Wednesday, 22 January 2014

2013 top ten brain science studies

Neuroscience gives us fascinating insights into how our brains work and what incredibly flexible and miraculous, but also mysterious organs they are. An article in Forbes Magazine outlines the 2013 top ten brain science studies, with some of them having practical implications for our everyday lives. We outline the article here.

1. The brain takes toxins out of it while we sleep

During daytime, a lot of neurotoxins that are connected to diseases like Alzheimer’s assemble in our brain. Researchers now have found that while we sleep, so-called “hidden caves” in our brain open up and neurotoxins are flushed out by cerebrospinal fluid, a fluid found in the brain and spine. This study implies that our brain needs sleep to get rid of the waste it assembles during the daytime. Thus, lack of sleep is likely to be a brain killer.

The original article was published in the journal Science.

2. In our brain, we are closely connected to our friends

When we see that our friends are exposed to physical pain, the regions in our brain fire that are activated when we experience physical pain ourselves. This is not the case when we see strangers exposed to physical pain. This literally means that our loved ones become a part of ourselves.

The original article was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

3. We can see even though we might not realise it

Many regions in the brain seem to be involved in vision. There is a primary area, the visual cortex, which enables us to see the way we are used to. Sometimes this area is destroyed so that people are unable to see although their eyes and optic nerves are fully functional. This is called cerebral blindness. Researchers found that in a patient with cortical blindness, other regions in the brain can still detect another person’s gaze. What implications this has cannot be said at the moment, but it shows us once more how complex the brain is and maybe the insight can one day be used for helping people with cerebral blindness and maybe even other impairments of vision get along better in our vision-oriented world.

The original article was published in the journal Neuroscience.

4. Stress is related to cancer

There is a lot of research out there linking stress to cancer, but the findings are controversial. Now a study found stress to accelerate prostate cancer and make it less responsive to cancer drugs. Researchers assume that the stress hormone epinephrine turns off the cell death programme that would otherwise prevent cancer cells from growing.

The original study was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

5. Extravert or introvert? Maybe both.

A well-studied personality trait is extraversion-introversion, with the extravert being outgoing, sociable, and sensation seeking, while the introvert is rather quiet, conscientious, and careful. Often the notion is that you are either one or the other, but not both. Recent research now found that there is indeed something in between, called ambiverts, who can switch between the two extremes depending on the needs of the situation. The study found ambiverts to be the best salespersons because they are on the one hand outgoing and convincing enough to close the deal and on the other hand able to listen to their clients. By the way, the study also found introverts to be just as good salespersons as extraverts.

The original study was published in the journal Psychological Science.

6. Growing a mini-brain from stem cells

Researchers were able to grow a mini brains that have distinct regions from stem cells. They did so by first nourishing the stem cells by certain nutrients and then putting the tissue they had grown into a bioreactor containing oxygen and nutrients. The mini-brains that had been created this way contained firing neurons and brain regions like the retina and cerebral cortex. This is still very basic research, but maybe this can one day cure heal brain diseases or injuries.

There is an article on this study on the Reuters homepage.

7. Exercise benefits the brain

There is evidence that exercise helps grow new brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus, the brain region associated with learning and memory, and particularly endurance exercise seems to foster neuron growth here. A recent study now taps into the mechanisms behind this effect and shows that exercise boosts the release of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BNDF) via a protein. BNDF in turn stimulates the growth of neurons and preserves them.

The original article was published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

8. Enhancing our self-control

Researchers found that the region in our brain that is associated with self-control, the prefrontal cortex, can be stimulated by weak electrical stimulation. When stimulated in this way, study participants were better able to control themselves. The findings might help cure diseases like Tourette Syndrome, but maybe it can eventually also help us in understanding how we can enhance our self-control when we are healthy, but slightly undisciplined persons.

The original study was published in the journal Neuroscience.

9. Measuring consciousness

A topic that is constantly under discussion and always on the media is the question when someone can be declared dead. Often in patients who have suffered severe brain injury this is difficult to tell. A new method now seems to be able to detect whether there is still consciousness in the brain that could predict the patient’s recovery. The procedure entails three steps: first, the brain is exposed to a magnetic pulse that is supposed to wake it up. Then brain wave activity as a response to the pulse is measured and finally the activity is further analysed using a certain formula that can classify the complexity of the brain activity. The tool is designed to shed light on the question whether or not a patient will recover from the injuries.

The original study was published in the journal Science.

10. Coffee reduces the risk of suicide

A meta-analysis of over 200,000 people found caffeine to reduce the risk of suicide. Two to four cups of coffee seemed to be enough for this. The mechanism behind this seems to be the fact that caffeine is similar to a chemical in the brain, adenosine, that blocks receptors in the nervous system that receive signals for decreasing energy expenditure. Thus, caffeine seems to prevent the reduction of energy and stimulate the brain.

The original article was published in The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry.

The full article is available on the Forbes Magazine website.

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