Do elephants call ‘human!’? Low rumble alarm call in response to the sound of human voices

African elephants make a specific alarm call in response to the danger of humans, according to a new study of wild elephants in Kenya.Researchers from Oxford University, Save the Elephants, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom carried out a series of audio experiments in which recordings of the voices of the Samburu, a local tribe from North Kenya, were played to resting elephants. The elephants quickly reacted, becoming more vigilant and running away from the sound whilst emitting a distinctive low rumble.When the team, having recorded this rumble, played it back to a group of elephants they reacted in a similar way to the sound of the Samburu voices; running away and becoming very vigilant, perhaps searching for the potentially lethal threat of human hunters.The new research, recently reported in PLOS ONE, builds on previous Oxford University research showing that elephants call ‘bee-ware’ and run away from the sound of angry bees. Whilst the ‘bee’ and ‘human’ rumbling alarm calls might sound similar to our ears there are important differences at low (infrasonic) frequencies that elephants can hear but humans can’t.’Elephants appear to be able to manipulate their vocal tract (mouth, tongue, trunk and so on) to shape the sounds of their rumbles to make different alarm calls,’ said Dr Lucy King of Save the Elephants and Oxford University who led the study with Dr Joseph Soltis, a bioacoustics expert from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and colleagues.’We concede the possibility that these alarm calls are simply a by-product of elephants running away, that is, just an emotional response to the threat that other elephants pick up on,’ Lucy tells me. ‘On the other hand, we think it is also possible that the rumble alarms are akin to words in human language, and that elephants voluntarily and purposefully make those alarm calls to warn others about specific threats. Our research results here show that African elephant alarm calls can differentiate between two types of threat and reflect the level of urgency of that threat.’Elephant ‘human’ alarm call rumbleSignificantly, the reaction to the human alarm call included none of the head-shaking behaviour displayed by elephants hearing the bee alarm. When threatened by bees elephants shake their heads in an effort to knock the insects away as well as running — despite their thick hides adult elephants can be stung around their eyes or up their trunks, whilst calves could potentially be killed by a swarm of stinging bees as they have yet to develop a thick protective skin.Lucy explains: ‘Interestingly, the acoustic analysis done by Joseph Soltis at his Disney laboratory showed that the difference between the ”bee alarm rumble” and the ”human alarm rumble” is the same as a vowel-change in human language, which can change the meaning of words (think of ”boo” and ”bee”). Elephants use similar vowel-like changes in their rumbles to differentiate the type of threat they experience, and so give specific warnings to other elephants who can decipher the sounds.’This collaborative research on how elephants react to and communicate about honeybees and humans is being used to reduce human-elephant conflict in Kenya. Armed with the knowledge that elephants are afraid of bees, Lucy and Save the Elephants have built scores of ‘beehive fences’ around local farms that protect precious fields from crop-raiding elephants.’In this way, local farmers can protect their families and livelihoods without direct conflict with elephants, and they can harvest the honey too for extra income,’ says Lucy. ‘Learning more about how elephants react to threats such as bees and humans will help us design strategies to reduce human-elephant conflict and protect people and elephants.’Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of Oxford. The original article was written by Pete Wilton. …

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Retrieval practice improves memory in severe traumatic brain injury, researchers demonstrate

Kessler Foundation researchers have shown that retrieval practice can improve memory in individuals with severe traumatic brain injury (TBI). “Retrieval Practice Improves Memory in Survivors of Severe Traumatic Brain Injury,” was published as a brief report in the current issue of Archives of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation in February 2014. The article is authored by James Sumowski, PhD, Julia Coyne, PhD, Amanda Cohen, BA, and John DeLuca, PhD, of Kessler Foundation.”Despite the small sample size, it was clear that retrieval practice (RP) was superior to other learning strategies in this group of memory-impaired individuals with severe TBI,” explained Dr. Sumowski.Researchers studied ten patients with severe TBI and memory impairment (<5<sup>th percentile) to see whether RP improved memory after short (30 min) and long (1 week) delays. During RP, also described as testing effect, patients are quizzed shortly after information to be learned is presented. RP was compared with two other learning strategies–massed restudy (MR), which consists of repeated restudy (ie, cramming) and spaced restudy (SR), for which individuals restudy information at intervals (ie, distributed learning).Results showed that recall was better with RP than with MR or SR. Moreover, RP was more effective for memory after short delay, and was the only strategy that supported memory after long delay. This robust effect indicates that RP would improve memory in this group in real-life settings. “If these individuals learn to incorporate this compensatory strategy into their daily routines, they can improve their memory,” Dr. Sumowski noted. …

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Private tutoring provides little help

Sep. 12, 2013 — Around one sixth of school children in German-speaking Switzerland receive private tutoring. Mostly they seek assistance with mathematics. In contrast to the perceptions of those tutored, tutoring rarely results in any improvement in their marks. This has been demonstrated by a representative study funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).How widespread is private tuition, and does it improve marks? To answer this question, a team led by educational scientist Hans-Ulrich Grunder from the University of Basel and the School for Teacher Education FHNW conducted a survey of more than 10,000 pupils in classes 5 to 9 at schools in German-speaking Switzerland. Their marks and abilities were compared at three-month intervals.Of those surveyed, 17% received private tuition. This figure is slightly below that of other European countries. Girls were more likely to receive tutoring than boys (19% compared to 16%, with the most marked difference at the primary school level (21% compared to 17%)). The reason is that most assistance is sought for mathematics (69%). …

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Scientists create new memories by directly changing the brain

Sep. 10, 2013 — By studying how memories are made, UC Irvine neurobiologists created new, specific memories by direct manipulation of the brain, which could prove key to understanding and potentially resolving learning and memory disorders.Share This:Research led by senior author Norman M. Weinberger, a research professor of neurobiology & behavior at UC Irvine, and colleagues has shown that specific memories can be made by directly altering brain cells in the cerebral cortex, which produces the predicted specific memory. The researchers say this is the first evidence that memories can be created by direct cortical manipulation.Study results appeared in the August 29 issue of Neuroscience.During the research, Weinberger and colleagues played a specific tone to test rodents then stimulated the nucleus basalis deep within their brains, releasing acetylcholine (ACh), a chemical involved in memory formation. This procedure increased the number of brain cells responding to the specific tone. The following day, the scientists played many sounds to the animals and found that their respiration spiked when they recognized the particular tone, showing that specific memory content was created by brain changes directly induced during the experiment. Created memories have the same features as natural memories including long-term retention.”Disorders of learning and memory are a major issue facing many people and since we’ve found not only a way that the brain makes memories, but how to create new memories with specific content, our hope is that our research will pave the way to prevent or resolve this global issue,” said Weinberger, who is also a fellow with the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory and the Center for Hearing Research at UC Irvine.The creation of new memories by directly changing the cortex is the culmination of several years of research in Weinberger’s lab implicating the nucleus basalis and ACh in brain plasticity and specific memory formation. Previously, the authors had also shown that the strength of memory is controlled by the number of cells in the auditory cortex that process a sound.Share this story on Facebook, Twitter, and Google:Other social bookmarking and sharing tools:|Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by University of California – Irvine, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above. …

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National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day – Depression …

Instead, he told me that I had clinical depression and that there was hope for me to get better. Learning that my depression was biologically-based and not a character flaw changed my life completely. Today, as I look back on …

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Perception of marijuana as a ‘safe drug’ is scientifically inaccurate, finds review of teen brain studies

Aug. 27, 2013 — The nature of the teenage brain makes users of cannabis amongst this population particularly at risk of developing addictive behaviors and suffering other long-term negative effects, according to researchers at the University of Montreal and New York’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.”Of the illicit drugs, cannabis is most used by teenagers since it is perceived by many to be of little harm. This perception has led to a growing number of states approving its legalization and increased accessibility. Most of the debates and ensuing policies regarding cannabis were done without consideration of its impact on one of the most vulnerable population, namely teens, or without consideration of scientific data,” wrote Professor Didier Jutras-Aswad of the University of Montreal and Yasmin Hurd, MD, PhD, of Mount Sinai. “While it is clear that more systematic scientific studies are needed to understand the long-term impact of adolescent cannabis exposure on brain and behavior, the current evidence suggests that it has a far-reaching influence on adult addictive behaviors particularly for certain subsets of vulnerable individuals.”The researchers reviewed over 120 studies that looked at different aspects of the relationship between cannabis and the adolescent brain, including the biology of the brain, chemical reaction that occurs in the brain when the drug is used, the influence of genetics and environmental factors, in addition to studies into the “gateway drug” phenomenon. “Data from epidemiological studies have repeatedly shown an association between cannabis use and subsequent addiction to heavy drugs and psychosis (i.e. schizophrenia). Interestingly, the risk to develop such disorders after cannabis exposure is not the same for all individuals and is correlated with genetic factors, the intensity of cannabis use and the age at which it occurs. When the first exposure occurs in younger versus older adolescents, the impact of cannabis seems to be worse in regard to many outcomes such as mental health, education attainment, delinquency and ability to conform to adult role,” Dr Jutras-Aswad said.Although it is difficult to confirm in all certainty a causal link between drug consumption and the resulting behavior, the researchers note that rat models enable scientists to explore and directly observe the same chemical reactions that happen in human brains. Cannabis interacts with our brain through chemical receptors (namely cannabinoid receptors such as CB1 and CB2.) These receptors are situated in the areas of our brain that govern our learning and management of rewards, motivated behavior, decision-making, habit formation and motor function. …

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Cocaine use linked to new brain structures: Possible mechanism for drug-seeking behavior in humans identified

Aug. 25, 2013 — Mice given cocaine showed rapid growth in new brain structures associated with learning and memory, according to a research team from the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at UC San Francisco. The findings suggest a way in which drug use may lead to drug-seeking behavior that fosters continued drug use, according to the scientists.The researchers used a microscope that allowed them to peer directly into nerve cells within the brains of living mice, and within two hours of giving a drug they found significant increases in the density of dendritic spines — structures that bear synapses required for signaling — in the animals’ frontal cortex. In contrast, mice given saline solution showed no such increase.The researchers also found a relationship between the growth of new dendritic spines and drug-associated learning. Specifically, mice that grew the most new spines were those that developed the strongest preference for being in the enclosure where they received cocaine rather than in the enclosure where they received saline. The team published its findings online in Nature Neuroscience on August 25, 2013.”This gives us a possible mechanism for how drug use fuels further drug-seeking behavior,” said principal investigator Linda Wilbrecht, PhD, a Gallo investigator now at UC Berkeley, but who led the research while she was on the UCSF faculty.”It’s been observed that long-term drug users show decreased function in the frontal cortex in connection with mundane cues or tasks, and increased function in response to drug-related activity or information,” Wilbrecht said. “This research suggests how the brains of drug users might shift toward those drug-related associations.”In all living brains there is a baseline level of creation of new spines in response to, or in anticipation of, day-to-day learning, Wilbrecht said. By enhancing this growth, cocaine might be a super-learning stimulus that reinforces learning about the cocaine experience, she said.The frontal cortex, which Wilbrecht called the “steering wheel” of the brain, controls functions such as long-term planning, decision-making and other behaviors involving higher reasoning and discipline.The brain cells in the frontal cortex that Wilbrecht and her team studied regulate the output of this brain region, and may play a key role in decision-making. “These neurons, which are directly affected by cocaine use, have the potential to bias decision-making,” she said.Wilbrecht said the findings could potentially advance research in human addiction “by helping us identify what is going awry in the frontal cortexes of drug-addicted humans, and by explaining how drug-related cues come to dominate the brain’s decision-making processes.”In the first of a series of experiments, the scientists gave cocaine injections to one group of mice and saline injections to another. The next day, they observed the animals’ brain cells using a 2-photon laser scanning microscope. …

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Brain circuit can tune anxiety

Aug. 21, 2013 — Anxiety disorders, which include posttraumatic stress disorder, social phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder, affect 40 million American adults in a given year. Currently available treatments, such as antianxiety drugs, are not always effective and have unwanted side effects.To develop better treatments, a more specific understanding of the brain circuits that produce anxiety is necessary, says Kay Tye, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences and member of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.”The targets that current antianxiety drugs are acting on are very nonspecific. We don’t actually know what the targets are for modulating anxiety-related behavior,” Tye says.In a step toward uncovering better targets, Tye and her colleagues have discovered a communication pathway between two brain structures — the amygdala and the ventral hippocampus — that appears to control anxiety levels. By turning the volume of this communication up and down in mice, the researchers were able to boost and reduce anxiety levels.Lead authors of the paper, which appears in the Aug. 21 issue of Neuron, are technical assistant Ada Felix-Ortiz and postdoc Anna Beyeler. Other authors are former research assistant Changwoo Seo, summer student Christopher Leppla and research scientist Craig Wildes.Measuring anxietyBoth the hippocampus, which is necessary for memory formation, and the amygdala, which is involved in memory and emotion processing, have previously been implicated in anxiety. However, it was unknown how the two interact.To study those interactions, the researchers turned to optogenetics, which allows them to engineer neurons to turn their electrical activity on or off in response to light. For this study, the researchers modified a set of neurons in the basolateral amygdala (BLA); these neurons send long projections to cells of the ventral hippocampus.The researchers tested the mice’s anxiety levels by measuring how much time they were willing to spend in a situation that normally makes them anxious. Mice are naturally anxious in open spaces where they are easy targets for predators, so when placed in such an area, they tend to stay near the edges.When the researchers activated the connection between cells in the amygdala and the hippocampus, the mice spent more time at the edges of an enclosure, suggesting they felt anxious. …

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Preschoolers inability to estimate quantity relates to later math difficulty

Aug. 14, 2013 — Preschool children who showed less ability to estimate the number of objects in a group were 2.4 times more likely to have a later mathematical learning disability than other young people, according to a team of University of Missouri psychologists. Parents may be able to help their children develop their skills at approximating group sizes by emphasizing numerals while interacting with young children.”Lacking skill at estimating group size may impede a child’s ability to learn the concept of how numerals symbolize quantities and how those quantities relate to each other,” said study co-author David Geary, professor of psychological sciences at MU. “Not understanding the values numbers symbolize then leads to difficulties in math and problems in school, which our previous studies suggest may be related to later difficulties with employment.”Geary said that parents may be able to improve a child’s innate skill at approximating group size and suggested that caregivers draw children’s attention to quantities in everyday situations. For example, after a preschool-aged child completes a series of tasks, a parent can ask the youth how many tasks they completed.”Talking to children about how the world can be represented in numbers may help young people develop the ability to estimate the size of a group, which may prepare them for later mathematics education” said co-author Kristy vanMarle, assistant professor of psychological science at MU. “Asking them ‘how many’ whenever they encounter a group of objects or images can help them understand that the world can be understood in terms of numbers.”However, the inability to approximate group size was not the only factor related to later math problems. The MU team also found that preschoolers who lagged behind others in their understanding of the symbolic value of numerals and other related concepts were 3.6 to 4.5 times more likely to show mathematical learning difficulties, which corroborates earlier research by Geary, and extends it to a much younger age.Doctoral student Felicia W. Chu was the lead author of the study, “Quantitative deficits of preschool children at risk for mathematical learning disability,” which was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.”One major reason I came to the University of Missouri was the psychology department’s strong reputation for studying children’s mathematical education,” said Chu.Geary is Curators’ Professor and a Thomas Jefferson Fellow in the Department of Psychological Sciences in MU’s College of Arts and Science. vanMarle is the director of MU’s Developmental Cognition Lab.

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Brain’s flexible hub network helps humans adapt

Aug. 12, 2013 — One thing that sets humans apart from other animals is our ability to intelligently and rapidly adapt to a wide variety of new challenges — using skills learned in much different contexts to inform and guide the handling of any new task at hand.Now, research from Washington University in St. Louis offers new and compelling evidence that a well-connected core brain network based in the lateral prefrontal cortex and the posterior parietal cortex — parts of the brain most changed evolutionarily since our common ancestor with chimpanzees — contains “flexible hubs” that coordinate the brain’s responses to novel cognitive challenges.Acting as a central switching station for cognitive processing, this fronto-parietal brain network funnels incoming task instructions to those brain regions most adept at handling the cognitive task at hand, coordinating the transfer of information among processing brain regions to facilitate the rapid learning of new skills, the study finds.”Flexible hubs are brain regions that coordinate activity throughout the brain to implement tasks — like a large Internet traffic router,” suggests Michael Cole, PhD., a postdoctoral research associate in psychology at Washington University and lead author of the study published July 29 in the journal Nature Neuroscience.”Like an Internet router, flexible hubs shift which networks they communicate with based on instructions for the task at hand and can do so even for tasks never performed before,” he adds.Decades of brain research has built a consensus understanding of the brain as an interconnected network of as many as 300 distinct regional brain structures, each with its own specialized cognitive functions.Binding these processing areas together is a web of about a dozen major networks, each serving as the brain’s means for implementing distinct task functions — i.e. auditory, visual, tactile, memory, attention and motor processes.It was already known that fronto-parietal brain regions form a network that is most active during novel or non-routine tasks, but it was unknown how this network’s activity might help implement tasks.This study proposes and provides strong evidence for a “flexible hub” theory of brain function in which the fronto-parietal network is composed of flexible hubs that help to organize and coordinate processing among the other specialized networks.This study provide strong support for the flexible hub theory in two key areas.First, the study yielded new evidence that when novel tasks are processed flexible hubs within the fronto-parietal network make multiple, rapidly shifting connections with specialized processing areas scattered throughout the brain.Second, by closely analyzing activity patterns as the flexible hubs connect with various brain regions during the processing of specific tasks, researchers determined that these connection patterns include telltale characteristics that can be decoded and used to identify which specific task is being implemented by the brain.These unique patterns of connection — like the distinct strand patterns of a spider web — appear to be the brain’s mechanism for the coding and transfer of specific processing skills, the study suggests.By tracking where and when these unique connection patterns occur in the brain, researchers were able to document flexible hubs’ role in shifting previously learned and practiced problem-solving skills and protocols to novel task performance. Known as compositional coding, the process allows skills learned in one context to be re-packaged and re-used in other applications, thus shortening the learning curve for novel tasks.What’s more, by tracking the testing performance of individual study participants, the team demonstrated that the transfer of these processing skills helped participants speed their mastery of novel tasks, essentially using previously practiced processing tricks to get up to speed much more quickly for similar challenges in a novel setting.”The flexible hub theory suggests this is possible because flexible hubs build up a repertoire of task component connectivity patterns that are highly practiced and can be reused in novel combinations in situations requiring high adaptivity,” Cole explains.”It’s as if a conductor practiced short sound sequences with each section of an orchestra separately, then on the day of the performance began gesturing to some sections to play back what they learned, creating a new song that has never been played or heard before.”By improving our understanding of cognitive processes behind the brain’s handling of novel situations, the flexible hub theory may one day help us improve the way we respond to the challenges of everyday life, such as when learning to use new technology, Cole suggests.”Additionally, there is evidence building that flexible hubs in the fronto-parietal network are compromised for individuals suffering from a variety of mental disorders, reducing the ability to effectively self-regulate and therefore exacerbating symptoms,” he says.Future research may provide the means to enhance flexible hubs in ways that would allow people to increase self-regulation and reduce symptoms in a variety of mental disorders, such as depression, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

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Neuroscientists identify protein linked to Alzheimer’s-like afflictions

Aug. 11, 2013 — A team of neuroscientists has identified a modification to a protein in laboratory mice linked to conditions associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. Their findings, which appear in the journal Nature Neuroscience, also point to a potential therapeutic intervention for alleviating memory-related disorders.The research centered on eukaryotic initiation factor 2 alpha (eIF2alpha) and two enzymes that modify it with a phosphate group; this type of modification is termed phosphorylation. The phosphorylation of eIF2alpha, which decreases protein synthesis, was previously found at elevated levels in both humans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and in Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) model mice.”These results implicate the improper regulation of this protein in Alzheimer’s-like afflictions and offer new guidance in developing remedies to address the disease,” said Eric Klann, a professor in New York University’s Center for Neural Science and the study’s senior author.The study’s co-authors also included: Douglas Cavener, a professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University; Clarisse Bourbon, Evelina Gatti, and Philippe Pierre of Université de la Méditerranée in Marseille, France; and NYU researchers Tao Ma, Mimi A. Trinh, and Alyse J. Wexler.It has been known for decades that triggering new protein synthesis is vital to the formation of long-term memories as well as for long-lasting synaptic plasticity — the ability of the neurons to change the collective strength of their connections with other neurons. Learning and memory are widely believed to result from changes in synaptic strength.In recent years, researchers have found that both humans with Alzheimer’s Disease and AD model mice have relatively high levels of eIF2alpha phosphorylation. But the relationship between this characteristic and AD-related afflictions was unknown.Klann and his colleagues hypothesized that abnormally high levels of eIF2alpha phosphorylation could become detrimental because, ultimately, protein synthesis would diminish, thereby undermining the ability to form long-term memories.To explore this question, the researchers examined the neurological impact of two enzymes that phosphorylate eIF2alpha, kinases termed PERK and GCN2, in different populations of AD model mice — all of which expressed genetic mutations akin to those carried by humans with AD. These were: AD model mice; AD model mice that lacked PERK; and AD model mice that lacked GCN2.Specifically, they looked at eIF2alpha phosphorylation and the regulation of protein synthesis in the mice’s hippocampus region — the part of the brain responsible for the retrieval of old memories and the encoding of new ones. They then compared these levels with those of postmortem human AD patients.Here, they found both increased levels of phosphorylated eIF2alpha in the hippocampus of both AD patients and the AD model mice. …

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Distinct brain disorders biologically linked: Disruption to the gene TOP3B increases susceptibility to schizophrenia and a learning disorder

Aug. 4, 2013 — A team of researchers have shown that schizophrenia and a disorder associated with autism and learning difficulties share a common biological pathway. This is one of the first times that researchers have uncovered genetic evidence for the underlying causes of schizophrenia.The team found that a disruption of the gene TOP3B, an exceedingly rare occurrence in most parts of the world, is fairly common in a uniquely genetically distinct founder population from North-eastern Finland. In this population, which has grown in relative isolation for several centuries, the disruption of TOP3B is associated with an increased risk of schizophrenia as well as with impairment in intellectual function and learning.Furthermore, the biochemical investigation of the protein encoded by the TOP3B gene allowed the researchers to gain first insight into the cellular processes that might be disturbed in the affected individuals.Although the past two decades have revealed a wealth of information about the genetics of disease, we still know little about the biology behind schizophrenia. Many associations between schizophrenia and genetic risk factors have been reported, but only a very few can be considered schizophrenia susceptibility genes. This study uncovers an important biological pathway that appears to underlie schizophrenia and could contribute to the cognitive impairment that is an important component of this disorder.”This is a tremendous discovery for our team; not only have we uncovered vital information about the biology behind schizophrenia, but we have also linked this same biological process to a disorder associated with learning difficulties,” says Dr Aarno Palotie, lead author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland. “Our findings offer great hope for future studies into the genetic basis of schizophrenia and other brain disorders, potentially finding new drug targets against them.”The North-eastern population of Finland has three times the frequency of schizophrenia compared to the national average in Finland, as well as a higher rate of intellectual impairment and learning difficulties. The team used data collected from this unique population to sift through genomic data for genetic deletions that may influence people’s susceptibility to schizophrenia.The team identified a rare genetic deletion affecting TOP3B in the North-eastern Finnish population that increases a person’s susceptibility to schizophrenia two-fold and that also is associated with an increased frequency of other disorders of brain development such as intellectual impairment. They speculate that this deletion directly disrupts the TOP3B gene to cause its effects on the brain.Having identified the link between TOP3B and schizophrenia, the researchers sought to understand why disrupting this gene might increase susceptibility to disease, and for this purpose they investigated the function of the protein that it encodes.”Such an approach is only possible when researchers from different disciplines — in our case geneticists and biochemists team up,” says Professor Utz Fischer, author from the University of Wurzburg. “Luckily, when we teamed up with the genetic team we had already worked on the TOP3B gene product for more than 10 years and hence had a good idea what this protein is doing.”TOP3B encodes a type of protein that typically helps the cell to unwind and wind DNA helices — essential to normal cell function. …

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Path of plaque buildup in brain shows promise as early biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease

July 15, 2013 — The trajectory of amyloid plaque buildup — clumps of abnormal proteins in the brain linked to Alzheimer’s disease — may serve as a more powerful biomarker for early detection of cognitive decline rather than using the total amount to gauge risk, researchers from Penn Medicine’s Department of Radiology suggest in a new study published online July 15 in Neurobiology of Aging.Amyloid plaque that starts to accumulate relatively early in the temporal lobe, compared to other areas and in particular to the frontal lobe, was associated with cognitively declining participants, the study found. “Knowing that certain brain abnormality patterns are associated with cognitive performance could have pivotal importance for the early detection and management of Alzheimer’s,” said senior author Christos Davatzikos, PhD, professor in the Department of Radiology, the Center for Biomedical Image Computing and Analytics, at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.Today, memory decline and Alzheimer’s — which 5.4 million Americans live with today — is often assessed with a variety of tools, including physical and bio fluid tests and neuroimaging of total amyloid plaque in the brain. Past studies have linked higher amounts of the plaque in dementia-free people with greater risk for developing the disorder. However, it’s more recently been shown that nearly a third of people with plaque on their brains never showed signs of cognitive decline, raising questions about its specific role in the disease.Now, Dr. Davatzikos and his Penn colleagues, in collaboration with a team led by Susan M. Resnick, PhD, Chief, Laboratory of Behavioral Neuroscience at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), used Pittsburgh compound B (PiB) brain scans from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging’s Imaging Study and discovered a stronger association between memory decline and spatial patterns of amyloid plaque progression than the total amyloid burden.”It appears to be more about the spatial pattern of this plaque progression, and not so much about the total amount found in brains. We saw a difference in the spatial distribution of plaques among cognitive declining and stable patients whose cognitive function had been measured over a 12-year period. They had similar amounts of amyloid plaque, just in different spots,” Dr. Davatzikos said. “This is important because it potentially answers questions about the variability seen in clinical research among patients presenting plaque. …

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How to keep kids engaged with educational games

July 15, 2013 — If you want teams of students to stay engaged while playing educational games, you might want them to switch seats pretty often. That’s one finding from a pilot study that evaluated how well middle school students were able to pay attention to game-based learning tasks.Students at a Raleigh, N.C., middle school were divided into two-person teams for the pilot study. Researchers from North Carolina State University then had each team test gaming concepts for an educational game called “Engage,” which allows only one student at a time to control gameplay. The researchers were trying to determine how effective educational gaming tasks were at teaching computer science concepts, but were also monitoring how engaged each student was.The researchers found that, for each team, the student actively performing the game tasks was much more likely to stay engaged — but that the second student would often lose focus.”This is a very useful finding, because we can use it to improve game design to better keep the attention of the ‘navigator,’ or second student,” says Dr. Kristy Boyer, an assistant professor of computer science at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work. “For example, we could assign tasks to the navigator that are critical to team success and make sure that each student has an opportunity to take the controls during each gameplay session.”The pilot study is part of a larger effort by the researchers to develop a game-based curriculum that teaches middle school students about computer science principles ranging from programming and big data to encryption and security.”We are doing this work to help ensure that Engage is a fun, effective learning environment, and to ensure that we can keep kids focused on the game itself,” says Fernando Rodríguez, a Ph.D. student at NC State who is lead author of the paper. “Keeping kids’ attention is essential if we want them to learn.”The paper, “Informing the Design of a Game-Based Learning Environment for Computer Science: A Pilot Study on Engagement and Collaborative Dialogue,” will be presented July 13 at the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Education in Memphis, Tenn. The paper was co-authored by Natalie Kerby, an undergraduate at NC State. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

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The study of resting brain connections predicts learning ability

July 9, 2013 — An innovative neurocognitive study conducted by researchers of the Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Universitat Jaume I and the Center for Brain and Cognition at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra shows that the individual variability that exists in brain connections affects people’s learning ability and, in turn, the learning process produces a change in brain networks associated with the trained areas.The study has been published in the scientific journal Journal of Neuroscience.Research outcomes conclude that the learning capacity of the human brain can be predicted by studying the initial spontaneous functional connectivity of the brain, in other words, the connection or synchronization of the activity between two or more areas of the brain at rest. “How is configured your brain before you start doing a task can give information to know how much you will learn, and this information is essential from the point of view of psychology. It provides us with a predictive element of how you respond to a learning task,” stresses César Ávila, professor in the Department of Basic Psychology, Clinical Psychology and Psychobiology of the Universitat Jaume I.The researchers took magnetic resonance images (MRI) of the brain at rest and during the performance of a new task before and after a training distributed over two weeks. This task was based on the identification of two phonemes belonging to two Indian languages, Hindi and Urdu, which are difficult to distinguish for a non-native speaker. The study, with a sample of 19 participants, revealed that the initial functional connectivity of the two areas related to training -the frontal operculum/left anterior insula and left superior parietal lobe- were capable of predicting learning. Researchers also noted that participants who showed a greater connection between these areas were the ones who would get a better discrimination between the two phonemes. In addition, after training there was a greater disconnection between these two areas in those participants with a better learning.Results were confirmed by a second experiment that consisted of a one-hour intensive training for 28 people, which found again the prediction of learning through the study of functional connectivity at rest. “Therefore, we can say that spontaneous brain activity at rest predicts learning ability and helps us understand how learning changes brain function,” stated Noelia Ventura-Campos, doctor in Mathematics and researcher at the Universitat Jaume I. Both experiments were conducted with the collaboration of Eresa Grupo Médico at the Provincial Hospital in Castellón.The innovative methodology developed, consisting of a longitudinal analysis that combines functional magnetic resonance images of the brain in active with images of the brain at rest, enables to interpret brain plasticity associated with a learning process. “This is a new kind of exploration based on studying the great amount of information given by the brain when you do nothing. …

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Link between fear and sound perception discovered

June 30, 2013 — Anyone who’s ever heard a Beethoven sonata or a Beatles song knows how powerfully sound can affect our emotions. But it can work the other way as well — our emotions can actually affect how we hear and process sound. When certain types of sounds become associated in our brains with strong emotions, hearing similar sounds can evoke those same feelings, even far removed from their original context. It’s a phenomenon commonly seen in combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in whom harrowing memories of the battlefield can be triggered by something as common as the sound of thunder. But the brain mechanisms responsible for creating those troubling associations remain unknown. Now, a pair of researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has discovered how fear can actually increase or decrease the ability to discriminate among sounds depending on context, providing new insight into the distorted perceptions of victims of PTSD.Their study is published in Nature Neuroscience.”Emotions are closely linked to perception and very often our emotional response really helps us deal with reality,” says senior study author Maria N. Geffen, PhD, assistant professor of Otorhinolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery and Neuroscience at Penn. “For example, a fear response helps you escape potentially dangerous situations and react quickly. But there are also situations where things can go wrong in the way the fear response develops. That’s what happens in anxiety and also in PTSD — the emotional response to the events is generalized to the point where the fear response starts getting developed to a very broad range of stimuli.”Geffen and the first author of the study, Mark Aizenberg, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in her laboratory, used emotional conditioning in mice to investigate how hearing acuity (the ability to distinguish between tones of different frequencies) can change following a traumatic event, known as emotional learning. …

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Potential therapeutic approach to Alzheimer’s disease

June 26, 2013 — Building on research published eight years ago in the journal Chemistry and Biology, Kenneth S. Kosik, Harriman Professor in Neuroscience and co-director of the Neuroscience Research Institute (NRI) at UC Santa Barbara, and his team have now applied their findings to two distinct, well-known mouse models, demonstrating a new potential target in the fight against Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.The results were published online June 4 as the Paper of the Week in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.Kosik and his research team focused on tau, a protein normally present in the brain, which can develop into neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) that, along with plaques containing amyloid-ß protein, characterize Alzheimer’s disease. When tau becomes pathological, many phosphate groups attach to it, causing it to become dysfunctional and intensely phosphorylated, or hyperphosphorylated. Aggregations of hyperphosphorylated tau are also referred to as paired helical filaments.”What struck me most while working on this project was how so many people I’d never met came to me to share their stories and personal anxieties about Alzheimer’s disease,” said Xuemei Zhang, lead co-author and an assistant specialist in the Kosik Lab. “There is no doubt that finding therapeutic treatment is the only way to help this fast-growing population.” Israel Hernandez, a postdoctoral scholar of the NRI and UCSB’s Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, is the paper’s other lead co-author.Treatments for hyperphosphorylated tau, one of the main causes of Alzheimer’s disease, do not exist. Current treatment is restricted to drugs that increase the concentration of neurotransmitters to promote signaling between neurons.However, this latest research explores the possibility that a small class of molecules called diaminothiazoles can act as inhibitors of kinase enzymes that phosphorylate tau. Kosik’s team studied the toxicity and immunoreactivity of several diaminothiazoles that targeted two key kinases, CDK5/p25 and GSK3ß, in two Alzheimer’s disease mouse models. The investigators found that the compounds can efficiently inhibit the enzymes with hardly any toxic effects in the therapeutic dose range.Treatment with the lead compound in this study, LDN-193594, dramatically affected the prominent neuronal cell loss that accompanies increased CDK5 activity. Diaminothiazole kinase inhibitors not only reduced tau phosphorylation but also exerted a neuroprotective effect in vivo. In addition to reducing the amount of the paired helical filaments in the mice’s brains, they also restored their learning and memory abilities during a fear-conditioning assay.According to the authors, the fact that treatment with diaminothiazole kinase inhibitors reduced the phosphorylation of tau provides strong evidence that small molecular kinase inhibitor treatment could slow the progression of tau pathology. …

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Fiber-optic pen helps see inside brains of children with learning disabilities

June 18, 2013 — For less than $100, University of Washington researchers have designed a computer-interfaced drawing pad that helps scientists see inside the brains of children with learning disabilities while they read and write.The device and research using it to study the brain patterns of children will be presented June 18 at the Organization for Human Brain Mapping meeting in Seattle. A paper describing the tool, developed by the UW’s Center on Human Development and Disability, was published this spring in Sensors, an online open-access journal. “Scientists needed a tool that allows them to see in real time what a person is writing while the scanning is going on in the brain,” said Thomas Lewis, director of the center’s Instrument Development Laboratory. “We knew that fiber optics were an appropriate tool. The question was, how can you use a fiber-optic device to track handwriting?”To create the system, Lewis and fellow engineers Frederick Reitz and Kelvin Wu hollowed out a ballpoint pen and inserted two optical fibers that connect to a light-tight box in an adjacent control room where the pen’s movement is recorded. They also created a simple wooden square pad to hold a piece of paper printed with continuously varying color gradients. The custom pen and pad allow researchers to record handwriting during functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to assess behavior and brain function at the same time.Other researchers have developed fMRI-compatible writing devices, but “I think it does something similar for a tenth of the cost,” Reitz said of the UW system. By using supplies already found in most labs (such as a computer), the rest of the supplies — pen, fiber optics, wooden pad and printed paper — cost less than $100.The device connects to a computer with software that records every aspect of the handwriting, from stroke order to speed, hesitations and liftoffs. Understanding how these physical patterns correlate with a child’s brain patterns can help scientists understand the neural connections involved.Researchers studied 11- and 14-year-olds with either dyslexia or dysgraphia, a handwriting and letter-processing disorder, as well as children without learning disabilities. Subjects looked at printed directions on a screen while their heads were inside the fMRI scanner. …

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Why fruit ripens and spoils: Thousands of plant genes activated by ethylene gas

June 11, 2013 — It’s common wisdom that one rotten apple in a barrel spoils all the other apples, and that an apple ripens a green banana if they are put together in a paper bag. Ways to ripen, or spoil, fruit have been known for thousands of years — as the Bible can attest — but now the genes underlying these phenomena of nature have been revealed.In the online journal eLIFE, a large international group of scientists, led by investigators at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, have traced the thousands of genes in a plant that are activated once ethylene, a gas that acts as a plant growth hormone, is released.This study, the first such comprehensive genomic analysis of ethylene’s biological trigger, may lead to powerful practical applications, the researchers say. Ethylene not only helps ripen fruit, it also regulates growth and helps defends a plant against pathogens, among a variety of other functions.Teasing out the specific genes that perform each of these discrete functions from the many genes found to be activated by ethylene might allow scientists to produce plant strains that slow down growth when needed, accelerate or prevent ripening, retard rotting or make plants more resistant to disease, says the senior investigator, Joseph R. Ecker, head of Salk’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory.”Now that we know the genes that ethylene ultimately activates, we will be able to identify the key genes and proteins involved in each of these branch pathways, and this might help us manipulate the discrete functions this hormone regulates,” Ecker says.By all accounts, it took a Herculean effort to decode the genetic pathways that ethylene activates — one that involved four institutions and 19 researchers, many of whom normally work in human biology. For example, Ecker invited the expertise of Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Ziv Bar-Joseph, transcriptional expert Timothy Hughes from the University of Toronto, as well as computational biologist Trey Ideker and genomicist Bing Ren from the University of California, San Diego.The study also represents a milestone for Ecker, who has devoted his career to understanding the power exerted by plant-based ethylene.”I have been trying, for several decades, to understand how a simple gas — two carbons and four hydrogens — can cause such profound changes in a plant,” Ecker says. “Now we can see that by altering the expression of one protein, ethylene produces cascading waves of gene activation that profoundly alters the biology of the plant.”Although the plant they studied is the Arabidopsis thaliana, related to cabbage and mustard, ethylene functions as a key hormone in all plants, he adds.The researchers looked at what happens in Arabidopsis after ethylene gas causes activation of EIN3, a master transcription factor — a protein that controls gene expression — that Ecker had discovered and cloned in 1997. EIN3 and a related protein, EIL1, are required for the response to ethylene gas; without these proteins, ethylene has no effect on the plant.”We wanted to know how ethylene is actually doing its job,” Ecker says. “Once the plant responds to ethylene by activating EIN3, what happens? What genes are turned on? And what are those genes doing?”Using a technique known as ChIP-Seq, the researchers exposed Arabidopsis to ethylene and identified all the regions of the plant genome that bound to EIN3, which required using next-generation sequencing. …

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New tasks become as simple as waving a hand with brain-computer interfaces

June 11, 2013 — Small electrodes placed on or inside the brain allow patients to interact with computers or control robotic limbs simply by thinking about how to execute those actions. This technology could improve communication and daily life for a person who is paralyzed or has lost the ability to speak from a stroke or neurodegenerative disease.Now, University of Washington researchers have demonstrated that when humans use this technology — called a brain-computer interface — the brain behaves much like it does when completing simple motor skills such as kicking a ball, typing or waving a hand. Learning to control a robotic arm or a prosthetic limb could become second nature for people who are paralyzed.”What we’re seeing is that practice makes perfect with these tasks,” said Rajesh Rao, a UW professor of computer science and engineering and a senior researcher involved in the study. “There’s a lot of engagement of the brain’s cognitive resources at the very beginning, but as you get better at the task, those resources aren’t needed anymore and the brain is freed up.”Rao and UW collaborators Jeffrey Ojemann, a professor of neurological surgery, and Jeremiah Wander, a doctoral student in bioengineering, published their results online June 10 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.In this study, seven people with severe epilepsy were hospitalized for a monitoring procedure that tries to identify where in the brain seizures originate. Physicians cut through the scalp, drilled into the skull and placed a thin sheet of electrodes directly on top of the brain. While they were watching for seizure signals, the researchers also conducted this study.The patients were asked to move a mouse cursor on a computer screen by using only their thoughts to control the cursor’s movement. Electrodes on their brains picked up the signals directing the cursor to move, sending them to an amplifier and then a laptop to be analyzed. Within 40 milliseconds, the computer calculated the intentions transmitted through the signal and updated the movement of the cursor on the screen.Researchers found that when patients started the task, a lot of brain activity was centered in the prefrontal cortex, an area associated with learning a new skill. But after often as little as 10 minutes, frontal brain activity lessened, and the brain signals transitioned to patterns similar to those seen during more automatic actions.”Now we have a brain marker that shows a patient has actually learned a task,” Ojemann said. “Once the signal has turned off, you can assume the person has learned it.”While researchers have demonstrated success in using brain-computer interfaces in monkeys and humans, this is the first study that clearly maps the neurological signals throughout the brain. …

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