Coffee addiction is a relatively new phenomenon (yes, I’m looking at you, university students), and has been accommodated by the increase in coffee based fast food chains such as Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts which in turn has led to the so-called ‘coffee culture’ as coffee drinking becomes a national habit. This infographic explores how caffeine works and the effects it has on you and your brain when it becomes part of your daily routine.
Not sure how many of you have read about this by now, but it is such an amazing finding I decided to write about it (even though I retweeted this yesterday).
This study is a clinical case report of a living patient with cerebellar agenesis, an extremely rare condition characterized by the absence of the cerebellum. The cause is currently unknown, there are limited reported cases of complete cerebellar agenesis, and most of what we know about the condition comes from autopsy reports instead of living patients. Moreover, the condition is difficult to study because most individuals with complete primary cerebellar agenesis are infants or children with severe mental impairment, epilepsy, hydrocephaly and other gross lesions of the CNS. The fact that this woman is alive and has a somewhat “normal” life is ground-breaking and presents a unique opportunity to study the condition.
The patient described in the study is 24 years old. She has mild mental impairment and moderate motor deficits. For example, she is unable to walk steadily and commonly experiences dizziness/nausea. She also has speech problems and cannot run or jump. However, she has no history of neurological disorders and even gave birth without any complications.
Importantly, as shown above, CT and MRI scans revealed no presence of recognizable cerebellar structures. Just look at that dark sport towards the back of the brain! In addition to these findings, magnetic resonance angiography also demonstrated vascular characteristics of this patient consistent with complete cerebellar agenesis- meaning that the arteries that normally supply this area were also absent bilaterally. How crazy is that? Futhermore, diffusion tensor imaging indicated a complete lack of the efferent and afferent limbs of the cerebellum.
Given that the cerebellum is responsible for both motor and non-motor functions, these results are pretty amazing. How can the brain compensate for such a heavy blow to its architecture and connectivity? According to the authors of the study:
This surprising phenomenon supports the concept of extracerebellar motor system plasticity, especially cerebellum loss, occurring early in life. We conclude that the cerebellum is necessary for normal motor, language functional and mental development even in the presence of the functional compensation phenomenon.
In vertebrates, the eyeballs are direct extensions of the brain; that is, they evolved after the brain, and are literally unimpeded access to the cerebellum and cerebrum. Because of this, many ocular tumors or injuries can be far more dangerous to the brain than growths or injuries on any other part of the skull.
Anatome ex omnium veterum recentiorumque observationibus. Thomas Bartholin, 1673.
Most popular depictions of the exposed human brain present it from the side or perhaps top-down. This is the ventral view, a look at the bottom of the brain. Some of the elements are commonly seen from other angles, such as the brain’s iconic gyri and sulci, those meandering ridges and grooves that fundamentally increase the number of neurons that can be squeezed into a constrained space, i.e. your skull.
More notable from this perspective, though, is the stubby brainstem at the posterior part of the brain (back end) that connects to the spinal cord. It is the essential passageway for motor and sensory signals traveling between brain and body.
On either side of the brainstem is the striated cerebellum, Latin for “little brain,” which it vaguely resembles. The cerebellum plays an important role in motor control and is involved in some cognitive functions, such as attention and language.
Rarely but remarkably, persons are born with brains missing the cerebellum but learn to compensate due to the brain’s astounding ability to adapt, a concept called plasticity. That fact was recently highlighted in a pair of stories, local and national.
A single dose of antidepressant is enough to produce dramatic changes in the functional architecture of the human brain. Brain scans taken of people before and after an acute dose of a commonly prescribed SSRI (serotonin reuptake inhibitor) reveal changes in connectivity within three hours, say researchers who report their observations in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on September 18.
“We were not expecting the SSRI to have such a prominent effect on such a short timescale or for the resulting signal to encompass the entire brain,” says Julia Sacher of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.
While SSRIs are among the most widely studied and prescribed form of antidepressants worldwide, it’s still not entirely clear how they work. The drugs are believed to change brain connectivity in important ways, but those effects had generally been thought to take place over a period of weeks, not hours.
The new findings show that changes begin to take place right away. Sacher says what they are seeing in medication-free individuals who had never taken antidepressants before may be an early marker of brain reorganization.
Study participants let their minds wander for about 15 minutes in a brain scanner that measures the oxygenation of blood flow in the brain. The researchers characterized three-dimensional images of each individual’s brain by measuring the number of connections between small blocks known as voxels (comparable to the pixels in an image) and the change in those connections with a single dose of escitalopram (trade name Lexapro).
Their whole-brain network analysis shows that one dose of the SSRI reduces the level of intrinsic connectivity in most parts of the brain. However, Sacher and her colleagues observed an increase in connectivity within two brain regions, specifically the cerebellum and thalamus.
The researchers say the new findings represent an essential first step toward clinical studies in patients suffering from depression. They also plan to compare the functional connectivity signature of brains in recovery and those of patients who fail to respond after weeks of SSRI treatment.
Understanding the differences between the brains of individuals who respond to SSRIs and those who don’t “could help to better predict who will benefit from this kind of antidepressant versus some other form of therapy,” Sacher says. “The hope that we have is that ultimately our work will help to guide better treatment decisions and tailor individualized therapy for patients suffering from depression.”
Doctors in China were surprised to find that a young woman who had lived a normal life for more than two decades was actually missing an important part of her brain, according to a new report of her case. The 24-year-old’s strange condition was discovered when she went to doctors because of a month long bout of nausea and vomiting. The patient told the doctors she had also experienced dizziness her entire life. She didn’t start walking until she was four and had never been able to walk steadily.
When the doctors scanned the woman's brain, they found she had no cerebellum, a region of the brain thought to be crucial for walking and other movements. Instead, the scans showed a large hole filled with cerebrospinal fluid.
“CT and MRI scans revealed no remnants of any cerebellar tissues, verifying complete absence of the cerebellum,” the doctors wrote in the report, published Aug. 22 in the journal Brain.
The cerebellum, which means “little brain” in Latin, is responsible for coordination and fine movements, such as the movements of the mouth and tongue needed for producing speech. People with damage to this brain area typically experience debilitating motor difficulties. Yet contrary to the doctors’ expectations, the Chinese woman’s absence of the cerebellum resulted in only mild to moderate motor problems and slightly slurred pronunciation, according to the researchers. “This surprising phenomenon,” demonstrates the plasticity of the brain early in life, they wrote.
“It shows that the young brain tends to be much more flexible or adaptable to abnormalities,” said Dr. Raj Narayan, chair of neurosurgery at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York, who wasn’t involved with the woman’s case. “When a person is either born with an abnormality or at a very young age loses a particular part of the brain, the rest of the brain tries to reconnect and to compensate for that loss or absence,” Narayan said.
This remarkable ability of the brain is thought to decline with age. “As we get older, the ability of the brain to tolerate damage is much more limited,” Narayan said. “So, for example, in a 60-year-old person, if I took the cerebellum out, they would be severely impaired.”
This is not the first case of a person found to be missing the cerebellum. In fact, there have been eight other similar cases reported, the researchers said. However, most cases involved infants or children who also showed severe mental impairment, epilepsy and large structural abnormalities in their brains, and most did not survive the condition.
It is possible that more people are affected by this rare condition but they don’t get diagnosed or reported, Narayan said. “In the future, it may become more recognized because of brain imaging,” he added.
We all know about our uvula - or at least the palatine uvula - the one in our mouths. This hanging mass at the back of our mouth is formed from the soft palate, and is involved in the gag reflex and some languages (but not English). But did you know that we have more uvulas than just that?
Uvula means “little grape"in Latin, and a swollen uvula is called ”ūva“ which is simply ”grape“. Hanging grapes everywhere!
Everyone also has a cerebellar uvula, which is right next to the cerebellar tonsils (more tonsils!) and at the end of the cerebeallar vermis ("cerebellar worm”). This area of the brain is involved in posture and locomotion.
In addition to both of those, males also have a uvula of the urinary bladder. This is less of a “little grape”, and more of a slight elevation in the internal urethral orifice, caused by the prostate.
Scientists have discovered differences in the brain structure of ballet dancers that may help them avoid feeling dizzy when they perform pirouettes.
The research suggests that years of training can enable dancers to suppress signals from the balance organs in the inner ear.
The findings, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, could help to improve treatment for patients with chronic dizziness. Around one in four people experience this condition at some time in their lives.
Normally, the feeling of dizziness stems from the vestibular organs in the inner ear. These fluid-filled chambers sense rotation of the head through tiny hairs that sense the fluid moving. After turning around rapidly, the fluid continues to move, which can make you feel like you’re still spinning.
Ballet dancers can perform multiple pirouettes with little or no feeling of dizziness. The findings show that this feat isn’t just down to spotting, a technique dancers use that involves rapidly moving the head to fix their gaze on the same spot as much as possible.
Researchers at Imperial College London recruited 29 female ballet dancers and, as a comparison group, 20 female rowers whose age and fitness levels matched the dancers’.
The volunteers were spun around in a chair in a dark room. They were asked to turn a handle in time with how quickly they felt like they were still spinning after they had stopped. The researchers also measured eye reflexes triggered by input from the vestibular organs. Later, they examined the participants’ brain structure with MRI scans.
In dancers, both the eye reflexes and their perception of spinning lasted a shorter time than in the rowers.
Dr Barry Seemungal, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, said: “Dizziness, which is the feeling that we are moving when in fact we are still, is a common problem. I see a lot of patients who have suffered from dizziness for a long time. Ballet dancers seem to be able to train themselves not to get dizzy, so we wondered whether we could use the same principles to help our patients.”
The brain scans revealed differences between the groups in two parts of the brain: an area in the cerebellum where sensory input from the vestibular organs is processed and in the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for the perception of dizziness.
The area in the cerebellum was smaller in dancers. Dr Seemungal thinks this is because dancers would be better off not using their vestibular systems, relying instead on highly co-ordinated pre-programmed movements.
“It’s not useful for a ballet dancer to feel dizzy or off balance. Their brains adapt over years of training to suppress that input. Consequently, the signal going to the brain areas responsible for perception of dizziness in the cerebral cortex is reduced, making dancers resistant to feeling dizzy.
“If we can target that same brain area or monitor it in patients with chronic dizziness, we can begin to understand how to treat them better.”
Another finding in the study may be important for how chronic dizzy patients are tested in the clinic. In the control group, the perception of spinning closely matched the eye reflexes triggered by vestibular signals, but in dancers, the two were uncoupled.
“This shows that the sensation of spinning is separate from the reflexes that make your eyes move back and forth,” Dr Seemungal said. “In many clinics, it’s common to only measure the reflexes, meaning that when these tests come back normal the patient is told that there is nothing wrong. But that’s only half the story. You need to look at tests that assess both reflex and sensation.”
New research has revealed that exposure to common family problems during childhood and early adolescence affects brain development, which could lead to mental health issues in later life.
The study led by Dr Nicholas Walsh, lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of East Anglia, used brain imaging technology to scan teenagers aged 17-19. It found that those who experienced mild to moderate family difficulties between birth and 11 years of age had developed a smaller cerebellum, an area of the brain associated with skill learning, stress regulation and sensory-motor control. The researchers also suggest that a smaller cerebellum may be a risk indicator of psychiatric disease later in life, as it is consistently found to be smaller in virtually all psychiatric illnesses.
Previous studies have focused on the effects of severe neglect, abuse and maltreatment in childhood on brain development. However the aim of this research was to determine the impact, in currently healthy teenagers, of exposure to more common but relatively chronic forms of ‘family-focused’ problems. These could include significant arguments or tension between parents, lack of affection or communication between family members, physical or emotional abuse, and events which had a practical impact on daily family life and might have resulted in health, housing or school problems.
Dr Walsh, from UEA’s School of Psychology, said: “These findings are important because exposure to adversities in childhood and adolescence is the biggest risk factor for later psychiatric disease. Also, psychiatric illnesses are a huge public health problem and the biggest cause of disability in the world.
“We show that exposure in childhood and early adolescence to even mild to moderate family difficulties, not just severe forms of abuse, neglect and maltreatment, may affect the developing adolescent brain. We also argue that a smaller cerebellum may be an indicator of mental health issues later on. Reducing exposure to adverse social environments during early life may enhance typical brain development and reduce subsequent mental health risks in adult life.”
The study, which was conducted with the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, is published in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical.
The 58 teenagers who took part in the brain scanning were drawn from a larger study of 1200 young people, whose parents were asked to recall any negative life events their children had experienced between birth and 11 years of age. The interviews took place when the children were aged 14 and of the 58, 27 were classified as having been exposed to childhood adversities. At ages 14 and 17 the teenagers themselves also reported any negative events and difficulties they, their family or closest friends had experienced during the previous 12 months.
A “significant and unexpected” finding was that the participants who reported stressful experiences when aged 14 were subsequently found to have increased volume in more regions of the brain when they were scanned aged 17-19. Dr Walsh said this could mean that mild stress occurring later in development may ‘inoculate’ teenagers, enabling them to cope better with exposure to difficulties in later life, and that it is the severity and timing of the experiences that may be important.
“This study helps us understand the mechanisms in the brain by which exposure to problems in early-life leads to later psychiatric issues,” said Dr Walsh. “It not only advances our understanding of how the general psychosocial environment affects brain development, but also suggests links between specific regions of the brain and individual psychosocial factors. We know that psychiatric risk factors do not occur in isolation but rather cluster together, and using a new technique we show how the general clustering of adversities affects brain development.”
The researchers also found at that those who had experienced family problems were more likely to have had a diagnosed psychiatric illness, have a parent with a mental health disorder and have negative perceptions of their how their family functioned.