Saturday, 28 January 2012

Taking the sacred path to decision making

They say that when in polite company one should never discuss religion or politics. An old adage which is perhaps even more pertinent when you find yourself dining with boors. After all there are few topics of conversation with the innate ability to turn a soiree into a shouting match as those we hold sacred. Whether it be our views on life or what follows afterwards, there's just something about those consecrated concepts that doesn't allow any room for compromise. But what is about these fundamental beliefs that turn us into fundamentalists when they're challenged? Well as it would turn out the answer is all in our heads just, according to a recent study, in slightly different areas.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Happily dreaming of a slimmer waistline

It's fairly easy to spot someone who hasn't had a great night's sleep. The bleary eyes. The birds-nest hair. Not to mention the  constant growled demands to be left alone unless you come bearing coffee. When we find ourselves in this position it's fairly clear that those eight hours a night are important for our sanity. Very important indeed. So why is it that a lack of sleep can leave us feeling so lacklustre?

The wrong side of bed

You're probably well aware of the fact that sleep is one hell of an important pastime, after all it's intricately involved in such fundamental processes as memory consolidation and wound healing. Yet the first thing we seem to notice when we've missed out on that cathartic coma is the storm clouds brewing inside our heads. Yes a lack of sleep can turn even the most jolly Roger into Oscar the Grouch in no time, and a few short  years ago researchers figured out why.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Why endorphins lead to a queue of men at the bar

There's nothing quite like a stiff drink at the end of a long day to calm those shattered nerves. Whether it's a wine or a scotch, a gin and tonic or a vodka and orange, there's just something about the cortical balm that is alcohol that makes all our worries fade away. But what is it about this fermented solution that has us all at merlot? That leads us all to imbibe over 10 litres each year? Well according to a new study, published in Science Translational Medicine, it's the release of our own internal opioids, or endorphins, in the brain's pleasure centre which keeps us lining up at the bar.

Always a pleasure

That's right, opioids. Those psychoactive chemicals from which heroin's derived are also made inside your brain. In fact even as you read this your pituitary gland and hypothalamus are busy manufacturing and packaging these endogenous morphines. Ready to ship them off at a moments notice should you succumb to that bar of chocolate on the table or reach the denouement of a coital entanglement. Of course you could just as easily get your fix by going for a jog, afterall it's that exercise-induced release of endorphins which keeps those pavement-pounders out on the road, whatever the weather. 

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Separating face from fiction with the fusiform gyrus

"You've got a face, I've got a face. It's all gonna be alright." But is it Noel Fielding? Is it really? And how do you know it's a real face anyway? After all you might simply be looking at that rocky outcrop in the picture which bears resemblance to a face. Or maybe you're looking at a piece of toast branded with the face of Jesus or Erik Estrada. Alright so we can probably give Noel the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his ability to visually descriminate human faces from rocky outcrops and toast. After all we can all readily tell the difference between an actual face and something that just resembles a face. But how is it that we are able to do this? How does our brain help us to sort the face from the non-face? 

Facing the facts on facial recognition

I guess to begin with we should probably take a quick look at how our brain helps us recognise faces in the first place. In short it's all thanks to a nifty little region of the temporal lobe known as the fusiform gyrus, or the fusiform face area (FFA). fMRI studies have consistently shown that when people are presented with facial images, major bilateral activation of the FFA occurs. Activation which is a great deal stronger than that produced by almost any other image. And it doesn't stop there. Like with a lot of cognitive / perceptual research a great deal of our knowledge and understanding stems from the investigation of individuals with acquired brain injury. And research into facial perception is no different. Damage to the FFA and surrounding areas results in a condition known as proposagnosia, which roughly translated means 'not knowing faces'. People with damage in the FFA have so much trouble perceiving faces that they are literally unable to pick their own face from a photographic line-up. Instead they rely on other stimuli such as clothing, voice and topics of conversation as clues to who it is they've been talking to for the past half-hour (it was probably that Noel Fielding fellow, they just kept banging on about faces). 

Friday, 6 January 2012

Shocking discoveries at depress of a button

"It's alive. ALIVE!" The mad scientist howls as his creation, well, comes to life. That potent mixture of neuronal connections and lightning are all it takes for the monster to arise once more. If you're anything like me, and since you're here I'll assume that you are, this iconic scene from Frankenstein will be the first thing your brain primes when somebody mentions electrodes in the brain. Or perhaps your hardwired to conjure up a more Hitchcock-esque scene involving electroshock therapy in action. Regardless of your imaginative leanings however, there's no denying that the notion of applying direct electrical stimulation to the brain, is once again back in the spotlight thanks to new research published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. But we'll get to that in a moment.

A truly shocking history

The idea of applying electricity directly to the human brain is by no means a new idea. In fact we've been doing it since way back in 1874, when Robert Bartholow first peeled back those cranial curtains to apply  electrodes to the brain of Mary Rafferty, a woman with basal cell carcinoma (that's skin cancer for those playing at home). Bartholow found that the introduction of a small electrical current to the left hemisphere of Mary's brain resulted in visible muscular contractions in her right arm and leg, surprisingly all of which occurred with not so much as a headache. However when Bartholow, who in hindsight was perhaps a touch too excitable himself, decided to increase the current he was applying, Mary became distressed before succumbing to seizures and falling into a coma. Sadly, she died just four days later.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Does this hypothalamus make me look fat?

We've all had those moments in life when the mirror has been less than kind. When for whatever reason it's decided to add those few extra pounds when just weeks earlier we could have graced the cover of almost any magazine on offer. Or at the very least still fit into our jeans. And so the dieting begins. Caloric intake is restricted and a strict exercise regime is followed. Well maybe not strict, but walking is now done at a brisk pace rather than the meander of old. And then it happens. Like the tides retreating back to sea, our waistline begins to slowly subside. Until finally the top button on our jeans once again remains firmly in place. Life is good. For a month or so. And then. One day. Just like that. The pounds are back. Sound familiar?

So why is it that the weight always seem to find a way to get back into our lives? Were we not motivated enough? Did we not create a big enough support system? Or were all those years filled with cheese and wine just too hard to shake? Whilst it could be argued that any one of these factors may have played a role in it's return, it turns out that the main reason the fat is back, is all in our heads. That's right our brains are making us fat... Again. And here's the second blow. They're so keen to ensure that our biological saddle bags are packed and ready to go that they've developed not one, but two different methods of doing it. Two!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Why men don't listen and women are great at maths

Ask the average person on the street if men and women are wired differently and you'll more often than not get an affirmatory response. Not overly suprising given the knowledge that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Am I right? But dive a little deeper and chances are you'll find that the vast majority of people would be relying heavily on deeply ingrained stereotypes, such as the "mythically superior 'multitasking’ abilities" of women or men who just don't listen, rather than on any scientifically verified information (although in fairness the bit about men not listening is probably true). Nonetheless, the fact that we rely on such stereotypes is not generally an issue, after all the human brain is a master at creating these categorical shortcuts in an effort to conserve its resources. However when these shortcuts are being used to endorse segregation in schools or distinct parenting styles based on gender, those of us who can spot the neuroscience from the neurononsense have a responsibility to take action. 

Sum differences aren't what they seem 

There is no denying that differences do actually exist between the male and female brain. For example whilst the global cerebral blood flow is higher in the female brain, the male brain is on average 11% larger and consists of a higher proportion of white matter than its female counterpart. However it can also be said that males are, on average, 9% taller and 18% heavier than females, thus suggests that the larger brain size is merely another representation of readily observable sexual dimorphism between men and women. Rather than an indication that the male brain is more suited to such non-emotive skills as spatial relations and mathematics. But if the differences in underlying neuronal connections between the sexes aren't to blame for the fact that over 70% of maths PhDs are men, who is? As it would turn out, we are. Or more specifically it's society's fault!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

A coffee a day keeps the adenosine at bay

It's fair to say that for most of us the day doesn't truly begin until we can feel the warm lick of caffeine coursing through our veins. Be it an espresso, flat white, latte or low-fat, soy, double-shot, moccacino. Whatever your poison very little in our lives is ever achieved before that first cup of black magic has passed our lips. 

However despite our love affair with this bitter alkaloid, the exact manner in which caffeine interacts with our brains has been largely misunderstood. That is until now.

Not your average stimulant

It should be said right from the start that caffeine is not your average stimulant. Unlike more illicit uppers such as amphetamines and MDMA which exert their effects by increasing noradrenaline levels, caffeine exerts its effects by blocking, or antagonising, adenosine receptors. When our brains switch on each morning and the neurons begin firing away they also begin to produce the neuronal by-product, Adenosine. Throughout the day, the neurons keep firing, adenosine levels keep rising and adenosine receptors throughout the CNS begin to monitor the action. Once a certain level of adenosine has been reached the receptors in your brain and spinal cord tell you that perhaps it's time to go to sleep. Or at least close your eyes for just a short while.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Craving predictability

The thin blue curl of smoke dances into the night sky from Bogart's cigarette as their eyes meet. The film's black and white denouement is upon us but all they can see is that cigarette. They can almost taste it. They are the smokers and the recently ex-smokers whose neuronal circuitry is lighting up in anticipation of that next cigarette. 

Some of them will acquiesce and slink off silently as the credits roll whilst others will shift uncomfortably in their seats and wait for the cravings to subside. Whatever action they take it will be of no suprise to the team of researchers at UCLA's Laboratory of Integrative Neuroimaging Technology, who have been using functional MRI techniques to observe the changes which arise in the brain during craving.