neuroscience

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Visionaries: MIT Scientist Helps Blind Indian Children See, And Then Learns From Them

MIT neuroscience professor Pawan Sinha (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

MIT neuroscience professor Pawan Sinha (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

MIT neuroscience professor Pawan Sinha still gets goosebumps when he thinks about it, he says: “Things just happened so perfectly, so well-timed.”

Back in 2002, Sinha was grappling with a deep scientific question: How do we learn to recognize the objects we see? How do our brains know, “That’s a face”? Or “That’s a table”?

A fateful taxi ride set his research — and his life — onto a new road.

He was back visiting New Delhi, where he grew up on the elite campus of the Indian Institute of Technology before coming to America for graduate school. He was on his way to see a friend one evening, when the taxi he was riding in stopped at a traffic light.

“I noticed, by the side of the road was this little family, a mother and her two children,” he says. “And it felt really terrible to see these two children, who were barely wearing any clothes, very young children on this cold winter day. So I called over the mother to give her a little bit of change.”

When she approached, Sinha noticed that both of the children holding on to her sari had cataracts clouding their eyes.

It was the first time that he had seen children with cataracts. When he looked into childhood blindness in India, he learned that it is a widespread problem, often caused by rubella during the mother’s pregnancy. Blind children in the developing world suffer so much abuse and neglect that more than half don’t survive to age 5, he says.

Sinha wanted to help, but he figured that what he could contribute on his academic salary would be just a drop in the ocean.

“And that’s when the realization struck me that in providing treatment to those children, I would have exactly the approach that I had been looking for in my scientific work,” he says.

“If you have a child, say, a 10-year-old child who has not seen from birth, has only seen light and dark, and in a matter of half an hour you’re able to initiate sight in this child, then from the very next day, when the bandages are removed, you have a ringside seat into the process of visual development.”

Sinha applied for a federal grant to pay for cataract operations, which are relatively simple, and for studying the children who got them. Usually, American research money stays in America, “but I took a chance because I completely, honestly believed, and believe, that in providing that surgery, we are benefiting science that belongs to all of mankind, it’s not just specifically India.”

That grant eventually came though and to continue the work, Sinha founded a nonprofit based in New Delhi. He named it Project Prakash; Prakash means “light” in Sanskrit. Since 2005, he says, nearly 500 Indian children have gained sight through the project.

Now, at 48, Sinha is planning a major expansion of Project Prakash, to create a center that includes a hospital, a school and a research facility. The goal is to serve many more children than the current 40 to 50 a year. Continue reading

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A Podcast For Your Brain: The Checkup, Episode 8

It’s the only organ in the human body that tries to understand itself (though not always successfully).

Still, the brain is on our brains in the latest episode of The Checkup, our recently relaunched health news podcast, a joint venture between WBUR and Slate.

Can you enhance your brain through music? Detect dyslexia even before kids learn to read? Alleviate the symptoms of deep depression with a brain implant?

Carey and I explore these and other questions as we delve into some of the latest advances in brain research.

And in case you missed our last episode, “Scary Food Stories,” where we tell the tale of a recovering sugar addict and offer sobering news to kale devotees, you can listen now, or download it anytime.

Make sure to tune in next week, when we present: “Grossology,” an episode on how the dirty corners of your life might benefit your health.

Each week, The Checkup features a different topic — previous episodes focused on college mental health, sex problems, the Insanity workout and vaccine issues.

Blue/Black Or White/Gold, And Why Care? A Neuropsychiatrist Examines ‘The Dress’

Sometimes it just seems like the whole world has gone crazy. Like when your colleagues, all serious people, cluster for precious minutes around a computer screen debating the color of a dress. And you see that, online, many other serious people are doing the same thing — say, at On Point or The New York Times.

So though I was curious about the science behind the recent viral phenomenon known as “The Dress,” my first question for Boston-area neuropsychiatrist Dr. Jon Lieff was a more mundane “Why?” To quote one top Slate commenter, “How is this a thing?”

Not that it’s a bad thing. The dress phenomenon “informs people that perception is not what it seems,” Dr. Lieff says. “We think we see reality when in reality, what we see is what the brain wants us to see. And that leads us into philosophy…”

But let’s not go into philosophy just yet. (And you can read Dr. Lieff’s thoughts at more depth on his website, Searching for the Mind.) Let’s talk instead about why this of all optical illusions swept the Internet.

His bottom line: “Our brain is correcting for an imagined light source. That’s the problem.”

And what’s unusual about it: “This doesn’t usually happen with an illusion: In any crowd, you have half the people saying one thing and the other half saying another thing. And because of the type of illusion it is, once it’s fixed, your brain is going to keep you on the blue side or the white side. I’m sure you’ve seen other kinds of illusions where it flips back and forth.  This is different. Once people choose their sides, they’re saying, ‘This is it, and I’m the right one and you’re the wrong one.’ So it’s captured the imagination, but in truth there are hundreds of these occurring all day long, that people don’t realize.”

“An example: if you’re watching a waterfall on the TV and your hand is on the desk, your hand thinks the desk is rising up. Continue reading

Could Tsarnaev Argue, ‘My Immature, Pot-Impaired Brain Made Me Do It’?

In this courtroom sketch, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appears in federal court in Boston for a final hearing before his January trial. (Jane Flavell Collins/AP)

In this courtroom sketch, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appears in federal court in Boston for a final hearing before his January trial. (Jane Flavell Collins/AP)

By Judith G. Edersheim, JD, MD
Guest contributor

This week marked the start of what promises to be a four-month public reckoning: the trial of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. If the press reports about the evidence against him are accurate, most of the trial will not be about guilt or innocence; it will be about sentencing. Not a who-done-it, but a why-done-it.

If Tsarnaev is found guilty, the death penalty will be on the table, and the proceedings will turn to a grave question, part jurisprudence and part moral philosophy: Is this defendant the most evil and culpable of all? A human being who deserves the most severe of all punishments?

One thing, I believe, is certain: If this case proceeds to the sentencing phase, the black box everyone will be talking about will be the cranium, and how the brain drives behavior will be the central story.

In these protracted sentencing hearings, the scales of justice balance lists of aggravators and mitigators, all outlined by law.

Aggravating factors in this case might include the political motive for the bombings, the risk posed to others during the course of the Tsarnaev brothers’ dramatic attempt to flee, the “heinous”, “cruel” or “depraved” manner of the crime’s execution, and the substantial planning and premeditation that might have preceded the bombings.

In the end, behavior trumps brain scans.

Mitigating factors — factors that weigh in favor of life in prison rather than a death sentence — cast the broadest net. Any aspect of a defendant’s background, record, character or circumstance is fair game for the defense team. It could try to demonstrate that Tsarnaev had some kind of impaired capacity to appreciate that his acts were wrong or illegal, or that he was under some kind of demonstrable duress. It could also bring to light hardships during his upbringing that limited his opportunities or narrowed his ability to choose wisely.

The defense team has already given public hints as to the central themes of its mitigators. They will feature life within the Tsarnaev family, including Dzhokhar’s relationship with his parents, his brother Tamerlan, and his sisters. Will anything in these family dynamics rise to the level of psychological duress or impaired capacity? There will likely be plenty of traditional testimony from forensic psychologists and psychiatrists regarding whether or not Tsarnaev was under the sway of his radicalized and perhaps dominant older brother, particularly after the Tsarnaev parents left the country. The prosecution will likely counter with a line of evidence regarding Dzohokar’s relative independence and his network of friends and activities outside of the family structure.

Then comes the brain.

Judy Clarke, lead defense attorney and one of the nation’s premier death penalty litigators, will surely not overlook the new body of neuroscientific evidence regarding the immaturity of adolescent brains. In a recent trilogy of cases (known as Roper, Graham, and Miller ) the U.S. Supreme Court was influenced by neuroscientific evidence about the juvenile brain when making sweeping changes in how adolescents are tried and sentenced. The court concluded that adolescent brains were less mature than those of adults in ways which warranted differential treatment under our criminal laws.

Although Tsarnaev was 19 at the time of the bombings, his lawyers might argue that much of this brain research applies, as it outlines a period of relative immaturity that stretches from mid-adolescence all the way into the early 20s. Generally speaking, this research shows that adolescents are less mature, and they are more likely to make ill-considered decisions. They bow to peer influences and respond excessively to thrill seeking and immediate rewards. Think money, sex, drugs and friends.

Beginning in the teens, there are major changes in brain architecture and function that temper these qualities — among them, synaptic pruning of the prefrontal cortex, improved connectivity and changes in dopamine receptors — all of which support self control, delayed gratification and the development of a moral compass.

Here’s the rub. What the research doesn’t show makes it problematic for defense attorneys. The research does not show that adolescents are incapable of making well-considered choices. Quite the contrary. Continue reading

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2014: CommonHealth Year Of The Brain, From Depression To Dyslexia

 

A map of nerve fibers in the human brain (. (Courtesy of Zeynep Saygin/Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)

A map of nerve fibers in the human brain (. (Courtesy of Zeynep Saygin/Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)

Happy almost 2015. Instead of doing our usual “Top 10 CommonHealth stories of the year” post, we’ve decided instead to look back at our tip-top, far-and-away #1 organ of the year for 2014.

Hint: It’s well above the waist. The brain is, to quote Pink Floyd: “All that you touch/All that you see/All that you taste/All you feel./All that you love/All that you hate/All you distrust/All you save.”

Etcetera. The brain is also the focus of some of the most fascinating research in modern-day science.

Our 2014 series, “Brain Matters: Reporting from the Front Lines of Neuroscience,” tried to capture a partial snapshot of this pivotal moment in brain science, a time of new tools and insights so promising that scientists themselves are saying this is the most exciting time ever to work on the brain.

The series included the set of gorgeous images below, compiled by former intern Suzanne E. Jacobs, and a collection of short video interviews with young neuroscientists, produced by WBUR’s Jesse Costa: 11 Young Neuroscientists Share Their Cutting Edge Research.

The individual “Brain Matters” pieces, in reverse chronological order:

Wishing you a wonderful new year. Special thanks to WBUR’s Iris Adler, who supervised the “Brain Matters” series. And now, for your visual pleasure, the wondrous view inside your head: Continue reading

Brain Science, Dangerous? Not So Fast, Says Poverty Expert

Back in June, we wrote about a novel program in Boston that seeks to lift women and their families from poverty, in part by using the latest research in neuroscience. Specifically, the program (developed by the nonprofit Crittenton Women’s Union) takes into account recent studies that reveal how trauma, and poverty, can rewire the brain and potentially undermine executive function.

In an Op-Talk piece in this week’s New York Times headlined “Can Brain Science Be Dangerous?” writer Anna North cites our story, and then goes on to question whether this type of approach might be problematic. In the article, North refers to sociologist Susan Sered:

Dr. Sered…says that applying neuroscience to problems like poverty can sometimes lead to trouble: “Studies showing that trauma and poverty change people’s brains can too easily be read as scientific proof that poor people (albeit through no fault of their own) have inferior brains or that women who have been raped are now brain-damaged.”

She worries that neuroscience could be used to discount people’s experiences: “In settings where medical experts have a monopoly on determining and corroborating claims of abuse, what would happen when a brain scan doesn’t show the expected markers of trauma? Does that make the sufferer into a liar?”

We asked Elisabeth Babock, president and chief executive officer of Crittenten Women’s Union, to respond to the Times piece. Here, lightly edited, is what she wrote:

Moving out of poverty in the U.S. today is an extremely complicated and challenging process. It involves trying to maintain a roof over your head when the minimum wage doesn’t cover the minimum rent; and trying to get a better paying job when almost all those jobs require education beyond high-school and the costs of that education, in both money and time, are well beyond the means of most low-wage workers. It involves trying to care for a family while filling in the gaps in what the minimum wage will buy with increasingly-frayed public supports. It involves a lot of juggling.

We at Crittenton Women’s Union (CWU) understand this process all too well because we work with hundreds of people trying to navigate their way out of poverty every day: homeless families living in our transitional housing and domestic violence shelters, and people who are living on the edge of homelessness, struggling to make ends meet. What we at CWU see is that the stress of this everyday struggle creates an additional set of monumental challenges for those we serve.

Our families often describe themselves as feeling “swamped” by their problems to the point that they can only think about how to deal with the crisis of the moment. And in those moments, they may not have the mental bandwidth to strategize about how to change their current circumstances or help them get ahead.

One of the most valuable things brain science research does for this struggle is that it validates what our families share about the way being in poverty affects them. Instead of saying that stress leaves people “irrevocably debilitated”, or worse still, that people should somehow rise above this crippling stress to “just move on” the science actually suggests something much more important. It calls upon all of us to understand that poverty, trauma, and discrimination are experiences whose cumulative effects impact our health, decision-making, and well-being in tangible and predictable ways, and because of this, we as a society can and must do our best to remediate it. Continue reading

Why Not Scratch That Itch? Study Says Serotonin Is The Reason

(Sarahluv via Compfight)

(Sarahluv via Compfight)

By Nicole Tay
CommonHealth intern

One thing I’ve learned about living in Boston is that the mosquitoes here are vicious. They fly around almost silently, and by the time you notice them, it’s too late; they’ve already made a snack of you.

In one particular case, I was driving home from work and noticed I had an unwelcome passenger. The commute turned into an anxiety-ridden nightmare: lots of swatting while driving and many awkward attempts to lure her out the window. This would not end well, I knew. Sure enough, when I got home, I had bites everywhere. (Apparently, Boston mosquitoes can bite you through tights?!)

The itching comes next. Everyone knows not to scratch bites and itches, but few of us have the superhuman self-discipline to resist the urge. I had even deluded myself into pseudo-scientifically justifying my scratching: “If scratching relieves itchiness, it’s obviously due to some beneficial neuronal pathway, right?”

Wrong. New research from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis says otherwise: Scratching can relieve itch by creating minor pain. But when the body responds to pain signals, that response actually can make itching worse.

In essence, when we scratch, the resulting pain interferes with the itchiness and the brain releases serotonin to quell that pain. The serotonin then binds to certain receptors on certain neurons that stimulate the itchy sensation. From the press release:

As part of the study, the researchers bred a strain of mice that lacked the genes to make serotonin. When those genetically engineered mice were injected with a substance that normally makes the skin itch, the mice didn’t scratch as much as their normal littermates. But when the genetically altered mice were injected with serotonin, they scratched as mice would be expected to in response to compounds designed to induce itching.

[To identify the specific serotonin receptor, senior investigator Zhou-Feng] Chen’s team injected mice with a substance that causes itching. They also gave the mice compounds that activated various serotonin receptors on nerve cells. Ultimately, they learned that the receptor known as 5HT1A was the key to activating the itch-specific GRPR neurons in the spinal cord.

To prove they had the correct receptor, Chen’s team also treated mice with a compound that blocked the 5HT1A receptor, and those mice scratched much less. Continue reading

The Bionic Mind: Building Brain Implants To Fight Depression, PTSD

Liss Murphy this summer, with husband Brian, son Owen and sheepdog Ned. (Courtesy)

Liss Murphy, who had surgery to implant Deep Brain Stimulation for depression in 2006 and got much better, on Cape Cod in summer, 2014, with husband Scott, son Owen and sheepdog Ned. (Courtesy)

Ten years ago, with little warning, Liss Murphy fell victim to paralyzing depression, a “complete shutdown.”

She was 31, living in Chicago and working in public relations. The morning of Aug. 13, 2004, she had gone in to the office as usual. “It was Tuesday, and I remember the day so clearly,” she says. “The sun — everything — and I walked out — it was about 11 o’clock — and I never went back. The only time I left the house was to see my psychiatrist, who I saw three times a week.

“I have a hard time believing it was depression, in a way, because it was so pervasive and powerful,” she says. “It invaded every aspect of my life. It took so much away from me. And it happened so fast, and it was so degrading — it took everything from me.”

Murphy came home to Boston, and she tried everything — medications, talk therapy, even repeated rounds of electroshock. But she was barely able to get out of bed for months — then years. Her husband and family and top-flight doctors cared for her, but she sank so low she tried twice to commit suicide.

Finally, a psychiatrist told her about a cutting-edge trial to implant stimulation devices deep in the brains of patients with severe depression. She signed up. In June of 2006, she had the operation.

“My greatest hope that day was to have something go horribly wrong and die on the table,” she says. “I didn’t care.”

She didn’t die. Over the next few months, she got better. These days, eight years after the surgery, if you saw Liss Murphy walking her Old English Sheepdog, Ned, or playing with her 3-year-old son, Owen, only the faint silver scars on her clavicles would hint at anything unusual: That’s where the batteries that power her brain stimulator are implanted.

“We’re taking a wall of computers, basically, and putting it into something that would easily fit inside a box of Tic-Tacs.”

– Jim Moran, Draper Laboratory

But though the surgery changed Murphy’s life, “the trial, on average, didn’t work,” says Dr. Emad Eskandar, the Massachusetts General Hospital neurosurgeon who operated on her. “When you pooled everyone together it didn’t work. But there were like five people out of the 10 we did that had remarkable benefits and went into complete remission. We couldn’t continue with the study because on the average it failed, but for those people in whom it worked, boy did it work.”

Now, as part of a $70-million project funded by the military, researchers are aiming to take brain implants for psychiatric disorders to the next level.

Over the next five years, they aim to build a device that can sit inside a patient’s head, pick up the onset of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, and head it off before it hits. One implant researcher calls it “a moonshot for the mind.” Continue reading

Beyond Good And Evil: New Science Casts Light On Morality In The Brain

Harvard brain scientist Joshua Buckholtz has never forgotten a convict he met back when he was an undergrad conducting psychological tests in prisons. The man had beaten another man nearly to death for stepping on his foot in a dance club.

“I wanted to ask him,” he recalls, “‘In what world was the reward of beating this person so severely, for this — to me — minor infraction, worth having terrible food and barbed wire around you?’ ”

But over the years, Buckholtz became convinced that this bad deed was a result of faulty brain processing, perhaps in a circuit called the frontostriatal dopamine system. In an impulsive person’s brain, he says, attention just gets so narrowly focused on an immediate reward that, in effect, the future disappears.

He explains: “If you had asked this person, ‘What will happen if you beat someone nearly to death?’, they will tell you, ‘Oh, I’ll be put away.’ It’s not that these people who commit crimes are dumb, but what happens is, in the moment, that information about costs and consequences can’t get in to their decision-making.”

For two decades, researchers have scanned and analyzed the brains of psychopaths and murderers, but they haven’t pinpointed any single source of evil in the brain. What they’ve found instead, as Buckholtz puts it, “is that our folk concepts of good and evil are much more complicated, and multi-faceted, and riven with uncertainty than we ever thought possible before.”

In other words, so much for the old idea that we have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, and that morality is simply a battle between the two. Using new technology, brain researchers are beginning to tease apart the biology that underlies our decisions to behave badly or do good deeds. They’re even experimenting with ways to alter our judgments of what is right and wrong, and our deep gut feelings of moral conviction.

One thing is certain: We may think in simple terms of “good” and “evil,” but that’s not how it looks in the brain at all.

In past years, as neuroscientists and psychologists began to delve into morality, “Many of us were after a moral center of the brain, or a particular system or circuit that was responsible for all of morality,” says assistant professor Liane Young, who runs The Morality Lab at Boston College. But “it turns out that morality can’t be located in any one area, or even set of areas — that it’s all over, that it colors all aspects of our life, and that’s why it takes up so much space in the brain.”

So there’s no “root of all evil.” Rather, says Buckholtz, “When we do brain studies of moral decision-making, what we are led into is an understanding that there are many different paths to antisocial behavior.”

If we wanted to build antisocial offenders, he says, brain science knows some of the recipe: They’d be hyper-responsive to rewards like drugs, sex and status — and the more immediate, the better. “Another thing we would build in is an inability to maintain representations of consequences and costs,” he says. “We would certainly short-circuit their empathic response to other people. We would absolutely limit their ability to regulate their emotions, particularly negative emotions like anger and fear.”

At his Harvard lab, Buckholtz is currently studying the key ability that long-ago convict lacked — to weigh future consequence against immediate gratification. In one ongoing experiment (see the video above), he’s testing whether he can use electrical stimulation to alter people’s choices. Continue reading

In Search Of ‘Computational Psychiatry:’ Why Is It A Hot New Field?

By Suzanne Jacobs
WBUR Intern

It’s around 10 a.m. on a weekday when I walk into a coffee shop that apparently doubles as the preferred study spot of every student on the Boston University campus. My instinct is to leave immediately and find a quieter place to caffeinate, but I’m not here for the coffee. I’m here for information — information on what I’m hearing is one of the hottest new trends in brain science.

Winding my way through tables of frazzled co-eds, I search every face for that “Are you who I’m looking for?” stare, but no one acknowledges me. So I step back out onto the sidewalk and wait. I’m early anyway.

About five minutes later, a young man who would have otherwise been indistinguishable from the crowd of students locks eyes with me from about 20 feet away. “That’s my guy,” I think to myself.

Lights of Ideas (Andrew Ostrovsky)

(Andrew Ostrovsky)

Minutes later, coffees in hand, we’re seated at a small back table, and I put my digital recorder down on it. “Is it okay if I record this?” I ask. He says that’s fine.

At this point, what I really want to do is grab him by the shoulders and yell, “What are you people doing? Let me into your world!” For weeks, I’ve been looking into this new field of research called computational psychiatry, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out what it is. More frustratingly, I can’t figure out why I can’t figure it out, despite a strong science background and hours of reading what little I could find about the topic on the Internet.

But I hold back, press the little red circle on my digital recorder and let the man speak.

In computational psychiatry, “What you try to do is come up with a toy world…,” he begins.

This all started a few weeks earlier when I was perusing the latest edition of Current Opinion in Neurobiology. Don’t ask me why I was perusing Current Opinion in Neurobiology — I don’t know. To avoid doing something else, probably.

One article caught my eye. It was titled “Computational approaches to psychiatry.” A longtime subscriber to the drugs-and-therapy stereotype of psychiatry, I found the idea of new “computational approaches” intriguing, so I read on. Continue reading