“2013’s Nobel Prize Winners” — Podcast 11: James Rothman, Randy Schekman & Thomas Südhof

Ben is joined by all three of 2013’s Nobel Prize winners in the Physiology/Medicine category — James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas Südhof! All three of these guys contributed crucial pieces to a longstanding puzzle: How, exactly, do our brain cells communicate with each other? Biologists had known since the 1960s that nerve cells pass chemical messages to one another inside hollow little globs of proteins called synaptic vesicles — and yet, as recently as the early 90s, no one had figured out much of anything about how this process worked. Meanwhile, as James Rothman and Randy Schekman plugged away … Continue reading “2013’s Nobel Prize Winners” — Podcast 11: James Rothman, Randy Schekman & Thomas Südhof

Neuroscience Friends!

I’ve just returned from a thrilling weekend at the BIL Conference in Long Beach, California (yes, the pun on “TED” is very intentional) where I met all kinds of smart, fun people – including lots of folks who share my love for braaaiiins! So I thought I’d introduce you guys to some of the friends I made. I think you’ll be as surprised – and as excited – as I am. Backyard Brains Their motto is “neuroscience for everyone” – how cool is that? They sell affordable kits that let you experiment at home with the nervous systems of insects … Continue reading Neuroscience Friends!

Beyond Perfection

If you continue to practice a skill even after you’ve achieved mastery of it, your brain keeps learning to perform it more and more efficiently, says a new study. As we perform a task – say, dunking a basketball or playing a sweet guitar solo – over and over again, we eventually reach a point that some psychologists call “unconscious competence,” where we execute each movement perfectly without devoting any conscious attention to it at all. But even after this point, our bodies keep finding ways to perform the task more and more efficiently, burning less energy with each repetition. … Continue reading Beyond Perfection

The Memory Master

A gene that may underlie the molecular mechanisms of memory has been identified, says a new study. The gene’s called neuronal PAS domain protein 4 (Npas4 to its friends). When a brain has a new experience, Npas4 leaps into action, activating a whole series of other genes that modify the strength of synapses – the connections that allow neurons to pass electrochemical signals around. You can think of synapses as being a bit like traffic lights: a very strong synapse is like a green light, allowing lots of traffic (i.e., signals) to pass down a particular neural path when the neuron … Continue reading The Memory Master

Stress Intervention

Scientists have discovered a way to shut down the brain’s “stress process” before it gets going, says a new study. By blocking the brain’s ability to manufacture certain chemicals called neurosteroids, researchers have managed to temporarily cut off a biological process crucial for stressful behavior – and for many stressful feelings as well. Animals from amphibians all the way up to humans produce a hormone called corticosterone in their adrenal glands. Corticosterone levels become elevated under stress, and this hormone is a major ingredient in a number of stress-related biological processes, from feelings of nervousness to aggressive behavior. Corticosterone does most of its … Continue reading Stress Intervention

Chemical Parasites

A certain brain parasite actually turns off people’s feelings of fear by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter chemical dopamine, says a new study. Toxoplasma gondii, a parasitic protozoan (a kind of single-celled organism), mostly likes to live in the brains of cats – but it also infects birds, mice, and about 10 to 20 percent of people in the U.S. and U.K. This might sound like science fiction, but plenty of microbiologists will assure you it’s very real. In fact, T. gondii isn’t the only parasite that controls its hosts’ behavior – a fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis makes infected ants climb to the highest point they can find, sprout fungal spore … Continue reading Chemical Parasites