Remembering Breakthroughs

A New York Times profile earlier this week on Brenda A. Milner, Sc.D., credited her with changing “the course of brain science for good as a newly minted Ph.D. in the 1950s by identifying the specific brain organ that is crucial to memory formation.”

Milner

Photo credit: Owen Egan; Courtesy of the Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University

Milner, a Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives member, identified the hippocampus and other areas of the brain that process memory while working with Henry Molaison, more commonly known as H.M., who developed amnesia at age 29 from the removal of tissue from both his medial temporal lobes, a surgery that was supposed to alleviate his epilepsy.

With the help of H.M., Milner discovered that memory was processed in the medial temporal lobes, which was why he could no longer form new long-term memories. He was, however, able to learn new tasks, meaning he must remember the actions in another part of the brain. His ability to acquire new skills proved to Milner there are two types of memory that occur in different parts of the brain – explicit memory, which recalls describable details like facts and events, and implicit memory, for unconscious memories such as actions and procedures. Milner described this finding in a 2010 Dana Foundation interview:

I went to the McGill psychology department and borrowed learning tasks to give him [H.M]. I took down a maze task, which I was sure he wouldn’t learn, and he didn’t. It was a nice control test, because he showed absolutely no progress over three days. Then I gave him the mirror drawing task. H.M. did 30 trials over three days and at the end of the last trial, his performance was absolutely perfect. I can still remember him looking at what he had drawn, saying: “This is strange. I thought this would be difficult, but it looks as though I’ve done it rather well.” I was very excited because it showed that he could have this excellent performance without any awareness that the reason he was doing so well was that he had had the chance to practice the task over three days.

When I saw that H.M.  had this beautiful learning of something he had no memory of having acquired, I then speculated that this task, which involved motor learning, depended on a different system in the brain. His surgeon had damaged his medial temporal system, but this was a kind of learning that was unaffected by this operation, so therefore it must involve other structures.

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Neuroscience and Society: The Opioid Epidemic

opioid_deaths_2color

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/opioids/index.html

“We’ve moved from an epidemic to a crisis” in opioid abuse in the United States, said Daniel Ciccarone, M.D., MPH, during a panel discussion at AAAS in Washington, DC, this week. Ciccarone, a doctor at University of California, San Francisco, who treats addicted people and does research, described a pattern of intertwined waves involving abuse of prescription pills, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

For example, while overdose deaths due to prescription pill use are spread relatively evenly across the country, “this is not true for heroin,” Ciccarone said. The Northeast has had troubles with opioid abuse for a generation, while in the Midwest, numbers have jumped just recently. And while older folks (50-64) are using pills in greater numbers, it’s younger people (20-35) driving heroin use.

“Heroin itself is becoming more and more dangerous,” he said, especially when it is laced with synthetic drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil (used to tranquilize elephants). People who stop breathing after using these stronger concoctions often don’t respond to emergency treatments like naloxone.

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2017 World Science Festival

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The World Science Festival celebrates its tenth anniversary this year and is once again offering a great series of programs. From May 30 to June 4 in New York City, you can attend events ranging from a trivia night on mummies to a panel talk on the biggest questions in cosmology.

Of course, we’re most interested in the brain-related events, and they don’t disappoint. On Wednesday, May 31, psychologists and neuroscientists will tackle creativity and artificial intelligence–can computers be creative? Friday, June 2, a panel will explore brain development and the roots of human social connections. On the last day of the festival, attendees will hear an update on the Human Connectome Project. Two Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives members will present at this event: neurobiologist David Van Essen, author of a 2016 Cerebrum article on the connectome, and developmental neurobiologist Jeff W. Lichtman.

Tickets are on sale now and sell out quickly! And stay tuned for coverage of some of the events on this blog.

Free Public Event: The Opioid Epidemic

Addiction

Image: Shutterstock

Opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, with overdoses and deaths caused by prescribed and “street” drugs on the rise. The accelerating abuse of opioids includes not only painkillers that have legitimate uses, but heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl as well. The epidemic is not limited to inner city pockets of poverty; small-town America is also overcome by a tsunami of opioid addiction, putting strains on state and local social services and criminal justice systems. Join us for an event that will address the demographics and sociology of the opioid epidemic, the science of opioid addiction, and treatment options.
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Sleep Awareness Week Interview with Clifford Saper

Sleep Disorder

Image: Shutterstock

Who wouldn’t enjoy an extra hour or two of sleep before climbing out of bed and getting ready for work? A good night’s rest, or lack thereof, not only contributes to the following day’s productivity levels and emotions, but also its long-term effects are linked to cognitive and cardiovascular health. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one third of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep each night, and research points sleeping less than seven to eight hours each night to health risks such as stroke, obesity, cancer, and high blood pressure.

For National Sleep Awareness Week (April 23 – 29), we asked sleep expert Clifford B. Saper, M.D., Ph.D., to discuss the importance of sleep hygiene, sleep disorders, and current research at Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine, where he conducts his lab research and heads the neurology department. Saper is also a Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives member and past Dana Foundation grantee.

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