It is this time of the month again: Time to overview the cool stuff neuroscience discovered in the last two (okay, almost three) weeks! On the agenda today: How scientists can read your mind, why you better should clean up your work desk right about now, new victories in the fight against Alzheimer's and some encouragement for your scribblings on the old newspapers or writing Harry Potter fan fiction in your secret notebook.
1. If you're stressed, try scribbling an image on a receipt you found in your pocket or writing down a short story about how your day went. At least this is what researchers from Drexel's College of Nursing and Health Professions suggest you should do. In a new study they found that making art at any skill noticeably reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol just 45 minutes after the artistic act. While useful for normal functioning, cortisol is constantly increased in people suffering from chronic stress and can cause a lot of shitty things like damage to your brain structure and cognitive functions in a long run. So lowering it sounds like a pretty good idea.
Whereas the notion that art is therapeutic is kind of intuitive, it was surprising that there was no difference between people with prior artistic experience and absolute noobs -- the benefits were similar for both groups. That's how one of the participants puts it: "It was very relaxing. After about five minutes, I felt less anxious. I was able to obsess less about things that I had not done or need [ed] to get done. Doing art allowed me to put things into perspective". Sounds like something all of us stressed and obsessed workaholics need to do, to be honest. Another interesting thing was the association between age and the decrease of cortisol: The younger the participants were the lower their stress hormone levels were. Maybe universities should introduce some creative self-expression classes to reduce stress in young academics? Or maybe just pay for their education and free them from student loans? Not sure which one will actually decrease the stress levels.
2. If you think mind reading only exists in the X-Men universe as Professor's X superpower then I have news for you (however, to disappoint you right away: Reading the thoughts of this cute girl you're desperately trying to flirt with is not exactly what is meant by "mind reading here").
In a interesting new study scientists managed to identify what faces people were remembering or looking at. They did it by using a sophisticated program which first learned to associate seeing specific facial features with patterns of brain activation and then used this knowledge to find out which face a participant is looking at based on her neural activity. It worked, though the difference between real and reconstructed faces was comparable to the difference between the pics you see on OKcupid and the person you meet on the date.
Credit: The Journal of Neuroscience
Although deciphering perceptual input has been done previously (here I wrote about reconstructing video clips watched by participants with the help of their neural activity which might sound even more impressive due to the dynamic nature of the stimulus) this study also included something new. Researches went one step further and asked the participants to recall a face and maintain it in their memory for a bit. Amazingly enough, basing on the activity in a memory-related region they could also recreate these recalled faces to some extent.
Even though this whole technique is far from perfect, the program was still able to get the basic features -- like skin colour -- right. Moreover, in the condition with the actual face pictures it even could identify information about personality traits (such as trustworthiness).
Now if you're worried put your tinfoil hats away, no one is going to read and control your mind anytime soon. All of our brains are unique so the machines would need kind of an individual map for everyone of us to know which neural pattern corresponds to what in whom. It is still a very long way to go, but think of it: Wouldn't it be amazing if instead of lame photofits of criminals we could reconstruct the offender's face from the memory?
3. It seems like no week passes without new discoveries concerning this devastating sonofabitch of a disorder called Alzheimer's. This time science actually has two pieces of good news. First, researchers successfully attempted to revive older people's brains by putting neural stem cells into hippocampus, a structure responsible for learning and memory. A distinctive feature of stem cells is their ability to self-renew and to develop into all different kinds of nerve cells needed in the brain. A distinctive feature of hippocampus in aging brains is volume shrinkage and diminished productions of new neurons, both of which are associated with memory problems older people often experience. Scientists have put two and two together and tried to grow new neurons in hippocampi of elderly rats (who were around 70yo in human terms). Stem cells they used originated from the sub-ventricular zone of the brain, a region where there is a number of stem cells producing new neurons throughout your whole life. Amazingly, hippocampus didn't seem to have any problems with accepting stem cells -- not only did they survive, they also divided several times to make new cells. Moreover, some of these cells kept their "stemness" feature meaning that they kept producing new neurons even three months after implantation. This thriving of the implanted cells is very promising for treatment neurodenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. The next step would be to actually test whether the restored gray matter volume is also associated with the cognitive improvements and whether this kind of therapy can reverse age-related memory deficits. But hey, growing new neurons in the old brains is a lot of progress already, you all!
Another joyful piece of news comes from the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. In their very small study (including ten participants) they showed how a personalised therapy program could reverse the memory loss associated with Alzheimer's. This systematic treatment consisted of 36 points -- dietary changes, medication, brain stimulation, you name it, and lasted for five to twenty-four months. Afterwards, some of the patients showed an abnormal-to-normal reversal in their brain structure changes and all of them exhibited improvements in memory performance. It is interesting to note that 9/10 patients were genetically predisposed to have Alzheimer's: They had two copies of the APOE4 allele. Earlier the general advice was to avoid APOE testing because it would just make you feel sad and doomed and there is nothing which can be done about it. Now, however, it seems like you should know your risk status asap, so that you can start with a personalised multidimensional prevention therapy. I wish my grandma's neurologist would come up with this treatment plan instead of saying "Uhm, now just wait and accept it, I guess".
4. Starting this week there is a scientifically proven reason for you to finally clear your working desk from these cups where tea leftovers have already developed intelligent life and to replace them with some bright fresh flowers. According to a new study, both your working environment and the extent to which your job mentally stimulates you affect your cognition. If you're working in a unclean and loud workspace the negative effects on your brain function will be as noticeable as after working at a dull repetitive job for a long while. Both findings make sense if you think about it: Our brain is like a muscle. It grows stronger with practice and falls under the "use it or lose" rule. If you don't really challenge it you are likely to face cognitive decline later in life, meaning that functions like reasoning, problem solving, mental flexibility and working memory will slowly fade away. Dirty working environment poses a different threat for your brain function: It might become a home for diverse bacteria and mold which, as we know, might leak into the brain if its protection is weakened (which is often the cause with older people) and cause all kinds of vandalism there. I'm also thinking the impact of noise and decreased motivation may be at play here. The take-home message (which I hope CEOs will also take a notice of): Regularly clean your workspace, engage in new challenging tasks and learn new skills; then your job will not ruin you. Take this Coursera machine learning course! Start learning Italian to talk to business partners! Buy earplugs!