Neuron Holograms

A new technique will allow us to watch hundreds of neurons in 3D, in real time, at a resolution that’s 50 times greater than before. The technology, known as digital holographic microscopy (DHM), was imported into neuroscience from materials science. It measures differences in the wavelengths of harmless lasers as they travel through a certain region of the brain – and this allows a computer system to construct precise 3D models of neurons at work. Since individual neurons are transparent, scientists used to use various kinds of chemical stains in order to study them.  The cells have to be extracted and placed in a Petri dish before…

Language Paths

Speaking and understanding speech both use the same parts of the brain, a new study has found. There’s just one exception: the brain areas that control mouth movements aren’t used in understanding speech – not even when we mentally repeat to ourselves what others are saying. This all might sound pretty obvious, but it’s actually a major breakthrough in a century-long debate on how the brain deals with speech – and as you’re about to see, the conclusion isn’t nearly as undeniable as it seems. To understand why, we’ve got to take a quick trip back to the 1800s, when a few neuroscientists made some…

Ready…Set…Go!

Want to improve your reaction speed? Take a few seconds to focus on the movement you’re about to make, says a new study. Before a planned movement is converted into actual motion, the brain assembles a “motor plan,” which helps prep the necessary neurons to send signals to muscles extra quickly. The more the brain’s motor plan is optimized for that particular movement, the faster the reaction time will be. Sprinters and wild-west gunfighters should take notes. This breakthrough comes as a result of some new technologies, which allow researchers to simultaneously monitor the activity of hundreds of neurons. By mathematically analyzing the results…

Smell and Self-Control

Our sense of smell is intimately linked with our ability to make good decisions, a new study shows. This might sound like a weird idea, but once you understand the underlying neuroscience, it actually makes perfect sense. It all comes down to a brain region called the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is crucial for an odd grab-bag of functions: recognizing smells, anticipating rewards and punishments, and making conscious decisions.1 This new research, published in the journal PLoS ONE, focused on alcoholics in particular. A team led by Pierre Maurage at Belgium’s Catholic University of Louvain found that people with impaired executive function – the ability to make…

Ruining the Ending

Plot spoilers don’t seem to hurt our enjoyment of movies or books at all, a new study shows – in fact, they actually increase our pleasure. What a twist! In a series of experiments, volunteers consistently rated short stories as significantly more enjoyable when they got to read a spoiler-y intro, or when spoilers were inserted into early parts of the story. This even held true for stories whose climax depends on a revelation or a twist. If you’re anything like me, you might go to great lengths to avoid spoilers for upcoming books and movies – even leaping out of open windows…

“M” Marks the Spot

A completely new method for mapping brain anatomy will give us a much clearer idea of where some areas end and others begin. The new technique compares two different kinds of fMRI data to show where there’s myelin – the sheath that only surrounds long-range neuron branches (axons) – at a speed and level of detail never possible before. This breakthrough will help scientists look for the differences between the brain’s “surface streets” and its “highways” while that brain is actually working. See, scientists have known since the late 1800s that the it’s pretty easy to find the borders of brain structures, by looking for the switch…

Craving Control

It’s easy to train your brain to crave healthy food, a new study shows – all you’ve got to do is learn to pay attention to the right things. When we’re thinking about what to snack on, one particular brain region – the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) – leaps into action, helping us consider which tastes and textures we’d most enjoy. But a neaby region, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), lights up when we focus our attention on other aspects of the food, like its protein content, or the pond of grease that surrounds it. In short, the vmPFC is the frontal cortex’s “nom nom…