What are you doing right now? I’m no psychic, but I can say for certain one thing that you’re doing: reading. You’re reading this sentence, word by word, and extracting meaning from little black lines of orthography, a fancy term for the rules of written language. If you really think about it, what you’re doing right now is quite difficult. What are the neural processes that enable us to read?
The human brain is arguably the most complex organ. Throughout life, it is shaped ever so slightly by each and every experience we endure. The resulting nuances are what make us unique individuals. Unfortunately, the more intricate the system, the harder it is to fix when damaged. Death of any brain tissue will almost certainly result in some sort of physical or cognitive impairment, and, in severe cases, epilepsy, coma, or death. This is because the lost brain tissue can neither grow back like skin nor be replaced like a kidney.
Or can it?
Sometimes it’s hard to understand why scientists do what they do. Why spend a career studying cells, fungus, or flies? Other than being nerdy and wanting to learn about our world, what’s the point?Continue reading
When babies are born, they cannot see very well, but their vision vastly improves as they continue to develop. Sometimes, the eyes don’t communicate well with the brain, and vision disorders like amblyopia result. What are the neural mechanisms that allow normal visual development? What happens when things go amiss? And how can these disorders be prevented and treated? These are the questions that get Professor Lynne Kiorpes up in the morning! Listen to her passion as she explains her research and life as a neuroscientist:Continue reading
What brain regions are employed when we interact with other people? Cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore explains the “social brain” in her TED talk and sheds light on the complex networks that enable us to evaluate the mental states of other people. Her research focuses on the development of the social brain during adolescence. Watch Dr. Blakemore’s TED talk for more information on how the brain matures during the transition from adolescence to adulthood.Continue reading
“I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting…”
The old shepherd’s thoughts from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale resonate centuries later when we consider examples of stereotypical teenage behavior – emotional outbursts, angst, and recklessness just to name a few. But if we dismiss teenagers as lacking emotional discipline, we fail to understand the complex neural underpinnings that drive much of this behavior and allow a concerned adult to guide teens through this critical stage of brain development.Continue reading
Stem cells have two characteristic and essential properties:
- Self-renewal. They can divide to give rise to another stem cell.
- Potency. They are capable of differentiating into specialized cells.
It is easy to assume that if a car has a gas pedal, it needs to have brakes, and similarly, if our brain has excitatory neurons, it needs inhibition too. For a long time, the field of neuroscience had thought of inhibitory interneurons as the “brakes” of the brain, providing suppression to neuronal activity. However, in my conversation with Dr. Gordon J. Fishell, I learned that interneurons are far more fascinating cell types than merely being inhibitory! Their multifarious morphology can be attributed to a palette of functions in brain developmental and regulation.Continue reading
In my last post, “Vocal Practice is for the Birds” examined one similarity between human and songbird procedural learning: the necessity for practice before performance. Zebra finches sing a series of introductory notes to prepare before beginning their mating song, much like we warm up before playing an instrument or before an athletic competition. This is but one of the many similarities found between human and songbird behaviors. In fact, scientists have been using songbirds to study many common behaviors, like spatial memory and social interactions in addition to procedural learning. Songbirds are the ideal model system for studying the neurogenetic basis of vocal learning due to the similarity of the neural structures underlying this relatively rare behavior.Continue reading
The human brain continues to develop and form new connections from birth until as late as the mid-20s. During this time, billions of connections are made and broken as the brain develops the architecture required for learning, memory, language, emotion and many other brain functions. Disruptions in how the brain forms connections during infancy and early childhood can severely impair growth and negatively affect brain functions. Continue reading
Genetics, although ostensibly complicated, is all around us. In our immediate social circle, we often come across genetics at display. Some examples are obvious: The kids wear glasses because both parents wear them. But others are not as straightforward: How is the daughter so tall when both parents are short? These inexplicable traits are often the result of de novo mutations, which are mutations that occur in a child whose parents do not possess that trait.Continue reading