How Humans Speak and Mice Learn: The Widespread Effects of FOXP2

From bird songs to frog ribbits, animals engage in countless forms of vocalization. However, no other species in the animal kingdom matches humans in complexity of language. The versatility of human speech allows us to discuss anything from what we ate for breakfast to the nature of the universe, and our ability to communicate is essential in all aspects of our lives. Because of this, it is natural for neuroscientists to search for an evolutionary explanation showing us how our unique language capabilities came about. One potential answer to this complicated question lies in the gene FOXP2.Continue reading

Hacking your Brain with Smart Drugs

What if you could take a pill to enhance your cognitive abilities?  What if this pill could help you ace a test, get more work done efficiently, and truly multitask?  For entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and executives on Wall Street, the answer to these questions is a resounding “Yes!”  In these high stake environments, the use of nootropics, or “smart drugs,” by normal healthy people has become commonplace.  But what exactly are the compounds that are claimed to improve brain function?  And are they safe?Continue reading

Brain Cigarette Knowing Neurons

The Strange Relationship between Nicotine and Parkinson’s Disease

According to the World Health Organization, smoking is responsible for approximately 6 million deaths in the world every year or one fatality every six seconds.  71% of all lung cancers and 42% of all chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases are attributable to tobacco use.  Oddly enough, not everything related to smoking is bad news: smokers seem to be protected against Parkinson’s disease.  Continue reading

Why Dopamine Makes People More Impulsive

Over the past few decades, the neurochemical dopamine has earned the reputation of being the brain’s reward molecule.  This image is built on observations that when animals and humans experience surges of dopamine, they feel rewarded and motivated to pursue more of the experience or substance which triggered the dopamine release.  Researchers theorize that this neurochemical is at the root of an ancient system that evolved to make us feel gratified and thus more likely to approach situations and objects that might satisfy our needs — anything from nutrition to the more sophisticated desires for social approval or even money, a universal ticket for access to most resources.Continue reading

A Tale of Monogamy and Dopamine

In a recent hack, private information from nearly 30 million users was leaked from Ashley Madison, a “dating” website intended to facilitate extramarital affairs.  The sheer number of Ashley Madison users on this website raises some age-old questions of monogamy: is it instinctual, or even healthy?  What is it about our brains that cause some to seek monogamy and others to reject it?Continue reading