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Neuroscience

Humor, Media, Medicine and Society, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Did extraterrestrials chew up my news release, or does artificial intelligence still have a ways to go?

Did extraterrestrials chew up my news release, or does artificial intelligence still have a ways to go?

UFO

Almost two years ago, in a Scope blog entry titled “Can Joe Six-Pack compete with Sid Cyborg?” I posed the question: “Just how long will it be before we can no longer tell our computers from ourselves?”

I think it’s safe to say we’re not there yet. Either that, or extraterrestrials have been reading my news releases and finding them puzzling.

Last week we put out a news release I’d written about a dramatic discovery by Stanford radiologists Mike Zeineh, MD, PhD, Brian Rutt, PhD, and their colleagues. In brief, they’d analyzed postmortem slabs of brain tissue from people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, compared them with equivalent brain-tissue slabs taken from people who’d died without any Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, and noticed some striking and intriguing differences. In a key brain region essential to memory formation, Zeineh and Rutt had spotted – only in Alzheimer’s brains, not normal ones – iron deposits engulfed by mobile inflammatory cells. This observation’s potentially big implications were plenty newsworthy.

It so happened that, on the day we issued the release, a high-powered five-day-long meeting on Alzheimer’s sponsored by the eponymous Alzheimer’s Association was in session in Washington, D.C. As a result, many of the brain-oriented science writers to whom my news release was targeted were preoccupied.

I was a little anxious about that. So, the other day, I turned to my favorite search engine to see if the release had managed to get some traction in the popular press. As I’d feared, the Washington conference had sucked up a lot of the oxygen in the earthly neuroscience arena.

But apparently, the release had done better in Outer Space. I saw that it had been picked up by, for example, Red Orbit (a website that I’ve always assumed, based on its name, emanates from Mars).

My eyes were next drawn to a link to an unfamiliar outfit called AZ News, which bills itself in a tagline as an “International Online News Site.” I clicked on the link, and saw a news report with the same title as my release. I started reading the text below.

The first words were: “In autopsy mind hankie from people not diagnosed with Alzheimer’s…” I don’t know what an “autopsy mind hankie” is, but I suspect it’s a mind-blower.

I checked our release. That’s not what I’d written at all. What I’d said was, “In postmortem brain tissue from people not diagnosed with Alzheimer’s…”

It seemed pretty clear that the release had been translated into some language – I had no idea which – and then, for some reason, reverse-translated back into English. I read on.

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Autism, Behavioral Science, Neuroscience, Pediatrics, Research, Stanford News

A new insight into the brain chemistry of autism

A new insight into the brain chemistry of autism

TrueHugFor several years now, scientists have been testing the hypothesis that one particular hormone, oxytocin, plays a role in autism. It seems logical: After all, this molecule nicknamed the “love hormone” promotes bonding between romantic partners and is one of the main signals involved in childbirth, breastfeeding and helping new mothers form strong bonds with their babies. And social-interaction difficulties are a known characteristic of autism, a developmental disorder that affects one in every 68 kids.

But in the flurry of interest around oxytocin, a related signaling molecule has been largely overlooked. Called vasopressin, it’s structurally very similar to oxytocin. Both are small proteins made of nine amino acids each, and the amino-acid sequence is identical at seven of the nine spots in the two hormones. Vasopressin is best known for its role in regulating blood pressure, but it also has social roles, which have mostly been studied in rodents.

Noting the dearth of autism-vasopressin research, a Stanford team decided to study vasopressin levels and social behavior in children diagnosed with autism and controls who had not been diagnosed with autism. Our press release about their study, which was published today in PLOS ONE, explains:

The research team found a correlation between low levels of vasopressin, a hormone involved in social behavior, and the inability of autistic children to understand that other people’s thoughts and motivations can differ from their own. …

“Autistic children who had the lowest vasopressin levels in their blood also had the greatest social impairment,” said the study’s senior author, Karen Parker, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Parker and her colleagues examined “theory of mind,” the ability to deduce that others have a mind of their own – and that they may perceive the world differently than you do. It’s an important underpinning to forming empathetic relationships with other people. In kids with autism, the lower their vasopressin levels, the worse their scores on a test of theory of mind, the study found. Children without autism did not show this link; they all had pretty good theory of mind scores, whether their vasopressin levels were low or high.

It’s worth adding that low vasopressin level did not diagnose whether a child had autism; the hormone’s levels ranged from low to high in both groups of children. So autism is not simply a state of vasopressin deficiency. However, the researchers are interested in whether giving vasopressin might help relieve autism symptoms and are now carrying out a clinical trial to test its effects.

The work also provides an interesting complement to oxytocin findings published by the same team last year. In the oxytocin study, the scientists found that children with autism could have low, medium or high oxytocin levels, just like other children. However, oxytocin levels were linked to social ability in all children, not just those with autism.

Based on the new findings, it’s possible, Parker told me, that vasopressin is uniquely important for children with autism. She’s eager to expand her work in this overlooked corner of brain-chemistry research.

Previously: Stanford research clarifies biology of oxytocin in autism, “Love hormone” may mediate wider range of relationships than previously thought and Volunteers sought for autism drug study
Artwork by Dimka

Imaging, Immunology, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Are iron, and the scavenger cells that eat it, critical links to Alzheimer’s?

Are iron, and the scavenger cells that eat it, critical links to Alzheimer's?

iron linkIf you’ve been riding the Alzheimer’s-research roller-coaster, brace yourself for a new twist on that wrenching disease of old age.

In a study published in Neurobiology of Aging, Stanford radiologists Mike Zeineh, MD, PhD,  and Brian Rutt, PhD, and their colleagues used a ultra-powerful magnetic-resonance-imaging (MRI) system to closely scrutinize postmortem tissue from the brains of people with and without Alzheimer’s disease. In four out of five of the Alzheimer’s brains they looked at, but in none of the five non-Alzheimer’s brains, they found what appear to be iron-containing microglia – specialized scavenger cells in the brain that can sometimes become inflammatory – in a particular part of the hippocampus, a key brain structure that’s absolutely crucial to memory formation as well as spatial orientation and navigation.

Zeineh and Rutt told me they don’t know how the iron gets into brain tissue, or why it accumulates where it does. But iron, which in certain chemical forms can be highly reactive and inflammation-inducing, is ubiquitous throughout the body. Every red blood cell that courses through our microvasculature is filled with it. So one possibility – not yet demonstrated – is that iron deposits in the hippocampus could result from micro-injury to small cerebral blood vessels there.

As surprising as the iron-laden, inflamed microglia Zeineh, Rutt and their associates saw in Alzheimer’s but not normal brains was what they didn’t see. Surprisingly, in the brain region of interest there was no consistent overlap of either iron or microglia with the notorious amyloid plaques that have been long held by many neuroscientists and pharmaceutical companies to be the main cause of the disorder. These plaques are extracellular aggregations of a small protein called beta-amyloid that are prominent in Alheimer’s patients’ brains, as well as in mouse models of the disease.

Because they weren’t able to visualize small, soluble beta-amyloid clusters (now believed to to be the truly toxic form of the protein), Rutt and Zeineh don’t rule out a major role for beta-amyloid in the early developmental stages of pathology in Alzheimer’s.

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Neuroscience, Research, Science, Stanford News

Nobelist neuroscientist Tom Südhof still spiraling in on the secrets of the synapse

Nobelist neuroscientist Tom Südhof still spiraling in on the secrets of the synapse

spiral staircase“History,” said Winston Churchill (or was it Arnold Toynbee or Edna St. Vincent Millay?), “is just one damn thing after another.” In many respects, so is good science.

And that’s just how it should be, Stanford neuroscientist and molecular physiologist Tom Südhof, MD, told me a few years ago when I interviewed him for a story I wrote in connection with the Lasker Award, a prestigious prize he’d won shortly before receiving the 2013 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine:

Asked to recall any defining “eureka!” moments that had catapulted his hunches forward to the status of certainty, Südhof noted that in his experience, science advances step by step, not in jumps. “I believe strongly that most work is incremental,” he said. The systematic solution of highly complex problems requires a long view and plenty of patience.

Climbing a long ladder to the Nobel one small step at a time, Südhof continually raised the power of his conceptual microscope over the decades as he probed the intricate workings of synapses: the all-important junctions in the nervous system where information, in the form of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, gets passed from one nerve cell to another.

From an explanation of Südhof’s synaptic studies:

The firing patterns of our synapses underwrite our consciousness, emotions and behavior. The simple act of taking a step forward, experiencing a fleeting twinge of regret, recalling an incident from the morning commute or tasting a doughnut requires millions of simultaneous and precise synaptic firing events throughout the brain and peripheral nervous system.

A philosopher might say that synapses collectively constitute the physiological substrate for the soul. A futurist might write (as I once did):

With nanobots monitoring every critical neural connection’s involvement in a thought or emotion or experience, you’ll be able to back up your brain – or even try on someone else’s – by plugging into a virtual-reality jack. The brain bots feed your synapses the appropriate electrical signals and you’re off and running, without necessarily moving.

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Neuroscience, Stanford News, Videos

Are decisions driven by subconscious desires or shaped by conscious goals?

Are decisions driven by subconscious desires or shaped by conscious goals?

Throughout our lives, we often encounter perplexing situations involving other individuals or read in the news about someone’s seemingly irrational decision and say to ourselves: What were they thinking? In this Stanford+Connects video, Bill Newsome, PhD, director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, and his wife Brie Linkenhoker, PhD, a neuroscientists-turned-strategist who directs Worldview Stanford, examine the process of decision making and the role of impulses and self-control. Watch the full talk to learn more about the mechanisms driving us to make decisions.

Previously: Exploring the science of decision making and Exploring the intelligence-gathering and decision-making processes of infants

Mental Health, Neuroscience

No time for a vacation? Take a break without leaving the office

No time for a vacation? Take a break without leaving the office

3863917188_4972c8fe11_zWhen you’re tired, overworked and stressed out, a good vacation can be just what the doctor ordered. The catch is that it’s not always easy to take a break when you need it most. If you’re nodding your head in agreement, check out this Harvard Business Review piece by Emma Seppälä, PhD, associate director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

As Seppälä explains in her piece, workers in the United States tend to have less vacation days than employees elsewhere. Moreover, many people find it hard to truly “unplug” when they finally do take a vacation because smartphones, Wi-Fi and other electronic devices are so readily available.

But, fewer vacation days and smartphones aren’t entirely to blame for the bloated work schedules that are ubiquitous here and elsewhere. As Seppälä explains, many salaried employees with ample vacation time sometimes feel they can’t take an extended holiday because vacations are not “productive” and being out of the office, and out of touch, can have negative repercussions.

“Unfortunately, the logic of both employees and employers is highly flawed,” Seppälä writes. “Both fail to realize that cutting into vacation time is actually detrimental to both organizations and their employees both in terms of financial and productivity costs.” One short-term solution that can help employees endure a long period of work is a “mini-break”— a vacation that’s compressed into a few hours and can be taken virtually anywhere. She elaborates:

Research by Sabine Sonnentag suggests that detaching from work is essential to enhanced productivity. Her work has shown that, while people who do not detach from work suffering from greater levels of exhaustion, those who do recover from job stress and are more likely to have higher engagement levels at work.

If you really can’t take a proper vacation, Adam Rifkin, successful Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur and founder of PandaWhale, suggests “taking a little downtime every day rather than pushing it off for some getaway week.” Sonnentag’s research also suggests that if you make an effort to completely disengage from work when the workday is over – by, for example, engaging in a hobby you enjoy, exercising, or taking a walk in nature – you will reap the benefits: you will feel less fatigued, more engaged at work, and more energized when you leave work.

Stopping to smell the roses can make a big difference in your overall well-being during periods of high work flow, but a mini-break is no substitute for the real thing. So, if you absolutely can’t take an extended vacation, make the most of the downtime you have. Just be sure you also find a way to take that long vacation you’ve been dreaming of.

Previously: Exposure to nature helps quash depression – so enjoy the great outdoors!Seven ways laughter can improve your well-beingWhat email does to your brain and How social connection can improve physical and mental health and Out-of-office autoreply: Reaping the benefits of nature
Photo by Joe Penniston

In the News, Neuroscience, Research

A year-long trip: One patient’s drug use linked to Alice in Wonderland syndrome

A year-long trip: One patient's drug use linked to Alice in Wonderland syndrome

8303093547_968a17bc4f_zA mind-bending condition long known for its associations with migraines may have another cause: acid use. Sufferers of Alice in Wonderland syndrome, a neurological disorder named in 1955, experience distortions of proportions: The world does not appear as it should be. Instead, it is too small, too close, too big or too far, just as was the case for the main character of the classic novel after eating a very small cake that read “EAT ME:”

“Good-bye feet!” said Alice, for when she looked down at her feet, they seemed to be almost out of sight, they were getting so far off. “Oh my poor little feet, I wonder who will put on your shoes and stockings for you now, dears? I’m sure I shan’t be able.”

For decades, this rare syndrome has been linked to migraines, but a new case report in the Israel Journal of Psychiatry shows that for one patient, it was brought on by LSD use — with his symptoms continuing for a year after the drug use has stopped.

Although researchers aren’t sure what caused the patient to experience the ongoing symptoms, the syndrome is generally caused by a hypersensitivity of the brain. Stanford neurologist Sheena Aurora, MD, explains in a LiveScience article:

This hypersensitivity typically starts in the occipital lobe, the visual region at the back of the brain. However, it can spread to the parietal lobes… which discern sizes and shapes, Aurora said.

Scholars have speculated that Lewis Carroll experienced migraines, which might have inspired Alice’s atypical adventures.

Previously: Director of Stanford Headache Clinic answers your questions on migraines and headache disorders, Advice on managing migraines and More attention, funding needed for headache care
Image by new 1luminati

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

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