Chapter 2. Neurophysiology: The Generation, Transmission, and Integration of Neural Signals

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By Christina Caron In recent years, the vagus nerve has become an object of fascination, especially on social media. The vagal nerve fibers, which run from the brain to the abdomen, have been anointed by some influencers as the key to reducing anxiety, regulating the nervous system and helping the body to relax. TikTok videos with the hashtag “#vagusnerve” have been viewed more than 64 million times and there are nearly 70,000 posts with the hashtag on Instagram. Some of the most popular ones feature simple hacks to “tone” or “reset” the vagus nerve, in which people plunge their faces into ice water baths or lie on their backs with ice packs on their chests. There are also neck and ear massages, eye exercises and deep-breathing techniques. Now, wellness companies have capitalized on the trend, offering products like “vagus massage oil,” vibrating bracelets and pillow mists, that claim to stimulate the nerve, but that have not been endorsed by the scientific community. Researchers who study the vagus nerve say that stimulating it with electrodes can potentially help improve mood and alleviate symptoms in those who suffer from treatment-resistant depression, among other ailments. But are there other ways to activate the vagus nerve? Who would benefit most from doing so? And what exactly is the vagus nerve, anyway? Here’s a look at what we know so far. The term “vagus nerve” is actually shorthand for thousands of fibers. They are organized into two bundles that run from the brain stem down through each side of the neck and into the torso, branching outward to touch our internal organs, said Dr. Kevin J. Tracey, a neurosurgeon and president of the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, Northwell Health’s research center in New York. Imagine something akin to a tree, whose limbs interact with nearly every organ system in the body. (The word “vagus” means “wandering” in Latin.) The vagus nerve picks up information about how the organs are functioning and also sends information from the brain stem back to the body, helping to control digestion, heart rate, voice, mood and the immune system. For those reasons, the vagus nerve — the longest of the 12 cranial nerves — is sometimes referred to as an “information superhighway.” Dr. Tracey compared it to a trans-Atlantic cable. “It’s not a mishmash of signals,” he said. “Every signal has a specific job.” © 2022 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Depression; Stress
Link ID: 28361 - Posted: 06.09.2022

by Rachel Zamzow Inflammation may inflate or thin out brain regions tied to autism and schizophrenia, researchers report in a new study. The findings add nuance to the long-held hypothesis that immune activation elevates the risk for neurodevelopmental conditions. Autism, for example, is associated with prenatal exposure to infection, previous studies show. Taking a different approach, the new work focuses on how a genetic predisposition to inflammation affects brain development in the general population, says John Williams, research fellow at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, who conducted the work with lead researcher Rachel Upthegrove, professor of psychiatry and youth mental health at the university. By pinpointing where inflammation leaves its mark in the brain, the findings serve as a guidepost for future studies of people with neuropsychiatric conditions, he says. “We think that it points to something that’s fairly transdiagnostic.” For their analyses, the team drew on brain imaging and genetic data from 10,828 women and 9,860 men in the general population who participated in the UK Biobank. They explored how 1,436 possible structural changes in the brain track with having single-nucleotide variants previously shown to increase circulating levels of five inflammatory molecules — interleukin 1 (IL-1), IL-2, IL-6, C-reactive protein and brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Three variants thought to boost IL-6 were associated with 33 structural changes, most notably increased volume in the middle temporal gyrus and fusiform gyrus, and decreased cortical thickness in the superior frontal gyrus — all brain areas implicated in autism. Variants associated with other inflammatory molecules did not track with brain changes, the researchers found. © 2022 Simons Foundation

Keyword: Autism; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 28317 - Posted: 05.07.2022

By Monique Brouillette Neuroscientists have long aspired to understand the intangible properties of the mind. Our most treasured cerebral qualities, like the ability to think, write poetry, fall in love and even envision a higher spiritual realm, are all generated in the brain. But how the squishy, pinkish-gray, wrinkled mass of the physical brain gives rise to these impalpable experiences remains a mystery. Some neuroscientists think the key to cracking that mystery is a better map of the brain’s circuitry. Nearly 40 years ago, scientists achieved a milestone by completing a wiring diagram that traced all the connections of the 302 neurons of the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. They were traced by hand on printed sheets of electron microscope images, a meticulous and herculean task that took years to complete. The project marked the first-ever complete connectome — a comprehensive map of the neuronal connections in an animal’s nervous system. Today, thanks to advances in computing and image analysis algorithms, it can take less than a month to map a roundworm’s connectome. These technological improvements mean that scientists can set their sights on larger animals. They are closing in on the connectome of fruit fly larvae, with more than 9,000 cells, and adult flies, with 100,000 neurons. Next, they hope to map the brain of a developing fish and, perhaps within the next decade, a mouse, with roughly 70 million neurons — a project nearly a thousand times more ambitious than any done so far. And they have already started to map small pieces of the human brain, an unfathomable quest when the worm connectome was initially mapped. © 2022 Annual Reviews

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 28308 - Posted: 04.30.2022

By Katharine Q. Seelye Ursula Bellugi, a pioneer in the study of the biological foundations of language who was among the first to demonstrate that sign language was just as complex, abstract and systematic as spoken language, died on Sunday in San Diego. She was 91. Her death, at an assisted living facility, was confirmed by her son Rob Klima. Dr. Bellugi was a leading researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego for nearly five decades and, for much of that time, was director of its laboratory for cognitive neuroscience. She made significant contributions in three main areas: the development of language in children; the linguistic structure and neurological basis of American Sign Language; and the social behavior and language abilities of people with a rare genetic disorder, Williams syndrome. “She leaves an indelible legacy of shedding light on how humans communicate and socialize with each other,” Rusty Gage, president of the Salk Institute, said in a statement. Dr. Bellugi’s work, much of it done in collaboration with her husband, Edward S. Klima, advanced understanding of the brain and the origins of language, both signed and spoken. American Sign Language was first described as a true language in 1960 by William C. Stokoe Jr., a professor at Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts university devoted to deaf people. But he was ridiculed and attacked for that claim. Dr. Bellugi and Dr. Klima, who died in 2008, demonstrated conclusively that the world’s signed languages — of which there are more than 100 — were actual languages in their own right, not just translations of spoken languages. Dr. Bellugi, who focused on American Sign Language, established that these linguistic systems were passed down, in all their complexity, from one generation of deaf people to the next. For that reason, the scientific community regards her as the founder of the neurobiology of American Sign Language. The couple’s work led to a major discovery at the Salk lab: that the left hemisphere of the brain has an innate predisposition for language, whether spoken or signed. That finding gave scientists fresh insight into how the brain learns, interprets and forgets language. © 2022 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Language; Laterality
Link ID: 28296 - Posted: 04.23.2022

By Kim Tingley In March, neuroscientists and psychiatrists from the School of Medicine at Washington University, St. Louis, along with colleagues elsewhere, published a study in the journal Nature that sparked widespread discussion in their fields. Researchers, the study noted, are increasingly using magnetic resonance imaging — which can reveal the brain’s structure and activity — to try to find links between what is seen on an M.R.I., like cortical thickness or patterns of connection, and complicated psychological traits, like cognitive ability or mental-health conditions. In theory, such so-called brain-wide association studies could yield incredibly valuable insights. Knowing that a particular neurological feature makes someone more vulnerable to autism, Alzheimer’s or another disorder, for example, could help predict, prevent or treat that condition. Likewise, if we can link certain features to desirable traits, like academic achievement, it might be possible to take advantage of that knowledge. The problem, the Nature authors argued, is that neuroscientists often are searching for those associations in groups of study subjects that are too small, leading to results that are statistically “underpowered.” In general, they calculated, thousands of subjects should be included for a brain-wide association study to produce a finding that other studies can replicate. This was unwelcome news to many, in large part because M.R.I. machines are incredibly expensive to use, often at about $1,000 per hour, and funding is limited. Specific instances of underpowered studies are legion. So much so, says Terry Jernigan, director of the Center for Human Development at the University of California, San Diego, that singling out an example “would simply be unfair.” Indeed, according to a paper from 2020 in NeuroImage, the average number of study subjects in more than a thousand of the most cited brain-imaging papers, published between 1990 and 2012, was 12; the Nature paper calculated that the median sample size for neuroimaging studies uploaded to a popular open-access platform as of September 2021 was 23. © 2022 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 28294 - Posted: 04.20.2022

by Niko McCarty A new miniature, head-mounted microscope can simultaneously record the activity of thousands of neurons at different depths within the brains of freely moving mice. The smallest functional two-photon microscope to date, it can image neurons almost anywhere in the brain, with subcellular resolution. The device, called MINI2P (miniature two-photon microscope), can also collect data from the same cluster of neurons over several weeks, making it useful for long-term behavioral studies. “If you really want to understand what is behind cognition or failures in cognition, like in autism, you need to look at the interaction between neurons,” says lead investigator Edvard Moser, professor of neuroscience at the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Trondheim, Norway. Other devices that measure neuronal activity, such as Neuropixels 2.0, record signals from more than 10,000 sites in the brain at once. But they have a low spatial resolution and cannot always determine which specific neuron is firing at any given time. Other miniature microscopes have also, traditionally, relied on visible light, which illuminates the surface of tissue, but are limited to imaging about 2,000 neurons. The new device can monitor a brain area measuring 500 by 500 micrometers and can capture data on more than 10,000 neurons at once. A typical mouse brain is roughly the size of a pea and contains about 85 million neurons. The MINI2P uses infrared light to capture the activity of neurons engineered to express GCaMP, a protein that binds to calcium ions during an action potential and emits a fluorescent signal in reply. The microscope measures that fluorescence using an infrared laser beam. © 2022 Simons Foundation

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 28282 - Posted: 04.13.2022

By Benjamin Ehrlich Hour after hour, year after year, Santiago Ramón y Cajal sat alone in his home laboratory, head bowed and back hunched, his black eyes staring down the barrel of a microscope, the sole object tethering him to the outside world. His wide forehead and aquiline nose gave him the look of a distinguished, almost regal, gentleman, although the crown of his head was as bald as a monk’s. He had only a crowd of glass bottles for an audience, some short and stout, some tall and thin, stopped with cork and filled with white powders and colored liquids; the other chairs, piled high with journals and textbooks, left no room for anyone else to sit. Stained with dye, ink and blood, the tablecloth was strewn with drawings of forms at once otherworldly and natural. Colorful transparent slides, mounted with slivers of nervous tissue from sacrificed animals still gummy to the touch from chemical treatments, lay scattered on the worktable. With his left thumb and forefinger, Cajal adjusted the corners of the slide as if it were a miniature picture frame under the lens of his microscope. With his right hand, he turned the brass knob on the side of the instrument, muttering to himself as he drew the image into focus: brownish-black bodies resembling inkblots and radiating threadlike appendages set against a transparent yellow background. The wondrous landscape of the brain was finally revealed to him, more real than he could have ever imagined. In the late 19th century most scientists believed the brain was composed of a continuous tangle of fibers as serpentine as a labyrinth. Cajal produced the first clear evidence that the brain is composed of individual cells, later termed neurons, that are fundamentally the same as those that make up the rest of the living world. He believed that neurons served as storage units for mental impressions such as thoughts and sensations, which combined to form our experience of being alive: “To know the brain is equivalent to ascertaining the material course of thought and will,” he wrote. The highest ideal for a biologist, he declared, is to clarify the enigma of the self. In the structure of neurons, Cajal thought he had found the home of consciousness itself. © 2022 Scientific American

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 28278 - Posted: 04.13.2022

Max Kozlov When neuroscientist Jakob Seidlitz took his 15-month-old son to the paediatrician for a check-up last week, he left feeling unsatisfied. There wasn’t anything wrong with his son — the youngster seemed to be developing at a typical pace, according to the height and weight charts the physician used. What Seidlitz felt was missing was an equivalent metric to gauge how his son’s brain was growing. “It is shocking how little biological information doctors have about this critical organ,” says Seidlitz, who is based at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Soon, he might be able to change that. Working with colleagues, Seidlitz has amassed more than 120,000 brain scans — the largest collection of its kind — to create the first comprehensive growth charts for brain development. The charts show visually how human brains expand quickly early in life and then shrink slowly with age. The sheer magnitude of the study, published in Nature on 6 April1, has stunned neuroscientists, who have long had to contend with reproducibility issues in their research, in part because of small sample sizes. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is expensive, meaning that scientists are often limited in the number of participants they can enrol in experiments. “The massive data set they assembled is extremely impressive and really sets a new standard for the field,” says Angela Laird, a cognitive neuroscientist at Florida International University in Miami. Even so, the authors caution that their database isn’t completely inclusive — they struggled to gather brain scans from all regions of the globe. The resulting charts, they say, are therefore just a first draft, and further tweaks would be needed to deploy them in clinical settings. If the charts are eventually rolled out to paediatricians, great care will be needed to ensure that they are not misinterpreted, says Hannah Tully, a paediatric neurologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “A big brain is not necessarily a well-functioning brain,” she says. © 2022 Springer Nature Limited

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Brain imaging
Link ID: 28277 - Posted: 04.09.2022

Linda Geddes A completely locked-in patient is able to type out words and short sentences to his family, including what he would like to eat, after being implanted with a device that enables him to control a keyboard with his mind. The findings, published in Nature Communications, overturn previous assumptions about the communicative abilities of people who have lost all voluntary muscle control, including movement of the eyes or mouth, as well as giving a unique insight into what it’s like to be in a “locked in” state. Locked-in syndrome – also known as pseudocoma - is a rare condition, where people are conscious and can see, hear, and smell, but are unable to move or speak due to complete paralysis of their voluntary muscles, eg as a result of the progressive neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Advertisement Some can communicate by blinking or moving their eyes, but those with completely locked-in syndrome (CLIS) cannot even control their eye muscles. In 2017, doctors at the University of Tübingen in Germany enabled three patients with CLIS to answer “yes” or “no” to questions by detecting telltale patterns in their brain activity, using a technology called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). The advance generated widespread media coverage, and prompted the parents of the current patient, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2015, to write to the medical team, saying he was losing the ability to communicate with his eye movements, and could they help. The problem with using fNIRS to help CLIS patients to communicate is that it is relatively slow, and only gives the correct answer 70% of the time, meaning questions have to be repeated to get a reliable answer. “It was always our goal to enable a patient in a completely locked down state to spell out words, but with a classification accuracy of 70%, it is almost impossible to enable free spelling,” said Dr Ujwal Chaudhary, a biomedical engineer and managing director of ALS Voice gGmbH in Mössingen, Germany, who co-led the research. © 2022 Guardian News & Media Limited

Keyword: ALS-Lou Gehrig's Disease ; Movement Disorders
Link ID: 28250 - Posted: 03.23.2022

By Matt Richtel For two decades, researchers have used brain-imaging technology to try to identify how the structure and function of a person’s brain connects to a range of mental-health ailments, from anxiety and depression to suicidal tendencies. But a new paper, published Wednesday in Nature, calls into question whether much of this research is actually yielding valid findings. Many such studies, the paper’s authors found, tend to include fewer than two dozen participants, far shy of the number needed to generate reliable results. “You need thousands of individuals,” said Scott Marek, a psychiatric researcher at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and an author of the paper. He described the finding as a “gut punch” for the typical studies that use imaging to try to better understand mental health. Studies that use magnetic-resonance imaging technology commonly temper their conclusions with a cautionary statement noting the small sample size. But enlisting participants can be time-consuming and expensive, ranging from $600 to $2,000 an hour, said Dr. Nico Dosenbach, a neurologist at Washington University School of Medicine and another author on the paper. The median number of subjects in mental-health-related studies that use brain imaging is around 23, he added. But the Nature paper demonstrates that the data drawn from just two dozen subjects is generally insufficient to be reliable and can in fact yield “massively inflated” findings,” Dr. Dosenbach said. For their analysis, the researchers examined three of the largest studies using brain-imaging technology to reach conclusions about brain structure and mental health. All three studies are ongoing: the Human Connectome Project, which has 1,200 participants; the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development, or A.B.C.D., study, with 12,000 participants; and the U.K. Biobank study, with 35,700 participants. The authors of the Nature paper looked at subsets of data within those three studies to determine whether smaller slices were misleading or “reproducible,” meaning that the findings could be considered scientifically valid. © 2022 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 28245 - Posted: 03.19.2022

by Niko McCarty The ‘opto’ in optogenetics — the powerful method some autism researchers use to control neurons in mice and other animals — comes from the Greek optós, meaning visible. It’s a nod to the blue light used to switch on select neurons. A new technique can do the same, albeit with something invisible: sound. In a study published in Nature Communications this month, researchers engineered neurons in the motor cortex of mice to express an ultrasound-sensitive ion channel protein called hsTRPA1. They placed an ultrasound transducer near the animal’s skull and switched it on. The response? A flex of a muscle, a perceptible twitch. The approach, called sonogenetics, enables noninvasive control over any neural circuit that can be manipulated with optogenetics, an invasive method, says lead investigator Sreekanth Chalasani, associate professor in the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. Spectrum spoke to Chalasani about his early experiments in Caenorhabditis elegans, lucky number 63 and how sonogenetics could one day have clinical applications. Spectrum: Our readers might be familiar with optogenetics, but I’m assuming sonogenetics is new for most people. Sreekanth Chalasani: Yeah. Well, the idea in sonogenetics is that we want to manipulate things noninvasively. Ultrasound can travel through bone and skin, into the body. We’ve been using it for decades. It’s safe. The question is: Can we leverage it to get in the body and control cells, like with optogenetics? S: Literally controlling cells with sound. SC: Right. In optogenetics, light triggers action potentials in cells that have a channelrhodopsin, or opsin, protein. In sonogenetics, we wanted a protein that would let us have that same level of cellular control. But finding that protein has been difficult. Lots of groups have been looking for these proteins, and we were fortunate to find one. © 2022 Simons Foundation

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 28227 - Posted: 03.02.2022

Natalia Mesa More than a decade ago, scientists developed optogenetics, a method to turn cells on and off with light. The technique allows scientists to spur or suppress cells' electrical activity with just the flip of a switch to tease apart the roles of specific cell types. But because light doesn’t penetrate deep into tissues, scientists need to surgically implant light sources to illuminate cells below the surface of the skin or skull. In a new study published today (February 9) in Nature Communications, researchers report they’ve found a way to use ultrasound to noninvasively activate mouse neurons, both in culture and in the brains of living animals. The technique, which the authors call sonogenetics, elicits electrical activity in a subset of brain cells that have been genetically engineered to respond to sound waves. “We know that ultrasound is safe,” study coauthor Sreekanth Chalasani, a neuroscientist in Salk’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, tells The Scientist. “The potential for neuronal control is huge. It has applications for pacemakers, insulin pumps, and other therapies that we’re not even thinking about. Jamie Tyler, a biomedical engineer at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who was not involved in the study but has previously collaborated with some of its authors, tells The Scientist that the work represents “more than just a step forward” in being able to use ultrasound to control neural activity: “It shows that sonogenetics is a viable technique in mammalian cells.” © 1986–2022 The Scientist.

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 28199 - Posted: 02.12.2022

In 2016, Science magazine ranked Randy L. Buckner among the top 10 most influential brain scientists of the modern era. He explains the road to discovering the default network, the pattern of brain activity triggered as we think about the past and the future. Q: Why don’t we begin with a brief description of what the default network is, how and when it was discovered, and why it’s important. Randy L. Buckner: In the 1990s, neuroscientists were just starting to do functional imaging studies. For the first time, we had brain scanners that could see the mind at work. We were like kids in a candy store in the sense that we no longer needed a scalpel to see the brain; the new technology allowed us to safely discern information out about what parts of the brain people used when given different tasks and different kinds of visual or auditory stimuli. I was a graduate student at the time at Washington University and one of my mentors, Marcus Raichle, was at the forefront of positron emission tomography (PET), an imaging technique that measures physiological changes in the brain and shows where blood flow is increasing due to brain activity. This is when many of us first became aware of the Dana Foundation, which was helping fund our work. I was a Dana fellow in those early days, and this was an exciting time in neuroscience. In early studies, we often asked participants to perform very simple tasks: read and say words, detect colors in pictures, or try to recognize whether a viewed word was on an earlier studied list. The imaging revealed the parts of the brain involved in their responses. But what jumped out at us was something unexpected: When people weren’t asked for a response or given a specific task, much of their brain still remained active. © 2022 The Dana Foundation.

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 28171 - Posted: 01.26.2022

Chloe Tenn Whether they’re predicting the outcomes of sports games or opening jars, the intelligence of octopuses and their cephalopod kin has fascinated avid sports fans and scientists alike (not that the two groups are mutually exclusive). However, insights into the animals’ brains have been limited, as structural data has come from low-tech methods such as dissection. Wen-Sung Chung, a University of Queensland Brain Institute neurobiologist who focuses on marine species, explains that octopuses have “probably the biggest centralized brain in invertebrates,” with multiple layers and lobes. Some species have more than 500 million neurons, he adds—compared to around 70 million in lab mice—making cephalopods especially intriguing as models for neuroscience. Chung and his colleagues decided to bring cephalopod neuroscience into the 21st century: using cutting-edge MRI, they probed the brains of four cephalopod species. They were especially interested in exploring whether cephalopod brain structures reflect the environments they live in. Indeed, the team reports numerous structural differences between species that live on reefs and those that dwell in deeper waters in a November 18 Current Biology paper. Giovanna Ponte, an evolutionary marine biologist at Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn Napoli in Italy who was not involved with the work, tells The Scientist that while this isn’t the first study to look for neurological correlates underlying ecological differences in cephalopods, it offers a new technological approach to investigating these animals’ brain morphology and diversity, and most importantly, “is the first time that there is . . . a comparative approach between different species.” © 1986–2022 The Scientist.

Keyword: Evolution; Brain imaging
Link ID: 28166 - Posted: 01.22.2022

Monique Brouillette Last summer a group of Harvard University neuroscientists and Google engineers released the first wiring diagram of a piece of the human brain. The tissue, about the size of a pinhead, had been preserved, stained with heavy metals, cut into 5,000 slices and imaged under an electron microscope. This cubic millimeter of tissue accounts for only one-millionth of the entire human brain. Yet the vast trove of data depicting it comprises 1.4 petabytes’ worth of brightly colored microscopy images of nerve cells, blood vessels and more. “It is like discovering a new continent,” said Jeff Lichtman of Harvard, the senior author of the paper that presented these results. He described a menagerie of puzzling features that his team had already spotted in the human tissue, including new types of cells never seen in other animals, such as neurons with axons that curl up and spiral atop each other and neurons with two axons instead of one. These findings just scratched the surface: To search the sample completely, he said, would be a task akin to driving every road in North America. Lichtman has spent his career creating and contemplating these kinds of neural wiring diagrams, or connectomes — comprehensive maps of all the neural connections within a part or the entirety of a living brain. Because a connectome underpins all the neural activity associated with a volume of brain matter, it is a key to understanding how its host thinks, feels, moves, remembers, perceives, and much more. Don’t expect a complete wiring diagram for a human brain anytime soon, however, because it’s technically infeasible: Lichtman points out that the zettabyte of data involved would be equivalent to a significant chunk of the entire world’s stored content today. In fact, the only species for which there is yet a comprehensive connectome is Caenorhabditis elegans, the humble roundworm. Nevertheless, the masses of connectome data that scientists have amassed from worms, flies, mice and humans are already having a potent effect on neuroscience. And because techniques for mapping brains are getting faster, Lichtman and other researchers are excited that large-scale connectomics — mapping and comparing the brains of many individuals of a species — is finally becoming a reality. Share this article Simons Foundation All Rights Reserved © 2021

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 28104 - Posted: 12.08.2021

Yongsoo Kim The brain plays an essential role in how people navigate the world by generating both thought and behavior. Despite being one of the most vital organs of life, it takes up only 2% of human body volume. How can something so small perform such complex tasks? Luckily, modern tools like brain mapping have allowed neuroscientists like me to answer this exact question. By mapping out how all the cell types in the brain are organized and examining how they communicate with one another, neuroscientists can better understand how brains normally work, and what happens when certain cell parts go missing or malfunction. The task of understanding the inner workings of the brain has fascinated both philosophers and scientists for centuries. Aristotle proposed that the brain is where spirit resides. Leonardo da Vinci drew anatomical depictions of the brain with wax embedding. And Santiago Ramón y Cajal, with his 1906 Nobel Prize-winning work on the cellular structure of the nervous system, made one of the first breakthroughs that led to modern neuroscience as we know it. Using a new way to visualize individual cells called Golgi staining, a method pioneered by Nobel co-winner Camillo Golgi, and microscopic examination of brain tissue, Cajal established the seminal neuron doctrine. This principle states that neurons, among the main types of brain cells, communicate with one another via the gaps between them called synapses. These findings launched a race to understand the cellular composition of the brain and how brain cells are connected to one another. Conversation US, Inc.

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 28085 - Posted: 11.20.2021

By David Dobbs Chronic pain is both one of the world’s most costly medical problems, affecting one in every five people, and one of the most mysterious. In the past two decades, however, discoveries about the crucial role played by glia — a set of nervous system cells once thought to be mere supports for neurons — have rewritten chronic pain science. These findings have given patients and doctors a hard-science explanation that chronic pain previously lacked. By doing so, this emerging science of chronic pain is beginning to influence care — not by creating new treatments, but by legitimizing chronic pain so that doctors take it more seriously. Although glia are scattered throughout the nervous system and take up almost half its space, they long received far less scientific attention than neurons, which do the majority of signaling in the brain and body. Some types of glia resemble neurons, with roughly starfish-like bodies, while others look like structures built with Erector sets, their long, straight structural parts joined at nodes. When first discovered in the mid-1800s, glia — from the Greek word for glue — were thought to be just connective tissue holding neurons together. Later they were rebranded as the nervous system’s janitorial staff, as they were found to feed neurons, clean up their waste and take out their dead. In the 1990s they were likened to secretarial staff when it was discovered they also help neurons communicate. Research over the past 20 years, however, has shown that glia don’t just support and respond to neuronal activity like pain signals — they often direct it, with enormous consequences for chronic pain. If you’re hearing this for the first time and you’re one of the billion-plus people on Earth who suffer from chronic pain (meaning pain lasting beyond three to six months that has no apparent cause or has become independent of the injury or illness that caused it), you might be tempted to say that your glia are botching their pain-management job. © 2021 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Pain & Touch; Glia
Link ID: 28075 - Posted: 11.13.2021

Kate Wild “The skull acts as a bastion of privacy; the brain is the last private part of ourselves,” Australian neurosurgeon Tom Oxley says from New York. Oxley is the CEO of Synchron, a neurotechnology company born in Melbourne that has successfully trialled hi-tech brain implants that allow people to send emails and texts purely by thought. In July this year, it became the first company in the world, ahead of competitors like Elon Musk’s Neuralink, to gain approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct clinical trials of brain computer interfaces (BCIs) in humans in the US. Synchron has already successfully fed electrodes into paralysed patients’ brains via their blood vessels. The electrodes record brain activity and feed the data wirelessly to a computer, where it is interpreted and used as a set of commands, allowing the patients to send emails and texts. BCIs, which allow a person to control a device via a connection between their brain and a computer, are seen as a gamechanger for people with certain disabilities. “No one can see inside your brain,” Oxley says. “It’s only our mouths and bodies moving that tells people what’s inside our brain … For people who can’t do that, it’s a horrific situation. What we’re doing is trying to help them get what’s inside their skull out. We are totally focused on solving medical problems.” BCIs are one of a range of developing technologies centred on the brain. Brain stimulation is another, which delivers targeted electrical pulses to the brain and is used to treat cognitive disorders. Others, like imaging techniques fMRI and EEG, can monitor the brain in real time. “The potential of neuroscience to improve our lives is almost unlimited,” says David Grant, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne. “However, the level of intrusion that would be needed to realise those benefits … is profound”. © 2021 Guardian News & Media Limited

Keyword: Brain imaging; Language
Link ID: 28070 - Posted: 11.09.2021

By Emily Anthes The brain of a fruit fly is the size of a poppy seed and about as easy to overlook. “Most people, I think, don’t even think of the fly as having a brain,” said Vivek Jayaraman, a neuroscientist at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia. “But, of course, flies lead quite rich lives.” Flies are capable of sophisticated behaviors, including navigating diverse landscapes, tussling with rivals and serenading potential mates. And their speck-size brains are tremendously complex, containing some 100,000 neurons and tens of millions of connections, or synapses, between them. Since 2014, a team of scientists at Janelia, in collaboration with researchers at Google, have been mapping these neurons and synapses in an effort to create a comprehensive wiring diagram, also known as a connectome, of the fruit fly brain. The work, which is continuing, is time-consuming and expensive, even with the help of state-of-the-art machine-learning algorithms. But the data they have released so far is stunning in its detail, composing an atlas of tens of thousands of gnarled neurons in many crucial areas of the fly brain. And now, in an enormous new paper, being published on Tuesday in the journal eLife, neuroscientists are beginning to show what they can do with it. By analyzing the connectome of just a small part of the fly brain — the central complex, which plays an important role in navigation — Dr. Jayaraman and his colleagues identified dozens of new neuron types and pinpointed neural circuits that appear to help flies make their way through the world. The work could ultimately help provide insight into how all kinds of animal brains, including our own, process a flood of sensory information and translate it into appropriate action. © 2021 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Brain imaging; Evolution
Link ID: 28057 - Posted: 10.30.2021

By Emily Anthes The brain of a fruit fly is the size of a poppy seed and about as easy to overlook. “Most people, I think, don’t even think of the fly as having a brain,” said Vivek Jayaraman, a neuroscientist at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia. “But, of course, flies lead quite rich lives.” Flies are capable of sophisticated behaviors, including navigating diverse landscapes, tussling with rivals and serenading potential mates. And their speck-size brains are tremendously complex, containing some 100,000 neurons and tens of millions of connections, or synapses, between them. Since 2014, a team of scientists at Janelia, in collaboration with researchers at Google, have been mapping these neurons and synapses in an effort to create a comprehensive wiring diagram, also known as a connectome, of the fruit fly brain. The work, which is continuing, is time-consuming and expensive, even with the help of state-of-the-art machine-learning algorithms. But the data they have released so far is stunning in its detail, composing an atlas of tens of thousands of gnarled neurons in many crucial areas of the fly brain. And now, in an enormous new paper, being published on Tuesday in the journal eLife, neuroscientists are beginning to show what they can do with it. By analyzing the connectome of just a small part of the fly brain — the central complex, which plays an important role in navigation — Dr. Jayaraman and his colleagues identified dozens of new neuron types and pinpointed neural circuits that appear to help flies make their way through the world. The work could ultimately help provide insight into how all kinds of animal brains, including our own, process a flood of sensory information and translate it into appropriate action. It is also a proof of principle for the young field of modern connectomics, which was built on the promise that constructing detailed diagrams of the brain’s wiring would pay scientific dividends. “It’s really extraordinary,” Dr. Clay Reid, a senior investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, said of the new paper. “I think anyone who looks at it will say connectomics is a tool that we need in neuroscience — full stop.” © 2021 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Brain imaging; Evolution
Link ID: 28055 - Posted: 10.27.2021