Published by
Stanford Medicine

Category

Neuroscience

Behavioral Science, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

A not so fearful symmetry: Applying neuroscience findings to teaching math

A not so fearful symmetry: Applying neuroscience findings to teaching math

15415-symmetry_newsMany people grow up thinking of themselves as “not very good at math” after having struggled to learn abstract math concepts. Sometimes people hit their “math wall”— the point where math classes feel so complex that the subject becomes impossible to understand — in college, high school, or even earlier.

A team at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, led by Daniel Schwartz, PhD, might help young students avoid the math wall altogether. The researchers are using recent findings from neuroscience to explore how people learn core concepts in math and science. They recently published a study in the scientific journal Cognition and Instruction looking at how fourth-grade students learn about negative numbers and building on previous findings about our ability to process visual symmetry.

One of the new tools used in the study is described in a Stanford News article:

Students worked with a magnetic plastic strip that was numbered. To solve the problem 3 + -2, students attached three magnetized blocks to the right of zero and two blocks to the left of zero. The manipulative further included a hinge at zero, the point of integer symmetry. Students folded the two sides together, and the number of extra blocks on either side gave the answer, in this case +1. The hinge at zero helped students recruit their native abilities with symmetry, and the numbers on the little platform helped them coordinate the sense of symmetry with the symbolic digits.

The students taught with these new techniques were able to solve math problems involving negative numbers better than students taught using conventional teaching approaches; they built on the strategies they learned using the hands-on device. And:

As it turned out, students who learned to rely on symmetry didn’t simply do better than other students on the material they had just been taught. They also did better on topics that they hadn’t yet studied, such as making sense of negative fractions and solving pre-algebraic problems.

“The big difference was that the symmetry instruction enabled students to solve novel problems and to continue learning without explicit instruction,” said Schwartz.

Previously: Math and the brain: Memorization is overrated, says education expert, Building a bridge between education and neuroscience, Abstract gestures help children absorb math lessons, study finds, Peering into the brain to predict kids’ responses to math tutoring and New research tracks “math anxiety” in the brain
Photo courtesy of AAALab@Stanford

Chronic Disease, Neuroscience, Pregnancy, Research, Women's Health

Women with epilepsy face elevated risk of death during pregnancy and childbirth – but why?

Women with epilepsy face elevated risk of death during pregnancy and childbirth - but why?

5987537049_ed5eff3b31_zWomen with epilepsy face a higher risk of death and a host of complications during their pregnancies than other women, according to a new study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology.

The researchers found women with epilepsy had a risk of 80 deaths per 100,000 pregnancies, more than 10 times higher than the risk of 6 deaths per 100,000 pregnancies faced by other women.

That’s a big deal, neurologists Jacqueline French, MD, from NYU Langone Medical Center, and Stanford’s Kimford Meador, MD, write in an accompanying editorial.

“The study should sound a major alarm among physicians and researchers,” French and Meador write. But, it fails to answer an integral question, they say: Who exactly is at risk and why did the women die?

Women with epilepsy are more likely to have hypertension, diabetes and a variety of psychiatric conditions. Are those conditions responsible for the differences in death rates, the authors question.

The study also fails to distinguish between women with well-controlled epilepsy and those continuing to suffer seizures. “These are critical questions, and, without the answers, we are left in the unsatisfying position of having to advise all women with epilepsy that they may be at higher risk,” French and Meador write. The study “raises far more questions than it answers. Most women with epilepsy have uncomplicated pregnancies.”

The authors conclude: “Future studies need to confirm and build on the present findings to improve the care of women with epilepsy during pregnancy.”

Previously: Treating intractible epilepsy, Ask Stanford Med: Neurologist taking questions on drug-resistant epilepsy and How epilepsy patients are teaching Stanford scientists more about the brain
Photo by José Manuel Ríos Valiente

Events, Imaging, Neuroscience, Research

Physician-monk leads Stanford doctors in meditation

Physician-monk leads Stanford doctors in meditation

Kerzin and Verghese - smallAfter he finished his recent Grand Rounds talk here at the medical school, and before he opened the room to questions, physician Barry Kerzin, MD, asked the audience of doctors, residents, and a PBS film crew, to silence their cell phones, focus on their breath, and join him for five minutes of meditation.

It made sense because Kerzin, who provides medical care to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and is also a Buddhist monk, had just spent time explaining the central ideas of mindfulness meditation and highlighting the results from various scientific studies on brain changes and the benefits that mindfulness training can bring. Kerzin’s familiarity with the work comes partly from his participation in two of these studies.

As Stanford’s Abraham Verghese, MD, said when introducing Kerzin, many people in the audience may have had their work published in journals like Nature or PNAS, but “who has had [their] brain appear in one of these publications?”

Kerzin’s brain was part of research that compared those of long-term meditators (people who had clocked more than 10,000 hours meditating) to novices’ brains. MRI brain scans revealed increases in size and activity in Kerzin’s and the other monks’ prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved with planning and reasoning, as well as empathy and imagination. In one of the studies, Kerzin was hooked up to an EEG machine to demonstrate that when engaged in mindfulness meditation, his brain gave out bursts of high frequency signals called gamma waves, an unusual brain pattern thought to be linked to neural synchrony.

While these studies’ findings pertained to experienced meditators, Kerzin also presented a study where beginners were given either meditation training or health education for six weeks. At the end, when given a stress test, people in the meditation group produced statistically less stress hormones.

Although the most striking differences weren’t seen in beginning meditators, Kerzin also presented a study were volunteers where given either meditation training or health education for six weeks. At the end, when given a stress test, people in the meditation group produced statistically less stress hormones.

Last year I myself participated in a meditation study similar to the ones presented by Kerzin, although the final test in my case was an observation session of the participating parents’ interactions with their toddlers, and measuring stress hormone levels in both. That study hasn’t been published yet, but the subjective view of my husband is that I’m a lot calmer these days as a result of my continued meditation.

Given my experience, I wish I could say I rocked the group meditation at the talk, but I had a hard time concentrating. By focusing on my breathing I could mostly ignore the presentation and applause coming from the room next door. What was harder was blocking out my own thoughts, thoughts of the future – and specifically of writing this blog post. But overall, it was nice to take a moment and try to live in the present.

Kerzin’s talk, called “The science behind meditation,” is available here. Kerzin is also speaking on “Compassionate living” at a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education event this evening; video of that talk will be available on the CCARE website in coming weeks.

Kim Smuga-Otto is a student in UC Santa Cruz’s science communication program and a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication and Public Affairs.

Previous: What the world needs now: altruism/A conversation with Buddhist monk-author Matthieu Ricard, From suffering to compassion: Meditation teacher-author Sharon Salzberg shares her storyHis Holiness the 17th Karmapa discusses the nature of compassionResearch brings meditation’s health benefits into focus and 10% happier? Count me in!
Photo of Barry Kerzin (left) and Abraham Verghese by Margarita Gallardo

Biomed Bites, Neuroscience, Ophthalmology, Research, Stanford News, Technology

The retina: One researcher’s window into the brain

The retina: One researcher's window into the brain

Welcome to Biomed Bites, a weekly feature that introduces readers to some of Stanford’s most innovative researchers. 

Initially, Stephen Baccus, PhD, wanted to understand how computers work. It didn’t take him very long to discover that the snazziest computer around is the human brain. Now an associate professor of neurobiology, Baccus needed a simple way to study neural circuits. He picked the retina, a component that is relatively well understood.

As Baccus explains in the video above:

In choosing the retina, I wanted to choose a set of experiments we could do where we could control the brain very accurately in order to study it, and I found that the retina was one of the places that we could most accurately control what the input to the nervous system is doing.

It’s a simple enough part of the brain that we can really hope to understand how it works.

Although Baccus and his team are interested in the general principles of neural function that can be observed using the retina, they’re also eager to discover clinical applications of their research such as electronic retinal prostheses.

“From our basic studies on how the retina performs computations, this information can be and actually has been used in the design of prostheses that we believe can actually restore sight,” Baccus says.

Learn more about Stanford Medicine’s Biomedical Innovation Initiative and about other faculty leaders who are driving biomedical innovation here.

Previously: New retinal implant could restore sight, All data — big and small — informs large-scale neuroscience project and Stanford expert responds to questions about brain repair and the future of neuroscience

Neuroscience, Stanford News, Surgery, Technology

Stanford researchers provide insights into how human neurons control muscle movement

Stanford researchers provide insights into how human neurons control muscle movement

Brain-Controlled_Prosthetic_Arm_2A few years ago, a team led by Stanford researcher Krishna Shenoy, PhD, published a paper that proposed a new theory for how neurons in the brain controlled the movement of muscles: Rather than sending out signals with parceled bits of information about the direction and size of movement, Shenoy’s team found that groups of neurons fired in rhythmic patterns to get muscles to act.

That research, done in 2012, was in animals. Now, Shenoy and Stanford neurosurgeon Jamie Henderson, MD, have followed up on that work to demonstrate that human neurons function in the same way, in what the researchers call a dynamical system. The work is described in a paper published in the scientific journal eLife today. In our news release on the study, the lead author, postdoctoral scholar Chethan Pandarinath, PhD, said of the work:

The earlier research with animals showed that many of the firing patterns that seem so confusing when we look at individual neurons become clear when we look at large groups of neurons together as a dynamical system.

The researchers implanted electrode arrays into the brains of two patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The new study provides further support for the initial findings and also lays the groundwork for advanced prosthetics like robotic arms that can be controlled by a person’s thoughts. The team is planning on working on computer algorithms that translate neural signals into electrical impulses that control prosthetic limbs.

Previously: Researchers find neurons fire rhythmically to create movement, Krishna Shenoy discusses the future of neural prosthetics at TEDxStanford, How does the brain plan movement? Stanford grad students explain in a video and Stanford researchers uncover the neural process behind reaction time
Photo by FDA

Media, Neuroscience

Neurologist explores accuracy of the brain in the movie Inside Out

Neurologist explores accuracy of the brain in the movie Inside Out

brain imageHave you seen the movie “Inside Out” yet? I went over the weekend with my family, and despite reports that some parents weep throughout the last 20 minutes, I only shed a few tears. (A real miracle given what a sap I normally am when it comes to Pixar films – don’t even get me started on the last scene of “Monsters, Inc.”)

The movie takes place inside the brain of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, with different characters playing the role of various emotions (joy, anger, sadness, etc.). I found the movie’s journey through the brain visually stunning and highly entertaining, but I admit to not thinking much about its accuracy – until yesterday, when I came across this post on the NeuroLogica Blog.

Neurologist Steven Novella, MD, writes that he loved the movie and would highly recommend it, but “as a metaphor for brain function, the movie was highly problematic.” He outlines the various ways in which accuracy was sacrificed for plot, or for the sake of simple storytelling, starting with the control panel used in the “command center” of Riley’s brain. “There does not appear to be any equivalent of a command center or control panel in our brains. There is no ‘seat of consciousness’ or ‘global workspace,'” he writes. “Rather, consciousness appears to be highly distributed, with each part of the brain contributing its little bit.”

The entire post is an entertaining and educational read, and I know I’ll keep it in the back of my mind – no pun intended – upon my next viewing of the movie. (Anyone with kids knows there’s no way I’m getting away with seeing a Pixar movie only once.)

Previously: From brains to computers: How do we reverse-engineer the most mysterious organ?, From phrenology to neuroimaging: New finding bolsters theory about how brain operates and Anger: The most evil emotion or a natural impulse?
Photo by geralt/Pixabay

Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Brain connections last as long as the memories they store, Stanford study shows

Brain connections last as long as the memories they store, Stanford study shows

6732863457_4175ebea30_zIf you find yourself forgetting information you have only your synapses to blame. These connections between neurons are what hold on to memories. When they break, there in a flash goes the name of that new coworker.

That’s been the theory for some time now, but Mark Schnitzer, PhD, who is a professor of biology and applied physics, has now shown it to be true. He was able to watch connections form and break in a region of the brain called the hippocampus, where memories are stored for about 30 days in the mice they worked with.

He and his collaborators found that the average synapse also lasts about 30 days in that region, suggesting that the synapse and the memory are related.

For a story I wrote about the work, Schnitzer told me, “Just because the community has had a longstanding idea, that doesn’t make it right.”

He said that his findings, which were published today in Nature, open up the field to investigating other aspects of memory including in stress or disease models.

Previously: Fly-snatching robot speeds biomedical research, Federal BRAIN Initiative funds go to create better sensors for recording the brain’s activityThe rechargeable brain: Blood plasma from young mice improves old mice’s memory and learning and Individuals’ extraordinary talent to never forget could offer insights into memory
Image by Flood G

Bioengineering, Neuroscience, Stanford News, Technology

From brains to computers: How do we reverse-engineer the most mysterious organ?

From brains to computers: How do we reverse-engineer the most mysterious organ?

hp-banner-social-media

So let’s say you want to make a piece of electronics that works just like the brain. Where would you start?

That’s the question neuroscientist Bill Newsome, PhD, director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, posed in a recent talk to a Worldview Stanford class on decision-making.

I thought the idea was so intriguing I wrote a series of stories about what it would take to reverse engineer the brain, and how close we are to succeeding at each. We’re still a ways from computers that mimic our own agile noggins, but a number of people are making progress in everything from figuring out where the brain’s wiring goes to creating computers that can learn.

These are the steps Newsome outlined to take us from our own grey goo to electronics with human-like capacities:

  1. Map the connections: Neuroscientists Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, and Brian Wandell, PhD, are mapping where the brain’s 100 billion neurons go.
  2. Monitor the signals: Biologist Mark Schnitzer, PhD, and bioengineer Michael Lin, MD, PhD, have created ways of watching signals in real time as they fire throughout the brain
  3. Manipulate the system: Neuroscientists Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, and Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, are working on techniques to manipulate the way the brain works and watch what happens.
  4. Develop a theory: Not only do we not know how the brain works, we don’t even really have a theory. Applied physicist Surya Ganguli, PhD, is working to change that.
  5. Digitize the circuits: If you want to turn the brain into electronics you need some wiring that mimics the brain. Bioengineer Kwabena Boahen has made just such a chip.
  6. Teach electronics to interact: Engineer Fei-Fei Li, PhD, has taught a computer to recognize images with almost human-like precision. This kind of ability will be needed by electronics of the future like self-driving cars or smarter robots.

Previously: Neuroscientists dream big, come up with ideas for prosthetics, mental health, stroke and more
Image, based on two Shutterstock images, by Eric Cheng

Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research, Women's Health

When dementia hits home: The global impact of dementia on women

When dementia hits home: The global impact of dementia on women

2350197001_72f66544a7_o

A report released last week by Alzheimer’s Disease International calls attention to the disproportionate effects of dementia on women worldwide.

As noted in the report, women are more at risk for dementia than men for two primary reasons: age and genetics. Women’s longer lifespans leave them more vulnerable to the age-related condition. In addition, there are biological factors that make women more likely to suffer from dementia.

Women are also more likely to be the caregivers to those with the disease. Women care not only for family members — they’re often also employed in low-paid caregiving professions. This is particularly true in lower income countries, where as many as 62 percent of people with dementia live, according to the report.

The burden of dementia strains family structures and community dynamics in these disadvantaged nations. In the report, Faraneh Farin, who is involved with the Iran Alzheimer Association, describes the situation in countries like Iran:

Nowadays, more women are working to support their families but should they need to care for a family member, then it is expected that they quit their jobs resulting in their marginalization. It seems that either way, whether a woman has dementia or she cares for a loved one, she is trapped in the cycle which has been constructed by the society. Dementia is an issue that engages a woman’s entire life.

The global costs of dementia amount to more than $600 billion, yet many sufferers, caregivers and programs lack adequate funds. The report calls for additional resources for female dementia victims and caregivers, and it highlights the need for additional research on dementia’s effects, especially in countries with lower incomes. These countries also need to develop national strategies that consider the needs of women, the report states.

Alzheimer’s Disease International aims to elevate the awareness of dementia’s impact on women globally and to spur national efforts to improve care. As Executive Director Mark Wortmann wrote in the Foreward: “I hope the report will find its way onto the desks of policy makers to help improve the quality of life for women living with dementia, as well as the millions of women all around the world who provide care and support for them.”

Alex Giacomini is an English literature major at UC Berkeley and a writing and social media intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication and Public Affairs.  

Previously: Study suggests yoga may help caregivers of dementia patients manage stressStanford neuroscientist discusses the coming dementia epidemic, and Science Friday explores women’s heightened risk for Alzheimer’s
Photo by Valerie Everett

Genetics, Imaging, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

From phrenology to neuroimaging: New finding bolsters theory about how brain operates

From phrenology to neuroimaging: New finding bolsters theory about how brain operates

phrenologyNeuroscience has come a long way since the days of phrenology, when lumps on the outside of the skull were believed to denote enhanced size and strength of the particular brain region responsible for particular individual functions. Today’s far more advanced neuroimaging technologies allow scientists to peer deep into the living brain, revealing not only its anatomical structures and the tracts connecting them but, in recent years, physiological descriptions of the brain at work.

Visualized this way, the brain appears to contain numerous “functional networks:” clusters of remote brain regions that are connected directly via white-matter tracts or indirectly through connections with mediating regions. These networks’ tightly coupled brain regions not only are wired together, but fire together. Their pulses, purrs and pauses, so to speak, are closely coordinated in phase and frequency.

Well over a dozen functional networks, responsible for brain operations such as memory, language processing, vision and emotion, have been identified via a technique called resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging. In a resting-state fMRI scan, the individual is asked to simply lie still, eyes closed, for several minutes and relax. These scans indicate that even at rest, the brain’s functional networks continue to hum along — albeit at lower volumes — at distinguishable frequencies and phases, like so many different radio stations playing simultaneously on the same radio.

But whether the images obtained via resting-state fMRI truly reflect neuronal activity or are some kind of artifact has been controversial. Now, a new study led by neuroscientist Michael Greicius, MD, and just published in Science, has found genetic evidence that convincingly bolsters neuroimaging-based depictions of these brain-activity patterns.

Continue Reading »

Stanford Medicine Resources: