Category Archives: Neuroscience

Researching the Long-Term Damage of Romanian Orphanages

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Read this excellent article that looks into the ethics of researching cognitive and neural development in Romanian children who live in orphanages. Even when adequate food, shelter, and medical care are provided, the children suffer from neglect; from a young age, they don’t interact much with caretakers, which stunts their development.

What practical benefit will this research have for the kids? Will the research itself be enough to change state policies? What is the research telling us that’s new? We already understand that growing up in these orphanages increase the chances of hurting cognition, emotional development, and other aspects of psychological health. What benefit will it bring to science, and to the kids, to investigate the effects on their brain, which includes decreased white matter?

Synaptic Sunday #14: Military and Neuroscience

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For Memorial Day weekend, three pieces of neuroscience research relevant to the military (and with applications beyond it):

1) Navy seeks to map the mind

On brain-computer interface technology –

The true goal is to make a vehicle or a robot arm just another extension of the human body and brain.

2) PTSD Combat Veterans’ ‘Fear Circuitry’ In Brains Always On High Alert

Even when an individual with PTSD isn’t confronted by a threat or a relatively taxing mental activity, there’s still PTSD-related activity in certain areas of the brain. What does this mean?

3) Professor finds neuroscience provides insights into brains of complex and adaptive leaders

What do the brains of great leaders look like? Is there really a way to increase leadership strength via neuro-feedback?

Synaptic Sunday #13 – Neuroscience of Gratitude

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What is gratitude, and what is its impact on mental and physical health? What systems in the brain are associated with it? How can one cultivate gratitude? Why does it seem to be felt and expressed so much more easily in some people than in others?

Here are some of the ongoing efforts of neuroscientists and psychologists to better understand gratitude:

1) Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude

Recently scientists have begun to chart a course of research aimed at understanding gratitude and the circumstances in which it flourishes or diminishes. They’re finding that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits…

2) The Grateful Brain

3) From the Bottom of My Heart

Put yourself in the position of a Jew during World War II who escapes to France penniless and is forced to beg on the streets. A passerby gives you roasted peanuts — your first morsel of food in several days.

You are allergic to peanuts.

Do you feel grateful? Or bitter, anxious, awkward, sad — perhaps even happy?

Synaptic Sunday #12 – Developing resilience in the face of stressful circumstances

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Evacuation of patients from NYU Langone Medical Center during Hurricane Sandy

Before getting to these three good posts/articles on resilience, stress, and the human brain, please take some time to find a reputable charity to donate to in support of the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Here are tips for finding a reputable charity and avoiding scams (the site, Charity Navigator, rates charities on a number of factors) – and here’s a recommended list of Hurricane Sandy charities from another site, Charity Watch, which also rates charities.

1) Summaries of talks on stress and resilience given during Day 2 of the Culture, Mind, and Brain Conference
I love how these talks highlight the interplay of genes and the biology of the human body with social and cultural factors. Some surprising findings (for instance read about the first talk on rat pups separated from their mothers for an 18 hour stretch, and how a simple change in the environment helped mother-pup relations proceed on normal terms afterwards, leading to no long-term negative consequences for the pup).

2) Can people learn to adapt better to highly stressful circumstances?
Some of the factors common to people who adjust better to life after a traumatic event include:
a) realistic optimism (knowing and accepting what you can change and what you can’t, and focusing all your efforts on what you can change)
b) social support
c) good regular health habits (e.g. eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and taking up meditation).

While there is a genetic component to resilience, Southwick said its influence is less important than one might expect.

“The biggest insight that we have realized is that many people are far more resilient that they think and have a far greater capacity to rise to the occasion,” he added.

3) 10 Tips for Developing Resilience
These suggestions have some overlap with what’s been discussed so far, and it’s a good list to start with if you’d like to change the way you react to adverse circumstances. Keep in mind that these tips refer to mental habits – they can be cultivated, but don’t produce instantaneous or 100% consistent results. They take time and patience to work on.

Does an attitude of self-affirmation help you notice your mistakes?

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You're awesome image found on The Identity Specialist blog

At a first glance, the findings from the following neuroscience study seem counterintuitive. Does giving yourself a pat on the back help you notice your mistakes? Wouldn’t it make you more complacent? But it turns out that self-affirmation, as it’s defined in this study and others, amounts to more than telling yourself that you’re awesome. It’s about reminding yourself of who you are, what you most believe in and identify with.

Let’s have a look at the study.

38 undergraduates were asked to rank six different kinds of values (religious, social, etc.) by order of personal importance. The undergraduates who were randomly assigned to the ‘self-affirmation group’ were then asked to write why their most highly ranked value is important to them; those in the ‘non-affirmation group’ were asked to write why their most highly ranked value isn’t important to them. This request sets up the non-affirmation group to undermine themselves to some extent and betray what they feel is important to them.

After the writing exercise, subjects from both groups were run through a task that commonly measures executive functioning: the “go/no go” task.

… they were told to press a button whenever the letter M (the “go” stimulus) appeared on a screen; when the letter W (the “no-go” stimulus) appeared, they were supposed to refrain from pressing the button. To increase the sense of threat in the task, participants were given negative feedback (“Wrong!”) when they made a mistake.


During this task researchers recorded their brain activity with EEG. In the self-affirmation group (which performed better on the task than the non-affirmation group), subjects’ brain activity showed a stronger response to errors. Self-affirmation seemed to be associated with increased processing of errors.

People often get defensive about messing up; they hate having their mistakes pointed out to them and often prefer to live in blindness to their own errors. I think the tendency to get defensive is stronger in people who have a more incomplete or damaged sense of self; in that case they’d find the error especially threatening and would process it less deeply in order to protect themselves. Maybe in people who feel more steady, strong, and committed to who they are and what they believe in, an error isn’t such a threat to their sense of self and can be processed more deeply?

It’s also possible that the non-affirmation group was a bit discombobulated after having to write about why their most important belief really isn’t that important; it’s a strange request to make of someone, and the subjects might have thought that something was weird in the experiment and didn’t attend as much as they should have to the go/no-go task, or tried to figure out if there was something more complex going on than pressing buttons for the letter M vs. W. (Years ago in college when running a cognitive psych experiment I had a couple of subjects who seemed unusually tense and alert during the task, which involved naming pictures they saw on a computer screen. Afterwards they told me they kept waiting for a catch – that the task was too simple and that there must be some kind of trick. What the trick was, they weren’t sure, but they had tried to figure it out. Their reaction times were slower than average as a result, and some of the names they came up with for the pictures were odd.)

Studying musical training and brain development

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Child playing in the YOLA program

A new study is underway to investigate the effects of 5 years of musical training on the brain, starting from when children are 6 or 7 years old. The children are participating in a program that gives kids a free education in music and free instruments; they’ll be compared to kids who are matched on age, socioeconomic background, and different cognitive measures but who don’t have a musical education.

This is an interesting study, but how will researchers interpret some of the findings? Let’s say the study shows improvements in various aspects of cognitive ability and social and emotional development throughout the five years of musical education. To what would we attribute this outcome? Is it something specific to music education, or would you see it in any long-term intensive extracurricular program that teaches kids something? Maybe you’d need to add a third group of kids to the study who are enrolled in a free non-musical education program that has a similar social/communal aspect to it.

(The image above links to the webpage of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles at Heart of Los Angeles – the group who’ll be collaborating with the researchers on this study.)

Synaptic Sunday #11 – Adolescence and Anxiety Edition

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Lab rodent

1) Learning to Overcome Fear is Difficult for Teens

Compared to younger and older individuals of their species, both adolescent humans and mice on average have a stronger tendency to keep exhibiting a fear response to a threat even when the danger is gone.

In the human experiment, the fear response was initially elicited by pairing a visual stimulus (one of a sequence of yellow or blue images on a computer screen) with a harsh startling sound; in subsequent trials the same images appeared without any startling noise – leading to an extinction of the fear response in children and adults, but not in the adolescents, who kept showing a fear response to whatever image had once been paired with the noise.

As for the animal experiment, the article reports that the experimenters “used standard fear conditioning common in these types of animal studies.” (This is vaguely worded… did they use loud noises? Or pain?) The experimenters also measured neuronal activity in the mice:

… the research team found that the prelimbic region in the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that processes emotion, is activated during acquisition of fear, and the infralimbic prefrontal cortex is used to extinguish this fear association.

When compared to younger and older mice, adolescent mice didn’t exhibit the kinds of neuronal activity associated with fear extinction (this corresponded to their behavior – they continued to show a fear response over time, regardless of the fact that the danger/unpleasantness was no longer present). Even as they got older, the adolescent mice didn’t lose their fear response.

Related data from other studies with humans:

It is estimated that over 75 percent of adults with fear-related disorders can trace the roots of their anxiety to earlier ages.

It’s not clear how the persistent fear response in this experiment fits into the complex puzzle of excessive anxiety and its sources, people’s predispositions towards it, the reasons it persists (or doesn’t) into adulthood, and the ways in which it disrupts mental and physical functioning (also, adolescents with anxiety disorders have often reported that their symptoms started in childhood). And how do these results tie into other findings with teens that show a greater tendency for them to do something dangerous even if they understand the risks?

2) Anxiety Disorders in Children and Teens

An overview of different types of anxiety that can become excessive and interfere with daily life (e.g. social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.)

3) Blogging May Help Teens Deal With Social Distress

Most of the study participants were girls (though the experimenters reported that the results for the boys weren’t significantly different).

Maintaining a blog had a stronger positive effect on troubled students’ well-being than merely expressing their social anxieties and concerns in a private diary, according to the article published online in the APA journal Psychological Services. Opening the blog up to comments from the online community intensified those effects.

Maybe the effects were stronger for a public blog because the teens felt less isolated with their problems and felt relief that they could be heard; it turns out that when they opened the blogs up to comments, the response from other Internet users was almost always positive and encouraging (few to no trolls). I’m assuming the blogs were anonymous, making the teens less vulnerable to disruption in their lives offline and maybe helping them write more freely about their worries.

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Incidentally, the photo at the top of the post links to a relevant write-up on “stressed out lab rats” – how rats living in chronic stress tend to make decisions out of habit, as if their constant stress doesn’t allow them to be more mentally flexible. There are definitely parallels to stressed out humans.