The Worm Did It!

The basic “scaffolding” for the vertebrate brain has been found in an unexpected distant relative: a marine worm, a new study reports. The worm’s brain is much simpler than that of even the simplest vertebrates – but it contains three signaling centers almost identical to those found in the brains of vertebrate embryos. I leaped up and did a happy dance when I read this news, because it’s a clue to one of the greatest mysteries in neuroscience today. See, for most of science history, evolutionary biologists have found the vertebrate brain to be pretty enigmatic. The closest relatives of vertebrates –…

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 and other…

Consider This an Invitation

This photo got me thinking. Only 24 percent? Really? We’re finding weird new exoplanets every day – hell, NASA hasn’t even ruled out the possibility that there could be life on Europa and Titan, two moons in our own solar system – yet so many people have lost faith in space’s limitless potential to surprise us. But we’re entering an age when that potential is no longer the exclusive domain of first-world governments and media conglomerates. The fact that we even have a contest like Google’s X Prize proves that independent space exploration is becoming a very real possibility for each one…

Why I Love and Hate “Game”

Yes, it’s that special time of year again – time for flamboyant bouquets and chalky candy to appear at office desks – time for Facebook pages to drown in cloying iconography – time for self-labeled “forever aloners” to dredge the back alleys of OKCupid in last-ditch desperation – and time for me to load up my trusty gatling crossbow with oxytocin-tipped darts and hit the streets. Oh, and it’s time for everyone to complain about how misogynistic all this “Game” stuff is. So, while I guess I could write about, say, a new study that says cutting your romantic partner some slack can make him or her more…

Silicon Synapses

A new kind of computer chip mimics the way a neuron learns, a new study reports. The 400-transistor chip simulates the activity of a single synapse – a connection between two neurons. Because of the chip’s complexity, it’s able to mimic a synapse’s plasticity – its ability to subtly change structure and function in response to new stimuli. For example, a synapse that repeatedly responds to an electric shock might, over time, become less sensitive to that shock. Thus, synaptic plasticity forms the basis of neural learning, well below the level of conscious processing. The human brain contains approximately 100 billion neurons, and more…

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 pods from…

The Roots of Consciousness

The origins of subjective consciousness probably lie in an introspective brain network common to most mammals, says a new study. When we “zone out” and let our minds wander, a functional (as opposed to structural) brain network known as the default mode network (DMN) becomes active. The DMN links our frontal lobe – an area associated with planning and abstract thought – with areas of the temporal and parietal lobes that help us associate memories with ideas and emotions. In short, this network allows us to become “lost” in thought, rather than occupied with our environment, or with a specific goal. Since goal-directed behavior –…