neuroimaging

New neuroimaging technique: Mapping Myelination

Neuroscientists have known for more than a century that myelination levels differ throughout the cerebral cortex, the gray outer layer of the brain where most higher mental functions take place.  via

Researcher, Van Essen’s journal article here  also explains how in MRI data already collected, or in less than 10 minutes, myelination images can be collected and used in conjunction with other imaging techniques to provide a more well rounded picture and understanding that we could once only see posthumously…after removing the brain, slicing it and staining it for myelin. This is important because:

Better brain maps will result, speeding efforts to understand how the healthy brain works and potentially aiding in future diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders…

The technique makes it possible for scientists to map myelination, or the degree to which branches of brain cells are covered by a white sheath known as myelin in order to speed up long-distance signaling. via


Image: “Red and yellow indicate regions with high myelin levels; blue, purple and black areas have low myelin levels." via

Brain Scans Reveal What Dogs Really Think of Us

We love our dogs.

In the 30,000 years humans and dogs have lived together, man’s best friend has only become a more popular and beloved pet. Today, dogs are a fixture in almost 50% of American households.

From the way dogs thump their tails, invade our laps and steal our pillows, it certainly seems like they love us back. But since dogs can’t tell us what’s going on inside their furry heads, can we ever be sure?

Actually, yes. Thanks to recent developments in brain imaging technology, we’re starting to get a better picture of the happenings inside the canine cranium.

That’s right — scientists are actually studying the brains of dogs. And what the studies show is welcome news for all dog owners: Not only do dogs seem to love us back, they actually see us as their family. It turns out that dogs rely on humans more than they do their own kind for affection, protection and everything in between.

The most direct brain-based evidence that dogs are hopelessly devoted to humans comes from a recentneuroimaging study about odor processing in the dog brain. Animal cognition scientists at Emory University trained dogs to lie still in an MRI machine and used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to measure their neural responses to the smell of people and dogs, both familiar and unknown. Because dogs navigate the world through their noses, the way they process smell offers a lot of potential insight into social behavior.

The scientists found that dog owners’ aroma actually sparked activation in the “reward center” of their brains, called the caudate nucleus. Of all the wafting smells to take in, dogs actually prioritized the hint of humans over anything or anyone else.

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Humans feel empathy for robots

fMRI scans show similar brain function when robots are treated the same as humans

From the T-101 to Data from Star Trek, humans have been presented with the fictional dilemma of how we empathize with robots. Robots now infiltrate our lives, toys like Furbies or robot vacuum cleaners bring us closer, but how do we really feel about these non-sentient objects on a human level? A recent study by researchers at the University of Duisburg Essen in Germany found that humans have similar brain function when shown images of affection and violence being inflicted on robots and humans.

Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten, Nicole Krämer, and Matthias Brand of the University of Duisburg Essen, will present their findings at the 63rd Annual International Communication Association conference in London. Rosenthal-von der Pütten, Krämer and Brand conducted two studies. In the first study, 40 participants watched videos of a small dinosaur-shaped robot that was treated in an affectionate or a violent way and measured their level of physiological arousal and asked for their emotional state directly after the videos. Participants reported to feel more negative watching the robot being abused and showed higher arousal during the negative video.

The second study conducted in collaboration with the Erwin L. Hahn Institute for Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Essen, used functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI), to investigate potential brain correlations of human-robot interaction in contrast to human-human interaction. The 14 participants were presented videos showing a human, a robot and an inanimate object, again being treated in either an affectionate or in a violent way. Affectionate interaction towards both, the robot and the human, resulted in similar neural activation patterns in classic limbic structures, indicating that they elicit similar emotional reactions. However, when comparing only the videos showing abusive behavior differences in neural activity suggested that participants show more negative empathetic concern for the human in the abuse condition.

A great deal of research in the field of human-robot interaction concentrates on the implementation of emotion models in robotic systems. These studies test implementations with regard to their believability and naturalness, their positive influence on participants, or enjoyment of the interaction. But there is little known on how people perceive “robotic” emotion and whether they react emotionally towards robots. People often have problems verbalizing their emotional state or find it strange to report on their emotions in human-robot interactions. Rosenthal-von der Pütten and Krämer’s study utilized more objective measures linked to emotion like physiological arousal and brain activity associated with emotional processing.

“One goal of current robotics research is to develop robotic companions that establish a long-term relationship with a human user, because robot companions can be useful and beneficial tools. They could assist elderly people in daily tasks and enable them to live longer autonomously in their homes, help disabled people in their environments, or keep patients engaged during the rehabilitation process,” said Rosenthal-von der Pütten. “A common problem is that a new technology is exciting at the beginning, but this effect wears off especially when it comes to tasks like boring and repetitive exercise in rehabilitation. The development and implementation of uniquely humanlike abilities in robots like theory of mind, emotion and empathy is considered to have the potential to solve this dilemma.”

“Investigation on Empathy Towards Humans and Robots Using Psychophysiological Measures and fMRI,” by Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten and Nicole Krämer; To be presented at the 63rd Annual International Communication Association Conference, London, England 17-21 June

New study discovers biological basis for magic mushroom ‘mind expansion’

Psychedelic drugs such as LSD and magic mushrooms can profoundly alter the way we experience the world but little is known about what physically happens in the brain. New research, published in Human Brain Mapping, has examined the brain effects of the psychedelic chemical in magic mushrooms, called psilocybin, using data from brain scans of volunteers who had been injected with the drug.

The study found that under psilocybin, activity in the more primitive brain network linked to emotional thinking became more pronounced, with several different areas in this network - such as the hippocampus and anterior cingulate cortex - active at the same time. This pattern of activity is similar to the pattern observed in people who are dreaming. Conversely, volunteers who had taken psilocybin had more disjointed and uncoordinated activity in the brain network that is linked to high-level thinking, including self-consciousness.

Psychedelic drugs are unique among other psychoactive chemicals in that users often describe ‘expanded consciousness,’ including enhanced associations, vivid imagination and dream-like states. To explore the biological basis for this experience, researchers analysed brain imaging data from 15 volunteers who were given psilocybin intravenously while they lay in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. Volunteers were scanned under the influence of psilocybin and when they had been injected with a placebo.

“What we have done in this research is begin to identify the biological basis of the reported mind expansion associated with psychedelic drugs,” said Dr Robin Carhart-Harris from the Department of Medicine, Imperial College London.  “I was fascinated to see similarities between the pattern of brain activity in a psychedelic state and the pattern of brain activity during dream sleep, especially as both involve the primitive areas of the brain linked to emotions and memory. People often describe taking psilocybin as producing a dream-like state and our findings have, for the first time, provided a physical representation for the experience in the brain.”    

The new study examined variation in the amplitude of fluctuations in what is called the blood-oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signal, which tracks activity levels in the brain. This revealed that activity in important brain networks linked to high-level thinking in humans becomes unsynchronised and disorganised under psilocybin. One particular network that was especially affected plays a central role in the brain, essentially ‘holding it all together’, and is linked to our sense of self.

In comparison, activity in the different areas of a more primitive brain network became more synchronised under the drug, indicating they were working in a more co-ordinated, ‘louder’ fashion. The network involves areas of the hippocampus, associated with memory and emotion, and the anterior cingulate cortex which is related to states of arousal.

Lead author Dr Enzo Tagliazucchi from Goethe University, Germany said: “A good way to understand how the brain works is to perturb the system in a marked and novel way. Psychedelic drugs do precisely this and so are powerful tools for exploring what happens in the brain when consciousness is profoundly altered. It is the first time we have used these methods to look at brain imaging data and it has given some fascinating insight into how psychedelic drugs expand the mind. It really provides a window through which to study the doors of perception.”

Dr. Carhart-Harris added: “Learning about the mechanisms that underlie what happens under the influence of psychedelic drugs can also help to understand their possible uses. We are currently studying the effect of LSD on creative thinking and we will also be looking at the possibility that psilocybin may help alleviate symptoms of depression by allowing patients to change their rigidly pessimistic patterns of thinking. Psychedelics were used for therapeutic purposes in the 1950s and 1960s but now we are finally beginning to understand their action in the brain and how this can inform how to put them to good use.”

The data was originally collected at Imperial College London in 2012 by a research group led by Dr Carhart-Harris and Professor David Nutt from the Department of Medicine, Imperial College London. Initial results revealed a variety of changes in the brain associated with drug intake. To explore the data further Dr. Carhart-Harris recruited specialists in the mathematical modelling of brain networks, Professor Dante Chialvo and Dr Enzo Tagliazucchi to investigate how psilocybin alters brain activity to produce its unusual psychological effects.

As part of the new study, the researchers applied a measure called entropy. This was originally developed by physicists to quantify lost energy in mechanical systems, such as a steam engine, but entropy can also be used to measure the range or randomness of a system. For the first time, researchers computed the level of entropy for different networks in the brain during the psychedelic state. This revealed a remarkable increase in entropy in the more primitive network, indicating there was an increased number of patterns of activity that were possible under the influence of psilocybin. It seemed the volunteers had a much larger range of potential brain states that were available to them, which may be the biophysical counterpart of ‘mind expansion’ reported by users of psychedelic drugs.

Previous research has suggested that there may be an optimal number of dynamic networks active in the brain, neither too many nor too few. This may provide evolutionary advantages in terms of optimising the balance between the stability and flexibility of consciousness. The mind works best at a critical point when there is a balance between order and disorder and the brain maintains this optimal number of networks. However, when the number goes above this point, the mind tips into a more chaotic regime where there are more networks available than normal. Collectively, the present results suggest that psilocybin can manipulate this critical operating point.

I believe connectomes are the meeting ground for nature and nurture. The gene controls how the brain wires up, but experiences also modify the connections of the brain.”- MIT Neuroscientist, Sabastian Seung [via]

Most of you have heard of the Human Connectome Project. If not, have a look.

Using “state-of-the-art diffusion-imaging scanner” images of neural pathways are collected via a MRI looking machine, which allows scienctists to view connections of the brain “by tracking the passage of water molecules through nerve fibers, giving a more accurate picture of the brain’s structure and its neuronal pathways”. [via] Eventually, the idea is to identify connectopathies (abnormal circuits) then treat with appropriate pharmacology targeted for that area.

Above: [via] “White matter fiber architecture of the brain. Measured from diffusion spectral imaging (DSI). The fibers are color-coded by direction: red = left-right, green = anterior-posterior, blue = through brain stem. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Randy Buckner, PhD and the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging.”

When Good People Do Bad Things

Read the full article When Good People Do Bad Things at NeuroscienceNews.com.

Being in a group makes some people lose touch with their personal moral beliefs, researchers find.

When people get together in groups, unusual things can happen — both good and bad. Groups create important social institutions that an individual could not achieve alone, but there can be a darker side to such alliances: Belonging to a group makes people more likely to harm others outside the group.

The research is in NeuroImage. (full access paywall)

Research: “Reduced self-referential neural response during intergroup competition predicts competitor harm” by M Cikara, AC Jenkins, N Dufour, and R Saxe in Neuroimage. Published online June 2014 doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.03.080

Image: When people are in a group, they feel more anonymous, and less likely to be caught doing something wrong. They may also feel a diminished sense of personal responsibility for collective actions. The image shows one of Banksy’s murals called ‘Riot’. The image is for illustrative purposes only. Credit Sal Taylor Kydd.

New High-Tech Lab Records the Brain and Body in Action

How does an autistic child take in information when he sits in a classroom abuzz with social activity? How long does it take someone with multiple sclerosis, which slows activity in the brain, to process the light bouncing off the windshield while she drives?

Until recently, the answers to basic questions of how diseases affect the brain – much less the ways to treat them – were lost to the limitations on how scientists could study brain function under real-world conditions. Most technology immobilized subjects inside big, noisy machines or tethered them to computers that made it impossible to simulate what it’s really like to live and interact in a complex world.

But now UC San Francisco neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, is hoping to paint a fuller picture of what is happening in the minds and bodies of those suffering from brain disease with his new lab, Neuroscape, which bridges the worlds of neuroscience and high-tech.

In the Neuroscape lab, wireless and mobile technologies set research participants free to move around and interact inside 3-D environments, while scientists make functional recordings with an array of technologies. Gazzaley hopes this will bring his field closer to understanding how complex neurological and psychiatric diseases really work and help doctors like him repurpose technologies built for fitness or fun into targeted therapies for their patients.

“I want us to have a platform that enables us to be more creative and aggressive in thinking how software and hardware can be a new medicine to improve brain health,” said Gazzaley, an associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry and director of the UCSF Neuroscience Imaging Center. “Often, high-tech innovations take a decade to move beyond the entertainment industry and reach science and medicine. That needs to change.”

As a demonstration of what Neuroscape can do, Gazzaley’s team created new imaging technology that he calls GlassBrain, in collaboration with the Swartz Center at UC San Diego and Nvidia, which makes high-end computational computer chips. GlassBrain creates vivid, color visualizations of the structures of the brain and the white matter that connects them, as they pulse with electrical activity in real time.

These brain waves are recorded through electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical potentials on the scalp. Ordinary EEG recordings look like wavy horizontal lines, but GlassBrain turns the data into bursts of rhythmic activity that speed along golden spaghetti-like connections threading through a glowing, multi-colored glass-like image of a brain. Gazzaley is now looking at how to feed this information back to his subjects, for example by using the data from real-time EEG to make video games that adapt as people play them to selectively challenge weak brain processes. 

Gazzaley has already used the technology to image the brain of former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart as he plays a hypnotic, electronic beat on a Roland digital percussion device with NeuroDrummer, a game the Gazzaley Lab is designing to enhance brain function through rhythmic training. Hart, whose brain is healthy, is collaborating with Gazzaley to develop the game and performed on NeuroDrummer while immersed in virtual reality on an Oculus Rift at the Neuroscape lab opening on March 5.

The Neuroscape lab will be available to all UCSF researchers who study the brain. And Gazzaley ultimately hopes it will aid in the development of therapies to treat diseases as various as Alzheimer’s, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, autism, depression and multiple sclerosis.

What sign language teaches us about the brain

The world’s leading humanoid robot, ASIMO, has recently learnt sign language. The news of this breakthrough came just as I completed Level 1 of British Sign Language (I dare say it took me longer to master signing than it did the robot!). As a neuroscientist, the experience of learning to sign made me think about how the brain perceives this means of communicating.

For instance, during my training, I found that mnemonics greatly simplified my learning process. To sign the colour blue you use the fingers of your right hand to rub the back of your left hand, my simple mnemonic for this sign being that the veins on the back of our hand appear blue. I was therefore forming an association between the word blue (English), the sign for blue (BSL), and the visual aid that links the two. However, the two languages differ markedly in that one relies on sounds and the other on visual signs.

Do our brains process these languages differently? It seems that for the most part, they don’t. And it turns out that brain studies of sign language users have helped bust a few myths.

Read more

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Mmmm hmm, but how much do you love me?

Using fMRI, neuroscientists measured the neurochemical experience of love in a “love competition”.  The idea is love isn’t a black or white concept where you either love someone or you don’t…it’s about degrees or power. Here, they put several people in an fMRI machine, told them to think about the object of their affection to see who displayed the most activity in the regions associated with love and made a little documentary about it. You can watch a preview here.

Whispery to the giddy 23 yr old: the mild head throbbing may not be love..it’s a common side effect of being in a heavily magnetized, 3-6 Tesla machine & that’s a lot …(a 1 Telsa magnet can pick up a car, FYI).

So we know that “love can elicit not only the same euphoric feeling as using cocaine, but also affects intellectual areas of the brain”.[via]

Although all fMRI studies of love point to the subcortical dopaminergic reward-related brain systems (involving dopamine and oxytocin receptors) for motivating individuals in pair-bonding, the present meta-analysis newly demonstrated that different types of love involve distinct cerebral networks, including those for higher cognitive functions such as social cognition and bodily self-representation. [via]

I wonder how they are able to compare different types of love related emotions (new/passionate vs older/secure), as well as the love they they feel when thinking of the other vs the love they have for other…or as the older lady suggested, the appreciation and love she feels for herself……cited by W. Houston (1985) replicating G. Benson (1977) as the greatest love of all.

Study First to Use Brain Scans to Forecast Early Reading Difficulties

Read the full article Study First to Use Brain Scans to Forecast Early Reading Difficulties at NeuroscienceNews.com.

UC San Francisco researchers have used brain scans to predict how young children learn to read, giving clinicians a possible tool to spot children with dyslexia and other reading difficulties before they experience reading challenges.

The research is in Psychological Science. (full access paywall)

Research: “White Matter Morphometric Changes Uniquely Predict Children’s Reading Acquisition” by Chelsea A. Myers, Maaike Vandermosten, Emily A. Farris, Roeland Hancock, Paul Gimenez, Jessica M. Black, Brandi Casto, Miroslav Drahos, Mandeep Tumber, Robert L. Hendren, Charles Hulme, and Fumiko Hoeft in Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797614544511

Image: The researchers found that the developmental course of the children’s white matter volume predicted the kindergarteners’ abilities to read. This image is for illustrative purposes only and is not connected to the research. Credit cuidado infantil.

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Optical brain scanner goes where other brain scanners can’t

Scientists have advanced a brain-scanning technology that tracks what the brain is doing by shining dozens of tiny LED lights on the head. This new generation of neuroimaging compares favorably to other approaches but avoids the radiation exposure and bulky magnets the others require, according to new research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. 

The new optical approach to brain scanning is ideally suited for children and for patients with electronic implants, such as pacemakers, cochlear implants and deep brain stimulators (used to treat Parkinson’s disease). The magnetic fields in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) often disrupt either the function or safety of implanted electrical devices, whereas there is no interference with the optical technique. 

The new technology is called diffuse optical tomography (DOT). While researchers have been developing it for more than 10 years, the method had been limited to small regions of the brain. The new DOT instrument covers two-thirds of the head and for the first time can image brain processes taking place in multiple regions and brain networks such as those involved in language processing and self-reflection (daydreaming). 

The results are now available online in Nature Photonics.

“When the neuronal activity of a region in the brain increases, highly oxygenated blood flows to the parts of the brain doing more work, and we can detect that,” said senior author Joseph Culver, PhD, associate professor of radiology. “It’s roughly akin to spotting the rush of blood to someone’s cheeks when they blush.”

The technique works by detecting light transmitted through the head and capturing the dynamic changes in the colors of the brain tissue. 

Although DOT technology now is used in research settings, it has the potential to be helpful in many medical scenarios as a surrogate for functional MRI, the most commonly used imaging method for mapping human brain function. Functional MRI also tracks activity in the brain via changes in blood flow. In addition to greatly adding to our understanding of the human brain, fMRI is used to diagnose and monitor brain disease and therapy. 

Another commonly used method for mapping brain function is positron emission tomography (PET), which involves radiation exposure. Because DOT technology does not use radiation, multiple scans performed over time could be used to monitor the progress of patients treated for brain injuries, developmental disorders such as autism, neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s, and other diseases. 

Unlike fMRI and PET, DOT technology is designed to be portable, so it could be used at a patient’s beside or in the operating room. 

“With the new improvements in image quality, DOT is moving significantly closer to the resolution and positional accuracy of fMRI,” said first author Adam T. Eggebrecht, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow. “That means DOT can be used as a stronger surrogate in situations where fMRI cannot be used.”

The researchers have many ideas for applying DOT, including learning more about how deep brain stimulation helps Parkinson’s patients, imaging the brain during social interactions, and studying what happens to the brain during general anesthesia and when the heart is temporarily stopped during cardiac surgery.

For the current study, the researchers validated the performance of DOT by comparing its results to fMRI scans. Data was collected using the same subjects, and the DOT and fMRI images were aligned. They looked for Broca’s area, a key area of the frontal lobe used for language and speech production. The overlap between the brain region identified as Broca’s area by DOT data and by fMRI scans was about 75 percent. 

In a second set of tests, researchers used DOT and fMRI to detect brain networks that are active when subjects are resting or daydreaming. Researchers’ interests in these networks have grown enormously over the past decade as the networks have been tied to many different aspects of brain health and sickness, such as schizophrenia, autism and Alzheimer’s disease. In these studies, the DOT data also showed remarkable similarity to fMRI — picking out the same cluster of three regions in both hemispheres. 

“With the improved image quality of the new DOT system, we are getting much closer to the accuracy of fMRI,” Culver said. “We’ve achieved a level of detail that, going forward, could make optical neuroimaging much more useful in research and the clinic.” 

While DOT doesn’t let scientists peer very deeply into the brain, researchers can get reliable data to a depth of about one centimeter of tissue. That centimeter contains some of the brain’s most important and interesting areas with many higher brain functions, such as memory, language and self-awareness represented.

During DOT scans, the subject wears a cap composed of many light sources and sensors connected to cables. The full-scale DOT unit takes up an area slightly larger than an old-fashioned phone booth, but Culver and his colleagues have built versions of the scanner mounted on wheeled carts. They continue to work to make the technology more portable.

First map of core white-matter connections of human brain developed at USC

May help better address clinical challenges such as traumatic brain injury -

USC neuroscientists have systematically created the first map of the core white-matter “scaffold” (connections) of the human brain — the critical communications network that supports brain function.

Their work, published Feb. 11 in the open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, has major implications for understanding brain injury and disease, the researchers say.

By detailing the connections that have the greatest influence over all other connections, the researchers offer a landmark first map of core white matter pathways and also show which connections may be most vulnerable to damage.

“We coined the term white matter ‘scaffold’ because this network defines the information architecture which supports brain function,” said senior author John Darrell Van Horn of the USC Institute for Neuroimaging and Informatics and the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging.

“While all connections in the brain have their importance, there are particular links which are the major players,” Van Horn said.

Using MRI data from a large sample of 110 individuals, lead author Andrei Irimia, also of the USC Institute for Neuroimaging and Informatics, and Van Horn systematically simulated the effects of damaging each white matter pathway.

more: KurzweilAi

Patient in ‘vegetative state’ not just aware, but paying attention

Research raises possibility of devices in the future to help some patients in a vegetative state interact with the outside world.

A patient in a seemingly vegetative state, unable to move or speak, showed signs of attentive awareness that had not been detected before, a new study reveals. This patient was able to focus on words signalled by the experimenters as auditory targets as successfully as healthy individuals. If this ability can be developed consistently in certain patients who are vegetative, it could open the door to specialised devices in the future and enable them to interact with the outside world.

The research, by scientists at the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit (MRC CBSU) and the University of Cambridge, is published today, 31 October, in the journal Neuroimage: Clinical.

For the study, the researchers used electroencephalography (EEG), which non-invasively measures the electrical activity over the scalp, to test 21 patients diagnosed as vegetative or minimally conscious, and eight healthy volunteers. Participants heard a series of different words  - one word a second over 90 seconds at a time - while asked to alternatingly attend to either the word ‘yes’ or the word ‘no’, each of which appeared 15% of the time. (Some examples of the words used include moss, moth, worm and toad.) This was repeated several times over a period of 30 minutes to detect whether the patients were able to attend to the correct target word.

They found that one of the vegetative patients was able to filter out unimportant information and home in on relevant words they were being asked to pay attention to. Using brain imaging (fMRI), the scientists also discovered that this patient could follow simple commands to imagine playing tennis. They also found that three other minimally conscious patients reacted to novel but irrelevant words, but were unable to selectively pay attention to the target word.

These findings suggest that some patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state might in fact be able to direct attention to the sounds in the world around them.

Dr Srivas Chennu at the University of Cambridge, said: ”Not only did we find the patient had the ability to pay attention, we also found independent evidence of their ability to follow commands – information which could enable the development of future technology to help patients in a vegetative state communicate with the outside world.

“In order to try and assess the true level of brain function and awareness that survives in the vegetative and minimally conscious states, we are progressively building up a fuller picture of the sensory, perceptual and cognitive abilities in patients. This study has added a key piece to that puzzle, and provided a tremendous amount of insight into the ability of these patients to pay attention.”

Dr Tristan Bekinschtein at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit said: “Our attention can be drawn to something by its strangeness or novelty, or we can consciously decide to pay attention to it. A lot of cognitive neuroscience research tells us that we have distinct patterns in the brain for both forms of attention, which we can measure even when the individual is unable to speak. These findings mean that, in certain cases of individuals who are vegetative, we might be able to enhance this ability and improve their level of communication with the outside world.”

This study builds on a joint programme of research at the University of Cambridge and MRC CBSU where a team of researchers have been developing a series of diagnostic and prognostic tools based on brain imaging techniques since 1998. Famously, in 2006 the group was able to use fMRI imaging techniques to establish that a patient in a vegetative state could respond to yes or no questions by indicating different, distinct patterns of brain activity.

Crucial Advances in ‘Brain Reading’ Demonstrated

At UCLA’s Laboratory of Integrative Neuroimaging Technology, researchers use functional MRI brain scans to observe brain signal changes that take place during mental activity. They then employ computerized machine learning (ML) methods to study these patterns and identify the cognitive state – or sometimes the thought process – of human subjects. The technique is called “brain reading” or “brain decoding.”

Researchers have found they can detect these believe-disbelieve differences with high accuracy, in effect creating a lie detector.

“We are interested in exploring the relationships between structure and function in the human brain, particularly as related to higher-level cognition, such as mental imagery,” Anderson said. “The lab is engaged in the active exploration of modern data-analysis approaches, such as machine learning, with special attention to methods that reveal systems-level neural organization.” (via)

But no need to get frantic, this technique works kinda like auto text on your cell or google search suggestions, by “anticipating neurocognitive changes”.

Image. And read more here, gorgeous online poster.

Alterations in brain activity in children at risk of schizophrenia predate onset of symptoms

Research from the University of North Carolina has shown that children at risk of developing schizophrenia have brains that function differently than those not at risk.

Brain scans of children who have parents or siblings with the illness reveal a neural circuitry that is hyperactivated or stressed by tasks that peers with no family history of the illness seem to handle with ease.

Because these differences in brain functioning appear before neuropsychiatric symptoms such as trouble focusing, paranoid beliefs, or hallucinations, the scientists believe that the finding could point to early warning signs or “vulnerability markers” for schizophrenia.

“The downside is saying that anyone with a first degree relative with schizophrenia is doomed. Instead, we want to use our findings to identify those individuals with differences in brain function that indicate they are particularly vulnerable, so we can intervene to minimize that risk,” said senior study author Aysenil Belger, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine.

The UNC study, published online on March 6, 2013, in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, is one of the first to look for alterations in brain activity associated with mental illness in individuals as young as nine years of age.

Individuals who have a first degree family member with schizophrenia have an 8-fold to 12-fold increased risk of developing the disease. However, there is no way of knowing for certain who will become schizophrenic until symptoms arise and a diagnosis is reached. Some of the earliest signs of schizophrenia are a decline in verbal memory, IQ, and other mental functions, which researchers believe stem from an inefficiency in cortical processing – the brain’s waning ability to tackle complex tasks.

In this study, Belger and her colleagues sought to identify what if any functional changes occur in the brains of adolescents at high risk of developing schizophrenia. She performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on 42 children and adolescents ages 9 to 18, half of which had relatives with schizophrenia and half of which did not. Study participants each spent an hour and a half playing a game where they had to identify a specific image – a simple circle – out of a lineup of emotionally evocative images, such as cute or scary animals. At the same time, the MRI machine scanned for changes in brain activity associated with each target detection task.

Belger found that the circuitry involved in emotion and higher order decision making was hyperactivated in individuals with a family history of schizophrenia, suggesting that the task was stressing out these areas of the brain in the study subjects.

“This finding shows that these regions are not activating normally,” she says. “We think that this hyperactivation eventually damages these specific areas in the brain to the point that they become hypoactivated in patients, meaning that when the brain is asked to go into high gear it no longer can.”

Belger is currently exploring what kind of role stress plays in the changing mental capacity of adolescents at high risk of developing schizophrenia. Though only a fraction of these individuals will be diagnosed with schizophrenia, Belger thinks it is important to pinpoint the most vulnerable people early to explore interventions that may stave off the mental illness.

“It may be as simple as understanding that people are different in how they cope with stress,” says Belger. “Teaching strategies to handle stress could make these individuals less vulnerable to not just schizophrenia but also other neuropsychiatric disorders.”

This image reflects brain activation abnormalities in children and adolescents with a family history of schizophrenia, themselves at greater risk for schizophrenia.

Genes Influence how the Brain Reacts to Emotional Information

Full article.

Your genes may influence how sensitive you are to emotional information, according to new research by a UBC neuroscientist.

The research is in Journal of Neuroscience. (full access paywall)

Research: “Neurogenetic Variations in Norepinephrine Availability Enhance Perceptual Vividness” by Rebecca M. Todd, Mana R. Ehlers, Daniel J. Müller, Amanda Robertson, Daniela J. Palombo, Natalie Freeman, Brian Levine, and Adam K. Anderson in Journal of Neuroscience doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4489-14.2015

Image: Image shows increased activity in the brains of ADRA2b deletion carriers. Image credit: The researchers.