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Category: NeuroScience

14 Oct 2020
Brain-scanning backpack brings neuroscience into the real world

Brain-scanning backpack brings neuroscience into the real world

Call it neuroscience on the go. Scientists have developed a backpack that tracks and stimulates brain activity as people go about their daily lives. The advance could allow researchers to get a sense of how the brain works outside of a laboratory—and how to monitor diseases such as Parkinson’s and post-traumatic stress disorder in real-world settings.

The technology is “an inspiring demonstration of what’s possible” with portable neuroscience equipment, says Timothy Spellman, a neurobiologist at Weill Cornell Medicine who was not involved with the work. The backpack and its vast suite of tools, he says, could broaden the landscape for neuroscience research to study the brain while the body is in motion.

Typically, when scientists want to scan the brain, they need a lot of room—and a lot of money. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners, which detect activity in various regions of the brain, are about the size of a pickup truck and can cost more than $1 million. And patients must stay still in the machine for about 1 hour to ensure a clear, readable scan.

Approaches like transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) that zap the brain—often to treat severe depression—are also not portable; patients must sit still and upright in a lab for about 30 minutes while a large coil delivers magnetic pulses through their scalp to electrically activate neurons.

Searching for a better way, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), have developed what they call the mobile deep brain recording and stimulation platform.

Here’s how it works: A wand snakes up out of a 4-kilogram backpack to rest near the top of the patient’s scalp. There, the wand can communicate with a neural implant that lies deep in the brain. Meanwhile, the backpack is filled with monitors—a setup that allows for real-time data collection from the implant. At the same time, depending on the experiment, the participant can wear additional gear for measuring brain and body activities, including a scalp electroencephalography cap with electrodes that monitor surface brain activity, a pair of virtual reality goggles that track eye movement, and other devices that track heart and breathing rates. All of this information can then be synchronized with signals from the implant.

“The beauty of this is that you have many streams of data that are coming in simultaneously,” says study author Zahra Aghajan, a UCLA neurophysicist.

In lab testing, the team was able to show that the backpack records activity and stimulates various brain regions without requiring people to stay still. It was also able to collect the same data as an fMRI machine and stimulate the brain in a way similar to TMS, the team reports this week in Neuron.

Not being tied to a lab setting could enable scientists to study how the brain functions while people are in motion and interacting with others, rather than lying still inside an fMRI machine, the researchers say.

There’s a catch, however: Only patients who have neural implants can use the device. About 150,000 people worldwide have such implants, which doctors use to treat and monitor a wide range of conditions including Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The team has released the backpack’s software and blueprints for all scientists to use, says study author Uros Topalovic, a Ph.D. student at UCLA. The hope, he says, is that other researchers can use the technology to study neurological conditions of all kinds without the constraints of a lab or hospital bed.

Source: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/09/brain-scanning-backpack-brings-neuroscience-real-world

21 Sep 2020
Math Shows How Brain Stays Stable Amid Internal Noise and a Widely Varying World

Math Shows How Brain Stays Stable Amid Internal Noise and a Widely Varying World

Whether you are playing Go in a park amid chirping birds, a gentle breeze and kids playing catch nearby or you are playing in a den with a ticking clock on a bookcase and a purring cat on the sofa, if the game situation is identical and clear, your next move likely would be, too, regardless of those different conditions. You’ll still play the same next move despite a wide range of internal feelings or even if a few neurons here and there are just being a little erratic. How does the brain overcome unpredictable and varying disturbances to produce reliable and stable computations? A new study by MIT neuroscientists provides a mathematical model showing how such stability inherently arises from several known biological mechanisms..

More fundamental than the willful exertion of cognitive control over attention, the model the team developed describes an inclination toward robust stability that is built in to neural circuits by virtue of the connections, or “synapses” that neurons make with each other. The equations they derived and published in PLOS Computational Biology show that networks of neurons involved in the same computation will repeatedly converge toward the same patterns of electrical activity, or “firing rates,” even if they are sometimes arbitrarily perturbed by the natural noisiness of individual neurons or arbitrary sensory stimuli the world can produce.

“How does the brain make sense of this highly dynamic, non-linear nature of neural activity?” said co-senior author Earl Miller, Picower Professor of Neuroscience in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) at MIT. “The brain is noisy, there are different starting conditions – how does the brain achieve a stable representation of information in the face of all these factors that can knock it around?”

To find out, Miller’s lab, which studies how neural networks represent information, joined forces with BCS colleague and mechanical engineering Professor Jean-Jacques Slotine, who leads the Nonlinear Systems Laboratory at MIT. Slotine brought the mathematical method of “contraction analysis,” a concept developed in control theory, to the problem along with tools his lab developed to apply the method. Contracting networks exhibit the property of trajectories that start from disparate points ultimately converging into one trajectory, like tributaries in a watershed. They do so even when the inputs vary with time. They are robust to noise and disturbance, and they allow for many other contracting networks to be combined together without a loss of overall stability – much like brain typically integrates information from many specialized regions.

“In a system like the brain where you have [hundreds of billions] of connections the questions of what will preserve stability and what kinds of constraints that imposes on the system’s architecture become very important,” Slotine said.

Math reflects natural mechanisms

Leo Kozachkov, a graduate student in both Miller’s and Slotine’s labs, led the study by applying contraction analysis to the problem of the stability of computations in the brain. What he found is that the variables and terms in the resulting equations that enforce stability directly mirror properties and processes of synapses: inhibitory circuit connections can get stronger, excitatory circuit connections can get weaker, both kinds of connections are typically tightly balanced relative to each other, and neurons make far fewer connections than they could (each neuron, on average, could make roughly 10 million more connections than it does).

“These are all things that neuroscientists have found, but they haven’t linked them to this stability property,” Kozachkov said. “In a sense, we’re synthesizing some disparate findings in the field to explain this common phenomenon.”

The new study, which also involved Miller lab postdoc Mikael Lundqvist, was hardly the first to grapple with stability in the brain, but the authors argue it has produced a more advanced model by accounting for the dynamics of synapses and by allowing for wide variations in starting conditions. It also offers mathematical proofs of stability, Kozachkov added.

Though focused on the factors that ensure stability, the authors noted, their model does not go so far as to doom the brain to inflexibility or determinism. The brain’s ability to change – to learn and remember – is just as fundamental to its function as its ability to consistently reason and formulate stable behaviors.

“We’re not asking how the brain changes,” Miller said. “We’re asking how the brain keeps from changing too much.”

Still, the team plans to keep iterating on the model, for instance by encompassing a richer accounting for how neurons produce individual spikes of electrical activity, not just rates of that activity.

They are also working to compare the model’s predictions with data from experiments in which animals repeatedly performed tasks in which they needed to perform the same neural computations, despite experiencing inevitable internal neural noise and at least small sensory input differences.

Finally, the team is considering how the models may inform understanding of different disease states of the brain. Aberrations in the delicate balance of excitatory and inhibitory neural activity in the brain is considered crucial in epilepsy, Kozachkov notes. A symptom of Parkinson’s disease, as well, entails a neurally-rooted loss of motor stability. Miller adds that some patients with autism spectrum disorders struggle to stably repeat actions (e.g. brushing teeth) when external conditions vary (e.g. brushing in a different room).

Source: https://neurosciencenews.com/math-internal-noise-16796/?fbclid=IwAR0UIjZwPJ7XAlHpobyzJwNF267StISiPyVcXBHTfIb6UywrAyJ4dWZItjw

16 Jun 2020

How using neuroscience can help capture customer sentiment and predict future behavior

As you integrate data to create a complete picture of your customers, you must always place an added emphasis on the brain.

Do you want to predict the future? The ability to foretell how customers might respond to a new product or service can translate into millions. But it’s difficult to do. The Coca-Cola Company tried to do it and failed miserably. The introduction of New Coke in 1985 was an epic failure, despite pouring millions of dollars into market research. Success isn’t always easy. And according to the Harvard Business Review, 90% of product launches fail every year.

Do you think your customers will respond positively to your next offering? You can turn to focus groups and try to get an idea of what people might like. Surveys can provide decent insights at times. And if you have a robust predictive analytics platform, you can assess behavioral data to identify patterns that might indicate future behavior among larger groups. But if you really want to understand how customers might respond to future offerings, you need to take a look at the brain.

Sharpen your focus: Inside group dynamics
Focus groups provide value, but they can be remarkably flawed. Do certain participants bend the truth to look good in the eyes of an attractive person in the group? Certainly. Do participants change their tune to dance to the trumpeting of a more dominant person? Naturally. Perhaps most surprisingly, however, group dynamics affect what people say – whether they believe what they’re saying or not.

In 1951, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments to assess the influence of group behavior on individuals. During each experiment, a volunteer joined a group of several peers in a room. Unknown to the volunteer, everyone else in the group was part of the experiment. Each person viewed two cards – one card with a single straight line and a second card with three lines of different lengths.

The task was simple. The volunteer simply had to say which two lines were the same length. There were no visual illusions. No tricks. The task was straightforward. Interestingly, 75% of real participants intentionally gave the wrong answer. Why? As each fake participant provided an incorrect answer, the real participant felt pressure to fit in with the group – and eventually gave way.

Market researchers are aware of the biases associated with group dynamics. But even with the best safeguards in place, group responses don’t always reflect real-world experiences. As you explore different approaches to capturing customer sentiment to estimate behavior in the future, you might want to consider how your offering – or the creative work associated with your offering – will activate certain parts of the brain.

Using the brain to predict future behavior
Researchers at Stanford University and the University of Michigan evaluated the brain’s response to different types of Kickstarter projects. The participants also rated the projects in terms of likability and the likelihood of success. Did brain activity predict behavior more accurately than self-reports?

Even during individual tasks, people tend to make faulty predictions—but the brain doesn’t. As the researchers predicted, brain behavior “outperformed models that included self-reported ratings of liking…and individual choices of the laboratory sample.” In fact, activity in two areas of the brain associated with reward (nucleus accumbens) and value integration (medial orbitofrontal cortex), respectively, “predicted individual choices to fund on a trial-to-trial basis.”

But does this translate to a larger population? In other words, is it possible to take individual brain activity and predict behavior in the broader marketplace? Interestingly, the answer is yes. Brain activity from the study was predictive of behavior from a larger group of people outside the study. In fact, it was activity in the nucleus accumbens that “generalized to forecast market funding outcomes weeks later on the Internet.”

Music downloads beat to the rhythm of the brain
What happens when you try to predict the success of a product or service several years into the future? Researchers at the Department of Economics and Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University conducted a study to predict the future success of music sales. Is it possible for brain activity to predict song popularity years (instead of weeks) in advance?

In the study, participants listened to music from unknown artists in a scanner that measured brain activity. The participants also rated each song. The songs that generated activation in the nucleus accumbens turned into big hits a few years later (as measured in downloads and overall sales). While the brain predicted the popularity of songs, “subjective likability of the songs was not predictive of sales.” In other words, activation in a key area of the brain predicted the success of future sales better than direct feedback from participants.

Source: https://marketingland.com/how-using-neuroscience-can-help-capture-customer-sentiment-and-predict-future-behavior-279918

08 Jun 2020

Researchers: This AI Can Judge Personality Based on Selfies Alone

A team of researchers from the Higher School of Economics University and Open University in Moscow, Russia claim they have demonstrated that an artificial intelligence can make accurate personality judgments based on selfies alone — more accurately than some humans.

The researchers suggest the technology could be used to help match people up in online dating services or help companies sell products that are tailored to individual personalities.

That’s apropos, because two co-authors listed on a paper about the research published today in Scientific Reports — a journal run by Nature — are affiliated with a Russian AI psychological profiling company called BestFitMe, which helps companies hire the right employees.

As detailed in the paper, the team asked 12,000 volunteers to complete a questionnaire that they used to build a database of personality traits. To go along with that data, the volunteers also uploaded a total of 31,000 selfies.

The questionnaire was based around the “Big Five” personality traits, five core traits that psychological researchers often use to describe subjects’ personalities, including openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

After training a neural network on the dataset, the researchers found that it could accurately predict personality traits based on “real-life photographs taken in uncontrolled conditions,” as they write in their paper.

While accurate, the precision of their AI leaves something to be desired. They found that their AI “can can make a correct guess about the relative standing of two randomly chosen individuals on a personality dimension in 58% of cases.”

That result isn’t exactly groundbreaking — but it’s a little better than just guessing, which is vaguely impressive.

Strikingly, the researchers claim their AI is better at predicting the traits than humans. While rating personality traits by human “close relatives or colleagues” was far more accurate than when rated by strangers, they found that the AI “outperforms an average human rater who meets the target in person without any prior acquaintance,” according to the paper.

Considering the woeful accuracy, and the fact that some of the authors listed on the study are working on commercializing similar tech, these results should be taken with a hefty grain of salt.

Neural networks have generated some impressive results, but any research that draws self-serving conclusions — especially when they require some statistical gymnastics — should be treated with scrutiny.

Source: https://futurism.com/researchers-ai-judge-personality-selfies

14 May 2020

Neuralink Will Do Human Brain Implant in “Less Than a Year”

For the second time in two years, entrepreneur and billionaire Elon Musk sat down with podcaster Joe Rogan to chat about the future of AI and its role in the symbiosis of man and machine.

In their conversation, Musk revealed that the secretive brain stimulation link startup Neuralink, which he co-founded, is close to starting testing in actual humans.

“We’re not testing people yet, but I think it won’t be too long,” Musk told Rogan. “We may be able to implant a neural link in less than a year in a person I think.”

The news comes after Musk teased in February that the brain-computer interface startup was working on an “awesome” new version.

In their conversation, Musk revealed that the secretive brain stimulation link startup Neuralink, which he co-founded, is close to starting testing in actual humans.

“We’re not testing people yet, but I think it won’t be too long,” Musk told Rogan. “We may be able to implant a neural link in less than a year in a person I think.”

The news comes after Musk teased in February that the brain-computer interface startup was working on an “awesome” new version.

Musk likened the process of his neural stimulation device zapping the brain to “kicking a TV.”

While that sounds violent, the goal is to restore brain functionality. For instance, those with Alzheimer’s could have their memories restored.

“It’s like a bunch of circuits and those circuits are broken,” Musk explained.

But the technology is still in its early stages.

“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Musk said. Referring back to his timeline of testing within a year, he noted that “we have a chance of putting a link in someone and having them be healthy and restoring some functionality that they’ve lost.”

Eventually, as Rogan mused about becoming one with machines in the distant future, Musk countered that we have to keep up.

“Even in a benign [AI] scenario we are being left behind,” Musk said. “So how do you go along for the ride? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

“We are already a cyborg to some degree,” Musk told Rogan. “You got your phone, you got your laptop… If you’re missing your phone, it feels like missing limb syndrome.”

Source: https://futurism.com/elon-musk-neuralink-human-brain-implant

18 Apr 2020

Neuroscience study indicates mindfulness training can recalibrate the brain’s response to fear in school kids

A new study provides evidence that a school-based mindfulness intervention can reduce perceived stress and modulate activity in a brain region associated with responses to fear and stress. The findings have been published in Behavioral Neuroscience.

Clemens C.C. Bauer, the corresponding author of the study and a postdoctoral associate at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, told PsyPost that his clinical practice helped to inspire the current research.

“I was a practicing family doctor in Mexico and I repeatedly witnessed how the mind state of my patients was key to their well-being and recovery from illness,” he explained. “I believe that mind states proceed biological states more than previously thought.”
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the brain activity of a subset of 40 sixth graders who were enrolled in a randomized clinical trial examining the effect of mindfulness training.

In the trial, 99 students were randomly assigned to either receive mindfulness training every day for eight week or receive lessons about computer coding. The mindfulness curriculum, created by the nonprofit program Calmer Choice, was designed to encourage students to pay attention to their breath, and to focus on the present moment rather than thoughts of the past or the future.

The researchers measured activity in the amygdala as the students looked at pictures of faces expressing different emotions. Prior to the intervention, they found that students who reported greater stress tended to display greater activation in the right amygdala when viewing fearful facial expressions.

After the intervention, the children who received mindfulness training reported feeling less stress in daily life. These children also exhibited reduced right amygdala activation in response to fearful faces and stronger amygdala connectivity with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Students in the mindfulness training group also reported fewer negative feelings, such as sadness or anger, after the training.
“These findings provide the first evidence, at any age, of an amygdala neural mechanism related to stress reduction following mindfulness training, specifically a reduced magnitude of amygdala response to negative stimuli (and no relation to amygdala response to positive stimuli),” the researchers wrote in their study.

The study indicates that “mindfulness training recalibrates the automatic and unconscious response to fear, which leads to a ubiquitous resilience to stress,” Bauer told PsyPost. “It is easy to learn and can be practiced everywhere.”

“Like any other scientific study, these results are in need of replication in this age group as well as in other age groups. We still don’t know how long the effects of training last and how much practice is needed to create more long term changes. With larger studies, one can also address possible side effects that may come up during practice and possible alternatives or special approaches in vulnerable populations,” Bauer added.

The mindfulness curriculum used in the study sought to alter students’ mindsets about their stress and help them to refocus attention on the present moment. It did not include any spiritual or religious instruction.

“It is very important for the general public to understand that mindfulness training is a completely secular practice similar to basketball training or any other physical activity. In some circles, mindfulness has been linked to Eastern philosophies which may impede its upscaling into the general public school system so it would be nice that the term mindfulness starts to be treated as a secular term,” Bauer said.

Source: https://www.psypost.org/2020/03/neuroscience-study-indicates-mindfulness-training-can-recalibrate-the-brains-response-to-fear-in-school-kids-56285

13 Apr 2020

Neuroscience research: 6 fascinating findings

In this feature, we discuss six studies that uncover new and unexpected truths about the organ we hold in our skulls. Neuroscience is never easy, but the resulting intrigue is worth the effort.

The brain is the pivotal hub of our central nervous system. Through this organ, we take note of the world, we assess our version of reality, we dream, we ponder, we laugh.

Its nervous tendrils permeate every inch of our bodies, innervating, controlling, and monitoring all that we touch, think, and feel.

Its other, more silent, yet vital role is its command over our survival as an organism — our heartbeat, our breathing rate, the release of hormones, and much more.

Because of its vast complexity, it is no surprise that we continuously learn new things about the brain.

In this feature, we will discuss some recent research that shines fresh light on the organ that defines us as individuals, controls our emotions, and retains detailed information about our first pet.

To start, we will take a look at links between the brain and a seemingly unrelated part of the body — the gut.

Brain and gut
At first glance, it seems surprising that our brain and gut are interlinked, but we have all experienced their tight relationship. By way of example, many of us, when especially hungry, might be more easily enraged.

In fact, there is a great deal of neural conversation between the gut and the brain. After all, if the gut is not well fed, it could be a matter of life and death; the brain needs to be informed when energy is low so that it can call other systems into action.

1. Sugar may alter brain chemistry after only 12 days
Recently, Medical News Today published a study that investigated how sugar influenced the brain of a particular breed of swine, known as Göttingen minipigs. For 1 hour each day for 12 days, the pigs had access to sucrose solution.

Before and after the 12-day sugar intervention, the scientists used a PET imaging technique that measured dopamine and opioid activity. They also imaged five of the pigs’ brains after their first sucrose experience.

They chose to focus on the dopamine and opioid systems because both play pivotal roles in pleasure seeking behavior and addiction. One of the authors, Michael Winterdahl, explains what they found:

“After just 12 days of sugar intake, we could see major changes in the brain’s dopamine and opioid systems. In fact, the opioid system, which is that part of the brain’s chemistry that is associated with well-being and pleasure, was already activated after the very first intake.”

The authors published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports. Scientists have debated whether sugar is addictive for decades, but these findings, as the authors explain, suggest that “foods high in sucrose influence brain reward circuitry in ways similar to those observed when addictive drugs are consumed.”

2. Gut bacteria and the brain
Over recent years, gut bacteria and the microbiome at large have become increasingly popular with scientists and laypeople alike. It is no surprise that gut bacteria can influence gut health, but it does come as more of an eye-opener that they might influence our brain and behavior.

Although at first, this idea was a fringe topic, it is now moving closer to the mainstream. However, links between gut bacteria and mental health are still relatively controversial.

Recently, a study appearing in Nature Microbiology utilized data from the Flemish Gut Flora Project, which included 1,070 participants. The scientists wanted to understand whether there might be a relationship between gut flora and depression.

As the researchers hypothesized, they did find distinct differences in the gut bacterial populations of those with depression when they compared them with those who did not experience depression.

These differences remained significant even after they had adjusted the data to account for antidepressant medication, which might also influence gut bacteria.

However, as the authors note, there is still the chance that factors other than depression might have driven the correlation. Before they firm up the links between gut bacteria and mental health, scientists will need to carry out much more work.

MNT published an in-depth article on how gut bacteria might influence the brain and behavior here.

3. Parkinson’s and the gut
Perhaps now that we have established a connection between the gut and the brain, we will find the thought of a gut link to Parkinson’s disease less surprising. MNT covered a study that looked at this theory in 2019.

Misfolded alpha-synuclein is the primary hallmark of Parkinson’s disease. These proteins aggregate and destroy certain dopamine producing cells in the brain, causing tremor and the other symptoms of the disease.

The study, in the journal Neuron, explains how the researchers created a model of Parkinson’s disease by injecting alpha-synuclein fibrils into muscles in the mice’s gut.

In the experiment, these clumps traveled from the gut to the brain through the vagus nerve. Within a few months, the mice developed symptoms that mirrored Parkinson’s in humans.

Following on from the findings above, some researchers have begun asking whether prebiotics might stave off Parkinson’s. A study using a roundworm model suggests that this theory might be worth pursuing.

Discoveries and mysteries
Of course, because the brain is complex, it still holds many secrets. Even some of the most common behaviors, as yet, defy a neuroscientific explanation. A good example is a humble yawn.

Yawning is part of the human experience, but no one knows quite why we do it.

4. A yawning chasm in our knowledge
Scientists have roundly dismissed conventional theories, such as a lack of oxygen in the brain. Why we do it, and what is happening in the brain is unclear. One of the particularly curious things about yawning is the fact that it is contagious.

A recent study investigating the contagious power of yawns appeared in the journal Current Biology. The authors believe that primitive reflexes in the primary motor cortex might trigger yawn contagion.

To investigate, the scientists used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which is a noninvasive technique employing magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells. The researchers showed participants videos of people yawning and asked them to either resist the yawn or to let it out.

They found that when they increased levels of excitability in the motor cortex, they also increased participants’ urge to yawn.

As part of the experiment, the researchers measured levels of excitability in participants’ brains without TMS. They found that individuals with higher levels of cortical excitability and physiological inhibition in the primary motor cortex were more predisposed to yawn.

This finding adds evidence in support of one theory about yawning that involves the mirror-neuron system. This system, as the authors explain, “is thought to play a key role in action understanding, empathy, and the synchronization of group social behavior.”

So, we still do not fully understand yawning, but we are gathering evidence, and it might involve empathy.

5. New neurons in old age
Neurogenesis — or the creation of new neurons — is almost entirely complete by the time a newborn greets the world. Although new neurons may emerge in some parts of the brain during adulthood, for the majority of the brain, we have to make do with the neurons we get when we are born.

A study from 1998 claimed to have demonstrated that neurogenesis took place in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is particularly important for memory. The findings were controversial, and later studies were contradictory.

Moving forward 2 decades, another team of scientists decided to settle the debate with the largest sample of brain tissue to date; they published these new findings in the journal Nature Medicine.

The team focused on a part of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus. Incredibly, the researchers found that neurogenesis was occurring in all the samples of brain tissue, even in samples from individuals in their 90s.

The authors note that neurogenesis appears to slow as we age, but that it continues throughout our lives.

As with so many areas of neuroscience, however, researchers now need to gather more evidence as other studies have failed to replicate the findings.

6. A new type of brain cell
Even now, we are identifying new types of cells in the brain. A paper in Nature Neuroscience introduced one such newcomer to the neuroscientific lexicon: the rosehip neuron.

Rosehip neurons are inhibitory neurons, which are a class of cells that reduce the activity of other neurons. In the case of rosehip neurons, they apply the brakes to neurons in a way subtly different from other, similar cells.

In particular, rosehip neurons influence the activity of cortical pyramidal neurons, which account for around two-thirds of all neurons in the mammalian cerebral cortex.

Because scientists have not seen this cell in mice or other commonly used laboratory animals, the researchers believe it might help us understand why the human brain is so unique. However, at this stage, this is conjecture, and it is still not clear exactly what rosehip neurons do.

Of course, the studies this article discusses barely scratch the surface of neuroscience research today. Although we do not know what the future holds, we can guarantee it will be exciting.

It’s Brain Awareness Week, and to mark the occasion, we’re taking a look at research focused on the most complex organ in the human body. You can view all of our content for Brain Awareness.

Source: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/neuroscience-research-6-fascinating-findings#Discoveries-and-mysteries

07 Apr 2020

Neuroscientist find memory cells that help us interpret new situations

Neurons that store abstract representations of past experiences are activated when a new, similar event takes place.

Imagine you are meeting a friend for dinner at a new restaurant. You may try dishes you haven’t had before, and your surroundings will be completely new to you. However, your brain knows that you have had similar experiences — perusing a menu, ordering appetizers, and splurging on dessert are all things that you have probably done when dining out.

MIT neuroscientists have now identified populations of cells that encode each of these distinctive segments of an overall experience. These chunks of memory, stored in the hippocampus, are activated whenever a similar type of experience takes place, and are distinct from the neural code that stores detailed memories of a specific location.

The researchers believe that this kind of “event code,” which they discovered in a study of mice, may help the brain interpret novel situations and learn new information by using the same cells to represent similar experiences.

“When you encounter something new, there are some really new and notable stimuli, but you already know quite a bit about that particular experience, because it’s a similar kind of experience to what you have already had before,” says Susumu Tonegawa, a professor of biology and neuroscience at the RIKEN-MIT Laboratory of Neural Circuit Genetics at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.

Tonegawa is the senior author of the study, which appears today in Nature Neuroscience. Chen Sun, an MIT graduate student, is the lead author of the paper. New York University graduate student Wannan Yang and Picower Institute technical associate Jared Martin are also authors of the paper.

Encoding abstraction

It is well-established that certain cells in the brain’s hippocampus are specialized to store memories of specific locations. Research in mice has shown that within the hippocampus, neurons called place cells fire when the animals are in a specific location, or even if they are dreaming about that location.

In the new study, the MIT team wanted to investigate whether the hippocampus also stores representations of more abstract elements of a memory. That is, instead of firing whenever you enter a particular restaurant, such cells might encode “dessert,” no matter where you’re eating it.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers measured activity in neurons of the CA1 region of the mouse hippocampus as the mice repeatedly ran a four-lap maze. At the end of every fourth lap, the mice were given a reward. As expected, the researchers found place cells that lit up when the mice reached certain points along the track. However, the researchers also found sets of cells that were active during one of the four laps, but not the others. About 30 percent of the neurons in CA1 appeared to be involved in creating this “event code.”

“This gave us the initial inkling that besides a code for space, cells in the hippocampus also care about this discrete chunk of experience called lap 1, or this discrete chunk of experience called lap 2, or lap 3, or lap 4,” Sun says.

To further explore this idea, the researchers trained mice to run a square maze on day 1 and then a circular maze on day 2, in which they also received a reward after every fourth lap. They found that the place cells changed their activity, reflecting the new environment. However, the same sets of lap-specific cells were activated during each of the four laps, regardless of the shape of the track. The lap-encoding cells’ activity also remained consistent when laps were randomly shortened or lengthened.

“Even in the new spatial locations, cells still maintain their coding for the lap number, suggesting that cells that were coding for a square lap 1 have now been transferred to code for a circular lap 1,” Sun says.

The researchers also showed that if they used optogenetics to inhibit sensory input from a part of the brain called the medial entorhinal cortex (MEC), lap-encoding did not occur. They are now investigating what kind of input the MEC region provides to help the hippocampus create memories consisting of chunks of an experience.

Two distinct codes

These findings suggest that, indeed, every time you eat dinner, similar memory cells are activated, no matter where or what you’re eating. The researchers theorize that the hippocampus contains “two mutually and independently manipulatable codes,” Sun says. One encodes continuous changes in location, time, and sensory input, while the other organizes an overall experience into smaller chunks that fit into known categories such as appetizer and dessert.

“We believe that both types of hippocampal codes are useful, and both are important,” Tonegawa says. “If we want to remember all the details of what happened in a specific experience, moment-to-moment changes that occurred, then the continuous monitoring is effective. But on the other hand, when we have a longer experience, if you put it into chunks, and remember the abstract order of the abstract chunks, that’s more effective than monitoring this long process of continuous changes.”

The new MIT results “significantly advance our knowledge about the function of the hippocampus,” says Gyorgy Buzsaki, a professor of neuroscience at New York University School of Medicine, who was not part of the research team.

“These findings are significant because they are telling us that the hippocampus does a lot more than just ‘representing’ space or integrating paths into a continuous long journey,” Buzsaki says. “From these remarkable results Tonegawa and colleagues conclude that they discovered an ‘event code,’ dedicated to organizing experience by events, and that this code is independent of spatial and time representations, that is, jobs also attributed to the hippocampus.”

Tonegawa and Sun believe that networks of cells that encode chunks of experiences may also be useful for a type of learning called transfer learning, which allows you to apply knowledge you already have to help you interpret new experiences or learn new things. Tonegawa’s lab is now working on trying to find cell populations that might encode these specific pieces of knowledge.

The research was funded by the RIKEN Center for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the JPB Foundation.

Source: http://news.mit.edu/2020/neuroscience-memory-cells-interpret-new-0406

29 Mar 2020

The distorted idea of ‘cool’ brain research is stifling psychotherapy

There has never been a problem facing mankind more complex than understanding our own human nature. And no shortage of neat, plausible, and wrong answers purporting to plumb its depths.

Having treated many thousands of psychiatric patients in my career, and having worked on the American Psychiatric Association’s efforts to classify psychiatric symptoms (published as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-IV and DSM-5), I can affirm confidently that there are no neat answers in psychiatry. The best we can do is embrace an ecumenical four-dimensional model that includes all possible contributors to human functioning: the biological, the psychological, the social, and the spiritual. Reducing people to just one element – their brain functioning, or their psychological tendencies, or their social context, or their struggle for meaning – results in a flat, distorted image that leaves out more than it can capture.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) was established in 1949 by the federal government in the United States with the practical goal of providing ‘an objective, thorough, nationwide analysis and reevaluation of the human and economic problems of mental health.’ Until 30 years ago, the NIMH appreciated the need for this well-rounded approach and maintained a balanced research budget that covered an extraordinarily wide range of topics and techniques.

But in 1990, the NIMH suddenly and radically switched course, embarking on what it tellingly named the ‘Decade of the Brain.’ Ever since, the NIMH has increasingly narrowed its focus almost exclusively to brain biology – leaving out everything else that makes us human, both in sickness and in health. Having largely lost interest in the plight of real people, the NIMH could now more accurately be renamed the ‘National Institute of Brain Research’.

This misplaced reductionism arose from the availability of spectacular research tools (eg, the Human Genome Project, functional magnetic resonance imaging, molecular biology, and machine learning) combined with the naive belief that brain biology could eventually explain all aspects of mental functioning. The results have been a grand intellectual adventure, but a colossal clinical flop. We have acquired a fantastic window into gene and brain functioning, but little to help clinical practice.

The more we learn about genetics and the brain, the more impossibly complicated both reveal themselves to be. We have picked no low-hanging fruit after three decades and $50 billion because there simply is no low-hanging fruit to pick. The human brain has around 86 billion neurons, each communicating with thousands of others via hundreds of chemical modulators, leading to trillions of potential connections. No wonder it reveals its secrets only very gradually and in a piecemeal fashion.

Genetics offers the same baffling complexity. For instance, variation in more than 100 genes contributes to vulnerability to schizophrenia, with each gene contributing just the tiniest bit, and interacting in the most impossibly complicated ways with other genes, and also with the physical and social environment. Even more discouraging, the same genes are often implicated in vulnerability to multiple mental disorders – defeating any effort to establish specificity. The almost endless permutations will defeat any easy genetic answers, no matter how many decades and billions we invest.

The NIMH has boxed itself into a badly unbalanced research portfolio. Playing with ‘cool’ brain and gene research toys trumps the much harder and less intellectually rewarding task of helping real people.

Contrast this current NIMH failure with a great success story from NIMH’s distant past. One of the high points of my career was sitting on the NIMH granting committee that funded psychotherapy studies in the 1980s. We helped to support the US psychologist Marsha Linehan’s research that led her to develop dialectical behavior therapy; the US psychiatrist Aaron T Beck’s development of cognitive therapy; along with numerous other investigators and themes. Subsequent studies have established that psychotherapy is as effective as medications for mild-to-moderate depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric problems, and avoids the burden of medication side-effects and complications. Many millions of people around the world have already been helped by NIMH psychotherapy research.

In a rational world, the NIMH would continue to fund a robust psychotherapy research budget and promote its use as a public-health initiative to reduce the current massive overprescription of psychiatric medication in the US. Brief psychotherapy would be the first-line treatment of most psychiatric problems that require intervention. Drug treatments would be reserved for severe psychiatric problems and for those people who haven’t responded sufficiently to watchful waiting or psychotherapy.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a rational world. Drug companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year influencing politicians, marketing misleadingly to doctors, and pushing pharmaceutical treatments on the public. They successfully sold the fake marketing jingle that all emotional symptoms are due to a ‘chemical imbalance’ in the brain and therefore all require a pill solution. The result: 20% of US citizens use psychotropic drugs, most of which are no more than expensive placebos, all of which can produce harmful side-effects.

Drug companies are commercial Goliath with enormous political and economic power. Psychotherapy is a tiny David with no marketing budget; no salespeople mobbing doctors’ offices; no TV ads; no internet pop-ups; no influence with politicians or insurance companies. No surprise then that the NIMH’s neglect of psychotherapy research has been accompanied by its neglect in clinical practice. And the NIMH’s embrace of biological reductionism provides an unintended and unwarranted legitimization of the drug-company promotion that there is a pill for every problem.

A balanced NIMH budget would go a long way toward correcting the two biggest mental-health catastrophes of today. Studies comparing psychotherapy versus medication for a wide variety of mild to moderate mental disorders would help to level the playing field for the two, and eventually reduce our massive overdependence on drug treatments for nonexistent ‘chemical imbalances’. Health service research is desperately needed to determine best practices to help people with severe mental illness avoid incarceration and homelessness, and also escape from them.

The NIMH is entitled to keep an eye on the future, but not at the expense of the desperate needs of the present. Brain research should remain an important part of a balanced NIMH agenda, not its sole preoccupation. After 30 years of running down a bio-reductionistic blind alley, it is long past time for the NIMH to consider a biopsychosocial reset, and to rebalance its badly uneven research portfolio.

Source: https://thenextweb.com/syndication/2020/03/29/the-distorted-idea-of-cool-brain-research-is-stifling-psychotherapy/

09 May 2019
How can neuroscience support the development of ATM in the future?

How can neuroscience support the development of ATM in the future?

As the role of air traffic controllers shifts to a more observatory role, does neuroscience hold the key to ensuring this change doesn’t affect air traffic flows?

Air traffic is growing as is its complexity. Due to the progressive increase of automation levels, the adoption of innovative concepts such as 4D trajectories, and the introduction of drones into the airspace, experts expect the European air traffic management (ATM) system to face drastic challenges in the nearest future.

Soon, the roles and tasks of controllers will change, and it is vital to enhance the comprehension of human response to such changes. It is also vital to develop tools to investigate aspects like the ability to monitor complex situations and face unexpected disruptions, and to monitor in real time controllers’ fitness to the task, in order to anticipate risks and problems.

The Human Performance Envelope

Several aspects such as stress, workload, attentional resources available, attention focus and so on, impact controllers’ performance. In recent years, the concept of “Human Performance Envelope” (HPE) emerged as a new paradigm in human factors (HFs) to account for this complexity. Rather than focusing on one or two individual factors in isolation (e.g. workload, attention), it considers a range of common factors in accidents and maps how they work in combination to lead to a performance decrement that could affect safety.

It is reasonable to expect that the future air traffic control officer’s (ATCO) HPE will be different from the one we would use today. It will have different underlying HF concepts, or at least a different weight among them. For instance, ATCOs are expected to move to a monitoring position of highly-automated systems, with very few tactical interventions, strategic planning by exception when automation cannot find a solution and the need to intervene rapidly to recover disruptions or unexpected events. As compared to pilots, workload may be even less primary, but with sudden bursts when recovery actions are needed. Indeed, stress will be a major factor both in normal conditions, when ATCOs will need to rely on automation without actively controlling it, and in disruptions. Such a monitoring role will probably require even more attention than pilots exert today. In fact, ATCOs will need to deal with very complex systems, with many interacting elements of different typologies (e.g. RPAS) moving in 4D trajectories across space.

Currently, the main research challenge for complex systems is to explore the HPE in highly-automated environments in an innovative and reliable way. This investigation can provide new knowledge and guidelines needed for designing and implementing higher levels of automation and the related procedures and humans’ roles.

To address this issue Deep Blue, a SME based in Rome and specialist in human factors and safety, coordinated the NINA and STRESS research projects. NINA and STRESS were part of a wider research initiative aimed at investigating the application of neuroscience to the development of new technologies for ATM. In fact, these projects investigated the use of neurophysiological indicators to assess air traffic controllers’ mental state during the execution of operational tasks in highly-automated scenarios. The investigation aimed at deriving guidelines and principles for the design of future ATM systems. The European Commission co-financed both projects in the framework of the SESAR Exploratory Research programme.

Neurometrics at work

Neurophysiological indicators are quite advanced today, offering a unique opportunity to objectively monitor the factors composing the HPE. However, a research gap remains in place concerning the customisation of these indicators to (future) ATM tasks. Both STRESS and NINA aimed to fill this gap. While neurophysiology knows what to monitor to detect stress, what we call stress in ATM may correspond to different patterns of neurological activity as compared to everyday stress. This consideration also applies to other complex HFs concepts like attention and vigilance, which have an everyday meaning and are being studied in contexts different from ATM. In addition, aviation research on neurophysiological indicators has mostly focused on cognitive concepts, traditionally disregarding the stress-related aspects. This oversimplification is hard to justify at the light of current neurophysiological knowledge, where the stress-response has been shown to play a key role in “cognitive” processes like decision-making or attentional focus. A good example is the “startle effect”, defined as an automatic reflex elicited by exposure to a sudden, intense event that violates a pilot’s expectations, and is currently one of the hot topics for pilot performance.

The relevance of stress is also recognised by the EASA, that in the Notice of Proposed Amendment (NPA) addresses the issue of licensing and medical certification of air traffic controllers (EASA, 2012), considering stress and fatigue management as an essential topic for training (AMC1 ATCO.D.045(c)(4) human factors training). In particular, stress demands for a systematic approach. In fact, its importance is likely to grow as systems rely more on automation, and humans move to monitoring positions. A typical case is the automation disruption, when humans have to react quickly in highly-stressful conditions. In these situations, stress is known to influence performance and impair attention, memory and decision-making (Angeli et al., 2004).

In order to capture this level of complexity, STRESS and NINA proposed a multidisciplinary approach. They implemented the high time resolution neurophysiological measurement of air traffic controllers’ stress, workload, attention, cognitive control and vigilance during the execution of operational tasks, within a simulated air traffic control environment reproducing the complexity of future airspace scenarios and associated highly-automated technologies. To achieve this, they carried out data fusion of the following measures: Neural patterns of brain activation (EEG), physiologic indicators (heart activity, galvanic skin response), kinematics (body posture data like joint angles, segment kinematics, segment global positions, body centre of mass) and eye tracking.

The composition of the projects Consortia engaged in these projects reflected such multidisciplinarity, bringing together partners with different expertise. Their competence profiles include a strong understanding of human factors (Deep Blue), a solid experience in the use of neurophysiologic measurements (Sapienza University), a deep knowledge of air traffic management domain (ENAC and Anadolu University), and an overall view on what is the strategic agenda for the development of this domain in the upcoming years (EUROCONTROL).

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