Science of the Spirit


Schizophrenia linked to abnormal brain waves

Schizophrenia patients usually suffer from a breakdown of organized thought, often accompanied by delusions or hallucinations. For the first time, MIT neuroscientists have observed the neural activity that appears to produce this disordered thinking.

The researchers found that mice lacking the brain protein calcineurin have hyperactive brain-wave oscillations in the hippocampus while resting, and are unable to mentally replay a route they have just run, as normal mice do.

Mutations in the gene for calcineurin have previously been found in some schizophrenia patients. Ten years ago, MIT researchers led by Susumu Tonegawa, the Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience, created mice lacking the gene for calcineurin in the forebrain; these mice displayed several behavioral symptoms of schizophrenia, including impaired short-term memory, attention deficits, and abnormal social behavior.

In the new study, which appears in the Oct. 16 issue of the journal Neuron, Tonegawa and colleagues at the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory recorded the electrical activity of individual neurons in the hippocampus of these knockout mice as they ran along a track.

Previous studies have shown that in normal mice, "place cells" in the hippocampus, which are linked to specific locations along the track, fire in sequence when the mice take breaks from running the course. This mental replay also occurs when the mice are sleeping. These replays occur in association with very high frequency brain-wave oscillations known as ripple events.

In mice lacking calcineurin, the researchers found that brain activity was normal as the mice ran the course, but when they paused, their ripple events were much stronger and more frequent. Furthermore, the firing of the place cells was abnormally augmented and in no particular order, indicating that the mice were not replaying the route they had just run.

This pattern helps to explain some of the symptoms seen in schizophrenia, the researchers say.


Researchers make first strides toward mind reading

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According to a new study in the journal Nature Communications, researchers from Stanford University have used brain monitoring in 'real-life' situations to reveal the region of the brain responsible for numerical processing.

The researcher said that unlike previous approaches, their research could lead to "mind-reading" technology that would allow a patient who cannot speak to communicate by simply thinking. They also speculate that their findings have the potential for more dystopian outcomes - technology that spies on or even controls a person's thoughts.

"This is exciting, and a little scary," said Hank Greely, a committee chair at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, who did not participate in the study but was "very impressed" by the findings. "It demonstrates, first, that we can see when someone's dealing with numbers and, second, that we may conceivably someday be able to manipulate the brain to affect how someone deals with numbers."

The techniques used in previous studies, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), are somewhat limited by their capacity to examine brain activity in real-life settings and to catch the exact timing of nerve cells' firing patterns.

"This is not real life," study author Josef Parvizi said about the method of past studies. "You're not in your room, having a cup of tea and experiencing life's events spontaneously."


Brain develops senses at birth

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The process of being born may activate sensory maps in the brain.
The mere act of being born triggers development of the brain's sensory system, new research shows.

In a mouse study, the birthing process caused levels of a brain chemical called serotonin to drop, triggering the formation of the brain's sensory maps that organize input from vision, touch and other senses. The findings could help scientists understand healthy human brain development and mental illness, the researchers say.

"Our results clearly demonstrate that birth has active roles in brain formation and maturation," study leader Hiroshi Kawasaki of Kanazawa University in Japan said in a statement.

The brains of humans, mice and other mammals are equipped with maps for processing different types of sensory information. For example, the barrel cortex in rodents represents tactile information from the whiskers, and the layout of the neurons in that map mirrors the layout of whiskers on the animal's face.

Previously, researchers found that the brain chemical serotonin, the target of many depression medications, also plays a role in the development of sensory maps. But serotonin's exact involvement was not well understood.


Sisters serve as confidants, sources of support and mentors during intimate conversations

Adolescence can be an impressionable time for girls as they begin forming ideas about dating and sexuality. Now, a University of Missouri researcher has found that sisters often take on key roles of confidants, sources of support and mentors during conversations about romantic relationships. Sisters may be helpful in health education efforts to promote safe-sex practices and healthy romantic relationships.

"Our findings indicate that sisters play important roles as adolescent girls form ideas about romantic relationships and sexuality," said Sarah Killoren, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at MU and the study's lead author. "Sisters are important communication partners when it comes to these sensitive topics."

Killoren says that older sisters should be included in family-oriented programs designed to help teens make better choices, such as abstaining from intercourse, practicing safe sex or developing healthy romantic relationships.

Killoren found sisters most frequently played the role of confidant. Sisters displayed this role by giving information about themselves and by asking for more information about their sisters' lives. The disclosures made during their conversations revealed levels of intimacy between sisters, Killoren said. The second role, sources of support, was displayed when sisters encouraged their siblings' ideas about dating and sexuality. The mentor role was displayed when sisters served as role models for one another, most frequently by giving advice.


Willpower alone is not enough: Unconscious motivation plays a substantial role in how we respond to challenges

How do we motivate ourselves when studying for an exam or working to a tight deadline? The more unpleasant the task, the more willpower we need to rise to the challenge. Unfortunately, our reserves of willpower are quickly depleted. Which means that other mechanisms are required to motivate people to continually perform at a high level. And now scientists have shown that internal, unconscious motivation can significantly improve performance capabilities.

In an ideal world, employees would totally identify with their company's business objectives, be experts in their field and extremely motivated about their work. But in reality, this is not always the case and this places the spotlight on motivational skills for anyone in a leadership position.

"There are three components to motivation. The first is our conscious objectives and desires - for example, the aspiration for a highly paid role in a company in order to achieve a certain standard of living. We are also driven by unconscious, implicit motives. These are deeply rooted in our emotions and can include the desire to do things well, have an impact on and control over others, and engage in interpersonal relationships," explains Prof. Hugo Kehr from the Chair of Psychology at Technische Universität München (TUM). "The third motivational component builds on the skills and capabilities that we bring to a role."


Well-connected hemispheres of Einstein's brain may have sparked his brilliance

The left and right hemispheres of Albert Einstein's brain were unusually well connected to each other and may have contributed to his brilliance, according to a new study conducted in part by Florida State University evolutionary anthropologist Dean Falk.

"This study, more than any other to date, really gets at the 'inside' of Einstein's brain," Falk said. "It provides new information that helps make sense of what is known about the surface of Einstein's brain."

The study, "The Corpus Callosum of Albert Einstein's Brain: Another Clue to His High Intelligence," was published in the journal Brain. Lead author Weiwei Men of East China Normal University's Department of Physics developed a new technique to conduct the study, which is the first to detail Einstein's corpus callosum, the brain's largest bundle of fibers that connects the two cerebral hemispheres and facilitates interhemispheric communication.

"This technique should be of interest to other researchers who study the brain's all-important internal connectivity," Falk said.


Study shows: Many people don't end up with their true love

Could "happily ever after" be the stuff of fairy tales?

A new study shows many people have not ended up with the true love of their life. But can you learn to love the one you're with, as the old Stephen Stills song advised, instead of being head-over-heels?

Some people say they don't have that problem. Nicci Schock and Rich Bean are among them.

"We started out as friends, which I think was a good thing for us in the end," said Schock.

Schock said Bean is the love of her life, and he says the same is true for her.

"I am definitely with the love of my life," said Bean.

People 2

Does anybody actually know what 'sexual satisfaction' is?

A new survey finds what we actually mean when we talk about being sexually satisfied.

Sexual satisfaction has long been thought to be a barometer for your overall relationship. But we're in a constant state of wanting an unquantifiable amount more of it. You're hit with about fifty-quadrillion ads a day boasting "10 Ways To Get More Sexual Satisfaction" or "5 Secrets of a Sexually Satisfied Man/Woman/Whatever". That's all well and good, except for one tiny glitch: Um, what, exactly, is sexual satisfaction? (x thrusts? y more orgasms? z times more humpage?) How do we know when we've reached the apex of satisfaction, and more importantly, will there be a rain of colorful confetti on our heads when we get there?

The answer is, as with many sexy things, deeply subjective.

In a recently published study, The Journal of Sex Research gathered the written responses of 449 women and 311 men in committed relationships to answer the question, "How do you define sexual satisfaction?" Because, who better to ask what defines sexual satisfaction than normal ole regulars? The results were varied, but they were split into two themes: personal sexual well-being and dyadic processes (aka what happens between two people). The study put together this map, breaking down the themes of responses:

© Journal of Sex Research

Wedding Rings

Marital happiness may be genetic, says new study

Yep, science suggests some of us are more genetically pre-disposed to less rocky relationships.

Ever wonder why some relationships resemble a scene from a battlefield when partners experience emotional ups and downs, while others seem blithely unaffected by temporary changes in people's moods?

A new study undertaken by the UC Berkeley and Northwestern University may have just answered that question. It seems our DNA may be the key to relationship success and happiness, and researchers have identified a gene within humans that is primarily responsible for how our emotions affect our relationships, reported.

Specifically, researchers found a link between relationship fulfillment and a specific gene variant called 5-HTTLPR. The study was conducted over 20 years using 156 middle-aged and older married couples by measuring whether the gene controls the association between negative and positive emotional behavior measured objectively during marital conflict.


People who score high on the personality trait resilience have the highest amount of natural painkiller activation

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A new study suggests that there's more going on inside our brains when someone snubs us -- and that the brain may have its own way of easing social pain.

The findings, recently published in Molecular Psychiatry by a University of Michigan Medical School team, show that the brain's natural painkiller system responds to social rejection -- not just physical injury.

What's more, people who score high on a personality trait called resilience -- the ability to adjust to environmental change -- had the highest amount of natural painkiller activation.

Psychological resilience is an individual's tendency to cope with stress and adversity. This coping may result in the individual "bouncing back" to a previous state of normal functioning, or simply not showing negative effects. A third, more controversial form of resilience is sometimes referred to as 'posttraumatic growth' or 'steeling effects' where in the experience adversity leads to better functioning (much like an inoculation gives one the capacity to cope well with future exposure to disease).