Genius: Mind, Brain, and Molecules at the 92nd Street Y

What makes someone a genius? According to Nobel Laureate Eric R. Kandel, M.D., it is a person who is a “game-changer” and who “through their work, permanently changed the way we perceive the world.” It is less about IQ and more about “drive, persistence, and creativity.” At the 92nd Street Y’s third annual 7 Days of Genius in Manhattan, four eminent scientists, arguably geniuses themselves, discussed historical geniuses of the mind, brain, and molecules. The three speakers included two members of the Dana Alliance, Larry W. Swanson, Ph.D., and Thomas M. Jessell, Ph.D., as well as Robert Michels, M.D. Kandel, also a Dana Alliance member, moderated the event.

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Campaigning for brain awareness in Sri Lanka

With the help of European Dana Alliance member Ann Kato and her husband,
researcher Gabor Kato, Sri Lanka was a late addition to the roster of new
countries hosting Brain Awareness Week activities in 2009. The Katos, along
with Ranil De Silva of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Nugegoda,
organized a four-hour program in basic neuroscience at the Sri Lanka Medical
Association in Colombo on Nov. 8 and a six-hour program on Nov. 10 at the Sri
Sumangala Girls’ College in Weligama. The events were such a success that De
Silva and the Katos are planning a second BAW event in Sri Lanka this year. (Brain Awareness Week 2010 is March
15–21.)

Gabor Kato at girls' college Gabor Kato at the Sri
Sumangala Girls’ College in Weligama

The Sri Lanka
Medical Association event included lectures on how the brain works, what
happens during brain disease and how to maintain health with food and exercise.
Students, teachers, parents, doctors and the general public listened with great
interest and asked many questions, especially about maintaining and improving
memory, Ann Kato said. Many people also wanted to discuss their sleep problems,
and it appeared that everyone had a family member or a friend with a brain
disorder such as multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s,
she added.

At the girls’
college, more than 400 high-school students, teachers, health-care workers and
members of the public spent nearly five hours learning about both the healthy
and diseased brains. De Silva translated the English lectures into Sinhalese,
as this audience did not have the same command of English as did the Colombo
group. In addition to lectures, the program included lighting of a traditional
oil lamp and two dance sessions by students, according to Ann Kato.

Girls' college processionProcession going to the auditorium at the Sri
Sumangala Girls’ College

There was room for
improvement. While the girls enjoyed the presentations, they asked for more
“cartoon-like” clips of how the brain functions. Two boys in the audience
wanted reassurance that the brain stays alive following death; perhaps they thought
the brain was immortal due to belief in reincarnation, Ann Kato said.

The Katos have
been supporting education efforts in Sri Lanka ever since they toured the
country after the devastation of the 2004 tsunami. They have repeatedly visited
the public girls’ college,
which serves 2,700 children from grades 3 to 12, to offer teaching assistance
and supplies. The school was severely damaged during the tsunami; thirteen students
died and more than half the children lost close members of their families.

While non-governmental
organizations helped rebuild most of the school’s buildings, it still lacks basic
items such as textbooks, pencils and notepads, as well as computers for the
technology lab. The Katos have collected and sent such supplies and offer university
scholarships for top students. At first, they paid out of pocket to fill urgent
needs; since then, they have received donations from friends and other
nonprofit groups and continue to look for sponsors for scholarships and other
relief.

Nicky Penttila

Photos courtesy Ann and Gabor Kato

Can Tetris shape the brain?

While reading “How
to Forget Fear
,” a Times Online article
by Alice Fishburn and science writer Ed Yong, a study on using Tetris to control fear responses caught
my eye.

University of Oxford researcher Emily Holmes asked
people to play the block-arranging game while watching a grisly film full of
surgery and accidents. “She found that while these volunteers remembered just
as many details of the film as those who did not play Tetris, a week later they had fewer flashbacks and were less
affected emotionally by what they had seen,” the article says.

This led Holmes to hypothesize that playing the game “hogs
the brain’s processing power,” preventing the grisly images in the film from
becoming powerful memories. Yong and Fishburn write, “Tetris acts as a mental vaccine that protects against the creation
of strong fear memories and removes their emotional burden.”

Several studies
have found
that multitasking can lead to an inefficient use of brain power, but in this
case it had a positive effect and might have potential clinical applications
for people dealing with traumatic memories and phobias. This echoes the
conclusions of a recent
Cerebrum article
summarizing work
in the area, which argues that video games can have both beneficial and harmful
effects but that more research is needed to fully understand these changes.

Although we have been
covering
the potential influences of various video games on the brain for years, in a
bit of a coincidence, Tetris itself
is featured in our most recent news article, “Your Brain On . . .
line
.”

Along with more recent work, the article mentions a 1992
study in which Richard Haier of the University of California, Irvine “measured
the rate of glucose use in the cerebrum before the volunteers practiced [Tetris] and after four to eight weeks of
practice.” As scores rose, glucose use declined, indicating that the brain
became more efficient at playing the game over time.

A search for “Tetris and brain” in PubMed returned five
additional studies, two from 2009, on topics ranging from amnesia
to cortical
thickness
. The brain-research uses of the game may only be beginning.

-Johanna Goldberg

Magnetic brain scans become more attractive

The first image many of us conjure up when someone mentions
brain scanners—whether for medical diagnosis or basic research—is the sterile
white isolation and intimidating din of a magnetic resonance imaging device.
But for many diseases, the key to better diagnosis may not be looking into
brains, as with MRIs, but looking near
them.

A new study appearing
in the Journal of Neural Engineering suggests
that magnetoencephalography (MEG) can identify the vast majority of people
suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In MEG, a helmet surrounding the head measures the tiny magnetic
fields generated by the brain’s electrical activity. This offers distinct
advantages and disadvantages over other scanning methods. For instance, MEG is
noninvasive, unlike positron emission tomography (PET), which requires patients
to ingest a mildly radioactive solution. MEG is also very fast—it works in
about 10 milliseconds—because it measures neural activity directly; MRIs
measure blood flow in the brain instead and take 20 times longer. On the other
hand, readings from MEG offer less spatial resolution than many other scanning
methods and provide less precise information about regions deep inside the
brain.

In the new research, Apostolos
Georgopoulos
, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Minnesota
and a member of the Dana Alliance for
Brain Initiatives
, and his colleagues found that MEG correctly identified at
least 67 of 74 veterans suffering from PTSD, from a group that also included
250 people with no reported neurological or mental health issues. The veterans were
a varied group, with participants both from the current Iraq and Afghanistan
campaigns as well as from World War II and Vietnam.

The researchers also reported that the strength of their
readings corresponded with the severity of symptoms in a PTSD sufferer. In other
words, a MEG test might not just identify who has PTSD but also how damaging
the disorder is and even what treatments might work best.

MEG has shown potential to diagnose other brain symptoms. In
2007, for instance, Georgopoulos and his team reported that MEG could
help detect
multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia,
Sjögren’s syndrome, chronic alcoholism and facial pain. And earlier this month,
we reported on a small
study that used MEG to identify children with autism
.

As we mentioned in that post, small tests such as the PTSD
study aren’t useful in the clinic until they have been confirmed in more
expansive tests with more diverse sets of people. Still, many neurological
disorders, including a large percentage of PTSD cases, are difficult and
time-consuming to diagnose. Objective detection methods such as brain scans could
dramatically shorten that process, as well as reduce uncertainty about the
accuracy of a diagnosis or the severity of a particular case.

For soldiers, who are at high risk for PTSD, this is
crucial; their final diagnosis can drastically alter what jobs they are
expected to do, where they are sent during their next deployment and what kind
of benefits they can receive. In the most extreme cases, a doctor’s finding might
mean the difference between re-entering a dangerous war zone and safely recovering
from trauma on U.S. soil. For those kinds of cases, a fast, efficient way to
assess PTSD can’t come fast enough.

—Aalok Mehta

For NFL’s top QBs, brains over brawn

Why is Drew Brees a stud and Joey Harrington a dud? Why is
Peyton Manning a four-time MVP and JaMarcus Russell a benchwarmer? All of these
NFL quarterbacks have the physical tools—arm strength, accuracy, footwork—necessary
to play professional football, you’d imagine, or else they would have never
even made it to the big leagues. But their performance on the field is a
different story.

The difference between elite quarterbacks and highly-touted but
dismally performing prospects, it turns out, may not be in their muscles, but
rather in the organs between their ears.

According to an
article in The Times-Picayune
, there is a growing interest in studying the
brains and cognitive abilities of NFL quarterbacks. Why not? Quarterbacking is
the most mentally challenging position in football, and teams would love to
know if it is possible to determine which players simply don’t have the thinking
skills required to succeed at a high level—before
the draft and salary negotiation.

But wait, this is just football, you might say; it’s not
like it’s rocket science. Well, on that last point, you may be right—football
may be harder, in some ways, mentally
speaking.

The article points out all of the things that a quarterback
has to process. He must learn all 130 or so of his team’s offensive plays—and not
just his role, but those of his 10 teammates (and if these guys are anything
like my high school teammates, they’ll often forget where they’re supposed to
go). He has to spend about 25 hours a week studying film to prep for the next
opponent. And he needs to incorporate and adapt all of this information upon
taking the field and gauging the defensive alignment—with only about 30 seconds
of huddle time to decide.

Once the ball is snapped, things get even more hectic.
Whether a receiver gets bumped, a defensive back shades to a particular side of
the field, or a defensive lineman breaks through into the backfield, a QB is
left with approximately 3.5 seconds to make a final choice on where and when to
release the ball.

According to the article, football experts and neuroscientists
have been discussing the possibility that guys like Brees (of the New Orleans
Saints) and Manning (of the Indianapolis Colts), who were first and second,
respectively, in the league in touchdown passes this season, excel because of
exceptional performance in specific regions of their brains.

Some neuroscientists believe that top-notch QBs are
particularly adept at “unconscious” thought. Their minds intuitively process things
in a split second, without them ever really “thinking” about it, enabling these
players to make correct assessments even during a fast-paced game.

If you are a fast typist, you also understand unconscious
thought, also known as implicit memory: Study the keys long enough, practice
hard, and at some point you can type without looking or actively thinking about
what you are doing. But it is far more vital on the football field. Even if you
or I studied film obsessively and had a knack for throwing spirals, we probably
wouldn’t be able to process the moving defense in a matter of seconds like
these top QBs. The same appears to be true for non-performers like Russell, the
Oakland Raiders former top draft pick, and Harrington, who the Detroit Lions
took with the third pick in 2002.

No doubt the NFL and neuroscientists will continue to team
up in hopes of discovering what to look for in quarterbacks’ brains. It’s
already been suggested that the orbital frontal cortex handles implicit memory,
so further analysis on that region of the brain could provide answers.

For now, fans of the Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets,
the respective opponents of the Saints and Colts this Sunday, will have to hope
that Brees and Manning are taken down before they even have 3.5 seconds to make
a decision. If they are given enough time, however, Super Bowl XLIV may be known
as the Braniac Bowl.

—Andrew Kahn

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