Memory4

Milk could be good for your brain

March 24, 2015

Science Daily/University of Kansas Medical Center

A correlation between milk consumption and the levels of a naturally-occurring antioxidant called glutathione in the brain has been discovered in older, healthy adults.

 

In-Young Choi, Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology at KU Medical Center, and Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., professor and chair of dietetics and nutrition at KU Medical Center, worked together on the project. Their research, which was published in the Feb. 3, 2015 edition of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests a new way that drinking milk could benefit the body.

 

"We have long thought of milk as being very important for your bones and very important for your muscles," Sullivan said. "This study suggests that it could be important for your brain as well."

 

Choi's team asked the 60 participants in the study about their diets in the days leading up to brain scans, which they used to monitor levels of glutathione -- a powerful antioxidant -- in the brain.

 

The researchers found that participants who had indicated they had drunk milk recently had higher levels of glutathione in their brains. This is important, the researchers said, because glutathione could help stave off oxidative stress and the resulting damage caused by reactive chemical compounds produced during the normal metabolic process in the brain. Oxidative stress is known to be associated with a number of different diseases and conditions, including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and many other conditions, said Dr. Choi.

 

"You can basically think of this damage like the buildup of rust on your car," Sullivan said. "If left alone for a long time, the buildup increases and it can cause damaging effects.

 

Few Americans reach the recommended daily intake of three dairy servings per day, Sullivan said. The new study showed that the closer older adults came to those servings, the higher their levels of glutathione were.

 

"If we can find a way to fight this by instituting lifestyle changes including diet and exercise, it could have major implications for brain health," Choi said.

 

An editorial in the same edition of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition said the study presented "a provocative new benefit of the consumption of milk in older individuals," and served as a starting point for further study of the issue.

 

"Antioxidants are a built-in defense system for our body to fight against this damage, and the levels of antioxidants in our brain can be regulated by various factors such as diseases and lifestyle choices," Choi said.

 

For the study, researchers used high-tech brain scanning equipment housed at KU Medical Center's Hoglund Brain Imaging Center. "Our equipment enables us to understand complex processes occurring that are related to health and disease," Choi said. "The advanced magnetic resonance technology allowed us to be in a unique position to get the best pictures of what was going on in the brain."

 

A randomized, controlled trial that seeks to determine the precise effect of milk consumption on the brain is still needed and is a logical next step to this study, the researchers said.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150324101447.htm

 

Powerful new data on the aging brain and traumatic brain injury

Latest data release also includes significant updates to Allen Cell Types Database and Allen Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas

April 26, 2016

Science Daily/Allen Institute

The Allen Institute for Brain Science has announced major updates to its online resources available at brain-map.org, including a new resource on Aging, Dementia and Traumatic Brain Injury. The resource is the first of its kind to collect and share a wide variety of data modalities on a large sample of aged brains, complete with mental health histories and clinical diagnoses.

 

"The power of this resource is its ability to look across such a large number of brains, as well as a large number of data types," says Ed Lein, Ph.D., Investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. "The resource combines traditional neuropathology with modern 'omics' approaches to enable researchers to understand the process of aging, look for molecular signatures of disease and identify hallmarks of brain injury."

 

The study samples come from the Adult Changes in Thought (ACT) study, a longitudinal research effort led by Dr. Eric B. Larson and Dr. Paul K. Crane of the Group Health Research Institute and the University of Washington to collect data on thousands of aging adults, including detailed information on their health histories and cognitive abilities. UW Medicine led efforts to collect post-mortem samples from 107 brains aged 79 to 102, with tissue collected from the parietal cortex, temporal cortex, hippocampus and cortical white matter.

 

"This collaborative research project aims to answer one of the most perplexing problems in clinical neuroscience," says Dr. Richard G. Ellenbogen, UW Chair and Professor, Department of Neurological Surgery. "If a person suffers a traumatic brain injury during his or her lifetime, what is the risk of developing dementia? We simply don't know the answer at this time, but some of the answers might be found in this comprehensive dataset by people asking the right kind of questions. This issue is important because of the inherent risk for everyone who plays sports, exercises or in general, participates in the activities of daily life."

 

"This study was made possible by the amazing generosity of the ACT participants and their families, incredible collaboration among our partners, and the generosity and vision of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation," says Dr. Dirk Keene, co-principal investigator and Director, UW Neuropathology. "For the first time, scientists and clinicians from around the world will have access to this unique dataset, which will advance the study of brain aging and hopefully contribute to development of novel diagnostic and therapeutic strategies for neurodegenerative disease."

 

The final online resource includes quantitative image data to show the disease state of each sample, protein data related to those disease states, gene expression data and de-identified clinical data for each case. Because the data is so complex, the online resource also includes a series of animated "snapshots," giving users a dynamic sampling of the ways they can interrogate the data.

 

"There are many fascinating conclusions to be drawn by diving into these data," says Jane Roskams, Ph.D., Executive Director, Strategy and Alliances at the Allen Institute. "This is the first resource of its kind to combine a variety of data types and a large sample size, making it a remarkably holistic view of the aged brain in all its complexity."

 

Researchers focused on examining the impact of mild to moderate TBI on the aged brain, comparing samples from patients with self-reported loss of consciousness incidents against meticulously matched controls. "Interestingly, while we see many other trends in these data, we did not uncover a distinctive genetic signature or pathologic biomarker in patients with TBI and loss of consciousness in this population study," says Lein.

 

"This new resource is an exciting addition to our suite of open science resources," says Christof Koch, Ph.D., President and Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

 

"Researchers around the globe will be able to mine the data and explore many facets of the aged brain, which we hope will accelerate discoveries about health and disease in aging."

 

Research to create this resource was funded with a $2.37 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to the University of Washington.

 

Two other resources have received significant updates in the latest data release. The Allen Cell Types Database now includes gene expression data on individual cells, in addition to shape, electrical activity and location in the brain. The number of cells in the database has also increased, and, in collaboration with the Blue Brain Project, a subset of cells are accompanied by a new robust biophysical model.

 

The Allen Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas now includes its first public release of layer-specific connectivity in the visual cortex, including more specific targeting of cells using newly developed tracing methods.

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160426120104.htm

Brain boost: Research to improve memory through electricity?

February 29, 2016

Science Daily/Office of Naval Research

In a breakthrough study that could improve how people learn and retain information, researchers significantly boosted the memory and mental performance of laboratory mice through electrical stimulation.

Dr. Claudio Grassi (right) and two members of his research team at the Catholic University Medical School in Rome, Italy. In a breakthrough study that could improve how people learn and retain information, the researchers significantly boosted the memory and mental performance of laboratory mice through electrical stimulation.

Credit: Photo provided by Dr. Claudio Grassi

 

The study, sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Global, involved the use of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, or tDCS, on the mice. A noninvasive technique for brain stimulation, tDCS is applied using two small electrodes placed on the scalp, delivering short bursts of extremely low-intensity electrical currents.

 

"In addition to potentially enhancing task performance for Sailors and Marines," said ONR Global Commanding Officer Capt. Clark Troyer, "understanding how this technique works biochemically may lead to advances in the treatment of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety--which affect learning and memory in otherwise healthy individuals."

 

The implications of this research also have great potential to strengthen learning and memory in both healthy people and those with cognitive deficits such as Alzheimer's.

 

"We already have promising results in animal models of Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Claudio Grassi, who leads the research team. "In the near future, we will continue this research and extend analyses of tDCS to other brain areas and functions."

 

After exposing the mice to single 20-minute tDCS sessions, the researchers saw signs of improved memory and brain plasticity (the ability to form new connections between neurons when learning new information), which lasted at least a week. This intellectual boost was demonstrated by the enhanced performance of the mice during tests requiring them to navigate a water maze and distinguish between known and unknown objects.

 

Using data gathered from the sessions, Grassi's team discovered increased synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus, a region of the brain critical to memory processing and storage.

 

Although tDCS has been used for years to treat patients suffering from conditions such as stroke, depression and bipolar disorder, there are few studies supporting a direct link between tDCS and improved plasticity--making Grassi's work unique.

 

More important, the researchers identified the actual molecular trigger behind the bolstered memory and plasticity--increased production of BDNF, a protein essential to brain growth. BDNF, which stands for "brain-derived neurotrophic factor," is synthesized naturally by neurons and is crucial to neuronal development and specialization.

 

"While the technique and behavioral effects of tDCS are not new," said ONR Global Associate Director Dr. Monique Beaudoin, "Dr. Grassi's work is the first to describe BDNF as a mechanism for the behavioral changes that occur after tDCS treatment. This is an exciting and growing research area of great interest to ONR."

 

Beaudoin said tDCS treatment could one day benefit Sailors and Marines, from helping them learn faster and more effectively to easing the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

 

"Our warfighters face tremendous challenges that are both physically and cognitively taxing," she said. "They perform their duties in stressful environments where there are often suddenly and randomly varying levels of environmental stimulation, disrupted sleep cycles and a constant need to stay alert and vigilant.

 

"We want to explore all interventions that could help them stay healthy and perform optimally in these environments--especially when treatments are potentially noninvasive, effective and lead to long-lasting changes."

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/02/160229152918.htm

Calcium supplements linked to dementia risk in women with certain health conditions

August 17, 2016

Science Daily/American Academy of Neurology

Calcium supplements may be associated with an increased risk of dementia in older women who have had a stroke or other signs of cerebrovascular disease, according to a new study.

 

Cerebrovascular disease is a group of disorders that affect blood flow in the brain. These diseases, including stroke, are the fifth leading cause of death in the United States and increase the risk of developing dementia.

 

"Osteoporosis is a common problem in the elderly. Because calcium deficiency contributes to osteoporosis, daily calcium intake of 1000 to 1200 mg is recommended. Getting this recommended amount through diet alone can be difficult, so calcium supplements are widely used," said study author Silke Kern, MD, PhD with the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. "Recently, however, the use of supplements and their effect on health has been questioned."

 

The study involved 700 dementia-free women between the ages of 70 and 92 who were followed for five years. Participants took a variety of tests at the beginning and end of the study, including tests of memory and thinking skills. A CT brain scan was performed in 447 participants at the start of the study.

 

Scientists also looked at the use of calcium supplements in the participants and whether they were diagnosed with dementia over the course of the study. A total of 98 women were taking calcium supplements at the start of the study and 54 women had already experienced a stroke. During the study, 54 more women had strokes, and 59 women developed dementia. Among the women who had CT scans, 71 percent had lesions on their brains' white matter, which is a marker for cerebrovascular disease.

 

The study found that the women who were treated with calcium supplements were twice as likely to develop dementia than women who did not take supplements. But when the researchers further analyzed the data, they found that the increased risk was only among women with cerebrovascular disease. Women with a history of stroke who took supplements had a nearly seven times increased risk of developing dementia than women with a history of stroke who did not take calcium supplements. Women with white matter lesions who took supplements were three times as likely to develop dementia as women who had white matter lesions and did not take supplements. Women without a history of stroke or women without white matter lesions had no increased risk when taking calcium supplements.

 

Overall, 14 out of 98 women who took supplements developed dementia, or 14 percent, compared to 45 out of 602 women who did not take supplements, or 8 percent. A total of six out of 15 women with a history of stroke who took supplements developed dementia, compared to 12 out of 93 women with a history of stroke who did not take supplements. Among the women with no history of stroke, 18 out of 83 who took supplements developed dementia, compared to 33 out of the 509 who did not take supplements.

 

"It is important to note that our study is observational, so we cannot assume that calcium supplements cause dementia," said Kern. The author also noted that the study was small and results cannot be generalized to the overall population, and additional studies are needed to confirm the findings.

 

Kern noted that calcium from food affects the body differently than calcium from supplements and appears to be safe or even protective against vascular problems.

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/08/160817171555.htm

 

Compound found in grapes, red wine may help prevent memory loss

February 4, 2015
Science Daily/Texas A&M University
A compound found in common foods such as red grapes and peanuts may help prevent age-related decline in memory, according to new research published by a faculty member in the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine.

Ashok K. Shetty, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Medicine and Director of Neurosciences at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, has been studying the potential benefit of resveratrol, an antioxidant that is found in the skin of red grapes, as well as in red wine, peanuts and some berries.

Resveratrol has been widely touted for its potential to prevent heart disease, but Shetty and a team that includes other researchers from the health science center believe it also has positive effects on the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is critical to functions such as memory, learning and mood.

Because both humans and animals show a decline in cognitive capacity after middle age, the findings may have implications for treating memory loss in the elderly. Resveratrol may even be able to help people afflicted with severe neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's disease.

In a study published online Jan. 28 in Scientific Reports, Shetty and his research team members reported that treatment with resveratrol had apparent benefits in terms of learning, memory and mood function in aged rats.

"The results of the study were striking," Shetty said. "They indicated that for the control rats who did not receive resveratrol, spatial learning ability was largely maintained but ability to make new spatial memories significantly declined between 22 and 25 months. By contrast, both spatial learning and memory improved in the resveratrol-treated rats."

Shetty said neurogenesis (the growth and development of neurons) approximately doubled in the rats given resveratrol compared to the control rats. The resveratrol-treated rats also had significantly improved microvasculature, indicating improved blood flow, and had a lower level of chronic inflammation in the hippocampus.

"The study provides novel evidence that resveratrol treatment in late middle age can help improve memory and mood function in old age," Shetty said.

This study was funded primarily by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health. Shetty's lab is now examining the molecular mechanisms that underlie the improved cognitive function following resveratrol treatment. He also plans to conduct studies to see whether lower doses of resveratrol in the diet for prolonged periods would offer similar benefits to the aged brain.
Science Daily/SOURCE :http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150204184230.htm

After learning new words, brain sees them as pictures

March 24, 2015
Science Daily/Georgetown University Medical Center
When we look at a known word, our brain sees it like a picture, not a group of letters needing to be processed. That's the finding from a new study that shows the brain learns words quickly by tuning neurons to respond to a complete word, not parts of it.

Neurons respond differently to real words, such as turf, than to nonsense words, such as turt, showing that a small area of the brain is "holistically tuned" to recognize complete words, says the study's senior author, Maximilian Riesenhuber, PhD, who leads the GUMC Laboratory for Computational Cognitive Neuroscience.

"We are not recognizing words by quickly spelling them out or identifying parts of words, as some researchers have suggested. Instead, neurons in a small brain area remember how the whole word looks -- using what could be called a visual dictionary," he says.

This small area in the brain, called the visual word form area, is found in the left side of the visual cortex, opposite from the fusiform face area on the right side, which remembers how faces look. "One area is selective for a whole face, allowing us to quickly recognize people, and the other is selective for a whole word, which helps us read quickly," Riesenhuber says.
The study asked 25 adult participants to learn a set of 150 nonsense words. The brain plasticity associated with learning was investigated with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), both before and after training.

Using a specific fMRI technique know as fMRI-rapid adaptation, the investigators found that the visual word form area changed as the participants learned the nonsense words. Before training the neurons responded like the training words were nonsense words, but after training the neurons responded to the learned words like they were real words. "This study is the first of its kind to show how neurons change their tuning with learning words, demonstrating the brain's plasticity," says the study's lead author, Laurie Glezer, PhD.

The findings not only help reveal how the brain processes words, but also provides insights into how to help people with reading disabilities, says Riesenhuber. "For people who cannot learn words by phonetically spelling them out -- which is the usual method for teaching reading -- learning the whole word as a visual object may be a good strategy."

In fact, after the team's first groundbreaking study on the visual dictionary was published in Neuron in 2009, Riesenhuber says they were contacted by a number of people who had experienced reading difficulties and teachers helping people with reading difficulties, reporting that learning word as visual objects helped a great deal. That study revealed the existence of a neural representation for whole written real words -- also known as an orthographic lexicon --the current study now shows how novel words can become incorporated after learning in this lexicon.

"The visual word form area does not care how the word sounds, just how the letters of the word look together," he says. "The fact that this kind of learning only happens in one very small part of the brain is a nice example of selective plasticity in the brain."
Science Daily/SOURCE :http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150324183623.htm

Eating green leafy vegetables keeps mental abilities sharp

March 30, 2015
Science Daily/Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB)
Something as easy as adding more spinach, kale, collards and mustard greens to your diet could help slow cognitive decline, according to new research. The study also examined the nutrients responsible for the effect, linking vitamin K consumption to slower cognitive decline for the first time.

"Losing one's memory or cognitive abilities is one of the biggest fears for people as they get older," said Martha Clare Morris, Sc.D., assistant provost for community research at Rush University Medical Center and leader of the research team. "Since declining cognitive ability is central to Alzheimer's disease and dementias, increasing consumption of green leafy vegetables could offer a very simple, affordable and non-invasive way of potentially protecting your brain from Alzheimer's disease and dementia."

The researchers tracked the diets and cognitive abilities of more than 950 older adults for an average of five years and saw a significant decrease in the rate of cognitive decline for study participants who consumed greater amounts of green leafy vegetables. People who ate one to two servings per day had the cognitive ability of a person 11 years younger than those who consumed none.

When the researchers examined individual nutrients linked with slowing cognitive decline, they found that vitamin K, lutein, folate and beta-carotene were most likely helping to keep the brain healthy.

"Our study identified some very novel associations," said Morris, who will present the research at the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) Annual Meeting during Experimental Biology 2015. "No other studies have looked at vitamin K in relation to change in cognitive abilities over time, and only a limited number of studies have found some association with lutein." Other studies have linked folate and beta-carotene intake with slower cognitive decline.

To conduct the study, Morris' research team gathered data from 954 participants from the Memory and Aging Project, which aims to identify factors associated with the maintenance of cognitive health. The participants, whose age averaged 81, reported their daily food and beverage intake by answering a detailed 144-item questionnaire at the beginning of the study. The researchers computed the total daily nutrients by combining the nutrient content for each food consumed with the number of servings eaten each day. They followed participants for 2 to 10 years, assessing cognition annually with a comprehensive battery of 19 tests and adjusted for age, sex, education, smoking, genetic risk for Alzheimer's disease and participation in physical activities when estimating the effects of diet on cognitive decline.

"With baby boomers approaching old age, there is huge public demand for lifestyle behaviors that can ward off loss of memory and other cognitive abilities with age," said Morris. "Our study provides evidence that eating green leafy vegetables and other foods rich in vitamin K, lutein and beta-carotene can help to keep the brain healthy to preserve functioning."
In addition to green leafy vegetables, other good sources of vitamin K, lutein, folate and beta-carotene include brightly colored fruits and vegetables.
Science Daily/SOURCE :http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150330112227.htm

The brain game: How decreased neural activity may help you learn faster

April 6, 2015
Science Daily/University of California - Santa Barbara
Why are some people able to master a new skill quickly while others require extra time or practice? Counterintuitive as it may seem, study participants who showed decreased neural activity learned the fastest. The critical distinction was in areas not directly related to seeing the cues or playing the notes that participants were trying to learn: the frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. These cognitive control centers are thought to be most responsible for what is known as executive function. The frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex are among the last brain regions to fully develop in humans, which may help explain why children are able to acquire new skills quickly as compared to adults.
http://images.sciencedaily.com/2015/04/150406121348-large.jpg

Why are some people able to master a new skill quickly while others require extra time or practice? That was the question posed by UC Santa Barbara's Scott Grafton and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University.

To find the answer, the team designed a study that measured the connections between different brain regions while participants learned to play a simple game.

The researchers discovered that the neural activity in the quickest learners was different from that of the slowest. Their analysis provides new insight into what happens in the brain during the learning process and sheds light on the role of interactions between different regions. The findings, which appear online today in Nature Neuroscience, suggest that recruiting unnecessary parts of the brain for a given task -- similar to overthinking the problem -- plays a critical role in this important difference.

"It's useful to think of your brain as housing a very large toolkit," said Grafton, a professor in UCSB's Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences. "When you start to learn a challenging new skill, such as playing a musical instrument, your brain uses many different tools in a desperate attempt to produce anything remotely close to music. With time and practice, fewer tools are needed and core motor areas are able to support most of the behavior. What our laboratory study shows is that beyond a certain amount of practice, some of these cognitive tools might actually be getting in the way of further learning."

At UCSB's Brain Imaging Center, study participants played a simple game while their brains were scanned with fMRI. The technique measures neural activity by tracking the flow of blood in the brain, highlighting which regions are involved in a given task.

Participants responded to a sequence of color-coded notes by pressing the corresponding button on a hand-held controller. Six predetermined sequences of 10 notes each were shown multiple times during the scanning sessions. Subjects were instructed to play the sequences as quickly and as accurately as possible, responding to the cues they saw on a screen.

The study continued with participants practicing at home while researchers monitored their activity remotely. Subjects returned to the Brain Imaging Center at two-, four- and six-week intervals for new scans that demonstrated how well practice had helped them master the skill. Completion time for all participants dropped over the course of the study but did so at different rates. Some picked up the sequences immediately, while others gradually improved over the six-week period.

The complexities of learning

 

Lead author Danielle Bassett, an expert in network science, developed novel analysis methods to determine what was happening in the participants' brains that correlated with these differences. But rather than trying to find a single spot in the brain that was more or less active, the team investigated the learning process as the function of a complex, dynamic network involving various regions of the brain.

"We weren't using the traditional fMRI approach where you pick a region of interest and see if it lights up," said Bassett, the Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania. "We looked at the whole brain at once and saw which parts were communicating with each other the most."

The investigators compared the activation patterns of 112 anatomical regions of the brain and measured the degree to which they mirrored one another. The more the patterns of two regions matched, the more they were considered to be in communication. By graphing those connections, the team found that hotspots of highly interconnected regions emerged.

"When network scientists look at these graphs, they see what is known as community structure," Bassett said. "There are sets of nodes in a network that are really densely interconnected to each other. Everything else is either independent or very loosely connected with only a few lines."

The team used a technique known as dynamic community detection, a method that employs algorithms to determine which nodes are incorporated into these clusters and how their interactions change over time. This allowed the researchers to measure how common it was for any two nodes to remain in the same cluster while subjects practiced the same sequence some 10 times. Through these comparisons, they found overarching trends about how regions responsible for different functions worked together.

The researchers discovered that the visual and the motor blocks had a lot of connectivity during the first few trials, but as the experiment progressed they became essentially autonomous. For example, the part of the brain that controls finger movement and the part that processes visual stimulus didn't really interact at all by the end of the experiment.
According to Grafton, in some ways this trend was not surprising since the team was essentially seeing the learning process on the neurological level, with the participants' brains reorganizing the flow of activity as they mastered this new skill.

"Previous brain imaging research has mostly looked at skill learning over -- at most -- a few days of practice, which is silly," said Grafton, who is also a member of UCSB's Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies. "Who ever learned to play the violin in an afternoon? By studying the effects of dedicated practice over many weeks, we gain insight into never before observed changes in the brain. These reveal fundamental insights into skill learning that are akin to the kinds of learning we must achieve in the real world."

Comparing executive function

 

With the neurological correlates of the learning process coming into focus, the scientists were able to delve into the differences among participants in order to explain why some learned the sequences faster than others. Counterintuitive as it may seem, the participants who showed decreased neural activity learned the fastest. The critical distinction was in areas not directly related to seeing the cues or playing the notes: the frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex.

These cognitive control centers are thought to be most responsible for what is known as executive function. "This neurological trait is associated with making and following through with plans, spotting and avoiding errors and other higher-order types of thinking," Grafton said. "In fact, good executive function is necessary for complex tasks but might actually be a hindrance to mastering simple ones."

Grafton also noted that the frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex are among the last brain regions to fully develop in humans, which may help explain why children are able to acquire new skills quickly as compared to adults.

"It's the people who can turn off the communication to these parts of their brain the quickest who have the steepest drop-off in their completion times," said Bassett. "It seems like those other parts are getting in the way for the slower learners. It's almost like they're trying too hard and overthinking it."

Additional studies will delve into why some people are better than others at shutting down the connections in these parts of the brains.
Science Daily/SOURCE :http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150406121348.htm

Food for thought: Master protein enhances learning and memory

April 7, 2015
Science Daily/Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Just as some people seem built to run marathons and have an easier time going for miles without tiring, others are born with a knack for memorizing things, from times tables to trivia facts. These two skills -- running and memorizing -- are not so different as it turns out. Researchers have discovered a single protein that energizes muscles and the brain, which could point to potential treatments in regenerative and developmental medicine as well as ways to address defects in learning and memory, they say.

Salk scientists and collaborators have discovered that physical and mental activities rely on a single metabolic protein that controls the flow of blood and nutrients throughout the body, as reported in the journal Cell Metabolism. The new study could point to potential treatments in regenerative and developmental medicine as well as ways to address defects in learning and memory.

"This is all about getting energy where it's needed to 'the power plants' in the body," says Ronald Evans, director of Salk's Gene Expression Laboratory and senior author of the new paper, published April 7, 2015. "The heart and muscles need a surge of energy to carry out exercise and neurons need a surge of energy to form new memories."

Energy for muscles and brains, the scientists discovered, is controlled by a single protein called estrogen-related receptor gamma (ERRγ). Evans' research group has previously studied the role of ERRγ in the heart and skeletal muscles. In 2011, they discovered that promoting ERRγ activity in the muscle of sedentary mice increased blood supply to their muscles and doubled their running capacity. ERRγ, they went on to show, turns on a whole host of muscle genes that convert fat to energy.

Thus, ERRγ became known as a master metabolic switch that energized muscle to enhance performance. Although studies had also shown that ERRγ was active in the brain, researchers didn't understand why -- the brain burns sugar and ERRγ was previously shown to only burn fat. So the team decided to look more closely at what the protein was doing in brain cells.

By first looking at isolated neurons, Liming Pei, lead and co-corresponding author of the paper, found that, as in muscle, ERRγ activates dozens of metabolic genes in brain cells. Unexpectedly, this activation related to sugar instead of fat. Neurons that lacked ERRγ could not ramp up energy production and thus had a compromised performance.

"We assumed that ERRγ did the same thing throughout the body," says Evans. "But we learned that it's different in the brain." ERRγ, they now conclude, turns on fat-burning pathways in muscles and sugar-burning pathways in the brain.

Evans and his collaborators noticed that ERRγ in live mice was most active in the hippocampus -- an area of the brain that is active in producing new brain cells, is involved in learning and memory and is known to require lots of energy. They wondered whether ERRγ had a direct role in learning and memory. By studying mice lacking ERRγ in the brain, they found a link.

While mice without the protein had normal vision, movement and balance, they were slower at learning how to swim through a water maze -- and poor at remembering the maze on subsequent trials -- compared to mice with normal levels of ERRγ.

"What we found is that mice that missing ERRγ are basically very slow learners," says Pei. Varying levels of ERRγ could also be at the root of differences between how individual humans learn, he hypothesizes. "Everyone can learn, but some people learn and memorize more efficiently than others, and we now think this could be linked to changes in brain metabolism."

A better understanding of the metabolism of neurons could help point the way to improved treatments for learning and attention disorders. And possibly, revving up levels of ERRγ could even enhance learning, just as it enhances muscle function.

"What we've shown is that memories are really built on a metabolic scaffold," says Evans. "And we think that if you want to understand learning and memory, you need to understand the circuits that underlie and power this process."

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150407123052.htm

Musical tastes offer a window into how you think

 

July 22, 2015
Science Daily/University of Cambridge
Do you like your jazz to be Norah Jones or Ornette Coleman, your classical music to be Bach or Stravinsky, or your rock to be Coldplay or Slayer? The answer could give an insight into the way you think, say researchers.

In a study published today in the journal PLOS ONE, a team of psychologists show that your thinking style -- whether you are an 'empathizer' who likes to focus on and respond to the emotions of others, or a 'systemizer' who likes to analyse rules and patterns in the world--is a predictor of the type of music you like.

Music is a prominent feature of everyday life and nearly everywhere we go. It's easy for us to know what types of music we like and don't like. When shuffling songs on an iPod, it takes us only a few seconds to decide whether to listen or skip to the next track. However, little is known about what determines our taste in music.

Researchers over the past decade have argued that musical preferences reflect explicit characteristics such as age and personality. For example, people who are open to new experiences tend to prefer music from the blues, jazz, classical, and folk genres, and people who are extraverted and 'agreeable' tend to prefer music from the pop, soundtrack, religious, soul, funk, electronic, and dance genres.

Now a team of scientists, led by PhD student David Greenberg, has looked at how our 'cognitive style' influences our musical choices. This is measured by looking at whether an individual scores highly on 'empathy' (our ability to recognize and react to the thoughts and feelings of others) or on 'systemizing' (our interest in understanding the rules underpinning systems such as the weather, music, or car engines) -- or whether we have a balance of both.

"Although people's music choices fluctuates over time, we've discovered a person's empathy levels and thinking style predicts what kind of music they like," said David Greenberg from the Department of Psychology. "In fact, their cognitive style -- whether they're strong on empathy or strong on systems -- can be a better predictor of what music they like than their personality."

The researchers conducted multiple studies with over 4,000 participants, who were recruited mainly through the myPersonality Facebook app. The app asked Facebook users to take a selection of psychology-based questionnaires, the results of which they could place on their profiles for other users to see. At a later date, they were asked to listen to and rate 50 musical pieces. The researchers used library examples of musical stimuli from 26 genres and subgenres, to minimise the chances that participants would have any personal or cultural association with the piece of music.

People who scored high on empathy tended to prefer mellow music (from R&B, soft rock, and adult contemporary genres), unpretentious music (from country, folk, and singer/songwriter genres) and contemporary music (from electronica, Latin, acid jazz, and Euro pop). They disliked intense music, such as punk and heavy metal. In contrast, people who scored high on systemizing favoured intense music, but disliked mellow and unpretentious musical styles.

The results proved consistent even within specified genres: empathizers preferred mellow, unpretentious jazz, while systemizers preferred intense, sophisticated (complex and avant-garde) jazz.

The researchers then looked more in-depth and found those who scored high on empathy preferred music that had low energy (gentle, reflective, sensual, and warm elements), or negative emotions (sad and depressing characteristics), or emotional depth (poetic, relaxing, and thoughtful features). Those who scored high on systemizing preferred music that had high energy (strong, tense, and thrilling elements), or positive emotions (animated and fun features), and which also featured a high degree of cerebral depth and complexity.

David Greenberg, a trained jazz saxophonist, says the research could have implications for the music industry. "A lot of money is put into algorithms to choose what music you may want to listen to, for example on Spotify and Apple Music. By knowing an individual's thinking style, such services might in future be able to fine tune their music recommendations to an individual."

Dr Jason Rentfrow, the senior author on the study says: "This line of research highlights how music is a mirror of the self. Music is an expression of who we are emotionally, socially, and cognitively."

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a member of the team, added; "This new study is a fascinating extension to the 'empathizing-systemizing' theory of psychological individual differences. It took a talented PhD student and musician to even think to pose this question. The research may help us understand those at the extremes, such as people with autism, who are strong systemizers."

Based on their findings, the following are songs that the researchers believe are likely to fit particular styles:

High on empathy

Hallelujah -- Jeff Buckley
Come away with me -- Norah Jones
All of me -- Billie Holliday
Crazy little thing called love -- Queen
High on systemizing

Concerto in C -- Antonio Vivaldi
Etude Opus 65 No 3 -- Alexander Scriabin
God save the Queen -- The Sex Pistols
Enter the Sandman -- Metallica
Science Daily/SOURCE :http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/07/150722144648.htm

Nine risk factors may contribute to two-thirds of Alzheimer's cases worldwide

August 20, 2015

Science Daily/BMJ

All potentially modifiable; could prove promising options for prevention, say researchers

 

Nine potentially modifiable risk factors may contribute to up to two-thirds of Alzheimer's disease cases worldwide, suggests an analysis of the available evidence.

The analysis indicates the complexity of Alzheimer's disease development and just how varied the risk factors for it are.

But the researchers suggest that preventive strategies, targeting diet, drugs, body chemistry, mental health, pre-existing disease, and lifestyle may help to stave off dementia. This could be particularly important, given that, as yet, there is no cure, they say.

The researchers wanted to look at the factors associated with the development of Alzheimer's disease in a bid to determine the degree to which these might be modified and so potentially reduce overall risk.

They therefore trawled key research databases, looking for relevant studies published in English from 1968 up to July 2014.

Out of almost 17,000 studies, 323, covering 93 different potential risk factors and more than 5000 people, were suitable for inclusion in the analysis. The researchers pooled the data from each of the studies and graded the evidence according to its strength.

They found grade 1 level evidence in favour of a protective effect for the female hormone oestrogen, cholesterol lowering drugs (statins), drugs to lower high blood pressure, and anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

They found the same level of evidence for folate, vitamins C and E, and coffee, all of which were associated with helping to stave off the disease.

Similarly, the pooled data indicated a strong association between high levels of homocysteine--an amino acid manufactured in the body--and depression and a significantly heightened risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

The evidence also strongly pointed to the complex roles of pre-existing conditions as either heightening or lowering the risk.

The factors associated with a heightened risk included frailty, carotid artery narrowing, high and low blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes (in the Asian population). Those associated with a lowered risk included a history of arthritis, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and cancer.

Certain factors seemed to be linked to altered risk, depending on the time of life and ethnic background.

For example, high or low body mass index (BMI) in mid-life and low educational attainment were associated with increased risk, whereas high BMI in later life, exercising one's brain, current smoking (excluding the Asian population), light to moderate drinking, and stress were associated with lowered risk.

There were no significant associations found for workplace factors.

The researchers then assessed the population attributable risk (PAR) for nine risk factors which had strong evidence in favour of an association with Alzheimer's disease in the pooled analysis, and for which there are data on global prevalence.

PAR refers to a mathematical formula used to define the proportion of disease in a defined population that would disappear if exposure to a specific risk factor were to be eliminated.
The nine risk factors included obesity, current smoking (in the Asian population), carotid artery narrowing, type 2 diabetes (in the Asian population), low educational attainment, high levels of homocysteine, depression, high blood pressure and frailty.

The combined PAR indicated that these nine factors, each of which is potentially modifiable, contribute up to around two thirds of cases globally.

This is an observational study, so no definitive conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, but the researchers suggest that preventive strategies, targeting diet, prescription drugs, body chemistry, mental health, underlying disease, and lifestyle might help curb the number of new cases of Alzheimer's disease.
Science Daily/SOURCE :http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150820190257.htm

Effect of physical activity on cognition

August 25, 2015
Science Daily/The JAMA Network Journals
Kaycee M. Sink, M.D., M.A.S., of the Wake Forest School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, N.C., and colleagues evaluated whether a 24-month physical activity program would result in better cognitive function, lower risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia, or both, compared with a health education program.

Epidemiological evidence suggests that physical activity is associated with lower rates of cognitive decline. Exercise is associated with improved cerebral blood flow and neuronal connectivity and maintenance or improvement in brain volume. However, evidence from randomized trials has been limited and mixed, according to background information in the article.

Participants in the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders (LIFE) study (n = 1,635; 70 to 89 years of age) were randomly assigned to a structured, moderate-intensity physical activity program (n = 818) that included walking, resistance training, and flexibility exercises or a health education program (n = 817) of educational workshops and upper-extremity stretching. Participants were sedentary adults who were at risk for mobility disability but able to walk about a quarter mile. Measures of cognitive function and incident MCI or dementia were determined at 24 months.

The researchers found that the moderate-intensity physical activity intervention did not result in better global or domain-specific cognition compared with the health education program. There was also no significant difference between groups in the incidence of MCI or dementia (13.2 percent in the physical activity group vs 12.1 percent in the health education group), although this outcome had limited statistical power.

"Cognitive function remained stable over 2 years for all participants. We cannot rule out that both interventions were successful at maintaining cognitive function," the authors write.

Participants in the physical activity group who were 80 years or older and those with poorer baseline physical performance had better changes in executive function composite scores compared with the health education group. "This finding is important because executive function is the most sensitive cognitive domain to exercise interventions, and preserving it is required for independence in instrumental activities of daily living. Future physical activity interventions, particularly in vulnerable older adult groups (e.g., 80 years of age and those with especially diminished physical functioning levels), may be warranted."
Science Daily/SOURCE :http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150825115022.htm

Neurobiology: Light-activated learning

August 28, 2015
Science Daily/Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet Muenchen (LMU)
Scientists have developed a light-sensitive switch that regulates a protein implicated in the neurobiology of synaptic plasticity. The agent promises to shed new light on the phenomenology of learning, memory and neurodegeneration.

Learning is made possible by the fact that the functional connections between nerve cells in the brain are subject to constant remodeling. As a result of activation-dependent modification of these links ('synaptic plasticity'), circuits that are repeatedly stimulated "learn" to transmit signals ever more efficiently. This process is thought to provide the molecular basis for learning and memory, allowing the information encoded in such networks to be recalled and exploited in novel situations. The primary targets for modification are the specialized receptor proteins in nerve-cell membranes that mediate the transmission of electrical signals between individual neurons. A team of researchers led by Dirk Trauner, Professor of Chemical Biology and Genetics at LMU, in collaboration with colleagues at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, has now synthesized a light-dependent switch that enables them to control the activity of a particular class of receptors which is crucial for the formation and storage of memories. The compound provides a powerful new tool for researchers interested in probing the mechanisms that underlie short- and long-term memory. The results appear in the online journal Nature Communications.

Individual nerve cells generally use chemical messengers to communicate with each other. These so-called neurotransmitters are released by specialized structures called synapses at the end of the signal-transmitting fiber (the axon) and diffuse across the synaptic cleft -- the narrow gap that separates nerve cells from each other. The chemical then binds to receptors on the "post-synaptic" neuron. How the post-synaptic cell reacts is dependent on the nature of the neurotransmitter and the corresponding receptor. "In this context, the so-called NMDA receptor is very special," says Laura Laprell, a PhD student in Trauner's group and joint first author of the new study. "It is primarily responsible for the fact that we have the capacity to form memories and the ability to learn."

Regulation with millisecond precision

Trauner and his colleagues have synthesized a chemical called azobenzene-triazole-glutamate (ATG), which acts as a light-sensitive neurotransmitter on NMDA receptors. With the aid of this tool, it is now possible, for the first time, to activate -- and inactivate -- these receptors with high specificity and precision in the laboratory. Moreover, in contrast to other optical switches, ATG does not permanently bind to the receptor, but diffuses freely in the synaptic cleft between pre- and post-synaptic neurons. "ATG is completely inactive in the dark," Laprell explains, "and must be exposed to light before it can bind to the receptor and initiate depolarization of the post-synaptic cell." In other words, in order to be activated, the nerve cells must first 'see the light'. Subsequent irradiation with UV light inactivates ATG within a matter of milliseconds, thus enabling extremely precise control of receptor activation in the time domain.

Because light can be controlled with extraordinary precision, both spatially and temporally, it offers a highly versatile means of regulating biological processes. However, the spectral composition of the light must be taken into consideration, as light can also damage tissues. This explains why photoswitches that are activated by less energetic light rays with longer wavelengths are of particular interest. "And ATG fulfils this requirement: It is not only completely inactive in the dark -- and therefore has no side-effects, it is also exceptional in that it can be activated with high precision by red light. For this purpose, we make use of 'two-photon activation', a state-of-the-art method in which the molecule is exposed to two low-energy light quanta in rapid succession," Trauner explains. "Red light also has the advantage that it penetrates deeper into living tissue."

The researchers expect that their new-found capacity to regulate the activation of NMDA receptors will lead to new insights into the mechanisms underlying synaptic plasticity and memory formation. NMDA receptors may also be involved in precipitating or exacerbating neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. "A better understanding of this class of receptors, coupled with the ability to control their activity, is therefore of great interest in this context too," Trauner points out. "We are now cooperating with other groups who want to use ATG specifically to understand the role of these receptors in neurodegenerative conditions."
Science Daily/SOURCE :http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150828081456.htm

Resveratrol impacts Alzheimer's disease biomarker

September 11, 2015
Science Daily/Georgetown University Medical Center
The largest nationwide clinical trial to study high-dose resveratrol long-term in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease found that a biomarker that declines when the disease progresses was stabilized in people who took the purified form of resveratrol. Resveratrol is a naturally occurring compound found in foods such as red grapes, raspberries, dark chocolate and some red wines.

Resveratrol is a naturally occurring compound found in foods such as red grapes, raspberries, dark chocolate and some red wines.

The results, published online in Neurology, "are very interesting," says the study's principal investigator, R. Scott Turner, MD, PhD, director of the Memory Disorders Program at Georgetown University Medical Center. Turner, who treats patients at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, cautions that the findings cannot be used to recommend resveratrol. "This is a single, small study with findings that call for further research to interpret properly."

The resveratrol clinical trial was a randomized, phase II, placebo-controlled, double blind study in patients with mild to moderate dementia due to Alzheimer's disease. An "investigational new drug" application was required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to test the pure synthetic (pharmaceutical-grade) resveratrol in the study. It is not available commercially in this form.

The study enrolled 119 participants. The highest dose of resveratrol tested was one gram by mouth twice daily -- equivalent to the amount found in about 1,000 bottles of red wine.

John Bozza, 80, participated in the study. Five years ago, his wife, Diana, began noticing "something wasn't quite right." He was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, but only a year later, his condition progressed to mild Alzheimer's.

Diana, whose twin sister died from the same disease, says there are multiple reasons she and John decided to participate in the resveratrol study, and they now know he was assigned to take the active drug.

"I definitely want the medical community to find a cure," she says. "And of course I thought there's always a chance that John could have been helped, and who knows, maybe he was."

Patients, like John, who were treated with increasing doses of resveratrol over 12 months showed little or no change in amyloid-beta40 (Abeta40) levels in blood and cerebrospinal fluid. In contrast, those taking a placebo had a decrease in the levels of Abeta40 compared with their levels at the beginning of the study.

"A decrease in Abeta40 is seen as dementia worsens and Alzheimer's disease progresses; still, we can't conclude from this study that the effects of resveratrol treatment are beneficial," Turner explains. "It does appear that resveratrol was able to penetrate the blood brain barrier, which is an important observation. Resveratrol was measured in both blood and cerebrospinal fluid."

The researchers studied resveratrol because it activates proteins called sirtuins, the same proteins activated by caloric restriction. The biggest risk factor for developing Alzheimer's is aging, and studies with animals found that most age-related diseases--including Alzheimer's--can be prevented or delayed by long-term caloric restriction (consuming two-thirds the normal caloric intake).

Turner says the study also found that resveratrol was safe and well tolerated. The most common side effects experienced by participants were gastrointestinal-related, including nausea and diarrhea. Also, patients taking resveratrol experienced weight loss while those on placebo gained weight.

One outcome in particular was confounding, Turner notes. The researchers obtained brain MRI scans on participants before and after the study, and found that resveratrol-treated patients lost more brain volume than the placebo-treated group.

"We're not sure how to interpret this finding. A similar decrease in brain volume was found with some anti-amyloid immunotherapy trials," Turner adds. A working hypothesis is that the treatments may reduce inflammation (or brain swelling) found with Alzheimer's.

The study, funded by the National Institute on Aging and conducted with the Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study, began in 2012 and ended in 2014. GUMC was one of 21 participating medical centers across the U.S.

Further studies, including analysis of frozen blood and cerebrospinal fluid taken from patients, are underway to test possible drug mechanisms.

"Given safety and positive trends toward effectiveness in this phase 2 study, a larger phase 3 study is warranted to test whether resveratrol is effective for individuals with Alzheimer's -- or at risk for Alzheimer's," Turner says.

Resveratrol and similar compounds are being tested in many age-related disorders including cancer, diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders. The study Turner led, however, is the largest, longest and highest dose trial of resveratrol in humans to date.
Science Daily/SOURCE :http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150911164211.htm

Increased memory with a flash of light

Scientists create a new light-sensitive, plant-human hybrid protein to efficiently modulate calcium channels

September 14, 2015
Science Daily/Institute for Basic Science
The burgeoning field of optogenetics has seen another breakthrough with the creation of a new plant-human hybrid protein molecule called OptoSTIM1. In South Korea, a research team led by Won Do Heo, associate professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and group leader at the IBS Center for Cognition and Sociality, together with Professor Yong-Mahn Han and Professor Daesoon Kim, have refined the process for precision control of cellular calcium (Ca2+) channels in living organisms with their new OptoSTIM1 molecule.

Calcium ions are a crucial part of diverse cellular functions such as contraction, excitation, growth, differentiation and death. Severe Ca2+ deficiency is linked to cardiac arrhythmia, cognitive impairment, and ataxia.

In optogenetics, a light-sensitive plant photoreceptor and an animal protein that affects cell membrane ion channels, bind together and are introduced to target cells. They work together and respond to a stimulus from a particular wavelength of light to open (or close) a particular ion channel.

Previous attempts at precision control of calcium channels using drugs and electrical stimulation were not accurate enough for meaningful results. What revolutionized the process of specified Ca2+ channel control was the invention of the field of optogenetics.

In their optogenetic application, the Korean team used a photoreceptor protein called cryptochrome 2 (Cry2) from a small, flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana, and combined it with the STromal Interaction Molecule 1 (STIM1), a protein found in almost all animals, which opens cellular Ca2+ channels. This resulted in a hybrid molecule that they named OptoSTIM1.

When they introduced a blue light to the OptoSTIM1 expressing cells, they were able to coax them to open their Ca2+ channels and allow an influx of calcium ions from outside the cell. The amount of Ca2+ which cells took up surpassed previous experiments due to OptoSTIM1 being more efficient than previous optogenetic molecules. Cry2 has a natural affinity for clustering under blue light. According to researcher Taeyoon Kyung, "Our method worked better because other plant proteins are not as efficient as Cry2 at clustering." In fact, this clustering resulted in 5-10 times more detected Ca2+ than in previous studies.

Increasing learning capacity in mice

 

To test what they could do with a living cell, the researchers expressed zebrafish embryos with OptoSTIM1. After exposure to the blue light, the expressing cells showed signs of Ca2+ uptake while the others did not.

They next explored the idea of intercellular Ca2+ signaling. To do this, they tested human embryonic stem cells by exposing blue light to only a single cell in a colony which expressed OptoSTIM1. Despite only one cell being illuminated with blue light, they detected a Ca2+ delayed response in other, more distant and also non-illuminated cells indicating some level of intercellular communication.

Ca2+ release and uptake also plays an important role in brain cells and their functions, so the researchers explored Ca2+ modulation's effect on memory. The hippocampus controls memory so the scientists first tested cultured hippocampal cells expressing OptoSTIM1, and a Ca2+ influx was achieved when the cells were exposed to blue light.

Building on previous mice memory studies and their success with cultured hippocampal cells, they introduced OptoSTIM1 to the hippocampus of a living mouse. To test the functional effect of the Ca2+ influx, the IBS team compared sets of light-illuminated mice to non-illuminated mice expressing OptoSTIM1 in an environment where they introduced a conditioning cue followed by a fear stimulus. In subsequent tests they observed that light-illuminated mice with the OptoSTIM1 expression had a greater fear response when placed in the testing environment without the conditioning cue than the non-light-stimulated mice. In fact, they had a nearly twofold increase in fear stimulus response memory compared to non-light-stimulated mice, indicating that the OptoSTIM1 expression (and resultant Ca2+ uptake) was an effective method for memory enhancement.

Neurological enhancements and treatments

This work opens the door for future research into optogenetically enhanced memory and learning studies. More importantly, some neurological diseases which are a result of a dysfunction in Ca2+ regulation could be affected by optogenetically controlling the Ca2+ channels in the brain. This may also be a step towards discovering applications for drugs as well as therapeutic Ca2+ modulation. According to Kyung, "There are diseases that result from dysfunction in cellular Ca2+ regulation, such as Alzheimer's disease, so we can apply our system to those areas and hopefully in the near future help people to recover from those diseases." This may also allow for future non-invasive and non-drug treatments or may help to mitigate and eventually cure some neurological diseases.
Science Daily/SOURCE :http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150914114635.htm

Scientists chart a lost highway in the brain

Computational neuroscientists contribute to effort to rediscover, map brain structure missing for over a century

September 14, 2015
Science Daily/Indiana University
A part of the brain lost from scientific literature for over a century may be responsible for a key component of perceptionm according to a new study from the neuroscientist who was part of the team that rediscovered the forgotten structure.

http://images.sciencedaily.com/2015/09/150914152718_1_540x360.jpg
Two 19th-century drawings of the VOF are from a post-mortem dissection. The right image was created by French anatomist Joseph Jules Déjerine in 1895.
Credit: Kevin Weiner

Recently, Indiana University computational neuroscientist Franco Pestilli and an international research team published an article in the journal Cerebral Cortex that suggests this missing part of the brain may play an important role in how we understand the world -- despite getting "lost" for more than a century.

A long flat bundle of nerves called the vertical occipital fasciculus, or VOF, the structure appeared in textbooks on the brain for about 30 years around the end of the 19th century, then mysteriously dropped out of sight completely. Pestilli was also part of the team that first traced this missing brain structure to an 1881 publication by Carl Wernicke, a German-Austrian neuroanatomist.

"Our new study shows that the VOF may provide the fundamental white matter connection between two parts of the visual system: that which identifies objects, words and faces and that which orients us in space," said Pestilli, senior author and assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, whose work on the collaborative project began as a research associate at Stanford University.

"The structure forms a 'highway' between the lower, ventral part of the visual system, which processes the properties of faces, words and objects, and the upper, dorsal parietal regions, which orients attention to an object's spatial location," he added.

The first researcher on the paper was Hiromasa Takemura of the Center for Information and Neural Networks in Japan.

Based upon where the VOF terminates in the brain's cortex, Pestilli said the VOF might play a critical role in the brain's visual system, coordinating information transmission between brain areas important for "where we see" and "what we see."

In a long-standing debate, neuroscientists have argued the degree to which these two parts of the visual system function separately. The new study suggests that the regions work "hand-in-glove" to coordinate the body's movement in relation to people and objects around it.

There are "countless examples" that reflect how the two functions are intertwined, Pestilli said. Reaching for your keys, putting on your hat, driving to work each morning -- all require this what/where coordination. So does reading words on a page, which demands moving one's eyes with respect to the words and letters.

What happens when this "what/where" coordination fails? Pestilli points to the title character in the late neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks' "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," who, when asked to get his hat and put it on, tries to pick up his wife's head to put it on his own.

In this strange disconnect between an object and its location, Sacks recognized the effect of a tumor or degeneration afflicting the patient's visual system. The problem may have specifically affected the functioning of the VOF, Pestilli said, speculating on the symptoms of Sacks' patient.

But how did an entire anatomical structure in the brain suddenly go missing in the first place? The answer may be scientific rivalry.

In their earlier paper, Pestilli and collaborators attributed the VOF's disappearance to competing beliefs among 19th-century neuroanatomists. In contrast to Wernicke, Theodor Meynert, another prominent scientist in Germany, never accepted the new structure due to his belief that all white matter pathways ran horizontally. Over time, the VOF faded into obscurity.

In addition to contributing to the rediscovery and function of the VOF, Pestilli's work is also helping map other parts of the human brain in unprecedented detail, using state-of-the-art neuroimaging and computational methods. This work will not only contribute to a deeper knowledge of the human brain -- such as how variations in brain structures relate to behavioral differences among individuals -- but will also strengthen the university's other investigations into complex networks, including brain connectivity, primarily within the recently established IU Network Science Institute.

"This new study really contributes to our understanding of how two important parts of the brain communicate," said Brian Wandell, a co-author at Stanford, "painting a picture of the brain that is highly interconnected."
Science Daily/SOURCE :http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150914152718.htm

Learning in your sleep, the right way

October 28, 2015
Science Daily/Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)
You can swot up on vocabulary in your sleep, but only if you don’t confuse your brain in the process. Researchers have invited people to their sleep lab for a Dutch language course.

You can't learn new things in your sleep. Nevertheless, if you've been learning vocabulary in a foreign language, it can be highly effective to hear these words played over again while you sleep, as was already shown a year ago by researchers from the university of Zurich and Fribourg. Their new study, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, demonstrates that this only works if the brain can do its job undisturbed.
 

Translating doesn't help

 

The researchers got 27 German-speaking test subjects to learn Dutch words, then let them sleep for three hours in the sleep lab. The scientists already knew that playing back this vocabulary softly would help the test subjects to remember the words. Now they wanted to give them more information while they were asleep. The research team, led by biopsychologist Björn Rasch from the University of Fribourg, wanted to enhance the technique's impact by supplying German translations after the Dutch words. They also wanted to achieve the opposite -- in other words, they hoped that supplying incorrect translations would make the test subjects forget what they'd learned.

"To our surprise, we were neither able to enhance their memory, nor able to make them forget what they'd learned," says Rasch. He was able to confirm the original findings -- that simply cuing the Dutch vocabulary during sleep enabled the subjects to recall about ten percent more words. "But playing a second word right after the first seems to disrupt the relevant memory processes that had hitherto been activated," says Rasch. He and his team have concluded that it's not the total information offered to the brain that is important. Instead, the brain just needs a nudge in order to enhance the ability to recall.

Only in the lab -- for now

The results of this memory test were reflected in the brain wave patterns of the test subjects. While individual Dutch words were being played, the researchers recorded an enhancement in the waves characteristic of sleep and recollection (sleep spindles and theta-oscillation). But these activity patterns disappeared completely as soon as another word followed on from the first.

In a subsequent experiment, the researchers were also able to demonstrate that the time span between word pairs was of decisive importance. If the German translation followed only after 2 seconds instead of after 0.2 seconds, the disruptive effect disappeared. But there was still no enhancement of impact.

"For us, these results are further evidence that sleep promotes memory formation, with the brain spontaneously activating content that it had learnt beforehand. We were able to enhance this effect by playing back the words," says Rasch. It's as yet uncertain whether there will soon be an app to help people get better marks in their vocabulary tests. "Now we really want to get out of the controlled situation of the sleep lab, to see whether the impact we've observed can also be reproduced under z
Science Daily/SOURCE :http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/10/151028084925.htm

Jet lag-like sleep disruptions spur Alzheimer's memory, learning loss

October 29, 2015
Science Daily/University of California, Irvine
Chemical changes in brain cells caused by disturbances in the body's day-night cycle may be a key underlying cause of the learning and memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease, according to a new study.

The research on mice, led by UCI biomedical engineering professor Gregory Brewer, provides the first evidence that circadian rhythm-altering sleep disruptions similar to jet lag promote memory problems and chemical alterations in the brain.

Clinical application of this finding may lead to more emphasis on managing the sleep habits of people at risk for Alzheimer's disease and those with mild cognitive impairment. Study results appear online in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

People with Alzheimer's often have problems with sleeping or may experience changes in their slumber schedule. Scientists do not completely understand why these disturbances occur.

"The issue is whether poor sleep accelerates the development of Alzheimer's disease or vice versa," said Brewer, who's affiliated with UCI's Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders. "It's a chicken-or-egg dilemma, but our research points to disruption of sleep as the accelerator of memory loss."

In order to examine the link between learning and memory and circadian disturbances, his team altered normal light-dark patterns with an eight-hour shortening of the dark period every three days for young mouse models of Alzheimer's disease and normal mice.

The resulting jet lag greatly reduced activity in both sets of mice, and the researchers found that in water maze tests, the AD mouse models had significant learning impairments absent in the AD mouse models not exposed to light-dark variations and in normal mice with jet lag.

In follow-up tissue studies, they saw that jet lag caused a decrease in glutathione levels in the brain cells of all the mice. But these levels were much lower in the AD mouse models and corresponded to poor performance in the water maze tests. Glutathione is a major antioxidant that helps prevent damage to essential cellular components.

Glutathione deficiencies produce redox changes in brain cells. Redox reactions involve the transfer of electrons, which leads to alterations in the oxidation state of atoms and may affect brain metabolism and inflammation.

Brewer pointed to the accelerated oxidative stress as a vital component in Alzheimer's-related learning and memory loss and noted that potential drug treatments could target these changes in redox reactions.

"This study suggests that clinicians and caregivers should add good sleep habits to regular exercise and a healthy diet to maximize good memory," he said.
Science Daily/SOURCE :http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/10/151029103405.htm

Scientists work with artists to learn more about the brain

November 13, 2015
Science Daily/University of Houston
Researchers have analyzed brain activity data collected from more than 400 people who viewed an exhibit at the Menil Collection, offering evidence that useable brain data can be collected outside of a controlled laboratory setting. They also reported the first real-world demonstration of what happens in the brain as people observe artwork.

https://images.sciencedaily.com/2015/11/151113050945_1_540x360.jpg
Woman looking at paintings in art gallery (stock image). New research has found significant increases in functional, or task-related, connectivity in localized brain networks when the subjects viewed art they considered aesthetically pleasing, compared with baseline readings. Differences were found both between men and women, and between the youngest and oldest subjects.
Credit: © Kaspars Grinvalds / Fotolia

"You can do testing in the lab, but it's very artificial," said Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor of electrical and computer engineering at UH. "We were looking at how to measure brain activity in action and in context."

The researchers reported their findings in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. In addition to Contreras-Vidal, the research team included Kimberly Kontson and Eugene Civillico, scientists with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; artist Dario Robleto; Menil curator Michelle White, and Murad Megjhani, Justin Brantley, Jesus Cruz-Garza and Sho Nakagome, all of whom work in the UH Laboratory for Non-Invasive Brain Machine Interfaces.

The research found significant increases in functional, or task-related, connectivity in localized brain networks when the subjects viewed art they considered aesthetically pleasing, compared with baseline readings. They found differences both between men and women and between the youngest and oldest subjects.

"The direction of signal flow showed early recruitment of broad posterior [visual] areas followed by focal anterior activation," they wrote. "Significant differences in the strength of connections were also observed across age and gender. This work provides evidence that EEG [electroencephalogram], deployed on freely behaving subjects, can detect selective signal flow in neural networks, identify significant differences between subject groups, and report with greater-than-chance accuracy the complexity of a subject's visual percept of aesthetically pleasing art."

Kontson, a biomedical research fellow at the FDA who led the research during a post-doctoral fellowship, said researchers started with three questions: Can useable brain data be collected in an uncontrolled setting? How well do different models of EEG headsets perform? Is it possible to collect substantial amounts of data relatively quickly?

EEG headsets are considered medical devices if intended for use in the diagnosis of disease or other conditions. Kontson said the FDA is interested in the potential use of large and complex data sets -- "big data" -- for regulatory decision-making.

Data was collected from 431 people as they viewed Robleto's solo show at the Menil Collection in Houston, "The Boundary of Life Is Quietly Crossed," a sculptural installation that included both visual and aural representations of the heart. Researchers categorized each piece as either complex or moderate; they also asked each participant to face a blank wall for one minute before entering the exhibit in order to obtain baseline data.

The Frontiers in Human Neuroscience paper is based on data from 20 people who wore a reference gel-based EEG headset; Contreras-Vidal said findings from those who wore one of four models of dry-electrode headsets -- easier to use in public, as they require little preparation or instruction -- will be reported later, as will an analysis on data collected with the dry headsets.

The initial results allowed researchers to predict from the brain activity with 55 percent accuracy whether the participant was looking at a complex piece of art, one categorized as moderately complex or a blank wall. That compares to 33 percent accuracy for random prediction.

The knowledge could have varying applications. Much of Contreras-Vidal's recent work centers on using brain activity to help people with disabilities use bionic hands or to regain movement by "walking" in exoskeletons powered by their own thoughts. He sees this research with artists and museum-goers -- a related project collects brain activity from dancers, visual artists, musicians and writers -- as potentially leading to technologies that can restore sensory processing in people with neurological impairments.

Artists and museum curators could use the findings to learn more about how museum displays affect the way people move through and react to an exhibit, which works are preferred by museum-goers and other information, Contreras-Vidal.

But he doesn't expect the research to produce a how-to on creating art.

"I don't think we will understand the mystery (of how art is created)," he said. "The conception of art is a very individual process, built on the artist's experiences, skills, memories, values and drives. But we will know what happens in the brain. We might find that there are people who are very attuned to visual art, or to music, or poetry, and there might be an underlying common neural network. If we know that, we could optimize the delivery of art for therapy, for teaching."
Science Daily/SOURCE :http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/11/151113050945.htm

Understanding why group singing helps in dementia

December 3, 2015
Science Daily/British Psychological Society (BPS)
Couples where one partner is suffering from dementia can benefit from taking part in group singing.

That is the conclusion of research being presented today, Friday 4 December 2015, at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society's Division of Clinical Psychology in London.

Shreena Unadkat from Salomons Centre, Canterbury Christ Church University, interviewed 17 heterosexual couples where one partner had dementia.

The couples described various benefits they received from taking part: the pleasure of singing, the friendship and wider social life fostered by membership of a group and being able to take part in activity together as equals. Some couples said the experience had increased their sense of togetherness and "breathed oxygen into the relationship." Interestingly, the strongest benefits were reported when couples took part in learning or performing new material, not just singing reminiscence songs.

The partners with dementia said that taking part in group singing increased their confidence and gave them an identity beyond their diagnosis. The partners who were the carers reported a release from burden, a sense of liberation and enjoyment.

Shreena Unadkat said: "Singing groups can provide couples with an opportunity to take part in an activity on an equal basis; something which can be difficult when one partner is the lead carer in outside life. Additionally, couples who learnt or performed new materials reported the greatest benefits, which is interesting considering many dementia therapies are based on reminiscence. This understanding may have implications for psychological therapists' involvement in dementia care."
Science Daily/SOURCE :http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/12/151203203625.htm

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