Tag: Neuroscience

Honey Bees Can Understand Nothing

Zero, zilch, nothing, is a pretty hard concept to understand. Children generally can’t grasp it until kindergarten. And it’s a concept that may not be innate but rather learned through culture and education.

Throughout human history, civilizations have had varying representations for it. Yet our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, can understand it.

And now researchers in Australia writing in the journal Science say the humble honey bee can be taught to understand that zero is less than one.

The result is kind of astounding, considering how tiny bee brains are. Humans have around 100 billion neurons. The bee brain? Fewer than 1 million.

The findings suggest that the ability to fathom zero may be more widespread than previously thought in the animal kingdom — something that evolved long ago and in more branches of life.




It’s also possible that in deconstructing how the bees compute numbers, we could make better, more efficient computers one day.

Our computers are electricity-guzzling machines. The bee, however, “is doing fairly high-level cognitive tasks with a tiny drop of nectar,” says Adrian Dyer, a Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology researcher and co-author on the study.

Their brains are probably processing information in a very clever [i.e., efficient] way.”

But before we can deconstruct the bee brain, we need to know that it can do the complex math in the first place.

How to teach a bee the concept of zero

Bees are fantastic learners. They spend hours foraging for nectar in among flowers, can remember where the juiciest flowers are, and even have a form of communication to inform their hive mates of where food is to be found.

Researchers train bees like they train many animals: with food. “You have a drop of sucrose associated with a color or a shape, and they will learn to reliably go back to” that color or shape, Dyer explains.

With this simple process, you can start teaching bees rules. In this case, the researchers wanted to teach 10 bees the basic rules of arithmetic.

So they put out a series of sheets of paper that had differing numbers of objects printed on them. Using sugar as a reward, the researchers taught the bees to always fly to the sheet that had the fewest objects printed on it.

Once the bees learned this rule, they could reliably figure out that two shapes are less than four shapes, that one shape is smaller than three. And they’d keep doing this even when a sugary reward was not waiting for them.

And then came the challenge: What happens when a sheet with no objects at all was presented to the bees? Would they understand that a blank sheet — which represented the concept of zero in this experiment — was less than three, less than one?

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: Popular Science

Bad Language: Why Being Bilingual Makes Swearing Easier

Many bilinguals report “feeling less” in their second language; it does not bear the same emotional weight as your native language.

Feeling less emotionally connected to your second language might make it easier to use highly emotional vocabulary, which is precisely what I was experiencing with my ease of swearing and talking about sensitive topics in English.

The scientific term for this is reduced emotional resonance of language. It is a fairly well-established phenomenon, but many specific questions still remain unanswered.

For example, what exactly makes one’s second language less emotional? How does this affect different immigrant communities?

This research project aims to address these questions by looking into the reasons and implications of reduced emotional resonance in bilinguals’ second language.




It is still unclear what exactly shapes emotional resonance of a language and in what way – results thus far have been inconclusive.

In the first part of my project, we are exploring which factors in a person’s language background contribute to reduced emotional resonance.

For example, is it influenced by the age at which you have learnt your second language? Does it matter how frequently and in which context you use the language?

Or is your emotional experience of a language predictable from whether you dream or can do maths in it?

To investigate these questions, my project uses eye-tracker technology in order to measure bilinguals’ pupil responses to emotional words in English.

Typically, when shown highly emotional words or pictures, people’s pupils dilate as a non-controllable, emotional reaction.

Previous research has shown the effect is smaller in bilinguals’ second language, which suggests reduced emotional resonance.

Understanding the reasons for why this happens can, in turn, help us explain how you experience a foreign language community, and how this could be taken into account in acculturation and adaptation.

However, not all the implications of reduced emotional resonance are negative – bilinguals can actually benefit from being able to approach things in a less emotionally involved way.

For example, bilinguals have been shown to be able to make more rational decisions in their second language.

Also, switching languages can be used as a tool in therapy when working through emotionally difficult or traumatising experiences.

Imagine how it would be if it were easier to talk about your emotions with your partner – maybe bilingual couples have a communicative advantage?

Ultimately, understanding the full scale of implications of reduced emotional resonance is a way to understand how bilinguals experience the world.

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: Popular Science

How Your Brain Tells Time

In the middle of your brain, there’s a personal assistant the size of a grain of rice. It’s a group of about 20,000 brain cells that keeps your body’s daily schedule.

Partly in response to light signals from the retina, this group of neurons sends signals to other parts of the brain and the rest of the body to help control things like sleep, metabolism, immune system activity, body temperature and hormone production on a schedule slightly longer than 24 hours.

Daniel Forger, a mathematics professor at the University of Michigan who uses math to study biological processes, wants to understand this brain region, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in excruciating detail.




He is building a mathematical model of the entire structure that he thinks will shed important light on our circadian rhythm, and perhaps lead to treatments for disorders like depression and insomnia, and even diseases influenced by the internal clock like heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

I think we’re going to be able to have a very accurate model of the circadian rhythm, all the key proteins, all the electric activity of all 20,000 neurons,” he says.

We’ll be able to track all of them for days on a timescale of milliseconds.

Forger has already taken a few steps down this path and found some surprises.

In a paper published in a recent issue of the journal Science, Forger, along with colleagues Mino Belle and Hugh Piggins of the University of Manchester in England and others, showed that the firing pattern of the time-keeping neurons in the SCN was not at all what researchers had long thought.

Researchers who studied the electrical activity of the SCN had believed that the neurons there helped the body keep time by sending lots of electrical signals during the day, and then falling silent at night. Makes sense. Lots of non-teenage creatures are active during the day and quiet at night.

But when Forger used experimental data to build a mathematical model of the electrical activity, he calculated that there should be lots of activity at dawn and dusk, and a state of “quiet alertness” during the day. That didn’t make much intuititve sense.

Worse, the cellular chemistry during this quiet period that Forger’s model predicted would, in normal cells, lead quickly to cell death.

Skepticism doesn’t begin to describe what I was met with,” says Forger. “Experimentalists told me, ‘That’s crazy.’”

Researchers in the field simply assumed Forger’s model was wrong. Forger refined it and reworked it, and got similar results.

Meanwhile, his British colleagues began to probe the fact that there are two types of cells in the SCN, ones that have very strong molecular clocks and do the timekeeping, and others that behave more like normal brain cells.

While previous researchers had recorded the activity of all of the cells in the SCN, Belle and Piggins were able to set up an experiment using mice that would record only the activity of the clock cells. Their experimental results matched Forger’s predictions.

When we got the results, they were shocking,” Forger says. “They were dead on.”

The cells in the SCN that don’t keep time followed the pattern researchers were familiar with, active during the day, quiet at night.

The time-keeping cells went bananas in the morning and at night, but then during the day they stayed in a bizarre state of excitement during which they emitted very few impulses. Why these cells can stay alive in this state remains a mystery.

Forger has been down this path before. Another study of his, published in 2007, reversed the thinking on how gene mutations affect circadian rhythms within cells.

Scientists studying a hamster that had a malfunctioning internal clock (its daily rhythm lasted 20 hours instead of 24) found that it had a mutation in a gene called tau.

The fuzzy rodent was given the extremely appropriate name “Tau Mutant Hamster.

They thought Tau Mutant Hamster’s mutation caused an enzyme that helped cells keep time to be less active. Forger predicted that it would instead make the enzyme more active. Experiments later proved he was right.

Now Forger is turning his attention to the entire SCN. He thinks that math is the only way we can understand the sheer complexity of what is happening–neurotransmitters coming and going, protein clocks being built up and broken down, electricity bouncing around.

To piece it all together, you need more than intuition,” he says. “You need math to see what’s going on.”

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: Popular Science

Why Some People Hear Color Or Taste Sounds?

Lead Researcher, ANU Research School of Psychology’s Dr Stephanie Goodhew, said the research found synesthetes had much stronger mental associations between related concepts.

For them words like ‘doctor’ and ‘nurse’ are very closely associated, where ‘doctor’ and ‘table’ are very unrelated. Much more so than for people without the condition,” she said.

The findings could help researchers better understand the mysteries of synesthesia, which Dr Goodhew said affects an estimated one in every 100 people.




Dr Goodhew said synesthetes have stronger connections between different brain areas, particularly between what we think of as the language part of the brain and the color part of the brain.

Those connections lead to a triggering effect, where a stimulus in one part of the brain would cause activity in another.

Things like hearing shapes, so a triangle will trigger an experience of a sound or a color, or they might have a specific taste sensation when they hear a particular sound,” she said.

One person reported that smells have certain shapes. For example the smell of fresh air is rectangular, coffee is a bubbly cloud shape and people could smell round or square.”

The research centered on measuring the extent that people with Synesthesia draw meaning between words.

Going in we were actually predicting that synesthetes might have a more concrete style of thinking that does not emphasize conceptual-level relations between stimuli, given that they have very rigid parings between sensory experiences.

We found exactly the opposite,” Dr Goodhew said.

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: Popular Science

Blind Fish In Dark Caves Shed Light On The Evolution Of Sleep

Out of the approximately 3 billion letters of DNA that make up your genome, there are about a 100 letters that neither of your parents possess.

These are your own personal mutations. The machinery that copies DNA into new cells is very reliable, but it is not perfect. It makes errors at a rate equivalent to making a single typo for every 100 books filled with text.

The sperm and egg cells that fused to form you carried a few such mutations, and therefore so do you.

Changes to DNA are more likely to be disruptive than beneficial, simply because it is easier for changes to mess things up than to improve them.

This mutational burden is something that all life forms have to bear. In the long run, individuals that carry harmful mutations will, on average, produce fewer offspring than their peers.




Over many generations, this means that the mutation will dwindle in frequency. This is how natural selection is constantly ‘weeding out’ disruptive mutations from our genomes.

There is a flip side to this argument, and it is the story of the blind cave fish. If a mutation disrupts a gene that is not being used, natural selection will have no restoring effect.

This is why fish that adapt to a lifestyle of darkness in a cave tend to lose their eyes. There is no longer any advantage to having eyes, and so the deleterious mutations that creep in are no longer being weeded out.

Think of it as the ‘use it or lose it’ school of evolution.

A world without light is quite an alien place. There are many examples of fish that live in completely dark caves.

Remarkably, if you compare these fish to their relatives that live in rivers or in the ocean, you find that the cavefish often undergo a similar set of changes. Their eyes do not fully develop, rendering them essentially blind.

They lose pigmentation in their skin, and their jaws and teeth tend to develop in particular ways.

This is an example of what is known as convergent evolution, where different organisms faced with similar ecological challenges also stumble upon similar evolutionary solutions.

The changes mentioned above are all about appearance, but what about changes in behavior? In particular, when animals sleep, they generally line up with the day and night cycle.

In the absence of any daylight, how do their sleep patterns evolve?

A recent paper by Erik Duboué and colleagues addressed this question by comparing 4 groups of fish of the same species Astyanax mexicanus.

Three of the populations (the Pachón, Tinaja, and Molino) were blind cavefish that inhabited different dark caves, whereas the fourth was a surface-dwelling fish.

The authors defined sleep for their fish to be a period of a minute or more when the fish were not moving. They checked that this definition met the usual criteria.

Sleeping fish were harder to wake up, and fish that were deprived of sleep compensated by sleeping more over the next 12 hours (these are both situations that any college student is familiar with).

The researchers also tracked the speeds of all the fish, and found that, while they were awake, the cavefish moved faster or just as fast as the surface fish.

This means that it’s not that the cavefish are constantly sleep deprived and in a lethargic, sleepy state. They are just as wakeful as the surface fish (if not more so), and genuinely need less sleep.

These three cavefish populations all evolved independently, and yet they have converged on remarkably similar sleep patterns.

To study the genetics of this phenomenon, the researchers cross-bred the surface fish with the cavefish. The cave dwellers and surface fish all belong to the same species, which means that they can have viable offspring.

They found that the mixed offspring (Pachón x surface and Tinaja x surface) had a reduced need for sleep that was indistinguishable from that of their cave-dwelling parent.

Thus sleep reduction is clearly a genetic trait, and it is a dominant trait (Dominant traits are present in the offspring if they are inherited from just one parent. A recessive trait, on the other hand, will only be present if it is inherited from both parents.)

Unlocking the secrets of sleep is inherently cool science, and it also has the potential to help people suffering from sleep disorders.

Who knows, it may even lead to the superpower of doing away with sleep altogether.

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: Popular Science

Smartphone Addiction Can Lead To Chemical Imbalance In Brain

Smartphone and internet addiction can cause a chemical imbalance in the brain, especially in young people, according to new research released this week at the Radiological Society of North America.

As scientists continue to evaluate the physical and emotional effects of an increasingly screen-dependent population, researchers in South Korea found that teenagers addicted to their smartphones had increased levels of two types of neurotransmitters involved in a number of emotional and cognitive functions.




They included gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA, which slows down brain signals and is involved in vision and motor control and helps regulate emotions including anxiety.

The second chemical is glutamate-glutamine (Glx) and is known to cause neurons to fire more rapidly.

The study evaluated 19 young people with an average age of 15, who were diagnosed with an internet or smartphone addiction, compared to 19 healthy-controls.

The addicted youth also reported higher instances of depression, anxiety, insomnia severity and impulsiveness, in comparison with the “healthy” controls.

Using a Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS) brain scan, researchers found that the addicted youth had higher elevations of both GABA and Glx compared to the controls, although the researchers said more study is needed to understand the exact implications of the imbalance.

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: New Scientist

The Adolescent Brain – What All Teens Need To Know

Adolescents have dynamic, open, hungry minds. They are creative, brave and curious. It has to be this way.

The only way to learn many of the skills they will need to be strong, healthy adults will be to stretch beyond what they’ve always known and to experiment with the world and their place in it.

The adolescent brain is wired to drive them through this transition, but there will be a few hairpin curves along the way. Skillful drivers are not born from straight roads.

There will be good days, great days and dreadful days.

Adolescence is something they have to do on their own. We can guide them, but we can’t do it for them.




This is their time for growth and learning, but there is something powerful we can do to help them along the way. We can give them the information they need to light their way forward.

Our teens are amazing. Their brains are on fire – powerful, creative, insightful. Here’s what they need to know.

  • Your brain is changing. But you have enormous capacity to influence those changes. You’re transitioning into adulthood. There’s no hurry to do this – you’ll have plenty of time. Your adult brain won’t be fully developed until you’re about 24. In the meantime, it’s your time to learn, experience and experiment with the world and your place in it.
  • Your brain is like a high-performance sports car but your brakes aren’t ready yet. Your brain will wire and strengthen from the back to the front. One of the first parts of the brain to develop is the amygdala, which is involved in instinctive, impulsive, emotional, aggressive reactions. It’s great for keeping you alive if there’s trouble, but not always great when it comes to making balanced decisions.
  • Hello hormones! (But your brain will take time to adjust.) You’ve probably heard a lot of people blaming hormones for the things adolescents do that aren’t so lovable. It’s not so much your hormones that cause trouble but the way your brain reacts to them.
  • Your brain is like an open window. Expose it to good and it will thrive. Expose it to bad and that window will slam shut.

All new skills take time to master. It’s no different for our teens. In the meantime, they might wobble. A lot.

We are learning to see them in a different light – as soon-to-be adults who will be independent of us. We are learning to trust their capacity to cope, and to stand back and let them steady themselves.

They have it in them to be extraordinary. The more information they have, the more potential they have to find the most direct way there.

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: New Scientist

A New Study Claims That Married Couples Are Less Likely To Get Dementia

Levels of social interaction could explain to the finding, experts have said, after the research showed that people who are single or widowed are more likely to develop the disease.

Experts conducted an analysis of 15 studies which held data on dementia and marital status involving more than 800,000 people from Europe, North and South America, and Asia.

Their study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, concluded that lifelong singletons have a 42% elevated risk of dementia compared with married couples.

Those who have been widowed had a 20% increased risk compared with married people, they found. But no elevated risk was found among divorcees compared with those who were still married.




The researchers, led by experts from University College London, said that previous research has shown that married people may adopt healthier lifestyles.

They may also be more likely to be socially engaged than singletons.

Meanwhile, the effect observed in people who have been widowed could be due to stress that comes with bereavement, they added.

Another explanation could be that developing dementia could be related to other underlying cognitive or personality traits.

Commenting on the study, Dr Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “There is compelling research showing married people generally live longer and enjoy better health, with many different factors likely to be contributing to that link.

The study was published as Alzheimer’s Research UK launched its Christmas campaign calling for more funds for dementia research.

The Santa Forgot campaign, backed by presenter Stephen Fry, aims to raise awareness of the condition as well as funds for studies examining the brain.

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: New Scientist

Scientists Have Created Brain Implants That Could Boost Our Memory By Up To 30%


Scientists have developed a groundbreaking brain implant that can boost human memory.

In recent years, studies have shown that so-called ‘memory prostheses’ can be used to improve memory in rodents and primates, helping them to perform better on cognitive tasks.

Now, researchers have shown for the first time that the technique can enhance human memory, too, by mimicking processes that occur naturally in the brain.

The new study, presented at the Society of Neuroscience meeting in Washington DC this past weekend, found that stimulating a region in the brain responsible for learning and memory can improve performance on memory tasks by up to 30 percent.

Researchers recruited 20 volunteers who were undergoing epilepsy monitoring, in which they were fitted with electrodes targeting the brain’s hippocampus.




Subjects were first asked to participate in a training session, where they were given visual delayed-match-to-sample (DMS) tasks.

Each participant was shown images in a sample presentation, and later had to recall the images during a match phase up to 75 seconds later.

The researchers then modeled the neural recordings from the training session to pinpoint the regions likely activated during the task.

Then, in a second session, the researchers used the implant to stimulate the subjects’ brains with micro-electric shocks based on the model.

In the trials, the technique was found to improve performance by as much as 30 percent.

While prior research has shown similar methods to enhance memory in some mammals, the researchers say it’s the first time it’s been demonstrated in humans.

These studies have yielded a prosthetic system that restored DMS task-related memory in rodents and nonhuman primates, and is now extended to successful memory facilitation in humans,” the authors wrote in an abstract detailing their presentation.

The work has implications for the treatment of memory disorders, suggesting that stimulating the brain based on patterns in a healthy brain could help to improve function, according to New Scientist.

And, it could pave the way for memory-enhancing prosthetics.

Cognitive task performance on MIMO stimulated trials was compared with non-stimulated and random pattern stimulated trials,” according to the researchers.

MIMO stimulation resulted in a 15-25% improvement in DMS task performance in five patients, demonstrating successful implementation of a new neural prosthetic system for the restoration of damaged human memory.”

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: New Scientist

No, there Hasn’t Been A Human ‘Head Transplant’, And There May Never Be

Neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero is in the news again, claiming to have performed the first successful human head transplant. But even cursory analysis reveals that he hasn’t.

And scientific logic suggests he never will.

In February 2015, Sergio Canavero appeared in this very publication claiming a live human head will be successfully transplanted onto a donor human body within two years.

He’s popped up in the media a lot since then, but two years and nine months later, how are things looking?

Well, he’s only gone and done it! As we can see in this Telegraph story from today, the world’s first human head transplant has been successfully carried out.

Guess all those more timid neurobods who said it couldn’t be done are feeling pretty foolish right now, eh?

Well, not quite. Because if you look past the triumphant and shocking headlines, the truth of the matter becomes very clear, very quickly.




These “successful” procedures are anything but

Many of Canavero’s previous appearances in the media have been accompanied by claims of successful head transplant procedures.

But, how are we defining “successful” here? Canavero’s definition seems to be extremely “generous” at best.

For instance, he recently claimed to have “successfully” performed a head transplant on a monkey. But did he?

While the monkey head did apparently survive the procedure, it never regained consciousness, it was only kept alive for 20 hours for “ethical reasons” and there was no attempt made at connecting the spinal cord.

So even if the monkey had survived long-term it would have been paralysed for life. So, it was a successful procedure.

If you consider paralysis, lack of consciousness and a lifespan of less than a day as indicators of “success”.

There was also his “successful” rat head transplant, which involved grafting a severed rat head onto a different rat, a living one that still had its head.

Exactly how this counts as a “transplant” is anyone’s guess. It’s adding a (functionally useless) appendage onto an otherwise healthy subject.

And this recent successful human head transplant? It was on corpses!

Call me a perfectionist if you must, but I genuinely think that any surgical procedure where the patients or subjects die before it even starts is really stretching the definition of “success” to breaking point.

Maybe the procedure did make a good show of “attaching” the nerves and blood vessels on the broad scale, but, so what?

That’s just the start of what’s required for a working bodily system. There’s still a way to go.

You can weld two halves of different cars together and call it a success if you like, but if the moment you turn the key in the ignition the whole thing explodes, most would be hard pressed to back you up on your brilliance.

Perhaps the techniques used to preserve the heads and attach them have some scientific value, but it’s still a far cry from the idea of someone wandering around with a fully functional body that isn’t the one they were born with.

Canavero seems to have a habit of claiming barnstorming triumph based on negligible achievements, or even after making things much worse. He seems to be the neurosurgical equivalent of the UK Brexit negotiating team.

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: Popular Science