Neuroscience news block: sleepless brains eating themselves, Elon Musks’s wizard hat, a binge-eating flip switch and more.

A lot has happened in the neuroscience world while I was writing my term papers and suffering at the hands of my master thesis: Elon Musk, for one, launched a company aimed at merging human brain with AI, while more down-to-earth researchers showed how brain starts to obsessively clean itself due to lack of sleep, found a binge-eating flip switch and a possible reason for why adults have more cognitive control than teenagers.

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Neuroscience news block: mysterious giant neurons, neurobiology of being fun and LSD potency explained.

Neuroscientists did not sit idly by in the past month: while you were going about your business they discovered a giant neuron wrapping itself around the entire mouse brain, recognized the differences between experienced improv comedians and newbies struggling to be funny (apart from the obvious jokes quality) and took the first ever 3D image of LSD bound to a brain receptor.

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Autism and the brain.

Sheldon Cooper, BBC Sherlock and Abed from Community walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says “Is it gonna be a joke about media overusing the autism trope?”.
My awesome sense of humour aside, If there is a mental disorder overrepresented in the media then it’s (high-functioning) autism. The writers love themselves some genius socially awkward nerds solving unsolvable riddles and making ordinary people look adorably illogical. But how true is this stereotype? And what does autistic mean, if it’s not exactly Sheldon Cooper? Some people believe it equals the Rain Man-esque ability to count all matches in a box at one glance and others might think it means over-the top lack of social skills and having a huge bottle cap collection. Mostly, the reality is somewhere in between: autism is very broad (it’s called autistic spectrum disorder for a reason!) and no two diagnoses are the same. So let’s see what it really is and how the brain is involved.

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Wired this way: sexual orientation and gender in the brain.

Born this way? Chose this way? Despite what Westboro Baptist Church & Friends might preach there is evidence (even though pretty messy) that sexual orientation and gender identity are influenced by developmental differences in our brains. Activity, connectivity and structure of certain regions have been repeatedly shown to considerably differ between gay and straight people (insert a snarky joke about bisexual erasure) as well as cis- and transgenders.
But, as with so many things in neuroscience, it is yet not 100% clear in which way the connection goes -- did these neural differences predetermine who you like or did your experiences and behaviour gradually shaped these structures the way they are now? Still, a lot of scientists think these differences have been there there from the very beginning, influenced by hormonal or genetic factors. So let’s see, what do we know so far about how your brain (probably) tells you who to take home!

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Neuroscience methods and cool stuff you can do with it: Part Two.

Last time we talked about how to use fMRI for mind reading and what eye-tracking has to do with virtual reality; but what about methods enabling brainwave-controlled machines, you might ask? What about techniques allowing us to understand mental diseases on molecular level? (or you might not ask but I’m gonna talk about it anyway).

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Neuroscience methods and cool stuff you can do with it: Part One.

Neuroscientific methods are kind of unsung heroes of scientific journalism. Every now and then media flashes with buzzwords like “brain-controlled machines” and “mind reading” (“Scientists finally can READ your DIRTY THOUGHTS!!11”); but how exactly is it done? And while we’re at that, which methods are behind the mind-boggling futuristic projects like controlling virtual reality with just your eyes or determining whether a suspect was really present at the crime scene? Questions upon questions! (hint: you will find answers in this post).

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Lighting up the brain.

A little preamble: This week I wrote a guest post for another neuroscience blog. I talked about one of my favorite topics: optogenetics, the technique to control your neurons by shining a laser on them. Sounds like something Iron Man would do -- but is actually done by scientists in labs all over the world. Read on and enjoy!

In 1979, Nobel laureate Francis Crick mused about how wonderful it would be to find a way to control just one type of brain cells while leaving others untouched1. Twenty years later, seeing all the shortcomings of electrophysiology (low precision in targeting cells) and pharmacological manipulations (too slow in comparison to real neurotransmission), he went one step further and suggested that light might be the answer we’ve been looking for. The idea of switching neurons on and off like lightbulbs sounded both crazy and appealing, yet no one knew how to approach it. It took another six years for things to get real. Optogenetics was on its way.