Archive for the ‘neuroscience’ Category

Do older adults benefit from videogames?

Brain training games claim to boost your mental skills. But while practicing a game might make you better at it, research in young people has shown it doesn’t improve how well you perform other cognitive tasks in everyday life. Now a new study suggests the case may be different for adults above the age of 60. Researchers at the University of California have designed a driving game called NeuroRacer. In this Nature Video, we see how the game can improve an older player’s short-term memory and attention, skills which decline with age.

Read the original research paper here: (from Nature)

LOL cats and Neuroscience?

31/01/2013 1 comment

I never expected to see this. Using LOL cats to describe a new study? The result is surprisingly good. Maybe I’m slightly biased because I love cats.

Here’s the abstract of the newly published (31/01) Nature paper in case you want to learn more:

Stroking of the skin produces pleasant sensations that can occur during social interactions with conspecifics, such as grooming1. Despite numerous physiological studies (reviewed in ref. 2), molecularly defined sensory neurons that detect pleasant stroking of hairy skin3, 4 in vivo have not been reported. Previously, we identified a rare population of unmyelinated sensory neurons in mice that express the G-protein-coupled receptor MRGPRB4 (refs 5, 6). These neurons exclusively innervate hairy skin with large terminal arborizations7 that resemble the receptive fields of C-tactile (CT) afferents in humans8. Unlike other molecularly defined mechanosensory C-fibre subtypes9, 10, MRGPRB4+ neurons could not be detectably activated by sensory stimulation of the skin ex vivo. Therefore, we developed a preparation for calcium imaging in the spinal projections of these neurons during stimulation of the periphery in intact mice. Here we show that MRGPRB4+ neurons are activated by massage-like stroking of hairy skin, but not by noxious punctate mechanical stimulation. By contrast, a different population of C fibres expressing MRGPRD11 was activated by pinching but not by stroking, consistent with previous physiological and behavioural data10, 12. Pharmacogenetic activation of Mrgprb4-expressing neurons in freely behaving mice promoted conditioned place preference13, indicating that such activation is positively reinforcing and/or anxiolytic. These data open the way to understanding the function of MRGPRB4 neurons during natural behaviours, and provide a general approach to the functional characterization of genetically identified subsets of somatosensory neurons in vivo.

You can read the paper here (paywall alert).

PS: LOL cats seem to be popular in academia lately. Remember the LOLcat dissertation?

Interesting TED Talks: Faith Jegede: “What I’ve learned from my autistic brothers”

10/11/2012 1 comment

Faith Jegede tells the moving and funny story of growing up with her two brothers, both autistic — and both extraordinary. In this talk from the TED Talent Search, she reminds us to pursue a life beyond what is normal.

Writer Faith Jegede draws on her experiences growing up with two autistic brothers in order to spread awareness and understanding about this increasingly common diagnosis (from TED)



I was pleasantly surprised by this. Some very interesting points about “normality” that are often forgotten by scientists/clinicians/researchers/etc.

Eye Movements and Lie Detection – Another Myth?

19/07/2012 1 comment

This is not a proper post. It is more like a long tweet. Having done a similar study last year and finding no significant results I felt I had to share this with you.

You have probably heard that right-handed people look up to their right when they are telling a lie, while they look up to their left when they are telling the truth. Surprisingly, even though many people believe this is to be scientifically established, a quick google search comes up with no relevant peer-reviewed papers. Richard Wiseman and colleagues investigated this notion with three different studies. All three studies provided no evidence to support the notion. So it seems that the patterns of eye-movements do not aid lie detection.

Why did this myth survive for such a long time? Probably thanks to psychologists’ reluctance to publish negative results…

Here is the abstract:

Proponents of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) claim that certain eye-movements are reliable indicators of lying. According to this notion, a person looking up to their right suggests a lie whereas looking up to their left is indicative of truth telling. Despite widespread belief in this claim, no previous research has examined its validity. In Study 1 the eye movements of participants who were lying or telling the truth were coded, but did not match the NLP patterning. In Study 2 one group of participants were told about the NLP eye-movement hypothesis whilst a second control group were not. Both groups then undertook a lie detection test. No significant differences emerged between the two groups. Study 3 involved coding the eye movements of both liars and truth tellers taking part in high profile press conferences. Once again, no significant differences were discovered. Taken together the results of the three studies fail to support the claims of NLP. The theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed.

The rest of the article can be found on PLoS ONE.

Brain Disease and Creativity

31/05/2012 2 comments

Readers of this blog probably know I’m very interested in creativity. Recently, I came across a very interesting  review paper on artistry in brain disease by Schott.  Even though, many studies focus on the loss of various abilities as result of brain injury or disease, this review is focused on cases where brain disease resulted in enhanced artistic creativity in people with an interest in art or emergence of artistic creativity in art naive patients. Pictures created spontaneously by patient with brain disease sometimes present an excellent opportunity for studying that disease and revealing underlying mechanisms of cerebral dysfunction. It can also provide some useful information about creative processes in the healthy brain.

Dementia and stroke are very common. However, cases of patients who exhibit enhanced artistic output in these and other neurological disorders are rare or very rare. Miller et al. (2000) showed that enhanced artistry is probably more common but it is often under-reported, since new or preserved visual or musical ability was found in 17% of 69 patients with frontotemporal dementia.
In fact, frontotemporal dementia seems to be the brain disease more closely associated with increased creativity. Miller et al. (1996) were the first to report a patient with frontotemporal dementia that had developed new artistic creativity in the face of advancing dementia. A number of papers (Tanabe et al., 1996; Snowden et al., 1996), as well as Miller at al.’s seminal letter in the Lancet published in the same year brought more attention to the subject of preserved or increased artistic creativity in the presence of brain disease. Miller et al. (1996) described a 68-year-old male with a 12-year history of frontotemporal dementia,who, at the age of 56 years, started to paint having had no previous interest in art.

Patients with Alzheimer’s disease have also been reported to exhibit enhance artistic creativity. Professional painter, Danae Chambers, whose dementia started at around the age of 49 years (Fornazzari, 2005) is a striking example. Even though she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and her MRI scan revealed mild to moderate brain atrophy, there was no effect on her talent and creativity. However, it should be noted that typically during the progression of the disease stylistic changes leading to frank deterioration and eventual cessation of painting have been reported, especially in professional artists (see Crutch and Rossor, 2006).

In the case of autism there have been several cases of even very young autistics who could produce impressive works of art. A famous example is Stephen Wiltshire, who was able to draw astonishingly faithful architectural representations at the age of 7 years (Sacks, 1995).

According to Schott unexpected artistic creativity experienced by many patients has many features that suggest compulsive behaviour. Moreover, emergence of artistry after brain disease reflects innate rather than learned skills.

The brain correlates of emergent artistic creativity are rather obscure. It appears that dysfunction of the anterior temporal lobes is important if not crucial for the production of unexpectedly enhanced artistry, but the findings are often inconsistent. In some cases frontal lobe involvement is present too (Seeley et al., 2008).  Thus creative drive is thought to increase not only with abnormalities of temporal lobe function and ‘release’ of frontal lobe-mediated creativity, but also by involvement of the dopaminergic mesolimbic system (Flaherty, 2005)

One might wonder; is this emergence of artistic talent observed in patients with various brain diseases really creativity?

De Souza et al. (2010) then concluded: ‘The emergence of artistic talent in patients with fvFTLD is explained by the release of involuntary behaviors, rather than by the development of creative thinking’, and also recommended avoiding consideration of ‘pseudo-creative production, or the emergence of “artistic talent”, as a mastered mental production’.

The author, however, disagrees and concludes:

…the notion of pseudo-creation and identification of ‘artistic talent’ create more difficulties than enlightenment; rather, they emphatically confirm the importance of patients’ pictures. The evidence for creativity surely lies in the creation itself rather than in perfusion patterns or psychological tests.

ResearchBlogging.orgSchott, G. (2012). Pictures as a neurological tool: lessons from enhanced and emergent artistry in brain disease Brain, 135 (6), 1947-1963 DOI: 10.1093/brain/awr314

Female-To-Male Transsexual People and Autistic Traits

27/05/2012 1 comment

The ‘extreme male brain’ theory suggests females with Autism Spectrum Conditions are hyper-masculinized in certain aspects of behaviour.  Jones and colleagues (2007) predicted that females with Gender Identity Disorder would have elevated  Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) scores.

AQ scores from five groups were compared: the first group consisted of 61 transmen (female-to-male transsexual people, the second of 198 transwomen (male-to-female transsexual people), the third one of 76 typical males, the fourth of 98 typical females, and the fifth of 125 individuals with Asperger Syndrome (AS).

Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) are characterized by difficulties in social interaction and communication, alongside restricted interests and repetitive behavior (APA 1994). The diagnosis of ASC is more common in males. The Extreme Male Brain (EMB) theory of autism proposed by Baron-Cohen and Hammer in 1997 attempted to explain this . According to the EMB individuals with an ASC display an extreme of the typical male pattern of cognition and behaviour.

Studies on females with ASC have found that they are hyper-masculinized in specific aspects of behaviour and cognition. Also, women with ASC report higher rates of tomboyism in childhood (Ingudomnukul et al., 2007).  Also, female-to-male (FM) transsexuals (referred to as ‘transmen’) follow a handedness pattern more similar to genetic males (less exclusively right-handed) (Green & Young, 2001) and the same has been found among women with ASC (Soper et al., 1986).

Jones et al. used the AQ to test the specific prediction from the EMB theory that transmen will have more autistic traits than typical women, and that a higher proportion will score in the ASC range for autistic traits. Their scores were compared to maleto-female transsexual people (‘transwomen’).

The AQ is a self-report questionnaire published by Baron-Cohen and colleagues in 2001 and consists of 50 item. It assesses social skills, communication skills, imagination abilities, attention switching, and attention to details.

Scores on the AQ can be used to categorise individuals as having the ‘broader autism phenotype’ (BAP: defined as AQ 23-28), ‘medium autism phenotype’ (MAP: defined as AQ 29-34) or ‘narrow autism phenotype’ (NAP: defined  as AQ 35+) (Wheelwright et al. 2010).  The transmen had significantly more autistic traits than control men and their mean AQ score lied in the BAP range. Approximately 30% of the transmen group had an AQ in the MAP or NAP range. Transmen had a 11-fold increase in the rate of NAP relative to typical males.

This study confirms clinical case studies and reports in adolescents and children that genetic females with Gender Identity Disorder (GID) have an increased number of autistic traits. The results of this study show that transmen relative to control women exhibit more autistic traits.  In addition to that, transmen had more autistic traits than control men, and their mean AQ score lies in the Broader Autism Phenotype (BAP) range.

The authors speculated:

that this increased number of autistic traits is likely to have made the transmen (in their childhood and adolescence) less able to assimilate in a female peer group, instead gravitating towards males. This may also have led to difficulties socializing in a female peer group, and a feeling of belonging more in a male group, thus increasing the probability of GID.

Very interesting findings but what I’ve been thinking while reading the paper was the possible effects of hormone treatment on the AQ scores. Jones et al. had an answer to that:

…a proportion of the transsexual groups were taking hormone treatments and for obvious ethical reasons it was not possible to control for this factor but it is of interest that analysis comparing those on or off testosterone treatment did not lead to significantly different AQ scores.

They go on suggesting that current sex steroid levels do not seem to affect AQ, which seem to depend mostly on foetal levels of sex steroids.

ResearchBlogging.orgJones RM, Wheelwright S, Farrell K, Martin E, Green R, Di Ceglie D, & Baron-Cohen S (2011). Brief report: female-to-male transsexual people and autistic traits. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 42 (2), 301-6 PMID: 21448752

Eye Movements as an Objective Measurement of Mind Wandering

26/03/2012 3 comments

We spent a lot of time mind wandering. Cognitive neuroscience has recently started investigating this phenomenon. However, the subjective nature of mind wandering makes capturing and measuring it exceptionally difficult. As a result, there is still no way to objectively measure mind wandering. In the majority of published studies researchers ask participants at random intervals how focused they are on a given task. Uzzaman and Joordens in a recently published paper explored the use of eye movements as an objective measure of mind wandering while participants performed a reading task.

Eye movements are thought to reflect (to some degree) cognitive processes (for a brief overview of eye movement research, see the Scholarpedia entry). Uzzaman et al. study was based on an earlier paper by Reichle, Reineberg, and Schooler (2010) who suggested that eye movements may provide an objective measure of mind wandering. Reichle et al. investigated this hypothesis by comparing the fixation-duration during mind wandering and normal reading episodes. The results were very encouraging and suggested that the participants’ eye movements became progressively decoupled from the ongoing task (i.e., text processing) during mind wandering episodes.

Uzzaman et al. used a reading task coupled with a self-classified probe-caught mind wandering paradigm to obtain a subjective account of mind wandering episodes. They recruited 30 participants who were explicitly informed of the definition of mind wandering episodes prior to the start of the experiment and were instructed that they would be asked to report their mind state at random intervals. The authors defined explicitly mind wandering “as reading without text comprehension, or thinking about anything other than the text on hand”. They also provided several examples to make sure the participants fully understood the concept.

The participants read sixteen pages of “War and Peace” by Tolstoy on a computer screen while their eye movements were tracked and recorded. Randomly every 2–3 min, a probe would appear on top of the text asking what was the mind state of the participants at this specific point. Participants would have to answer to continue the experiment. On average participants received 10 probes in total, in which mind wandering was reported on 49% of them.

The eye movement behaviours of the participants were categorised into mind wandering or reading conditions, based on their self-reports. This analysis was conducted for the 5 s time interval preceding the probe for reading and wandering conditions within each participant. Nine pairs of eye movement variables were analysed (e.g., count of blinks, fixations, saccades, fixation duration, within-word regression count), which displayed different degrees of sensitivity to mind wandering.

Statistical differences were found in two of the eye movement variables, run count and  within-word regression count. Run count was defined as the “the total number of runs, where a run is two consecutive fixations within the same interest-area” and  within-word regression count as “the sum of all fixation durations from when the word was first fixated upon, till the last fixation”.  

Specifically, there were fewer within-word regressions for periods before mind wandering episodes compared to periods before reading reports (z = −2.305, p = 0.021). Also, the total run count was also lower during mind wandering episodes (z = −1.997, p = 0.046). In addition, fixation count, saccade count and total number of saccades within the interest-area were lower during mind wandering reports, although these variables fell slightly short of the conventional significance criterion (all z < −1.755,p > 0.079).

During comprehensive reading all the words were being cognitively processed deeply and effort was put forth. On the contrary, a different pattern was observed during mind wandering episodes, as it was suggested by the lower number and duration of within-word regressions that shows that the  text was not being processed deeply, and as a result limited lexical information was being extracted. As a result, reading became less effortful and more automatic.

The current study revealed a correlation between subjective reports of mind wandering, and objective ocular behaviour. These findings could be further exploited in future studies and lead to the development of algorithms that would mathematically predict the likelihood of mind wandering based on eye movements. Such a development might provide valuable insights into the neural correlates of mind wandering.
ResearchBlogging.orgUzzaman, S., & Joordens, S. (2011). The eyes know what you are thinking: Eye movements as an objective measure of mind wandering Consciousness and Cognition, 20 (4), 1882-1886 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2011.09.010

Reichle ED, Reineberg AE, & Schooler JW (2010). Eye movements during mindless reading. Psychological science, 21 (9), 1300-10 PMID: 20679524

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