Friday, November 30, 2007

Brain changes associated with congenital amusia

About four percent of the population has congenital amusia, a lifelong disability that prevents otherwise normal functioning individuals from developing basic musical skills. The condition has also been variously termed note deafness, tone deafness, or tune deafness. Here is an interesting abstract from Hyde et al. on the amusic brain, along with one figure from the paper:

Congenital amusia (or tone deafness) is a lifelong disorder characterized by impairments in the perception and production of music. A previous voxel-based morphometry (VBM) study revealed that amusic individuals had reduced white matter in the right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) relative to musically intact controls. However, this VBM study also revealed associated increases in gray matter in the same right IFG region of amusics. The objective of the present study was to better understand this morphological brain anomaly by way of cortical thickness measures that provide a more specific measure of cortical morphology relative to VBM. We found that amusic subjects (n = 21) have thicker cortex in the right IFG and the right auditory cortex relative to musically intact controls (n = 26). These cortical thickness differences suggest the presence of cortical malformations in the amusic brain, such as abnormal neuronal migration, that may have compromised the normal development of a right frontotemporal pathway.

Figure - Group cortical thickness differences. Results from the statistical analysis of data from 21 amusics versus 26 controls are displayed at each vertex of the surface of a standardized brain in terms of a t statistical color map. A, Areas of significant thickness increases in the amusic brain relative to controls. B, areas of significant thickness decreases in the amusic brain relative to controls. Predicted group cortical thickness differences are in pink, and nonpredicted differences in green as follows: right superior precentral gyrus (a), right lateral occipital gyrus (b), right inferior precentral gyrus (c), right middle frontal gyrus (d), left inferior temporal gyrus (e), right anterior cingulate (f), right medial orbital frontal gyrus (g), right inferior temporal gyrus (h), left medial orbital frontal gyrus (i).

Roach Robots

Here is a moment of visual relief:

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Genetic variation in the enhancement of intelligence by breastfeeding.

It's the environment AND the genes...Caspi et al. provide a fascinating example of how genetic differences can moderate the effects of environmental influences on an individuals' health and behavior. The authors chose breastfeeding as the environmental exposure because the biological processes underlying its benefits for the developing brain are increasingly well understood. Here are some edited clips from the paper:

The predominant long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) present in human milk, but not in cow's milk or most infant formulas, are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA; 22:6n-3) and arachidonic acid (AA or ARA; 20:4n-6). Substantial amounts of DHA and AA accumulate in the human brain during the first postnatal months, and infants who are breastfed have higher concentrations of DHA and AA than infants fed unsupplemented formulas. Evidence, in general, is consistent with the hypothesis that LC-PUFAs in breast milk may enhance cognitive development. In humans, children who are breastfed have higher IQs than children not fed breast milk, and this advantage persists into adulthood.

The authors chose to study people with two allelic variants of FADS2, which they termed C and G. FADS2 is an attractive candidate gene because of its role in the modification of dietary fatty acids. FADS2, located on chromosome 11q12.2, encodes the delta-6 desaturase that is the rate-limiting step on the metabolic pathway leading to AA and DHA production.

Examination of different cohorts of several thousand children from ongoing longitudinal studies in New Zealand, England and Wales revealed that breastfed children carrying the C allele showed a 6.4-IQ-point advantage relative to children not fed breast milk. GG homozygotes neither gained an advantage from breastfeeding nor suffered a disadvantage from not being fed breast milk. The authors ruled out alternative explanations of the finding involving gene–exposure correlation, intrauterine growth, social class, and maternal cognitive ability, as well as maternal genotype effects on breastfeeding and breast milk.

...the finding has implications for the public understanding of genetics. The pendulum of opinion surrounding nature versus nurture has swung back and forth, yielding global estimates of heritability versus "environmentality" that have overlooked the contribution of interactions between specific genes and specific experiences. To date, research on gene–environment interactions has been dominated by the search for genetic variants that increase disease susceptibility to environmental pathogens; for example, carriers of "short" 5-HTT alleles who encounter stressful life events are at risk of becoming depressed; carriers of "rapid" NAT2 alleles who eat red meat are at risk of developing colorectal cancer. However, genes are not only implicated in disease; here we have shown that a genetic variant (in FADS2) may also enhance a favorable response (increased IQ) to a salubrious exposure present throughout human ancestry (breastfeeding).

Pay me for my content!

This is the title of a brief Op-Ed piece by Jaron Lanier, a well known guru of the information age, in the Nov. 20 N.Y. Times. It is worth reproducing in full:

INTERNET idealists like me have long had an easy answer for creative types — like the striking screenwriters in Hollywood — who feel threatened by the unremunerative nature of our new Eden: stop whining and figure out how to join the party!..That’s the line I spouted when I was part of the birthing celebrations for the Web. I even wrote a manifesto titled “Piracy Is Your Friend.” But I was wrong. We were all wrong.

Like so many in Silicon Valley in the 1990s, I thought the Web would increase business opportunities for writers and artists. Instead they have decreased. Most of the big names in the industry — Google, Facebook, MySpace and increasingly even Apple and Microsoft — are now in the business of assembling content from unpaid Internet users to sell advertising to other Internet users. (Disclosure: I’m the scholar at large for Microsoft Live Labs, and I once was part of a company that Google bought.)

There’s an almost religious belief in the Valley that charging for content is bad. The only business plan in sight is ever more advertising. One might ask what will be left to advertise once everyone is aggregated...How long must creative people wait for the Web’s new wealth to find a path to their doors? A decade is a long enough time that idealism and hope are no longer enough. If there’s one practice technologists ought to embrace, it is the evaluation of empirical results...To help writers and artists earn a living online, software engineers and Internet evangelists need to exercise the power they hold as designers. Information is free on the Internet because we created the system to be that way.

We could design information systems so that people can pay for content — so that anyone has the chance of becoming a widely read author and yet can also be paid. Information could be universally accessible but on an affordable instead of an absolutely free basis...People happily pay for content in certain Internet ecosystems, provided the ecosystems are delightful. People love paying for virtual art, clothing and other items in virtual worlds like Second Life, for instance. Something similar is going on for music within the ecosystem of the iPod. (I am an adviser to Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life.)

Affordable turns out to be much harder than free when it comes to information technology, but we are smart enough to figure it out. We owe it to ourselves and to our creative friends to acknowledge the negative results of our old idealism. We need to grow up.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

How our brains process inequity in rewards.

This work suggests that the calculation of social standing - as indexed by payment - may be an unconscious and automatic process in the brain. The previous post on monkeys judging inequity in rewards suggests an evolutionary origin in earlier primate behavior. Here we have a very similar experiment done on humans, with fMRI data that we can't get from the monkeys. The results provide neurophysiological evidence for the importance of social comparison on reward processing in the human brain. Several studies show that most of us place as much value on relative remuneration, comparing ourselves with others, as on its absolute level. In the current work, when subjects were given different compensation for solving the same puzzle, this was reflected by different activation levels in the ventral striatum, a brain region known to be involved in the comparison of predicted and actually received rewards (i.e., reward prediction error). Here is the abstract from Fliessbach et al., followed by a figure from the paper:

Whether social comparison affects individual well-being is of central importance for understanding behavior in any social environment. Traditional economic theories focus on the role of absolute rewards, whereas behavioral evidence suggests that social comparisons influence well-being and decisions. We investigated the impact of social comparisons on reward-related brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). While being scanned in two adjacent MRI scanners, pairs of subjects had to simultaneously perform a simple estimation task that entailed monetary rewards for correct answers. We show that a variation in the comparison subject's payment affects blood oxygenation level–dependent responses in the ventral striatum. Our results provide neurophysiological evidence for the importance of social comparison on reward processing in the human brain.

Figure - Glassbrain projection of brain regions showing stronger BOLD responses in conditions in which a subject received a reward while the other did not compared with conditions in which a subject did not receive a reward at all.

Monkeys judge inequity like humans

DeWaal and collaborators expand on previous observations to show that capuchin monkeys get really pissed off if they worked harder for a reward than another monkey, and then see that monkey get a greater reward! This suggests that our human resentment of inequity in rewards my have a very ancient origin in primate behavior. Here is their abstract:

Without joint benefits, joint actions could never have evolved. Cooperative animals need to monitor closely how large a share they receive relative to their investment toward collective goals. This work documents the sensitivity to reward division in brown, or tufted, capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella). In addition to confirming previous results with a larger subject pool, this work rules out several alternative explanations and adds data on effort sensitivity. Thirteen adult monkeys exchanged tokens for rewards, showing negative reactions to receiving a less-favored reward than their partner. Because their negative reaction could not be attributed to the mere visibility of better rewards (greed hypothesis) nor to having received such rewards in the immediate past (frustration hypothesis), it must have been caused by seeing their partner obtain the better reward. Effort had a major effect in that by far the lowest level of performance in the entire study occurred in subjects required to expend a large effort while at the same time seeing their partner receive a better reward. It is unclear whether this effort–effect was based on comparisons with the partner, but it added significantly to the intensity of the inequity response. These effects are as expected if the inequity response evolved in the context of cooperative survival strategies.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Varieties of denial...

Benedict Carey writes a nice piece in the Nov. 20 New York Times about the utility of - and evolutionary rationale for - mild forms of denial, which can take the form of inattention, passive acknowledgment, reframing or willful blindness. Ignoring the "elephant in the living room" is sometimes the best strategy for getting along! A few clips from the article, which you can read in whole here:

...recent studies from fields as diverse as psychology and anthropology suggest that the ability to look the other way, while potentially destructive, is also critically important to forming and nourishing close relationships. The psychological tricks that people use to ignore a festering problem in their own households are the same ones that they need to live with everyday human dishonesty and betrayal, their own and others’. And it is these highly evolved abilities, research suggests, that provide the foundation for that most disarming of all human invitations, forgiveness...“The closer you look, the more clearly you see that denial is part of the uneasy bargain we strike to be social creatures,” said Michael McCullough, a psychologist at the University of Miami and the author of the coming book “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.” “We really do want to be moral people, but the fact is that we cut corners to get individual advantage, and we rely on the room that denial gives us to get by, to wiggle out of speeding tickets, and to forgive others for doing the same.”...The capacity for denial appears to have evolved in part to offset early humans’ hypersensitivity to violations of trust. In small kin groups, identifying liars and two-faced cheats was a matter of survival. A few bad rumors could mean a loss of status or even expulsion from the group, a death sentence.

Do you really want to know your own genome?

Nicholas Wade offer a brief essay in the Nov. 16 New York Times which notes several companies, such as DeCode Genetics, 23andMe, and Navigenics that are now offering to give you an analysis of your own individual genome for $1000 or less. While knowing that you have a gene that predisposes you to a given disease might reinforce life style choices that make that disease less likely (in the case of potential heart disease, for example, converting from red meat and potatoes to complex carbohydrates) such information could also cause needless alarm, for many factors other than genotype contribute to actual outcomes in each of us.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A gradient of representational hierarchy in the prefrontal cortex.

Badre and D'Esposito have designed a set of tasks requiring increasingly abstract representations, each level requiring the classing of representations at the next subordinate level. They find a systematic posterior to anterior gradient of activity with the prefrontal cortex depending on the manipulated level of representation. Here is their abstract and a figure from the paper:

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is central to flexible and organized action. Recent theoretical and empirical results suggest that the rostro-caudal (head to tail) axis of the frontal lobes may reflect a hierarchical organization of control. Here, we test whether the rostro-caudal axis of the PFC is organized hierarchically, based on the level of abstraction at which multiple representations compete to guide selection of action. Four functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments parametrically manipulated the set of task-relevant (a) competing responses, (b) competing features, (c) competing dimensions, and (d) overlapping cue-to-dimension mappings. A systematic posterior to anterior gradient was evident within the PFC depending on the manipulated level of representation. Furthermore, across four fMRI experiments, activation in PFC subregions was consistent with the sub- and superordinate relationships that define an abstract representational hierarchy. In addition to providing further support for a representational hierarchy account of the rostro-caudal gradient in the PFC, these data provide important empirical constraints on current theorizing about control hierarchies and the PFC.

Figure (click to enlarge) - Whole-brain analysis of parametric effect across the four experiments. A rostro-caudal gradient was evident as the level of abstraction increased. Specifically, response competition activated the PMd (A), feature competition activated the pre-PMd (B), dimension competition activated the IFS (C), and context competition activated the FPC (D). Graphs from ROI analyses for the PMd, pre-PMd, and IFS depict the integrated peak signal, whereas analysis of the frontal pole depicts the mean percent signal change over the entire block. Graphs from ROI analyses for PMd, pre-PMd, and IFS depict the integrated peak signal for each parametric level in each experiment (C = Context, D = Dimension, F = Feature, and R = Response). Bars for FPC depict the mean percent signal change over the entire block.

Memories play back on fast forward during sleep

It is know that correlations of nerve activity that are observed during learning sequence tasks replay during sleep, presumably to enhance learning and retention of the sequence. (I always find that I can play a difficult piano passage better when I wake up in the morning than when I was practicing it the day before). McNaughton and his collaborators now show that the replay during sleep occurs much faster than during actual awake behaviors. Here is their abstract:

As previously shown in the hippocampus and other brain areas, patterns of firing-rate correlations between neurons in the rat medial prefrontal cortex during a repetitive sequence task were preserved during subsequent sleep, suggesting that waking patterns are reactivated. We found that, during sleep, reactivation of spatiotemporal patterns was coherent across the network and compressed in time by a factor of 6 to 7. Thus, when behavioral constraints are removed, the brain's intrinsic processing speed may be much faster than it is in real time. Given recent evidence implicating the medial prefrontal cortex in retrieval of long-term memories, the observed replay may play a role in the process of memory consolidation.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Kewl Bio-inspired Robotics...

The Nov. 16 issue of Science has a special section on Robotics. I thought this graphic from the article by Pfeifer et al. - "Self-Organization, Embodiment, and Biologically Inspired Robotics" - was fascinating. It describes several biologically inspired robots.

Figure: Self-organization, dynamics, and materials in bio-inspired robotics. (A) Smooth transition between swimming and walking. This amphibious salamanderlike robot (~80 cm long) embeds a spinal cord model that explains the ability of salamanders to switch between swimming and walking. The locomotion model is built by extending a primitive neural circuit for swimming by phylogenetically more recent limb oscillatory centers. (B) Rich sensory stimulation through proper sensor morphology. This robot (~7 cm in diameter) owes its sophisticated sensory capacities to the specific arrangement, shape, and material characteristics of its whiskers. Natural whiskers from rodents (such as the ones used on this robot) are far superior to whiskers built from other materials in terms of richness of the signals relayed to the neural system. (C) Self-stabilizing rapid hexapod locomotion. This robot (~15 cm long) moves with a bouncing gait, achieving rapid (over 4 body lengths per second) locomotion. Its legs are built with compliant pneumatic actuators, which yield self-stabilization through mechanical feedback. (D) Passive dynamics–based walking. Designed to work on a slope as a dynamic walker, this robot (~45 cm tall) exploits dynamics and morphology (in particular, the shape and length of the body and feet) to achieve stable walking. The robot's natural dynamics serves as the target dynamics for a reinforcement learning mechanism, enabling the robot to quickly learn to walk on flat ground. (E) Self-stabilizing vertical takeoff through materials and morphology. Inspired by flies, this ultralight (60 mg, 3-cm wingspan) ornithopter (a device that flies by flapping its wings) generates sufficient lift to take off vertically (power is supplied externally). A large part of the control is delegated to the morphological and material properties of the robot. Compliant structures are driven into resonance to produce a large wing stroke, and flexible material is used in the wing hinges to allow for passive rotations of the wings. (F) Agile wall-climbing through materials. The bio-inspiration for this palm-sized robot is provided by the gecko and its uncanny climbing talents. The robot's tri-foot (three-footed wheel) is equipped with a polymer dry adhesive material, which to some extent has contact properties comparable to those of its biological analog. The robot can flexibly navigate on smooth vertical and even inverted surfaces. (G) Morphing through localized self-reconfiguration. This self-reconfigurable robot is composed of active (actuated, black) and passive (nonactuated, white) cubic modules (~400 g, ~60 to 65 mm side length). The modules connect to each other through hooks, which enables the robot to change its morphology in a large number of ways. The picture shows the metamorphosis from a four-legged (quadruped) structure to a linear (snakelike) structure. (H) Global movement through local interaction dynamics. The individual wheel-like modules (~10 cm in diameter) constituting this robot are equipped with spokelike parts driven by linear actuators. The wheels lie horizontally on the ground and attach to neighboring modules by Velcro. Although no module can move on its own, by using neural oscillators as drivers for the actuators and through the physical coupling between the units, a coordinated global wave of activation can be induced in clusters of more than 30 modules, which leads to forward movement, even though there is no global control.

Want to reduce risky behavior? Just pass a tiny current across your forehead.

Another brave new world item (from Fecteau et al.) - just what you need for your juvenile delinquent teenager! All you have to do is hook up a battery to two saline-soaked surface sponge electrodes to deliver anodal transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS - two milliamps) to the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) to slightly up-regulate its activity, coupled with cathodal tDCS to the left DLPFC (current flows from anode to cathode). Here is the whole abstract and one figure:

Studies have shown increased risk taking in healthy individuals after low-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, known to transiently suppress cortical excitability, over the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). It appears, therefore, plausible that differential modulation of DLPFC activity, increasing the right while decreasing the left, might lead to decreased risk taking, which could hold clinical relevance as excessively risky decision making is observed in clinical populations leading to deleterious consequences. The goal of the present study was to investigate whether risk-taking behaviors could be decreased using concurrent anodal transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) of the right DLPFC, which allows upregulation of brain activity, with cathodal tDCS of the left DLPCF, which downregulates activity. Thirty-six healthy volunteers performed the risk task while they received either anodal over the right with cathodal over the left DLPFC, anodal over the left with cathodal over the right DLPFC, or sham stimulation. We hypothesized that right anodal/left cathodal would decrease risk-taking behavior compared with left anodal/right cathodal or sham stimulation. As predicted, during right anodal/left cathodal stimulation over the DLPFC, participants chose more often the safe prospect compared with the other groups. Moreover, these participants appeared to be insensitive to the reward associated with the prospects. These findings support the notion that the interhemispheric balance of activity across the DLPFCs is critical in decision-making behaviors. Most importantly, the observed suppression of risky behaviors suggests that populations with boundless risk-taking behaviors leading to negative real-life consequences, such as individuals with addiction, might benefit from such neuromodulation-based approaches.

Figure 1. Schematic representation of the experimental design. Each participant started to perform the risk task after receiving 5 min of stimulation. Stimulation continued throughout the task. The risk task was a decision-making task involving gambling. The task provided a measure of decision making under risk with little requirements on strategy and working memory.

Most popular consciousness articles...

For October 2007, from the ASSC archives (from which 49638 papers were downloaded from 69 countries!).

1. Rosenthal, David (2007) Consciousness and its function. In: 11th annual
meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, 22-25
June 2007, Las Vegas, USA.
2. Koriat, A. (2006) Metacognition and Consciousness. In: Cambridge handbook
of consciousness. Cambridge University Press, New York, USA.
3. Sagiv, Noam and Ward, Jamie (2006) Crossmodal interactions: lessons from
synesthesia. In: Visual Perception, Part 2. Progress in Brain Research,
Volume 155.
4. Gennaro, Rocco J. (2007) Visual Agnosia and Higher-Order Thought Theory.
In: 11th annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of
Consciousness, 22-25 Jun 2007, Las Vegas, USA.
5. Mashour, George A. (2007) Inverse Zombies, Anesthesia Awareness, and the
Hard Problem of Unconsciousness. In: 11th Annual Meeting of the ASSC, Las

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Predicting election outcomes in 100 milliseconds!

Another example of a quick judgment turning out to be more accurate than a considered one... Ballew and Todorov showed study participants transient pictures of the winner and runner-up for recent United States gubernatorial elections. Rapid, unreflective judgments of competence based solely on facial appearance (of candidates participants did not recognize) predicted the actual outcomes of gubernatorial elections. Instructions to deliberate and make a good judgment led to less accurate predictions of the election outcomes. Here is their abstract :

Here we show that rapid judgments of competence based solely on the facial appearance of candidates predicted the outcomes of gubernatorial elections, the most important elections in the United States next to the presidential elections. In all experiments, participants were presented with the faces of the winner and the runner-up and asked to decide who is more competent. To ensure that competence judgments were based solely on facial appearance and not on prior person knowledge, judgments for races in which the participant recognized any of the faces were excluded from all analyses. Predictions were as accurate after a 100-ms exposure to the faces of the winner and the runner-up as exposure after 250 ms and unlimited time exposure. Asking participants to deliberate and make a good judgment dramatically increased the response times and reduced the predictive accuracy of judgments relative to both judgments made after 250 ms of exposure to the faces and judgments made within a response deadline of 2 s. Finally, competence judgments collected before the elections in 2006 predicted 68.6% of the gubernatorial races and 72.4% of the Senate races. These effects were independent of the incumbency status of the candidates. The findings suggest that rapid, unreflective judgments of competence from faces can affect voting decisions.

Figure - An example of an experimental trial in the 250-ms presentation condition. Participants decided who was more competent.

Socialization between toddlers and robots

How's this for a (horrific) vision of the future! The abstract from Tanaka et al., followed by one figure from the paper:

A state-of-the-art social robot was immersed in a classroom of toddlers for >5 months. The quality of the interaction between children and robots improved steadily for 27 sessions, quickly deteriorated for 15 sessions when the robot was reprogrammed to behave in a predictable manner, and improved in the last three sessions when the robot displayed again its full behavioral repertoire. Initially, the children treated the robot very differently than the way they treated each other. By the last sessions, 5 months later, they treated the robot as a peer rather than as a toy. Results indicate that current robot technology is surprisingly close to achieving autonomous bonding and socialization with human toddlers for sustained periods of time and that it could have great potential in educational settings assisting teachers and enriching the classroom environment.

Figure - Predicting the quality of interaction. The red line indicates an automatic assessment of the quality of interaction between children and QRIO based on haptic (i.e. touching or physical contact) sensing. Blue lines indicate human assessment (by four independent coders) of the quality of interaction by using the continuous audience response method. (A) A session begins with QRIO waking up, attracting the children's interest. (B) During the music time in the classroom, children play with the robot. (C) Children are getting tired of the music time and losing interest in the robot. (D) Children put a blanket on the robot after it has laid down on the floor preparing for the end of a session.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Observing rat brains as they look to the future

An emerging view is that the hippocampus is essential to imagining the future as well as remembering the past (which makes a lot sense, since we usually base our imagined future on our past experience). Johnson and Redich have now observed ensembles of cells in the CA3 region of the rat hippocampus whose firing transiently encodes paths forward of an animal at decision points in a maze, as if they are reflecting on possible futures and deciding what to do next. The figure, from Heyman's review of the work in Science, illustrates that as a rat looks in one direction, neurons representing that position (inset) fire over a half-second period. Here is the abstract of the work:

Neural ensembles were recorded from the CA3 region of rats running on T-based decision tasks. Examination of neural representations of space at fast time scales revealed a transient but repeatable phenomenon as rats made a decision: the location reconstructed from the neural ensemble swept forward, first down one path and then the other. Estimated representations were coherent and preferentially swept ahead of the animal rather than behind the animal, implying it represented future possibilities rather than recently traveled paths. Similar phenomena occurred at other important decisions (such as in recovery from an error). Local field potentials from these sites contained pronounced theta and gamma frequencies, but no sharp wave frequencies. Forward-shifted spatial representations were influenced by task demands and experience. These data suggest that the hippocampus does not represent space as a passive computation, but rather that hippocampal spatial processing is an active process likely regulated by cognitive mechanisms.

Japanese Gardens

This picture from a stroll yesterday in the Morikami Japanese Gardens in Boca Raton, Florida. An iguana is on the lawn to the right of the tree trunk, a heron to its right on the bank, the flat object on the grass to the right of the heron is a water turtle, and the orange spots in the water are Koi. (click on the picture to enlarge).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Our optimism bias - brain correlates

Sharot et al. examine the tendency of most of us to imagine more optimistic outcomes than can be justified by sober appraisal. A moderate amount of optimistic illusion has been related to mental and physical health, and the general idea is that it is adaptive and useful because it motivates us towards future goals. Their abstract, and a figure showing the relevant brain regions:

Humans expect positive events in the future even when there is no evidence to support such expectations. For example, people expect to live longer and be healthier than average, they underestimate their likelihood of getting a divorce, and overestimate their prospects for success on the job market. We examined how the brain generates this pervasive optimism bias. Here we report that this tendency was related specifically to enhanced activation in the amygdala and in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex when imagining positive future events relative to negative ones, suggesting a key role for areas involved in monitoring emotional salience in mediating the optimism bias. These are the same regions that show irregularities in depression, which has been related to pessimism. Across individuals, activity in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex was correlated with trait optimism. The current study highlights how the brain may generate the tendency to engage in the projection of positive future events, suggesting that the effective integration and regulation of emotional and autobiographical information supports the projection of positive future events in healthy individuals, and is related to optimism.

The authors collected functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data while participants thought of autobiographical events related to a description of a life episode (for example, 'winning an award' or 'the end of a romantic relationship'). The word 'past' or 'future' indicated if they should think of an event that occurred in the past or one that might occur in the future. Trials were classified into positive, negative and neutral according to participants' ratings. They found that future positive events were rated as more positive than past positive events, and were imagined to be closer in temporal proximity then future negative events and all past events. (Click on image to enlarge it)

Impairment of action chains in autism.

When we observe the start of an action sequence that can end in two possible ways (in the figure shown a piece of food is placed in the mouth or in a container on the shoulder) appropriate sympathetic muscle EMG signals are detected at the start of the sequence. Thus, if the sequence will end in food to the mouth, activity is observed in the mouth-opening mylohyoid (MH) muscle at the onset. Rizzolatti and collaborators find that typically developing children show an activation of their MH muscle already when they observe the experimenter's initial motor act, food reaching. This activation reflects their understanding of the final goal of the observed action. In children with autism this action-understanding motor activation is lacking. Further, when typically developing children actually perform the observed action, MH muscle activation is observed at the very beginning of the sequence, while in children with autism, the activation is not observed until immediately before the muscle is actually used.

Figure - Schematic representation of the tasks. (Upper) The individual reaches for a piece of food located on a touch-sensitive plate, grasps it, brings it to the mouth, and finally eats it. (Lower) The individual reaches for a piece of a paper located on the same plate, grasps it, and puts into a container placed on the shoulder.

They suggest that high-functioning autistic children may understand the intentions of others cognitively but lack the mechanism for understanding them experientially because they lack the chains of action-constrained neurons that code specific motor acts (e.g., grasping) according to the final goal of the action in which the motor act is embedded.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Distinguishing true versus illusory memories with brain imaging.

Kim and Cabeza show that true versus illusory memories held with high certainty depend on different neural mechanisms. Here is their abstract and one figure from the paper:

Although memory confidence and accuracy tend to be positively correlated, people sometimes remember with high confidence events that never happened. How can confidence correlate with accuracy but apply also to illusory memories? One possible explanation is that high confidence in veridical versus illusory memories depends on different neural mechanisms. The present study investigated this possibility using functional magnetic resonance imaging and a modified version of the Deese-Roediger-McDermott false-memory paradigm. Participants read short lists of categorized words, and brain activity was measured while they performed a recognition test with confidence rating. The study yielded three main findings. First, compared with low-confidence responses, high-confidence responses were associated with medial temporal lobe (MTL) activity in the case of true recognition but with frontoparietal activity in the case of false recognition. Second, these regions showed significant confidence-by-veridicality interactions. Finally, only MTL regions showed greater activity for high-confidence true recognition than for high-confidence false recognition, and only frontoparietal regions showed greater activity for high-confidence false recognition than for high-confidence true recognition. These findings indicate that confidence in true recognition is mediated primarily by a recollection-related MTL mechanism, whereas confidence in false recognition reflects mainly a familiarity-related frontoparietal mechanism. This account is consistent with the fuzzy trace theory of false recognition. Correlation analyses revealed that MTL and frontoparietal regions play complementary roles during episodic retrieval. In sum, the present study shows that when one focuses exclusively on high-confidence responses, the neural correlates of true and false memory are clearly different.

Figure: Activity within medial temporal lobes (A) was greater for high-confidence true recognition (HC-TR) than for high-confidence false recognition (HC-FR). Activity within a frontoparietal network (B) was greater for high-confidence false recognition than for high-confidence true recognition.

The moment of recognition...

Ploran et al. use fMRI to observe brain activity leading up to recognition of a perceptual object's identity. Here is their abstract, followed by a composite graphic extracted from figures in the paper.

Decision making can be conceptualized as the culmination of an integrative process in which evidence supporting different response options accumulates gradually over time. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate brain activity leading up to and during decisions about perceptual object identity. Pictures were revealed gradually and subjects signaled the time of recognition (TR) with a button press. We examined the time course of TR-dependent activity to determine how brain regions tracked the timing of recognition. In several occipital regions, activity increased primarily as stimulus information increased, suggesting a role in lower-level sensory processing. In inferior temporal, frontal, and parietal regions, a gradual buildup in activity peaking in correspondence with TR suggested that these regions participated in the accumulation of evidence supporting object identity. In medial frontal cortex, anterior insula/frontal operculum, and thalamus, activity remained near baseline until TR, suggesting a relation to the moment of recognition or the decision itself. The findings dissociate neural processes that function in concert during perceptual recognition decisions.

Composite extracted from figures in paper (click on graphic to enlarge and see labels): From interpolation analyzes, the top row shows brain regions of interest for initial sensory processing, the second row regions active in accumulation, and the bottom row regions active when recognition of the stimulus is signalled.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Drug enhancement of athletic performance - with no drugs!

Given the gnashing of teeth in the sports world over role models outed for their drug use, this bit from an Italian group is fascinating. It turns out that after only a few administrations of a pain killer (morphine), a placebo or sham injection on the day of the athletic event has the same effect as taking the real drug! Does this count as illegal drug use before an athletic performance? Here is the abstract from Benedetti et al.:

The neurobiological investigation of the placebo effect has shown that placebos can activate the endogenous opioid systems in some conditions. So far, the impact of this finding has been within the context of the clinical setting. Here we present an experiment that simulates a sport competition, a situation in which opioids are considered to be illegal drugs. After repeated administrations of morphine in the precompetition training phase, its replacement with a placebo on the day of competition induced an opioid-mediated increase of pain endurance and physical performance, although no illegal drug was administered. The placebo analgesic responses were obtained after two morphine administrations that were separated as long as 1 week from each other. These long time intervals indicate that the pharmacological conditioning procedure has long-lasting effects and that opioid-mediated placebo responses may have practical implications and applications. For example, in the context of the present sport simulation, athletes can be preconditioned with morphine and then a placebo can be given just before competition, thus avoiding administration of the illegal drug on the competition day. However, these morphine-like effects of placebos raise the important question whether opioid-mediated placebo responses are ethically acceptable in sport competitions or whether they have to be considered a doping procedure in all respects.

The instinct to swarm

Groups of social animals whose individual members follow simple sets of rules do surprising things. This NY Times article by Carl Zimmer in the Nov. 13 science section quotes Ian Couzin, a mathematical biologist at Princeton: “No matter how much you look at an individual army will never get a sense that when you put 1.5 million of them together, they form these bridges and columns. You just cannot know that.” The article notes the simple models that predict swarming behavior by setting the population density that which individuals switch from going their own way to following others. It also describes experiments using human subjects to test Couzin's models.

Many take our brains to be a more massive and complex version of the "hive minds" displayed by groups of bees, ants, birds and fish. Brain modelers assign relatively simple properties to their model neurons and then watch amazing patterns emerge when their whole society of neurons is fired up to interact.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Exercise on the Brain

Aamodt and Wang contribute an Op-Ed piece with the title of this post in the Nov. 8 New York Times. Their main message is that all of the 'brain exercise' programs that are marketed to counter the cognitive decline associated with aging are more expensive, complicated, and vastly less effective than vigorous daily exercise (not to suggest that these are competing alternatives, it is certainly best to do both). They note that while activities like solving puzzles or remembering lists can induce lasting changes in these specialized areas, physical exercise improves “executive function,” the set of abilities that allows you to select behavior that’s appropriate to the situation, inhibit inappropriate behavior and focus on the job at hand in spite of distractions. Executive function includes basic functions like processing speed, response speed and working memory, the type used to remember a house number while walking from the car to a party. They also note studies showing the numerous theraputic effects of exercise, such as delaying both the onset of dementia and the shrinking of the frontal cortex that occurs with age.

A hormone boost to generosity...

Yet another bit of work on the magic hormone, oxytocin, that makes us more affiliative, gentle, and trusting...the abstract from Zak et al. :

Human beings routinely help strangers at costs to themselves. Sometimes the help offered is generous—offering more than the other expects. The proximate mechanisms supporting generosity are not well-understood, but several lines of research suggest a role for empathy. In this study, participants were infused with 40 IU oxytocin (OT) or placebo and engaged in a blinded, one-shot decision on how to split a sum of money with a stranger that could be rejected. Those on OT were 80% more generous than those given a placebo. OT had no effect on a unilateral monetary transfer task dissociating generosity from altruism. OT and altruism together predicted almost half the interpersonal variation in generosity. Notably, OT had twofold larger impact on generosity compared to altruism. This indicates that generosity is associated with both altruism as well as an emotional identification with another person.

Conductors’ Ears and Eyes Stay Equally Alert

Here is an interesting tidbit that makes perfect sense to me as a pianist, from Eric Nagourney reporting in the NY Times on the Society for Neuroscience Meetings:

To concentrate on a difficult task that involves listening, people tend to unconsciously divert their attention from what they are seeing. But music conductors, a new study reports, are not as apt to be distracted in this way....The researchers, who presented their findings at a recent conference of the Society for Neuroscience, used magnetic resonance imaging to compare how 20 conductors and 20 nonmusicians handled complex auditory tasks...The researchers were from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. They were especially interested in learning whether their subjects would continue shifting resources as the demands of listening became more complex, said the lead author, Dr. W. David Hairston of Wake Forest...The volunteers were placed in an M.R.I. scanner and asked to listen to different notes over headphones while keeping their eyes open. As the notes were played closer and closer together, they were asked to say which they heard first...In both groups, activity in the parts of the brain involved with seeing decreased, but as the task became more difficult, only the nonmusicians turned off more of their visual processing...Part of the explanation may lie in the need for conductors to make extensive use of both their eyes and ears, to read the score and “to keep track of who’s playing what,” Dr. Hairston said.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

This is Your Brain on Politics

Marco Iacoboni, whose work I have mentioned before, has together with several collaborators performed brain imaging experiments on 20 swing voters who indicate willingness to vote for a candidate from either party in the Nov. 2008 presidential elections. They summarize their findings in an Op-Ed piece in the Nov. 11 New York Times. There is a slide show you might like to watch. While insiders in the imaging business go apoplectic over simplistic interpretations of averaged data taken from a small number of subjects using ambiguous protocols with dubious controls, some correlations do emerge that "make sense." (See these comments on the article as 'junk science'.) For example: anterior cingulate (conflict resolution) associates with Hillary Clinton; or amygdala (anxiety) and insula (disgust) correlates with viewing the words "Democrat" or "Republican" but not "independent". One bit I found interesting: "Barack Obama and John McCain have work to do. The scans taken while subjects viewed the first set of photos and the videos of Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama indicated a notable lack of any powerful reactions, positive or negative."

Slide 2
Photos of Hillary Clinton elicited increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that processes conflicting impulses, in swing voters who reported having an unfavorable opinion of her.

Society for Neuroscience meeting: news from the front lines

You might like to check out the Society for Neuroscience website, which offers very accessible information for general public, press, and educators. The site contains links to these topics from the recent annual meeting:

* Antidepressant Drugs, Exercise, Young Age, Even Food Intake, Frequency, and Type, Affect Generation of New Brain Cells

* Research Sheds Light on Brain Differences in Adolescents, Understanding their Impulsive, Risk-Taking Behavior

* Training, Sensory Substitution, Thought-Reading Computers, Sleep, and Molecular Imaging Advance Stroke Research

* Thoughts, Not Arms and Hands, Can Operate Machines: New Devices May Soon Improve Lives or Physically Handicapped

* New Research Explores Dietary Effects on Amyloid in Search for Ways To Prevent, Treat Alzheimer's Disease

* New Studies Find Potential Biomarker for PTSD, Make Gains in Understanding Disorder and Why it is Difficult To Treat

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The brain in glorious color - "Brainbows"

Benedict Carey describes the work of Harvard researchers:

The scientists bred mice so their brain cells had genetic inserts containing genes for three colors of fluorescent protein, red, green and blue. They prompted each insert to randomly express one color, using a genetic trigger. Because there were multiple copies of the three-gene insert in each cell, the cell itself expressed a random mixture of the three colors, some 90 shades in all. What emerged was a kind of beaded rainbow belt of neurons, with the fluorescent glow radiating out through each cell’s neural branches. The researchers called the technique “Brainbow.”

Scientists can use this technique in animals, whose brain systems work in ways similar to those of humans, to see exactly where each cell begins and ends, both within the brain and out through the spine and the limbs — and what happens in between.

“I take a view that this is like the Hubble telescope,” said Dr. Jeff Lichtman, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard who is the paper’s senior author. “We’ve never been able to look at the brain this way before. Why not just start looking and see what we observe?”

Rationalizing our choices - an early evolutionary origin

When we humans make a choice, we protect our self esteem by rationalizing that it was the correct one, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. It turns out Capuchin monkeys do the same thing. In a kind of "why didn't someone think of trying this before?" experiment, a group of Yale psychologists offered the monkeys several different colors of M&M candies. Once a monkey was observed to show an equal preference for three colors of M&M’s — say, red, blue and green — he was given a choice between two of them. If he chose red over blue, his preference changed and he downgraded blue. When he was subsequently given a choice between blue and green, it was no longer an even contest — he was now much more likely to reject the blue. Thus the monkeys are dealing with cognitive dissonance ('should I choose the blue or the green?') by downgrading or eliminating one of the options. They performed a similar experiment with little children, obtaining similar results. The fact that children and primates show the same behavior as adults suggests that this rationalization behavior is largely unconscious, and may have appeared in evolution earlier than previously thought.

Monday, November 12, 2007

MindBlog's winter home...

Internet is now up and running at the Fort Lauderdale condo, in spite of Comcast.

Susceptibility and Resistance to Social Defeat: Molecular Correlates

The research highlights section of the Nov. 1 issue of Nature points to an interesting article from Nester's group on a strain of mice susceptible to social stress. A description excerpted from a review by Hymen:

...mice are exposed to 10 bouts of social defeat in which c57bl/6 test mice are forced to intrude into space occupied by mice of a larger and more aggressive strain, leading to subordination of the test mice. Following this repeated stress, a subset of mice develop significant avoidance of social contact with mice of the same strain and exhibit other signs that are reminiscent of symptoms of human depression, including weight loss and loss of hedonic (pleasure) responses to sucrose. A strength of the social defeat stress model is that, at least in this mouse strain, the stressor convincingly separates the mice into two groups, a group that the authors designate “Susceptible,” which develop social avoidance, and a group described as “Unsusceptible,” which continue to interact with other mice at the same rate as never stressed controls. The model has other strengths. Repeated social defeat would appear to be a good model for some adverse human experience. Moreover, the traits that emerge in susceptible mice reverse only with chronic antidepressant treatment, which mirrors the requirements for treatment of depression and anxiety disorders with these drugs in humans.

Figure 1. Neural Circuits Regulating Responses to Social Defeat

The mesolimbic dopamine pathway comprises a projection from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the midbrain to the nucleus accumbens (NAc) and to other forebrain structure, such as the amygdala and prefrontal cortex (PFC). These dopamine projections, which act as the neural substrates of the rewarding properties of food, mating behaviors, and addictive drugs, are now shown by Krishnan et al. (2007) to mediate the response of mice to social defeat. In mice susceptible to social defeat, expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) increases in the VTA. The NAc is the recipient of increased BDNF release and shows enhanced downstream signaling via the BDNF receptor.

Single cells in monkey brain trained to associate numbers with their symbols

An interesting study from Diester and Nieder showing single nerve cell activity that might be the primitive cognitive precursor that ultimately has given rise to symbolic thinking in linguistic humans. Their abstract:

The utilization of symbols such as words and numbers as mental tools endows humans with unrivalled cognitive flexibility. In the number domain, a fundamental first step for the acquisition of numerical symbols is the semantic association of signs with cardinalities. We explored the primitives of such a semantic mapping process by recording single-cell activity in the monkey prefrontal and parietal cortices, brain structures critically involved in numerical cognition. Monkeys were trained to associate visual shapes with varying numbers of items in a matching task. After this long-term learning process, we found that the responses of many prefrontal neurons to the visual shapes reflected the associated numerical value in a behaviorally relevant way. In contrast, such association neurons were rarely found in the parietal lobe. These findings suggest a cardinal role of the prefrontal cortex in establishing semantic associations between signs and abstract categories, a cognitive precursor that may ultimately give rise to symbolic thinking in linguistic humans.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War

Choi and Bowles offer an interesting game theoretic analysis that suggests why the combination of loyalty towards one's own group and hostility towards outsiders seems to be such a fixed constant of human societies. Here is their abstract:

Altruism—benefiting fellow group members at a cost to oneself—and parochialism—hostility toward individuals not of one's own ethnic, racial, or other group—are common human behaviors. The intersection of the two—which we term "parochial altruism"—is puzzling from an evolutionary perspective because altruistic or parochial behavior reduces one's payoffs by comparison to what one would gain by eschewing these behaviors. But parochial altruism could have evolved if parochialism promoted intergroup hostilities and the combination of altruism and parochialism contributed to success in these conflicts. Our game-theoretic analysis and agent-based simulations show that under conditions likely to have been experienced by late Pleistocene and early Holocene humans, neither parochialism nor altruism would have been viable singly, but by promoting group conflict, they could have evolved jointly.
A review by Arrow explains the simulation:
In Choi and Bowles' simulation, 20 small groups of agents interact over thousands of generations. Agents have two genes, each with two alleles. They are either tolerant (T) or parochial (P) and either altruistic (A) or not (N). Offspring inherit their parents'traits, with occasional random mutations. Altruists help fellow group members at a personal cost; non-altruists do not. Tolerant agents have lucrative exchanges with outsiders; parochial agents do not. A high proportion of parochials in groups restricts trading opportunities for all....The societies that evolve are stable in two conditions: when either selfish traders (TN) or generous warriors (PA) are the dominant type. A few PN bullies and even fewer TA philanthropists can coexist within trader or warrior regimes. The trading regime is peaceful. Standoffs and wars are more common in the warrior regime, but even infrequent war--10 to 20% of encounters--can maintain high levels of parochial altruism. Similar findings for the impact of intermittent war on the evolution of heroism (6) suggest that war need not be "constant" to act as a powerful selective force...The convergence of altruism and parochialism in Choi and Bowles' simulation is consistent with links between the two found in behavioral studies. Selfish choices in social dilemma experiments, for example, diminish markedly when the game is embedded in an intergroup context.

The Undiscovered Planet

Harvard Magazine has an outstanding article with nice graphics on the astounding diversity of microbial life.

In terms of gene content, humans and potatoes are more closely related than these two bacteria are to each other—one measure of bacterial diversity. On the left, Vibrio cholerae; on the right, Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

The anthropocentric five-kingdom system classified all unicellular organisms lacking nuclei (archaea and bacteria) as Monera. The nucleated eukaryotes comprising plants, animals, and fungi were thought to represent the bulk of biological diversity. All other nucleated eukaryotes were grouped in a grab-bag classification known as Protista.

The modern “tree of life,” based on genetic analysis, shows that the bulk of Earth’s biodiversity resides among the Archaea, Bacteria, and that portion of the Eukarya that does not include plants, animals, and fungi.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Decision, Decisions

A recent Science Magazine issue has a special section on the underlying processes of decision-making. Here is Peter Stern's introduction to the section:

Who hasn't agonized over a major decision in life, whether to accept a job offer, move house, or perhaps switch research fields? We are confronted with a multitude of decisions on a daily basis. Many decisions are trivial and can be dealt with in seconds. However, others may have wider ramifications and can be excruciatingly complicated. In the past few years, our understanding of the underlying processes of decision-making has progressed markedly. This neuroscience special issue highlights some of the most exciting developments in this area.

Koechlin and Hyafil review recent experimental studies that provide new insights into the function and connectivity of the anterior prefrontal cortex, which forms the apex of the executive system underlying decision-making. The authors propose an original model of the anterior prefrontal function and provide a theoretical framework for addressing major unresolved issues and guiding future research on decision-making and higher cognition.

Human beings are highly social animals. Many of our decisions make sense only within a social environment. Sanfey outlines the advantages that can be gained by combining tasks and formal mathematical models from game theory with modern neuroimaging methods to characterize the processes that underlie social decision-making. He also summarizes recent research that offers good examples of how this neuroeconomic approach has already begun to illuminate our knowledge of this process.

Sometimes things can also go wrong in this complicated and well-balanced interplay between several brain regions. Paulus proposes that decision-making in psychiatric populations cannot be viewed simply as an alteration of the preference structure or the way individuals experience the outcome of the decision. Instead, it must be understood from the homeostatic balance perspective of the individual. Increased risk-taking behavior in drug addicts, for example, although maladaptive in the generic sense, may actually be adaptive for the substance user in a complex, highly unpredictable environment while attempting to respond to internal urges and cravings.

Decision theory has boomed in the past decade. K├Ârding gives an overview of how decision theory, including normative/Bayesian approaches, can lead us to better understand the functions of the nervous system.

Mozart vs. James Bond

This is a hoot, if you are in for a moment of comic relief.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A Ramachandran lecture...

In this excellent and engaging talk, Vilayanur Ramachandran discusses how brain damage can reveal the connection between internal structures of the brain and corresponding functions of the mind. Focus is on phantom limb pain, synesthesia (when people hear color or smell sounds), and the Capgras delusion (when brain-damaged people believe their closest friends and family have been replaced with imposters.)

Thinking like a genius

Here is a stimulating stumble.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

MindBlog on the road

Congress Avenue, Austin Texas
I drove from Madison, WI to Austin, Texas this past weekend, to visit my son and his wife. They now live in the family house I where I grew up. Tomorrow I hit the road again to drive to Ft. Lauderdale, MindBlog's winter home. The timing turns out to have been perfect, it is 24 degrees fahrenheit with light snow flurries in Madison right now .

Blog postings might be a bit flakey this week.

Drug craving? - Just zap your insula!

An important factor that contributes to drug-seeking in addicted individuals is the negative feelings that result from abstinence. Such mood states are monitored by the interoceptive sensory system, and particularly by a brain area called the insular cortex, known to process emotional information. Thus this abstract from Contreras et al. is of interest:

Addiction profoundly alters motivational circuits so that drugs become powerful reinforcers of behavior. The interoceptive system continuously updates homeostatic and emotional information that are important elements in motivational decisions. We tested the idea that interoceptive information is essential in drug craving and in the behavioral signs of malaise. We inactivated the primary interoceptive cortex in amphetamine-experienced rats, which prevented the urge to seek amphetamine in a place preference task. Interoceptive insula inactivation also blunted the signs of malaise induced by acute lithium administration. Drug-seeking and malaise both induced Fos expression, a marker of neuronal activation, in the insula. We conclude that the insular cortex is a key structure in the perception of bodily needs that provides direction to motivated behaviors.
The therapeutic intervention was an injection of 2% lidocaine (a sodium channel blocker to inhibit nerve activity) into the left and right insula to cause a transient shutdown of insular nerve activity (injecting adjacent cortex was not effective). Although this is a sledgehammer approach with possible dire side effects, it suggests that therapeutic interventions in the insula may help to alleviate drug cravings, .

Music and Dancing

Daniel Levitin has offered this brief essay in the New York Times Op-Ed section.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Less SAD with more sun and serotonin

Welberg offers a summary and review of work by Willeit et al. on the role of serotonin, and a serotonin transporter, in seasonal affective disorder. Here is an portion of the review:

Short, dark winter days put most of us in a gloomy mood, but in people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), they can cause severe clinical depression. Fortunately, this depression can be treated with bright-light therapy (BLT), and it disappears altogether in summer. Willeit et al. now show that these changes in mood are associated with alterations in the efficiency of the serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine) transporter (5-HTT) in the patients' blood platelets.

One theory of depression posits that impaired functioning of monoamine neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, causes the disorder, but it is unknown how this impairment might arise. Serotonin levels in the synapse are controlled by the 5-HTT, and Willeit and colleagues therefore investigated whether alterations in 5-HTT functioning might underlie depression in SAD.

The authors compared people with SAD with healthy volunteers, and assessed 5-HTT functioning in winter, after 4 weeks of BLT and in summer. They did this by measuring 5-HTT-mediated inward and outward transport in blood platelets (which are easily obtainable). In winter, both inward transport rate and outward transport were enhanced in the platelets of SAD patients compared with healthy controls. Importantly, these differences in platelet 5-HTT functioning disappeared after 4 weeks of BLT and were absent in summer. The number of 5-HTTs and their affinity for serotonin did not change with BLT or with the seasons, indicating that the increased 5-HTT inward transport that was found in SAD patients was due to increased efficiency of the transporter.

The authors also assessed the patients' depression levels at the three time points, using a structured interview. They found that post-treatment, both inward transport rate and outward transport correlated with depression scores in SAD patients. Moreover, patients whose depression did not decrease after treatment did not show a change in 5-HTT-mediated outward transport after treatment.

Are we having fun?

This is an engaging bit of fluff, be happy! (if the Strauss waltz repeated in a loop doesn't drive you crazy.)

Friday, November 02, 2007

Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation

An interesting study from Tang et al. showing that even short term meditation training can influence attention and self-regulation. The integrative meditation method used:

...stresses no effort to control thoughts, but instead a state of restful alertness that allows a high degree of awareness of body, breathing, and external instructions from a compact disc. It stresses a balanced state of relaxation while focusing attention. Thought control is achieved gradually through posture and relaxation, body–mind harmony, and balance with the help of the coach rather than by making the trainee attempt an internal struggle to control thoughts in accordance with instruction.
Their abstract:
Recent studies suggest that months to years of intensive and systematic meditation training can improve attention. However, the lengthy training required has made it difficult to use random assignment of participants to conditions to confirm these findings. This article shows that a group randomly assigned to 5 days of meditation practice with the integrative body–mind training method shows significantly better attention and control of stress than a similarly chosen control group given relaxation training. The training method comes from traditional Chinese medicine and incorporates aspects of other meditation and mindfulness training. Compared with the control group, the experimental group of 40 undergraduate Chinese students given 5 days of 20-min integrative training showed greater improvement in conflict scores on the Attention Network Test, lower anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue, and higher vigor on the Profile of Mood States scale, a significant decrease in stress-related cortisol, and an increase in immunoreactivity. These results provide a convenient method for studying the influence of meditation training by using experimental and control methods similar to those used to test drugs or other interventions.

Another window into the minds of chimps and humans

Rilling et al. compare resting-state brain activity in humans and chimpanzees:

In humans, the wakeful resting condition is characterized by a default mode of brain function involving high levels of activity within a functionally connected network of brain regions. This network has recently been implicated in mental self-projection into the past, the future, or another individual's perspective. Here we use [18F]-fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography imaging to assess resting-state brain activity in our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, as a potential window onto their mental world and compare these results with those of a human sample. We find that, like humans, chimpanzees show high levels of activity within default mode areas, including medial prefrontal and medial parietal cortex. Chimpanzees differ from our human sample in showing higher levels of activity in ventromedial prefrontal cortex and lower levels of activity in left-sided cortical areas involved in language and conceptual processing in humans. Our results raise the possibility that the resting state of chimpanzees involves emotionally laden episodic memory retrieval and some level of mental self-projection, albeit in the absence of language and conceptual processing.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Our Brains on Music, and Musicophilia

Steven Pinker has called music useless, with no adaptive value. Oliver Sacks and Daniel Levitin beg to differ. I'm currently reading and enjoying Oliver Sacks' new book: Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. I'm linking you to a review of this book by Laura Garwin in the current issue of Nature that notes that our brains seem to be finely tuned to music, and asks of what use are our musical powers and passions? She also reviews Levitin's "This is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession." I also thoroughly enjoyed reading this book this past spring, it has a very accessible introduction of the fundamentals of music structure and brain mechanisms associated with music processing.

The hash realities

Murray et al. offer an interesting history and analysis of Cannabis use, with several interesting graphics (PDF here):

Cannabis has been known for at least 4,000 years to have profound effects on the mind — effects that have provoked dramatically divergent attitudes towards it. Some societies have regarded cannabis as a sacred boon for mankind that offers respite from the tribulations of everyday life, whereas others have demonized it as inevitably leading to 'reefer madness'. The debate between the protagonists and prohibitionists has recently been re-ignited, but unfortunately this debate continues mainly in ignorance of our new understanding of the effects of cannabis on the brain and of studies that have quantified the extent of the risks of long-term use.