Dopamine may make us less tolerant of inequality

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Egalitarianism (the belief that everyone should be treated equally) is one of the driving forces behind prosocial behavior (behavior that helps others). Previous studies have hinted that dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and pain, control of movement, and emotional response, may play a role in this helping behavior. This study seeks to provide evidence that dopamine can drive egalitarian behavior in humans by manipulating the levels of dopamine in the brain.

In order to manipulate dopamine levels, the researchers administered tolcapone (a medication which prolongs the effects of dopamine to treat Parkinson’s disease) to the experimental group. Prolonged effects of dopamine are particularly associated with reward and motivation in the prefrontal cortex. On two separate trials, participants took either tolcapone or a placebo and then asked to complete a simple economic task where they had to divide a certain amount of money between themselves and an anonymous participant.

Researchers observed that participants taking the tolcapone exhibited more egalitarian behavior toward the anonymous participant than participants taking the placebo, meaning that they divided the money in a fairer way when the effects of dopamine were prolonged.  Additionally, computer modeling of the behaviors showed that tolcapone also make people more sensitive to inequity (lack of fairness).

The goal of this study was not to develop a philanthropy pill of sorts, but rather to gain a better understanding of how prosocial behavior works in the brain. With the knowledge that dopamine promotes prosocial behavior, we can gain insights into treatment for psychiatric disorders that are commonly associated chemical imbalances in the brain like addiction and schizophrenia. This finding also provides evidence that fair-mindedness is not solely a stable personality trait, but also can be manipulated by targeting specific pathways in the brain .

http://www.iflscience.com/brain/dopamine-makes-us-less-tolerant-inequality

The Mind of and Athlete

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While it is obvious that professional athletes exceed the physical condition of the average person, to excel as an athlete extends far beyond just physical excellence. The distinction between exceptional players and average players lies primarily in the cognitive abilities underlying decision-making and execution. For all sports and activities, the body depends on the brain for controlling movements, decision-making, and reaction to external stimuli. Particularly in high-speed sports such as football, soccer, or hockey, the cognitive demands are much more taxing as there are many more components interfering with an athletes mental and physical capabilities. In a fast paced, constantly changing environment, these factors all contribute to the complex cognitive functioning ensued; thus, the athletic brain operates at accelerated speeds in various brain regions that provides them with superior performance as seen in professional or expert athletes. Neuroscientists have only recently begun to explore the neurological components that contribute to exceptional athletic performance; through studying the individual cognitive processes that underlie the elementary actions within sports games, scientists are able to further analyze the brain regions associated with particular athletic abilities.

Functional MRI studies have analyzed and identified specific brain regions that are associated with enhanced motor skills. The distinction between brain areas associated with greater blood flow varied between golfers of different skill level; Milton et al (2007), reported findings that suggest that professional-level motor skill is associated with greater activity in the superior parietal lobe, the dorsal lateral premotor area, and the occipital area. These areas are primary motor control areas that are involved in execution of body movement toward a visually perceived goal. In the study, fMRI scans determined the brain activity of novice compared to expert golfers as they prepared their swing before taking a shot. The results not only showed that professional golfers showed heightened activity in the primary motor control areas identified, but also showed that novel golfers showed increased activity in other brain regions that actually inhibited their motor skill ability.

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Brain scans of novice golfers depicted dispersed activity among other brain regions, particularly in the posterior cingulate, the amygdala-forebrain complex, and the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia and limbic system are associated with emotion control, which contributes to the conscious awareness of individuals’ actions; thus, this awareness interferes with their cognitive processing devoted towards planning their shot. The enhanced ability of expert golfers partially lies in their ability to perform tasks with ease and reduced conscious interference associated with increased brain activity (Bascom, 2012).

Another crucial aspect of any sports game is the ability to react to external stimuli. Especially with fast-paced games, an athlete must be able to use previous information and experience to predict what is coming and prepare accordingly. Thus, expert athletes are better able to constantly read and adjust to new situations quicker, allowing more time to process and execute their actions. So as the brain of an athlete becomes more efficient through practice and experience, the underlying cognitive processes become easier and more automatic. It is evident that the mind of an adept athlete largely contributes to their physical performance and skill; physical and mental strength is what differentiates professional athletes from the rest of us.

Works Cited:

Bascom, N. (2012). Brainy ballplayers: Elite athletes get their heads in the game. Science News, 181, 22-25.

Milton, J., Solodkin, A., Hluštík, P., & Small, S. L. (2007). The mind of expert motor performance is cool and focused. Neuroimage, 35(2), 804-813.

http://discovermagazine.com/2010/apr/16-the-brain-athletes-are-geniuses

Optogenetics: Controlling the Brain with Light

What a mouse looks like with an optogenetics system plugged in

Mouse with an optogenetics system plugged in

A major problem neuroscience researchers have is controlling one type of cell in the brain without effecting the function of others. Both electrodes, which stimulate the entire area in which they are inserted, and drugs, which act slower than the natural speed of the brain, are not specific enough to stimulate one particular cell type at a time. The brain is made up of thousands of kinds of cells: they come in different shapes, are made up of different molecules, and they connect to different brain regions. In order to learn about the different types of cells in the brain it would be ideal to be able to turn them on or off while leaving others unaltered and see what functions the cells contribute to. Turing cells on and off would be helpful in understanding certain neurological disorders. Drugs which have been developed for disorders such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia are able to treat some of the symptoms associated with them but have yet to cure anyone. These drugs also have side effects because they are not specific enough. The same is true with electrical stimulation – the electricity spreads throughout the brain affecting normal circuits in addition to the malfunctioning circuits. What is an alternative solution to drugs or electrodes? Light.

Researchers took protein molecules called channelrhodopsins that could convert light into electricity and inserted them into neurons. Because channelrhodopsins are proteins found in a type of algae that swims towards light, their DNA is encoded in the organism. Once the DNA is inside the neuron, the neuron’s protein-making mechanisms make light-sensitive proteins throughout the cell. The end product is a neuron which can be activated with light (see video). The genetics involved in this process, called optogenetics, allows one cell type to be activated at a time. This technology can be used in many ways including looking at what signals mediate reward and learning, underlying mechanisms for PTSD, and ways to turn circuits in the brain off. A very promising use of optogenetics is with the treatment of epilepsy. In patients where drugs are not effective in stopping seizures, light could be shined on the light-sensitive cells to turn them off. The same technology has been used in other parts of the body besides the brain, such as in the heart cells of mice, and in skin cells. The applications of optogenetics are endless.

 

Work Cited:

Image: http://www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/optogenetics-640×353.jpeg

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I64X7vHSHOE

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/optogenetics-controlling/ http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/optogenetics-controlling/

Mind Over Matter: Controlling Technology With Our Brains

On my very first post I wrote about telepathy and the linkage of two human brains. Now, I want to explore mind control further and talk about brain-computer interfaces, i.e. using only our brainwaves to control technology. When I say technology, I’m talking about many different types; prosthetics, games, computers, exoskeletons, iphones, you name it… they all can be controlled with your mind alone.

Research into brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) began at UCLA in the 1970s, and since then, the field has exploded. Even at the past world cup, BCI’s made an appearance as a paralyzed teen kicked the first soccer ball wearing an exoskeleton suit he controlled with his mind. That’s right, a paralyzed teen walked using a robotic exoskeleton that he controlled with his mind. Check it out:

A lot of research has gone into brain-computer interfaces, and the field has the power to revolutionize medicine. Currently, devices have already been developed that replace missing or damaged biological functions. Think cochlear implants, which physically stimulate the auditory nerve to help deaf individuals hear, or visual prosthetics, that stimulate the optic nerve to create images. With these two types of prosthetics, an implantable device acquires and processes information from the outside world, and then it converts the data into a pattern of electrical stimulation that it delivers to a certain nerve. This type of technology has been around for a while, but what about mind controlled arms and legs? That becomes a bit more complex.

One of the coolest inventions of 2014 was a mind controlled robotic arm that allowed a quadriplegic to pick up and move objects. This is big; those who have lost motor function have another chance at movement. How does this technology work though? In this case, small electrodes were implanted into regions of the patient’s brain that would normally control arm and hand movement. So, when the patient would think about a movement, the electrodes picked up the signals, relayed them to a computer that identifies the firing patterns, and the computer directed the movements of a prosthetic arm. It was only within a week of the electrode implants that the patient could move her prosthetic arm with just her thoughts. Another major case in 2014 involved a double arm amputee. For this patient, the nerves controlling his arms were surgically re-routed to the pectoral muscles, and using EEG, electrodes on his skin picked up the activity of the nerves. A computer then decoded the intent of the nerves and generated motion. Look at this dexterity and control of the prosthetic, just with his mind!

The ultimate goal of many of these researchers is interactive devices—ones that send information from the brain to the robotic arm but also from the arm to the brain. This way, the user would be able to regain touch sensations and know the limb’s location (proprioception). Eventually, the technology would be so interactive that the limbs would do the same as those of able-bodied humans.

Now before I end the post, I want to mention that game and app makers are utilizing this technology to make new ways to play. EEG headsets have moved into the commercial venue, and now there are mind-controlled helicopters, ball games, and music generators. Additionally, certain games are paired with headsets to allow the user to create and move an avatar in the game. Check out some of the inventions below:

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Puzzlebox Orbit- uses android and iphone apps to read your brain activity off the headset and transmit commands to the helicopter

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Neurosky Mind flex game- use your mind to control a ball through an obstacle course

That’s all I have this week. As you can see, mind-reading technology is really taking off, and has everything from medical to gaming applications. I think we will start seeing a lot more of this stuff in the future!

Sources:

http://neurosciencenews.com/neuroprosthetics-robotic-arm-10d-1634/

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/mind-controlled-technology-beyond-exoskeletons-180951710/?no-ist

http://www.brainfacts.org/About-Neuroscience/Technologies/Articles/2009/Brain-Controlled-Prosthetics

http://rt.com/news/216131-amputee-controlled-prosthetic-arms/

Can the weather influence our health?

Last week we had the opportunity to experience some gorgeous sun after abnormal winter weather with many storms and lots of snow. The sunny days seemed to lift the mood of many of us including myself: I wanted nothing more than to be outside and soak up the rays of sunshine! Weather affects our mood immensely, which prompted me to research SAD. SAD stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder but is also used for Social Anxiety Disorder. The name Seasonal Affective Disorder was coined in 1984 by Norman E. Rosenthal at the National Institute of Mental Health Center. It is known as the following: winter depression, winter blues, summer depression, summer blues, or seasonal depression. SAD is essentially a mood disorder where people show severe depressive symptoms either during the winter or the summer. Most prevalent in Alaska at 9.9%, there can be heightened anxiety during these episodes and many symptoms are similar to that of depression. What makes this disorder different from other mood disorders? SAD occurs annually at the same time during the transition between seasons and lasts for the duration of the season; it can either be late spring and ends during the fall or can be late fall and end early spring, making summer and winter the targeted seasons. Instead of occurring as major depressive episodes or short periods of random depression, SAD occurs at the same time annually.

What are the causes of SAD? Researchers are still trying to target what exactly causes this seasonal disorder. They believe that certain hormones in the brain trigger changes related to attitude and mood during those times of the year and that SAD is highly related to these hormonal changes. For example, the possibility of a person having winter SAD would correlate with the effects of less sunlight and therefore less serotonin in the brain in the pathways that regulate mood. When these pathways don’t regulate properly because of the lack of production, depression results with accompanying physiological and physical symptoms (WebMD 2015).

Using EEG as a diagnostic tool in 2000 to explore neurophysiological profiles, Nina Volf and Natalia Passynkova studied the brains of patients with Seasonal Affective Disorder and how they compared with patients with other affective disorders. They wanted to find out how the brain was different than others with affective disorders through brain wave frequency. They tested 31 depressed patients with SAD and analyzed power in the delta, theta-1, theta-2, alpha, beta-1, and beta-2 frequencies. The results of their study confirmed that SAD subjects had an asymmetrical distribution of some of the frequency band’s activity in the parietal and temporal regions of the brain. This research provided evidence that there may be sub-varieties of affective disorders that cause these different depressive states within individuals. This would ultimately categorize them more specifically from a depressive disorder, indicating why people might feel certain levels of depression at certain times of the year (Volf & Passynkova, 2000).

As an additional note, it would be interesting to see why some people feel depressed during the summer months when they are exposed to sunshine.

Works Cited:

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)-Topic Overview. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2015, from http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/tc/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad-topic-overview

Volf, N., & Passynkova, N. (2002). EEG Mapping in Seasonal Affective Disorder. Journal of Affective Disorders, 72, 61-69.

 

Thinking can speed tumor growth? No wonder brain cancers are so deadly!

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As I was looking for a topic to write this week’s journal entry on, I stumbled upon an article on NPR’s website with a shocking and surprising title: “Thoughts Can Fuel Some Deadly Brain Cancers”.  My immediate reaction was confusion: how could something psychological cause tumor growth?  And how can this be prevented without significantly reducing the quality of life of the patients?

In a new study published in Cell, researchers took a human glioma tumor, which is a tumor originating from glial cells, and implanted it in the brain of mice.  They then increased the activity of the surrounding neurons by using optogenetics, which is a method of controlling neurons by using light.  Unfortunately, compared to the control mice, the mice exposed to optogenetics had significantly faster tumor growth.

Gliomas, which are thought to interfere with myelination, often affects children around age 6.  This type of cancer as a horrible prognosis, with patients often dying 9 months after they are diagnosed.  Not only are the tumors often inoperable (tumor cells intertwine with healthy cells in the brainstem), but these new findings show that day-to-day activity is making the cancer more deadly.

The researchers believe that using sedatives while the patients are in treatment could reduce this rapid tumor growth.  This, however, is not ideal because this would stop patients from living as active of a life as possible.  If I had a solution to this dilemma, I would probably be a leading neurologist at some top tier hospital instead of a neuroscience student at Colby College.  A possible route to take, however, could be trying to temporarily shut off only the neurons surrounding the tumor.  Work has been done on the localized deactivation of neurons.  In Abnormal Psych, we recently discussed the use of Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) to reduce the activity of Area 25, which is overactive in severe depression.  The implantation of a pacemaker into the brain is an extremely extensive surgery and is only done when there are no other options.  I assume that if something similar were discovered for gliomas, the same would be true.  Gliomas, however, are extremely aggressive cancers and any possible treatment that could help would definitely be a milestone.

Article:http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2015/04/23/401723235/thoughts-can-fuel-some-deadly-brain-cancers

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