Tuesday, May 11

Relevant recent research round-up

Much has been going on in the various realms of mind research, and quite a little backlog of interesting studies have come off the presses. Stories featured in order of appearance. 

Compulsive eating shares addictive biochemical mechanism with cocaine, heroin abuse, study shows
ScienceDaily (2010-03-29) -- In a newly published study, scientists have shown for the first time that the same molecular mechanisms that drive people into drug addiction are behind the compulsion to overeat, pushing people into obesity. ... > read full article

Addiction fascinates me. I, for one, greatly enjoy eating. I appreciate food, but one can enjoy a good meal and eat a whole lot of it. A few years ago, I could get away with eating any quantity of food, and I wouldn't gain any significant quantity of weight. That's changed lately, which bothers me since I appear to be just as ravenous in my desire for food. Am I addicted to eating? If one combines the statistics for obesity, alcoholism, and drug addictions, I get the feeling you'd find yourself confronted with a disturbingly large portion of the population. This problem may be more prevalent in the States, which is apt enough, since NIH funds the research.

Unconscious learning uses old parts of the brain
ScienceDaily (2010-04-07) -- A new study provides evidence that basic human learning systems use areas of the brain that also exist in the most primitive vertebrates, such as certain fish, reptiles and amphibians. The study involved an investigation into the limbic striatum, one of the evolutionarily oldest parts of the brain, and the ability to learn movements, consciously and unconsciously, through repetition. ... > read full article
I am a big "fan" of studying the unconscious parts of the brain. The older it gets, the more important it is for our functionality. Of course, if you look at stuff that is too old, then you wind up dealing with medulla structures which regulate the contractions of your digestive track. Since consciousness is probably a very recent development, it makes perfect sense that unconscious (implicit) learning and memory is tied to older brain structures. Its good that someone confirmed this.

Brain shuts off in response to healer's prayer - life - 27 April 2010 - New Scientist
WHEN we fall under the spell of a charismatic figure, areas of the brain responsible for scepticism and vigilance become less active. That's the finding of a study which looked at people's response to prayers spoken by someone purportedly possessing divine healing powers...
I'd like to begin by stating that I heartily dislike The New Scientist. I was going to say that I "abhor" the publication, but that isn't quite accurate. I would be okay if TNS accepted its role as a popular, light science publication, but they continually attempt to make themselves out to be a serious journal, which the quality of their reports prohibits.

Anyway, this research is still pretty interesting. I'd definitely wager that this commanding effect of charismatic leaders can be seen outside of religious domains.

Social networking helps hermit crabs find homes
ScienceDaily (2010-04-28) -- Biologists have discovered that, contrary to their name, hermit crabs may locate new and improved housing using previously unknown social networking skills. These behaviors may shed light on any animal that relies on discrete and reusable resources, from hole-nesting woodpeckers to urban apartment dwellers. ... > read full article
Despite the buzz-wordiness of the title, this is exceptionally interesting stuff - they've discovered new behaviors among hermit crabs! If a crab in need of a home finds an empty shell that is too large, it will wait around for another crab to come by and take the shell in hopes of picking up the larger crab's old shell. I won't argue that there are massive impacts on our understanding of human social behavior, but still, that's pretty neat.

Researcher explores role of human behavior in infectious disease emergence
ScienceDaily (2010-04-30) -- A wildlife scientist has examined how different human behaviors influence disease transmission between domestic dogs and the African wild dog, an endangered species. ... > read full article
On that last note, here's a study which definitely does have a lot to say about the betterment of the human condition via understanding social behavior. On reading this story, my first musing concerned how far back these human-dog social behaviors related to disease go back. Dog domestication could easily predate the agricultural revolution, and possibly even the formation of complex hunter-gatherers. Thus, the origin of these behaviors might be evolutionary and not environmental, which ought to alter our approach to handling these issues.

How nerve cells distinguish odors
ScienceDaily (2010-05-03) -- Whether different odors can be quickly distinguished depends on certain synapses in the brain that inhibit nerve stimulation. Researchers have shown that mice in which a certain receptor in the olfactory center is missing can distinguish similar smells more quickly than mice without genetic manipulation. ... > read full article
 Once, I did a bit of work in the neuroscience of taste and smell perception (in rats and mice). I worked at the systems/behavioral level, but there's a great deal more research occurring one step down, at the cellular level. This stuff is some pretty heavy neurochemistry, but if you are up to date on that knowledge, this is intriguing research.

Cavemen among us: Some humans are 4 percent Neanderthal - CSMonitor.com
We have met Neanderthals, and they are us – or about 1 to 4 percent of each of us.

That is one implication of a four-year effort to sequence the Neanderthal genome – essentially setting out in order some 3 billion combinations of four key molecules that together represent the Neanderthals' genetic blueprint...
Yet another result of the data being churned out of Svante Pääbo's legendary Neanderthal genomics project. As they mention in the article, "the results and their further refinement are expected to yield a treasure-trove of information on what makes modern humans distinct from Neanderthals, humans' closest extinct relative." Considering the prior lack of evidence in favor of any of the conflicting theories of what became of the Neanderthals, this is a fine change of pace. Plus, I'm at a lucky stage in life where I'm not in favor of any of the particular theories, so these findings do not offend my sensibilities.

Blinking neurons give thoughts away
ScienceDaily (2010-05-10) -- Scientists have used a genetic light source to measure brain signals. Electrical currents are invisible to the naked eye -- at least they are when they flow through metal cables. In nerve cells, however, scientists are able to make electrical signals visible. Scientists have now successfully used a specialized fluorescent protein to visualize electrical activity in neurons of living mice. In a milestone study, scientists are able to apply the method to watch activity in nerve cells during animal behavior. ... > read full article
I swear, I had this same idea a couple of years ago, but I didn't   Plus, I honestly didn't see how it would be a more useful technique than modern two-photon imaging techniques. The advantage I did not for see was that if one can ditch the cumbersome microscope equipment needed for two-photon excitation imaging, you could attach a fibre-optic connection which would allow you to visualize brain activity while the animal was behaving. I confess that I have a soft spot for calcium imaging, so I'm quite pleased by this, but there are still some big issues, like the fact that you can't do this in humans, and its hard to visualize the neurons below the top layers of the cortex.

Alrighty then. Until... next month?

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