Category Archives: Neuroscience

A (not so) Missing Link – Between the Brain and the Immune System

Newly-discovered lymphatic vessels, shown in red, were almost invisible behind larger blood vessels, shown in green (University of Virginia)

Newly-discovered lymphatic vessels, shown in red, were almost invisible behind larger blood vessels, shown in green (University of Virginia)

“They’ll have to change the textbooks.”

Scientists don’t hear this very often (if ever), but that’s the remark that came in response to a new discovery that the brain is connected to the immune system by vessels that no one knew existed.

The connection could change how neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis are understood and treated.

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Poverty’s Penalty on the Brain

Growing up isn’t easy. Growing up in poverty is harder. Unstable living conditions, a chronic lack of resources, poor nutrition, inadequate emotional support, and stressed parents are a toxic combination of hurdles on the road to adulthood. Typically, psychologists, educators, and social workers see the signs of childhood poverty manifested in schools and workplaces as poor self control, weak attention and language skills, lower IQ scores, and reduced memory capabilities. These professionals conduct their assessments and interventions based largely on behavioral symptoms.

Two new research studies provide specific evidence that the experience of poverty can actually change the way the brain works and leave people with chronic impairment to emotional and cognitive functioning. The work illustrates some unseen costs of poverty and, hopefully, provides a fresh incentive to deal with them

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Personal Bionics – Electronics in Our Heads

(Scientific American)

(Scientific American)

Say “prosthetic” and most of us think of artificial limbs, important devices that help people regain essential functions lost to injury or disease. Modern prosthetics, however, are a long way from that image. Today, they’re often an integration of electronics and living tissue and can support much more than physical locomotion. New bionic technologies aid hearing and sight. Soon, they may help thinking itself. Some researchers are even looking beyond replacement of lost capabilities to providing capabilities we weren’t born with. If they succeed, the effect may revise our concepts of what defines a “normal” human.

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Molecular Memories – Manipulating the Brain

Memories are pretty important to most us. As collections of our experiences they anchor us to a personal sense of reality. Memories are pretty important to science, too; some of the earliest studies in psychology focused on their capabilities and qualities and they remain a major research topic today.

At a functional level, we know that memories are more like reconstructions than photographic records. Recall is an active process, and an imperfect one, so what we remember is rarely an accurate copy of the original event. We forget, we repress, and we confuse elements of some memories with elements of others (characteristics that make eyewitness testimony so unreliable).

What physical and biochemical processes in the brain can account for these functional properties? What actually happens when we form memories, and what happens when we forget?  Two new studies, both from MIT, tackled these questions directly, and an effect of this work is to point out some weighty questions about how firmly our memories are tied to “reality” and what we could (or should) do to change them.

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Bootstrapping the Brain? Coevolution of Tool Making and Language

A new brain imaging study has shown evidence that human language might have emerged together with advanced tool making skills.  Because we can physically date much of the timeline for tool making, the work indicates that language could have emerged almost two million years ago – far earlier than Homo sapiens.

While the results aren’t definitive, the study demonstrates

  •  New technologies that monitor brain performance while people perform practical tasks, and
  •  New methods for dating events that don’t have physical records (like language) by associating them with events that do

Work like this brings neuroscience into the realm of experimental archaeology, offering new approaches to studying the past.

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