Chapter 18. Attention and Higher Cognition

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By Thomas Nail What are you thinking about right now? Have you ever wondered why it's so hard to answer this simple question when someone asks? There is a reason. 95 percent of your brain's activity is entirely unconscious. Of the remaining 5 percent of brain activity, only around half is intentionally directed. The vast majority of what goes on in our heads is unknown and unintentional. Neuroscientists call these activities "spontaneous fluctuations," because they are unpredictable and seemingly unconnected to any specific behavior. No wonder it's so hard to say what we are thinking or feeling and why. We like to think of ourselves as CEOs of our own minds, but we are much more like ships tossed at sea. What does this reveal about the nature of consciousness? Why is our brain, a mere 2 percent of our body mass, using 20 percent of our energy to produce what many scientists still call "background noise?" Neuroscientists have known about these "random" fluctuations in electrical brain activity since the 1930s, but have not known what to make of them until relatively recently. Many brain studies of consciousness still look only at brain activity that responds to external stimuli and triggers a mental state. The rest of the "noise" is "averaged out" of the data. This is still the prevailing approach in most contemporary neuroscience, and yields a "computational" input-output model of consciousness. In this neuroscientific model, so-called "information" transfers from our senses to our brains. Yet the pioneering French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene considers this view "deeply wrong." "Spontaneous activity is one of the most frequently overlooked features" of consciousness, he writes. Unlike engineers who design digital transistors with discrete voltages for 0s and 1s to resist background noise, neurons in the brain work differently.

Keyword: Consciousness; Attention
Link ID: 27702 - Posted: 02.23.2021

By Sofia Moutinho In the movie Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio enters into other people’s dreams to interact with them and steal secrets from their subconscious. Now, it seems this science fiction plot is one baby step closer to reality. For the first time, researchers have had “conversations” involving novel questions and math problems with lucid dreamers—people who are aware that they are dreaming. The findings, from four labs and 36 participants, suggest people can receive and process complex external information while sleeping. “This work challenges the foundational definitions of sleep,” says cognitive neuroscientist Benjamin Baird of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who studies sleep and dreams but was not part of the study. Traditionally, he says, sleep has been defined as a state in which the brain is disconnected and unaware of the outside world. Lucid dreaming got one of its first mentions in the writings of Greek philosopher Aristotle in the fourth century B.C.E., and scientists have observed it since the 1970s in experiments about the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, when most dreaming occurs. One in every two people has had at least one lucid dream, about 10% of people experience them once a month or more. Although rare, this ability to recognize you are in a dream—and even control some aspects of it—can be enhanced with training. A few studies have tried to communicate with lucid dreamers using stimuli such as lights, shocks, and sounds to “enter” people’s dreams. But these recorded only minimal responses from the sleepers and did not involve complex transmission of information. © 2021 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Sleep; Attention
Link ID: 27700 - Posted: 02.19.2021

By Diana Kwon Dreams are full of possibilities; by drifting into the world beyond our waking realities, we can visit magical lands, travel through time and interact with long-lost family and friends. The notion of communicating in real time with someone outside of our dreamscapes, however, sounds like science fiction. A new study demonstrates that, to some extent, this seeming fantasy can be made real. Scientists already knew that one-way contact is attainable. Previous studies have demonstrated that people can process external cues, such as sounds and smells, while asleep. There is also evidence that people are able to send messages in the other direction: Lucid dreamers—those who can become aware they are in a dream—can be trained to signal, using eye movements, that they are in the midst of a dream. Two-way communication, however, is more complex. It requires a person who is asleep to actually understand what they hear from the outside and think about it logically enough to generate an answer, explains Ken Paller, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University. “We believed that it was going to be possible—but until we actually demonstrated it, we weren’t sure.” For this study, Paller and his colleagues recruited volunteers who said they remembered at least one dream per week and provided them with guidance on how to lucid dream. They were also trained to respond to simple math problems by moving their eyes back and forth—for example, the correct answer to “eight minus six,” would be moving your eyes to the left and right twice. While the participants slept, electrodes attached to their faces picked up their eye movements and electroencephalography (EEG)—a method of monitoring brain activity—kept track of what stage of sleep they were in. © 2021 Scientific American

Keyword: Sleep; Attention
Link ID: 27699 - Posted: 02.19.2021

By Isobel Whitcomb It began with a pulled muscle. Each day after school, as the sun sank dusky purple over the hills of my hometown, I’d run with my track teammates. Even on our easy days, I’d bound ahead, leaving them behind. It wasn’t that I thought myself better than them—it’s that when I ran fast, and focused on nothing but the cold air burning my lungs and my feet pounding, my normally anxious thoughts turned to white noise. Until, one day, something popped in my leg. I stopped. I limped a little, and then tried running again: sharp, hot pain radiated down my thigh. Panic flooded me, as I imagined weeks without running: weeks without a predictable break from my own thoughts, weeks immersed in adolescent loneliness. I was 14. Pain was about to define a decade of my life. Advertisement First, I took a break from the sport—five months of stretching, icing, and waiting for the leg to heal. I returned to running, but soon after, I developed a throbbing pain in my back. The cycle repeated. Less than a year later, the pain showed up again, this time in my foot. My focus on healing my body became singular: I tried physical therapy and massage and acupuncture. I researched conditions that could lead to repeat injury. Maybe I had a rare soft-tissue disorder, I thought, or maybe early-onset rheumatoid arthritis. I let an osteopath stick a giant needle into my spinal ligaments, and inject me with sugar water, which is just as painful as it sounds. After a chiropractor recommended an anti-inflammatory diet, I subsisted on only meat and vegetables. I’d get a few good months—a joyful summer, a successful cross-country season. Then the pain would return again. As I prepared to leave home for college, my knees and ankles throbbed. For several months, my hip hurt so badly I dreaded even walking to the dining hall. Then, while scrambling to finish my senior thesis, neck spasms prevented me from leaving my bed for days. When I saw doctors, I hoped that they would discover something terribly wrong. They never did. “Have you tried psychotherapy?” one asked me. I had. I’d been in therapy for years. © 2021 The Slate Group LLC.

Keyword: Pain & Touch; Attention
Link ID: 27693 - Posted: 02.15.2021

Elizabeth Landau At a sleep research symposium in January 2020, Janna Lendner presented findings that hint at a way to look at people’s brain activity for signs of the boundary between wakefulness and unconsciousness. For patients who are comatose or under anesthesia, it can be all-important that physicians make that distinction correctly. Doing so is trickier than it might sound, however, because when someone is in the dreaming state of rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, their brain produces the same familiar, smoothly oscillating brain waves as when they are awake. Lendner argued, though, that the answer isn’t in the regular brain waves, but rather in an aspect of neural activity that scientists might normally ignore: the erratic background noise. Some researchers seemed incredulous. “They said, ‘So, you’re telling me that there’s, like, information in the noise?’” said Lendner, an anesthesiology resident at the University Medical Center in Tübingen, Germany, who recently completed a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley. “I said, ‘Yes. Someone’s noise is another one’s signal.’” Lendner is one of a growing number of neuroscientists energized by the idea that noise in the brain’s electrical activity could hold new clues to its inner workings. What was once seen as the neurological equivalent of annoying television static may have profound implications for how scientists study the brain. All Rights Reserved © 2021

Keyword: Sleep; Attention
Link ID: 27684 - Posted: 02.13.2021

Bevil R. Conway Danny Garside Is the red I see the same as the red you see? At first, the question seems confusing. Color is an inherent part of visual experience, as fundamental as gravity. So how could anyone see color differently than you do? To dispense with the seemingly silly question, you can point to different objects and ask, “What color is that?” The initial consensus apparently settles the issue. But then you might uncover troubling variability. A rug that some people call green, others call blue. A photo of a dress that some people call blue and black, others say is white and gold. You’re confronted with an unsettling possibility. Even if we agree on the label, maybe your experience of red is different from mine and – shudder – could it correspond to my experience of green? How would we know? Neuroscientists, including us, have tackled this age-old puzzle and are starting to come up with some answers to these questions. One thing that is becoming clear is the reason individual differences in color are so disconcerting in the first place. Scientists often explain why people have color vision in cold, analytic terms: Color is for object recognition. And this is certainly true, but it’s not the whole story. The color statistics of objects are not arbitrary. The parts of scenes that people choose to label (“ball,” “apple,” “tiger”) are not any random color: They are more likely to be warm colors (oranges, yellows, reds), and less likely to be cool colors (blues, greens). This is true even for artificial objects that could have been made any color. © 2010–2021, The Conversation US, Inc.

Keyword: Vision; Attention
Link ID: 27682 - Posted: 02.08.2021

By Veronique Greenwood Last spring, robins living on an Illinois tree farm sat on some unusual eggs. Alongside the customary brilliant blue ovoids they had laid were some unusually shaped objects. Although they had the same color, some were long and thin, stretched into pills. Others were decidedly pointy — so angular, in fact, that they bore little resemblance to eggs at all. If robins played Dungeons and Dragons, they might have thought, “Why do I have an eight-sided die in my nest?” The answer: Evolutionary biologists were gauging how birds decide what belongs in their nests, and what is an invasive piece of detritus that they need to throw out. Thanks to the results of this study, published Wednesday in Royal Society Open Science, we now know what the robins thought of the eggs, which were made of plastic and had been 3-D printed by the lab of Mark Hauber, a professor of animal behavior at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and a fellow at Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg in Delmenhorst, Germany. He and his colleagues reported that the thinner the fake eggs got, the more likely the birds were to remove them from the nest. But curiously, the robins were more cautious about throwing out the pointy objects like that eight-sided die, which were closer in width to their own eggs. Birds, the results suggest, are using rules of thumb that are not intuitive to humans when they decide what is detritus and what is precious cargo. It’s not as uncommon as you’d think for robins to find foreign objects in their nests. They play host to cowbirds, a parasitic species that lays eggs in other birds’ nests, where they hatch and compete with the robins’ own offspring for nourishment. Confronted with a cowbird egg, which is beige and squatter than its blue ovals, parent robins will often push the parasite’s eggs out. That makes the species a good candidate for testing exactly what matters when it comes to telling their own eggs apart from other objects, Dr. Hauber said. © 2021 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Attention; Evolution
Link ID: 27669 - Posted: 01.30.2021

Jessica Koehler Ph.D. The only true voyage of discovery...would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is. Marcel Proust Perception is everything—and it is flawed. Most of us navigate our daily lives believing we see the world as it is. Our brains are perceiving an objective reality, right? Well, not quite. Everything we bring in through our senses is interpreted through the filter of our past experiences. Sensation is physical energy detection by our sensory organs. Our eyes, mouth, tongue, nose, and skin relay raw data via a process of transduction, which is akin to translation of physical energy—such as sound waves—into the electrochemical energy the brain understands. At this point, the information is the same from person to person—it is unbiased. To understand human perception, you must first understand that all information in and of itself is meaningless. Beau Lotto While Dr. Lotto's statement is bold, from the perspective of neuroscience, it is true. Meaning is applied to everything, from the simplest to the most complex sensory input. Our brain's interpretation of the raw sensory information is known as perception. Everything from our senses is filtered through our unique system of past experiences in the world. Usually, the meaning we apply is functional and adequate—if not fully accurate, but sometimes our inaccurate perceptions create real-world difficulty.

Keyword: Vision; Attention
Link ID: 27666 - Posted: 01.27.2021

By Cathleen O’Grady Golden paper wasps have demanding social lives. To keep track of who’s who in a complex pecking order, they have to recognize and remember many individual faces. Now, an experiment suggests the brains of these wasps process faces all at once—similar to how human facial recognition works. It’s the first evidence of insects identifying one another using “holistic” processing, and a clue to why social animals have evolved such abilities. The finding suggests holistic processing might not require big, complex brains, says Rockefeller University neuroscientist Winrich Freiwald, who wasn’t involved with the research. “It must be so hard to train these animals, so I find it fascinating how one can get such clear results,” he says. Most people recognize faces not from specific features, such as a unique beauty spot or the shape of a nose, but by processing them as a whole, taking in how all the features hang together. Experiments find that people are good at discriminating between facial features—like noses—when they see them in the context of a face but find it much harder when the features are seen in isolation. Other primates, including chimpanzees and rhesus macaques, use such holistic processing. And studies have even found that honey bees and wasps, trained to recognize human faces, have more difficulty with partial faces than whole ones, suggesting holistic processing. But biologists didn’t know whether insects actually use holistic processing naturally with each other. © 2021 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Attention; Evolution
Link ID: 27655 - Posted: 01.20.2021

By Amy Barrett Amy Barrett: So, let’s start at the very beginning. What’s involved in forming a thought? David Badre: Forming a thought is sort of the core problem, that’s a big mystery in human psychology and neuroscience. This book is kind of asking the next question; how do we go from a thought that we have, that we form. Some idea about what we want to do, some task we want to take, some goal that we have. How do we translate that into the actions we need to do to actually achieve that? And that’s something that we kind of take for granted. We do it at lots of times during the course of our day. And these can be big goals. You know, you want to go to university or you want to start a business or something. But it can also be just simple everyday goals like going and getting a cup of coffee, which is the example I use in the book. All of that requires making a link between this idea you have, a goal you have, and the actual actions. It turns out that’s not a trivial thing. The brain requires a special class of mechanisms to do that. And those are called cognitive control mechanisms by scientists. And that’s really what the book is about, because it affects so many aspects of our lives. How we do that translation between our thoughts and how we behave. (C)BBC

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 27654 - Posted: 01.20.2021

By Veronique Greenwood Zipping through water like shimmering arrowheads, cuttlefish are swift, sure hunters — death on eight limbs and two waving tentacles for small creatures in their vicinity. They morph to match the landscape, shifting between a variety of hues and even textures, using tiny structures that expand and contract beneath their skin. They even seem to have depth perception, researchers using tiny 3-D vision glasses found, placing them apart from octopuses and squids. And their accuracy at striking prey is remarkable. But for cuttlefish, these physical feats in pursuit of food are not the whole story. A new study published this month in the journal Royal Society Open Science shows that there is even more to cuttlefish cognition than scientists may have known. The sea creatures appear to be capable of performing calculations that are more complicated than simply “more food is better.” Presented with a choice between one shrimp or two, they will actually choose the single shrimp when they have learned through experience that they are rewarded for this choice. While the braininess of their octopus cousins gets a lot of attention, researchers who study animal cognition have uncovered surprising talents in cuttlefish over the years. For instance, the cephalopods will hunt fewer crabs during the day if they learn that shrimp, their preferred food, is predictably available during the night. That shows that they can think ahead. Chuan-Chin Chiao, a biologist at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, and an author of the current paper alongside his colleague Tzu-Hsin Kuo, has found in the past that cuttlefish that are hungry will choose a bigger, harder-to-catch shrimp to attack, and those that are not will choose smaller, easier-to-catch ones. But researchers have also found that animals do not always make decisions that seem logical at first glance. Like humans, whose behavior rarely fits economists’ visions of what an ideal, rational creature would do, animals respond to their environments using learned experiences. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Attention; Evolution
Link ID: 27637 - Posted: 12.31.2020

Sarah Sloat Patience, you might have heard, is a virtue. That’s why so many Puritans named their daughters “Patience” in the 1600s. It is the ability to wait calmly in the face of frustration or adversity. Like Penelope weaving while waiting for Odysseus, patient people wait for their partners to finish a Netflix show they’re binging. Impatient people do not. But despite the societal framing of patience as a measurement of character, in its purest sense, patience is a chemically induced output of the brain. However, exactly what goes on in the brain that leads to patience isn’t well understood. A new study involving mice takes a step toward understanding patience by pointing to the role of serotonin, and how it interacts with different brain structures. Serotonin is a chemical and a neurotransmitter, meaning it sends messages throughout the brain. It influences many behaviors, including mood and sleep. In a paper recently released in the journal Science Advances, scientists argue that serotonin influences specific areas of the brain to promote patient behavior. But critically, this process only occurs if there’s already “high expectation or confidence” that being patient will lead to future rewards. First author Katsuhiko Miyazaki is a scientist at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan who researches the relationship between serotonergic neural activity and animal behavior. He tells me this study originated from an interest in revealing how projections of serotonin promote waiting for future rewards.

Keyword: Attention; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 27615 - Posted: 12.09.2020

Anil K Seth What is the best way to understand consciousness? In philosophy, centuries-old debates continue to rage over whether the Universe is divided, following René Descartes, into ‘mind stuff’ and ‘matter stuff’. But the rise of modern neuroscience has seen a more pragmatic approach gain ground: an approach that is guided by philosophy but doesn’t rely on philosophical research to provide the answers. Its key is to recognise that explaining why consciousness exists at all is not necessary in order to make progress in revealing its material basis – to start building explanatory bridges from the subjective and phenomenal to the objective and measurable. In my work at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex in Brighton, I collaborate with cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, brain imagers, virtual reality wizards and mathematicians – and philosophers too – trying to do just this. And together with other laboratories, we are gaining exciting new insights into consciousness – insights that are making real differences in medicine, and that in turn raise new intellectual and ethical challenges. In my own research, a new picture is taking shape in which conscious experience is seen as deeply grounded in how brains and bodies work together to maintain physiological integrity – to stay alive. In this story, we are conscious ‘beast-machines’, and I hope to show you why. Let’s begin with David Chalmers’s influential distinction, inherited from Descartes, between the ‘easy problem’ and the ‘hard problem’. The ‘easy problem’ is to understand how the brain (and body) gives rise to perception, cognition, learning and behaviour. The ‘hard’ problem is to understand why and how any of this should be associated with consciousness at all: why aren’t we just robots, or philosophical zombies, without any inner universe? It’s tempting to think that solving the easy problem (whatever this might mean) would get us nowhere in solving the hard problem, leaving the brain basis of consciousness a total mystery. © Aeon Media Group Ltd. 2012-2020.

Keyword: Consciousness
Link ID: 27610 - Posted: 12.07.2020

by Josh Wilbur Jake Haendel was a hard-partying chef from a sleepy region of Massachusetts. When he was 28, his heroin addiction resulted in catastrophic brain damage and very nearly killed him. In a matter of months, Jake’s existence became reduced to a voice in his head. Jake’s parents had divorced when he was young. He grew up between their two homes in a couple of small towns just beyond reach of Boston, little more than strip malls, ailing churches and half-empty sports bars. His mother died of breast cancer when he was 19. By then, he had already been selling marijuana and abusing OxyContin, an opioid, for years. “Like a lot of kids at my school, I fell in love with oxy. If I was out to dinner with my family at a restaurant, I would go to the bathroom just to get a fix,” he said. He started culinary school, where he continued to experiment with opioids and cocaine. He hid his drug use from family and friends behind a sociable, fun-loving front. Inside, he felt anxious and empty. “I numbed myself with partying,” he said. After culinary school, he took a job as a chef at a local country club. At 25, Jake tried heroin for the first time, with a co-worker (narcotics are notoriously prevalent in American kitchens). By the summer of 2013, Jake was struggling to find prescription opioids. For months, he had been fending off the symptoms of opioid withdrawal, which he likened to “a severe case of the flu with an added feeling of impending doom”. Heroin offered a euphoric high, staving off the intense nausea and shaking chills of withdrawal. Despite his worsening addiction, Jake married his girlfriend, Ellen, in late 2016. Early in their relationship, Ellen had asked him if he was using heroin. He had lied without hesitation, but she soon found out the truth, and within months, the marriage was falling apart. “I was out of control, selling lots of heroin, using even more, spending a ridiculous amount of money on drugs and alcohol,” he said. In May 2017, Ellen noticed that he was talking funnily, his words slurred and off-pitch. “What’s up with your voice?” she asked him repeatedly.

Keyword: Consciousness; Drug Abuse
Link ID: 27595 - Posted: 11.27.2020

By Kashmir Hill and Jeremy White There are now businesses that sell fake people. On the website Generated.Photos, you can buy a “unique, worry-free” fake person for $2.99, or 1,000 people for $1,000. If you just need a couple of fake people — for characters in a video game, or to make your company website appear more diverse — you can get their photos for free on ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com. Adjust their likeness as needed; make them old or young or the ethnicity of your choosing. If you want your fake person animated, a company called Rosebud.AI can do that and can even make them talk. These simulated people are starting to show up around the internet, used as masks by real people with nefarious intent: spies who don an attractive face in an effort to infiltrate the intelligence community; right-wing propagandists who hide behind fake profiles, photo and all; online harassers who troll their targets with a friendly visage. The A.I. system sees each face as a complex mathematical figure, a range of values that can be shifted. Choosing different values — like those that determine the size and shape of eyes — can alter the whole image. For other qualities, our system used a different approach. Instead of shifting values that determine specific parts of the image, the system first generated two images to establish starting and end points for all of the values, and then created images in between. The creation of these types of fake images only became possible in recent years thanks to a new type of artificial intelligence called a generative adversarial network. In essence, you feed a computer program a bunch of photos of real people. It studies them and tries to come up with its own photos of people, while another part of the system tries to detect which of those photos are fake. The back-and-forth makes the end product ever more indistinguishable from the real thing. The portraits in this story were created by The Times using GAN software that was made publicly available by the computer graphics company Nvidia. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 27589 - Posted: 11.21.2020

Diana Kwon It all began with a cough. Three years ago Tracey McNiven, a Scottish woman in her mid-30s, caught a bad chest infection that left her with a persistent cough that refused to subside, even after medication. A few months later strange symptoms started to appear. McNiven noticed numbness spreading through her legs and began to feel that their movement was out of her control. When she walked, she felt like a marionette, with someone else pulling the strings. Over the course of two weeks the odd loss of sensation progressively worsened. Then, one evening at home, McNiven's legs collapsed beneath her. “I was lying there, and I felt like I couldn't breathe,” she recalls. “I couldn't feel below my waist.” McNiven's mother rushed her to the hospital where she remained for more than half a year. During her first few weeks in the hospital, McNiven endured a barrage of tests as doctors tried to uncover the cause of her symptoms. It could be a progressive neurodegenerative condition such as motor neuron disease, they thought. Or maybe it was multiple sclerosis, a disease in which the body's own immune cells attack the nervous system. Bafflingly, however, the brain scans, blood tests, spinal taps and everything else came back normal. McNiven's predicament is not uncommon. According to one of the most comprehensive assessments of neurology clinics to date, roughly a third of patients have neurological symptoms that are deemed to be either partially or entirely unexplained. These may include tremor, seizures, blindness, deafness, pain, paralysis and coma and can parallel those of almost any neurological disease. In some patients, such complications can persist for years or even decades; some people require wheelchairs or cannot get out of bed. Although women are more often diagnosed than men, such seemingly inexplicable illness can be found in anyone and across the life span. © 2020 Scientific American

Keyword: Attention; Emotions
Link ID: 27586 - Posted: 11.18.2020

Linda Geddes Many of the side-effects attributed to statins could be down to the “nocebo effect”, which occurs when someone expects to experience negative symptoms – even if the drug is a placebo – a study suggests. Statins are one of the most widely prescribed drugs in the UK, taken by nearly eight million people to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering cholesterol levels. Yet, despite their effectiveness, up to a fifth of people stop taking them because of side-effects, such as fatigue, muscle aches, joint pain and nausea. Clinical studies have suggested, however, the incidence of side-effects is far lower. Researchers led by Frances Wood and Dr James Howard at Imperial College London recruited 60 patients who had been on statins, but stopped taking them owing to adverse effects. They were persuaded to resume treatment, and given four bottles containing atorvastatin, four bottles containing identical-looking placebo pills and four empty bottles, to be taken in a randomly prescribed order over the course of a year – including four months taking no pills. Each day, they recorded any side-effects on a smartphone, ranking their intensity from zero to 100. The researchers found 90% of symptoms experienced by the patients were present when they took placebo tablets. Also, 24 patients stopped taking tablets for at least one month of the trial, citing intolerable side-effects – amounting to 71 stoppages in total. Of these, 31 occurred during placebo months and 40 were during statin months. The results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine. © 2020 Guardian News & Media Limited

Keyword: Pain & Touch; Attention
Link ID: 27582 - Posted: 11.16.2020

Joel Frohlich Three years ago, I asked, “What the heck is a claustrum?” In that post, I described the mystery of this oddly shaped brain region, located just below the cerebral cortex. Because the claustrum is vanishingly thin in its cross section (think of a pancake shaped like North America), very few patients or lab animals have experienced lesions that specifically destroy the claustrum. For this reason, it’s difficult to pin down what happens when just this brain region (and not others) goes offline. But given its wealth of connections to other brain areas, neuroscientist Christof Koch speculated in 2017 that “the claustrum could be coordinating inputs and outputs across the brain to create consciousness.” This idea is supported by a report of a woman with epilepsy who lost consciousness after her claustrum was electrically stimulated, and perhaps also by the consciousness-transforming effects of Salvinorin A, a drug that binds to receptors that are abundant in the claustrum and alters body image. Could the claustrum, an enigma of the brain, also be the key to the conscious mind? Well, now we have the answer. Using a genetic engineering technique called optogenetics that enables neurons to fire impulses in response to blue light, a team at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan has discovered what the heck the claustrum actually does. During deep sleep when you’re not dreaming, your cerebral cortex shows slow waves of electrical activity. These waves are very synchronous, meaning they reflect the coordinated activity of many neurons, more so than the smaller, faster waves that are generally present when you are either awake or dreaming. How does the brain coordinate the activity of so many neurons? It turns out that the claustrum plays a key role. © 2020 Sussex Publishers, LLC

Keyword: Consciousness
Link ID: 27579 - Posted: 11.14.2020

By Cheryl Maguire When my 15-year-old son was given a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at age 7, I was told that it was a lifelong chronic condition. So I felt a little bit hopeful when a study published last winter in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics said that “an estimated 30 percent to 60 percent of children diagnosed with A.D.H.D. no longer meet diagnostic criteria for this disorder by late adolescence.” Does that mean they outgrew it? There is no simple answer, said Thomas Power, director of the center for management of A.D.H.D. at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the senior author of the study. He was one of eight experts I consulted, and while they fell into different camps on whether someone can outgrow A.D.H.D., they all agreed that the answer is complicated. Some said there could be a genetic component to outgrowing A.D.H.D., while others told me that certain coping skills and job choices play a prominent role in lessening symptoms, which could make it seem that the person no longer has it. Russell Barkley, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, clarified that ceasing to meet the definition of A.D.H.D. in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the main resource that clinicians use to make a diagnosis, does not mean that the person no longer has the issues of A.D.H.D. “People are outgrowing the D.S.M. criteria but not outgrowing their disorder for the most part,” Dr. Barkley said. “Diagnosing A.D.H.D. is not like leukemia, where you do a blood test and you know definitively you have leukemia,” said Dr. William Barbaresi, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Boston, and professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. When a young child is given an A.D.H.D. diagnosis, doctors and clinicians rely on patient, parent and teacher feedback. But when a late adolescent or adult is assessed, it is normally based on self-reports only. “There are a lot of reasons to wonder how accurate that report is since it is difficult to evaluate yourself,” said Dr. Barbaresi. And Dr. Power noted, “Individuals with A.D.H.D. tend to underreport their symptoms.” © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: ADHD
Link ID: 27578 - Posted: 11.14.2020

By Benedict Carey Merriam-Webster’s defines a time warp as a “discontinuity, suspension or anomaly” in the otherwise normal passage of time; this year all three terms could apply. It seems like March happened 10 years ago; everyday may as well be Wednesday, and still, somehow, here come the holidays — fast, just like every year. Some bard or novelist may yet come forth to help explain the paradoxes of pandemic time, both its Groundhog Days and the blurs of stress and fear for those on the front lines, or who had infectious people in their household. But brain science also has something to say about the relationship between perceived time and the Greenwich Mean variety, and why the two may slip out of sync. In a new study, a research team based in Dallas reported the first strong evidence to date of so-called “time cells” in the human brain. The finding, posted by the journal PNAS, was not unexpected: In recent years, several research groups have isolated neurons in rodents that track time intervals. It’s where the scientists look for these cells, and how they identified them, that provide some insight into the subjective experiences of time. “The first thing to say is that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as ‘time cells’ in the brain,” said Gyorgy Buzsaki, a neuroscientist at New York University who was not involved in the new research. “There is no neural clock. What happens in the brain is neurons change in response to other neurons.” He added, “Having said that, it’s a useful concept to talk about how this neural substrate represents the passage of what we call time.” In the new study, a team led by Dr. Bradley Lega, a neurosurgeon at UT Southwestern Medical Center, analyzed the firing of cells in the medial temporal area, a region deep in the brain that is essential for memory formation and retrieval. It’s a natural place to look: Memories must be somehow “time-stamped” to retain some semblance of sequence, or chronological order. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 27576 - Posted: 11.10.2020