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By Neuroskeptic We’ve learned this week that computers can play Go. But at least there’s one human activity they will never master: neuroscience. A computer will never be a neuroscientist. Except… hang on. A new paper just out in Neuroimage describes something called The Automatic Neuroscientist. Oh. So what is this new neuro-robot? According to its inventors, Romy Lorenz and colleagues of Imperial College London, it’s a framework for using “real-time fMRI in combination with modern machine-learning techniques to automatically design the optimal experiment to evoke a desired target brain state.” It works like this. You put someone in an MRI scanner and start an fMRI sequence to record their brain activity. The Automatic Neuroscientist (TAN) shows them a series of different stimuli (e.g. images or sounds) and measures the neural responses. It then learns which stimuli activate different parts of the brain, and works out the best stimuli in order to elicit a particular target pattern of brain activity (which is specified at the outset.) This is not an entirely new idea as Lorenz et al. acknowledge, but they say that theirs is the first general framework. Lorenz et al. conducted a proof-of-concept study in which they asked TAN to maximize the difference in brain activity between the lateral occipital cortex (LOC) and superior temporal cortex, by presenting visual and auditory stimuli of varying levels of complexity.
By Simon Makin Multi-color image of whole brain for brain imaging research. This image was created using a computer image processing program (called SUMA), which is used to make sense of data generated by functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health Understanding how brains work is one of the greatest scientific challenges of our times, but despite the impression sometimes given in the popular press, researchers are still a long way from some basic levels of understanding. A project recently funded by the Obama administration's BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative is one of several approaches promising to deliver novel insights by developing new tools that involves a marriage of nanotechnology and optics. There are close to 100 billion neurons in the human brain. Researchers know a lot about how these individual cells behave, primarily through “electrophysiology,” which involves sticking fine electrodes into cells to record their electrical activity. We also know a fair amount about the gross organization of the brain into partially specialized anatomical regions, thanks to whole-brain imaging technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measure how blood oxygen levels change as regions that work harder demand more oxygen to fuel metabolism. We know little, however, about how the brain is organized into distributed “circuits” that underlie faculties like, memory or perception. And we know even less about how, or even if, cells are arranged into “local processors” that might act as components in such networks. © 2016 Scientific American
Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 21840 - Posted: 02.01.2016
By CHARLES SIEBERT Nearly 30 years ago, Lilly Love lost her way. She had just completed her five-year tour of duty as an Alaska-based Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmer, one of an elite team of specialists who are lowered into rough, frigid seas to save foundering fishermen working in dangerous conditions. The day after she left active service, the helicopter she had flown in for the previous three years crashed in severe weather into the side of a mountain, killing six of her former crewmates. Devastated by the loss and overcome with guilt, Love chose as her penance to become one of the very fishermen she spent much of her time in the Coast Guard rescuing. In less than a year on the job, she nearly drowned twice after being dragged overboard in high seas by the hooks of heavy fishing lines. Love would not formally receive a diagnosis of severe post-traumatic stress disorder for another 15 years. In that time, she was married and divorced three times, came out as transgender and retreated periodically to Yelapa, Mexico, where she lived in an isolated cabin accessible only by water. She eventually ended up living on a boat in a Los Angeles marina, drinking heavily and taking an array of psychotropic drugs that doctors at the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Medical Center began to prescribe with increasing frequency as Love proved resistant to traditional treatments like counseling and group therapy. One night, after her fifth stay in the center’s psych ward, she crashed her boat into a sea wall. Finally, in 2006, she was in the veterans’ garden and happened to catch sight of the parrots being housed in an unusual facility that opened a year earlier on the grounds of the center. ‘‘This place is why I’m still here,’’ Love, now 54, told me one day last summer as I watched her undergo one of her daily therapy sessions at the facility, known as Serenity Park, a name that would seem an utter anomaly to anyone who has ever been within 200 yards of the place. © 2016 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 21839 - Posted: 01.30.2016
By Mitch Leslie Identical twins may be alike in everything from their eye color to their favorite foods, but they can diverge in one important characteristic: their weight. A new study uncovers a molecular mechanism for obesity that might explain why one twin can be extremely overweight even while the other is thin. Heredity influences whether we become obese, but the genes researchers have linked to the condition don’t explain many of the differences in weight among people. Identical twins with nonidentical weights are a prime example. So what accounts for the variation? Changes in the intestinal microbiome—the collection of bacteria living in the gut—are one possibility. Another is epigenetic changes, or alterations in gene activity. These changes occur when molecules latch on to DNA or the proteins it wraps around, turning sets of genes “on” or “off.” Triggered by factors in the environment, epigenetic modifications can be passed down from one generation to the next. This type of transmission happened during the Hunger Winter, a famine that occurred when the Germans cut off food supplies to parts of the Netherlands in the final months of World War II. Mothers who were pregnant during the famine gave birth to children who were prone to obesity decades later, suggesting that the mothers’ diets had a lasting impact on their kids’ metabolism. However, which epigenetic changes in people promote obesity remains unclear. © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Haroon Siddique Exercise alone is not enough to lose weight because our bodies reach a plateau where working out more does not necessarily burn extra calories, researchers have found. The team are the latest to challenge obesity prevention strategies that recommend increasing daily physical activity as a way to shed the pounds. In a study, published in Current Biology on Thursday, they suggest that there might be a physical activity “sweet spot”, whereby too little can make one unhealthy but too much drives the body to make big adjustments to adapt, thus constraining total energy expenditure. If true, it would go some way to explaining an apparent contradiction between two types of study carried out by researchers. On the one hand, there are studies which show that increasing exercise levels tends to lead to people expending more energy and on the other, there are ecological studies in humans and animals showing that more active populations (for example hunter-gatherers in Africa) do not have higher total energy expenditure. Prof Herman Pontzer of City University of New York (CUNY), one of the new study’s authors, said: “Exercise is really important for your health. That’s the first thing I mention to anyone asking about the implications of this work for exercise. There is tons of evidence that exercise is important for keeping our bodies and minds healthy, and this work does nothing to change that message. What our work adds is that we also need to focus on diet, particularly when it comes to managing our weight and preventing or reversing unhealthy weight gain.” © 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited
Link ID: 21837 - Posted: 01.30.2016
by Helen Thompson Octopus emotions may run skin deep, researchers report January 28 in Current Biology. Changes in octopus skin color primarily function as camouflage, though some evidence points to other purposes. Biologists from Australia and the United States spied on shallow-water octopuses (Octopus tetricus, also known as the gloomy octopus) feeding in Jervis Bay, Australia. Sifting through 52 hours of footage, they saw that the animals adopted a darker hue, stood tall and spread their arms and web when being aggressive or intimidating. Other members of the same species either responded in kind and fought or turned a pale color before swimming away. Skin color changes appear to serve as a form of communication in these conflicts — the first evidence of such an octopus communication system at play in the wild, the researchers assert. The work also challenges the stereotype that octopuses are solitary and antisocial. In Jervis Bay, Australia, a gloomy octopus (Octopus tetricus) displays aggressive behaviors: dark skin color, elevated mantle and spread web. Another octopus approaches and reacts by changing its skin to a pale color before swimming away to avoid conflict. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016
Link ID: 21836 - Posted: 01.30.2016
By BENEDICT CAREY Scientists reported on Wednesday that they had taken a significant step toward understanding the cause of schizophrenia, in a landmark study that provides the first rigorously tested insight into the biology behind any common psychiatric disorder. More than two million Americans have a diagnosis of schizophrenia, which is characterized by delusional thinking and hallucinations. The drugs available to treat it blunt some of its symptoms but do not touch the underlying cause. The finding, published in the journal Nature, will not lead to new treatments soon, experts said, nor to widely available testing for individual risk. But the results provide researchers with their first biological handle on an ancient disorder whose cause has confounded modern science for generations. The finding also helps explain some other mysteries, including why the disorder often begins in adolescence or young adulthood. “They did a phenomenal job,” said David B. Goldstein, a professor of genetics at Columbia University who has been critical of previous large-scale projects focused on the genetics of psychiatric disorders. “This paper gives us a foothold, something we can work on, and that’s what we’ve been looking for now, for a long, long time.” The researchers pieced together the steps by which genes can increase a person’s risk of developing schizophrenia. That risk, they found, is tied to a natural process called synaptic pruning, in which the brain sheds weak or redundant connections between neurons as it matures. During adolescence and early adulthood, this activity takes place primarily in the section of the brain where thinking and planning skills are centered, known as the prefrontal cortex. People who carry genes that accelerate or intensify that pruning are at higher risk of developing schizophrenia than those who do not, the new study suggests. Some researchers had suspected that the pruning must somehow go awry in people with schizophrenia, because previous studies showed that their prefrontal areas tended to have a diminished number of neural connections, compared with those of unaffected people. © 2016 The New York Times Company
Angus Chen When she was 22, Rachel Star Withers uploaded a video to YouTube called "Normal: Living With Schizophrenia." It starts with her striding across her family's property in Fort Mill, S.C. She looks across the rolling grounds, unsmiling. Her eyes are narrow and grim. She sits down in front of a deserted white cottage and starts sharing. "I see monsters. I see myself chopped up and bloody a lot. Sometimes I'll be walking, and the whole room will just tilt. Like this," she grasps the camera and jerks the frame crooked. She surfaces a fleeting grin. "Try and imagine walking." She becomes serious again. "I'm making this because I don't want you to feel alone whether you're struggling with any kind of mental illness or just struggling." At the time, 2008, there were very few people who had done anything like this online. "As I got diagnosed [with schizophrenia], I started researching everything. The only stuff I could find was like every horror movie," she says. "I felt so alone for years." She decided that schizophrenia was really not that scary. "I want people to find me and see a real person." Over the past eight years, she has made 53 videos documenting her journey with schizophrenia and depression and her therapy. And she is not the only one. There are hundreds of videos online of people publicly sharing their experiences with mental illness. © 2016 npr
Link ID: 21834 - Posted: 01.28.2016
Heidi Ledford Addie plays hard for an 11-year-old greater Swiss mountain dog — she will occasionally ignore her advanced years to hurl her 37-kilogram body at an unwitting house guest in greeting. But she carries a mysterious burden: when she was 18 months old, she started licking her front legs aggressively enough to wear off patches of fur and draw blood. Addie has canine compulsive disorder — a condition that is thought to be similar to human obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD). Canine compulsive disorder can cause dogs to chase their tails for hours on end, or to suck on a toy or body part so compulsively that it interferes with their eating or sleeping. Addie may soon help researchers to determine why some dogs are more prone to the disorder than others. Her owner, Marjie Alonso of Somerville, Massachusetts, has enrolled her in a project called Darwin’s Dogs, which aims to compare information about the behaviour of thousands of dogs against the animals’ DNA profiles. The hope is that genetic links will emerge to conditions such as canine compulsive disorder and canine cognitive dysfunction — a dog analogue of dementia and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. The project organizers have enrolled 3,000 dogs so far, but hope to gather data from at least 5,000, and they expect to begin analysing DNA samples in March. “It’s very exciting, and in many ways it’s way overdue,” says Clive Wynne, who studies canine behaviour at Arizona State University in Tempe. © 2016 Nature Publishing Group,
By Katy Waldman On May 10, 1915, renowned poet-cum-cranky-recluse Robert Frost gave a lecture to a group of schoolboys in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Sounds in the mouths of men,” he told his audience, “I have found to be the basis of all effective expression.” Frost spent his career courting “the imagining ear”—that faculty of the reader that assigns to each sentence a melodic shape, one captured from life and tailored to a specific emotion. In letters and interviews, he’d use the example of “two people who are talking on the other side of a closed door, whose voices can be heard but whose words cannot be distinguished. Even though the words do not carry, the sound of them does, and the listener can catch the meaning of the conversation. This is because every meaning has a particular sound-posture.” Frost’s preoccupation with the music of speech—with what we might call “tone of voice,” or the rise and fall of vocal pitch, intensity, and duration—has become a scientific field. Frost once wrote his friend John Freeman that this quality “is the unbroken flow on which [the semantic meanings of words] are carried along like sticks and leaves and flowers.” Neuroimaging bears him out, revealing that our brains process speech tempo, intonation, and dynamics more quickly than they do linguistic content. (Which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise: We vocalized at each other for millions of years before inventing symbolic language.) Psychologists distinguish between the verbal channel—which uses word definitions to deliver meaning—and the vocal channel—which conveys emotion through subtle aural cues. The embedding of feelings in speech is called “emotional prosody,” and it’s no accident that the term prosody (“patterns of rhythm or sound”) originally belonged to poetry, which seeks multiple avenues of communication, direct and indirect. Frost believed that you could reverse-engineer vocal tones into written language, ordering words in ways that stimulated the imagining ear to hear precise slants of pitch. He went so far as to propose that sentences are “a notation for indicating tones of voice,” which “fly round” like “living things.”
By Ellen Hendriksen This topic comes by request on the Savvy Psychologist Facebook page from listener Anita M. of Detroit. Anita works with foster kids and, too often, sees disadvantaged kids who have been on a cocktail of psychiatric medications from as early as age 6. She asks, does such early use alter a child’s brain or body? And have the effects of lifelong psychiatric medication been studied? Childhood mental illness (and resulting medication) is equally overblown and under-recognized. Approximately 21% of American kids - that’s 1 in 5 - will battle a diagnosable mental illness before they reach the age of 17, whether or not they actually get treatment. The problem is anything but simple. Some childhood illnesses - ADHD and autism, for example - often get misused as “grab-bag” diagnoses when something’s wrong but no one knows what. This leads to overdiagnosis and sometimes, overmedicating. Other illnesses, like substance abuse, get overlooked or written off as rebellion or experimentation, leading to underdiagnosis and kids slipping through the cracks. But the most common problem is inconsistent diagnosis. For example, a 2008 study found that fewer than half of individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder actually had the illness, while 5% of those diagnosed with something completely different actually had bipolar disorder. But let’s get back to Anita’s questions: Does early psychotropic medication alter a child’s brain? The short answer is yes, but the long answer might be different than you think. © 2016 Scientific American
By David Shultz Is my yellow the same as your yellow? Does your pain feel like my pain? The question of whether the human consciousness is subjective or objective is largely philosophical. But the line between consciousness and unconsciousness is a bit easier to measure. In a new study of how anesthetic drugs affect the brain, researchers suggest that our experience of reality is the product of a delicate balance of connectivity between neurons—too much or too little and consciousness slips away. “It’s a very nice study,” says neuroscientist Melanie Boly at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who was not involved in the work. “The conclusions that they draw are justified.” Previous studies of the brain have revealed the importance of “cortical integration” in maintaining consciousness, meaning that the brain must process and combine multiple inputs from different senses at once. Our experience of an orange, for example, is made up of sight, smell, taste, touch, and the recollection of our previous experiences with the fruit. The brain merges all of these inputs—photons, aromatic molecules, etc.—into our subjective experience of the object in that moment. “There is new meaning created by the interaction of things,” says Enzo Tagliazucchi, a physicist at the Institute for Medical Psychology in Kiel, Germany. Consciousness ascribes meaning to the pattern of photons hitting your retina, thus differentiating you from a digital camera. Although the brain still receives these data when we lose consciousness, no coherent sense of reality can be assembled. © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Link ID: 21830 - Posted: 01.27.2016
By PAM BELLUCK Women should be screened for depression during pregnancy and after giving birth, an influential government-appointed health panel said Tuesday, the first time it has recommended screening for maternal mental illness. The recommendation, expected to galvanize many more health providers to provide screening, comes in the wake of new evidence that maternal mental illness is more common than previously thought; that many cases of what has been called postpartum depression actually start during pregnancy; and that left untreated, these mood disorders can be detrimental to the well-being of children. It also follows growing efforts by states, medical organizations and health advocates to help women having these symptoms — an estimated one in seven postpartum mothers, some experts say. “There’s better evidence for identifying and treating women with depression” during and after pregnancy, said Dr. Michael Pignone, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an author of the recommendation, which was issued by the United States Preventive Services Task Force. As a result, he said, “we specifically called out the need for screening during this period.” Answers to questions about depression screening and maternal mental illness, following new recommendations saying that women should be screened for depression during pregnancy and after childbirth. The recommendation was part of updated depression screening guidelines issued by the panel, an independent group of experts appointed by the Department of Health and Human Services. In 2009, the group said adults should be screened if clinicians had the staff to provide support and treatment; the new guidelines recommend adult screening even without such staff members, saying mental health support is now more widely available. The 2009 guidelines did not mention depression during or after pregnancy. © 2016 The New York Times Company
Nell Greenfieldboyce The state of New Jersey has been trying to help jurors better assess the reliability of eyewitness testimony, but a recent study suggests that the effort may be having unintended consequences. That's because a new set of instructions read to jurors by a judge seems to make them skeptical of all eyewitness testimony — even testimony that should be considered reasonably reliable. Back in 2012, New Jersey's Supreme Court did something groundbreaking. It said that in cases that involve eyewitness testimony, judges must give jurors a special set of instructions. The instructions are basically a tutorial on what scientific research has learned about eyewitness testimony and the factors that can make it more dependable or less so. "The hope with this was that jurors would then be able to tell what eyewitness testimony was trustworthy, what sort wasn't, and at the end of the day it would lead to better decisions, better court outcomes, better justice," says psychologist David Yokum. Yokum was a graduate student at the University of Arizona, doing research on decision-making, when he and two colleagues, Athan Papailiou and Christopher Robertson, decided to test the effect of these new jury instructions, using videos of a mock trial that they showed to volunteers. © 2016 npr
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 21828 - Posted: 01.27.2016
Jim Pfaus Self-labeled sex addicts often speak about their identities very clinically, as if they’re paralyzed by a scientific condition that functions the same way as drug and alcohol addiction. But sex and porn “addiction” are NOT the same as alcoholism or a cocaine habit. In fact, hypersexuality and porn obsessions are not addictions at all. They’re not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and by definition, they don’t constitute what most researchers understand to be addiction. Here’s why: addicts withdraw. When you lock a dope fiend in a room without any dope, the lack of drugs will cause an immediate physiological response — some of which is visible, some of which we can only track from within the body. During withdrawal, the brains of addicts create junctions between nerve cells containing the neurotransmitter GABA. This process more or less inhibits the brain systems usually excited by drug-related cues — something we never see in the brains of so-called sex and porn addicts. A sex addict without sex is much more like a teenager without their smartphone. Imagine a kid playing Angry Birds. He seems obsessed, but once the game is off and it’s time for dinner, he unplugs. He might wish he was still playing, but he doesn’t get the shakes at the dinner table. There’s nothing going on in his brain that creates an uncontrollable imbalance.
By Jane E. Brody. About 15 years ago, I was invited to join a knitting group. My reluctant response — “When would I do that?” — was rejoined with “Monday afternoons at 4,” at a friend’s home not three minutes’ walk from my own. I agreed to give it a try. My mother had taught me to knit at 15, and I knitted in class throughout college and for a few years thereafter. Then decades passed without my touching a knitting needle. But within two Mondays in the group, I was hooked, not only on knitting but also on crocheting, and I was on my way to becoming a highly productive crafter. I’ve made countless afghans, baby blankets, sweaters, vests, shawls, scarves, hats, mittens, caps for newborns and two bedspreads. I take a yarn project with me everywhere, especially when I have to sit still and listen. As I’d discovered in college, when my hands are busy, my mind stays focused on the here and now. It seems, too, that I’m part of a national resurgence of interest in needle and other handicrafts, and not just among old grannies like me. The Craft Yarn Council reports that a third of women ages 25 to 35 now knit or crochet. Even men and schoolchildren are swelling the ranks, among them my friend’s three grandsons, ages 6, 7 and 9. Last April, the council created a “Stitch Away Stress” campaign in honor of National Stress Awareness Month. Dr. Herbert Benson, a pioneer in mind/body medicine and author of “The Relaxation Response,” says that the repetitive action of needlework can induce a relaxed state like that associated with meditation and yoga. Once you get beyond the initial learning curve, knitting and crocheting can lower heart rate and blood pressure and reduce harmful blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol. But unlike meditation, craft activities result in tangible and often useful products that can enhance self-esteem. I keep photos of my singular accomplishments on my cellphone to boost my spirits when needed. © 2016 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 21826 - Posted: 01.27.2016
James Gorman Spotted hyenas are the animals that got Sarah Benson-Amram thinking about how smart carnivores are and in what ways. Dr. Benson-Amram, a researcher at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, did research for her dissertation on hyenas in the wild under Kay E. Holekamp of Michigan State University. Hyenas have very complicated social structures and they require intelligence to function in their clans, or groups. But the researchers also tested the animals on a kind of intelligence very different from figuring out who ranks the highest: They put out metal boxes that the animals had to open by sliding a bolt in order to get at meat inside. Only 15 percent of the hyenas solved the problem in the wild, but in captivity, the animals showed a success rate of 80 percent. Dr. Benson-Amram and Dr. Holekamp decided to test other carnivores, comparing species and families. They and other researchers presented animals in several different zoos with a metal puzzle box with a treat inside and recorded the animals’ efforts. They tested 140 animals in 39 species that were part of nine families. They reported their findings on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They compared the success rates of different families with absolute brain size, relative brain size, and the size of the social groups that the species form in the wild. Just having a bigger brain did not make difference, but the relative size of the brain, compared with the size of the body, was the best indication of which animals were able to solve the problem of opening the box. © 2016 The New York Times Company
Ian Sample Science editor Genetically modified (GM) monkeys that develop symptoms of autism have been created to help scientists discover treatments for the condition. The macaques carry a genetic fault that causes a rare disorder in humans called MeCP2 duplication syndrome. This produces a wide range of medical conditions, some of which mirror those seen in autism, such as difficulties with social interactions. Researchers say groups of the GM monkeys could be used to identify brain circuits involved in common autistic behaviours and to test new treatments designed to alleviate the symptoms. Because the monkeys pass the genetic defects on to their offspring, scientists can breed large populations of the animals for medical research. A group of 200 monkeys has been established at the scientists’ lab in China. The research, described in the journal Nature, paves the way for more varieties of GM monkeys that develop different mental and psychiatric problems which are almost impossible to study in other animals. “The first cohort of transgenic monkeys shows very similar behaviour to human autism, including increased anxiety, but most importantly, defects in social interactions,” said Zilong Qiu who led the research at the Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai. © 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited or it
by Bethany Brookshire Unless you’re in the middle of biting into a delicious Reuben sandwich, you might forget that taste is one of the fundamental senses. “It’s required for our enjoyment of food,” explains Emily Liman, a taste researcher at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “Without taste … people stop eating. They don’t enjoy their food.” A life without the sweet jolt of sugar or the savory delights of umami seems, well, tasteless. When you put that mouthwatering combination of corned beef, Swiss cheese, Thousand Island dressing, sauerkraut and rye in your mouth, the chemicals in the sandwich stimulate taste buds on your tongue and soft palate. Those taste buds connect to the ends of nerve fibers extending delicately into the mouth. Those nerve fibers are the ends of cells located in the geniculate ganglion, a ball of cells nestled up against the ear canal on the side of your head. From there, taste sensations head toward the brain. Chemical messengers bridge the gap between the taste bud and the end of the nerve fiber. But what chemical is involved depends on the type of cell within the bud. There are three types of taste cells (imaginatively titled I, II and III). Type I is not well-understood, but it may be a kind of support cell for other taste cells. Type II, in contrast, is better known. These taste cells sense the slight bitterness of the rye seeds, the sweet edge of the Thousand Island dressing and the savory umami of the beef. They pass that delightful message on using the chemical ATP. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016
Alison Abbott For the second time in four months, researchers have reported autopsy results that suggest Alzheimer’s disease might occasionally be transmitted to people during certain medical treatments — although scientists say that neither set of findings is conclusive. The latest autopsies, described in the Swiss Medical Weekly1 on 26 January, were conducted on the brains of seven people who died of the rare, brain-wasting Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD). Decades before their deaths, the individuals had all received surgical grafts of dura mater — the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord. These grafts had been prepared from human cadavers and were contaminated with the prion protein that causes CJD. But in addition to the damage caused by the prions, five of the brains displayed some of the pathological signs that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease, researchers from Switzerland and Austria report. Plaques formed from amyloid-β protein were discovered in the grey matter and blood vessels. The individuals, aged between 28 and 63, were unusually young to have developed such plaques. A set of 21 controls, who had not had surgical grafts of dura mater but died of sporadic CJD at similar ages, did not have this amyloid signature. According to the authors, it is possible that the transplanted dura mater was contaminated with small ‘seeds’ of amyloid-β protein — which some scientists think could be a trigger for Alzheimer’s — along with the prion protein that gave the recipients CJD. © 2016 Nature Publishing Group,