From the Archives: Top 10 Stories of 2011

We have a deep archive of great stories about the brain and the people who study it, and thanks to the internet, none of it is further than a quick search away. Here are the stories folks found most popular on www.dana.org from Dec. 15, 2010, to Dec. 15, 2011.

1. Video Games Affect the Brain—for Better and Worse (from Cerebrum)

We hear conflicting reports about how video games affect our brains. One study will suggest that video games help us learn; another might imply that they make young people more aggressive. Douglas A. Gentile, Ph.D., argues that how games influence our brains is not an either-or proposition; games can have both positive and negative consequences, and which of these results researchers find depends on what they are testing. Gentile proposes that researchers focus their investigations on five attributes of video game design to tease out these disparate effects. (Posted July 2009)

2. Basal Ganglia Contribute to Learning, but Also Certain Disorders (from BrainWork)

Move over, hippocampus: The basal ganglia, a group of interconnected brain areas located deep in the cerebral cortex, have proved to be at work in learning, the formation of good and bad habits, and some psychiatric and addictive disorders. (Jan. 2007)

3. Brains Do It: Lust, Attraction, and Attachment (from Cerebrum)

Did you ever experience the unsettling sense that your sexual desires, romantic longings, and feelings of long-term emotional unionwere racing down different tracks? And perhaps ask yourself: Which of these is love? The three tracks may be different brain circuits, says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University researching the brain chemistry of emotions associated with mating, reproduction, and parenting. With classic understatement, she suggests that the three emotional systems—lust, attraction, and attachment—“are somewhat disconnected in human beings…” But the situation is not hopeless, Fisher argues; the role of the prefrontal cortex in humans is to control and direct these emotions—if we so choose. (January 2000)

4. Visualizing How We Read (news)

Neuroimaging is opening a window into how we learn to read. Acquiring this complex, demanding skill, researchers find, is a richly orchestrated process that recruits and connects diverse brain regions. Ultimately, researchers hope, what’s learned in the laboratory will guide more powerful teaching methods adapted to the quirks and variations of individual children’s brains. (March 2011)

5. The World Needs People With Asperger’s Syndrome (book review of American Normal)

"The world needs the Asperger’s people," says Temple Grandin in this extensive review of both a book and the field. "After all, the social people who sat around the campfire talking were probably not the makers of the first stone spear. It is also likely that the most social people did not create the great culture of our civilization, such as literature, art, engineering, music, science, and mathematics. Genetics and biology provide the world with different kinds of minds. Whether or not these minds make great contributions to society is determined by both biology and the environment." (Oct. 2002)

6. Effects of Music Training on Brain and Cognitive Development in Under-Privileged 3- to 5-Year-Olds – Preliminary Results (Research summary)

A report on one of the studies included in our Arts & Cognition initiative, researchers including Helen Neville study tested the hypothesis that music training causes improvements in several diverse aspects of cognition, and that one way music training produces these effects is by improving attention. They enrolled 88 children from Head Start preschools, measuring their test scores at baseline, prior to musicial intervention, and again following the intervention. "There were strong and significant improvements in non-verbal IQ and numeracy and spatial cognition within a group measured before and after training (i.e., within-group differences) in children who received music training and those who received attention training." (March 2008)

7. How Music Helps to Heal the Injured Brain (from Cerebrum)

The use of music in therapy for the brain has evolved rapidly as brain-imaging techniques have revealed the brain’s plasticity and have identified networks that music activates. Armed with this growing knowledge, doctors and researchers are employing music to retrain the injured brain. Studies by this essay's authors, Michael Thaut, Ph.D. and Gerald McIntosh, M.D., and other researchers have revealed that because music and motor control share circuits, music can improve movement in patients who have suffered a stroke or who have Parkinson’s disease. Research has shown that neurologic music therapy can also help patients with language or cognitive difficulties, and the authors suggest that these techniques should become part of rehabilitative care. Future findings may well indicate that music should be included on the list of therapies for a host of other disorders as well. (March 2010) 

8. The Frustrating No-Man’s-Land of Borderline Personality Disorder (from Cerebrum)

Can the label “brain disease” be applied to a cluster of willful, irritating, often manipulative behaviors—from aggressiveness to roller-coaster emotional attachments—that may cause even psychiatrists to dismiss a patient as simply “impossible”? Impossible or not, these behaviors are part of a syndrome that psychiatry has consigned to the borderland between neurosis and psychosis, a gray area where more than one in ten psychiatric outpatients may be wandering, often without appropriate professional care—and where thousands will commit suicide. 

Psychiatrists Larry J. Siever and Harold W. Koenigsberg argue that the complexity of borderline personality disorder may stem from the interaction among genetic vulnerabilities (such as extremes of temperament), early experiences, and vast differences in patients’ coping patterns. Patients must be held responsible, they argue, but so must the mental health professionals whose role is to understand and help them. (Oct. 2000)

9. Left Hand, Left Brain: The Plot Thickens (from Cerebrum)

Over the centuries, humans have been intrigued, and disturbed, by those among us who are “lefties,” writes Carolyn Asbury. Why favor a different hand from the other 90 percent of humanity? Is it biological destiny? Choice? Scientists have sought patterns among the left-handed and thought they saw links with everything from musical talent to mental illness. Science’s discovery of another asymmetry, between left and right brain, added greatly to the complexity—but perhaps also the importance—of understanding “handedness.” Geneticist Amar Klar has a theory that seems to explain a great deal, if only the gene required by the theory can be found. (Oct. 2005)

10. Protecting the Brain from a Glutamate Storm (from Cerebrum)

When a stroke or head injury releases a flood of the chemical messenger glutamate, the excess glutamate leaves damaged neurons in its wake. Israeli scientist Vivian Teichberg, Ph.D., has developed a new method that may protect the brain from this destruction by harnessing the brain’s natural ability to keep glutamate levels in check. (May 2007)

–Nicky Penttila

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