Music and the Arts Promote Heathy Cognitive Function

A session entitled “Arts, Music, and the Brain: How the Arts Influence Us from Youth to Maturity” drew a standing room only crowd in a late afternoon session on Tuesday at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego.

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Four speakers came at the topic from slightly different angles. The common denominator: In addition to anecdotal evidence and common sense, improved imaging and sound wave technology has helped neuroscientists demonstrate that arts and music boost cognitive function across social economic class, age, gender, and ethnicity.

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Early Brain Development in Children

Since her undergraduate days, Elizabeth M. C. Hillman, Ph.D., said, “I’ve been obsessed with blood flow in the brain.” So she studied physics and engineering, a path whose logic became evident in her talk this past Wednesday, hosted by Columbia University’s Mind Brain Behavior Institute.

The blood flow that has attracted her particular attention for nearly a decade is in the infant brain, said Dr. Hillman, director of the Laboratory for Functional Optical Imaging at Columbia School of Engineering, who described research into a paradox that could point the way to new treatments for brain disorders in both children and adults.

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Impacts of Stress on the Young Brain

Children’s brain development and social behavior can suffer when exposed to long-term stress, but early intervention can help, said two neuroscientists at the July Capitol Hill briefing, “Violence, Stress and Child Development.” The event was organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) through the support of the Dana Foundation and in conjunction with Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA).

Dana Alliance members Judy Cameron, Ph.D., and Felton Earls, M.D., discussed their research on the topic at the event: Cameron spoke about how early exposure to stress affects brain development and later, adult behavior and health; Earls discussed a longitudinal study he led in the 90s on risk factors associated with violence in 343 Chicago neighborhoods.

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Tales from the Lab: Developmental Plasticity and the Effect of Genetic Disorders

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Over the next three months, the Dana Foundation blog is pleased to host a new blog series, “Tales from the Lab,” featuring two neuroscience graduate student guest bloggers: Tim Balmer from Georgia State University and Grace Lindsay from Columbia University. Tim’s contributions will focus on life as a neuroscience graduate student and Grace will focus on neuroplasticity. This is Grace’s first blog in the series.

Infancy is a tumultuous time for the brain. A set of neurons with connections in constant flux are working to process an onslaught of sensory signals; yet the connections themselves are guided by the very signals they’re processing. Despite the apparent chaos, we all end up with roughly the same hardware: an occipital lobe for seeing, a temporal lobe for hearing, parietal lobe for sensing touch, etc. 

But what happens when those brain-shaping signals can’t get into the brain? For example, in the case of Leber’s congenital amaurosis (LCA), a genetic mutation disrupts the function of cells in the eye, leaving people with LCA essentially blind from birth. This lack of visual input throws a wrench into the brain’s normal plan of development, and it shows in the brain anatomy of adults with these kinds of disorders. Without visual information to process, the occipital lobe is reassigned to other tasks. PET and fMRI studies of congenitally blind humans have shown activation of the occipital lobe during processing of sounds, smells, and touch (such as braille). Such activation is not seen when imaging the brains of sighted people, or even those who lost their vision later in life. These findings demonstrate the remarkable plasticity of the developing brain to adapt its activity and structure in order to best process the signals it receives.

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Links Between Poverty and Brain Development Raise Key Policy Issues

On June 26, more than 100 people–congressional staff, federal scientists, and journalists–gathered on Capitol Hill to listen to neuroscience experts talk about the links between poverty and brain development. The 90-minute briefing was part of a series organized by AAAS and supported by the Dana Foundation, designed to educate members of Congress and their staffs about topical issues in neuroscience.

The experts, including Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives members Martha Farah, Ph.D., and Alan Leshner, Ph.D., were on hand to explain brain development and the negative effects of stress on children, and to raise important questions about education, health, social welfare, and juvenile justice.

“The science is fascinating,” said Farah, “I think it can engage people with the awesomeness of brain development…and how it emerges from the interplay of genes and environment. It can renew people’s interest in finding solutions.”

AAAS recently published a detailed article about the event, which includes links to some of the slideshows presented.

–Ann L. Whitman

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