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…

Forget Me Not

Having trouble remembering where you left your keys? You can improve with a little practice, says a new study. It’s an idea that had never occurred to me before, but one that seems weirdly obvious once you think about it: people who train their brains to recall the locations of objects for a few minutes each day show greatly improved ability to remember where they’ve left things. No matter what age you are, you’ve probably had your share of “Alzheimer’s moments,” when you’ve walked into a room only to forget why you’re there, or set something down and immediately forgotten where you…

Learning Expectations

Researchers have isolated a specific pathway our brains use when learning new beliefs about others’ motivations, a new study says. Though this type of learning, like many others, depends heavily on the neurotransmitter chemical dopamine‘s influence in a set of ancient brain structures called the basal ganglia, it’s also influenced by the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) – a structure that helps us weigh certain emotional reactions against others – indicating that emotions like empathy also play crucial roles. As we play competitively against other people, our brains get to work constructing mental models that aim to predict our opponents’ future actions. This means we’re not only…

Podcast 1: Our Interview With Joshua Vogelstein

Here it is – the first Connectome podcast! Click here to subscribe in iTunes. Join us as we talk with Joshua Vogelstein, a leading connectomics researcher, about the Open Connectome Project, an international venture to make data on neural connectivity available to everyone, all over the world. It’s like Google Maps for your brain. Here’s a direct link to download the mp3. We’ve learned a lot while working on this first episode, and future ones will be much cleaner and higher-fi. Anyway, enjoy!

Taking Vision Apart

For the first time, scientists have created neuron-by-neuron maps of brain regions corresponding to specific kinds of visual information, and specific parts of the visual field, says a new study. If other labs can confirm these results, this will mean we’re very close to being able to predict exactly which neurons will fire when an animal looks at a specific object. Our understanding of neural networks has come a very long way in a very short time. It was just a little more than 100 years ago that Santiago Ramón y Cajal first proposed the theory that individual cells – neurons – comprised…

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 fires. A…