LTP: When Neurons Make a Long-term Commitment

A few months ago, I got a new smart phone that had a bigger screen and a different operating system. For a while, I was annoyed that I made so many typos when texting and emailing, but now I’m completely competent with my new phone! It even feels strange to use the old one. In neuroscience, an experience like this is called synaptic plasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to change as a result of experience.Continue reading

Brain Changes for Sculpted, Efficient Memory

While I was growing up, I remember my parents and teachers saying, “Your brain is like a sponge.” Of course, I didn’t understand what they meant, but as cliché as this statement is, it actually reveals a lot about children’s amazing abilities to absorb and remember impressive amounts of information. From new words and concepts, to detailed locations and even foul phrases, I learned to communicate using the complex rules of two languages during my childhood. I looked at the world with wonder, while adapting and making sense of it by remembering its complexities. But as I got older, I grew out of this ultra-powerful learning and memory, as most children do. What changes in our brains as we get older, and how do those changes affect our ability to learn?Continue reading

Mitochondria: More Than Just a Powerhouse

Mitochondria are frequently implicated in several human disease states. From neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and Autism Spectrum Disorder, to metabolic conditions like diabetes and obesity, energy abnormalities are seen in diverse illnesses. In fact, mitochondrial dysfunctions have also been shown to be involved in Parkinson’s disease, Down syndrome, heart failure, and even cancer. What is the relevance of these tiny powerhouses in such diverse, seemingly unrelated conditions?Continue reading

When Cellular Power Plants Fail

Humans normally have 23 pairs of chromosomes, but sometimes an error during cell division causes there to be an abnormal number of chromosomes. One of the most common chromosome abnormalities in humans is Down syndrome (DS). In most cases, this occurs when there is an extra copy of chromosome 21, which is called Trisomy 21. It is typically associated with distinct facial features, impaired cognitive functions, and stunted physical growth.  Surprisingly, almost all people with DS also exhibit clinical symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) 10-20 years before it usually occurs in the general population. So, what is the link between DS and AD?Continue reading

What Songbirds Tell Us About Human Nature

Every once in a while, we hear of amazing scientific feats about how some new drug successfully reduces weight without dieting or exercise in monkeys, or how scientists slowed aging in worms and doubled their lifespans. These studies are often a cause for ridicule in the media, which reduces their significance and validity by implying that mice, flies, birds—any animal really—is not a true representation of the human condition.Continue reading

“Free Bird:” How to Stay on Key

If you’ve ever done Karaoke, then you know how horribly some people sing, especially when the background music is too loud for them to hear themselves.  The ability to adjust to the environment is essential for all sensory systems, which use feedback mechanisms to modify behavior.  Usually the environmental cues are contaminated by noise, so your brain has to decide whether to modify behavior based on sensory feedback (and risk “adapting” to signals that do not accurately reflect performance) or to ignore sensory input (and risk leaving errors uncorrected).  So, how does your brain deal with this mismatch between the actual and expected sensory feedback, so you can have a better Karaoke performance?Continue reading

A New Year. A New You.

Yesterday, millions of people across the world made New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, quit smoking, or follow their dreams.  Chances are that this isn’t the first time they made these resolutions!  We start off the year with much fervor, but inevitably this enthusiasm fades out.  Why are we unable to sustain our New Year’s resolutions?Continue reading

Towards A Better Brain Model

One of the fundamental goals of cognitive and systems neuroscience is to create a computer program that can simulate the activity of the human brain, from single neurons, through network level processing, to influences on behavior.  The only problem is that the human brain contains almost 90 billion neurons with an estimated total of 100 trillion synapses!  As staggeringly large as those numbers are, researchers actually aren’t too far away from producing such a complex computer program.Continue reading