to her who was texting that he would “rather jump out of a plane” than talk to his seatmate. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Steve Connor Anxiety and depression could be linked to the presence of bacteria in the intestines, scientists have found. A study on laboratory mice has shown that anxious and depressive behaviour brought on by exposure to stress in early life appears only to be triggered if microbes are present in the gut. The study, published in Nature Communications, demonstrates a clear link between gut microbiota – the microbes living naturally in the intestines – and the triggering of the behavioural signs of stress. “We have shown for the first time in an established mouse model of anxiety and depression that bacteria play a crucial role in inducing this abnormal behaviour,” said Premysl Bercik of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, the lead author of the study. The scientists called for further research to see if the conclusions applied to humans, and whether therapies that that target intestinal microbes can benefit patients with psychiatric disorders. Previous research on mice has indicated that gut microbes play an important role in behaviour. For instance, mice with no gut bacteria – called “germ-free” mice – are less likely to show anxiety-like behaviour than normal mice. The latest study looked at mice that had been exposed to a stressful experience in early life, such as being separated from their mothers. When these mice grow up they display anxiety and depression-like behaviour and have abnormal levels of the stress hormone corticosterone in their blood, as well as suffering from gut dysfunction based on the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
Link ID: 21232 - Posted: 07.29.2015
By Ariana Eunjung Cha The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funds a lot of weird stuff, and in recent years more and more of it has been about the brain. Its signature work in this field is in brain-computer interfaces and goes back several decades to its Biocybernetics program, which sought to enable direct communication between humans and machines. In 2013, DARPA made headlines when it announced that it intended to spend more than $70 million over five years to take its research to the next level by developing an implant that could help restore function or memory in people with neuropsychiatric issues. Less known is DARPA's Narrative Networks (or N2) project which aims to better understand how stories — or narratives — influence human behavior and to develop a set of tools that can help facilitate faster and better communication of information. "Narratives exert a powerful influence on human thoughts, emotions and behavior and can be particularly important in security contexts," DARPA researchers explained in a paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience Methods in April. They added that "in conflict resolution and counterterrorism scenarios, detecting the neural response underlying empathy induced by stories is of critical importance." This is where the work on the Hitchcock movies comes in. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology recruited undergraduates to be hooked up to MRI machines and watch movie clips that were roughly three minutes long. The excerpts all featured a character facing a potential negative outcome and were taken from suspenseful movies, including three Alfred Hitchcock flicks as well as "Alien," "Misery," "Munich" and "Cliffhanger," among others.
By C. CLAIBORNE RAY Q. Are men more likely to be claustrophobic than women? A. The opposite seems to be true, as is the case in almost all anxiety disorders, large epidemiological studies have found. The reasons for such a gender difference are not clear, and claustrophobia, the feeling of extreme panic when faced with being in a confined or enclosed space, is not as well studied as some other phobias. One situation that has been comparatively well researched is what happens when people need magnetic resonance imaging, which often involves a prolonged period of confinement in a small enclosure, the perfect storm of claustrophobia triggers. A recent study found that certain factors seem to correlate with an increase in claustrophobic reactions, including being female, going into the scanner head first and having a previous negative experience with the test. Another large study involving scanners with a shorter chamber and noise reduction found a significant reduction in claustrophobic reactions, but being female and middle-aged were still associated with a higher rate of claustrophobia. It has often been assumed that claustrophobia develops as a response to a traumatic experience, like being trapped in a closet as a child, but newer research suggests a genetic component. In one study in mice, a single defective gene was associated with claustrophobia. email@example.com © 2015 The New York Times Company