New Microscope Helps Neuroscientists Ask New Questions

Last week, President Obama announced the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a 10-year project to map the human brain.  President Obama introduced BRAIN as a way of encouraging neuroscientists to develop new technologies to study how neurons within the brain communicate with each other. New technologies are essential to helping neuroscientists ask new questions about how the brain works.  This project is similar to two other major projects: The Human Brain Project (European Union), which is working on a computer simulation of the entire brain, and The Human Connectome Project (National Institutes of Health) which is using state of the art magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to track projections all over the brain.Continue reading

Forming Memories, One Neuron at a Time

On Monday, Knowing Neurons highlighted a recent research article that described a new miniature microscope that was small enough to sit on a mouse’s head and light enough to allow it to move freely!  This technology represents a great advancement for the field of neuroscience in general and place cell research, specifically!  For the first time, researchers at Stanford are able to literally watch neurons turn on and off in the hippocampus of a mouse, while it explores an open arena (video), all in real time. This technology adds a new twist on a classic way of studying how the brain maps out the world around us.Continue reading

The Auditory System: From Sound Waves to Brain Waves

Our human experience is enriched by our senses. The world would appear to be a dull place if the brain did not endow us with the ability to construct visual images, appreciate the complexity of a song, experience the touch of a loved one, and perceive the smells and tastes of our favorite foods. Each of these sensory modalities (vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste) is incredibly complex, requiring specialized structures working in sync with interconnected network of neural circuits. Together, they allow for a rich experience of the world.Continue reading

The amygdala: a full brain integrator in the face of fear

You are sitting at your computer quietly reading this article when – BOOM! – there is a sharp loud noise behind you! You instinctively stop what you are doing, jump up, and turn to the source of the noise. You freeze where you stand, and your brain quickly assesses the danger of the situation. Although it may seem like a brief moment, your brain is processing a ton of information and trying to decide if you should run away or stay and fight!Continue reading

Social Grooming: It’s not just for monkeys and prairie voles!

Have you ever noticed how much time cats spend cleaning themselves? I’m sure they believe that “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” but spending 15% of their day grooming seems a bit excessive! Nevertheless, cats are not the only ones obsessed with hygiene, and many other animals regularly clean their fur, scales, feathers, and skin. For some animals, personal hygiene is not the only goal, and they will spend additional time grooming other members of their group. This is called social grooming and is characteristically seen in primates. The partnerships formed during social grooming are long-lasting, much like the relationship you have with your best friend. It might be unsurprising, then, that social grooming in primates serves primarily a social purpose, allowing animals to bond and build relationships. So what links grooming to social bonding?Continue reading