Researchers map functional connections between retinal neurons at single-cell resolution

By comparing a clearly defined visual input with the electrical output of the retina, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies were able to trace for the first time the neuronal circuitry that connects individual photoreceptors with retinal ganglion cells, the neurons that carry visual signals from the eye to the brain.

Their measurements, published in the Oct. 7, 2010, issue of the journal Nature, not only reveal computations in a neural circuit at the elementary resolution of individual neurons but also shed light on the neural code used by the retina to relay color information to the brain.

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Groups of neurons in the brain rewire by changing images

Neuroscientists studying the mind’s ability to process images have completed the first empirical study to demonstrate, using animal models, how populations of nerve cells in visual cortex adapt to changing images. Their findings could lead to sight-improving therapies for people following trauma or stroke. The study at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston appears in the March 13 issue of the journal Nature.

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New MIT tool probes brain circuits

Researchers at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT report in the Jan. 24 online edition of Science that they have created a way to see, for the first time, the effect of blocking and unblocking a single neural circuit in a living animal.

This revolutionary method allowed Susumu Tonegawa, Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience, and colleagues to see how bypassing a major memory-forming circuit in the brain affected learning and memory in mice.

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Monkeys can perform mental addition

Researchers at Duke University have demonstrated that monkeys have the ability to perform mental addition. In fact, monkeys performed about as well as college students given the same test.

The findings shed light on the shared evolutionary origins of arithmetic ability in humans and non-human animals, according to Assistant Professor Elizabeth Brannon, Ph.D. and Jessica Cantlon, Ph.D., of the Duke Center for Cognitive Neuroscience.

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Cognitive ‘fog’ of normal aging linked to brain system disruption

Comparisons of the brains of young and old people have revealed that normal aging may cause cognitive decline due to deterioration of the connections among large-scale brain systems. The researchers linked the deterioration to a decrease in the integrity of the brain’s “white matter,” the tissue containing nerve cells that carry information. The researchers found that the disruption occurred even in the absence of pathology associated with Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

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Scientists uncover how the brain controls what the eyes see

Vase or face” When presented with the well known optical illusion in which we see either a vase or the faces of two people, what we observe depends on the patterns of neural activity going on in our brains.

“In this example, whether you see faces or vases depends entirely on changes that occur in your brain, since the image always stays exactly the same,” said John Serences, a UC Irvine cognitive neuroscientist.
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Scientists have developed a way to operate machines only by thoughts

Neuroscientists have significantly advanced brain-machine interface (BMI) technology to the point where severely handicapped people who cannot contract even one leg or arm muscle now can independently compose and send e-mails and operate a TV in their homes. They are using only their thoughts to execute these actions.

Thanks to the rapid pace of research on the BMI, one day these and other individuals may be able to feed themselves with a robotic arm and hand that moves according to their mental commands.
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Enzymes Key To Brainpower Identified

Bolstering disintegrating neural connections may help boost brainpower in Alzheimer’s disease patients, MIT researchers and colleagues will report in the Nov. 8 issue of Neuron.

The researchers zeroed in on the enzymes that manipulate a key scaffolding protein for synapses, the connections through which brain cells communicate. Synapses are weakened and lost in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
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Research shows the brain’s processing speed is significantly faster than real time

Scientists at The University of Arizona have added another piece of the puzzle of how the brain processes memory.

Bruce McNaughton, a professor of psychology and physiology, and his colleague David Euston have shown that, during sleep, the reactivated memories of real-time experiences are processed within the brain at a higher rate of speed. That rate can be as much as six or seven times faster, and what McNaughton calls “thought speed.”
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Out-of-body experience recreated

Experts have found a way to trigger an out-of-body experience in volunteers. The experiments, described in the Science journal, offer a scientific explanation for a phenomenon experienced by one in 10 people.

Two teams used virtual reality goggles to con the brain into thinking the body was located elsewhere.The visual illusion plus the feel of their real bodies being touched made volunteers sense that they had moved outside of their physical bodies. 

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Maturity brings richer memories

MIT neuroscientists exploring how memory formation differs between children and adults have found that although the two groups have much in common, maturity brings richer memories.In the August 5 advance online edition of Nature Neuroscience, the MIT team reports that children rival adults in forming basic memories, but adults do better at remembering the rich, contextual details of that information. The MIT study provides new insights into how children learn that are not only theoretically important, but could also inform practical learning in everyday settings. Continue reading “Maturity brings richer memories”

Researchers reverse symptoms in mice of leading inherited cause of mental retardation

Researchers at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT have, for the first time, reversed symptoms of mental retardation and autism in mice.

The mice were genetically manipulated to model Fragile X Syndrome (FXS), the leading inherited cause of mental retardation and the most common genetic cause of autism. The condition, tied to a mutated X chromosome gene called fragile X mental retardation 1 (FMR1) gene, causes mild learning disabilities to severe autism.

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Rat’s Neurons ( in dish ) learn how to fly a jet

This is a three year old experiment but still remarkable to watch it in action.

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction: a brain nurtured in a Petri dish learns to pilot a fighter plane as scientists develop a new breed of “living” computer. In ground-breaking experiments in a Florida laboratory, however, that is exactly what is happening. The “brain”, grown from 25,000 neural cells extracted from a single rat embryo, has been taught to fly an F-22 jet simulator by scientists at the University of Florida.

Memory Restored In Mice Through Enriched Environment: New Hope For Alzheimer’s

Mice whose brains had lost a large number of neurons due to neurodegeneration regained long-term memories and the ability to learn after their surroundings were enriched with toys and other sensory stimuli, according to new studies by Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers. The scientists were able to achieve the same results when they treated the mice with a specific type of drug that encourages neuronal growth.

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Brain networks strengthened by closing ion channels

New Haven, Conn. — Yale School of Medicine and University of Crete School of Medicine researchers report in Cell April 20 the first evidence of a molecular mechanism that dynamically alters the strength of higher brain network connections.

This discovery may help the development of drug therapies for the cognitive deficits of normal aging, and for cognitive changes in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
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Wired for sound: How the brain senses visual illusions

In a study that could help reveal how illusions are produced in the brain’s visual cortex, researchers at the UCSD School of Medicine have found new evidence of rapid integration of auditory and visual sensations in the brain. Their findings, which provide new insight into neural mechanisms by which visual perception can be altered by concurrent auditory events, will be published online in the April 12 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience.
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New research shows why too much memory may be a bad thing

New research from Columbia University Medical Center may explain why people who are able to easily and accurately recall historical dates or long-ago events, may have a harder time with word recall or remembering the day’s current events. They may have too much memory – making it harder to filter out information and increasing the time it takes for new short-term memories to be processed and stored.
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Deconstructing brain wiring, one neuron at a time

Researchers have long said they won’t be able to understand the brain until they can put together a “wiring diagram” – a map of how billions of neurons are interconnected. Now, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have jumped what many believe to be a major hurdle to preparing that chart: identifying all of the connections to a single neuron.

In the March 1 issue of the journal Neuron, the researchers describe how they modified the deadly rabies virus, turning it into a tool that can cross the synaptic space of a targeted nerve cell just once to identify all the neurons to which it is directly connected.
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How does your brain respond when you think about gambling or taking risks?

Should you leave your comfortable job for one that pays better but is less secure? Should you have a surgery that is likely to extend your life but poses some risk that you will not survive the operation? Should you invest in a risky startup company whose stock may soar even though you could lose your entire investment? In the Jan. 26 issue of the journal Science, UCLA psychologists present the first neuroscience research comparing how our brains evaluate the possibility of gaining versus losing when making risky decisions.
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Consciousness May Be a Sure Bet

Typically, when someone places a bet—be it on a sporting event, obscure trivia or where the ball in a roulette wheel will land—he or she is fully aware of the decision to do so. And now scientists at Oxford University in England have discovered that they can better determine if decisions in general are conscious (or subconscious) by having subjects literally gamble on, well, their decisions. The researchers, reporting in this week’s Nature Neuroscience, found that study participants were reluctant to wager big bucks unless they were confident in their choices, indicating that they knew full well what they were doing.

Read rest of the story at Scientific American.

Activation of brain region predicts altruism

Duke University Medical Center researchers have discovered that activation of a particular brain region predicts whether people tend to be selfish or altruistic.

“Although understanding the function of this brain region may not necessarily identify what drives people like Mother Theresa, it may give clues to the origins of important social behaviors like altruism,” said study investigator Scott A. Huettel, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Brain Imaging and Analysis Center.
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Conceptualizing a cyborg

Investigators at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine describe the basis for developing a biological interface that could link a patient’s nervous system to a thought-driven artificial limb. Their conceptual framework – which brings together years of spinal-cord injury research – is published in the January issue of Neurosurgery.

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Neural bottleneck found that thwarts multi-tasking

Many people think they can safely drive while talking on their cell phones. Vanderbilt neuroscientists Paul E. Dux and René Marois have found that when it comes to handling two things at once, your brain, while fast, isn’t that fast.

“Why is it that with our incredibly complex and sophisticated brain, with 100 billion neurons processing information at rates of up to a thousand times a second, we still have such a crippling inability to do two tasks at once?” Marois, associate professor of Psychology, asked. “For example, what is it about our brain that gives us such a hard time at being able to drive and talk on a cell phone simultaneously?”

Researchers have long thought that a central “bottleneck” exists in the brain that prevents us from doing two things at once. Dux and Marois are the first to identify the regions of the brain responsible for this bottleneck, by examining patterns of neural activity over time.
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Neural stem cells lend the brain a surprising capacity for self-repair

The brain contains stem cells with a surprising capacity for repair, researchers report in recent issue of the journal Cell. The novel insight into the brain’s natural ability to heal might ultimately have clinical implications for the treatment of brain damage, according to the researchers.

The researchers found that mice whose brains were severely damaged by loss of the genes “Numb” and “Numblike” in one region just after birth showed substantial mending within weeks. They attributed that repair to neural stem cell “escapees” that had somehow retained or restored the genes’ activity and, with it, their regenerative potential.
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Imaging pinpoints brain regions that ‘see the future’

Human memory, the ability to recall vivid mental images of past experiences, has been studied extensively for more than a hundred years. But until recently, there’s been surprisingly little research into cognitive processes underlying another form of mental time travel — the ability to clearly imagine or “see” oneself participating in a future event.

Now, researchers from Washington University in St. Louis have used advanced brain imaging techniques to show that remembering the past and envisioning the future may go hand-in-hand, with each process sparking strikingly similar patterns of activity within precisely the same broad network of brain regions.
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Researchers demonstrate direct brain control of humanoid robot

A classic science-fiction scene shows a person wearing a metal skullcap with electrodes sticking out to detect the person’s thoughts. Another sci-fi movie standard depicts robots doing humans’ bidding. Now the two are combined, and in real life: University of Washington researchers can control the movement of a humanoid robot with signals from a human brain.

Rajesh Rao, associate professor of computer science and engineering, and his students have demonstrated that an individual can “order” a robot to move to specific locations and pick up specific objects merely by generating the proper brain waves that reflect the individual’s instructions.
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Two nerve cells in direct contact

Movements in space create in humans and animals so-called optical flow fields which are characteristic for the movement in question. In a forward movement, the objects flow by laterally, objects at the front increase in size and objects further away hardly change at all. At a higher level in the visual centre in the brain, there must be a computation of the visual information, so that animals can differentiate between their own movement and movement of their environment and are able to correct their course if necessary. It is important for the analysis of flow fields that the movement information from both eyes is merged so that the whole flow field can be assessed. In their current study, Karl Farrow, Jürgen Haag and Alexander Borst have for the first time proved the direct link between two nerve cells, one in each half of the brain, combining the movement signals from both the facetted eyes of a fly.
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Part Of Human Brain Functions Like A Digital Computer

A region of the human brain that scientists believe is critical to human intellectual abilities surprisingly functions much like a digital computer, according to psychology Professor Randall O’Reilly of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The finding could help researchers better understand the functioning of human intelligence.
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Study Provides Insight Into How the Brain Loses Plasticity of Youth

A protein once thought to play a role only in the immune system could hold a clue to one of the great puzzles of neuroscience: how do the highly malleable and plastic brains of youth settle down into a relatively stable adult set of neuronal connections?

Harvard Medical School researchers report in the August 17 Science Express that adult mice lacking the immune system protein paired-immunoglobulin like receptor-B (PirB) had brains that retained the plasticity of much younger brains, suggesting that PirB inhibits such plasticity.
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Researchers watch brain in action

For the first time, scientists have been able to watch neurons within the brain of a living animal change in response to experience.

Thanks to a new imaging system, researchers at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory have gotten an unprecedented look into how genes shape the brain in response to the environment. Their work is reported in the July 28 issue of Cell.

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Researchers calculate human eye transmits information to the brain at the rate of an ethernet

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine estimate that the human retina can transmit visual input at about the same rate as an Ethernet connection, one of the most common local area network systems used today. They present their findings in the July issue of Current Biology. This line of scientific questioning points to ways in which neural systems compare to artificial ones, and can ultimately inform the design of artificial visual systems.

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Two broad classes of ganglion cell types in the guinea pig retina: brisk cells, which are larger and transmit electrical impulses faster, and sluggish, which are smaller and slower

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Controlling movement through thought alone

A man with paralysis of all four limbs could directly control objects around him – open simulated email, play a game of Pong, adjust the volume on the television set – using only his thoughts. These pilot clinical trial findings, featured on the cover of Nature, mark a major advance in neuroscience, one that offers hope to people with severe motor impairments.
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A Neural Mosaic Of Tones

The brain filters what we hear. It can do this in part because particular groups of neurons react to specific frequencies of sound. Neurobiologists from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen have now created a "frequency map" for numerous areas of the brain. They used magnetic resonance imaging to identify which neuronal fields are activated by single frequencies and by mixtures of frequencies (PLoS Biology, June 20, 2006).
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Long-term changes in experience cause neurons to sprout new long-lasting connections

Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers have discovered that neurons in the brains of mice sprout robust new connections when the animals are adjusting to new experiences. The new connections alter the circuitry of the brain by changing communication between neurons.
The researchers said their findings aid understanding of how procedural learning induces long-term rewiring of the brain. This type of learning is used in mastering skills such as riding a bicycle or typing on a computer.
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Hap1 protein links circulating insulin to brain circuits that regulate feeding behavior in mice

Researchers have discovered how the protein Hap1, which is abundant in the brain’s hypothalamus, serves as the link between circulating insulin in the blood and the neural circuitry that controls feeding behavior in mice. Illumination of the neural pathway used by hormones to regulate appetite and eating behavior could eventually provide new drug targets for treating eating disorders and obesity.
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In the mind’s eye: How the brain makes a whole out of parts

When a human looks at a number, letter or other shape, neurons in various areas of the brain’s visual center respond to different components of that shape, almost instantaneously fitting them together like a puzzle to create an image that the individual then “sees” and understands, researchers at The Johns Hopkins University report.
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Scientists find a link in brain between sight and sound

Just imagine listening to someone talk and also hearing the buzz of the overhead lights, the hum of your computer and the muffled conversation down the hallway. To focus on the person speaking to you, your brain clearly can’t give equal weight to all incoming sensory information. It has to attend to what is important and ignore the rest.

Two scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine have taken a big step toward sorting out how the brain accomplishes this task. In the Jan. 19 issue of Nature, the researchers show that a mechanism for prioritizing information – previously reported only in primates – is also used by birds.
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Tiny RNA molecules fine-tune the brain’s synapses

Non-coding regions of the genome – those that don’t code for proteins – are now known to include important elements that regulate gene activity. Among those elements are microRNAs, tiny, recently discovered RNA molecules that suppress gene expression. Increasing evidence indicates a role for microRNAs in the developing nervous system, and researchers from Children’s Hospital Boston now demonstrate that one microRNA affects the development of synapses – the points of communication between brain cells that underlie learning and memory.

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Long-term memory controlled by molecular pathway at synapses

Harvard University biologists have identified a molecular pathway active in neurons that interacts with RNA to regulate the formation of long-term memory in fruit flies. The same pathway is also found at mammalian synapses, and could eventually present a target for new therapeutics to treat human memory loss.

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Researcher finds neuron growth in adult brain

Despite the prevailing belief that adult brain cells don’t grow, a researcher at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory reports in the Dec. 27 issue of Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology that structural remodeling of neurons does in fact occur in mature brains.

This finding means that it may one day be possible to grow new cells to replace ones damaged by disease or spinal cord injury, such as the one that paralyzed the late actor Christopher Reeve.

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New Neurons Take Baby Steps In The Adult Brain

In experiments with mice, scientists from Johns Hopkins’ Institute for Cell Engineering have discovered the steps required to integrate new neurons into the brain’s existing operations.

For more than a century, scientists thought the adult brain could only lose nerve cells, not gain them, but in fact, new neurons do form during adulthood in all mammals, including humans, and become a working part of the adult brain in mice at the very least.

In the first study to show how these “baby” neurons are integrated into the brain’s existing networks, the Johns Hopkins researchers show that a brain chemical called GABA readies baby neurons to make connections to old ones. The discovery is described in the Dec. 11 advance online section of Nature.
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Research clarifies how brain replenishes memory-making molecules

New research on living neurons has clarified how the brain refreshes the supply of molecules it needs to make new memories.
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Researchers develop new method for studying ‘mental time travel’

Neuroscientists at Princeton University have developed a new way of tracking people’s mental state as they think back to previous events — a process that has been described as “mental time travel.”

The findings, detailed in the Dec. 23 issue of Science, will aid efforts to learn more about how people mine the recesses of memory and could have a wide-ranging impact in the field of neuroscience, including studies of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
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Human bone marrow stem cells may have more therapeutic potentials

A breakthrough in stem cell research could eventually lead to cures for debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. According to the latest issue of the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, researchers now firmly believe that one day stem cells, by transmuting into healthy tissue cells to replace rotten ones, could become a remedy for the brain diseases.
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