Brain fountain of youth

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Shannon, a 14-year-old who lives in Massachusetts, has amblyopia, a condition sometimes referred to as “lazy eye.”

You can’t tell by looking at her, though. Unlike some amblyopic patients, whose eyes visibly wander, Shannon simply has extremely poor eyesight.

Patients’ best hope for correcting amblyopia is before they turn about 8 years old. Those who don’t get treatment early enough—or for whom treatment doesn’t work—usually end up living with the problem forever.

Shannon is one of those people. Her entire life, she’s worn glasses with a thin non-prescription lens on one side, and a thick corrective lens on the other. As a toddler, her parents tried to make her wear therapeutic eye patches, but she would fling them off.

A few months ago, Shannon enrolled in a clinical study at Boston Children’s Hospital for which she’s taking donepezil, a drug that’s typically used to treat Alzheimer’s. Donepezil is a cholinesterase inhibitor, meaning it increases the amount of acetylcholine circulating around nerve endings. It’s been shown to improve memory function in some patients with dementia.

But of course, Shannon doesn’t have memory problems. Her team of doctors is instead using the donepezil to encourage her brain to learn new skills as quickly and nimbly as an infant’s would. Shannon’s vision has improved markedly over the past four months, her mother told me by phone. Continue reading “Brain fountain of youth”

The case for game addiction

First it was Doodle Jump. Then Dots. And now — will it never end? — Flappy Bird.

So many of the games that we download on our smartphones are a waste of time, but we can’t seem to stop playing them. My current high score on the late, lamented Flappy Bird is three. After weeks of tap-tap-tapping to keep that stupid little bird flying.

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Three.Why do we keep falling for these things?

The answer to that question just might be found in, of all places, a medical laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco. Researchers there are trying to figure out what makes games addictive — and how we might use video games to make our minds stronger, faster and healthier.

Using neuroimaging techniques, researchers are peering into gamers’ heads, hoping that the data they collect will help them make video games that change as you play, getting easier or harder, depending on your performance. The idea is to keep people at the addiction point. You know, that infuriating flap-flap-flap zone.

From there, they say, the possibilities seem limitless. One day, we might develop games to treat depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Or games that rewire our brains to improve memory and cognitive function. The list could go on and on. Continue reading “The case for game addiction”

My brain made me do it

Criminal courts in the United States are facing a surge in the number of defendants arguing that their brains were to blame for their crimes and relying on questionable scans and other controversial, unproven neuroscience, a legal expert who has advised the president has warned.

Nita Farahany, a professor of law who sits on Barack Obama’s bioethics advisory panel, told a Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego

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that those on trial were mounting ever more sophisticated defences that drew on neurological evidence in an effort to show they were not fully responsible for murderous or other criminal actions.

Lawyers typically drew on brain scans and neuropsychological tests to reduce defendants’ sentences, but in a substantial number of cases the evidence was used to try to clear defendants of all culpability. “What is novel is the use by criminal defendants to say, essentially, that my brain made me do it,” Farahany said following an analysis of more than 1,500 judicial opinions from 2005 to 2012.

The rise of so-called neurolaw cases has caused serious concerns in the country where brain science first appeared in murder cases, reports The guardian: “The supreme court has begun a review of how such evidence can be used in criminal cases. But legal and scientific experts nevertheless foresee the trend spreading to other countries, including the UK, and Farahany said she was expanding her work abroad.

“The survey even found cases where defendants had used neuroscience to argue that their confessions should be struck out because they were not competent to provide them. “When people introduce this evidence for competency, it has actually been relatively successful,” Farahany said.

“Few cases turn solely on neuroscience evidence, but scans and other techniques have swayed judgments in the past. In 2009, an Italian woman called Stefania Albertani pleaded guilty to murdering her sister, setting fire to the corpse and later attempting to kill her parents. She received a life sentence, but in 2011 Judge Luisa lo Gatto at a court near Milan considered new evidence based on brain scans and genetics. Experts argued that Albertani’s crime was driven by abnormalities in the anterior cingulate gyrus, which is involved in impulsivity, and the insula, which has been linked to aggression. The judge reduced Albertani’s sentence to 20 years.

“Despite the fact that the science is often poorly understood, and that some experts say it is too flimsy to use in court, such evidence has succeeded in reducing defendants’ sentences and in some cases clearing them of guilt altogether.”

 

More at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/10/us-rise-defendants-blame-brains-crimes-neuroscience

 

The insomniac’s mind

Brain scans of people who say they have insomnia have shown differences in brain function compared with people who get a full night’s sleep.images

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, said the poor sleepers struggled to focus part of their brain in memory tests, reports the BBC

“Other experts said that the brain’s wiring may actually be affecting perceptions of sleep quality. The findings were published in the journal Sleep. People with insomnia struggle to sleep at night, but it also has consequences during the day such as delayed reaction times and memory. The study compared 25 people who said they had insomnia with 25 who described themselves as good sleepers. MRI brain scans were carried out while they performed increasingly challenging memory tests. One of the researchers, Prof Sean Drummond, said: “We found that insomnia subjects did not properly turn on brain regions critical to a working memory task and did not turn off ‘mind-wandering’ brain regions irrelevant to the task.

“This data helps us understand that people with insomnia not only have trouble sleeping at night, but their brains are not functioning as efficiently during the day.” A sleep researcher in the UK, Dr Neil Stanley, said that the quality of the sleep each group was having was very similar, even though one set was reporting insomnia. He said: “What’s the chicken and what’s the egg? Is the brain different and causing them to report worse sleep? “Maybe they’re perceiving what happened in the night differently; maybe what is affecting their working memory and ability to focus on the task at hand is also causing insomnia.”

 

More at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-23897665

Video games help the brain

Playing certain types of video games can boost a person’s flexible thinking skills, according to a new study.images-2

The findings could lead to new treatments for people with brain injuries or conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the researchers suggest, as reported today in WebMD.

“Previous research has demonstrated that action video games . . . can speed up decision making, but the current work finds that real-time strategy games can promote our ability to think on the fly and learn from past mistakes,” said Dr. Brian Glass, of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary University of London.

“For the study, researchers looked at 72 women who typically played video games for less than two hours a week. The study authors couldn’t find any male gamers who spent so little time playing video games. Two-thirds of the participants played either basic or more complex versions of a real-time strategy game called “StarCraft,” a fast-paced game where players have to create and organize armies to battle an enemy. One-third of the participants played a life simulation game called “The Sims,” which does not rely on using memory or tactical skills.

“The volunteers played the games for 40 hours over six to eight weeks and underwent tests of their “cognitive flexibility.” This refers to a person’s ability to adapt and switch between tasks, and think about multiple ideas at a given time to solve problems, the British researchers explained. Continue reading “Video games help the brain”

Gender and autism

A study has claimed that autism affects different parts of the brain depending on gender, reports The Metro

“Scientists looked at 120 brains of both sexes, including those without the disability, concluding that not ‘everything found in males with autism applies to females’.imgres-1

“Using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans, the research revealed how ‘females with autism show neuroanatomical “masculinisation”,’ said Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, senior author of the paper.

“Shedding light on a previously under-researched area – women with autism – the scientists, from the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, found that the anatomy of the brain of someone with autism varied between men and women. Baron-Cohen said that the ‘masculinisation’ of a female brain with autism may ‘implicate physiological mechanisms that drive sexual dimorphism, such as prenatal sex hormones and sex-linked genetic mechanisms’. While autism affects one per cent of the general population, it is more prevalent in men. Because of this, most studies have concentrated on male-dominant samples leading to a gender bias in the understanding of autism-related neuroscience.

‘”This is one of the largest brain imaging studies of sex/gender differences yet conducted in autism. Females with autism have long been under-recognized and probably misunderstood,’ said Dr Meng-Chuan Lai, the research project leader. ‘The findings suggest that we should not blindly assume that everything found in males with autism applies to females.’ The paper, entitled ‘Biological sex affects the neurobiology of autism’, appears in the journal Brain.”

More at: http://metro.co.uk/2013/08/10/autism-affects-brains-of-females-differently-to-males-study-says-3918961/

How the brain “sees” art

This month, President Obama unveiled a breathtakingly ambitious initiative to map the human brain, the ultimate goal of which is to understand the workings of the human mind in biological terms.Unknown

Many of the insights that have brought us to this point arose from the merger over the past 50 years of cognitive psychology, the science of mind, and neuroscience, the science of the brain, the New Yorktimes reports: “The discipline that has emerged now seeks to understand the human mind as a set of functions carried out by the brain.

“This new approach to the science of mind not only promises to offer a deeper understanding of what makes us who we are, but also opens dialogues with other areas of study — conversations that may help make science part of our common cultural experience.

“Consider what we can learn about the mind by examining how we view figurative art. In a recently published book, I tried to explore this question by focusing on portraiture, because we are now beginning to understand how our brains respond to the facial expressions and bodily postures of others. Continue reading “How the brain “sees” art”

Brain scans that predict criminality?

Brain scans of convicted felons can predict which ones are most likely to get arrested after they get out of prison, scientists have found in a study of 96 male offenders, reports Wired Science today

“It’s the first time brain scans have been used to predict recidivism,” said neuroscientist Kent Kiehl of the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who led the new study. Even so, Kiehl and others caution that the method is nowhere near ready to be used in real-life decisions about sentencing or parole.imgres-3

“Generally speaking, brain scans or other neuromarkers could be useful in the criminal justice system if the benefits in terms of better accuracy outweigh the likely higher costs of the technology compared to conventional pencil-and-paper risk assessments, says Stephen Morse, a legal scholar specializing in criminal law and neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. The key questions to ask, Morse says, are: “How much predictive accuracy does the marker add beyond usually less expensive behavioral measures? How subject is it to counter-measures if a subject wishes to ‘defeat’ a scan?” Continue reading “Brain scans that predict criminality?”

Pentagon scanning brains of dog recruits

Dogs do it all for the military: sniff for bombs, detect narcotics and rescue hapless humans. But to recruit the best canine squadmates, the Pentagon’s blue-sky researchers are working on a plan to scan their brains — and figure out how dogs think. Belly rubs won’t cut it anymore.

According to a new research solicitation from Darpa, the project — adorably called FIDOS, for “Functional Imaging to Develop Outstanding Service-Dogs” — touts the idea of using magnetic image resonators (or MRIs) to “optimize the selection of ideal service dogs” by scanning their brains to find the smartest candidates.imgres “Real-time neural feedback” will optimize canine training. That adds up to military pooches trained better, faster and — in theory — at a lower cost than current training methods of $20,000, using the old-fashioned methods of discipline-and-reward. Continue reading “Pentagon scanning brains of dog recruits”

The science of forgetting

As the baby boom generation ages towards retirement, attention grows over how people can remain mentally sharp. Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia make  boomers start to worry when they lose their car keys or stumble over a name. At the same time, Internet search engines
and home data storage have made the actual need to remember less important. Add to this the rapid pace of media and the public’s seemingly relentless focus on immediacy over history, and it seems like a wholesale assault on memory is sweeping the culture. So a story like “The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories” recently appearing in Wired magazine would seem to support the current culture of amnesia. Continue reading “The science of forgetting”