This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind


Yaakov Stern on sleep deprivation

Here's a really interesting video on sleep deprivation as explained by Yaakov Stern, a neuropsychologist at Columbia University in New York City.

Dr. Stern is interested in investigating the interconnected nature of the brain, explaining activity and behavior by looking at how different regions of the brain communicate with one another and send information.

Everybody knows that sleep deprivation can often lead to an inability to perform daily tasks, especially mentally-demanding ones, but what kinds of processes in the brain might account for this difference in behavior?

Dr. Stern investigated this question by looking at the activity within different networks in the brain.  He recorded brain activity in a group of participants, then recorded again after they had been sleep deprived.  Interestingly, there were a few circuits that showed significantly decreased activity after sleep deprivation, and this activity correlated strongly with a decrease in performance.  Such a finding suggests that these networks might be the underpinnings of the effects that sleep deprivation has on brain and behavior.

However, he didn't stop there.  In order to answer this question more thoroughly, Dr. Stern applied a technique called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to artificially stimulate these areas of the brain in sleep-deprived individuals.  Amazingly, he found that applying stimulation to the areas most affected by sleep deprivation caused a significant increase in behavioral performance on cognitive tasks, relative to those who got no stimulation.  Furthermore, the subjects that showed the sharpest reduction in activity after sleep deprivation benefited the most from this TMS treatment.  Such a finding is a rare correlation between behavior and neural activity, and it suggests a promising future for research into these neural networks.

There are a number of questions that one might ask surrounding this issue - whether other kinds of activities (such as drug use or hunger) affect these areas as well, whether we can pharmacologically increase the activity in these areas of the brain, or whether we can enact long-term changes in some other manner.  However, before embarking on these scientific inquiries, I think it best that we make sure to get a good night's sleep.


Notes in the Brain

One of the topics that I've been interested in for a long time is creativity and where it is represented in the brain.  Unfortunately, most research tends to focus on other aspects of cognition, since it's often tough to relate the study of creativity to a tangible benefit to society (or at least that's what most would have you think), but a recent article interviewed one researcher that is challenging that belief.

Charles Limb is a doctor-researcher at John Hopkins University.  He is also a saxophonist, pianist, and bassist.  This unique combination of talents has left him with a burning interest in the nature of creativity and spontaneity, two qualities that are inherent to any musical piece.

When he isn't performing cochlear implants, Dr. Limb has an fMRI lab that uses brain imaging to examine what exactly goes on in our brain when we conjure up musical expression from the deep recesses of our unconscious.

His most recent (and most promising) study involved placing six musicians in the fMRI machine with a specially-constructed plastic keyboard.  They were asked to play a typical 12-bar blues, then were told to start improvising on their own.  The fMRI recorded their brain activity while they did so, allowing the researchers to compare brain activity between playing music and improvising music.

What they found was an increase in activation of the medial prefrontal cortex - an area that is often associated with movement planning and decision making , coupled with a decrease in the lateral prefrontal cortex - an area that has been associated with inhibition and self-regulation.

While such a finding is preliminary at best, it does suggest that there are some very real, very fundamental differences between creation and recall from memory.  It is really difficult to determine what exactly is going on as these musical processes are carried out in the brain, but future studies with more subjects and more sophisticated recording techniques should shed light as to what exactly is going on in the brain.

Importantly, Dr. Limb emphasized that creativity is inherent to human beings, and an essential part of our society.  While he is a medical scientist, required to spend half of his time helping patients, perhaps this research will serve as a stimulus to the rest of the scientific community out there.  The nature of creativity is an elusive and complex phenomenon, and it will surely require an equally elegant and creative approach in order to be understood.

via Urbanite Magazine


A Roadmap of the Brain

A new milestone has been reached in our understanding of brain anatomy and connectivity.

Researchers at IBM have recently released their latest findings in an ongoing study to map and analyze the macaque brain.  The result synthesizes the findings of hundreds of studies on macaque brain anatomy, ending up with an elaborate wiring diagram of our furry little ancestor's brains.

While no-one seems to be quite sure what it all means, it is certainly an important step in how that connectivity is related to the way their (and our) brains work.

Additionally, this study serves as a lesson in the importance of collaboration - perhaps my favorite thing about their research.  Being able to use the data from other research studies allowed this team to compile something that would have been prohibitively difficult to do alone.  Hooray for science!  Hooray for sharing!  Hooray for brains!

via Kurzweil's Blog


Seeing double?

A new study of human vision has come out of the fantastic labs at MIT, this time acting as a proof-of-concept for current predictions about how humans go about making sense of their visual world.

Researchers at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research developed computational algorithms for parsing through a visual scene and marking "areas of interest" that might mimic those a human would choose.  In order to test these predictions out, the researchers had the program predict areas that humans would inspect first in a visual scene, then recorded the eye movements of actual people looking through the scene.

They theorized that, rather than identifying each object in a visual field, people were more likely to mark out a coarse topography of what they were seeing first, marking certain areas as more important than others.  By making certain kinds of features more "important" and other features less-so, the process of searching through a visual field would be more efficient and focused on the specific task at hand.

Ultimately, the program was highly successful in marking areas that people would look at first, suggesting that humans may be employing the same kinds of algorithms in deciding what to look at first.  While it may not be a perfect match with how our brains are wired, it's an interesting twist on the old "what and where" dual-stream paradigm.

It seems to me that this research might suggest a third parallel process - something along the lines of "how important."  Whether this is an integral part of the basic visual process, or a higher-order function that comes after the fact, remains to be seen.

from MIT News


How to Facilitate Motor Memory

I think this website, This Is Your Brain on Awesome, should be about getting your brain on awesome.  Almost like a how-to guide for squeezing the most out of your melon.  Usually, this would probably involve applying some sort of exogenous brain stimulation.  I'm partial to noninvasive electromagnetic stimulation myself, but to each his own.

With that in mind, here's a tip on how to get started getting your brain on awesome - shut down your prefrontal lobes when trying to learn new motor memories.

Two main categories of learning you'll often hear people refer to are declarative and procedural.  Declarative memories can be likened to facts you know about the world - for example, we all know that driving through the entire state of Kansas on I-70 is worse than Chinese water torture and the best parts of Kansas City are actually in the state of Missouri; procedural memories, on the other hand, tend to be more automated and motor in nature - like driving a car or tying your shoe.

A recent study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (Galea et al., 2009) demonstrated that using transcranial magnetic stimulation to inhibit the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex led to increased consolidation of procedural skills.  Put more simply, what this may mean is this: by temporarily shutting down a region of the brain important for higher order cognitive function directly after performing a motor memory type task, you will see an increase in the retention of that motor memory.  The group that published the paper suggests this effect may be caused by disrupting dorsolateral prefrontal cortical functioning, which eliminates or reduces it as a resource competitor in the brain, "leaving more resources to be recruited by the procedural memory system".  By what mechanism this works isn't exactly clear, as other lines of evidence dealing with the prefrontal cortex function suggest inhibiting the prefrontal cortex could be releasing an inhibitory control that derives from that area (called disinhibition).  Regardless, the main findings still stand and make sense in light of the consolidation competition hypothesis, which suggests that memory systems interact on a competitive level with each other, especially when it comes to the consolidation stage.

So, to start getting your brain on awesome, here's what you may want to do: pull out the old guitar that's sitting in its case collecting dust, hook up some excitatory brain stimulation over your motor cortices (there is evidence this is beneficial - I'll write about those later), and practice until your fingers can't take it anymore.  Then, immediately after, apply inhibitory brain stimulation over your prefrontal cortices for a little while.  With this approach, you may be maximizing plasticity in the motor regions of the brain during skill acquisition and minimizing interference from declarative memory systems during memory consolidation.

Consider your brain juiced!  You'll be shredding like Yngwie Malmsteen in no time... but you're on your own when it comes to finding the cool outfits and necessary jewelry.