Exploring the Geography of the Brain

Early world explorers worked with crude maps, painfully charting the geography of new locations for future generations. Today, anyone can log on to the internet for detailed descriptions of the countries, cities, and roads of our world. In comparison, the map of the brain still has a long way to go. In fact, a map of the brain made over 100 years ago is still being used by neuroscientists today.

Cartographers of the Brain: Mapping the Connectome,” a discussion at the World Science Festival in New York City, focused on efforts by neuroscientists to create new, more detailed maps of the brain. Deanna Barch, Washington University School of Medicine; Nim Tottenham, Columbia University; Dana Alliance member Jeff Lichtman, Harvard University; and Dana Alliance member David Van Essen, Washington University, formed the expert panel.

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Video Games and the Brain: Action, Strategy, and Pac-Man

Playing some video games can cause serious harm, while others might improve or restore skills, suggested three panelists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week.

“Not all games are created equal,” said Chandramallika Basak, a researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas. She and her colleagues study how memory and other skills change across our lifespan; part of that includes research investigating brain and cognitive effects of different games, especially as people get older.

Not everything in your brain declines with age (crystallized memory stays strong), but she’s looking for activities that could strengthen the ones that do, especially working memory (including how fast you can update current information) and task-switching (how fast you can switch when multitasking). Assuming there is a “functional threshold” for success at daily life, she wonders, “Can we keep this declining cognitive abilities stable for a few more years” above this threshold. “If I’m going to live to 90, I’d rather get it [dementia] at 89” as opposed to earlier, she said.

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AAAS’s Deborah Runkle moderates the Q&A session with, from left, Craig Anderson, Hilarie Cash, and Chandramallika Basak.

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The Ethics of Genetic Technologies

On Thursday, Dana Alliance member Steven E. Hyman helped the International Neuroethics Society (INS) kick off its annual meeting in San Diego. INS President and fellow Dana Alliance member Judy Illes welcomed attendees and introduced Hyman, who opened the program with his presentation titled, “Emerging Genetics of Human Cognition and Behavior: New Challenges for Ethics and Policy.”

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Steven Hyman, M.D.

“Scientists always knew that genetics would help us,” he began, “but the trouble was that it is fiendishly complex, and the technology was, at the time, unavailable…I truly didn’t expect to live long enough to see [it] develop.”

With the commencement of the Human Genome Project, technologies were suddenly available that allowed scientists to yield information crucial to the sequencing and mapping of all genes. In that same decade, he commented, the BRAIN Initiative and stem cell technologies were also developed, adding another feat to neuroscience research. With this, Hyman said, it suddenly became possible to fundamentally try to understand schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other nervous system diseases, such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and so on.

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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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Huntington’s Disease on NY1

Earlier this week, geneticist and Dana Alliance member Nancy Wexler, Ph.D., was featured in a segment on New York City’s local news channel, NY1. As Higgins Professor of Neuropsychology at Columbia University and president of the Hereditary Disease Foundation, Wexler is a pioneer in the race to find a cure for Huntington’s disease (HD).

The fatal, genetic disease causes a painful deterioration of physical and mental abilities, due to the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. According to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, “HD is known as the quintessential family disease because every child of a parent with HD has a 50/50 chance of carrying the faculty gene.”

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