Chapter 13. Memory, Learning, and Development
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By Lisa Sanders, M.D On Thursday we challenged Well readers to solve the difficult case of twin sisters who, in the prime of youth, developed a weakness that forced them to use their arms to rise from a chair. Nearly 300 of you wrote in with thoughts on this difficult case. Many of you recognized that this was likely to be a genetic disorder, though I greatly admired the “House”-ian thinking that led to a host of possible reasons why two sisters, living in different states, might develop the same symptoms independent of their shared DNA. It took this patient, Katie Buryk, four years to get her answer, which was: Late onset Tay-Sachs disease Although several of you made this difficult diagnosis, the first to do so was George Bonadurer, a second year medical student at Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minn. He says he recently read about this disease in a book of unusual cases that had come to the Mayo clinic for help. This is actually Mr. Bonadurer’s second win of this contest. Strong work! Tay-Sachs disease was first identified by two physicians, independently, in the 1880s. Dr. Warren Tay was an ophthalmologist in London. Dr. Bernard Sachs was a neurologist in New York City. Each described a disease in infants that caused profound weakness, blindness and, usually by age 4, death. Careful consideration of cases over the following decades showed that the disease was inherited and often seen in children of Ashkenazi descent. Studying the patterns of inheritance, it became clear that both parents had to have the abnormal gene and that each of their children would have a one in four chance of being born with the disease. The terrible manifestations of the disease derive from an inherited inability to make an essential protein in the brain. This protein acts to break down discarded components of the cells. Without this protein, these discarded cell parts accumulate, interrupting normal nerve and brain cell functioning. This mechanism and the missing protein was identified in 1969, allowing for the development of a test for carriers. Since the development of this test, the incidence of Tay-Sachs in the United States has dropped by 90 percent. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Douwe Draaisma When we sleep, wrote English psychiatrist Havelock Ellis over a hundred years ago, we enter a ‘dim and ancient house of shadow’. We wander through its rooms, climb staircases, linger on a landing. Towards morning we leave the house again. In the doorway we look over our shoulders briefly and with the morning light flooding in we can still catch a glimpse of the rooms where we spent the night. Then the door closes behind us and a few hours later even those fragmentary memories we had when we woke have been wiped away. That is how it feels. You wake up and still have access to bits of the dream. But as you try to bring the dream more clearly to mind, you notice that even those few fragments are already starting to fade. Sometimes there is even less. On waking you are unable to shake off the impression that you have been dreaming; the mood of the dream is still there, but you no longer know what it was about. Sometimes you are unable to remember anything at all in the morning, not a dream, not a feeling, but later in the day you experience something that causes a fragment of the apparently forgotten dream to pop into your mind. No matter what we may see as we look back through the doorway, most of our dreams slip away and the obvious question is: why? Why is it so hard to hold on to dreams? Why do we have such a poor memory for them? In 1893, American psychologist Mary Calkins published her ‘Statistics of Dreams’, a numerical analysis of what she and her husband dreamed about over a period of roughly six weeks. They both kept candles, matches, pencil and paper in readiness on the bedside table. But dreams are so fleeting, Calkins wrote, that even reaching out for matches was enough to make them disappear. Still with an arm outstretched, she was forced to conclude that the dream had gone. © 2015 Salon Media Group, Inc
by Laura Sanders On a test of visual perception, children with autism perceive moving dots with more clarity than children without the disorder. The results, published in the May 6 Journal of Neuroscience, reveal a way in which children with autism see the world differently. When asked to determine the overall direction of a mess of dots moving in slightly different directions, children with autism outperformed children without the disorder. Other tests of motion detection didn’t turn up any differences. The results suggest that children with autism may be taking in and combining more motion information than children without autism, says study coauthor Catherine Manning of the University of Oxford. This heightened ability may contribute to feelings of sensory overload, the researchers suggest. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015
Ian Sample, science editor Brain scans of children who were born prematurely have revealed differences in the connectivity of key regions that may play a role in developmental disorders. Previous studies have already highlighted that children who are born preterm are more at risk of autism and other behavioural conditions, such as the poor attention that is associated with ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The new findings could help doctors understand why preterm children are so often affected, and work out whether medications or different styles of care could help the children reach their full potential. Researchers at King’s College London scanned the brains of 66 infants on average 42 weeks after their mothers’ last period before the birth. Forty seven of the babies were born prematurely, at less than 33 weeks. The other 19 babies were born on average after 40 weeks gestation. In their final weeks in the womb, babies’ brains are building connections at an incredible rate, which makes them particularly sensitive to changes in the last trimester. If a baby is born prematurely, the crucial period of brain growth happens in the radically different environment of the neonatal unit. From the MRI scans, the scientists found that infants born prematurely had increased connectivity in only one part of the brain they tested. A region called the thalamus, a kind of neural relay station, was better connected to a part called the lateral sensory cortex, which handles signals from the mouth, lips and jaw. The result might be explained by pre-term babies breast or bottle feeding much earlier, or being given dummies while on supportive breathing machines. © 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited
James Gorman If modern science is right, the great mystery of embryonic development is less about how life unfolds, and more about how it folds. Embryos of many organisms grow from two cells to four, then eight, and so on until there are thousands in a kind of ball. Then sheets of cells start to make folds or furrows as the basic shape of the creature — fly or fish or human — begins to emerge. One of the most striking examples is a moment in the development of Volvox, a kind of algae that forms one of the simplest multicellular organisms. When it is a sphere of a few thousand cells, it reaches adult size, but not adult shape. So it turns itself inside out. Scientists at the University of Cambridge in England have made a time-lapse recording of the process that shows it in three dimensions for the first time and has enough detail that researchers can check their mathematical descriptions of the transformation. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Development of the Brain
Link ID: 20888 - Posted: 05.05.2015
Roger Dobson Tapping your fingers on the table is usually a sign of boredom or irritation. But not all tappers are equal, it seems. Men drum their digits slightly faster than women and people in their twenties tap substantially faster than people twice their age. The results of the first study into finger-tapping speeds also found that smokers tap a little faster than non-smokers and fit people tap faster than those who avoid exercise. The research, carried out by scientists at two universities in Istanbul – Bogazici University and Fatih University – examined the tapping rates and “finger load capacities” of 148 people aged between 18 and 85. Each participant was asked to perform a one-minute tapping exercise on a keyboard at “maximum volitional tempo”. Researchers found that the index finger on the right hand of both men and women was the fastest digit, achieving a tapping rate of up to five beats a second among those in their twenties. The middle finger was almost as nifty as the index finger, but the little finger – the slowest digit in the bunch – was capable only of a sluggish 3.8 taps a second among people in the same age group. At first glance, the study might appear to be rather frivolous. But a deeper understanding of finger tapping could aid the design of computer keyboards and musical instruments. It may also aid researchers who use finger-tapping tests for medical assessment of neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.
|By Michele Solis An individual with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is overcome with an urge to engage in unproductive habits, such as excessive hand washing or lock checking. Though recognizing these behaviors as irrational, the person remains trapped in a cycle of life-disrupting compulsions. Previous studies found that OCD patients have abnormalities in two different brain systems—one that creates habits and one that plays a supervisory role. Yet whether the anomalies drive habit formation or are instead a consequence of doing an action over and over remained unclear. To resolve this question, a team at the University of Cambridge monitored brain activity while people were actually forming new habits. Lapses in supervision are to blame, the researchers reported in a study published online in December 2014 in the American Journal of Psychiatry. They scanned 37 people with OCD and 33 healthy control subjects while they learned to avoid a mild shock by pressing on a foot pedal. Pressing the pedal became a habit for everyone, but people with OCD continued to press even when the threat of shock was over. Those with OCD showed abnormal activity in the supervisory regions important for goal-directed behavior but not in those responsible for habit formation. The finding suggests that shoring up the goal-directed systems through cognitive training might help people with OCD. The growing understanding of OCD's roots in the brain may also help convince individuals to engage in standard habit-breaking treatments, which expose a person to a trigger but prevent his or her typical response. “It's hard for people to not perform an action that their whole body is telling them to do,” says first author Claire Gillan, now at New York University. “So if you have an awareness that the habit is just a biological slip, then it makes OCD a lot less scary and something you can eventually control.” © 2015 Scientific American
By Aleksandra Sagan, CBC News In a Dutch town about 20 kilometres outside of Amsterdam, a small community lives in what at first glance seems like a real-life version of The Truman Show. Hogewey has a grocery store, a theatre and a barber shop. The only twist is that many of its 152 residents live unaware that their orderly community is actually a nursing home for people with severe dementia. "We protect our residents from the unsafe world. They do not understand the world outside this because the outside world doesn't understand them," says Yvonne van Amerongen, an employee at Hogewey who also helped develop the concept. Hogewey was officially opened in 2007, but the idea has now caught the attention of health-care professionals in Ontario and Alberta. Rhonda Desroches, who helped create a smaller-scale Hogewey in Penetanguishene, Ont., says relatives of the residents are pleased with how happy their family members seem to be in the new facility. Dementia is a growing problem. According to the Alzheimer Society Canada, one out of 20 Canadians over 65 has Alzheimer's Disease, and that figure jumps to one in four for Canadians over 85. In 2012, the World Health Organization declared dementia a public health priority. Many dementia patients move into nursing homes, where they are monitored in a safe setting. But some medical professionals want to shift patients away from unfamiliar, clinical settings and into spaces that resemble more typical surroundings. Hogewey creates a familiar, "normal" environment that dementia patients understand, says van Amerongen. The citizens of Hogewey share a house with about six others, and are classified according to one of seven lifestyles. ©2015 CBC/Radio-Canada
Link ID: 20875 - Posted: 05.04.2015
Neuroscientists have discovered brain circuitry for encoding positive and negative learned associations in mice. After finding that two circuits showed opposite activity following fear and reward learning, the researchers proved that this divergent activity causes either avoidance or reward-driven behaviors. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, they used cutting-edge optical-genetic tools to pinpoint these mechanisms critical to survival, which are also implicated in mental illness. “This study exemplifies the power of new molecular tools that can push and pull on the same circuit to see what drives behavior,” explained Thomas R. Insel, M.D., director of NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). “Improved understanding of how such emotional memory works holds promise for solving mysteries of brain circuit disorders in which these mechanisms are disrupted.” NIMH grantee Kay Tye, Ph.D. External Web Site Policy, Praneeth Namburi and Anna Beyeler, Ph.D., of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, and colleagues, report their findings April 29, 2015 in the journal Nature. Prior to the new study, scientists suspected involvement of the circuits ultimately implicated, but were stumped by a seeming paradox. A crossroads of convergent circuits in an emotion hub deep in the brain, thebasolateral amygdala, seem to be involved in both fear and reward learning, but how one brain region could orchestrate such opposing behaviors – approach and avoidance – remained an enigma. How might signals find the appropriate path to follow at this fork in the road?
Children who were often bullied by their peers may experience more anxiety and depression than children who were abused by adults, a finding that U.S. and British researchers say highlights an "imbalance" in school services to tackle bullying. Researchers followed the mental health of more than 4,000 children in Avon, south west England from birth to age 18 and 1,400 others in North Carolina from age nine up to age 26 through parent questionnaires and clinical interviews. In the Avon study, maltreatment was defined as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or "maladaptive parenting" such as hitting, shouting and hostility. Children were interviewed about the frequency of bullying, which included overt threats, physical violence and nasty names as well as social exclusion or spreading lies or rumours. The results consistently showed an increased risk of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal tendencies in children who were bullied, whether or not they had a history of abuse by adults, Prof. William Copeland, a clinical psychologist at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C. and his co-authors concluded in Tuesday's issue of Lancet Psychiatry. "What was a surprise was to see [the results] were as significant and pervasive as what we see for children that are physically abused, sexually abused or neglected," Copeland said. Government policies have focused almost exclusively on providing services for child abuse but much less attention and resources are devoted to bullying, the researchers said. Copeland's previous research showed long-term repercussions from bullying persist — and that includes impacts on physical health, dropping out of school and trouble with authorities. ©2015 CBC/Radio-Canada
By Tina Hesman Saey People with depression have more mitochondrial DNA and shorter telomeres than nondepressed people do, an international team of researchers reports online April 23 in Current Biology. Mitochondria are organelles that produce energy for cells. Mitochondria seem to become inefficient under stress, the team found, so more mitochondria may be needed to produce enough energy. Telomeres are the DNA endcaps on chromosomes that prevent the genetic material from unraveling. Short telomeres are associated with shorter life spans. The altered DNA may reflect metabolic changes associated with depression, the researchers say. Experiments with mice showed that these DNA changes are brought on by stress or by stress hormones. Four weeks after scientists stopped stressing the mice, their mitochondrial and telomere DNA had returned to normal. Those results indicate that the molecular changes are reversible. Researchers also studied DNA from more than 11,000 people to learn whether past stress was responsible for the molecular changes seen in people with depression. Depression was associated with the DNA changes, but having a stressful life was not. For instance, people who had experienced childhood sexual abuse but were not depressed did not have statistically meaningful changes to their DNA compared with people who had no history of abuse. The findings suggest that stress can change DNA but many people can bounce back. Depressed people may have a harder time recovering from the molecular damage. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015.
Pete Etchells Over the past few years, there seems to have been a insidious pandemic of nonsense neuroscientific claims creeping into the education system. In 2013, the Wellcome Trust commissioned a series of surveys of parents and teachers, asking about various types of educational tools or teaching methods, and the extent to which they believe they have a basis in neuroscience. Worryingly, 76% of teachers responded that they used learning styles in their teaching, and a further 19% responded that they either use, or intend to use, left brain/right brain distinctions to help inform learning methods. Both of these approaches have been thoroughly debunked, and have no place in either neuroscience or education. In October last year, I reported on another study that showed that in the intervening time, things hadn’t really improved – 91% of UK teachers in that survey believed that there were differences in the way that students think and learn, depending on which hemisphere of the brain is ‘dominant’. And despite lots of great attempts to debunk myths about the brain, they still seem to persist and take up residence as ‘commonplace’ knowledge, being passed onto children as if they are fact. When I wrote about an ATL proposal to train teachers in neuroscience – a well-intended idea, but ultimately grounded in nonsense about left brain/right brain myths – I commented at the end that we need to do more to bring teachers and neuroscientists together, to discuss whether neuroscience has a relevant role in informing the way we teach students. Now, a new initiative funded by the Wellcome Trust is aiming to just that. © 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited
by Katie Collins Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is just as fascinated by the links between neuroscience and education as she is outraged by the pseudo science that often intrudes upon this territory. Neuroscience in education has really been flourishing in recent years, she says on stage at WIRED Health 2015, but some theories about neuroscience have already infiltrated schools, and not necessarily in a good way. Some products that makes claims about having a positive effect on cognition make bogus claims that may well have positive effects in the classroom, but at the same time promote completely inaccurate science. Blakemore points specifically to the Brain Gym educational model, which claims to improve memory, concentration and information retention. There are no problems with the exercises themselves, she says, but the claims made about the brain are baseless. For a start, she said, Brain Gym claims that children can push "brain buttons" on their bodies that will stimulate blood flow to the brain. Another physical exercise claimed to increase and improve connectivity between the two sides of the brain. "This makes no sense -- they are in communication anyway," says Blakemore. Teachers like Brain Gym because it does what it says and results in improvements in the classroom, but it could just as easily be placebo or novelty causing the effects. One thing Blakemore is sure of? "They're nothing to do with brain buttons or coordinating the two brain hemispheres."
Keyword: Development of the Brain
Link ID: 20844 - Posted: 04.25.2015
By Felicity Muth One of the first things I get asked when I tell people that I work on bee cognition (apart from ‘do you get stung a lot?’) is ‘bees have cognition?’. I usually assume that this question shouldn’t be taken literally otherwise it would mean that whoever was asking me this thought that there was a possibility that bees didn’t have cognition and I had just been making a terrible mistake for the past two years. Instead I guess this question actually means ‘please tell me more about the kind of cognitive abilities bees have, as I am very much surprised to hear that bees can do more than just mindlessly sting people’. So, here it is: a summary of some of the more remarkable things that bees can do with their little brains. In the first part of two articles on this topic, I introduce the history and basics of bee learning. In the second article, I go on to discuss the more advanced cognitive abilities of bees. The study of bee cognition isn’t a new thing. Back in the early 1900s the Austrian scientist Karl von Frisch won the Nobel Prize for his work with honeybees (Apis mellifera). He is perhaps most famous for his research on their remarkable ability to communicate through the waggle dance but he also showed for the first time that honeybees have colour vision and learn the colours of the flowers they visit. Appreciating how he did this is perhaps the first step to understanding everything we know about bee cognition today. Before delving into the cognitive abilities of bees it’s important to think about what kinds of abilities a bee might need, given the environment she lives in (all foraging worker bees are female). Bees are generalists, meaning that they don’t have to just visit one particular flower type for food (nectar and pollen), but can instead visit hundreds of different types. However, not all flowers are the same. © 2015 Scientific American,
By Maggie Fox Another study aimed at soothing the fears of some parents shows that vaccines don't cause autism. This one takes a special look at children with older siblings diagnosed with autism, who do themselves have a higher risk of an autism spectrum disorder. But even these high-risk kids aren't more likely to develop autism if they're vaccinated, according to the report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "We found that there was no harmful association between receipt of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and development of autism spectrum disorder," said Dr. Anjali Jain of The Lewin Group, a health consulting group in Falls Church, Virginia, who led the study. Kids who had older brothers or sisters with autism were less likely to be vaccinated on time themselves, probably because their parents had vaccine worries. But those who were vaccinated were no more likely than the unvaccinated children to develop autism, Jain's team found. Autism is very common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one in 68 U.S. kids has an autism spectrum disorder. Numbers have been growing but CDC says much of this almost certainly reflects more awareness and diagnosis of kids who would have been missed in years past.
Link ID: 20829 - Posted: 04.22.2015
The brains of babies “light up” in a similar way to adults when exposed to the same painful stimulus, suggesting they feel pain much like adults do, researchers said on Tuesday. In the first of its kind study using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scientists from Britain’s Oxford University found that 18 of the 20 brain regions active in adults experiencing pain were also active in babies. Brain scans of the sleeping infants while they were subjected to mild pokes on the bottom of their feet with a special rod – creating a sensation “like being poked with a pencil” – also showed their brains had the same response to a slighter “poke” as adults did to a stimulus four times as strong, suggesting babies have a much lower pain threshold. “Obviously babies can’t tell us about their experience of pain and it is difficult to infer pain from visual observations,” said Rebeccah Slater, a doctor at Oxford’s paediatrics department who led the study. “In fact some people have argued that babies’ brains are not developed enough for them to really feel pain ... [yet] our study provides the first really strong evidence this is not the case.” Even as recently as the 1980s it was common practice for babies undergoing surgery to be given neuromuscular blocks but no pain relief medication. Last year, a review of neonatal pain management in intensive care found that although these babies experience an average of 11 painful procedures per day, 60% do not receive any kind of pain medication. © 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited
By Alix Spiegel In 1979, when Jim Stigler was still a graduate student at the University of Michigan, he went to Japan to research teaching methods and found himself sitting in the back row of a crowded fourth-grade math class. “The teacher was trying to teach the class how to draw three-dimensional cubes on paper,” Stigler explains, “and one kid was just totally having trouble with it. His cube looked all cockeyed, so the teacher said to him, ‘Why don’t you go put yours on the board?’ So right there I thought, ‘That’s interesting! He took the one who can’t do it and told him to go and put it on the board.’ ” Stigler knew that in American classrooms, it was usually the best kid in the class who was invited to the board. And so he watched with interest as the Japanese student dutifully came to the board and started drawing, but still couldn’t complete the cube. Every few minutes, the teacher would ask the rest of the class whether the kid had gotten it right, and the class would look up from their work, and shake their heads no. And as the period progressed, Stigler noticed that he — Stigler — was getting more and more anxious. In Japanese classrooms, teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach. “I realized that I was sitting there starting to perspire,” he says, “because I was really empathizing with this kid. I thought, ‘This kid is going to break into tears!’ ” © 2015 KQED Inc.
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20820 - Posted: 04.20.2015
Mothers may influence the mood and behaviour of their babies through their breast milk, researchers say. There's growing evidence that mother's milk doesn't just affect the growth of a baby's body "but also areas of their brain that shape their motivations, their emotions, and therefore their behavioural activity," says Katie Hinde, an assistant professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. In a paper published in the journal Evolution, Medicine and Public Health, Hinde and two other researchers propose a way in which the composition of breast milk could influence a baby's brain and behaviour. If food is scarce or there are a lot of predators around, it may be better for a mother to have a baby that is calmer and focuses on growing rather than one that is very active and playful, Hinde told CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks in an interview that airs Saturday. It may be possible to influence a baby's activity level by changing the composition of the milk to affect the bacteria in the infant's gut, she added. Breast milk contains a lot of sugars that infants can't digest, but that feed bacteria that live in human intestines. Those bacteria don't just help digest food, said Hinde. "They can release chemical signals that travel to the infant's brain and shape neurodevelopment." ©2015 CBC/Radio-Canada
by Beth Mole Small doses of lead may have big impacts on reading and math scores, scientists report April 7 in Environmental Health. Researchers looked at third grade test scores and levels of lead in blood samples from 58,650 students in Chicago public schools. As little as 2 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood was associated with lower reading and math scores. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anything above 5 micrograms per deciliter is of concern. The researchers estimate that childhood lead levels at or above 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood accounted for as many as 25 percent of the children in the study failing reading and math standardized tests. The findings confirm that lead exposure, even at low doses, is associated with poor school performance. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015
By Nicholas Bakalar Breathing problems during sleep may be linked to early mental decline and Alzheimer’s disease, a new study suggests. But treating apnea with a continuous positive airway pressure machine can significantly delay the onset of cognitive problems. In a group of 2,470 people, average age 73, researchers gathered information on the incidence of sleep apnea, a breathing disorder marked by interrupted breathing and snoring, and the incidence of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. After adjusting for a range of variables, they found that people with disordered breathing during sleep became cognitively impaired an average of about 10 years sooner than those without the disorder. But compared with those whose sleep disorder was untreated, those using C.P.A.P. machines delayed the appearance of cognitive impairment by an average of 10 years — making their age of onset almost identical to those who had no sleep disorder at all. The lead author, Dr. Ricardo S. Osorio, a research professor of psychiatry at New York University, said the analysis, published online in Neurology, is an observational study that does not prove cause and effect. “But,” he added, “we need to increase the awareness that sleep disorders can increase the risk for cognitive impairment and possibly for Alzheimer’s. Whether treating sleep disorders truly slows the decline is still not known, but there is some evidence that it might.” © 2015 The New York Times Company