Monday, December 21, 2009

Broca's Area and Language

According to studies done by researchers at the University of Califonria, Sandigo School of Medicine, Broca's area, a small piece of the brain, can compute three different things at different times and within a quarter of a second (not just one thing when processing language, as previously thought). Direct recordings from sets of brain cells revealed that three fundamentally distinct aspects of language (meaning, structure, and word sounds) are computed in Broca's area in the brain and in a tightly-timed sequence.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Loneliness and 3 Degrees of Separation

John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago who has written a book called "Loneliness," teamed up with two other researchers to study the effect of loneliness in social networks. They used data from the Framingham Heart Study, which has followed thousands of people in Framingham, Massachusetts, since 1948. This time researchers looked at loneliness in the second generation in the study (e.g., 5,124 people. Loneliness is not necesarily based on the people right around you.

Study results showed that if a direct connection in your social network is lonely, you are 52 percent more likely to be lonely. At two degrees of separation (a friend of a friend) it's 25 percent. At three degrees of separation (someone who knows your friend's friend) it's 15 percent.

The results have been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They were also mentioned in "Connected," a book written by Dr. Nicholas Christakis at Harvard University and James Fowler at the University of California, San Diego. The book explores how happiness, obesity, smoking, and other behaviors (as well as habits)are contagious among groups of people who know one another. It may be important to hang out with smart, happy, healthy, functional people . . .

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sleep Deprivation

When you are sleep deprived, the boundaries between sleep and wakefulness may often become blurred. Recently research has shown that state "dissociation" is more common that anyone previously suspected. State dissociation is defined as the presence of more than one vigilance state concurrently. Vigilance states are defines as awake, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and non-REM sleep. Forgetfullness and daydreaming may be examples of this, but also more bizarre and even criminal behaviors could be, as well. In addition, perhaps 20% of vehicle accidents are related to sleep deprivation. Check out the article.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Brain and Religion-NonReligion

For any of you who have wondered if religion is "loaded" in a different place in the brain, etc., etc., etc., you may enjoy reading this abstract of a UCLA research project. Published by Plos One, the summary is entitled: "The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief." It appears that "religious thinking" is more aligned with areas that govern self-representation, cognitive conflict, and emotion. Non-religious thinking (e.g., facts) is more associated with memory retrieval networks. Bottom line is that while both types of thinking engage broad areas of the cerebrum, the difference between belief and disbelief appears to be content-independent. Researchers hope this study furthers their undrestanding of how the brain decides to accept statements of all kinds as valid descriptions of the world.

Friday, November 6, 2009


New Science recently posted an article reporting on conclusions reached at "Decade of the Mind" symposium recently held in Germany. No surprise, they figure it's time to get some practical information into the classroom -- about how the brain learn best. They also included some "myths" that are being debunked. Check out the site and enjoy . . .

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Calorie Restriction and Aging

Reports from researchers at the National Primate Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: a 30% caloric restriction begun in rhesus monkeys in adulthood reduces risk of the most common age-related conditions--diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and brain atrophy--by one third. (Calorie Restriction Slows Aging in Monkeys, by Katherine Bourzac)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Living Cells as Chemical Computers

For years the computer metaphor has been used to try to better explain aspects of human-brain function. Now, potentially every cell in the body may be functioning somewhat like a computer. At least that seems to be the perception of Dennis Bray in his new book entitled: Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell. In a nutshell (as summarized by Graham Lawton in NewScientist Opinion), living cells are chemical computers. They take information from the environment and process it to produce behavioural "outputs". The processing units are proteins, which perform all the same operations as the logic gates of a computer. Inputs from the environment cause the proteins to flip shape, to aggregate, and to chemically modify other proteins in a cascade of information processing that sweeps through the cell until it reaches effector proteins that make the cell move or change shape . . . Bray's book is available on

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Emotions in the Brain

fMRI studies at the University of Geneva, Switzerland: researchers presented subjects with pseudowords spoken in five ways - with anger, sadness, relief, joy, or neutral with no emotion at all. They were able to classify each emotion against all other alternatives by analyzing the spatial pattern of activity in the auditory cortex. Not only does this indicate that emotions do have their own brain-activity patterns, but also may provide increased understanding of what happens in brains that have difficulty recognizing, comprehending, or processing emotions. The comprehension of emotional prosody is crucial for social functioning. This ability appears to be compromised in various psychiatric disorders, including deficits for anger and sadness in schizophrenia, fear and surprise in bipolar affective disorder, and surprise in depression.

Michael Jackson's Death

I very much appreciated what Lisa Marie Presley wrote about Michael Jackson in her blog ( ) and sincerely hope she can get past feeling that she "failed" him. As a brain function specialist, my brain's opinion is that we can never "save" anyone but ourselves -- we can perhaps "influence" others but, even then, they need to be on board and willing to listen / make healthy choices. From watching Michael's career, my guess is that his brain was brilliant and introverted . . . the stress of being in the public "eye" from such a young age likely interfered with his emotional development (e.g., his seemingly child-like behavior at times and his less than stellar choices in some of the people with whom he surrounded himself). It's too bad there doesn't seem to be a way in this culture to live one's innate giftedness (at his level) without being sacrificed on the alter of public opinion . . . and/or without resorting to chemical solutions to try to manage the stressors . . . My wish for Lisa is that she is able to honor what she tried to do for Michael and let go of what she wished to have been able to accomplish . . .

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Einstein's Brain and Simulation

People often ask if stimulating their brain on a regular basis makes any positive difference. Studies of Einstein's brain structure may shed some light on such questions. Some of Einstein's abilities were probably hereditary. But the type of research he did required intense study, and such concentrated effort can apparently alter the brain physically. Researchers at UCLA, Laboratory of Neuroimaging, reported in the journal Neuroimage that regular meditation, for example, can increase the size of brain areas that regulate emotion. Interestingly enough, a curious knob-like feature that was identified in pictures of Einstein's motor cortex might be a result of his early musical training. The feature resembled a structure detected in neural studies of experienced pianists and violinists, thought to be caused by hand exercises.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

PowerPoint Animation

A seminar attendee recently asked me "why" (although the brain cannot really answer that question) I did not use animation in my PowerPoint presentations as it was "so much more entertaining." I was able to report conclusions from studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington on the impact of custom animation in PowerPoint lectures: although students appear to like the animation, it is actually entertaining distraction for the brain. Students seeing the non-animated lecture performed much better in subsequent tests of content than those who watched the animated lecture. According to the researchers, animated slides meant to present information incrementally actually require greater concentration, which makes it harder to remember content as well as reducing overall exposure time to the "complete" slide. So, no animated PowerPoint slides for my seminars. (Smile.)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Einstein's Brain

According to paleoanthropologist Dean Falk at Florida State University, Einstein's brain (on the surface at least) looks different from other brains. At least a dozen subtle variations in his brain's surface have been identied, variations that may have heightened his ability to see physics in a new way. Part of Einstein's brain, the visual-spatial reasoning region, is believed to have been about 15% larger than average/normal brains, and the supramarginal gyrus was not divided with the Sylvian fissure. The inference is that his anatomy might have given Einstein an advantage in three-dimensional thinking (e.g., theory or relativity). Check it out.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Emotion Signature in Temporal Lobes

For the first time, researchers at the University Medical Center of Geneva, Switzerland, have identified spatial signatures of emotion in the primary auditory cortex (PAC). This area located in the temporal lobes at the side of the brain (responsible for the sensation of sound) react more strongly to emotional vocalisations (anger, sadness, relief and joy) than to neutrality. Understanding emotions is vital to social skills. This may help to unravel what is going on in the brain in conditionn such as Schizophrenia, Autism, and even depression.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Autism and the Amygdala

MRI Brain Scans at the University of North Carolina have found differences in the size of the amygdala in the brains of children diagnosed with Autism (as compared to brains of children who do not have this diagnosis). By the age of two, the amygdala is already about 13% larger and then apparently stops growing. The question now is whether children are born with Autism or whether it develops sometime during the first two years of life? The amygdala (and there are two of them in the limbic area of the brain) helps an individual to process faces and emotions.