The neuroscience of poverty

PovertyBrainA small but growing group of neuroscientists is exploring a striking idea: Growing up in poverty doesn’t just limit children’s circumstances, but actually alters the very structure and physiology of their brains. I took a close look at studies published over the last decade in this new and controversial field. Continue reading “The neuroscience of poverty”

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Noisy patterns of connectivity mark autism brains

distortedBrainConnectivity600A new study may have solved a decade-old debate about whether the brains of people with autism are more or less connected than those of controls: They’re both, depending on where in the brain you look. Continue reading “Noisy patterns of connectivity mark autism brains”

Hopeful Currents

PsychTodayOne day last September, 40-year-old Jaime Campbell walked into a brain research laboratory at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where a researcher affixed two sponge-covered electrodes to her head. One was positioned above her left eye, over her brain’s prefrontal cortex, and the other was set on the side of her head, over her auditory cortex. With the turn of a dial, a steady two milliamps of direct current coursed through the electrodes for 20 minutes. Continue reading “Hopeful Currents”

Gins of the Fathers: Alcohol and the Next Generation

05_GinsofFather_rotate5It’s something pediatricians are taught to discuss with their young patients: Alcoholism runs in families, they counsel, so if yours has a strong history of this condition, you should be especially careful about drinking. But researchers’ efforts to pin down specific genes that contribute to this heritability have largely come up short. “Nobody has found a smoking gun that says, This is a gene that causes alcoholism,” says Gregg Homanics, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Pittsburgh (with a PhD in animal science). He and Andrey Finegersh, an MD/PhD student in his lab, decided to try a slightly different tack. “We thought that maybe in alcoholics, drinking a lot would cause some changes in what controls the genes—and that is what gets passed down to the next generation,” says Homanics. The findings from the resulting study were published in PLOS ONE in June.

[Read more at Pitt Med Magazine (scroll down to third story) // Fall 2014]

Male researchers stress out rodents

Male, but not female, experimenters induce intense stress in rodents that can dampen pain responses, according to a paper published today in Nature Methods. Such reactions affect the rodents’ behaviour and potentially confound the results of animal studies, the study suggests.

The authors discovered this surprising gender disparity while investigating whether the presence of experimenters affects rodent pain studies. For years, anecdotal reports have suggested that rodents show a diminished pain response when a handler remains in the room.

[Read more at Nature (also published at Scientific American online) // April 28, 2014]

The Modelling Challenge

Schizophrenia FeatureWhen Patricio O’Donnell started his lab in 1997 at Albany Medical College in New York, schizophrenia research seemed to be moving forward after a long period of stagnation.

For several decades, attention had focused on the idea that the disease was caused by elevated dopamine levels in the brain, particularly in the striatum, a nugget of brain tissue nestled under the cortex. But by the 1990s, the dopamine hypothesis was proving inadequate to fully explain the disease. In vivo imaging with computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging, and data from post-mortem studies in people with schizophrenia, pointed to cortical effects and implicated other neurotransmitter systems, such as glutamate and serotonin. Biologists were also learning to create transgenic mouse models of the disease, providing a set of tools with which to investigate genetic and aetiological factors.

[Read more at Nature Outlook (paywall) or download PDF // April 3, 2014]

Multinational resource compiles autism risk factors

A new database pools health registry data from seven countries, dramatically boosting sample sizes for epidemiological studies of autism. The virtual tool, built by an international consortium of researchers, allows them to effectively compare data across populations.

“This is a first for autism,” says Diana Schendel, professor of psychiatric epidemiology at Aarhus University in Denmark, who spearheaded the project.

[Read more at SFARI.org (also published on Scientific American online) // August 5, 2013]

 

The Oligodendrocyte Whisperer

In a darkened room in a fifth-floor Manhattan lab, Valentina Fossati shows off the fruits of her patient labor: a dish of homemade human brain cells. A black headband keeps her long, light hair out of her eyes as she looks down the viewfinder of a microscope. She croons into the plastic petri dish at a clump of cells that has taken her almost two years to goad into existence. As she turns the knobs, they appear. “I love them,” Fossati says. “I talk to them all the time.”

[Read more at Multiple Sclerosis Discovery Forum // May 10, 2013]

A little brain training goes a long way

brain trainingPeople who use a ‘brain-workout’ program for just 10 hours have a mental edge over their peers even a year later, researchers report today in PLoS ONE.

The search for a regimen of mental callisthenics to stave off age-related cognitive decline is a booming area of research — and a multimillion-dollar business. But critics argue that even though such computer programs can improve performance on specific mental tasks, there is scant proof that they have broader cognitive benefits.

[Read more at Nature // May 1, 2013]