Posts Tagged ‘Neuroscience’

Not having enough vitamin B12 can shrivel your brain. No, really. [Neuroscience]

29 Sep
Anyone ever told you that if you don't get your vitamins, your brain will shrink? No? Well they should. It turns out that having a vitamin B12 deficiency later in life is pretty bad for your grey matter. A group of researchers looked at over-65s from the South Side of Chicago, and measured the amount of vitamin B12 and B12-related metabolites in their blood, their cognitive skills, and took MRIs of them. More »

Learning how the brain does its coding

06 May

Most organisms with brains can store and process a staggering range of information. The fundamental unit of the brain, a single neuron, however, can only communicate in the simplest of manners, by sending a simple electrical pulse. The challenge of understanding how information is contained in the pattern of these pulses has been bothering neurobiologists for decades, and has been given its own name: neural coding.

In principle, there are two ways coding could be handled. In dense coding, a single neuron would convey lots of information through a complex series of voltage spikes. To a degree, however, this creates as many problems as it solves, since the neuron on the receiving end will have to be able to interpret this complex series properly, and separate it from operating noise.

The alternative, sparse coding, tends to be used for memory recall and sensory representations. Here, a single neuron only conveys a limited amount of information (i.e., there's something moving horizontally in the field of vision) through a simple pulse of activity. Detailed information is then constructed by aggregating the inputs of lots of these neurons.

A study released in yesterday's Science provides some perspective on just how flexible this sort of system can be. Researchers worked with the olfactory system of insects, where structures in the brain called mushroom bodies integrate the inputs from sensory neurons. (they're called mushroom bodies for the highly technical reason that they're shaped kind of like a mushroom.) The mushroom bodies use sparse coding to interpret and recall odors, with most neurons only firing a few times in response to a scent.

The authors of the paper traced the connections among the neurons in the mushroom body, and found that most were contacted by a single, giant interneuron that sent them inhibitory signals. By toning all the other neurons down, this giant cell enforces sparse coding by limiting the amount of activity that is elicited by a new odor. It also allows the fine tuning of activity for the entire mushroom body. Increasing its activity is sufficient to shut the entire system down, essentially making the insect blind to smells, while decreasing its activity will make the insect hypersensitive to scents.

Although us mammals don't have neurons of this sort—they appear to be an innovation exclusive to the insects—the authors predict that a system that functions similarly may be found in vertebrates, simply because it's so simple and functional.

Science, 2011. DOI: 10.1126/science.1201835  (About DOIs).

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We can reverse the aging process in bees’ brains. Could humans be next? [Neuroscience]

21 Mar
Bees can become mentally young again with just a few simple alterations to their otherwise fixed routines. Because the brains of bees are surprisingly like our own, this trick could help fight dementia and keep human minds young and flexible. More »

The secret to making long-term memories [Neuroscience]

20 Mar
One of humanity's most incredible abilities is being able to remember things that happened many years, perhaps even many decades ago. But it's only now that neuroscience is able to really explain how we can form such long-lasting memories. More »

What happens in our brain when we see banknotes being ripped up? [Neuroscience]

20 Mar
Or, put another way, "Is our attitude to money like that to any other tool even though its use is symbolic and is not implemented in its physical structure?" More »

A drug that can make your old memories like new [Mad Science]

04 Mar
There are drugs that help you remember what you learn, and ones that erase your memory. But until now, there have no substances with the power to enhance and strengthen old memories hovering on the brink of being forgotten. Now a group of neuroscientsts say they've isolated a single enzyme in the brain that can help long-term memories remain crisp in your mind. More »

Engineered Viruses Boost Memory Recall in Mice

03 Mar

By John Timmer, Ars Technica

Memories fade with time, often to the annoyance of those who can’t recall important details. But scientists have now found a way to boost the recall of memories even after they’ve started to fade. Unfortunately, the method involves injecting an engineered virus directly into the brain, so those of us who are bad with names may want to wait a bit for the technique to be refined.

The work was done in rats, and the memories in question are associations between a specific taste — saccharine, for example — and an unpleasant stimulus, caused by injection of a nausea-inducing drug (the approach is called “conditioned taste aversion”). Unless the unpleasant association is reinforced, the memories will slowly fade with time, although the aversion doesn’t disappear entirely during the two-week period that the authors were looking at.

Two years ago, the same authors found that it was possible to radically accelerate this fading. By injecting a chemical that blocked a specific brain enzyme (protein kinase M ζ), the authors caused the rats to act as if they had never experienced the nausea, even if the memory manipulation took place 25 days after the conditioning. Most chemicals that interfere with memories tend to prevent them from being consolidated for long-term storage, but this chemical seemed to work even after the memory was firmly in place.

That’s potentially helpful, since some people have formed negative associations with harmless or even helpful items. Still, for most of us, it would be nice to think that fading memories could be resuscitated. Apparently, they can. The researchers have now done what’s effectively the converse experiment, and increased the activity of protein kinase M ζ. They did this by engineering a virus to express the gene for the kinase, and then infected specific areas of the brain involved in memory. All the infected cells had additional copies of the gene, and thus made more of its product.

The virus had exactly the effect that the authors would presumably have predicted. The virus was injected a week after the rats were given the aversion conditioning, when the memory would already be starting to fade, and the memory tests were done a week after that, yet rats showed a significantly improved retention of their memories. As the authors point out, the engineered virus boosted a memory that was formed before it was even present.

The memory molecule, PKMzeta, overexpressed in rat neurons. Red (left) shows PKMzeta while green (middle) is a fluorescent protein that shows nerve cells have been infected by viruses engineered to boost the memory molecule. Yellow (right) shows both the memory molecule and green fluorescent protein only overexpress at certain locations in the neuron. Weizmann Institute of Science/Science

Actually, you can make that memories, plural. The authors trained rats to avoid both saccharine and salty liquids over the course of three days, and then injected the virus a week after the last training. The memories of both of these trainings were enhanced by the presence of the viral protein kinase M ζ gene.

The authors can’t tell exactly what protein kinase M ζ is doing to increase the recall of memories, and suggest it could be either enhancing the association between taste and the unpleasant experience, or simply enhancing recall in general. Although they don’t mention it, their findings may also be limited to specific classes of memories, like the associations examined here.

That latter point makes the last sentence of the paper a bit over the top, as the authors suggest that a chemical that enhances protein kinase M ζ activity might make for a good treatment for memory disorders like amnesia and age-related decline. Until we have a clearer sense of how many types of memories it works for, that’s a bit premature. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to test the recall abilities of animals, many of which don’t involve negative associations. Hopefully, testing of the virus’ more general impact on memory is already underway.

Image: HIV (green dots), a member of the lentivirus genus. (C. Goldsmith/P. Feorino/E. L. Palmer/W. R. McManus/CDC)

Citation: “Enhancement of Consolidated Long-Term Memory by Overexpression of Protein Kinase Mζ in the Neocortex.” Reut Shema, Sharon Haramati, Shiri Ron, Shoshi Hazvi, Alon Chen,
Todd Charlton Sacktor and Yadin Dudai.
Science, Vol. 331, March 3, 2011. DOI: 10.1126/science.1200215

Source: Ars Technica

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Take the ultimate intelligence test [Brains]

01 Nov
You might think it's obvious that one person is smarter than another. But there are few more controversial areas of science than the study of intelligence and, in reality, there's not even agreement among researchers about what this word means. More »

New evidence that Alzheimer’s disease is infectious [Brains]

22 Oct
Alzheimer's disease is caused in part by a build-up of protein debris in the brain. Scientists already knew that this protein debris, called amyloid peptides, is infectious. But now it turns out that it's easier to catch than they thought. More »