Chapter 18. Attention and Higher Cognition
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By Kate Kelland and Reuters, Children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder who take stimulants such as Ritalin tend to feel that the drugs help them control their behavior and do not turn them into “robots,” as many skeptics assume, a study reported on Monday. The research, which for the first time asked children taking ADHD drugs what they felt about their treatment and its effects, found that many said medication helped them manage their impulsivity and make better decisions. “With medication, it’s not that you’re a different person. You’re still the same person, but you just act a little better,” said Angie, an 11-year-old American who took part in the study and was quoted in a report about its findings. The results are likely to further fuel the debate about whether children with ADHD, some as young as 4 years old, should be given stimulants. ADHD is one of the most common childhood disorders in the United States, where parents report that 9.5 percent of children ages 4 and older have received such a diagnosis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Britain, where the authors of the study are based, experts estimate that between 5 and 10 percent of children and adolescents have ADHD. Symptoms of the disorder include difficulty staying focused, hyperactivity and problems with controlling disruptive or aggressive behavior. © 1996-2012 The Washington Post
Link ID: 17374 - Posted: 10.16.2012
By Megan Gannon Something "uncanny" seems familiar yet alien at the same time, often stirring a feeling of fear or revulsion. For example, we tend to feel creeped out around lifelike robots and animatronics that fall in the "uncanny valley," the divide between the fully human and the not-exactly-human. New research suggests this type of reaction might start in infancy. Scientists in Japan studied how 57 babies reacted to pictures of faces. The infants were shown real photographs — either of the child's mother or a complete stranger — and natural-looking morphed images that combined either the mother's face and a stranger's face or two strangers' faces. In previous studies, researchers showed that infants tend to stare at pictures of both mothers and strangers for about the same amount of time, but measures of their neural responses suggest they process the two faces differently. "Infants like both familiarity and novelty in objects," Yoshi-Taka Matsuda of Tokyo's Riken Brain Science Institute said in a statement. "We wondered how their preference might change when they encountered objects that are intermediate between familiarity and novelty." Using an eye-tracking system, the researchers found the infants looked at the photos of their mothers longer than the "half-mother" hybrid faces. This effect strengthened with the infant's age, the team said. There was no significant difference in the infants' preference between the real and morphed photos of strangers. © 2012 NBCNews.com
By John McCarthy Humans can focus on one thing amidst many. “Searchlight of attention” is the metaphor. You recall a childhood friend’s face one moment, then perhaps the dog you loved back then, and then…what you will. Your son’s face on stage rivets your attention; the rest of the cast is unseen. No “ghost” in the brain aims that searchlight. What does? Neurons do, somehow, but how is a mystery that new research actually deepened. The experiment used monkeys. They can focus attention like people do. They can zero in on a red square on a screen full of distractions, for instance. When the square moves, a trained monkey will press a button. Electrodes inserted in a monkey neuron will reveal “firing” (minuscule electrical ripples) simultaneous with attention. This may locate brain areas by which the monkey watched that red square. It’s not only the explosive firing in neurons that instruments detect. They also spot the milder priming to fire, when the monkey expects (from training) that neurons are about to be stimulated. Neurons in a one area of the cortex fire when an object moves (but not, for instance, if it gets brighter but stays still.) If a monkey learns that an onscreen cue (a blip of light) signals that the red square is about to move, the cue alone primes the motion-sensing neurons. They also synchronize more tightly (i.e. reduce random noise among them.) Cues cock neurons, like a gun. It’s like Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the bell that preceded feeding. © 2012 Scientific American
Link ID: 17361 - Posted: 10.11.2012
By Janet Raloff For pregnant women, diets rich in fish can offer their babies protection against developing behaviors associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, a new study finds. Yet for most Americans, fish consumption is the leading source of exposure to mercury — a potent neurotoxic pollutant that has been linked to a host of health problems, including delays in neural development. Data from the new study, published online October 8 in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, demonstrate that low-mercury diets and regular fish consumption are not mutually exclusive, says epidemiologist and study leader Susan Korrick of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “It really depends on the type of fish that you’re eating,” she says. In fact, some study participants had been eating more than two servings of fish weekly yet accumulated relatively little mercury. As part of a long-running study of children born during the 1990s in New Bedford, Mass., 515 women who had just given birth completed a dietary survey. About 420 also provided samples of their hair for mercury testing. About eight years later, Korrick’s team administered a battery of IQ and other tests to assess behaviors associated with ADHD in the children. The children spanned a continuum running from almost no ADHD-related behaviors to those with outright clinical disease. A mom’s hair-mercury level tended to be associated with where her child fell along this spectrum. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2012
By Courtney Humphries A. Fainting, also called syncope, is a sudden and brief loss of consciousness followed by a spontaneous return to wakefulness — people who “black out” and then “come to” on their own without outside intervention. During the faint, they’re in danger of falls and injuries if they lose muscle control. There are several possible causes of fainting, but they all stem from a temporary decrease in blood flow to the brain. The typical Victorian-era swoon is one of the most common forms, called vasovagal syncope. Lewis Lipsitz, a geriatrician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Hebrew SeniorLife, explains that it’s caused by a reflexive response to a stimulus, such as stress, a sudden shock, or the sight of blood. Fainting without an obvious trigger can be a sign of an underlying health problem, such as an irregular heart rhythm, heart disease, or severe dehydration. “The elderly have syncope more commonly than any other group,” Lipsitz says, which can put them at risk of falls and fractures. Often the spells are caused by actions as simple as changing position or eating a meal. When we stand up, Lipsitz says, “about half a liter of blood immediately goes to the legs and the lower abdomen,” and eating also pulls blood from the brain to the gut. Our bodies compensate by raising the heart rate to get blood to the brain. But elderly people can’t always restore their blood flow, and dehydration or certain medications can exacerbate the problem. © Copyright 2012 Globe Newspaper Company.
Link ID: 17349 - Posted: 10.09.2012
By DAVID P. BARASH ZOMBIE bees? That’s right: zombie bees. First reported in California in 2008, these stranger-than-fiction creatures have spread to North Dakota and, just recently, to my home in Washington State. Of course, they’re not really zombies, although they act disquietingly like them, showing abnormal behavior like flying at night (almost unheard-of in healthy bees), moving erratically and then dying. These “zombees” are victims of a parasitic fly, Apocephalus borealis. The fly lays eggs within honeybees, inducing their hosts to make a nocturnal “flight of the living dead,” after which the larval flies emerge, having consumed the bee from the inside out. These events, although bizarre, aren’t all that unusual in the animal world. Many fly and wasp species lay their eggs inside hosts. What is especially interesting, and a bit more unusual, is the way an internal parasite not only feeds on its host, but also frequently alters its behavior, in a way that favors the continued survival and reproduction of the parasite. Not all internal parasites kill their hosts, of course: pretty much every multicellular animal is home to numerous fellow travelers, each of which has its own agenda, which in some cases involves influencing, or taking control of, part or all of the body in which they temporarily reside. And this, in turn, leads to the question: who’s in charge of your own mind? Think of the morgue scene in the movie “Men in Black,” when a human corpse is revealed to be a robot, its skull inhabited by a little green man from outer space. Science fiction, but less bizarre than you might expect, or want to believe. © 2012 The New York Times Company
By Sarah Estes and Jesse Graham It might be time to pencil in "awe cultivation" on your to-do list. Although religious thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard cast awe as a state of existential fear and trembling, new research by psychologists at Stanford and the University of Minnesota shows that experiencing awe can actually increase well-being, by giving people the sense that they have more time available. That sounds much more enjoyable than trying to power through one more hour on Redbull and fumes. Just what is this elusive emotion, and how can one nurture it in our time-pressed world? Although awe has played a significant role in the histories of religion, art, and other transcendental pursuits, it has received scant attention from emotion researchers. Noting the paucity of data, social psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt developed a working prototype in a 2003 paper, delineating awe's standing in the research taxonomy. After reviewing accounts of psychological, sociological, religious, artistic, and even primordial awe (awe toward power), the researchers surmised that awe universally involved the perception of vastness and the need to accommodate the experience into one's present worldview. That is, awe is triggered by some experience so expansive (in either a positive or negative way) that one’s mental schemas have to be adjusted in order to process it. Nearly ten years later, awe research is beginning to come into its own. The self-help market has continued to grow quickly, and research on positive emotions has kept apace. Even corporations and politicians have taken note of some of the ways that emotion research links into everything from productivity to voting and buying behavior. So it should come as no surprise that psychologists are now experimenting in domains formerly left to clergy, clinicians, and artists. © 2012 Scientific American,
Link ID: 17301 - Posted: 09.26.2012
By Susan Milius Let’s take a minute to turn faces upside down. Pick any face. Ignore beards, glasses, hairdos or lack of any hair to do, and upend the facial features of Charles Darwin, Ray Charles or anyone named Charlotte who reads Science News. People who normally remember or match a face perfectly well have trouble when it is standing on its head. But before there’s a chorus of “well, obviously,” let’s try turning dogs upside down, too. Most people who don’t breed dogs or judge shows don’t recognize an individual dog nearly as well as a person’s face to begin with. And when pictures of poodles and Irish setters flip upside down in quizzes of learning and memory, people struggle a bit more than they do with the natural versions. But scores drop only modestly with these flipped-dog pics, compared with the dramatic drop for facial flips. The disproportionate decline in remembering inverted faces has shown up in a variety of recall tests, with comparison groups from dogs to bridges, airplanes, stick figures, even clothing from 17th and 18th century paintings. Upside-down faces are where quiz scores really slump, and researchers view that slump as one of the signs that test-takers are actually experts at face perception. A dog is a dog in any orientation. Same for other organisms and objects. But right-side-up faces apparently are so compelling that people have become especially masterful at recognizing the human visage. Know-it-at-a-glance holistic techniques behind this mastery fail when the world turns upside down. access © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2012
By Marla Cone and Environmental Health News Children exposed to higher levels of mercury or lead are three to five times more likely to be identified by teachers as having problems associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, according to a scientific study published today. The study – of Inuit children in Arctic Quebec – is the first to find a high rate of attention-deficit symptoms in children highly exposed to mercury in the womb. In addition, the Inuit children more often had hyperactivity symptoms if they were exposed to the same low levels of lead commonly found in young U.S. children. In the United States, one of every 10 children has been diagnosed with ADHD, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is one of the most common brain disorders of childhood. Researchers from Laval University in Quebec surveyed teachers of 279 children in Nunavik between the ages of 8 and 14, using standardized questionnaires developed by psychiatrists for diagnosing ADHD. Developmental psychologist Gina Muckle, the study’s senior author, said the findings are important because they show for the first time that mercury’s effects on children are not just subtle, but are actually noticeable to teachers. The effects from exposure in the womb “may be clinically significant and may interfere with learning and performance in the classroom,” says the study, published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. . © 2012 Scientific American
by Douglas Heaven Ever wish you could make better choices? That could one day be possible thanks to an electronic brain implant that can enhance short-term memory and decision-making in primates. The implant can also restore these functions in an animal model of Alzheimer's disease and other types of brain damage, paving the way for the development of new treatments for people with these conditions. Sam Deadwyler at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and colleagues have previously shown that a neural implant can restore some motor and sensory functions in rats. Now they have used a similar implant to stimulate higher-level thinking in monkeys. During normal brain function, neurons "fire" when they receive an input from another neuron via the connection between them, called a synapse. The spatial and temporal pattern of this activity – where and when the neurons fire – can be detected and recorded. To find out if it is possible to hijack and then retune these patterns of activity, Deadwyler's team first trained five rhesus macaques to perform a task that tests their attention, short-term memory and decision-making skills. First, the monkeys were shown a random image from a pool of 5000. The image was then blanked out for an interval of 1 to 90 seconds, before reappearing in a different position, alongside up to seven other images. If the monkey selected the original image once it reappeared it was rewarded with juice. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
In May, my six-year-old daughter, Julia, smashed into our front door handle and got a deep, bloody gash in her forehead. We rushed her, head wrapped like a tiny mummy, to the medical center at MIT, where we generally go for pediatric care. Julia wept while the nurse cleaned and examined her lacerated skin. After a short exam, she sent us to the emergency department at Children’s Hospital Boston for stitches. “How bad is that, generally?” I asked, having never experienced suturing either for myself or my cautious, risk-averse, older daughter. “It can be traumatic,” the nurse said. Julia cried, “I don’t want stitches.” It’s a large needle, but Julia is too busy coloring to notice. So I braced myself for the worst: an endless wait and nerve-wracking bustle; screaming, germ-laden children and brusque, end-of-shift staff. But more than anything, I dreaded the inevitable pain in store for my small child with the deep cut. (I know, kids get banged up on the path to adulthood and some pain is unavoidable. Still, when bloody heads are involved, I tend to overreact.) Indeed, I was in full Mama Bear mode when into our exam room strode Dr. Baruch Krauss, the attending physician that evening. Copyright Trustees of Boston University
By Laura Sanders A dose of Ritalin makes healthy women more reckless in a gambling game. After taking the stimulant, participants in an experiment shifted their betting strategy and kept playing even when faced with stakes too high for most folks. Though solid numbers are scarce, evidence suggests that many healthy people turn to Ritalin (also known as methylphenidate) and other stimulants to boost mental capacity. Some college students, for instance, rely on these “smart pills” to focus attention in cram sessions before tests. The new results, published in the Sept. 19 Journal of Neuroscience, suggest that the drugs might have unanticipated consequences for these people, says study coauthor Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn of New York University. Scientists have known that the very same drug has an opposite effect in people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a kind of dementia, normalizing these people’s risky behavior. Scientists can’t yet explain Ritalin’s divergent effects, but they suspect that variations in how the brain handles the chemical messenger dopamine may be involved. Researchers enlisted 40 healthy women to take either Ritalin or a placebo, and later play a gambling game. The game was rigged so that the players would quickly rack up a loss and then have to choose whether to double-down in the hopes of recovering their money. “That’s the sad part of the game,” says Campbell-Meiklejohn, who conducted the study while at Aarhus University in Denmark. “You really can’t win.” © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2012
By BENEDICT CAREY Scientists have designed a brain implant that sharpened decision making and restored lost mental capacity in monkeys, providing the first demonstration in primates of the sort of brain prosthesis that could eventually help people with damage from dementia, strokes or other brain injuries. The device, though years away from commercial development, gives researchers a model for how to support and enhance fairly advanced mental skills in the frontal cortex of the brain, the seat of thinking and planning. The new report appeared Thursday in The Journal of Neural Engineering. In just the past decade, scientists have developed brain implants that improve vision or allow disabled people to use their thoughts to control prosthetic limbs or move computer cursors. The new paper, led by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and the University of Southern California, describes a device that improves brain function internally, by fine-tuning communication among neurons. Previous studies have shown that a neural implant can do this for memory in rodents, but the new report extends that work significantly, experts said — into brains that are much closer to those of humans. In the study, researchers at Wake Forest trained five rhesus monkeys to play a picture-matching game. The monkeys saw an image on a large screen — of a toy, a person, a mountain range — and tried to select the same image from a larger group of images that appeared on the same screen a little while later. The monkeys got a treat for every correct answer. After two years of practice, the animals developed some mastery, getting about 75 percent of the easier matches correct and 40 percent of the harder ones, markedly better than chance guessing. © 2012 The New York Times Company
Drivers who take certain antidepressants, anti-anxiety or sleeping pills could be at higher risk for motor vehicle collisions. Psychotropic drugs can impair a driver's ability to control a vehicle, but there's been less research on newer drugs used to treat insomnia. To learn more, researchers in Taiwan compared drug use among 5,183 people involved in motor vehicle accidents with a second group of 31,093 people of the same age and gender who went for outpatient care between 2000 and 2009. In Thursday's issue of the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, they concluded that those taking two types of antidepressants, sleep aids known as Z-drugs, and benzodiazepines used to treat anxiety and insomnia, face increased risk of motor vehicle accidents compared with people not taking those types of drugs. The antidepressants studied included selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors or SSRIs like paroxitine or Paxil and fluoxetine or Prozac and tricyclic or TCA antidepressants such as amiptriptyline. "The findings underscore that subjects taking these psychotropic medications should pay increased attention to their driving performance in order to prevent …motor vehicle accidents," lead researcher Hui-Ju Tsai, of the National Health Research Institutes in Zhunan, Taiwan, and co-authors concluded. © CBC 2012
by Alex Stone In magic, choices are rarely what they seem. Magicians know how to manipulate us into a false sense of free will while really holding the puppet strings. Here’s a simple but clever example of a false choice used in magic. Imagine, if you will, the face of an analog clock and think of any hour on the dial (one, two, three….all the way to twelve.) You have a totally free choice. You can even change your mind if you like. Now we’re going to inject some randomness into your decision. Imagine that your finger is the hour hand and, starting at midnight, spell out the hour you chose, moving your finger clockwise by one step for each letter. (For instance, if you thought of seven, you’d spell out s-e-v-e-n, moving the time forward a total of five hours.). After you’ve done that, your finger will be on a new number. Starting there, spell this number, following the same procedure as before, moving your finger around the dial until you land on yet another number. Repeat the procedure one last time, starting where you left off. Remember the hour on which your finger finally lands. This is your selection. You arrived at this number randomly after making a free choice, so I think it’s fair to say that it would be impossible for me to know where your finger ended up. And yet I’m getting an impression right now. In my third eye, a vision of an old mahogany grandfather clock with a swinging pendulum and hand-painted Roman numerals on the dial. The image is ghostly and pale. I can barely make out the face. The hour-hand reads: One o’clock. This elementary ruse is known as a force. (Try starting with another number and you’ll see why it’s a force.) A force is a way to control a spectator’s selection, be it of a card, number, word, letter—just about anything—and it’s one of the most powerful weapons in magic. There are hundreds of methods. (See for instance, 202 Methods of Forcing, by the great mentalist Ted Annemann.) Forcing gets way more sophisticated, but the basic idea is always the same. © 2012, Kalmbach Publishing Co.
Link ID: 17251 - Posted: 09.13.2012
By Scicurious Scientists like to study choice behavior. It’s an important area of study for lots of different applications, including things like, say, marketing, but also things including mate choice, nutrition, drug addiction, and well…your life is FULL of choices. When you’re at the store facing that huge freaking WALL full of different kinds of cereal? When you decide to hit snooze on your alarm? When you decide to see the dessert menu after dinner? All of these are different kinds of choices, and our brain has different ways of calculating the cost and benefits of each one (or, in the case of mine, going into complete shut down at the sight of that gigantic cereal aisle. I hate that thing). But when scientists study choice and decision making, they often study it in something of a vacuum. Not a literal vacuum, but in an environment with very few variables. You have a rat with a choice of levers or in a maze with a choice of directions. You have a human in a scanner making a choice of two different objects or how much to wager. This is really great for studying how different kinds of decisions are made, but as we get to know more about choice, we have to begin adding more variables. And with choice in real life comes something else: competition. A lot of the most important decisions are made in the presence of competition, like decisions for resources. Find a good patch of berries? Someone was probably there before you. Come across a lovely lady or boy vole you’d like to woo? There’s probably another suitor knocking at the door. So the question now becomes, how does the brain deal with decision making in the presence of competition? © 2012 Scientific American
by Sara Reardon You can run from a crow that you've wronged, but you can't hide. Wild crows remember human faces in the same way that mammals do. Crows can distinguish human faces and remember how different people treated them, says John Marzluff of the University of Washington in Seattle. To work out how the crows process this information, Marzluff had members of his team wear a latex mask as they captured 12 wild American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos). The crows learned to associate the captor's mask with this traumatic experience. While in captivity, the crows were fed and looked after by people wearing a different mask. After four weeks, the researchers imaged the birds' brains while they were looking at either the captor or feeder mask. The brain patterns looked similar to those seen in mammals: the feeder sparked activity in areas involved in motivation and reward, whereas the captor stimulated regions associated with fear. The result makes sense, says Kevin McGowan of Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. Crows don't mind if humans are in their habitat – but they need to keep a close eye on what we do. Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1206109109 © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
by Douglas Heaven Where does the mind reside? It's a question that's occupied the best brains for thousands of years. Now, a patient who is self-aware – despite lacking three regions of the brain thought to be essential for self-awareness – demonstrates that the mind remains as elusive as ever. The finding suggests that mental functions might not be tied to fixed brain regions. Instead, the mind might be more like a virtual machine running on distributed computers, with brain resources allocated in a flexible manner, says David Rudrauf at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, who led the study of the patient. Recent advances in functional neuroimaging – a technique that measures brain activity in the hope of finding correlations between mental functions and specific regions of the brain – have led to a wealth of studies that map particular functions onto regions. Previous neuroimaging studies had suggested that three regions – the insular cortex, anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex – are critical for self-awareness. But for Rudrauf the question wasn't settled. So when his team heard about patient R, who had lost brain tissue including the chunks of the three 'self-awareness' regions following a viral infection, they immediately thought he could help set the record straight. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Susan Milius Black bears, which live relatively solitary lives as adults, show an ability to learn concepts, a new study finds. Dave Allen Photography/Shutterstock American black bears that take computerized tests by pawing, nose-bumping or licking a touch screen may rival great apes when it comes to learning concepts. Using three zoo bear siblings as classroom subjects, comparative cognitive psychologist Jennifer Vonk of Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., and her colleagues presented pairs of pictures to the bears on a rugged computer screen and gave them food treats for pawing the image from a certain category. To demonstrate learning a concept, bears had to figure out what kind of picture would earn a treat and then pick that kind of image from a new set. One challenge, picking the portrait of a black bear instead of an image of a person, could be mastered by relying on a mix of visual clues such as furriness or snout shape. But picking out all the animals from non-animals — cars or landscapes, for example — required finding more abstract connections among pictures that didn’t look much at all alike. At least one of the three bears showed some capacity at each of the five levels tested, Vonk and colleagues report in an upcoming Animal Behaviour. Bear behavior has been “very underappreciated,” says comparative ethologist Gordon Burghardt of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. “They’re very smart and they have large brains.” They also live relatively solitary lives, which make them an important contrast to the mostly social animals tested for complex mental capacities to date. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2012
Analysis by Sheila Eldred Behavioral control and decision-making take part in different regions of the brain's frontal lobe, new research shows The study effectively created a map of the frontal lobes, making it possible for patients with brain injuries to get an accurate prognosis early in treatment. "That knowledge will be tremendously useful for prognosis after brain injury," Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Caltech and a coauthor of the study published in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), said in a press release. "Many people suffer injury to their frontal lobes -- for instance, after a head injury during an automobile accident -- but the precise pattern of the damage will determine their eventual impairment," he added. When you're making a decision, several different parts of the brain might be activated. How a person functions after a brain injury depends on precisely where a brain injury occurs. Other parts of the brain might compensate, allowing the person to function typically, or the person might be left with a lifelong hardship in making decisions. "We can use our lesion maps and compare the location of damaged brain areas in new patients," Jan Glascher, lead author of the study and a visiting associate in psychology at Caltech, said in an email interview. "This way we can predict what impairments these new patients will likely have. This can facilitate medical diagnoses and spark ideas for treatment strategies." © 2012 Discovery Communications, LLC.
Link ID: 17192 - Posted: 08.22.2012