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

Enzyme Alarm Clock

Researchers have isolated a protein that sounds our biological clock’s alarm each morning, a new study reports. A gene known as KDM5A codes for an enzyme (i.e., a protein that increases the rate of a chemical reaction) called JARID1a. This enzyme acts as a switch that starts the biochemical process of waking us from sleep – like some kind of weird molecular rooster. Here’s the background: scientists have known for years that levels of a protein called PER rise in the morning and fall toward nighttime. The level of PER in our bodies helps our cells know what time of day it is … Continue reading Enzyme Alarm Clock

Optimistic Genetics

For the first time, scientists have pinpointed a particular gene variation linked with optimism and self-esteem, a new study reports. Two different versions – alleles – of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) exist: an allele with the nucleotide “A” (adenine) at a certain location, and an allele with “G” (guanine) at that same location. Previous studies had found that people with at least one “A” molecule at that location tended to have heightened sensitivity to stress, and worse social skills. But as the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reports, a team led by UCLA’s Shelley E. Taylor were able to correlate certain alleles of … Continue reading Optimistic Genetics