Progress in BRAIN Initiative Research

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President Barack Obama fist-bumps the robotic arm of Nathan Copeland during a tour at the White House Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh, Oct. 13, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In the less than three years since the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative was announced, researchers have made measurable progress towards creating new tools and sharpening existing ones to study the brain. Though its goals are long-term, in a few cases this progress already has shown promise in helping people.

These tools “allow us to do things that, in the past, were unimaginable,” said Nora Volkow of the National Institute of Drug Abuse during the third annual BRAIN Initiative investigators meeting, held in Bethesda, Md., this week. For example, imaging tech such as fMRI and PET have enabled us to make maps of brain activity and create a brain atlas of the concentration of serotonin transporters and receptors. But to reach goals as ambitious as characterizing the many types of neurons and other cells in the brain—or even to get a good count of how many types there are—we need to improve both the speed and the resolution of our tools.

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Facial Cues and the Brain

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As human beings, we can tend to be a little judgmental–sometimes without even realizing it. When we first meet someone, our brains are busy processing facial features, body language, personality traits, etc., within milliseconds of just saying “hello.” So what characteristics make us assume certain things about people we just meet, and can these unconscious first impressions really change the way we perceive someone?

Expanding on this topic, neuroscientist Jon Freeman, Ph.D., spoke to a room crowded with eager listeners as the featured guest in the latest event from the Secret Science Club. As director of the Social Cognitive & Neural Sciences lab at New York University, Freeman devotes all of his research to understanding “split-second social perception”—that is, how our brains use subtle facial cues, personality traits, and emotion to instantly categorize others into social groups. With the help of brain imaging technology (fMRI), electrophysiology (EEG and ERP), and real-time behavioral techniques, Freeman is able to study activity within the brain in hopes of learning more about the phenomena of snap judgments.

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Unraveling Individual Variability in Hormonal Mood Swings

Guest post by Brenda Patoine

The stereotype of women’s “inexplicable” mood swings has long provided fodder for comics and cartoonists, but for scientists trying to understand the underlying biology, hormonal depression is no joke.

Endocrine-related affective mood disorders show up in different forms in different phases of life, from premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) during otherwise normal menstrual cycling, to post-partum depression following childbirth, to mood disruptions around and after menopause. Yet these disorders don’t affect all women, and in fact, most women do not experience them.

“How is it that some women experience a change in affective state as a result of hormones whereas a majority of women do not?” Peter Schmidt, M.D. asked in a July 8 webinar sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). “That really is the million-dollar question.”

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New Cerebrum Article: Musical Creativity and the Brain

In a new Cerebrum article, Dana grantee Charles Limb, faculty member at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Peabody Conservatory of Music, and postdoctoral fellow Mónica López-González describe their research into musical creativity and the brain.

They are using brain imaging to study the neural underpinnings of spontaneous artistic creativity, from jazz riffs to freestyle rap. So far, they have found that brain areas deactivated during improvisation are also at rest during dreaming and meditation, while activated areas include those controlling language and sensorimotor skills. Even with relatively few completed studies, researchers have concluded that musical creativity cannot be tied to just one brain area or process.

As Limb and López-González conclude, there is much left to study—they would like research to branch out into visual and performing arts to “formulate a more generalizable theory on artistic creativity.”

To see video of jazz musicians and hip-hop freestylers in an fMRI scanner, watch Dr. Limb’s TED talk.

–Johanna Goldberg

Real Cases in Law and Neuroscience (and What We’ve Learned from Them)

People from a range of professional backgrounds congregated last week at the International Neuroethics Society’s annual meeting to discuss the intersection of neuroscience advances and ethics.  Topics included neuroscience and national security, novel treatments in neuropsychiatry, and neuroscience and the law.

Many of the neuroethics conversations involved the ethical implications of neuroscience research advances, such as enhancement drugs, but at Friday’s final panel, attendees heard about landmark court cases that set precedents for the use of neuroimaging as evidence.

"When it gets to the legal system, somebody has to make a decision,” said Hank Greely, Stanford Law professor and moderator of the panel, explaining the importance of these cases.

On the panel were criminal defense attorney Steve Greenberg, trial lawyer Houston Gordon, and neurologist Russell Swerdlow. Greenberg used fMRI to argue that his client was a born psychopath, convincing the jury to choose the lesser sentence of life in prison instead of the death penalty. Gordon unsuccessfully introduced fMRI lie-detection evidence as part of his defense for a federal criminal trial. Swerdlow cracked the case of a teacher who uncharacteristically became sex-obsessed, discovering through MRI a large brain tumor in the defendant, which was causing his abnormal behavior.

From a very basic standpoint, imaging seems like a great way to cut through the possibility of devious testimony or to identify the potential for violent behavior in a defendant. But it’s clearly not that simple. In addition to the overarching question of the evening—Is the science even ready?—Swerdlow asked: How hardwired is human decision making? How free is free will? Are legal standards of decision making adequate? How feasible is rehabilitation? Certainly these are questions that courtrooms will become more familiar with as cases using imaging evidence become more prevalent.

The lawyers on the panel seemed in agreement that cases need to be looked at on an individual basis, but that conditions such as mental illness should play a role in sentencing. While a person may be guilty of a crime, intent is obviously an important factor. Greenberg emphasized that he is against using imaging as a predictor of future behavior. It is this gray area that alarms many people, including neuroscientist Helen Mayberg, who expressed concern that imaging could be used in the future to predict violent tendencies in people, creating a rationalization to separate them from society before they have even committed a crime.

Lie-detection drew the most concern and criticism from the audience, although Gordon stood by his belief that it was a scientifically legitimate means of testing. Greenberg wouldn’t even address the topic, explaining that “lie-detection just scares me.” Most of the concern voiced at the session stemmed from the idea that is has not been sufficiently tested, with one audience member noting that most of the testing has been on students in very controlled studies.

Proven or not, many lawyers will continue to employ imaging tests if they add weight to their cases. It is because of this increasing intersection between neuroscience and the law that the education of judges and lawyers on neuroscience is gaining traction. Since 2007, the Dana Foundation has funded a grant to the AAAS to hold seminars for state and federal judges on emerging issues in neuroscience, with the last session taking place two weeks ago in Philadelphia. Hopefully through the instigation of the International Neuroethics Society and other like-minded organizations, legal and medical professionals will increasingly inform each other’s work in mutually beneficial ways.

–Ann L. Whitman

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