Science of the Spirit
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Thinking and Choosing in the Brain: Caltech researchers study over 300 lesion patients

© California Institute of Technology
MRI scans of a human brain show the regions significantly associated with decision-making in blue, and the regions significantly associated with behavioral control in red. On the left is an intact brain seen from the front — the colored regions are both in the frontal lobes. The image on the right is that same brain with a portion of the frontal lobes cut away to show how the lesion map looks in the interior.
The frontal lobes are the largest part of the human brain, and thought to be the part that expanded most during human evolution. Damage to the frontal lobes - which are located just behind and above the eyes - can result in profound impairments in higher-level reasoning and decision making. To find out more about what different parts of the frontal lobes do, neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) recently teamed up with researchers at the world's largest registry of brain-lesion patients. By mapping the brain lesions of these patients, the team was able to show that reasoning and behavioral control are dependent on different regions of the frontal lobe than the areas called upon when making a decision.

Their findings are described online this week in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The team analyzed data that had been acquired over a 30-plus-year time span by scientists from the University of Iowa's department of neurology - which has the world's largest lesion patient registry. They used that data to map brain activity in nearly 350 people with damage, or lesions, in their frontal lobes. The records included data on the performances of each patient while doing certain cognitive tasks.

By examining these detailed files, the researchers were able to see exactly which parts of the frontal lobes are critical for tasks like behavioral control and decision making. The intuitive difference between these two types of processing is something we encounter in our lives all the time. Behavioral control happens when you don't order an unhealthy chocolate sundae you desire and go running instead. Decision making based on reward, on the other hand, is more like trying to win the most money in Vegas - or indeed choosing the chocolate sundae.
Magic Wand

Self-awareness in humans is more complex, diffuse than previously thought

© Department of Neurology, University of Iowa
Researchers at the University of Iowa studied the brain of a patient with rare, severe damage to three regions long considered integral to self-awareness in humans (from left to right: the insular cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex). Based on the scans, the UI team believes self-awareness is a product of a diffuse patchwork of pathways in the brain rather than confined to specific areas.
Ancient Greek philosophers considered the ability to "know thyself" as the pinnacle of humanity. Now, thousands of years later, neuroscientists are trying to decipher precisely how the human brain constructs our sense of self.

Self-awareness is defined as being aware of oneself, including one's traits, feelings, and behaviors. Neuroscientists have believed that three brain regions are critical for self-awareness: the insular cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex. However, a research team led by the University of Iowa has challenged this theory by showing that self-awareness is more a product of a diffuse patchwork of pathways in the brain - including other regions - rather than confined to specific areas.

The conclusions came from a rare opportunity to study a person with extensive brain damage to the three regions believed critical for self-awareness. The person, a 57-year-old, college-educated man known as "Patient R," passed all standard tests of self-awareness. He also displayed repeated self-recognition, both when looking in the mirror and when identifying himself in unaltered photographs taken during all periods of his life.

"What this research clearly shows is that self-awareness corresponds to a brain process that cannot be localized to a single region of the brain," said David Rudrauf, co-corresponding author of the paper, published online Aug. 22 in the journal PLOS ONE. "In all likelihood, self-awareness emerges from much more distributed interactions among networks of brain regions." The authors believe the brainstem, thalamus, and posteromedial cortices play roles in self-awareness, as has been theorized.

The researchers observed that Patient R's behaviors and communication often reflected depth and self-insight. First author Carissa Philippi, who earned her doctorate in neuroscience at the UI in 2011, conducted a detailed self-awareness interview with Patient R and said he had a deep capacity for introspection, one of humans' most evolved features of self-awareness.
People

Study reveals human drive for fair play

© Unknown
People will reject an offer of water, even when they are severely thirsty, if they perceive the offer to be unfair, according to a new study funded by the Wellcome Trust. The findings have important implications for understanding how humans make decisions that must balance fairness and self-interest.

It's been known for some time that when humans bargain for money they have a tendency to reject unfair offers, preferring to let both parties walk away with nothing rather than accept a low offer in the knowledge that their counterpart is taking home more cash.

In contrast, when bargaining for food, our closes relatives chimpanzees will almost always accept an offer regardless of any subjective idea of 'fairness'.

Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL wanted to see whether humans would similarly accept unfair offers if they were bargaining for a basic physiological need, such as food, water or sex.

The team recruited 21 healthy participants and made 11 of them thirsty by drip-feeding them a salty solution, whilst the remainder received an isotonic solution that had a much smaller effect on their level of thirst. To obtain an objective measure of each individual's need for water, the team measured the salt concentration in their blood. The participants' subjective perception of how thirsty they were was assessed using a simple rating scale.
Magic Wand

Language and Emotion

We use language every day to express our emotions, but can this language actually affect what and how we feel? Two new studies from Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, explore the ways in which the interaction between language and emotion influences our well-being.

Putting Feelings into Words Can Help Us Cope with Scary Situations

Katharina Kircanski and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles investigated whether verbalizing a current emotional experience, even when that experience is negative, might be an effective method for treating for people with spider phobias. In an exposure therapy study, participants were split into different experimental groups and they were instructed to approach a spider over several consecutive days. One group was told to put their feelings into words by describing their negative emotions about approaching the spider. Another group was asked to 'reappraise' the situation by describing the spider using emotionally neutral words. A third group was told to talk about an unrelated topic (things in their home) and a fourth group received no intervention. Participants who put their negative feelings into words were most effective at lowering their levels of physiological arousal. They were also slightly more willing to approach the spider. The findings suggest that talking about your feelings - even if they're negative - may help you to cope with a scary situation.
Info

Code In Brain Key To Pronouncing Vowels, Could Help Speech Paralysis

Code in Brain
© Photos.com
Loss of muscle functioning in the body. Difficulty transferring message from the brain to muscles. These are just a few traits of paralysis that scientists examined in terms of its relationship to speech. A recent study by University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Technion, Israel's Institute of Technology, researchers revealed a code in the brain that helps pronounce vowels.

According to the researchers, human speech sounds are based on coordinated movement of structures near the vocal tract. The researchers were able to break down the code in brain cells that helps individuals in speech and pronunciation. They believe that this discovery could help scientists restore speech for those who suffer paralysis due to injury or disease.

"We know that brain cells fire in a predictable way before we move our bodies," noted Dr. Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, in a prepared statement. "We hypothesized that neurons would also react differently when we pronounce specific sounds. If so, we may one day be able to decode these unique patterns of activity in the brain and translate them into speech."

In the project, the investigators followed 11 UCLA epilepsy patients that had electrodes implanted in their brains to record the origin of their seizures. The researchers were able to track the neuron activity when the patients spoke one of five vowels or any syllables that contained vowels. With the help of Technion, the UCLA team examined the process the neurons underwent to encode vowel articulation at the single-cell and collective level.
Info

Brain Damaged 'Patient R' Challenges Theories of Self Awareness

Self-Awareness
© Dreamstime
The ability to recognize oneself in the mirror is a basic aspect of self-awareness.
According to some theories on how self-awareness arises in the brain, Patient R, a man who suffered a severe brain injury about 30 years ago, should not possess this aspect of consciousness.

In 1980, a bout of encephalitis caused by the common herpes simplex virus damaged his brain, leaving Patient R, now 57, with amnesia and unable to live on his own.

Even so, Patient R functions quite normally, said Justin Feinstein, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Iowa who has worked with him. "To a layperson, to meet him for the first time, you would have no idea anything is wrong with him," Feinstein said.

Feinstein and colleagues set out to test Patient R's level of self-awareness using a battery of tools that included a mirror, photos, tickling, a lemon, an onion, a personality assessment and an interview that asked profound questions like "What do you think happens after you die?"

Their conclusion - that Patient R's self-awareness is largely intact in spite of his brain injury - indicates certain regions of the brain thought crucial for self-awareness are not.

Brain anatomy

Self-awareness is a complex concept, and neuroscientists are debating from where it arises in the brain. Some have argued that certain regions in the brain play critical roles in generating self-awareness.

The regions neuroscientists have advocated include the insular cortex, thought to play a fundamental role in all aspects of self-awareness; the anterior cingulate cortex, implicated in body and emotional awareness, as well as the ability to recognize one's own face and process one's conscious experience; and the medial prefrontal cortex, linked with processing information about oneself.

Patient R's illness destroyed nearly all of these regions of his brain. Using brain-imaging techniques, Feinstein and colleagues determined that the small patches of tissue remaining appeared defective and disconnected from the rest of the brain.
Info

Brain's Decision-Making Spot Found

Brain
© Shutter/VLADGRIN
Damage to the brain's frontal lobe is known to impair one's ability to think and make choices. And now scientists say they've pinpointed the different parts of this brain region that preside over reasoning, self-control and decision-making.

Researchers say the data could help doctors determine what specific cognitive obstacles their patients might face after a brain injury.

For the study, neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) examined 30 years worth of data from the University of Iowa's brain lesion patient registry and mapped brain activity in almost 350 people with lesions in their frontal lobes.

They linked these maps with data on how each patient performed in certain cognitive tasks.

With this information, the researchers could see exactly which parts of the frontal lobe were critical for different tasks like behavioral control (refraining from ordering a chocolate sundae) and reward-based decision making (trying to win money at a casino), a statement from Caltech explained.
Heart

Mind your body: Higher road to relaxation

kids at beach
© Unknown
You're under pressure. Deadlines are looming. Everyone is making demands on your time. Your anxiety level is rising. Your stomach is in knots. So you do what you've been well-trained to do. You make sure you get in your gym time.

But if neuroscientist Steven W. Porges is right, there's an even better way to counter stress. Exercise has its uses, but as a stress fighter it works primarily at a visceral level - and the operative word is fight. You're basically combating excess levels of cortisol, the hormone that spreads news of danger through your body and readies it to fight or flee.

You're better off working through higher - and more direct - channels, like the brain. The most efficient stress-reducer might just be a smile. Engaging socially with others triggers neural circuits that calm the heart, relax the gut, and switch off fear, Porges says.

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Attention

Ethnic and political violence increases children's aggressive behavior

Ethnic and political violence in the Middle East can increase violence in families, schools, and communities, which can in turn boost children's aggressiveness, especially among 8-year-olds. Those are the findings of a new study that examined children and their parents in the Middle East.

"The study has important implications for understanding how political struggles can spill over into the everyday lives of families and children, and suggests that intervention might be necessary in a number of different social areas to protect children from the adverse impacts of exposure to ethnic-political violence," according to Paul Boxer, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University and adjunct research scientist at the University of Michigan, who led the study.

The study, published in the journal Child Development, was conducted by researchers at Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, Bowling Green State University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Palestinian Center for Survey and Policy Research, and the New School for Social Research.
Magic Wand

Mysterious Brain Region Processes Life, Death Information

© Unknown
A mysterious region deep in the human brain could be where we sort through the onslaught of stimuli from the outside world and focus on the information most important to our behavior and survival, Princeton Univ. researchers have found.

The researchers report in the journal Science that an area of our brain called the pulvinar regulates communication between clusters of brain cells as our brain focuses on the people and objects that need our attention. Like a switchboard operator, the pulvinar makes sure that separate areas of the visual cortex - which processes visual information - are communicating about the same external information, explains lead author Yuri Saalmann, an associate research scholar in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute (PNI). Without guidance from the pulvinar, an important observation such as an oncoming bus as one is crossing the street could get lost in a jumble of other stimuli.

Saalmann says these findings on how the brain transmits information could lead to new ways of understanding and treating attention-related disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia. Saalmann worked with senior researcher Sabine Kastner, a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute; and PNI researchers Xin Li, a research assistant; Mark Pinsk, a professional specialist; and Liang Wang, a postdoctoral research associate.
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