Chapter 1. An Introduction to Brain and Behavior
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By Stephanie Pappas Senior writer Parrots are capable of logical leaps, according to a new study in which a gray parrot named Awisa used reasoning to figure out where a bit of food was hidden. The task is one that kids as young as 4 could figure out, but the only other animals that have been shown to use this type of reasoning are great apes. That makes gray parrots the first non-primates to demonstrate such logical smarts, said study researcher Sandra Mikolasch, a doctoral candidate at the University of Vienna. "We now know that a gray parrot is able to logically exclude a wrong possibility and instead choose the right one in order to get a reward, which is known as 'inference by exclusion,'" Mikolasch wrote in an email to LiveScience. Parrots are no birdbrains. One famous gray parrot, Alex, even understood the concept of "zero," something children don't grasp until they are 3 or 4. Alex, who died in 2007, had a vocabulary of 150 words, which he seemed to use in two-way communication with the researchers who worked with him. Other animals have also revealed high levels of intelligence. Elephants, for example, know when and how to cooperate. And hyenas are even better than primates at cooperation. Earlier studies had shown that about one out of five chimps and other great apes could use logical reasoning to find hidden food. © 2011 msnbc.com
By Oliver Wright, Whitehall Editor Britain's leading health charities last night warned that vital medical research into cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's could be set back by decades because of a high-profile boycott campaign being launched by animal rights campaigners. Animal Aid plans to take out a series of newspaper adverts urging the public to stop giving money to Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation, the Alzheimer's Society and Parkinson's UK unless they end their support for animal testing. But the campaign has been condemned as irresponsible and damaging by the charities and scientists, who have warned that it could set back medical research and damage other important areas of the charities' work. "This is an illogical and ill-conceived campaign," said Lord Willis of Knaresborough, the chairman of the Association of Medical Research Charities. "It will have consequences for charities targeted as, during tight economic times, any small downturn in donations could really put back cures by decades." Colin Blakemore, a Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, added: "This is an utterly irresponsible attack by Animal Aid on some of the most important charitable contributors to medical research in this country. "These charities have a duty to use money given to them to support patients and to understand and treat disease. They support research on animals only when it's absolutely essential. If Animal Aid were successful in discouraging donation to medical charities, they would be guilty of delaying progress towards treatments and cures for devastating conditions." ©independent.co.uk
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 15474 - Posted: 06.21.2011
By Ben Harder, Those who believe in free will might be troubled to learn a few secrets about viruses, bacteria and parasites. While it may sound like science fiction, science hints at the potential for microbes to influence our minds, or at least our behavior. Granted, with very limited exceptions, there’s no conclusive proof that foreign agents can control us from within. But when you consider the evidence with an open mind, it’s interesting to consider the possibilities. The latest relevant finding seems innocuous enough. Last month, three insect and plant disease researchers in the University of California system reported a discovery about the tomato spotted wilt virus. As its name suggests, this virus infects and damages tomato plants. It’s harmless to people. To jump from plant to plant, the virus relies on insects known as thrips. A thrip feeds by sticking its oral probe into a plant’s cells and sucking out the contents. If a cell happens to contain the virus, the thrip sucks it up, too. Scientists already knew that virus-infected tomato plants are more appealing to thrips than uninfected plants. The California researchers discovered something else: Once a thrip consumes the virus, its behavior changes. It spends more time feeding, and it licks more plant cells in the process, coating the next tomato plant with the virus. © 1996-2011 The Washington Post
Sandrine Ceurstemont, video producer How does an octopus locate a hidden meal? In this video, filmed by Michael Kuba and his team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, food is placed in one compartment of a maze denoted with a visual cue. The octopus picks the right route and successfully retrieves the treat. It's the first time that an octopus has been shown to guide one of its arms to a location, based on sensory input, using a complex movement. In the wild, octopuses use their arms to search for food in small crevices. Previously, it's been thought that they feel their way to a food source by simply using sensors on their tentacles. Now this research is showing that they are capable of more complex processing, in this case by combining information from their tentacles with visual input to achieve a goal. Six out of the seven octopuses tested successfully learned the task and used the strategy more often once it was mastered. It's only one example of clever tricks used by cephalopods. Check out our full-length feature to find out more about these animals' astounding mental skills. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Meredith Wadman The unusual meeting was held in a conference room, but it might have been called a war room. Gathered inside a little-known research centre in southern Louisiana, the people who oversee chimpanzee research in the United States were preparing to battle for the survival of their enterprise. Although no other country besides Gabon carries out invasive experiments with chimpanzees, the United States continues such work at three major research facilities. Louisiana's New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) is the largest, with a population of 360 chimps, used by investigators from pharmaceutical companies and federal agencies to test new drugs and study diseases such as hepatitis. During the meeting, Thomas Rowell, director of the NIRC, stood up, surveyed the audience, and launched into a presentation about possible strategies to build public support for their work. Another slide went on to note that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spends about US$12 million a year caring for the chimpanzees it supports (currently totalling 734), versus the billions in health-care costs for the human diseases that can be studied through experiments on chimpanzees. One of them, hepatitis C, currently affects at least 170 million people globally. If researchers don't have access to the chimp model, said Rowell, people afflicted with hepatitis C will suffer. "Their lifespans are going to be shortened. They will not have a proper quality of life." He called them a "silent voice". © 2011 Nature Publishing Group,
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 15440 - Posted: 06.16.2011
by Caroline Williams Octopuses' astonishing mental skills might help us unearth the roots of intelligence – but first we need to understand what makes them so smart BETTY the octopus is curled up in her den, eyes half-closed and clutching a piece of red Lego like a child with a teddy bear. She is, says Kerry Perkins, cephalopod researcher at the Sea Life aquarium in Brighton, UK, much better behaved than some of the octopuses she has worked with. One used to short-circuit a light in its tank by squirting water at it, and would do so whenever the bulb was left on at night. Another made a bid for freedom via the aquarium drainage system, which it seemed to know headed straight out to sea. "Any octopus tank worth its salt has a way of stopping the octopus from escaping," Perkins says as she adds two weights to the lid of Betty's tank. "They love to explore." Aristotle once took this kind of curiosity as a sign that octopuses are stupid - after all, he pointed out, just waving your hands in their direction brings them close enough to catch. We now know that it is just one example of how smart they are. Between them, cephalopods, which also include squids, cuttlefish and nautiluses, can navigate a maze, use tools, mimic other species, learn from each other and solve complex problems. If the latest analyses are to be believed, these skills might show a rudimentary form of consciousness. Cephalopods are the only invertebrates that can boast anything like this kind of mental prowess, and some of their more impressive tricks are shared with only the cleverest vertebrates, such as chimps, dolphins and crows. Yet they evolved along a completely separate path, from snail-like ancestors, and their brains look completely alien to our own (see "A brain apart"). © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By BENEDICT CAREY Like any other high school junior, Wynn Haimer has a few holes in his academic game. Graphs and equations, for instance: He gets the idea, fine — one is a linear representation of the other — but making those conversions is often a headache. Or at least it was. For about a month now, Wynn, 17, has been practicing at home using an unusual online program that prompts him to match graphs to equations, dozens upon dozens of them, and fast, often before he has time to work out the correct answer. An equation appears on the screen, and below it three graphs (or vice versa, a graph with three equations). He clicks on one and the screen flashes to tell him whether he’s right or wrong and jumps to the next problem. “I’m much better at it,” he said, in a phone interview from his school, New Roads in Santa Monica, Calif. “In the beginning it was difficult, having to work so quickly; but you sort of get used to it, and in the end it’s more intuitive. It becomes more effortless.” For years school curriculums have emphasized top-down instruction, especially for topics like math and science. Learn the rules first — the theorems, the order of operations, Newton’s laws — then make a run at the problem list at the end of the chapter. Yet recent research has found that true experts have something at least as valuable as a mastery of the rules: gut instinct, an instantaneous grasp of the type of problem they’re up against. Like the ballplayer who can “read” pitches early, or the chess master who “sees” the best move, they’ve developed a great eye. © 2011 The New York Times Company
There can be few competitions with such a rich prize - a massive one billion euros. That's what a team of European scientists are aiming to win. In return they are promising to create a simulated computer version of the human brain. The Human Brain Project is one of six research proposals competing for EU funding under its Future and Emerging Technologies initiative. Universities and organisations from nine countries in Europe are part of the brain research group, among them the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, and researchers in Manchester, Plymouth, London and Leicester. "Our aim is to use supercomputers to establish how the brain is designed and to build a biologically detailed simulation", according to Professor Henry Markram, director of the Human Brain Project. "There are thousands of research papers published each year on aspects of neuroscience. We need to integrate all that information so that we can assemble all knowledge of the brain." The human brain has taken millions of years to evolve so it is a tall order to build a synthetic model in just a decade. BBC © 2011
Keyword: Development of the Brain
Link ID: 15391 - Posted: 06.02.2011
By Laura Helmuth 1. We use only 10 percent of our brains. This one sounds so compelling—a precise number, repeated in pop culture for a century, implying that we have huge reserves of untapped mental powers. But the supposedly unused 90 percent of the brain is not some vestigial appendix. Brains are expensive—it takes a lot of energy to build brains during fetal and childhood development and maintain them in adults. Evolutionarily, it would make no sense to carry around surplus brain tissue. Experiments using PET or fMRI scans show that much of the brain is engaged even during simple tasks, and injury to even a small bit of brain can have profound consequences for language, sensory perception, movement or emotion. True, we have some brain reserves. Autopsy studies show that many people have physical signs of Alzheimer’s disease (such as amyloid plaques among neurons) in their brains even though they were not impaired. Apparently we can lose some brain tissue and still function pretty well. And people score higher on IQ tests if they’re highly motivated, suggesting that we don’t always exercise our minds at 100 percent capacity. 2. “Flashbulb memories” are precise, detailed and persistent. We all have memories that feel as vivid and accurate as a snapshot, usually of some shocking, dramatic event—the assassination of President Kennedy, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the attacks of September 11, 2001. People remember exactly where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, what they saw or heard. But several clever experiments have tested people’s memory immediately after a tragedy and again several months or years later. The test subjects tend to be confident that their memories are accurate and say the flashbulb memories are more vivid than other memories. Vivid they may be, but the memories decay over time just as other memories do. People forget important details and add incorrect ones, with no awareness that they’re recreating a muddled scene in their minds rather than calling up a perfect, photographic reproduction.
Link ID: 15371 - Posted: 05.28.2011
By Daniel Bates The key to being intelligent could be a thick ‘insulation’ on the brain’s wires, scientists have discovered. A fatty layer covering the neural wires helps brain signals travel faster and makes the brain work more quickly. Just as a thick coating on an electrical wire stops current leaking out, a good layer of insulation helps the brain’s ‘circuits’ function more efficiently. A magnified portion of the brain created using diffusion imaging. The bright red areas show the thick fibre tract - the corpus callosum - which transfers information between the left and right sides of the brain A magnified portion of the brain created using diffusion imaging. The bright red areas show the thick fibre tract - the corpus callosum - which transfers information between the left and right sides of the brain The research is among the first to link ‘neural architecture’ to the health of individuals. It also suggests that this characteristic is something we are born with, indicating that intelligence is something we inherit. The researchers from the University of California in Los Angeles studied images of brain scans from 92 sets of identical twins to determine the amount of myelin - a fatty layer - around the brain’s neural wires. © Associated Newspapers Ltd
By Jennifer Viegas The brainier a bird is, the better its chances are of thriving in a city, according to a new study that found many big-brained birds can succeed in urban environments. "Big" in this case refers to brain size relative to body size. In other words, the larger the ratio of brain to body, the more likely the bird will thrive in an urban environment. "Species with relatively larger brains tend to have broader diets, live in diverse habitats and have a higher propensity for behavioral innovations in foraging," lead author Alexei Maklakov told Discovery News. "They are better able to establish viable populations when introduced to new habitats by humans." Maklakov, a researcher in the Department of Animal Ecology at Uppsala University, and his colleagues studied how well -- or not -- 82 species of passerine birds belonging to 22 avian families did in and around a dozen cities in France and Switzerland. Bird species that were able to breed in city centers were considered successful colonizers. Birds that bred around the cities, but not in the urban regions themselves, were considered to be urban avoiders. For the study, which is published in the latest issue of Royal Society Biology Letters, the scientists also looked at the brain size and body mass of each bird. The researchers determined that the following are brainy birds that do well in cities: the great tit, the blue tit, the carrion crow, the jackdaw, the magpie, the nuthatch, the wren, the long-tailed tit and more. Pigeons are not passerines, so these ubiquitous urban dwellers were not included in the study. © 2011 Discovery Communications, LLC.
by Michael Balter Kids who score higher on IQ tests will, on average, go on to do better in conventional measures of success in life: academic achievement, economic success, even greater health, and longevity. Is that because they are more intelligent? Not necessarily. New research concludes that IQ scores are partly a measure of how motivated a child is to do well on the test. And harnessing that motivation might be as important to later success as so-called native intelligence. Researchers have long debated what IQ tests actually measure, and whether average differences in IQ scores--such as those between different ethnic groups--reflect differences in intelligence, social and economic factors, or both. The debate moved heavily into the public arena with the 1994 publication of The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which suggested that the lower average IQ scores of some ethnic groups, such as African-Americans and Hispanics, were due in large part to genetic differences between them and Caucasian groups. That view has been challenged by many scientists. For example, in his 2009 book "Intelligence and How to Get It," Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, argued that differences in IQ scores largely disappear when researchers control for social and economic factors. New work, led by Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and reported online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explores the effect of motivation on how well people perform on IQ tests. While subjects taking such tests are usually instructed to try as hard as they can, previous research has shown that not everyone makes the maximum effort. A number of studies have found that subjects who are promised monetary rewards for doing well on IQ and other cognitive tests score significantly higher. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
By David Eagleman A human brain is three pounds of the most complex material in the universe. It is the mission control centre that drives the operation of your life, gathering dispatches through small portals in the armoured bunker of the skull. This pink, alien computational material, which has the consistency of jelly and is composed of miniaturised, self-configuring parts, vastly outstrips anything we’ve dreamt of building. Using those brains, humans have done something unique. As far as we know, we’re the only system on the planet so complex that we’ve thrown ourselves headlong into the game of deciphering our own programming language. Imagine that your desktop computer began to control its own peripheral devices, removed its own cover and pointed its webcam at its own circuitry. That’s us. What we’ve discovered by peering into the skull ranks among the most significant intellectual developments of our species: the recognition that the innumerable facets of our behaviour, thoughts and experience are inseparably yoked to a vast chemical-electrical network called the nervous system. The machinery is utterly alien to us, and yet, somehow, it is us. The first lesson we learn from studying our own circuitry is shocking: most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control. The vast jungles of neurons operate their own programs. The conscious you – the I that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning – is the smallest bit of what’s transpiring in your brain. Although we are dependent on the functioning of the brain for our inner lives, it runs its own show. Your consciousness is like a tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot. © Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2011
Link ID: 15190 - Posted: 04.07.2011
by Andrew Moseman Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter are accustomed to making others feel the heat as they blaze through Jeopardy clue after Jeopardy clue. But tonight, the quiz show's two greatest champions will oppose a player who can't be psyched out. It's time for the world to meet Watson. IBM's Jeopardy-playing computer system appears to viewers at home as an avatar of the Earth on a black screen. In fact, it is a system years in the making, and perhaps the most impressive attempt ever to create a question-answering computer that understands the nuances of human language. Watson is not connected to the Internet, but its databases overflow with books, scripts, dictionaries, and whatever other material lead researcher David Ferrucci could pack in. Storing information is the computer's strong suit; the grand artificial intelligence challenge of Jeopardy is the subtlety of words. When the bright lights of Jeopardy go up tonight, there will be no human handler to tell Watson where inside its mighty databases to seek the answers. It must parse each clue and category title to figure out what it's being asked. It must race through its databases, find relevant search terms, and pick out the right response with a high level of confidence. It must understand the puns and geeky quirks of America's Favorite Quiz Show. It must beat two Jeopardy champions to the buzzer. And it too must voice its responses in the form of a question. © 2011, Kalmbach Publishing Co.
By Victoria Gill Old World monkeys have better numerical skills than previously thought, researchers have discovered. In a basic numeracy test, long-tailed macaques were able to work out which of two plates contained more raisins. Strangely, they only excelled in this test if they were not allowed to eat the raisins they were shown. The scientists report in the journal Nature Communications that the animals have the ability to understand the concept of relative quantities. The team of researchers from the German Primate Center in Goettingen initially tested the macaques by showing them two plates containing different numbers of raisins. When the animals spontaneously pointed to one of the plates, they were fed the raisins. But in this test, the monkeys often got it wrong - choosing the smaller amount. Lead researcher Vanessa Schmitt said that this was because, rather than thinking about quantities, the animals were thinking about how much they wanted to eat the raisins. "This impulsiveness impaired their judgement," Ms Schmitt told BBC News. BBC © MMXI
By KATE MURPHY In a culture where people cradle their cellphones next to their heads with the same constancy and affection that toddlers hold their security blankets, it was unsettling last month when a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association indicated that doing so could alter brain activity. The report said it was unclear whether the changes in the brain — an increase in glucose metabolism after using the phone for less than an hour — had any negative health or behavioral effects. But it has many people wondering what they can do to protect themselves short of (gasp) using a landline. “Cellphones are fantastic and have done much to increase productivity,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, the lead investigator of the study and director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health. “I’d never tell people to stop using them entirely.” Yet, in light of her findings, she advises users to keep cellphones at a distance by putting them on speaker mode or using a wired headset whenever possible. The next best option is a wireless Bluetooth headset or earpiece, which emit radiation at far lower levels. If a headset isn’t feasible, holding your phone just slightly away from your ear can make a big difference; the intensity of radiation diminishes sharply with distance. “Every millimeter counts,” said Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News, an online newsletter covering health and safety issues related to exposure to electromagnetic radiation. © 2011 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 15158 - Posted: 03.31.2011
by Virginia Morell Elephants know when they need a helping hand—or rather, trunk. That's the conclusion of a new study that tested the cooperative skills of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in Thailand and showed that the pachyderms understand that they will fail at a task without a partner's assistance. The ability to recognize that you sometimes need a little help from your friends is a sign of higher social cognition, psychologists say, and is rarely found in other species. Elephants now join an elite club of social cooperators: chimpanzees, hyenas, rooks, and humans. To test the elephants' cooperation skills, a team of scientists modified a classic experiment first administered to chimpanzees in the 1930s, which requires two animals work together to earn a treat. If they don't cooperate, neither gets the reward. For the elephants, the researchers used a sliding table with a single rope threaded around it. Two bowls of corn were attached to the table, but the elephants could reach them only by pulling two ends of the rope simultaneously. Working with mahout—Asian elephant trainers—trained elephants at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, the researchers first taught individual animals to pull the rope with their trunks. The 12 elephants were then divided into six pairs, and each pair was released to walk to their waiting ropes. If one animal pulled the rope before the other, the rope would slip out, leaving the table—and treats—in place. "That taught them to pull together," says Joshua Plotnik, a postdoc in experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and the lead author of the study, which appears online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
A new mouse model closely resembles how the human body reacts to early HIV infection and is shedding light on nerve cell damage related to the disease, according to researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health. The study in today’s Journal of Neuroscience demonstrates that HIV infection of the nervous system leads to inflammatory responses, changes in brain cells, and damage to neurons. This is the first study to show such neuronal loss during initial stages of HIV infection in a mouse model. The study was conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, and the University of Rochester Medical Center, N.Y. It was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Center for Research Resources. "This research breakthrough should help us move forward in learning more about how HIV affects important brain functioning in its initial stages, which in turn could lead us to better treatments that can be used early in the disease process," said Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of NIDA. "The work contained within this study is the culmination of a 20-year quest to develop a rodent model of the primary neurological complications of HIV infection in humans," said Dr. Howard Gendelman, one of the primary study authors. "Previously, the rhesus macaque was the only animal model for the study of early stages of HIV infection. However, its use was limited due to expense and issues with generalizing results across species. Relevant rodent models that mimic human disease have been sorely needed."
Link ID: 15064 - Posted: 03.03.2011
by Andrew Moseman Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter are accustomed to making others feel the heat as they blaze through Jeopardy clue after Jeopardy clue. But tonight, the quiz show's two greatest champions will oppose a player who can't be psyched out. It's time for the world to meet Watson. IBM's Jeopardy-playing computer system appears to viewers at home as an avatar of the Earth on a black screen. In fact, it is a system years in the making, and perhaps the most impressive attempt ever to create a question-answering computer that understands the nuances of human language. Watson is not connected to the Internet, but its databases overflow with books, scripts, dictionaries, and whatever other material lead researcher David Ferrucci could pack in. Storing information is the computer's strong suit; the grand artificial intelligence challenge of Jeopardy is the subtlety of words. advertisement | article continues below When the bright lights of Jeopardy go up tonight, there will be no human handler to tell Watson where inside its mighty databases to seek the answers. It must parse each clue and category title to figure out what it's being asked. It must race through its databases, find relevant search terms, and pick out the right response with a high level of confidence. It must understand the puns and geeky quirks of America's Favorite Quiz Show. It must beat two Jeopardy champions to the buzzer. And it too must voice its responses in the form of a question. © 2011, Kalmbach Publishing Co.
By TARA PARKER-POPE Researchers from the National Institutes of Health have found that less than an hour of cellphone use can speed up brain activity in the area closest to the phone antenna, raising new questions about the health effects of low levels of radiation emitted from cellphones. The researchers, led by Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, urged caution in interpreting the findings because it is not known whether the changes, which were seen in brain scans, have any meaningful effect on a person’s overall health. But the study, published Wednesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association, is among the first and largest to document that the weak radio-frequency signals from cellphones have the potential to alter brain activity. “The study is important because it documents that the human brain is sensitive to the electromagnetic radiation that is emitted by cellphones,” Dr. Volkow said. “It also highlights the importance of doing studies to address the question of whether there are — or are not — long-lasting consequences of repeated stimulation, of getting exposed over five, 10 or 15 years.” Although preliminary, the findings are certain to reignite a debate about the safety of cellphones. A few observational studies have suggested a link between heavy cellphone use and rare brain tumors, but the bulk of the available scientific evidence shows no added risk. Major medical groups have said that cellphones are safe, but some top doctors, including the former director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Center and prominent neurosurgeons, have urged the use of headsets as a precaution. © 2011 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 15042 - Posted: 02.24.2011