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By Kimberly G. Noble What if we could draw a line from key areas of a low-income child’s brain to a policy intervention that would dramatically reduce his or her chances of staying in poverty, dropping out of school and entering the criminal justice or social welfare system? Wouldn’t we want to make that policy prescription as widely available as any vaccination against childhood disease? Thanks to remarkable advances in neuroscience and the social sciences, we are closing in on this possibility. In a study published this year in Nature Neuroscience, several co-authors and I found that family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size — specifically, the surface area of the cerebral cortex, which is the outer layer of the brain that does most of the cognitive heavy lifting. Further, we found that increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children. Not surprisingly, our findings made many people uncomfortable. Some feared the study would be used to reinforce the notion that people remain in poverty because they are less capable than those with higher incomes. As neuroscientists, we interpret the results very differently. We know that the brain is most malleable in the early years of life and that experiences during that time have lifelong effects on the mind. Work by social scientists such as Sendhil Mullainathan at Harvard University and Eldar Shafir at Princeton University has shown that poverty depletes parents’ cognitive resources, leaving less capacity for making everyday decisions about parenting. These parents are also at far greater risk for depression and anxiety — poverty’s “mental tax.” All of this has important implications for children.
Archy de Berker and Sven Bestmann A great deal of excitement has been generated in recent weeks by a review paper examining the literature on the drug modafinil, which concluded that “modafinil may well deserve the title of the first well-validated pharmaceutical ‘nootropic’ [cognitive enhancing] agent”. Coverage in the Guardian, Telegraph, British Medical Journal, and the Independent all called attention to the work, with a press release from Oxford University trumpeting “Review of ‘smart drug’ shows modafinil does enhance cognition”. The paper in question is a well-written summary of the recent literature (although though it probably underestimates side effects, as pointed out in the British Medical Journal). A deeper problem is that reviews do not “show” anything. Reviews can be educational and informative, but that’s not the same as using all of the available data to test whether something works or not. Two different scientists can write reviews on the same topic and come to completely different conclusions. You can think of reviews as a watercolour painting of current knowledge. We sometimes forget that this is a far cry from a technical drawing, each element measured, quantified, and bearing a strict resemblance to reality. Scientists, and the public, trying to figure out what works face a tricky problem: there will often be many papers on a given topic, offering a variety of sometimes conflicting conclusions. Fortunately, we have a well-developed toolkit for assessing the state of the current literature and drawing conclusions from it. This procedure is called meta-analysis; it combines the available sources of data (e.g., published studies), and is extensively used to assess the efficacy of medical interventions. Initiatives such as the Cochrane Collaboration use meta-analyses to synthesize available evidence into a consensus on what works and what doesn’t. © 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited
By ANDREW POLLACK What could become the first gene therapy to win approval in the United States moved closer to market on Monday, when its developer announced that the medicine had succeeded in a late-stage clinical trial in treating an inherited eye disease that can cause blindness. The developer, Spark Therapeutics, said the treatment had allowed people with certain so-called inherited retinal dystrophies to more easily maneuver in dimmer light than they could before. The company said it planned to apply to the Food and Drug Administration next year for approval to sell the product. “We saw substantial restoration of vision in patients who were progressing toward complete blindness,” Dr. Albert M. Maguire, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania and a lead researcher in the study, said in a news release being issued by Spark. Dr. Katherine High, Spark’s president and chief scientific officer, said this was the first successful randomized, controlled trial for any gene therapy aimed at an inherited disease. “I’ve been working in gene therapy for most of my career,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming, and I’m delighted.” Besides encouraging the once beleaguered field of gene therapy, the results — if interpreted positively by investors — could help lift biotechnology stocks, which have been battered recently by concerns over a backlash against high drug prices. Still, much remains unknown. Spark did not provide the actual trial data, saying only that the treatment achieved the main goal of the study as well as two out of three of its secondary goals. It is also unclear what the F.D.A. will deem sufficient for approval of the product. Spark’s stock had slumped in the last two months as it changed how it would measure the results of the trial. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 21475 - Posted: 10.05.2015
Gareth Cook talks to Douwe Draaisma Much has been written on the wonders of human memory: its astounding feats of recall, the way memories shape our identities and are shaped by them, memory as a literary theme and a historical one. But what of forgetting? This is the topic of a new book by Douwe Draaisma, author of The Nostalgia Factory: Memory, Time and Ageing (Yale University Press, 2013; 176 pages) and a professor of the history of psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. In Forgetting: Myths, Perils and Compensations (Yale University Press, 2015; 288 pages), Draaisma considers dreaming, amnesia, dementia and all the ways in which our minds—and lives—are shaped by memory’s opposite. He answered questions from contributing editor Gareth Cook. What is your earliest memory, and why, do you suppose, have you not forgotten it? Quite a few early memories in the Netherlands involve bicycles; mine is no exception. I was two and a half years old when my aunts walked my mother to the train station. They had taken a bike to transport her bags. I was sitting on the back of the bike. Suddenly the whole procession came to a halt when my foot got caught between the spokes of a wheel. I am pretty sure this memory is accurate because I had to see a doctor, and there is a dated medical record. It is a brief, snapshotlike memory, black-and-white. I do not remember any pain, but I do remember the consternation among my mom and her sisters. Looking back on this memory from a professional perspective, I would say that it has the flashlike character typical for first memories from before age three; “later” first memories are usually a bit longer and more elaborate. © 2015 Scientific American
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 21474 - Posted: 10.05.2015
Carl Zimmer In recent years, a peculiar sort of public performance has taken place periodically on the sidewalks of Seattle. It begins with a woman named Kaeli N. Swift sprinkling peanuts and cheese puffs on the ground. Crows swoop in to feed on the snacks. While Ms. Swift observes the birds from a distance, notebook in hand, another person walks up to the birds, wearing a latex mask and a sign that reads “UW CROW STUDY.” In the accomplice’s hands is a taxidermied crow, presented like a tray of hors d’oeuvres. This performance is not surreal street theater, but an experiment designed to explore a deep biological question: What do crows understand about death? Ms. Swift has been running this experiment as part of her doctoral research at the University of Washington, under the guidance of John M. Marzluff, a biologist. Dr. Marzluff and other experts on crow behavior have long been intrigued by the way the birds seem to congregate noisily around dead comrades. Dr. Marzluff has witnessed these gatherings many times himself, and has heard similar stories from other people. “Whenever I give a talk about crows, there’s always someone who says, ‘Well, what about this?’ ” he said. Dr. Marzluff and Ms. Swift decided to bring some scientific rigor to these stories. They wanted to determine whether a dead crow really does trigger a distinctive response from living crows and, if so, what the purpose of the large, noisy gatherings might be. To run the experiment, Ms. Swift began by delivering food to a particular spot each day, so that the crows learned to congregate there to eat. Then one of her volunteers would approach the feast with a dead crow, and Ms. Swift observed how the birds reacted. © 2015 The New York Times Company
By Margaret M. McCarthy “We have raised our children in a gender-neutral household since the day they were born, and we never allowed any sort of weapons, not even a water pistol,” a young mother told me emphatically from the microphone in the lecture hall where I’d just given a talk on the differences between male and female brains. “But the other day my seven-year-old son bit his peanut butter and jelly sandwich into the shape of a gun and started shooting his little sister with it!” The audience laughed appreciatively; everyone had a similar story. “What did we do wrong?” she pleaded. This story is a common refrain I hear when discussing my research on sex differences in the brain. There is no single correct answer when it comes to human behavior. Some researchers would insist that there is nothing parents can do to suppress the innate tendencies of boys to gravitate to guns and trucks while girls prefer dolls and tea sets. Others would disagree, arguing that there is no inherent biological difference between the brains of boys and girls. Rather, it is the parents’ own implicit biases and those of society at large that influence their children to behave in gender-typical ways. In the end, my response is that sex differences in the brain are more than some would like and less than others believe. Just how large those differences are, however, is the crux of an ongoing debate in science. And how much a brain’s function can be attributed to biology versus cultural expectations is a challenging question to answer. Confounding the issue is the concept of gender, a purely human construct that can itself influence brain development. Gender refers to both personal and societal perceptions of one’s sex, and embodies all the complexities of cultural expectations, inherent biases, and predetermined norms of behavior, each of which differs for boys and girls and can affect the young brain. © 1986-2015 The Scientist
Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 21472 - Posted: 10.03.2015
By Emily Underwood WASHINGTON, D.C.—As part of President Barack Obama’s high-profile initiative to study the brain, the Kavli Foundation and several university partners today announced $100 million in new funding for neuroscience research, including three new institutes at universities in Maryland, New York, and California. Each of the institutes will receive a $20 million endowment, provided equally by their universities and the foundation, along with start-up funding to pursue projects in areas such as brain plasticity and tool development. The new funding, geared at providing stable support for high-risk, interdisciplinary research, exceeds the original commitment of $40 million that the Kavli Foundation made to the national Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, when it was first launched by President Obama in 2013. The funds are also unrestricted, allowing each institute to determine which projects to pursue. “That’s the most precious money any scientist can have,” Robert Conn, president and CEO of The Kavli Foundation, noted at a meeting today on Capitol Hill. Neuroscientist Loren Frank, who will serve as co-director at the new institute at the University of California, San Francisco, says the funds will allow his lab to explore fundamental questions such as how the brain can maintain its function despite constant change, and to form interdisciplinary partnerships with labs such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The other two sites creating new institutes are Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and Rockefeller University in New York City. In addition, Kavli announced a $40 million boost for four of its existing neuroscience institutes, located at Yale University, UC San Diego, Columbia University, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 21471 - Posted: 10.03.2015
By Steve Mirsky Harvard neuroscientist Beth Stevens, talking about glia cells, which make up more than half the human brain. This week Stevens got a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant, for her studies of glia. “These cells are incredibly responsive to damage or injury. They can protect our brain by, for example, clearing bacteria or debris in the brain in the case of injury and disease… “Until about 10 years ago, almost all of the research devoted to these cells was in these contexts. We discovered that there was another role for these cells in the normal healthy brain, in particular during development… “So a synapse is the junction of communication between two neurons, it’s how neurons talk to each other…we’re actually born with an excess of synaptic connections…and through this normal developmental process called pruning, a large number of these extra synapses get permanently removed or eliminated while others get strengthened and maintained. These microglial cells were in fact engulfing or eating these extra synapses. So these cells are necessary to do this and now of course we’re trying to better understand how it is that they know which synapse to prune and which synapse to leave alone. “A hallmark of many neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, is the early loss of synaptic connections or synapses…And what’s most striking about this is, it’s thought that the synapse loss happens years before you see signs of cognitive impairment or pathology. © 2015 Scientific American
By Lisa Sanders, M.d. On Thursday we challenged Well readers to solve the case of a 27-year-old woman who had vomiting, weakness and confusion months after having weight loss surgery. More than 200 readers offered their perspective on the case. Most of you recognized it as a nutritional deficiency, and nearly half of you totally nailed it. The diagnosis is: Wernicke’s encephalopathy due to thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. The very first reader to post a comment, Dr. Adrian Budhram, figured it out. His answer landed on our doorstep just five minutes after the case went up. Dr. Budhram is a second year neurology resident at Western University in London, Ontario. He says that Wernicke’s is on the list of diseases he thinks about every time someone is brought to the hospital because they are confused. Thiamine, or vitamin B1, is a nutrient essential for the body to break down and use sugars and proteins. It is found in many foods, including beans, brown rice, pork and cereals. Although the body only stores enough of the vitamin to last three to four weeks, deficiencies are rare when a full and varied diet is available. Diseases caused by a thiamine deficiency were described in Chinese medicine as early as 2600 B.C. – well before the vitamin was identified chemically. Western medicine came to know the disease as beriberi – a Sinhalese term meaning weak (apparently from the phrase “I can’t, I can’t”) characterized by either numbness and weakness in the legs (dry beriberi) or a weakened heart leading to hugely swollen legs (wet beriberi). © 2015 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 21469 - Posted: 10.03.2015
Joe Palca Mothers have been warned for years that sleeping with their newborn infant is a bad idea because it increases the risk the baby might die unexpectedly during the night. But now Israeli researchers are reporting that even sleeping in the same room can have negative consequences: not for the child, but for the mother. Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev wanted to see whether sleeping in the same room as their newborn affected mothers' or babies' sleep. The short answer: It did, and the effect wasn't good for moms. The researchers recruited 153 married couples expecting their first child to participate in the study. The new parents weren't told where or how to sleep. They were simply asked to record whether they slept in the same room as their newborn, the same bed and same room, or if the child slept in another room. To measure sleep patterns, both mom and baby wore wristbands designed to measure movement during the night, a measurement that gives a pretty accurate indication of sleep patterns for both mother and child. The researchers measured sleep patterns before the babies were born, at 3 months and at 6 months. Mothers who slept in the same room as their infants, whether in the same bed or just the same room, had poorer sleep than mothers whose babies slept elsewhere in the house: They woke up more frequently (approximately three times per night versus two), were awake approximately 20 minutes longer per night, and had shorter periods of uninterrupted sleep (approximately 136 minutes versus 166 minutes). These results held true even taking into account that many of the women in the study were breast-feeding their babies. © 2015 NPR
Link ID: 21468 - Posted: 10.03.2015
By Kelli Whitlock Burton They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But whether the beholder’s opinion is a product of one's genes or one's environment has long been a question for scientists. Although some research suggests that a preference for certain physical traits, such as height or muscular build, may be encoded in our genes, a new study finds it’s our individual life experiences that lead us to find one face more attractive than another. To get some closure on the nature versus nurture debate in human aesthetics, researchers asked 547 pairs of identical twins and 214 pairs of same-gender fraternal twins to view 200 faces and rate them on a scale of one to seven, with one being the least attractive and seven the most attractive. A group of 660 nontwins then completed the same survey. If genes were more involved in facial preference, identical twins would have had similar ratings; if the influence of a familial environment carried more weight, fraternal twins would have also answered similarly. However, most twins’ scores were quite different from one another, suggesting that something else was at play. The researchers suspect that it’s an individual’s life experiences that guide our opinions of attractiveness. The findings, reported today in Current Biology, build on earlier work by the same team that shows the ability to recognize faces is largely a genetic trait. The research is ongoing, and you can participate, too. Just complete the facial preference survey through the researchers’ website at: www.TestMyBrain.org. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
By Jon Cohen A virus that long ago spliced itself into the human genome may play a role in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the deadly muscle degenerative disease that crippled baseball great Lou Gehrig and ultimately took his life. That’s the controversial conclusion of a new study, which finds elevated levels of human endogenous retrovirus K (HERV-K) in the brains of 11 people who died from the disease. “This certainly is interesting and provocative work,” says Raymond Roos, a neurologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois who treats and studies ALS but who was not involved with the finding. Still, even the scientists behind the work caution that more research is needed to confirm the link. “I’m very careful to say HERV-K doesn’t cause the disease but may play a role in the pathophysiology,” says study leader Avindra Nath, a neuroimmunologist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland. “The darn thing is in the chromosomes to begin with. It’s going to be very hard to prove causation.” It was another retrovirus, HIV, that led Nath to first suspect a connection between viruses and ALS. In 2006, he was helping a patient control his HIV infection with antiretroviral drugs when he noticed that the man’s ALS also improved. “That intrigued me, and I looked in the ALS literature and saw that people had reported they could see reverse transcriptase in the blood.” Reverse transcriptase, an enzyme that converts RNA to DNA, is a hallmark of retroviruses, which use it to insert copies of their genes into chromosomes of their hosts. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Music can be a transformative experience, especially for your brain. Musicians’ brains respond more symmetrically to the music they listen to. And the size of the effect depends on which instrument they play. People who learn to play musical instruments can expect their brains to change in structure and function. When people are taught to play a piece of piano music, for example, the part of their brains that represents their finger movements gets bigger. Musicians are also better at identifying pitch and speech sounds – brain imaging studies suggest that this is because their brains respond more quickly and strongly to sound. Other research has found that the corpus callosum – the strip of tissue that connects the left and right hemisphere of the brain – is also larger in musicians. Might this mean that the two halves of a musician’s brain are better at communicating with each other compared with non-musicians? To find out, Iballa Burunat at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland and her colleagues used an fMRI scanner to look at the brains of 18 musicians and 18 people who have never played professionally. The professional musicians – all of whom had a degree in music – included cellists, violinists, keyboardists and bassoon and trombone players. While they were in the scanner, all of the participants were played three different pieces of music – prog rock, an Argentinian tango and some Stravinsky. Burunat recorded how their brains responded to the music, and used software to compare the activity of the left and right hemispheres of each person’s brain. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By BENEDICT CAREY Medical literature has overstated the benefits of talk therapy for depression, in part because studies with poor results have rarely made it into journals, researchers reported Wednesday. Their analysis is the first effort to account for unpublished tests of such therapies. Treatments like cognitive behavior therapy and interpersonal therapy are indeed effective, the analysis found, but about 25 percent less so than previously thought. Doctors have long known that journal articles exaggerate the benefits of antidepressant drugs by about the same amount, and partly for the same reason — a publication bias in favor of encouraging findings. The new review, in the journal PLOS One, should give doctors and patients a better sense of what to expect from various forms of talk therapy, experts said, if not settle long-running debates in psychiatry about the relative merits of one treatment over another. Five million to six million Americans receive psychotherapy for depression each year, and many of them also take antidepressant drugs, surveys find. Most people find some relief by simply consulting a doctor regularly about the problem, experts said. Engaging in a course of well-tested psychotherapy, according to the new analysis, gives them an added 20 percent chance of achieving an even more satisfying improvement, or lasting recovery. Before accounting for the unpublished research, that figure was closer to 30 percent, a difference that suggests that hundreds of thousands of patients are less likely to benefit. The new paper is the latest chapter in a broad retrenchment across science in which researchers are scrutinizing past results to weed out publication bias and other, more deliberate statistical manipulations. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 21464 - Posted: 10.01.2015
James Hamblin Mental exercises to build (or rebuild) attention span have shown promise recently as adjuncts or alternatives to amphetamines in addressing symptoms common to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Building cognitive control, to be better able to focus on just one thing, or single-task, might involve regular practice with a specialized video game that reinforces "top-down" cognitive modulation, as was the case in a popular paper in Nature last year. Cool but still notional. More insipid but also more clearly critical to addressing what's being called the ADHD epidemic is plain old physical activity. This morning the medical journal Pediatrics published research that found kids who took part in a regular physical activity program showed important enhancement of cognitive performance and brain function. The findings, according to University of Illinois professor Charles Hillman and colleagues, "demonstrate a causal effect of a physical program on executive control, and provide support for physical activity for improving childhood cognition and brain health." If it seems odd that this is something that still needs support, that's because it is odd, yes. Physical activity is clearly a high, high-yield investment for all kids, but especially those attentive or hyperactive. This brand of research is still published and written about as though it were a novel finding, in part because exercise programs for kids remain underfunded and underprioritized in many school curricula, even though exercise is clearly integral to maximizing the utility of time spent in class.
By Nicholas Bakalar Breast-feeding has many benefits, but a new study suggests that it has no effect on a child’s IQ from toddlerhood through adolescence. The idea that breast-feeding might have an effect on cognition is plausible, since long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are important in neurological development, are more plentiful in breast-fed babies. British researchers studied 11,582 children born between 1994 and 1996. About two-thirds were breast-fed, for an average of four months. They followed them through age 16 and administered nine intelligence tests at regular intervals over the years. The study is in PLOS One. After controlling for parental education, maternal age, socioeconomic status and other variables, they found that girls who had been breast-fed had a weak but statistically insignificant advantage in early life over those who had not been, but the effect was not apparent in boys. Breast-feeding was not associated with gains in IQ through adolescence for either girls or boys. The lead author, Sophie von Stumm, a senior lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths University of London, said that mothers who do not breast-feed are sometimes criticized. “It’s almost an accusation these days,” she said, “that you’re purposely harming your child. That’s not the case, and it’s not helpful for new mothers. Kids do lots of things that have an influence on IQ. Breast-feeding has no effect that can be distinguished from family background or socioeconomic status.” © 2015 The New York Times Company
Are you good at picking someone out of a crowd? Most of us are better at recognising faces than distinguishing between other similar objects, so it’s long been suspected there’s something mysterious about the way the brain processes a face. Now further evidence has emerged that this is a special, highly evolved skill. A study of twins suggests there are genes influencing face recognition abilities that are distinct from the ones affecting intelligence – so it’s not that people who are good with faces just have a better memory, for instance. “The idea is that telling friend from foe was so important to survival that there was very strong pressure to improve that trait,” says Nicholas Shakeshaft of King’s College London. Previous studies using brain scanning have suggested there is a part of the brain dedicated to recognising faces, called the fusiform face area. But others have suggested this region may in fact just be used for discriminating between any familiar objects. Wondering if genetics could shed any light, Shakeshaft’s team tested more than 900 sets of UK twins – including both identical and non-identical pairs – on their face recognition skills. The ability turned out to be highly heritable, with identical twins having more similar abilities than fraternal ones. The same went for intelligence, which had earlier been tested as part of a long-running study. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Allison Aubrey We might not be able to remember every stressful episode of our childhood. But the emotional upheaval we experience as kids — whether it's the loss of a loved one, the chronic stress of economic insecurity, or social interactions that leave us tearful or anxious — may have a lifelong impact on our health. In fact, a study published this week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology indicates that emotional distress during childhood — even in the absence of high stress during adult years — can increase the risk of developing heart disease and metabolic disorders such as diabetes in adulthood. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Shots - Health News Take The ACE Quiz — And Learn What It Does And Doesn't Mean "We know that the childhood period is really important for setting up trajectories of health and well-being," explains Ashley Winning, an author of the study and postdoctoral research fellow in social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. To assess the connection between childhood stress and the risk of disease, Winning and her colleagues analyzed data from the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study, a long-running study that documented the diets, habits and emotional health of thousands of British children born during the same week that year. As the children entered school, the classroom became the laboratory for observation. © 2015 NPR
By Nicholas Bakalar Agitation and aggression are common in Alzheimer’s patients, and there is no known safe and effective treatment. Now researchers report that a combination drug already in use for treating certain neurological problems may be a better remedy. Dextromethorphan is a cough suppressant commonly found in over-the-counter cough medicines, and quinidine is a drug used to control heart rhythm disorders. In combination, they are used to treat certain neurological disorders involving involuntary movement of the facial muscles. The scientists randomized 152 Alzheimer’s patients to a 10-week course of dextromethorphan-quinidine and 127 to placebo. Researchers then rated them using a well-validated scale that measures aggression and agitation. The study is in the Sept. 22 issue of JAMA. Aggression scores declined to 3.8 from 7.1 in the dextromethorphan-quinidine group and to 5.3 from 7.0 in those who took a placebo. Then the researchers re-randomized those who did not respond to placebo to receive either drugs or placebo, and found similar encouraging results for the drug combination. “Fifty-five percent of the people who were on drugs had a 50 percent reduction in their agitation,” said the lead author, Dr. Jeffrey L. Cummings, director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. “That’s a lot when a patient is striking and hitting and cussing. There are no currently approved treatments for agitation, and we’re very enthusiastic about this finding.” © 2015 The New York Times Company
By Sarah C. P. Williams Looking at photos of starving refugees or earthquake victims can trigger a visceral sense of empathy. But how, exactly, do we feel others’ agony as our own? A new study suggests that seeing others in pain engages some of the same neural pathways as when we ourselves are in pain. Moreover, both pain and empathy can be reduced by a placebo effect that acts on the same pathways as opioid painkillers, the researchers found. “This study provides one of the most direct demonstrations to date that first-hand pain and pain empathy are functionally related,” says neurobiologist Bernadette Fitzgibbon of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, who was not involved in the new research. “It’s very exciting.” Previous studies have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to show that similar areas of the brain are activated when someone is in pain and when they see another person in pain. But overlaps on a brain scan don’t necessarily mean the two function through identical pathways—the shared brain areas could relate to attention or emotional arousal, among other things, rather than pain itself. Social neuroscientist Claus Lamm and colleagues at the University of Vienna took a different approach to test whether pain and empathy are driven by the same pathways. The researchers first divided about 100 people into control or placebo groups. They gave the placebo group a pill they claimed to be an expensive, over-the-counter painkiller, when in fact it was inactive. This well-established placebo protocol is known to function similarly to opioid painkillers, while avoiding the drugs’ side effects. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science.