Due to the life-consuming exams I underwent recently the timespan to cover is a bit larger this time. So here is your monthly neuroscience new block featuring wine and chocolate, brain being more complex than we expected, hypnotised brain and how brain stimulation helps your memory while you sleep!
1. If I chose to write sensational headlines I would say “OMG wine and chocolate protect us from Alzheimer’s! What happened next would amaze you!” Well, I’m not, so let’s see what really happened. Resveratrol, a chemical naturally occurring in red wine and dark chocolate, might help to restore our natural defence against Alzheimer’s. There’s this thing called brain-blood barrier (BBB) which prevents harmful molecules from entering our brain and generally acts as a cautious guard. It kinda wears out when we age, letting in more and more uninvited guests that cause our immune system to respond with an inflammation. In a recent study the researchers found that after the Alzheimer’s patients took resveratrol for a year (which equivalents 1,000 bottles of red wine -- challenge accepted!) the integrity of their BBB was partly restored. It became better at stopping unwanted immune molecules which come from other parts of the body from getting into the brain and worsen the already existent inflammation. It’s obviously not a complete treatment but it is exciting to know we might have come one step closer to finding a cure.
2. The moment we think we know something about the brain it doesn’t fail to immediately prove us wrong. So normally in research we use brain maps which divide our cerebral cortex in specific areas -- like the one the neurologist named Brodmann created in the early 1900’s or the others made by the neuroanatomists who continued his work. And normally we go with about 50-80 cortical areas, depending on which map one chooses. Well, recently, a study using advanced software identified 180 cortical areas based on their physical differences (how thick is the cortex?), their function (what things does this area respond to?) and differences in the connections the areas have with each other. Ninety-seven of them haven’t even been previously described yet! The researchers compared their approach to upgrading from the ground-based telescopes to the space ones and thus removing the blurriness and seeing much more clearly. This is big news because it will help us understand differences between healthy and disease-affected brains in greater detail, as well as facilitating neurosurgeons’ life and allowing us to explore what makes us unique as species as compared to our closest relatives, the great apes (except for fucking this world up big time).
3. I have to confess I never took hypnosis seriously. I dismissed hypnotherapy as a con. This made it even more interesting for me to read that the researchers identified distinct patterns of changes in the brain connected with the hypnotic state. Looking at the brain scans of the individuals highly suggestible to hypnosis they found that activity and connectivity of some of their brain regions noticeably changed. The area called dorsal anterior cingulate -- whose functions include cognition and motor control and generally staying vigilant about what’s going on around us -- was much less active than usual. That might explain the loss of focus on the external events hypnotised people show. Another finding was that the connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula -- what the researchers are calling a “brain-body” connection -- was significantly increased making people very concentrated on what is going on their body. The last noticeable thing in the hypnotised brains was the weakened connection between the above mentioned dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network which among other things is responsible for maintaining our sense of self. This might represent a disconnection between what you do and your awareness of what you do or less control of whether what you’re doing is coherent with your self-image. So a policewoman dancing like a ballerina is not necessarily drunk -- she might just be hypnotised and thus have a strongly reduced self-consciousness about her actions.
4. Speaking of Alzheimer’s: there has been another discovery that might potentially be useful to help people with memory impairments. There are these brain waves called “spindles” which spindle their hardest while you sleep. Their brief bursts of activity help us consolidate our recent experiences and create memories out of them. Now if you are disappointed with ginkgo extract or memory games you might want to turn your attention to a technique called transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS). Despite sounding a bit threatening (electrocuting yourself doesn’t sounds like such a good idea) it is actually harmless. tACS involves placing two electrodes on your head and send an alternating current of weak electricity through them which will stimulate the activity in the chosen region. Combining these two pieces of information the researchers decided to see whether detecting and boosting the sleep spindles will help with memory consolidation. And it did! Next morning the participants performed much better on a motor memory task (but -- surprisingly -- not on an association task). The results are yet to be replicated of course (and hopefully also in other memory domains) but it does hold a potential of treating memory problems in all kinds of conditions.
All images by my super talented friend Toma: tomathespook.tumblr.com
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