Guiding Neuron Growth

Our neurons’ growth can be shaped by tiny cues from spinning microparticles in the fluids that surround them, a new study reports. The branching and growth of neurons is based on several kinds of guides, including their chemical environment, their location within the brain, and the dense network of glial cells that support and protect them. But as it turns out, they’re also surprisingly responsive to fluid dynamics, turning in response to the rotation of nearby microparticles – a bit like the way a vine can climb a fence-post. Since the early days of neuroscience, researchers have dreamed of growing and shaping neurons for specific purposes – to patch…

Wakefulness Cells

Certain groups of neurons determine whether light keeps us awake or not, says a new study. In the hypothalamus – a brain structure responsible for regulating hormone levels – specific kinds of neurons release a hormone called hypocretin (also known as hcrt or orexin). Hypocretin lets light-sensitive cells in other parts of the brain – such as the visual pathway – know that they should respond to incoming light by passing along signals for us to stay awake. Scientists have understood for centuries that most animals and plants go through regular cycles of wakefulness and sleep – they call these patterns circadian rhythms or circadian…

Take Your Time

Stimulating a certain brain region makes people take less time to consider their decisions, a new study reports. One particular area of the frontal lobe – the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) – is involved in helping us take conscious control over our decision-making process. While the mPFC is stuck on a problem, an ancient brain structure called the subthalamic nucleus (STN) slams the brakes on other brain activity, allowing us to think without acting impulsively. By applying electrical stimulation to the STNs of volunteers, researchers found they could shorten the time it took for them to come to a decision – and lessen the amount of…

Working Off Worry

Want to get rid of gloomy thoughts? Try working some physical activity into your daily routine, says a new study. For people who struggle with depression and anxiety, the research shows, exercise can be just as effective as antidepressant medication. It often prevents symptoms from getting worse – and in some cases, it even helps cure the problem. Doctors have known for decades that a little physical activity can help distract you from your worries, boost positive feelings, and even relieve anxiety and depression. But in recent years, research has shown that exercise’s hidden effects reach much deeper: it tells your body to produce endorphins – natural chemicals that act similarly to…

Mind Control

A comfy new “brain cap” will soon allow users to remotely control robots with their thoughts. By “comfy” I mean “noninvasive” – instead of sticky electrode patches or needles, the cap uses sensors embedded in its fabric to detect electrical signals along the scalp. Just slip it on, and you can start surfing the internet – or (probably eventually) remote-control a giant battle robot – using only the power of your mind. A study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology shows off the results of the brain cap’s latest human tests, conducted by the University of Maryland’s José ‘Pepe’ L. Contreras-Vidal and his team.…

Memory Lost & Found

New research has unlocked some reasons why memories weaken as we age – and more intriguingly, it suggests that the process can be reversed. According to a study published in the journal Nature, a large part of this decline is due to the chemical environment of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), an area of the frontal lobe that plays a large part in maintaining working memory – the ability to keep an idea, sound, or image “in mind” while we’re not directly perceiving it in our environment. As we age, a chemical called cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), which normally is involved in intracellular signaling,…

Narrative Medicine

Storytelling is more than just entertainment – new research shows that creating narratives can lift our moods, and even fight the symptoms of diseases like Alzheimer’s. A group of neuropsychiatric researchers at the University of Missouri’s Sinclair School of Nursing tested a storytelling program called TimeSlips on nursing home patients suffering from senile dementia, the journal Nursing Research reports. Instead of focusing on factual memory, the TimeSlips method focuses on asking a group open-ended questions, to encourage imaginative brainstorming: TimeSlips stories spring from hour-long, group storytelling workshops with people with memory loss.  A facilitator begins a workshop with a provocative image, invites creative…