The Anxious Brain

“Since the 1960s, billions of dollars and probably millions of animals have gone into the search for new and better anti-anxiety medications,” said researcher Joseph LeDoux at an event this week on anxiety at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But drug makers, who have spent years targeting points along a brain pathway described as the “fear circuit” in animals, haven’t had the success they sought; they have stopped funding many studies. Why?

LeDoux, a Dana Alliance member at New York University who has studied this circuit for the past three decades, argues that the term we use may have blinded us to what the circuit actually does. Instead of labeling it with a human feeling, it would better to call it an unconscious “defensive survival circuit.” Other inputs lead to the conscious feelings of fear and anxiety. For example, while hiking, we have already recoiled from the snake on the trail before our conscious minds have hit the danger signal. The two things happen so fast, though, it’s easy to think the feeling led to the action—but we’re committing the first sin of science: confusing correlation and causation, LeDoux said.

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From left: moderator Mark Frankel, Joseph LeDoux, and Daniel Pine field questions from the audience.

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Closing the Language Skills Gap Among Children

Here’s the full video from the latest #neuroseries forum, in September; it was so rich in data and ideas that I watched it twice before writing a story about the event for our website. One of my favorite parts is researcher Anne Fernald’s’s description and video showing how fast language-processing speed improves from when a child is 18 months old to when he is 30 months old. Not only is it an easy-to-follow example of how to test language ability in preverbal children, but I love the boy’s attitude when he knows he’s got it right.

I have the short clip with my story; in this video it starts at the 15:05 mark.

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Public Event: The Anxious Brain

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Phobias are the most common mental disorders in the United States, affecting about 10% of all adults, and many of them can be highly debilitating. They are a type of anxiety disorder, defined by a persistent fear of an object or situation, leaving some people unable to function in ordinary life. You have likely heard of acrophobia (fear of heights), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), and claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces). But have you heard of ephebiphobia (fear of teenagers), mageirocophobia (fear of cooking), or phobophobia (a fear of phobias)? The list goes on. Why do people develop phobias? Are some more susceptible than others? What mechanisms in the brain are in play when phobias strike and what does research reveal about effective treatments? Join us for this event and learn more about why phobias arise, the damage they can do, and how best to treat them, unless, of course, you are afflicted by sophophobia.

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Moving Toward a Healthy Brain

Last week, experts Arthur Kramer, Jim Koenig, and Sarah M. Ingersoll gathered in DC for a Capitol Hill briefing on physical exercise and its effects on brain health. You can now watch the video of the event to find out: Does a healthy body equal a healthy brain?

The Dana Foundation supports a grant to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for a series of briefings designed to educate Congressional members and their staffs about topical issues in neuroscience.

 

From the Archives: Encouraging Brain Literacy

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Image courtesy of the University of California, Davis, Center for Neuroscience

In 2010, we invited Michaela Labriole, then a science instructor at the New York Hall of Science, to share ways to promote brain-science literacy in schools. Firstly, she writes in her essay for Cerebrum, why limit learning about the brain to science classes?

Teachers can utilize the strong connection between neuroscience and other subject areas to boost scientific literacy. Some students find certain topics in neuroscience, such as neurotransmitters, very abstract. By tying in other subject areas, especially through hands-on techniques, educators can improve student understanding. They can easily turn neurons into an art project by using pipe cleaners and other materials to model different structures, or into an exercise in physical education by asking students to use their arms as axons and dendrites to pass a ball that serves as a neurotransmitter…

Students routinely learn that they must wear bicycle helmets, stay away from drugs, and eat properly, but they are not always taught how helmets, drugs, and nutrition can affect brain function. By making clearer connections to material already being taught, educators can increase students’ understanding of the brain. For older students, presenting brain scans from people who have used drugs or suffered brain trauma make the brain-health connection more evident. For younger students, creating brain hats can help illustrate both the importance of protecting the brain and fundamental ideas such as cortical localization of function. This basic concept states that while some structures may have roles that overlap, and some structures may do multiple jobs, in general there is a division of labor in the brain. Understanding this basic idea primes students for deeper exploration of neuroanatomy. There are many brain-hat templates available on the Internet; educators can create paper hats that students label with the various parts or functions of the brain. For young learners, one could simply put a picture of an eye in the back of the brain hat rather than use words like occipital lobe or visual-processing center. By having students label the hats this way and then wear them, an educator can ask students to consider what would happen if they fell off their bikes and hit their heads in different areas.

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