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Tag: neuroscience

Synaptic Exuberance: Babies Overdo It

Brains of babies are simply amazing. Babies are like little scientists or explorers collecting data/information from their surroundings and analyzing them every moment, every second they are growing up. It’s just amazing to observe how the brains of babies work. When babies are born, their brain cells lack the synaptic connections (connections between brain cells). As they explore their new world, these experiences  lead to building of connections between different cells (“synaptic exuberance”). During the first few formative years baby brains are very active, building up millions of such links between the cells. The process starts at birth and peaks up when they are 8-9 months old.

Cerebral cortex produces most of its synaptic connections after birth, in a massive burst of synapse formation known as the exuberant period. At its peak, the cerebral cortex creates an astonishing two million new synapses every second. With these new connections come a baby’s many mental milestones, such as color vision, a pincer grasp, or a strong attachment to his parents. By two years of age, a toddler’s cerebral cortex contains well over a hundred trillion synapses. [Zerotothree.org]

In the above time-lapse video , Francis Vachon who is a journalist and photographer in Quebec, Canada, recorded the 4-hour activity of his 9 months old son Edward. You can see how baby Edward is exploring his surroundings during his 4-hour stay in the room.  (If some of you wonder whether the baby was left alone in the room for 4-hours, don’t worry he was not left alone. The shots of adults in the video has been cut to increase the cuteness factor of the video.)

If you look at the plot below, it’s the formative age when most of the cell connections in the brain are made and then the connections start dying out during teenage years. It’s not like we are becoming dumber as we grow up (or maybe we are), but the baby brains overdo the process of making cell connections. As we grow, our life style preferences, nurturing,and  social influences starts  optimizing or fine tuning these connections. The ones  we need are retained and strengthened while the ones which are no more required starts dying out. This process makes each individual unique with a unique personality trait, mentality, aptitude and so on.

Story Source: NPR Robert Kulrwich

Plot credit: Peter R. Huttenlocher/Elsevier Ltd

1 Comment January 15, 2011

Walking In A Straight Line

Walking in a straight line, how difficult can it be? Well it can be really difficult walking in straight line if we are asked to do so in an unfamiliar terrain such as a jungle/desert. Even if the terrain is familiar but if we are blindfolded it’s really impossible for us to walk in a straight line, instead we tend to walk in circles or loops and this phenomena of walking in circles has been a puzzle for humans. The idea of walking in circles when lost in forest or desert have been there in the popular culture since a long time [Mark Twain in Roughing it ,1872; The Lord of the Rings, 1954; The Blair Witch Project, 1999 etc.] but no detailed scientific study has been conducted to understand it. That was until 2009, when Souman and group from Max Planck Institute of Biological Cybernetics in Germany decided to do some experiments to understand this mystery [published in Current Biology, 2009]. There have been several hypotheses as to why we tend to walk in circles instead of straight line. Two main hypotheses include 1)  hemispherical asymmetries in our brain can result in different amount of dopamine being released resulting in turning in a particular direction (directional bias), or 2) maybe different physical attributes or bio-mechanical asymmetries, such as difference in size or strength of left or right legs can add to a certan bias and lead us in a circle instead of straight line.

Soulman tested both the hypotheses and found no correlation. Subjects walked randomly towards left or right  but in a circle irrespective of their directional biases, showing that there was no constant bias favoring turning in a particular direction. For testing the second hypothesis of biomechanical assymetry, they glued additional soul in one of the boots, resulting in extra length of one of the legs but the result showed no correlation.

The subjects in this study were asked to walk in a straight line in a vast open forest and Sahara desert without any blindfolds. In one case the day was cloudy while in the other case it was sunny. the result was that on the cloudy day, the subjects started walking in a loop after travelling certain distance, even criss-crossing their earlier paths even without noticing it while on the sunny day, subjects did fairly well walking in a straight line. In the image below, the red dots mark the starting point of the walking tracks, the colored lines show the actual ways that the test persons covered. The test persons PS, KS and RF could not use the sun for orientation, whereas the sun started shining just after SM started his trial. [Source: Jan Souman,tuebingen.mpg.de]

In second set of experiements, the researchers blindfolded the subjects and asked them to walk in a straight line, and ofcourse they failed. Interestingly, they walked in very tight loop of diamter smaller than 20 m and while doing this, the subjects always perceived that they were walking in a straight line.

Possible explanations can be that when walking in an unfamiliar terrain without proper external cues (such as sun) or walking blindfolded, we introduce small random errors in what we pereceive as “straight ahead”. These random errors keep on accumulating on our subjective perception of ” straight ahead” ultimately leading us to drift in different direction as compared to “true straight ahead”. If these accumulated random noises are small, we tend to walk in straight line, but if they grow large, we tend to move in circles or loops. Lack of proper external cues such as no sun, or lack of distinguishing trees in the forest, or distinctive landmarks in desert, or lack of any sort of visual cues when blindfolded can result into large accumulation of random errors. These random errors can possibly affect our Vestibular system comprised of inner parts of  ears and brain which can in turn affect our sensorimotor system. Panic or emergency situations (lost in forest) can cause individuals or groups to ignore even distinctive landmarks and can lead them to walk in circles.

Now you can go and try for yourself if you can walk in a straight line in an open parking lot or park if you are blindfolded and what’s the longest distance you wan walk in straight line before you start walking in a loop!

Image credit: First image- Flickr user Bods; Second image: Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics

Article: Walking Straight into Circles, J. Souman et al. Current Biology, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.053

3 Comments December 17, 2010

Picture of The Day: Biological World Visualized

The picture above was taken by Dr Paul Andrews from Univ of Dundee, Scotland while studying Aurora B protein Kinase. What you see here are two human cancer cells (HeLa cells), magnified 100 times, dividing into two daughter cells and expressing Aurora B kinase. In cancerous cells, these proteins are over-expressed, which can be used as marker for cancerous cells in the body.  We need more research and funding in finding treatment for all kinds of cancer; we can’t afford to lose so many valuable lives to this deadly disease. I hope and wish we find some cure soon.

The picture below is 2-photon fluorescence image of glial cells in the brain. Most of our brain is made of glial cells, almost 90% of it. They provide support to neurons in our brain. I have been planning to write a post on glial cells for so long and have been postponing it. Hopefully, I can write about history and research of these cells very soon. If you want to look more at such microscopic images, you can visit Nikon Small world Gallery.

Picture credit: 1. Boston.com/BigPicture | Nikon Small world | Dr Paul Andrews, Univ of Dundee

2. Boston.com/BigPicture | Nikon Small world | Dr Paul Andrews |Thomas Deerinck,  University of California, San Diego

Leave a Comment October 20, 2010

Meditate And Strengthen Your Brain in 11 Hours

While previous post was on muscles, lets move on to brain now. Meditation which has been practiced in East since ages, is known to relax the practitioner and help him/her have better control over emotions and stressful situations. But it’s also known that it’s not easy to achieve those benefits unless you practice meditation regularly and for sufficient amount of time. But if you practice a form of Chinese meditation called as Integrative-body mind training or IBMT, you might be able to achieve those benefits just after 11 hours of training. In recent study by Michael Posner and Y. Tang (PNAS, Jul 2010), it has been shown that just by 11 hours of IBMT training, positive structural changes were induced in a particular region of the brain which regulates and control our behavior. Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) is that part of the brain which is related to self-regulation and this zone in the brain gets more interconnected as we grow up. In the experiment, it was shown that by 11 hr IBMT training, white matter tract in the brain which connects ACC to other structures of the brain was enhanced resulting in improved efficiency which in turn can result in better self-regulation.

For the experiments, 22 students from Univ of Oregon were given 11 hr IBMT training while 23 students were given simple relaxation training and neuro-imaging technique (diffusion tensor imaging) was used to monitor the fiber connectivity before and after the training. The technique measured something called fractional anisotropy by measuring diffusion of water in the pathway which gives the measure of fiber inter connectivity. The results showed enhanced fiber connectivity in the white matter which increases efficiency of connection between ACC and other parts of the brain. Results from previous studies by the same researchers showed that just after 5 hours of IBMT training , behavioral changes in the form of enhanced attention by students was observed. Also, low stress level was observed. This study further strengthens the positive effects of IBMT meditation and that too achievable in short time of practicing IBMT.

Reference Article: Tang et al., Jul 27 2010, Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1011043107

Picture credit: Univ of Oregon Media Relations

Leave a Comment August 24, 2010

The Moral Life Of Babies

It’s just a coincidence that the titles of my three continuous posts are similar. But the title of this post has been taken exactly as the article in New York Times about a new study on babies. The study being conducted in Yale university, tries to answer the psychological as well as the philosophical question of morality, and whether the idea of being moral or being able to decide between good and bad is in our genes? Are we genetically coded to be moral right from birth or we acquire it during our development. To tackle this issue, psychologist Paul Bloom and his group designed a set of studies involving puppet shows where the toddlers or the “baby scientists” were shown some puppet shows which consisted of a “good” puppet and a “bad” puppet. You can watch the video below and see how they define good and bad puppets. When the baby has seen the show many times, he/she is asked to choose between the puppets, and as their results show, 80% of the babies choose the good puppet. You can read the complete NY Times article here.

As for me, I am a bit skeptic about this study. I am not sure if the experimental conditions provided cues to the babies to choose a a particular puppet, either due to color preferences or cued by parents or the experimenter. For me, when the baby is born, it is still assimilating huge amount of information from the world, and the idea of morality, which is defined by society, still takes time to sink in. Babies are smart, and they assimilate information much faster than we adults do, but being born with the idea of morality- it is difficult for me to digest. Make your own conclusions about this study and comment if you want.

Video: NY Times

Photo: Flickr user creativesam | used under Creative Commons License

Leave a Comment May 25, 2010

Are You Smart Enough to Have Hundreds of Friends?

You might be very friendly, good natured person, have  a very appealing smile and willing to make more and more friends (in real world or virtual via Facebook, Orkut, Twitter) but are you smart enough to handle all those relationships. Well, it turns out that our brain can handle only a certain number of relationships at a time which includes kins, friends, foes, and romantic relationships and this upper limit turns out to be ~150 also popularly referred to as Dunbar Number, the idea which British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested in 1992 and became more popular after it was included in one of the chapters of the book Tipping Point. He studied various non-human primates and correlated their group size with their neocortex size in the brain and found a good correlation, the larger the size of neocortex, the bigger was their social interaction group. So, while chimps have a group size of 40-50, humans with a neocortex ratio (CR) of 4.1 have a mean group size of 150. Interestingly, this number has shown up in many studies and many group formations, and have been applied unknowingly in many group settings such as military units and size of villages and tribes in many cultures. So while you might be boasting of having 1000 friends in your facebook profile, your cognitive limits can only process a certain number of friends. Dunbar is already doing a study on Facebook networking and his results will be public anytime this year.

The limit as explained by Dunbar is not due to data storage limitations in the brain, rather the amount of energy and efforts required to groom the relationships. These numbers pertain to the primitive settings where the sole purpose of the group was survival, but the current world where it’s not only a matter of survival but also achieving and getting things done, this requires more amount of energy input into relationships and thus the upper limit on number of stable friendships you can have might even be lowered. We also share part of our lives in virtual world, where we dont meet people and just communicate through mails and messages, maintaining such long distance relationships demand even more cognitive energy and thus will further reduce the number.  Our neocortext part of the brain, I guess, works like a zero-sum system, like a tumbler filled with water upto the brim and so if you add any additional drop of water, equivalent drop will fall off. So when we keep adding more friends, people who are on the fringe of our network (like those whom we dont meet often) might fall off our cognitive conscience. So, while you might think you are smart enough to handle all those friend requests on your facebook profile, in reality you truly interact with only few of them on regular basis and can remember only few of them. It’s not your fault, that’s your cognitive limit and you have to live with it.

Reference: http://www.liv.ac.uk/evolpsyc/Kudo_Dunbar.pdf

Leave a Comment May 3, 2010

Autism Research

Autism related disorders are on rise. CDC reports that currently in US about 1% of the kids are affected by Autism and this number has increased in recent years. Data suggests that boys have more tendency to have Autism than a girl. Increase in number may also be attributed to more awareness among parents and physicians in diagnosing Autism and separating Autism related disorders from other disabilities. Today is Autism awareness day and I found this interesting article on Autism Speaks website which mentions important Autism related research advances in past year. Here is the link.      Photo:Autism Speaks

1 Comment April 2, 2010

Prakash Center for Children

Prakash center is an initiative taken up by Dr Pawan Sinha from MIT to improve the condition of children with disabilities in India focusing primarily on blindness. The planned center in Rishikesh will have hospitals to provide treatment, schooling facilities for children and will also have a cutting edge research facility. Dr Sinha’s group has already published some pathbreaking results in the field of cognitive neuroscience and learning and its application to improve the lives of millions of children all around the world will be a great step forward. Some of the group’s work has been highlighted in recent talk by Dr Sinha during TED India event.

Leave a Comment February 27, 2010


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