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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?

Joshua Walters: On being just crazy enough

A spectrum approach in mental illness is very appealing and could possibly explain why some disorders are still in the gene pool. Of course, it’s all speculative at this point but very interesting. I will try to write a bit more about this in a future blog post. For now, here is a relevant TED talk by Joshua Walters, a comedian diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Maybe no one’s really crazy. Everyone is just a little bit mad. How much depends on where you fall in the spectrum. How much depends on how lucky you are.” (Joshua Walters)

 

 

The Psychology of Christmas

19/12/2011 4 comments

It’s that time of the year again. Christmas carols, mince pies, endless queues at the local post office, Starbucks red cups, Doctor Who..  Thankfully, psychologists are curious creatures that study almost every aspect of human behaviour including… Christmas. So here are a few Christmas related studies/links:

1) Most people like decorating their house for Christmas. Some of them go too far, as you can see in this video. One possible reason for this behaviour could be the desire to communicate friendliness and cohesiveness with neighbours. Werner et al. examined whether strangers can accurately identify the more friendly residents, and what aspects of the homes’ exteriors contribute to their impressions. They also examine the possibility that residents who decorate for Christmas but who have few friends on the block may be using the decorations and other cues as a way of communicating their accessibility to neighbours.

Participants rated residents based only on photographs of their home and front yard. Stimulus homes had been preselected to represent the four cells of a two by two factorial design crossing the presence/absence of Christmas decorations with the resident’s self-rated social contact with neighbors (low/high). As expected, a main effect for the decorated factor indicated that raters used Christmas decorations as a cue that the residents were friendly and cohesive. Decoration interacted with sociability in a complex but interpretable way. In the absence of Christmas decorations, raters accurately distinguished between the homes of sociable and nonsociable residents; in open ended comments, they attributed their impressions to the relatively more ‘open’ and ‘lived in’ look of the sociable residents’ homes. When Christmas decorations were present, raters actually attributed greater sociability to the nonsociable residents, citing a more open appearance as the basis for their judgments. The results support the idea that residents can use their home’s exterior to communicate attachment and possibly to integrate themselves into a neighborhood’s social activities.

I have a feeling that extreme Christmas decorations probably fail to achieve this purpose and result in (further) alienation.

2)  What makes for a Merry Christmas? Not consumerism according to a study by Kasser et al. More specifically:

More happiness was reported when family and religious experiences were especially salient, and lower well-being occurred when spending money and receiving gifts predominated. Engaging in environmentally conscious consumption practices also predicted a happier holiday, as did being older and male. In sum, the materialistic aspects of modern Christmas celebrations may undermine well-being, while family and spiritual activities may help people to feel more satisfied.

You can read the full study here.

3) Christmassy stuff make you feel better if you’re a Christian or if you celebrate Christmas. Schmitt et al. examined the differential psychological consequences of being in the presence of a Christmas display on participants who did or did not celebrate Christmas, or who identified as Christian, Buddhist, or Sikh. Participants completed measures of psychological well-being while they were in a cubicle that was either decorated or not with a Christmas display. The Christmas decorations harmed non-celebrators and non-Christians well-being scores. The opposite effect was found on Christians. I’m wondering what’s the effect on atheists that were raised in Christian families/societies..

4) If you still believe in Santa Claus you might have to skip this one. Still here? You’re probably over 8. According to a (locked) study by Blair et al. this is the mean age at which disbelief in Santa Claus occurs  for both boys and girls. Another study (Anderson et al., 1994) examined the children’s reactions on discovering the Santa Claus myth.

Children reported predominantly positive reactions on learning the truth. Parents, however, described themselves as predominantly sad in reaction to their child’s discovery.

5) And finally, Christmas phobias, or the 12 neuroses of Christmas. Not very scientific but funny (unless you’re suffering from Ho-Ho-Phobia).

 

PS: I’m a bit surprised by the lack of neuroimaging studies on Christmas! I was hoping for something catchy and pointless like “Your brain on Santa Claus” or “The neuroscience of Christmas Carols”.

ResearchBlogging.orgWERNER, C., PETERSONLEWIS, S., & BROWN, B. (1989). Inferences about homeowners’ sociability: Impact of christmas decorations and other cues Journal of Environmental Psychology, 9 (4), 279-296 DOI: 10.1016/S0272-4944(89)80010-6

Kasser, T., & Sheldon, K. (2002). What Makes for a Merry Christmas? Journal of Happiness Studies, 3 (4), 313-329 DOI: 10.1023/A:1021516410457

BLAIR, J., MC KEE, J., & JERNIGAN, L. (1980). CHILDREN’S BELIEF IN SANTA CLAUS, EASTER BUNNY AND TOOTH FAIRY Psychological Reports, 46 (3), 691-694 DOI: 10.2466/pr0.1980.46.3.691

Schmitt, M., Davies, K., Hung, M., & Wright, S. (2010). Identity moderates the effects of Christmas displays on mood, self-esteem, and inclusion Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (6), 1017-1022 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.05.026

Anderson, C., & Prentice, N. (1994). Encounter with reality: Children’s reactions on discovering the Santa Claus myth Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 25 (2), 67-84 DOI: 10.1007/BF02253287

The “Singing” Mouse?

22/12/2010 1 comment

A tweeting mouse?

A Japanese group led by Arikuni Uchimura managed to create a genetically-engineered mouse that tweets like a bird! The “singing” mouse is part of the team’s “Evolved Mouse Project”, in which they use genetically modified mice that are prone to mutations.

The “singing” mouse was born by chance but this particular trait will be passed on to future generations. Uchimura who dreams of creating a real life version of Mickey Mouse (!) hopes that this creation could provide clues on how human language evolved…

You can hear the talented animal here. Sounds a bit like squeaking to be honest…

Moreover, a case of a “singing” mouse was reported much earlier – in 1936. You can read the Times article here. More recently, another group had identified patterns of singing in male mice. You can read the article here.

Walking With Music: Useful Tool for Gait Training in Parkinson’s Disease

20/11/2010 9 comments

Scientists from Canada showed that listening to music during gait training could help patients with Parkinson’s Disease.

Gait disturbances is one of the main characteristics of Parkinson’s Disease (PD). It has been associated with increased risk of falling, diminished mobility, and reduced quality of life. In addition to that, patients with PD have difficulties when it comes to dual tasking; walking and performing a secondary task like talking. This is known as dual task interference and is thought to be associated with the incidents of falling amongst people with PD.

One rehabilitation strategy of PD that seems to be effective includes the use of rhythmic auditory during gait training sessions. de Bruin and colleagues attempted to investigate whether a similar effect would be observed if the cue was a musical piece or “walking song”. They did this by implementing a 13-week home based music and walking program on 11 volunteers with PD. The music used were commercially available songs, unaltered, familiar and enjoyable to individual patients. The tempo of the selected song was matched to each patient’s walking cadence. The control group attended a gait training programme that wasn’t acco

The group of PD patients that underwent a 13 week music programme showed improved gait performance compared to the control group. In particular, marginal improvements were reported in gait velocity, cadence, and stride time. The same patterns of improvements were observed in the dual task condition. Moreover, listening to music during training did not lead to increased falls. This suggests that this practice is safe.

The mechanism that led to these improvements is not fully understood. One possible explanation proposed that music may have enhanced gait performance through increasing the patients’ affective arousal. This is possible as the arousal potential of the music was intentionally high in this study; the pieces were selected based on familiarity and enjoyment. Another explanation suggests that training and listening to music could be seen as a dual tasking condition. Listening to music can be seen as a cognitive demanding task and practising two tasks at the same time (walking and listening to music) allows the improvement of task-coordination skills.

The results of this study indicate that the use of cadence-matched, salient music to accompany walking is a feasible and enjoyable intervention for use amongst patients with mild to moderate PD.

ResearchBlogging.orgde Bruin N, Doan JB, Turnbull G, Suchowersky O, Bonfield S, Hu B, & Brown LA (2010). Walking with music is a safe and viable tool for gait training in Parkinson’s disease: the effect of a 13-week feasibility study on single and dual task walking. Parkinson’s disease, 2010 PMID: 20976086

Decoding Mental States

Internet is a wonderful place.. During a google search, I came across these very interesting videos on information-based analysis and decoding mental states and processes:




Decoding mental states from human brain activity

John-Dylan Haynes




Overview of decoding of mental states and processes

Tom Mitchell




Exploring human object-vision with hi-res fMRI and information-based analysis

Nikolaus Kriegeskorte

Rebecca Saxe: “How we read each other’s minds”

07/02/2010 1 comment

Rebecca Saxe is a neuroscientist at MIT. If you want to know more about her work, visit the page of her lab. There’s also a list of her publications in pdf format.

Sensing the motives and feelings of others is a natural talent for humans. But how do we do it? Here, Rebecca Saxe shares fascinating lab work that uncovers how the brain thinks about other peoples’ thoughts — and judges their actions.
(from TED)

Why Do Pigeons Walk With Bobbing Heads?

Have you noticed how pigeons (and other birds) bob their heads while walking? Ever wondered why?

No, there’s no connection between their heads and their legs forcing them to move their head as they walk. It doesn’t have to do with balance either, as it was shown in Frost’s 1978 study. In this experiment pigeons were trained to walk on a treadmill (I can’t imagine how they did that..). The researchers showed that head-bobbing is abolished when pigeons walk on a treadmill. This “suggests (that) it is primarily a visual response rather than an equilibratory response”.

Here are some links, if you’re interested in learning more about head-bobbing in pigeons (and other birds):
the original study by Frost (pdf)
Head-bobbing of walking birds (a review)
Vision during head bobbing (pdf – recent study by Ortega et al)

…and finally: head-bobbing of a walking hen. What happens when it’s being carried? Is it relevant to Frost’s study? What do you think?
.

Goodbye Rain Man

25/12/2009 1 comment

Kim Peek , the man who inspired Dustin Hoffman’s well known character in the film Rain Man , died a few days (19/12) ago of heart attack at the age of 58.
Peek was not able to live on his own and depended on his father for most everyday activities. However, he was known for his extraordinary memory, mathematical and reading skills. Even though, Peek was though to be autistic, scans performed in 2008 revealed that the most likely diagnosis was FG syndrome .

Here are a few links about the famous savant:

- videos of Kim Peek .
- Scientific American’s article: Inside the Mind of a Savant
- Kim Peek – The Real Rain Man (Wisconsin Medical Society entry)
- Kim Peek has left the buliding (Mind Hacks)

Project H.M. & Clive Wearing’s Diaries

26/11/2009 2 comments

Project H.M.

H.M. is considered to be one of the most famous cases in neuropsychology. His dense amnesia contributed significantly to our understanding of human memory. On December 2nd, exactly a year after his death, anyone interested will have the chance to watch the dissection of his brain. I’m really looking forward to this (that sounds a bit weird).

According to the Project H.M. official blog:

“On December 2nd, 2009 we will begin slicing the brain of the amnesic patient H.M. into giant histological sections. The brain specimen is going to be frozen and sectioned whole during one continuous session that we expect will last approximately 30 hours”

If you’re interested in finding more about the project and the next phase, visit the Project H.M. website

Clive Wearin’s Diaries @ Wellcome Trust Exhibition

A few months ago I wrote a post on Clive Wearing, another case of amnesia. If you’re lucky enough to live in London, you’d be interested to know that the Wellcome Trust’s new collection, titled “Identity: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives” hosts Wearing’s famous diaries in the Samuel Pepy’s room. The exhibition will be on from today until April and it’s a part of The Identity Project (Pressure Drop could also be interesting). Oh, and it’s free.  For more information visit the exhibition’s website. They have a special section on Clive Wearing including a number of interesting videos.

 

image: Salvador Dali’s – the disintegration of the persistence of memory

 

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