Chapter 1. An Introduction to Brain and Behavior
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or subscribe to our mailing list, to receive news updates. Learn more.
By Suzy Gage When I started my PhD a few years ago, I thought that certain psychological findings were established fact. The next four years were an exercise in disillusionment. If the effects I was seeking to explore were so reliable, so established, why could I not detect them? There is growing interest in the need to improve reliability in science. Many drugs show promise at the design and pre-clinical phases, only to fail (at great expense) in clinical trials. Many of the most hyped scientific discoveries eventually cannot be replicated. Worryingly for science (but somewhat comforting for my self-esteem as a researcher) this may be because many of the conclusions drawn from published research findings are false. A major factor that influences the reliability of science is statistical power. We cannot measure everyone or everything, so we take samples and use statistical inference to determine the probability that the results we observe in our sample reflect some underlying scientific truth. Statistical power determines whether we accurately conclude if there is an effect or not. Statistical power is the ability of a study to detect an effect (eg higher rates of cancer in smokers) given that an effect actually exists (smoking actually is associated with increased risk of cancer). Power is related to the size of the study sample (the number of smokers and non-smokers we test) and the size of the real effect (the magnitude of the increased risk associated with smoking). Larger studies have more power and can detect smaller, more subtle effects. Small studies have lower power and can only detect larger effects reliably. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited
Link ID: 18019 - Posted: 04.11.2013
By Tina Hesman Saey Mice are poor stand-ins for people in experiments on some types of inflammation, a new study concludes. But some scientists say that critique discounts the value of mouse studies, many of which simply couldn’t be done without the animals. More attention — and money — should go toward studying disease in people than on mouse research, a consortium of scientists contends online February 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Too often, researchers make a discovery in mice and assume that humans will react in the same way, says study coauthor Ronald Tompkins, chief of the Massachusetts General Hospital burn service. “The presumption is not justifiable,” he says. As a result, drug trials — often based heavily on data gleaned from studies with mice — can fail. But other scientists say that critique isn’t new and is overstated. Clinical trials are unsuccessful for many reasons, says Derry Roopenian, an immunologist and mouse geneticist at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. “There’s frailty all along the process. That’s not a failure of the mouse.” He and other critics worry that the study, conducted with a generic strain of laboratory mouse called Black6, unfairly tarnishes the reputation of all mice, even ones engineered to be as much like humans as possible. The group’s conclusions, were they accepted by policy makers, could set back biomedical research by jeopardizing funding for mouse studies, critics warn. “Without the mouse, progress is going to be slowed to a standstill,” Roopenian says. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 17785 - Posted: 02.12.2013
by Michael Marshall Humans aren't built for giving birth. Babies' heads are big to accommodate their big brains, but the mother's hips are small because they walk upright. As a result, birth takes hours and is extremely painful – and midwives almost always help out. Other animals may find birth difficult, particularly if the babies have been gestating for a long time and have grown large. Nevertheless, most mammals have it easier than humans. Monkeys give birth in less than ten minutes. So it is a surprise that female black snub-nosed monkeys may be assisted by "midwives" when they give birth. This behaviour has only been seen once in this species, but it suggests that it's not just human mothers that need help giving birth. Black snub-nosed monkeys live in societies called bands, which can be over 400 strong. Each is divided into smaller groups of around 10 monkeys. Most groups contain one male and several females plus offspring, but there are also all-male groups. Wen Xiao of Dali University in Yunnan, China, and colleagues have been observing black snub-nosed monkeys in the province for years, but had never seen one give birth: the monkeys normally deliver at night. Then on 18 March last year, they got lucky. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Link ID: 17781 - Posted: 02.11.2013
By Samuel McNerney How much does environment influence intelligence? Several years ago University of Virginia Professor Eric Turkheimer demonstrated that growing up in an impoverished and chaotic household suppresses I.Q. – without nurture, innate advantages vanish. What about genes? They matter too. After decades of research most psychologists agree that somewhere between 50% and 80% of intelligence is genetic. After all, numerous studies demonstrate that identical twins raised apart have remarkably similar I.Q.’s. A 2008 paper out of the University of Michigan turned all of this on its head. The researchers led by Susanne M. Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, now at the University of Maryland, found that participants who engaged in short sessions of “cognitive training” that targeted working memory with a simple but difficult game known as the n-back task boosted a core feature of general intelligence called fluid intelligence. Crystalized intelligence improves with age and experience. Fluid intelligence, in contrast, is the capacity to make insights, solve new problems and perceive new patterns to new situations independent of previous knowledge. For decades researchers believed that fluid intelligence was immutable during adulthood because it was largely determined by genetics. The implication of the 2008 study suggested otherwise: with some cognitive training people could improve fluid intelligence and, therefore, become smarter. This brings me to a brand new paper recently published in the journal Neuroscience by DRDC Toronto researcher and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto-Scarborough, Oshin Vartanian. In the study, Vartanian and his team asked if working memory training improved performance on a test of divergent thinking known as the Alternate Uses Task. Psychological research demonstrates that divergent thinking “loads” on working memory, meaning that when people engage a divergent thinking task their working memory capacity is accessed accordingly. © 2013 Scientific American,
By Gareth Cook Just about every dog owner is convinced their dog is a genius. For a long time, scientists did not take their pronouncements particularly seriously, but new research suggests that canines are indeed quite bright, and in some ways unique. Brian Hare, an associate professor in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University, is one of the leading figures in the quest to understand what dogs know. The founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, Hare has now written a book, “The Genius of Dogs,” with his wife, the journalist Vanessa Woods. Hare answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook. Cook: What is the biggest misconception people have about the dog mind? Hare: That there are “smart” dogs and “dumb” dogs. There’s still this throwback to a uni-dimensional version of intelligence, as though there is only one type of intelligence that you either have more or less of. In reality there are different types of intelligence. Different dogs are good at different things. Unfortunately, the very clever strategies some dogs are using are not apparent without playing a cognitive game. This means people can often underestimate the intelligence of their best friend. The pug drooling on your shoe may not look like the brightest bulb in the box, but she comes from a long line of successful dogs and is a member of the most successful mammal species on the planet besides us. Rest assured – she is a genius. © 2013 Scientific American
by Virginia Morell The male Eurasian jay is an accommodating fellow. When his mate has been feasting steadily on mealworm larvae, he realizes that she'd now prefer to dine on wax moth larvae, which he feeds her himself. The finding adds to a small but growing number of studies that show that some animals have something like the human ability to understand what others are thinking. "It's great for a first test of this ability in birds," says Thomas Bugnyar, a cognitive biologist at the University of Vienna in Austria who was not involved in the work. Scientists still debate about whether even our closest ape relatives can attribute an unseen, mental desire to another; some continue to argue that this is a peculiarly human talent. "But some of us think that some aspects of this ability should be found here and there in different species," Bugnyar says, "and so it is good to have this jay study to compare" with the other studies on primates, humans, and human children. Male Eurasian jays feed their mates during courtship displays, says Ljerka Ostojić, a comparative psychologist and postdoc at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom who led the study. Because of that behavior, Ostojić and her colleagues thought that the jays might be good subjects for testing whether these birds understand their mates' desires. The group's previous research had shown that Eurasian jays and scrub jays can plan for the future. "It is commonly thought that any action animals take is determined solely by whatever they want at that moment," Ostojić says, "but the jays also plan for needs in the future." © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Jordan Heller The note, which threatened to kidnap O'Leary and went on to reference myriad tortures including dismemberment, disembowelment, Drano and napalm, was published on Negotiation Is Over (NIO), a website that acts as a one-stop shop for animal rights extremists looking to gather intelligence on potential targets. In addition to labeling O'Leary—a professor at Detroit's Wayne State University whose studies on congestive heart failure involve experiments on rodents and occasionally dogs—a sadistic animal torturer, it published his photo and home address. In an email to O'Leary alerting him of the post, Camille Marino, who until last month ran NIO out of her home in Wildwood, Fla., told the professor that some of her "associates" would be paying him a visit to take pictures of his home. "Then you can join ‘NIO's most wanted,'" she wrote. "I hope you die a slow and painful death." Arson, Cracked Testicles, and Internet Death Threats: How Animal Rights Extremists Are Learning From the People Who Murdered George TillerAnimal right activist Camille Marino, who has done stints as an investment banker and law student, was convicted last year of repeatedly threatening a medical researcher. In December, a Michigan judge sentenced Marino, 48, to six months in prison and three years probation for charges related to her off- and online stalking of O'Leary, who at trial called Marino a "clearly disturbed individual, who was threatening me personally, threatening my children, threatening my home."
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 17694 - Posted: 01.19.2013
By Ashutosh Jogalekar As marijuana is being legalized in Washington and Colorado states, its proliferation and use raise legitimate issues regarding its dose-dependent and long-term effects. One key question is whether pot leads to cognitive decline and a lowering of IQ, especially if its consumption is started at an early age. Answering this question is important for users, families and policy makers to have a realistic idea of personal and legal policies regarding widespread cannabis use. Last year, Madeline Meier and her group from Duke University reported results from the so-called Dunedin study which tracked a group of 1037 people from their birth to age 38. These volunteers’ pot smoking histories were monitored at periodic intervals from age 18 onwards. The study found a troubling decline of IQ and cognitive abilities among regular pot smokers, especially those whose habit kicked in during their teens. No explicit causal relationship was assigned between the two facts, but the correlation was positive and significant. The study naturally raised a lot of questions regarding the wisdom of early pot use, especially in light of its current legalization in two states. Now a study by Ole Rogeberg from the Ragnar Frisch Center for Research in Norway has called this study into question, both for its methodology and its conclusions. The first thing to realize about any such study, even if you don’t know the details, is that there are going to be several confounding socioeconomic factors in assessing any relationship between cannabis use and IQ. Medicine and psychology are not exact sciences, and following a large sample of people for 38 years and assessing correlation – let alone causation – between any two factors is going to be confounded by a large number of other correlated and uncorrelated variables in an inherently uncontrolled experiment. © 2013 Scientific American,
By CLAUDIA DREIFUS In a world of proliferating professions, S. Matthew Liao has a singular title: neuroethicist. Dr. Liao, 40, the director of the bioethics program at New York University, deploys the tools of philosophy, history, psychology, religion and ethics to understand the impact of neuroscientific breakthroughs. You’re a philosopher by training. How did philosophy lead to neuroethics? Mine’s the typical immigrant’s story. My family moved to Cincinnati from Taiwan in the early 1980s. Once here, my siblings gravitated towards the sciences. I was the black sheep. I was in love with the humanities. So I didn’t go to M.I.T. — I went to Princeton, where I got a degree in philosophy. This, of course, worried my parents. They’d never met a philosopher with a job. Do you have any insight on why scientific careers are so attractive to new Americans? You don’t need to speak perfect English to do science. And there are job opportunities. Define neuroethics. It’s a kind of subspecialty of bioethics. Until very recently, the human mind was a black box. But here we are in the 21st century, and now we have all these new technologies with opportunities to look inside that black box — a little. With functional magnetic imaging, f.M.R.I., you can get pictures of what the brain is doing during cognition. You see which parts light up during brain activity. Scientists are trying to match those lights with specific behaviors. At the same time this is moving forward, there are all kinds of drugs being developed and tested to modify behavior and the mind. So the question is: Are these new technologies ethical? © 2012 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 17614 - Posted: 12.18.2012
By Dwayne Godwin and Jorge Cham Dwayne Godwin is a neuroscientist at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. Jorge Cham draws the comic strip Piled Higher and Deeper at www.phdcomics.com. © 2012 Scientific American
Link ID: 17504 - Posted: 11.19.2012
Neuroscientists at the University of Ingberg have found a brain region that does absolutely nothing. Their research, presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting, showed that a small region of the cortex located near the posterior section of the cingulate gyrus responded to ‘not one of our 46 experimental manipulations’. Dr. Ahlquist was rather surprised at the finding. “During a pilot study we noticed that this small section of the cortex did not show differential activity in any of our manipulations. Out of curiosity, we wanted to see whether it actually did anything at all. Over the months that followed we tried every we knew, with over 20 different participants. IQ tests, memory tasks, flashing lights, talking, listening, imagining juggling, but there was no response. Nothing. We got more desperate, so we tried pictures of faces, TMS, pictures of cats, pictures of sex, pictures of violence and even sexy violence, but nothing happened! Not even a decrease. No connectivity to anywhere else, not even a voodoo correlation. 46 voxels of wasted space. I know dead salmons that are more responsive. It’s an evolutionary disgrace, that’s what it is.” Some neuroscientists are disappointed by the regions’ lack of response: ‘This is exactly the type of cortical behavior that leads to this popular science nonsense about using only 10% of our brain. Frankly, I am outraged by this lazy piece of brain. It’s the cortical equivalent of a spare tyre. If anyone wants to have it lobotomized, I am happy to break out the orbitoclast and help them out. That’ll teach it.”
Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 17464 - Posted: 11.07.2012
by Virginia Morell Alex, an African grey parrot who died 5 years ago and was known for his ability to use English words, also understood a great deal about numbers. In a new study in this month's Cognition, scientists show that Alex correctly inferred the relationship between cardinal and ordinal numbers, an ability that has not previously been found in any species other than humans. After learning the cardinal numbers—or exact values—of one to six, Alex was taught the ordinal values (the position of a number in a list) of seven and eight—that is, he learned that six is less than seven, and seven is less than eight. He was never taught the cardinal values of seven and eight—but when tested on this, he passed with flying colors, apparently inferring, for instance, that the sound "seven" meant six plus one. In the video above of one of these experiments, comparative psychologist Irene Pepperberg of Harvard University asks Alex to pick out the set of colored blocks that equal the number seven. Play the video to hear his answer. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
By Cari Nierenberg The strange folds and furrows covering a Brazilian man's entire scalp was neither a funky new look nor a hipster trend. Rather the 21-year-old's bizarre looking scalp with its deep skin folds in a pattern said to resemble the surface of the brain is a sign of a rare medical condition known as cutis verticis gyrata. In this week's New England Journal of Medicine, two Brazilian doctors describe this young man's case and share a picture of its odd appearance. When he was 19, the skin on his scalp started to change. It grew thicker, forming many soft, spongy ridges and narrow ruts. Even his hair had an unusual configuration. It was normal in the furrows but sparser over the folds as is common for this strange scalp condition. No doubt, visits to the barber shop as well as washing his squishy scalp and combing his hair were peculiar experiences. Despite the extent of his scalp affected, "the patient did not have the habit of covering his head," with a hat, for instance, says Dr. Karen Schons a dermatologist at the Hospital Universitario de Santa Maria, who examined the patient and co-authored the case study. In fact, the case study reports that "the condition did not bother him cosmetically." © 2012 NBCNews.com
Link ID: 17386 - Posted: 10.18.2012
by Elizabeth Norton Baboons, like people, really do get by with a little help from their friends. Humans with strong social ties live longer, healthier lives, whereas hostility and "loner" tendencies can set the stage for disease and early death. In animals, too, strong social networks contribute to longer lives and healthier offspring—and now it seems that personality may be just as big a factor in other primates' longevity status. A new study found that female baboons that had the most stable relationships with other females weren't always the highest up in the dominance hierarchy or the ones with close kin around—but they were the nicest. Scientists are increasingly seeing personality as a key factor in an animal's ability to survive, adapt, and thrive in its environment. But this topic isn't an easy one to study scientifically, says primatologist Dorothy Cheney of the University of Pennsylvania. "Research in mammals, birds, fish, and insects shows individual patterns of behavior that can't be easily explained. But the many studies of personality are based on human traits like conscientiousness, agreeableness, or neuroticism. It isn't clear how to apply those traits to animals," Cheney says. Along with a group of scientists—including co-authors Robert Seyfarth, also at the University of Pennsylvania, and primatologist Joan Silk of Arizona State University, Tempe—Cheney has studied wild baboons at the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana for almost 20 years. Besides providing detailed, long-term observations of behavior in several generations of baboons, the research has yielded a wealth of biological and genetic information. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Zoë Corbyn Conventional wisdom says that most retractions of papers in scientific journals are triggered by unintentional errors. Not so, according to one of the largest-ever studies of retractions. A survey1 published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that two-thirds of retracted life-sciences papers were stricken from the scientific record because of misconduct such as fraud or suspected fraud — and that journals sometimes soft-pedal the reason. The survey examined all 2,047 articles in the PubMed database that had been marked as retracted by 3 May this year. But rather than taking journals’ retraction notices at face value, as previous analyses have done, the study used secondary sources to pin down the reasons for retraction if the notices were incomplete or vague. These sources included investigations by the US Office of Research Integrity, and evidence reported by the blog Retraction Watch. The analysis revealed that fraud or suspected fraud was responsible for 43% of the retractions. Other types of misconduct — duplicate publication and plagiarism — accounted for 14% and 10% of retractions, respectively. Only 21% of the papers were retracted because of error (see ‘Bad copy’). Earlier studies had found that the percentage of retractions attributable to error was 1.5–3 times higher2–4. “The secondary sources give a very different picture,” says Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist at Yeshiva University in New York, and a co-author of the latest study. “Retraction notices are often not accurate.” © 2012 Nature Publishing Group
Link ID: 17322 - Posted: 10.02.2012
By AMANDA SCHAFFER For years, researchers have investigated how the body loses the ability to produce enough insulin, a hallmark of diabetes. Now an intriguing theory is emerging, and it suggests a potential treatment that few scientists had considered. The hormone insulin helps shuttle glucose, or blood sugar, from the bloodstream into individual cells to be used as energy. But the body can become resistant to insulin, and the beta cells of the pancreas, which produce the hormone, must work harder to compensate. Eventually, the thinking goes, they lose the ability to keep up. “We used to say that the beta cells poop out,” said Alan Saltiel, director of the Life Sciences Institute at the University of Michigan. In reality, he added, this shorthand meant “we have no idea what’s going on.” Some evidence suggested that large numbers of these cells died through a process of programmed cell death called apoptosis. But that was at best a partial explanation. Now, researchers at Columbia University have put forth a surprising alternative. In mice with Type 2 diabetes, the researchers showed that beta cells that had lost function were not dead at all. Most remained alive, but in a changed form. They reverted to an earlier developmental, “progenitor,” state. It’s as if these cells are “stepping back in time to a point where they look like they might have looked during their development,” said Dr. Domenico Accili, director of the Columbia University Diabetes and Endocrinology Research Center, who led the new work. © 2012 The New York Times Company
By Gregory Thomas, During an introductory psychology course at Britain’s University of Essex in 2009, Arnold Wilkins asked his class to participate in a quick experiment. Wilkins projected two images on a wall and asked students to write down whether they found either of them disturbing. One was a photograph of a woody landscape. The other was a close-up of a lotus-flower seedpod — a flat-faced pod pocked with small holes. Most of the students were unmoved, but one, freshman An Le, recalls being both transfixed and revolted by the lotus image. “It felt like I was in shock,” he says. Le is far from alone in his response. Thousands of people claim to suffer trypophobia, a term derived from the Greek “trypo,” which means punching, drilling or boring holes. It refers to an irrational fear of clusters of small holes, such as beehives, ant holes and even bubbles in a pancake on the griddle or air pockets in a chocolate bar. On Web sites and blogs, self-diagnosed trypophobes share tales of vomiting, sleep loss and anxiety attacks at the sight of such objects as honeycombs and rotting wood. They say the fears are haunting and disruptive of their daily lives. But the medical world hasn’t yet embraced the phobia as real. Trypophobia isn’t listed in any major dictionary or in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Attempts to add trypophobia to the Oxford English Dictionary and even to establish a Wikipedia page have been rebuffed because there hasn’t been any research published on the subject. A Wikipedia editor who deleted an entry on trypophobia in 2009 noted that trypophobia is “likely hoax and borderline patent nonsense.” © 1996-2012 The Washington Post
By BENEDICT CAREY Proposed changes to the official diagnosis of autism will not reduce the proportion of children found to have it as steeply as many have feared, scientists reported on Tuesday, in an analysis that contradicts several previous studies. Earlier research had estimated that 45 percent or more of children currently on the “autism spectrum” would not qualify under a new definition now being refined by psychiatric researchers — a finding that generated widespread anxiety among parents who rely on state-financed services for their children. The new report, posted online Tuesday by The American Journal of Psychiatry, concluded that the number who would be excluded is closer to 10 percent. The finding may soothe the anxieties of some parents, but will not likely settle the debate over the effect of the new diagnosis. All sides agree that the proposed criteria are narrower and will likely result in fewer diagnoses of autism, but until doctors begin using the new definition widely, the predictions of its effect are just that: predictions. The debate has simmered over the past year as an expert panel appointed by the American Psychiatric Association has updated its proposals for the association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, scheduled to take effect in May 2013. The manual is the field’s standard reference, and several recent studies suggested that the amended autism definition was far narrower than intended. © 2012 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 17319 - Posted: 10.02.2012
By Simon J Makin Humans are born to a longer period of total dependence than any other animal we know of, and we also know that mistreatment or neglect during this time often leads to social, emotional, cognitive and mental health problems in later life. It’s not hard to imagine how a lack of proper stimulation in our earliest years – everything from rich sensory experiences and language exposure to love and care – might adversely affect our development, but scientists have only recently started to pull back the curtain on the genetic, molecular and cellular mechanisms that might explain how these effects arise in the brain. You’ll often hear it said that human beings are “social animals”. What biologists tend to mean by that phrase is behaviour like long-lasting relationships or some kind society, whether that’s the social hierarchy of gorillas or the extreme organisation of bees and ants. But, to an extent, most animals are social. A mother usually bonds with its offspring in any species of bird or mammal you care to mention, and almost all animals indulge in some kind of social behaviour when they mate. But there is another sense in which most animals seem to be fundamentally social. There is an emerging scientific understanding of the way social experience moulds the biochemistry of the brain and it looks like most species don’t just prefer the company of others – they need it to develop properly. Take that staple of genetics research, drosophila – aka the fruit fly. While they are not as social as primates or bees, they are more social than you might think, and there have been studies showing that social isolation can disrupt their mating behaviour or even reduce their lifespan. © 2012 Scientific American,
By NICHOLAS BAKALAR A small study has found that obese children are more likely than others to have a weak sense of taste. German researchers tested tasting ability in 99 obese and 94 normal-weight children, whose average age was 13, by having them try to identify tastes on strips of filter paper and asking them to distinguish among sweet, sour, salty, umami (savory) and bitter. The children also were asked to rate the taste’s intensity on a five-point scale. Girls were better than boys at distinguishing tastes, and older children scored higher than younger; there were no differences by ethnicity. Obese children scored an average of 12.6 out of a possible 20, while the normal-weight children averaged 14.1, a statistically significant difference. On the intensity scale, obese children rated all flavor concentrations lower than did those in the normal-weight group. “We think it’s important, especially for young children, to get different tastes so that they can improve their taste sensitivity,” said the lead author, Dr. Johanna Overberg, a pediatrician at Charité Children’s Hospital in Berlin. “If you taste more and different things at younger ages, you can do this.” The authors, writing online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, say the reason for the association is unclear, but they suggest that the hormone leptin may affect both body weight and the sensitivity of taste buds. Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company