Chapter 13. Memory, Learning, and Development

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or subscribe to our mailing list, to receive news updates. Learn more.


Links 21 - 40 of 4996

By Kate Baggaley Stem cells can help heal long-term brain damage suffered by rats blasted with radiation, researchers report in the Feb. 5 Cell Stem Cell. The treatment allows the brain to rebuild the insulation on its nerve cells so they can start carrying messages again. The researchers directed human stem cells to become a type of brain cell that is destroyed by radiation, a common cancer treatment, then grafted the cells into the brains of irradiated rats. Within a few months, the rats’ performance on learning and memory tests improved. “This technique, translated to humans, could be a major step forward for the treatment of radiation-induced brain … injury,” says Jonathan Glass, a neurologist at Emory University in Atlanta. Steve Goldman, a neurologist at the University of Rochester in New York, agrees that the treatment could repair a lot of the damage caused by radiation. “Radiation therapy … is very effective, but the problem is patients end up with severe disability,” he says. “Fuzzy thinking, a loss in higher intellectual functions, decreases in memory — all those are part and parcel of radiation therapy to the brain.” For children, the damage can be profound. “Those kids have really significant detriments in their adult IQs,” Goldman says. Radiation obliterates cells that mature into oligodendrocytes, a type of cell that coats the message-carrying part of nerve cells with insulation. Without that cover, known as the myelin sheath, nerve cells can’t transmit information, leading to memory and other brain problems. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015

Keyword: Learning & Memory; Glia
Link ID: 20563 - Posted: 02.07.2015

Alison Abbott Fabienne never found out why she went into labour three months too early. But on a quiet afternoon in June 2007, she was hit by accelerating contractions and was rushed to the nearest hospital in rural Switzerland, near Lausanne. When her son, Hugo, was born at 26 weeks of gestation rather than the typical 40, he weighed just 950 grams and was immediately placed in intensive care. Three days later, doctors told Fabienne that ultrasound pictures of Hugo's brain indicated that he had had a severe haemorrhage from his immature blood vessels. “I just exploded into tears,” she says. Both she and her husband understood that the prognosis for Hugo was grim: he had a very high risk of cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that can lead to a life of severe disability. The couple agreed that they did not want to subject their child to that. “We immediately told the doctors that we did not want fierce medical intervention to keep him alive — and saw the relief on the doctors' faces,” recalls Fabienne, who requested that her surname not be used. That night was the most tortured of her life. The next day, however, before any change had been made to Hugo's treatment, his doctors proposed a new option to confirm the diagnosis: a brain scan using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This technique, which had been newly adapted for premature babies, would allow the doctors to predict the risk of cerebral palsy more accurately than with ultrasound alone, which has a high false-positive rate. Hugo's MRI scan showed that the damage caused by the brain haemorrhage was limited, and his risk of severe cerebral palsy was likely to be relatively low. So just 24 hours after their decision to let his life end, Hugo's parents did an about-turn. They agreed that the doctors should try to save him. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group

Keyword: Development of the Brain
Link ID: 20555 - Posted: 02.05.2015

By Amanda Baker While we all may vary on just how much time we like spending with other people, humans are overall very social beings. Scientists have already found this to be reflected in our health and well-being – with social isolation being associated with more depression, worse health, and a shorter life. Looking even deeper, they find evidence of our social nature reflected in the very structure of our brains. Just thinking through your daily interactions with your friends or siblings probably gives you dozens of examples of times when it was important to interpret or predict the feelings and behaviors of other people. Our brains agree. Over time parts of our brains have been developed specifically for those tasks, but apparently not all social interaction was created equally. When researchers study the brains of people trying to predict the thoughts and feelings of others, they can actually see a difference in the brain activity depending on whether that person is trying to understand a friend versus a stranger. Even at the level of blood flowing through your brain, you treat people you know well differently than people you don’t. These social interactions also extend into another important area of the brain: the nucleus accumbens. This structure is key in the reward system of the brain, with activity being associated with things that leave you feeling good. Curious if this could have a direct connection with behavior, one group of scientists studied a very current part of our behavior as modern social beings: Facebook use. © 2015 Scientific American

Keyword: Development of the Brain
Link ID: 20554 - Posted: 02.05.2015

By ALAN SCHWARZ High numbers of students are beginning college having felt depressed and overwhelmed during the previous year, according to an annual survey released on Thursday, reinforcing some experts’ concern about the emotional health of college freshmen. The survey of more than 150,000 students nationwide, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014,” found that 9.5 percent of respondents had frequently “felt depressed” during the past year, a significant rise over the 6.1 percent reported five years ago. Those who “felt overwhelmed” by schoolwork and other commitments rose to 34.6 percent from 27.1 percent. Conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California, Los Angeles’s Higher Education Research Institute for almost 50 years, the survey assesses hundreds of matters ranging from political views to exercise habits. It is considered one of the most comprehensive snapshots of trends among recent high school seniors and is of particular interest to people involved in mental well-being. “It’s a public health issue,” said Dr. Anthony L. Rostain, a psychiatrist and co-chairman of a University of Pennsylvania task force on students’ emotional health. “We’re expecting more of students: There’s a sense of having to compete in a global economy, and they think they have to be on top of their game all the time. It’s no wonder they feel overwhelmed.” Other survey results indicated that students were spending more time on academics and socializing less — trends that would normally be lauded. But the lead author of the study, Kevin Eagan, cautioned that the shift could result in higher levels of stress. © 2015 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Depression; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 20553 - Posted: 02.05.2015

|By Andrea Anderson and Victoria Stern Blood type may affect brain function as we age, according to a new large, long-term study. People with the rare AB blood type, present in less than 10 percent of the population, have a higher than usual risk of cognitive problems as they age. University of Vermont hematologist Mary Cushman and her colleagues used data from a national study called REGARDS, which has been following 30,239 African-American and Caucasian individuals older than 45 since 2007. The aim of the study is to understand the heavy stroke toll seen in the southeastern U.S., particularly among African-Americans. Cushman's team focused on information collected twice yearly via phone surveys that evaluate cognitive skills such as learning, short-term memory and executive function. The researchers zeroed in on 495 individuals who showed significant declines on at least two of the three phone survey tests. When they compared that cognitively declining group with 587 participants whose mental muster remained robust, researchers found that impairment in thinking was roughly 82 percent more likely in individuals with AB blood type than in those with A, B or O blood types, even after taking their race, sex and geography into account. The finding was published online last September in Neurology. The seemingly surprising result has some precedent: past studies suggest non-O blood types are linked to elevated incidence of heart disease, stroke and blood clots—vascular conditions that could affect brain function. Yet these cardiovascular consequences are believed to be linked to the way non-O blood types coagulate, which did not seem to contribute to the cognitive effects described in the new study. The researchers speculate that other blood-group differences, such as how likely cells are to stick to one another or to blood vessel walls, might affect brain function. © 2015 Scientific American

Keyword: Alzheimers
Link ID: 20552 - Posted: 02.05.2015

By Maria Konnikova R. T. first heard about the Challenger explosion as she and her roommate sat watching television in their Emory University dorm room. A news flash came across the screen, shocking them both. R. T., visibly upset, raced upstairs to tell another friend the news. Then she called her parents. Two and a half years after the event, she remembered it as if it were yesterday: the TV, the terrible news, the call home. She could say with absolute certainty that that’s precisely how it happened. Except, it turns out, none of what she remembered was accurate. R. T. was a student in a class taught by Ulric Neisser, a cognitive psychologist who had begun studying memory in the seventies. Early in his career, Neisser became fascinated by the concept of flashbulb memories—the times when a shocking, emotional event seems to leave a particularly vivid imprint on the mind. William James had described such impressions, in 1890, as “so exciting emotionally as almost to leave a scar upon the cerebral tissues.” The day following the explosion of the Challenger, in January, 1986, Neisser, then a professor of cognitive psychology at Emory, and his assistant, Nicole Harsch, handed out a questionnaire about the event to the hundred and six students in their ten o’clock psychology 101 class, “Personality Development.” Where were the students when they heard the news? Whom were they with? What were they doing? The professor and his assistant carefully filed the responses away. In the fall of 1988, two and a half years later, the questionnaire was given a second time to the same students. It was then that R. T. recalled, with absolute confidence, her dorm-room experience. But when Neisser and Harsch compared the two sets of answers, they found barely any similarities.

Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20548 - Posted: 02.05.2015

By Katherine Ellison Dr. Mark Bertin is no A.D.H.D. pill-pusher. The Pleasantville, N.Y., developmental pediatrician won’t allow drug marketers in his office, and says he doesn’t always prescribe medication for children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Yet Dr. Bertin has recently changed the way he talks about medication, offering parents a powerful argument. Recent research, he says, suggests the pills may “normalize” the child’s brain over time, rewiring neural connections so that a child would feel more focused and in control, long after the last pill was taken. “There might be quite a profound neurological benefit,” he said in an interview. A growing number of doctors who treat the estimated 6.4 million American children diagnosed with A.D.H.D. are hearing that stimulant medications not only help treat the disorder but may actually be good for their patients’ brains. In an interview last spring with Psych Congress Network, http://www.psychcongress.com/video/are-A.D.H.D.-medications-neurotoxic-or-neuroprotective-16223an Internet news site for mental health professionals, Dr. Timothy Wilens, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, said “we have enough data to say they’re actually neuroprotective.” The pills, he said, help “normalize” the function and structure of brains in children with A.D.H.D., so that, “over years, they turn out to look more like non-A.D.H.D. kids.” Medication is already by far the most common treatment for A.D.H.D., with roughly 4 million American children taking the pills — mostly stimulants, such as amphetamines and methylphenidate. Yet the decision can be anguishing for parents who worry about both short-term and long-term side effects. If the pills can truly produce long-lasting benefits, more parents might be encouraged to start their children on these medications early and continue them for longer. Leading A.D.H.D. experts, however, warn the jury is still out. © 2015 The New York Times Company

Keyword: ADHD; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 20544 - Posted: 02.03.2015

The longer a teenager spends using electronic devices such as tablets and smartphones, the worse their sleep will be, a study of nearly 10,000 16- to 19-year-olds suggests. More than two hours of screen time after school was strongly linked to both delayed and shorter sleep. Almost all the teens from Norway said they used the devices shortly before going to bed. Many said they often got less than five hours sleep a night, BMJ Open reports. The teens were asked questions about their sleep routine on weekdays and at weekends, as well as how much screen time they clocked up outside school hours. On average, girls said they spent around five and a half hours a day watching TV or using computers, smartphones or other electronic devices. And boys spent slightly more time in front of a screen - around six and a half hours a day, on average. Playing computer games was more popular among the boys, whereas girls were more likely to spend their time chatting online. teen using a laptop Any type of screen use during the day and in the hour before bedtime appeared to disrupt sleep - making it more difficult for teenagers to nod off. And the more hours they spent on gadgets, the more disturbed their sleep became. When daytime screen use totalled four or more hours, teens had a 49% greater risk of taking longer than an hour to fall asleep. These teens also tended to get less than five hours of sleep per night. Sleep duration went steadily down as gadget use increased. © 2015 BBC

Keyword: Sleep; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 20543 - Posted: 02.03.2015

|By Esther Landhuis One in nine Americans aged 65 and older has Alzheimer's disease, a fatal brain disorder with no cure or effective treatment. Therapy could come in the form of new drugs, but some experts suspect drug trials have failed so far because compounds were tested too late in the disease's progression. By the time people show signs of dementia, their brains have lost neurons. No therapy can revive dead cells, and little can be done to create new ones. So researchers running trials now seek participants who still pass as cognitively normal but are on the verge of decline. These “preclinical” Alzheimer's patients may represent a window of opportunity for therapeutic intervention. How to identify such individuals before they have symptoms presents a challenge, however. Today most Alzheimer's patients are diagnosed after a detailed medical workup and extensive tests that gauge mental function. Other tests, such as spinal fluid analyses and positron-emission tomography (PET) scans, can detect signs of approaching disease and help pinpoint the preclinical window but are cumbersome or expensive. “There's no cheap, fast, noninvasive test that can identify people at risk of Alzheimer's,” says Brad Dolin, chief technology officer of Neurotrack in Palo Alto, Calif.—a company developing a computerized visual screening test for Alzheimer's. Unlike other cognitive batteries, the Neurotrack test requires no language or motor skills. Participants view images on a monitor while a camera tracks their eye movements. The test draws on research by co-founder Stuart Zola of Emory University, who studies learning and memory in monkeys. When presented with a pair of images—one novel, the other familiar—primates fixate longer on the novel one. But if the hippocampus is damaged, as it is in people with Alzheimer's, the subject does not show a clear preference for the novel images. © 2015 Scientific American

Keyword: Alzheimers; Attention
Link ID: 20541 - Posted: 02.02.2015

By KEN BELSON A new study of N.F.L. retirees found that those who began playing tackle football when they were younger than 12 years old had a higher risk of developing memory and thinking problems later in life. The study, published in the medical journal Neurology by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine, was based on tests given to 42 former N.F.L. players, ages 41 to 65, who had experienced cognitive problems for at least six months. Half the players started playing tackle football before age 12, and the other half began at 12 or older. Those former N.F.L. players who started playing before 12 years old performed “significantly worse” on every test measure after accounting for the total number of years played and the age of the players when they took the tests. Those players recalled fewer words from a list they had learned 15 minutes earlier, and their mental flexibility was diminished compared with players who began playing tackle football at 12 or older. The age of 12 was chosen as a benchmark because it is roughly the point by which brains in young boys are thought to have already undergone key periods of development. Research has shown that boys younger than 12 who injure their brains can take longer to recover and have poor cognition in childhood. The findings are likely to fuel an already fierce debate about when it is safe to allow children to begin playing tackle football and other contact sports. Youth leagues are under scrutiny for putting children at risk with head injuries. Pop Warner and many other youth leagues have added training protocols, have limited contact in practice and have adjusted weight and age limits to try to reduce head injuries and the risks associated with them. But some leagues continue to allow children as young as 5 to play tackle football. © 2015 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Brain Injury/Concussion; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 20535 - Posted: 01.29.2015

Criminal psychopaths learn to respond differently to punishment cues than others in jail and may need more reward-focused treatments, new research suggests. Criminals such as Paul Bernardo, Ted Bundy and Clifford Olson, who scored high on psychopathy checklists, were known to be callous and unemotional. Psychopaths derive pleasure from being manipulative and use premeditated aggression to get what they want with no regard for those who are hurt. The search for what makes them tick has shown some physical differences in their brains such as reductions in grey matter. Now researchers in London, Montreal and Bethseda, Md., have used functional MRI imaging to assess how the brains of 12 violent criminals with psychopathy, 20 violent criminals with antisocial personality disorder but not psychopathy (such as those with a history of impulsivity and risk-taking), and 18 healthy people who were not criminals responded differently to rewards and punishment. "In the room with them, there's the sense that the weight of what they've done and the deleterious effect this is having on their lives doesn't really hold for them," said Dr. Nigel Blackwood of King's College London, a senior author of the paper in Wednesday's issue of Lancet Psychiatry. It's only at the moment in the scanner when the sanction of lost points cues them to change their behaviour that the differences between violent psychopaths and those with antisocial personality disorder appear. ©2015 CBC/Radio-Canada

Keyword: Aggression; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20531 - Posted: 01.29.2015

Alison Abbott If you have to make a complex decision, will you do a better job if you absorb yourself in, say, a crossword puzzle instead of ruminating about your options? The idea that unconscious thought is sometimes more powerful than conscious thought is attractive, and echoes ideas popularized by books such as writer Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling Blink. But within the scientific community, ‘unconscious-thought advantage’ (UTA) has been controversial. Now Dutch psychologists have carried out the most rigorous study yet of UTA — and find no evidence for it. Their conclusion, published this week in Judgement and Decision Making, is based on a large experiment that they designed to provide the best chance of capturing the effect should it exist, along with a sophisticated statistical analysis of previously published data1. The report adds to broader concerns about the quality of psychology studies and to an ongoing controversy about the extent to which unconscious thought in general can influence behaviour. “The bigger debate is about how clever our unconscious is,” says cognitive psychol­ogist David Shanks of University College London. “This carefully constructed paper makes a great contribution.” Shanks published a review last year that questioned research claiming that various unconscious influences, including UTA, affect decision making2. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group

Keyword: Attention; Consciousness
Link ID: 20528 - Posted: 01.28.2015

Ian Sample, science editor People who carry a mutated gene linked to longer lifespan have extra tissue in part of the brain that seems to protect them against mental decline in old age. The finding has shed light on a biological pathway that researchers now hope to turn into a therapy that slows the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Brain scans of more than 400 healthy men and women aged 53 and over found that those who carried a single copy of a particular gene variant had a larger brain region that deals with planning and decision making. Further tests on the group found that those with an enlarged right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (rDLPFC), as the brain region is known, fared better on a series of mental tasks. About one in five people inherits a single copy of the gene variant, or allele, known as KL-VS, which improves heart and kidney function, and on average adds about three years to human lifespan, according to Dena Dubal, a neurologist at University of California, San Francisco. Her latest work suggests that the same genetic mutation has broader effects on the brain. While having a larger rDLPFC accounted for only 12% of the improvement in people’s mental test scores, Dubal suspects the gene alters the brain in other ways, perhaps by improving the connections that form between neurons.

Keyword: Alzheimers; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 20526 - Posted: 01.28.2015

By Eliot Marshall In perhaps the most famous study of childhood neglect, researchers have closely tracked the progress, or lack of it, in children who lived as infants in Romania’s bleak orphanages and are now teenagers. A new analysis now shows that these children, who display a variety of behavioral and cognitive problems, have less white matter in their brains than do a group of comparable children in local families. The affected brain regions include nerve bundles that support attention, general cognition, and emotion processing. The work suggests that sensory deprivation early in life can have dramatic anatomical impacts on the brain and may help explain the previously documented long-term negative affects on behavior. But there’s some potential good news: A small group of children who were taken out of orphanages and moved into foster homes at age 2 appeared to bounce back, at least in brain structure. “This is an exciting and important study,” says Harvard Medical School psychiatric researcher Martin Teicher, who directs the developmental biopsychiatry research program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. The “crucial question” of whether children can recover from the setbacks of early adversity had not been answered before, he adds. The work is based on MRI scans and other measures taken in Romania by researchers at the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP). The group, headed by neurologist Charles Nelson of Harvard Medical School, was spurred to action by the collapse of Romania’s Nicolae Ceauceșcu regime in 1989, which had shunted tens of thousands of unwanted children into state-run orphanages. Nelson says that caretakers in the orphanages worked in factorylike shifts; children might see as many as 17 different caretakers in a week. Infants rarely enjoyed the one-on-one interactions that are considered essential to normal development. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Brain imaging
Link ID: 20524 - Posted: 01.27.2015

By ERICA GOODE A goat frolics with a baby rhinoceros. A pig nestles up to a house cat. A rat snake makes nice with the dwarf hamster originally intended as its lunch. Few things seem to capture the public imagination more reliably than friendly interactions between different species — a fact not lost on Anheuser-Busch, which during Sunday’s Super Bowl will offer a sequel to “Puppy Love,” its wildly popular 2014 Budweiser commercial about friendship between a Clydesdale and a yellow Labrador puppy. The earlier Super Bowl spot has drawn more than 55 million views on YouTube. Videos of unlikely animal pairs romping or snuggling have become so common that they are piquing the interest of some scientists, who say they invite more systematic study. Among other things, researchers say, the alliances could add to an understanding of how species communicate, what propels certain animals to connect across species lines and the degree to which some animals can adopt the behaviors of other species. “There’s no question that studying these relationships can give you some insight into the factors that go into normal relationships,” said Gordon Burghardt, a professor in the departments of psychology and ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee, who added that one video he liked to show students was of a small and persistent tortoise tussling over a ball with a Jack Russell terrier. “Even one example raises the possibility that there’s something interesting going on here,” Dr. Burghardt said. Science has not entirely ignored unusual interactions between species. Biologists have described relationships formed to achieve a specific goal, like the cooperative hunting between groupers and moray eels. And in the mid-1900s, Konrad Lorenz and other ethologists demonstrated that during critical periods after birth, certain birds and other animals would follow the first moving object they saw, whether animal, human or machine, a phenomenon known as imprinting. Dr. Lorenz was famously photographed with a gaggle of “imprinted” geese trailing behind him. © 2015 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Aggression; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 20521 - Posted: 01.27.2015

By Will Boggs MD (Reuters Health) – There are so many different genetic forms of autism that using the singular term, autism, is misleading, researchers say. “We believe a better term to use is ‘the autisms,’ or ‘the autism spectrum disorders’ (that is, plural),” Dr. Stephen W. Scherer told Reuters Health by email. “There are many different forms of autism. In other words, autism is more of a collection of different disorders that have a common clinical manifestation.” The DNA of affected individuals varies remarkably, his team found. Two-thirds of brothers and sisters with what’s still called autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, showed different genetic changes. Scherer, from The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, is part of a team that aims to identify all the genetic changes in individuals with ASD. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls) have an autism spectrum disorder. Recent estimates in Europe, the CDC says, are that one to two percent of children there are affected. When Scherer's team looked for genetic changes in the entire DNA from 85 pairs of brothers and sisters with ASD and their parents, they found an average of roughly 73 genetic changes per set of DNA -- but only 36 of the 85 families (42.4 percent) had mutations that researchers could relate to genes already linked in some way to ASD. © 2015 Scientific American

Keyword: Autism
Link ID: 20520 - Posted: 01.27.2015

Over-the-counter sleeping aids and hayfever treatments can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, a study has found. The sleeping medication Nytol and anti-allergy pills Benadryl and Piriton all belong to a class of drug highlighted in a warning from researchers. Each of these drugs has “anticholinergic” blocking effects on the nervous system that are said – at higher doses – to raise the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia significantly over several years. Other drugs on the risk list include older “tricyclic” antidepressants such as doxepin, and the bladder control treatment Ditropan (oxybutynin). Many of these medicines are taken by vulnerable older people, according to the scientists, who say their findings have public health implications. Anticholinergic drugs block a nervous system chemical transmitter called acetylcholine, which can lead to side-effects including drowsiness, blurred vision and poor memory. People with Alzheimer’s disease are known to lack acetylcholine. The leader of the US study, Professor Shelly Gray, director of the geriatric pharmacy programme at the University of Washington School of Pharmacy, said: “Older adults should be aware that many medications – including some available without a prescription, such as over-the-counter sleep aids – have strong anticholinergic effects. And they should tell their healthcare providers. “Of course, no one should stop taking any therapy without consulting their healthcare provider. Healthcare providers should regularly review their older patients’ drug regimens – including over-the-counter medications – to look for chances to use fewer anticholinergic medications at lower doses.”

Keyword: Alzheimers; Sleep
Link ID: 20519 - Posted: 01.27.2015

By Elizabeth Pennisi In the animal kingdom, humans are known for our big brains. But not all brains are created equal, and now we have new clues as to why that is. Researchers have uncovered eight genetic variations that help determine the size of key brain regions. These variants may represent “the genetic essence of humanity,” says Stephan Sanders, a geneticist and pediatrician at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the study. These results are among the first to come out of the ENIGMA (Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics through Meta-Analysis) collaboration, involving some 300 scientists from 33 countries. They contributed MRI scans of more than 30,000 people, along with genetic and other information, most of which had been collected for other reasons. “This paper represents a herculean effort,” Sanders says. Only by pooling their efforts could the researchers track down subtle genetic influences on brain size that would have eluded discovery in smaller studies. “We were surprised we found anything at all,” says Paul Thompson, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. But in the end, “we were able to identify hot points in the genome that help build the brain.” For the analyses, Thompson and his colleagues looked for single-letter (nucleotide base) changes in DNA that correspond to the sizes of key brain regions. One region, the hippocampus, stores memories and helps one learn. Another, called the caudate nucleus, makes it possible to ride a bike, play an instrument, or drive a car without really thinking about it. A third is the putamen, which is involved in running, walking, and moving the body as well as in motivation. The researchers did not try to examine the neocortex, the part of the brain that helps us think and is proportionally much bigger in humans than in other animals. The neocortex has crevices on its surface that look so different from one individual to the next that it’s really hard to measure consistently across labs. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 20509 - Posted: 01.22.2015

By BENEDICT CAREY The surge of emotion that makes memories of embarrassment, triumph and disappointment so vivid can also reach back in time, strengthening recall of seemingly mundane things that happened just beforehand and that, in retrospect, are relevant, a new study has found. The report, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, suggests that the television detective’s standard query — “Do you remember any unusual behavior in the days before the murder?” — is based on solid brain science, at least in some circumstances. The findings fit into the predominant theory of memory: that it is an adaptive process, continually updating itself according to what knowledge may be important in the future. The new study suggests that human memory has, in effect, a just-in-case file, keeping seemingly trivial sights, sounds and observations in cold storage for a time in case they become useful later on. But the experiment said nothing about the effect of trauma, which shapes memory in unpredictable ways. Rather, it aimed to mimic the arousals of daily life: The study used mild electric shocks to create apprehension and measured how the emotion affected memory of previously seen photographs. In earlier work, researchers had found plenty of evidence in animals and humans of this memory effect, called retroactive consolidation. The new study shows that the effect applies selectively to related, relevant information. “The study provides strong evidence for a specific kind of retroactive enhancement,” said Daniel L. Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard who was not involved in the research. “The findings go beyond what we’ve found previously in humans.” © 2015 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Learning & Memory; Emotions
Link ID: 20507 - Posted: 01.22.2015

Research suggests that only 20–30% of drug users actually descend into addiction — defined as the persistent seeking and taking of drugs even in the face of dire personal consequences. Why are some people who use drugs able to do so without turning into addicts, while others continue to abuse, even when the repercussions range from jail time to serious health problems? In a comprehensive review in the European Journal of Neuroscience, Barry Everitt outlines the neural correlates and learning-based processes associated with the transition from drug use, to abuse, to addiction. Drug seeking begins as a goal-directed behavior, with an action (finding and taking drugs) leading to a particular outcome (the drug high). This type of associative learning is mediated by the dorsomedial region of the striatum, the area of the brain that is associated with reward processing, which functions primarily through the neurotransmitter dopamine. In this kind of learning, devaluing the outcome (by decreasing the potency of the drug, for example) tends to decrease the pursuit of the action. When the high is not what it used to be, the motivation to continue seeking it out decreases. However, in long-term abusers, this devalued outcome does not reduce the action — indeed, researchers have found that in cases of chronic drug use, a parallel associative learning process eventually comes to the fore. This process is one of stimulus–response; the conditioned stimuli in this case are the various environmental cues — the sight of the powdery white stuff, the smell of burning aluminum foil — that users associate with getting high and that compel them to seek out drugs. © Association for Psychological Science

Keyword: Drug Abuse; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20506 - Posted: 01.22.2015