the brain

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After A Death, Should We Get A Dog? Brain Study Signals ‘Yes’

(Greg Westfall/Flickr)

(Greg Westfall/Flickr)

Let’s be clear: I need a dog like a hole in the head.

I’m a recently widowed working mother with a small house, no trust fund and two extremely active young daughters: if it’s Thursday, it must be rock-climbing, piano and Taekwondo before track practice across town. You get the picture.

Still, lately I’ve been thinking the unthinkable: a Maltipoo, Goldendoodle or some other ridiculously named, hypoallergenic, low-maintenance (does that exist?), cute-as hell puppy for my daughters — and for me — to love.

I know full well this is a risky prospect. “There is no rational reason to get a dog,” says my Basset Hound-owner friend. “They are work, expense and add to the list of beings in your home who have needs to be attended to. It is sort of like deciding to have a kid — no rational reason to do that either but big pay off on love, general hilarity and a constant reminder of the joy in everyday small things.” Or, as another friend put it: “What have dogs done for me? They make me more human.”

“What have dogs done for me? They make me more human.”
– A dog-loving friend

It’s that truly profound, but tricky to pinpoint, human-pet bond that drives Lori Palley’s research. She’s assistant director of veterinary services at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Comparative Medicine and has recently become fascinated by why people’s relationships with their dogs can be so very significant.

Her latest research, published in the medical journal PLOS ONE, involved scanning the brains of mothers while they were looking at images of their own children and their dogs. Surprise: similar areas of the brain were activated — regions involved in emotion and reward — whether it was the kids or dogs on view.

It was a small study using fMRI: only 14 mothers (dog owners) who had at least one young child. And in case you jump to some conclusion about moms loving their dogs as much as, or more than, their kids, wait: the research also found that in other areas of the brain involved in attachment and bonding, the mother’s brains were more activated when viewing their children.

In a small study, mothers viewed images of their own children and their dog. Similar areas of the brain involved in emotion and reward were activated. Source: PLOS ONE: "Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog: An fMRI Study

In a small study, mothers viewed images of their own children and their dog. Similar areas of the brain involved in emotion and reward were activated. (Source: PLOS ONE: “Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog: An fMRI Study”)

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Why To Exercise Today: Overcoming Your (Genetic) Bad Attitude

Over the years, I’ve been told I have a bad attitude, a glass-half-empty outlook on life. A friend long ago said I had a near-palpable dark cloud of anxiety hovering above me. I used to attribute it to various external factors — growing up in New York, for instance, or enduring my parents’ hostile divorce. And those things may, quite possibly, play a role. But now I find genetics might also be a contributing factor, according to a new study out of British Columbia. The research, which works off the idea of our “emotionally enhanced” memories, found some people to be “genetically predisposed to see the world darkly.”

From the news release:

The study, published in Psychological Science, finds that a previously known gene variant can cause individuals to perceive emotional events –especially negative ones – more vividly than others.

“This is the first study to find that this genetic variation can significantly affect how people see and experience the world,” says Prof. Rebecca Todd of University of British Columbia’s Dept. of Psychology. “The findings suggest people experience emotional aspects of the world partly through gene-coloured glasses – and that biological variations at the genetic level can play a significant role in individual differences in perception.”

The gene in question is the ADRA2b deletion variant, which influences the hormone and neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Previously found to play a role in the formation of emotional memories, the new study shows that the ADRA2b deletion variant also plays a role in real-time perception.

The study’s 200 participants were shown positive, negative and neutral words in a rapid succession. Participants with the ADRA2b gene variant were more likely to perceive negative words than others, while both groups perceived positive words better than neutral words to an equal degree. Continue reading

Autistic Kids Can Outgrow Critical Sensory Disconnect, Study Finds

By Karen Weintraub
Guest Contributor

For many people, the “read-my-lips” phenomenon happens almost unconsciously: in a crowded or noisy room, most of us can hear better by watching the person’s lips form the sounds.

That’s not true for many people with autism. They have long reported being unable to pay attention to words and visuals at the same time — which may explain why some on the spectrum avoid looking others in the eye. They have to limit their visual information so they can hear what the person is saying.

In the last few years, researchers have finally begun to take these reports seriously and to investigate them.

In a paper out this week in the journal Cerebral Cortex,  researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx showed that children with autism struggle to integrate information from multiple senses. High functioning children with autism, ages 5-12, didn’t get the benefit most people do from watching a person’s lips moving while speaking over background noise, according to research led by professor of pediatrics John Foxe. Continue reading

When The Vegetative Patient May Be Able To Communicate

By Judy Foreman
Guest Contributor

One of the most vexing emotional and ethical issues in all of medicine is the decision by family members to “pull the plug,” that is, to take a severely ill, non-communicate relative off of the life-support systems keeping him or her alive.

What makes this decision so hard, of course, is, absent a really clear statement ahead of time from the patient about end-of-life wishes, family members basically have to guess. But there may be – not yet, but someday – a way to make this agonizing guesswork a bit easier, thanks to a stunning series of recent experiments by Adrian Owen, who holds the prestigious Canada Excellence Research Chair in cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging at the University of Western Ontario.

(Digital Shotgun/flickr)

The recent work by Owen, and others, using fMRI brain scanning technology shows that some patients diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state may actually have some degree of consciousness and be able to communicate, that is, by sheer thinking, be capable of answering comparatively simple questions such as “are you in pain?” (Obviously, that’s a much simpler question than “do you want to die?”)

The particular patient generating the latest excitement is 39-year old Scott Routley who, 12 years ago, had a car accident that left him with a severe brain injury. By standard tests, doctors thought he was in a persistent vegetative state, or PVS. Continue reading

How The Media Cover The Brain

A psychologist argues that popular notions of neuroscience often miss the point. (Digital Shotgun/flickr)

Jonathan M. Adler, Ph.D.
Guest Contributor

Did you know that meditating actually changes your brain? So does falling in love. So does playing Tetris, having an ice cream headache and tweeting too much.

It seems that just about every week we encounter another dazzling breakthrough in brain science that promises to reveal the deep relationship between our lives and our brains. My reaction to such flashy headlines is usually: “No duh.” It’s not that I don’t find the capabilities of modern neuroscience astounding, or because I’m not curious about the mysteries of human nature. I just find the conclusion “it’s in our brain” (whatever “it” is) to be, well, obvious.

The brain is our master organ. It is responsible for taking every input we receive and synthesizing this astounding mass of signals to allow us to navigate the world. The brain takes wavelengths of light and allows us to appreciate a Cézanne or a Rothko. It takes an impossible array of social cues and grants us embarrassment and pride. So, how could our most important experiences not show up in the brain? Where else could they be?

A fascinating study published recently in the journal Neuron takes a critical look at the way the media tend to report on neuroscientific findings. The authors determined that media coverage of brain research tends to lead to three exaggerated conclusions: Continue reading