Radioactive Mountain Tops

Several Japanese are crying out about what is going on in Japan. Hirose Takashi is telling us that, “The nuclear power plants in Japan are aging rapidly; like cyborgs, they are barely kept in operation by a continuous replacement of parts. And now that Japan has entered a period of earthquake activity and a major accident could happen at any time, the people live in constant state of anxiety.”

Toshiso Kosako, a University of Tokyo professor, that has been employed since mid-March as a nuclear advisor to the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan in Japan, quit with disgust at what the government and nuclear industry is doing to the children. In his April 29 resignation, Kosako blinked back tears and accused the Japanese leadership of ignoring his advice on how  Continue reading

Genetic Link Between Psychosis and Creativity Revealed

BUDAPEST –  A new study seems to have established a link between psychosis and creativity.

Szabolcs Keri, a psychiatrist at Semmelweis University in Hungary, focused his research on neuregulin 1, a gene that normally plays a role in a variety of brain processes, including development and strengthening communication between neurons.

Writing about the study in the journal Psychological Science, he has revealed that a variant of this gene is associated with a greater risk of developing mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

For the study, Keri and his colleagues recruited volunteers who considered themselves to be very creative and accomplished.

The participants underwent a battery of tests, including assessments for intelligence and creativity.

To measure the volunteers’ creativity, the researchers asked them to respond to a series of unusual questions, and scored them based on the originality and flexibility of their answers.

The subjects also completed a questionnaire regarding their lifetime creative achievements before the researchers took blood samples.

According to the researchers, their findings showed a clear link between neuregulin 1 and creativity, for volunteers with the specific variant of this gene were more likely to have higher scores on the creativity assessment, and also greater lifetime creative achievements, than volunteers with a different form of the gene.

Keri claims that his study has for the first time shown that a genetic variant associated with psychosis may have some beneficial functions.

He says: “Molecular factors that are loosely associated with severe mental disorders but are present in many healthy people may have an advantage enabling us to think more creatively.”

His findings also suggest that certain genetic variations, even though associated with adverse health problems, may survive evolutionary selection and remain in a population’s gene pool if they also have beneficial effects.

Mind Really Does Matter When It Comes to Health and Healing

BALTIMORE – A new research has suggested that Hippocrates’ opinion on health and illness, that mind is significant in health and healing, is actually true.

Nurse researchers and clinicians at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing and the Johns Hopkins Hospital are looking at ways to prevent the damage excessive stress does to a young child’s development.

They are also looking at how the mind can help speed or slow healing and help control pain.

JHUSON researcher and professor Deborah Gross, DNSc, RN, FAAN has found that some behavioral disorders in young people are preventable, particularly if resilience is taught and risk factors for stress are reduced.

She claims that a key protective factor that can help reduce stress is parenting.

She said: “Parents are a child’s entire world. If parents are preoccupied, or emotionally or physically absent, their child loses out.”

Apparently, when parents don’t engage their child early and often, brain development related to language and learning may be slowed.

Gross intends to buttress child resilience by improving parents’ communications, engagement and involvement.

She said: “Does this kind of prevention program in parenting work for these children? You bet it does. Particularly in these difficult economic times when more families are at risk, we need to safeguard the development of the skills and abilities of infants and young children. After all, those capacities are the foundation for the rest of their lives.”

Some of the factors that lead to stress in youngsters are poverty, unemployment, community violence and family discord.

Scientists Crack Brain’s Numerical Code

PARIS – Researchers have found that they can tell what number a person has just seen by observing and analyzing the pattern of brain activity.

These findings confirm the notion that numbers are encoded in the brain via detailed and specific activity patterns and open the door to more sophisticated exploration of a human’s high-level numerical abilities.

Although “number-tuned” neurons have been found in monkeys, scientists hadn’t managed before now to get any farther than particular brain regions in humans.

“It was not at all guaranteed that with functional imaging it would be possible to pick this up,” said Evelyn Eger of INSERM (Institut national de la sant et de la recherche mdicale) in France.

Researchers presented 10 study participants with either number symbols or dots while their brains were scanned with a MRI. They then devised a way of decoding the numbers or the number of dots people had observed.

Although the brain patterns corresponding to number symbols differed somewhat from those for the same number of objects, the numerosity of dot sets can be predicted above chance from the brain activation patterns evoked by digits, the researchers show. That doesn’t work the other way around, however.

At least for small numbers of dots, the researchers did find that the patterns change gradually in a way that reflects the ordered nature of the numbers — allowing one to conclude that six is between five and seven, for instance.

The methods used in the new study may ultimately help to unlock how the brain makes more sophisticated calculations, the researchers say, according to an INSERM release.

“With these codes, we are only beginning to access the most basic building blocks that symbolic math probably relies on,” Eger said.

These findings were published online in Current Biology.

Flickering Bright Colors Likely To Trigger Epileptic Fits

LONDON – Certain flickering colors, especially red and blue in tandem, seem more likely to cause fits among epileptics, says a new study headed by a researcher of Indian origin.

Joydeep Bhattacharya at the Goldsmiths-University of London (GU-L) headed a team of researchers to probe the brain rhythms of photo-sensitivity.

In 1997, more than 700 children in Japan reportedly suffered an epileptic attack while watching an episode of a popular cartoon.

This was later diagnosed as a case of photosensitive epilepsy (a kind of epilepsy caused by visual stimulus) triggered by a specific segment of the cartoon containing a colourful flickering stimulus.

In 2007, the animated video footage promoting the 2012 London Olympics faced similar complaint from some viewers.

The researchers probed brain rhythms of photo-sensitivity among adult controls, an unmedicated patient suffering from photo-sensitive epilepsy, two age-matched controls, and another medicated patient.

Their results show that when perturbed by potentially epileptic-triggering stimulus, healthy human brain manages to maintain a chaotic state with a high degree of disorder, but an epileptic brain represents a highly ordered state which makes it prone to hyper-excitation.

Their study also found how, for example, red-blue flickering stimulus causes larger excitation than red-green or blue-green stimulus, says a GU-L release.

How the Brain Encodes Memories at a Cellular Level

SANTA BARBARA – Scientists at UC Santa Barbara have made a major discovery in how the brain encodes memories. The finding, published in the December 24 issue of the journal Neuron, could eventually lead to the development of new drugs to aid memory.

The team of scientists is the first to uncover a central process in encoding memories that occurs at the level of the synapse, where neurons connect with each other.

“When we learn new things, when we store memories, there are a number of things that have to happen,” said senior author Kenneth S. Kosik, co-director and Harriman Chair in Neuroscience Research, at UCSB’s Neuroscience Research Institute. Kosik is a leading researcher in the area of Alzheimer’s disease.

“One of the most important processes is that the synapses — which cement those memories into place — have to be strengthened,” said Kosik. “In strengthening a synapse you build a connection, and certain synapses are encoding a memory. Those synapses have to be strengthened so that memory is in place and stays there. Strengthening synapses is a very important part of learning. What we have found appears to be one part of how that happens.”

Part of strengthening a synapse involves making new proteins. Those proteins build the synapse and make it stronger. Just like with exercise, when new proteins must build up muscle mass, synapses must also make more protein when recording memories. In this research, the regulation and control of that process was uncovered.

The production of new proteins can only occur when the RNA that will make the required proteins is turned on. Until then, the RNA is “locked up” by a silencing molecule, which is a micro RNA. The RNA and micro RNA are part of a package that includes several other proteins.

“When something comes into your brain — a thought, some sort of stimulus, you see something interesting, you hear some music — synapses get activated,” said Kosik. “What happens next is really interesting, but to follow the pathway our experiments moved to cultured neurons. When synapses got activated, one of the proteins wrapped around that silencing complex gets degraded.”

When the signal comes in, the wrapping protein degrades or gets fragmented. Then the RNA is suddenly free to synthesize a new protein.

“One reason why this is interesting is that scientists have been perplexed for some time as to why, when synapses are strengthened, you need to have proteins degrade and also make new proteins,” said Kosik. “You have the degradation of proteins going on side by side with the synthesis of new proteins. So we have now resolved this paradox. We show that protein degradation and synthesis go hand in hand. The degradation permits the synthesis to occur. That’s the elegant scientific finding that comes out of this.”

The scientists were able to see some of the specific proteins that are involved in synthesis. Two of these — CaM Kinase and Lypla — are identified in the paper.

One of the approaches used by the scientists in the experiment was to take live neuron cells from rats and look at them under a high-resolution microscope. The team was able to see the synapses and the places where proteins are being made.

 

A Mind That Touches the Past

EDINBURGH – Imagine planning your schedule for the week and seeing the days on the calendar appear before you as a spiral staircase so real you feel like you could touch it. That’s what it’s like to have spatial-sequence synesthesia, a condition in which people perceive numbered sequences as visual patterns. Now researchers have shown that individuals with the condition have superior memories, recalling dates and historic events much better than can the average person.

Spatial-sequence synesthesia is one of several types of synesthesia, neural conditions in which senses combine in unusual ways. Grapheme-color synesthetes, for example, associate letters and numbers with colors; the number six might always look red to them. In other types of synesthesia, the word “cat” may create the taste of tomato soup, or the sound of a flute may appear as a blue cloud.

Recently, scientists have wondered if synesthesia–especially spatial-sequence synesthesia–might be linked to a superior ability to form memories. So psychologist Julia Simner of the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom tested for unusual mnemonic skills or other mental talents in 10 spatial-sequence synesthetes. Subjects had to quickly recall the dates of 120 public events occurring between 1950 and 2008, such as the year Nelson Mandela was freed from jail in South Africa (1990) or the year My Fair Lady won the Academy Award for best picture (1965). On average, non-synesthetic volunteers were off by about 8 years for each date, but the synesthetes were wrong by only about 4 years. They could also name almost twice as many events from specified years in their own lives than could the controls. “They have this subtle extra gift,” says Simner.

The findings, reported in the November-December issue of Cortex, also suggest a link between spatial-sequence synesthesia and hyperthymestic syndrome–a condition in which individuals can recall events from any point in their life with perfect clarity. And that may mean, says Simner, that anyone who visualizes timelines may remember historical events better than others.

The study jibes with our knowledge of how memory works, says neuroscientist David Eagleman of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. “Putting things in spatial locations to memorize them harks back to the earliest mnemonic techniques that we know,” he says. “These spatial-sequence synesthetes are getting that for free.”

 

Cities, Human Brains Evolved in Similar Ways

TROY – Cities and human brains have evolved in strikingly similar ways, says a new study.

Just as advanced mammalian brains require a robust neural network to achieve richer and more complex thought, large cities require advanced highways and transportation systems to allow larger and more productive population.

The new study by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) unearthed a striking similarity in how larger brains and cities deal with the difficult problem of maintaining sufficient interconnectedness.

“Natural selection has passively guided the evolution of mammalian brains throughout time, just as politicians and entrepreneurs have indirectly shaped the organisation of cities large and small,” neurobiology expert Mark Changizi, who led the study, said.

“It seems both of these invisible hands have arrived at a similar conclusion: brains and cities, as they grow larger, have to be similarly densely interconnected to function optimally,” adds Changizi, RPI assistant professor in cognitive science.

As brains grow more complex from one species to the next, they change in structure and organisation in order to achieve the right level of interconnectedness.

One couldn’t simply grow a double-sized dog brain, for example, and expect it to have the same capabilities as a human brain, said an RPI release.

This is because, among other things, a human brain doesn’t merely have more “dog neurons” but, instead, has neurons with a greater number of synapses than that of a dog — something crucial in helping to keep the human brain well connected.

As with brains, interconnectedness is also a critical component of the overall function of cities, said Changizi, who co-authored the paper with Marc Destefano, clinical assistant professor at Rensselaer.

Shame Is Essential, But You Can Get Out Of It

TORONTO – Shame is a debilitating emotion, but there is hope for those trapped in it, says a Canadian researcher.

In her study reported this week, researcher Jessica Van Vliet of the University of Alberta in Edmonton says it is difficult to find someone who has never felt shame in their life.

But “the problem is when people get paralyzed with shame and withdraw from others. Not only can this create mental-health problems for people, but also they no longer contribute as fully to society”, the researcher said.

She said people who feel debilitated by shame tend to internalize and over-personalize the situation. They also seem resigned to being unable to change their feelings or their fate.

“When people experience shame, they may say to themselves ‘I am to blame, it is all my fault, all of me is bad, and there’s nothing I can do to change the situation,” said Van Vliet.

“They identify so much with shame that it takes over their entire view of themselves. That leads to an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness.” The first step to overcoming these feelings, she said, is to step back from the problem and view the picture in a different light.

When sufferers can identify external factors that contributed to their actions or situation (for example, discrimination or peer pressure) and differentiate between being a bad person versus doing something bad, they can begin to break the grip of hopelessness that plagues them, Van Vliet said.

“When people move from a sense of uncontrollability to the belief that maybe there’s something they can do about their situation, such as apologizing or making amends for their actions, it starts increasing a sense of hope for the future,” she said.

The second step to overcoming shame, she said, is to make connections – with family or friends or a higher power or humanity at large. “Connecting to others helps to increase self-acceptance, and with self-acceptance can come a greater acceptance of other people as well.

“People start to realize that it is not just them. Other people do things that are as bad or even worse sometimes so they’re not the worst person on the planet. They start to say to themselves: ‘This is human, I am human, others are human’.”

The researcher said: “Shame can prompt us to make changes that will help protect our relationships and also preserve the fabric of society. It is important to emphasize that shame is essential and has value.” The study has been published in the British Psychological Society journal Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice.

Scientists Identify Another Step in Memory Formation

HAIFA –  Scientists at the University of Haifa have identified another component in the chain of actions that take place in the neurons, when the brain is in the process of forming memories.

The researchers say that, together with the results of previous studies, the new findings provide a better understanding of the process of memory formation and storage in the human brain.

In their study report, the researchers point out that the formation of memory to sensory information on the world-new sounds, tastes, sights, and smells-is vital for animal survival.

They say that very little of this information becomes short-term memory, and that only a small part of the information that becomes short-term memory ultimately becomes long-term and stabilized memory.

Previous studies led by Prof. Kobi Rosenblum found an elevation in the expression of the protein PSD-95 to be necessary for the formation of long-term memory.

The present study aimed to find out whether another molecular process – the addition of a phosphor molecule to the NMDA receptor protein (phosphorylation) – is necessary too.

Earlier studies have proven that changes in the NMDA receptor can adjust the neuronal network in the brain, and that during a learning process this receptor undergoes increased phosphorylation.

Before the present research, none of the studies had proved that the increase in phosphorylation of the NMDA is necessary for the process, and that the process would not occur without it.

During the current study, the scientists chose to focus on the formation of new taste memory in rats as a model for sensory memory because it could enable them to track when the process begins, its specific location is in the brain, and the molecular processes that occur during the process.

Verifying the findings of the previous studies, the first stage of the study showed that the new taste learning does indeed involve a process of increased phosphorylation in the NMDA receptors in the area specific to learning taste in the brain.

 

In order to do so, mature rats were trained to drink water at set times and after a few days some were given saccharine-sweetened water. The saccharine has no caloric value and therefore has no metabolic impact on the body and cannot affect the body’s processes. As expected, the rats that received the newly sweet-tasting water and that began a process of learning, showed an increase in phosphorylation in comparison to those rats that continued drinking regular water.

The second stage of the study showed that obstruction of the phosphorylation process brought about a change in the location of the receptor in relation to the NMDA, and thus was likely to be responsible for inhibiting the formation of long-term memory.

“Our goal is to identify piece after piece of the complex puzzle that is the formation of long-term memory. Once we know how to describe the chain of actions that take place in the brain, we may be able to know where and how to interfere,” said Dr. Dr. Liza Barki-Harrington, a member of the research team.

“The glutamate neural synapses – via the receptors of the NMDA – and dophamin, play a central role in a number of neural pathologies, including processes of addiction and of schizophrenia.

There is good reason to assume that one afflicted with schizophrenia has a sub- or over-functioning of this system, and its loss of balance is one of the causes of the illness. A better understanding of this balance – or loss of balance – in the normal processes will enable future discovery of new objectives for developing medications, which we hope will improve patients’ lives significantly,” added Prof. Rosenblum.

The study has been published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Brain Function of Earthquake Survivors Acutely Affected

BEIJING –  The earthquake that jolted Wenchuan, China, in 2008 has had an acute impact on the brain function of physically healthy survivors, and even poses a risk to their mental health, according a new research.

Working with collaborators from universities in China, the US and Liverpool, researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry focused on the survivors of the earthquake that occurred on May 12 last year.

The researchers wanted to gain a better understanding of how functional brain systems adapt to severe emotional stress.

Previous animal studies have demonstrated the importance of limbic, paralimbic, striatal, and prefrontal structures of the brain in stress and fear responses.

Human studies, which have focused primarily on patients with clinically established posttraumatic stress disorders, have reported abnormalities in similar brain structures.

But not much is known about potential alterations of brain function in trauma survivors shortly after traumatic events such as an earthquake.

The epicenter of the devastating earthquake was in Wenchuan, in the Sichuan Province of China.

The tremor measured 8.0 on the Richter scale and severely affected many geographical regions including Yingxiu, Wenchuan, Dujiangyan, and Shifang, where 45 million people were directly affected.

The researchers found that a significant proportion of the survivors (around 20 per cent) are likely to develop stress-related disorders, such as acute stress disorder (ASD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Given the serious and persistent impact of these highly prevalent psychiatric disorders, it is vital to develop a better understanding of the alterations of cerebral function evident in the early stages of adaptation to trauma. Such knowledge may lead to a better understanding of posttraumatic responses and the development of more effective early interventions,” said Dr Andrea Mechelli from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London.

The researchers used a method known as ‘resting-state fMRI’ to examine 44 healthy survivors and 32 controls shortly after the massive psychological trauma.

They found that significant alterations in brain function similar to those observed in posttraumatic stress disorders could be seen shortly after major traumatic experiences, highlighting the need for early evaluation and intervention for the survivors.

The results of the study show that individuals experiencing severe emotional trauma showed hyperactivity in certain areas of the brain, and decreased functional connectivity in others, shortly after the massively traumatic Wenchuan earthquake.

Particularly, the findings indicated that traumatic experiences affect not only regional function but also dynamic interactions within brain networks.

It is not clear if this pattern of brain alteration remains the same or evolves further over the following weeks or months after the traumatic experiences.

“A better understanding of the impact of traumatic events on brain function may help us identify those in need of early treatment and reduce the long-term psychological impact in trauma survivors of national disasters, military conflict, and other causes of severe emotional distress,” said Mechelli.

The results of the study have been published in PNAS online.