Weird Animal Brain: Manta Ray

Last month, on the big island of Hawaii, I swam with giant, beautiful aliens.  Or at least that’s what it felt like.  I went night snorkeling with manta rays and had the privilege of seeing 10 or 11 graceful behemoths.  Some had a wingspan of over 10 feet long.  Before our group got in the water, to prepare us for what we were about to see, our guide reassured us that manta rays are like sharks, but only the good parts, none of the scary parts.  They don’t have teeth, they only eat plankton, and they have no stinger like their sting ray counterparts.Continue reading

How a mother’s voice shapes her baby’s developing brain

It is no surprise that a child prefers its mother’s voice to those of strangers.  Beginning in the womb, a fetus’s developing auditory pathways sense the sounds and vibrations of its mother.  Soon after birth, a child can identify its mother’s voice and will work to hear her voice better over unfamiliar female voices.  A 2014 study of preterm infants showed that playing a recording of the mother’s voice when babies sucked on a pacifier was enough to improve development of oral feeding skills and shorten their hospital stay.  A mother’s voice can soothe a child in stressful situations, reducing levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and increasing levels of oxytocin, the social bonding hormone.  Scientists have even traced the power of a mother’s voice to infants’ brains: a mother’s voice activates the anterior prefrontal cortex and the left posterior temporal region more strongly than an unfamiliar voice, priming the infant for the specialized task of speech processing.

While it makes intuitive sense that a mother’s voice has special power over infants and toddlers, what happens as children grow up?  Continue reading

This is Your Brain on Starbucks

My father often jokes that hundreds of years from now, future anthropologists will speak of the cult of the Seattle goddess, her shrine adorning every airport, shopping mall, and train station in America.  The worshippers partake in a holy communion of coffee, tea, and espresso.  In fact, anthropologists today tell us that in some indigenous American cultures, drinking psychoactive peyote tea is an important part of religious ceremony.  And yet, the very phrase psychoactive tea is somewhat redundant.  All tea and coffee, unless decaffeinated, is psychoactive, albeit usually not to the same extent as peyote, a cactus native to the American Southwest that contains a hallucinogenic alkaloid called mescaline.Continue reading

When the blind can see again: A critical question of perception

Our sense of sight is arguably our most important sense.  Imagine how different your life would be if soon after birth, you lost the ability to see.  For over 1.4 million children worldwide, that is their life.  Being blind in developing countries like India has a costly impact: over 90% of blind children do not go to school, less than 50% make it to adulthood, and for those that do, only 20% are employed. But the real tragedy is that many of these cases of childhood blindness are completely avoidable and even treatable.

Why do they go untreated?

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Copy Number Variants: A Window into Psychiatric Illness

The human genome consists of nearly 25,000 protein-coding genes – and a mutation in just one of these can have dramatic effects on our brains.  Remarkably, one tiny change in our genes (which can be as small as 0.000000025 cm!) can lead to visible changes in our behavior.  Schizophrenia, autism, bipolar disorder, and ADHD have all been linked to variations in our DNA.  But how do changes in our genetic code result in these complex psychiatric disorders?Continue reading