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In the News, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Stanford study shows how the brain responds to different types of reading instruction

Stanford study shows how the brain responds to different types of reading instruction

Girl ReaderFor years, early childhood teachers have seen that students taught to read using a phonics approach — sounding out the letters in each word — tended to become better readers than those taught to recognize whole words by sight. Now a new study, published in the scientific journal Brain and Language, has given researchers insight into why, providing some of the earliest neurological data about early readers’ learning processes.

During the study, which was co-authored by Bruce McCandliss, PhD, a Stanford education professor who is part of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, researchers developed a new written language and compared how 16 adult study participants learned when they were taught using a phonics versus a whole-word approach. The researchers then used a brain mapping technique that employs an electroencephalograph, or EEG, to track participants’ responses to newly learned words. As described in a Stanford Report story:

[T]hese very rapid brain responses to the newly learned words were influenced by how they were learned.

Words learned through the letter-sound instruction elicited neural activity biased toward the left side of the brain, which encompasses visual and language regions. In contrast, words learned via whole-word association showed activity biased toward right hemisphere processing.

McCandliss noted that this strong left hemisphere engagement during early word recognition is a hallmark of skilled readers, and is characteristically lacking in children and adults who are struggling with reading.

The study also showed that as long as study participants used the letter-sound pattern, they were able to read words they had never seen before. As noted in the piece, the researchers believe this work “could eventually lead to better-designed interventions to help struggling readers.”

Previously: Building a bridge between education and neuroscience, Using texting to boost preschool reading skills, Examining the inter-workings of the brain when reading silently, Researchers identify the neural structures associated with poor reading skills and Stanford study furthers understanding of reading disorders
Photo by Philippe Put

Behavioral Science, Imaging, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Stanford researchers tie unexpected brain structures to creativity – and to stifling it

Stanford researchers tie unexpected brain structures to creativity - and to stifling it

EinsteinHow often does the accountant turn out to be the life of the party? How often do the Nike sneakers, rather than the Armani suits, call the shots? Yet that may be the case when it comes to – of all things! – creativity.

As I wrote in this news release about an imaging study just published in Scientific Reports:

[Stanford scientists] have found a surprising link between creative problem-solving and heightened activity in the cerebellum, a structure located in the back of the brain and more typically thought of as the body’s movement-coordination center… The cerebellum, traditionally viewed as the brain’s practice-makes-perfect, movement-control center, hasn’t been previously recognized as critical to creativity.

That’s putting it mildly. And that’s not the only bizarre outcome of the study, whose findings also suggest that shifting the brain’s higher-level, executive-control centers into higher gear impairs, rather than enhances, creativity.

When I interviewed neuroscientist Allan Reiss, MD, the study’s senior author, about the research, he told me:

We found that activation of the brain’s executive-control centers – the parts of the brain that enable you to plan, organize and manage your activities – is negatively associated with creative task performance.

Creativity is one of the most valuable human attributes, as well as one of the hardest to measure. Tying it to activity in particular brain structures in a living, thinking human brain is a brainteaser in itself.

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Biomed Bites, Neuroscience, Research, Videos

The inner engineer: One researcher’s quest to understand the brain

The inner engineer: One researcher's quest to understand the brain

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

For Jennifer Raymond, PhD, associate professor of neurobiology, the decision to devote her career to deciphering how the brain operates was, well, a no-brainer.

“I think we’re all curious about how our brains work,” Raymond says in the video above. “It’s really fundamental to who we are.”

She’s on a hunt for the brain’s “inner engineer,” the “actor” that decides how the brain should rewire itself to operate more efficiently. And now is a good time for the field, she says:

In neuroscience, we’re poised to start making some fundamental breakthroughs in understanding how the building blocks of the brain, the neurons, work together to perform computations and to learn.

Those insights will have big implications for society and medicine, Raymond explains:

If we can better understand how the brain learns, this will help us design better treatments for people with learning disabilities or people recovering from stroke…

It will help us design better education systems and it will help us design better machines that can more closely mimic the abilities of the human brain.

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

Previously: Peering under the hood — of the brain, New findings on exactly why our “idle” brains burn so much fuel and A little noise in the brain’s wiring helps us learn

Autism, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research, Science, Stanford News, Stem Cells

Brain cell spheres in a lab dish mimic human cortex, Stanford study says

Brain cell spheres in a lab dish mimic human cortex, Stanford study says

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Mental disorders like autism and schizophrenia are notoriously difficult to study at the molecular level. Understandably, people are reluctant to donate pieces of living brain for study, and postmortem tissue lets researchers see the structure, but not the function, of the cells.

Now researchers in the laboratories of psychiatrist Sergiu Pasca, MD, and neurobiologist Ben Barres, MD, PhD, have found a way to make balls of cells that mimic the activity of the human cortex. They use a person’s skin cells, so the resulting “human cortical spheroid” has the same genetic composition as the donor. The research was published in Nature Methods yesterday.

According to our release:

Previous attempts to create patient-specific neural tissue for study have either generated two-dimensional colonies of immature neurons that do not create functional synapses, or required an external matrix on which to grow the cells in a series of laborious and technically difficult steps.

In contrast, the researchers found they were able to easily make hundreds of what they’ve termed “human cortical spheroids” using a single human skin sample. These spheroids grow to be as large as 5 millimeters in diameter and can be maintained in the laboratory for nine months or more. They exhibit complex neural network activity and can be studied with techniques well-honed in animal models.

The researchers, which include neonatology fellow Anca Pasca, MD, and graduate student Steven Sloan, hope to use the technique to help understand how the human brain develops, and what sometimes goes wrong. As described by Barres:

The power and promise of this new method is extraordinary. For instance, for developmental brain disorders, one could take skin cells from any patient and literally replay the development of their brain in a culture dish to figure out exactly what step of development went awry — and how it might be corrected.

The research is starting to garner attention, including this nice article from Wired yesterday. Pasca’s eager to note, however, that he’s not working to create entire brains, which would be ethically and technically challenging, to say the least. But simply generating even a few of the cell types in the cortex will give researchers a much larger canvas with which to study some devastating conditions. As Pasca notes in our release:

I am a physician by training. We are often very limited in the therapeutic options we can offer patients with mental disorders. The ability to investigate in a dish neuronal and glial function, as well as network activity, starting from patient’s own cells, has the potential to bring novel insights into psychiatric disorders and their treatment.

Previously: More than just glue, glial cells challenge neuron’s top slot and Star-shaped cells nab new starring role in sculpting brain circuits
Photo of spheroid cross-section by Anca Pasca

Neuroscience, Sleep, Stanford News, Videos

Exploring the history and study of sleep with Stanford’s William Dement

Exploring the history and study of sleep with Stanford's William Dement

The Good Stuff, a playlist-based online show, kicked off a week-long series about sleep with an interview with well-known sleep researcher William Dement, MD, PhD, who many refer to as the “father of sleep medicine.”

It’s surprising how new the field of sleep research is. As host Matt says about the discovery of rapid eye movement during sleep in the 1950s, “We developed the atom bomb before we noticed people’s eyes were moving while they slept?” Dement was the first to find that we sleep during REM sleep as a medical student at the University of Chicago. He later went on to describe the five stages of sleep as well as to study sleep disorders and the effects of sleep deprivation.

Dement is amusing and charming in the interview, and I feel like I got a glimpse into why Dement’s Sleep and Dreams class at Stanford is so popular.

Part two of the series – which addresses the question “Why do we sleep?” and features Dement and Clete Kushida, MD, PhD, medical director of the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center – was posted today, and parts three and four will be posted later this week.

Previously: “Father of Sleep Medicine” talks with CNN about what happens when we don’t sleep well, Stanford doc gives teens a crash course on the dangers of sleep deprivation, William Dement: Stanford Medicine’s “Sandman”, Stanford docs discuss all things sleepThanks, Jerry: Honoring pioneering Stanford sleep research and An afternoon with bedheads and Deadheads

Cancer, Neuroscience, Pediatrics, Research, Stanford News, Videos

How one family’s generosity helped advance research on the deadliest childhood brain tumor

How one family’s generosity helped advance research on the deadliest childhood brain tumor

Back in February 2014, Libby and Tony Kranz found themselves at the center of every parent’s worst nightmare. Their six-year-old daughter Jennifer died just four months after being diagnosed with diffused intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), an incurable and fatal brain tumor. At the time, the Kranzes decided to generously donate their daughter’s brain to research in hopes that scientists could hopefully develop more effective treatments for DIPG, which affects 200-400 school-aged children in the United States annually and has a five-year survival rate of less than 1 percent.

As reported in the above Bay Area Proud segment, Michelle Monje, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of neurology and neurological sciences who sees patients at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, and colleagues harvested Jennifer’s tumor and successfully created a line of DIPG stem cells, one of only 16 in existence in the world. More from the story:

Using Jennifer’s stem cell lines and others, Monje and her team tested dozens of existing chemotherapy drugs to see if any were effective against DIPG. One appears to be working.

The drug was able to slow the growth of a DIPG tumor in a laboratory setting. Monje’s hope is that this treatment one day could extend the life of children diagnosed with DIPG by as many as six months.

That would have more than doubled Jennifer’s life expectancy.

“It’s a step in the right direction if we can effectively prolong life and prolong quality of life,” Monje said.

Libby Kranz says that for their family, donating their daughter’s tumor to researchers “just felt right.” She and Tony hope that by aiding the research efforts, parents and families will have more, and better quality time with their sick children.

“It’s incredible and it’s humbling,” she said, “to know my daughter is part of it, and that we’re part of it too.”

Previously: Existing drug shows early promise against deadly childhood brain tumor, Stanford brain tumor research featured on “Bay Area Proud,Emmy nod for film about Stanford brain tumor research – and the little boy who made it possible and Finding hope for rare pediatric brain tumor

Behavioral Science, In the News, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research, Science

Inside the brain of optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth

Inside the brain of optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth

brain-494152_1280Lighting the brain,” a recent New Yorker profile, offers insight into the brain of Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, the well-known innovator of both optogenetics and CLARITY. (Optogenetics is a genetic engineering feat that allows researchers to control neurons in living animals using light. CLARITY is a technique that makes individual neural connections visible.)

Deisseroth, readers of the article learn, is a guy who shows up to his leading scientific laboratory wearing jeans and a t-shirt and who doesn’t let a little fender bender tweak his mood.

Yes, he’s brilliant. His ability to instantly memorize information morphed into a “circus act” of sorts when he was in elementary school. He began medical school at age 20. But, he’s also driven and hard working. When optogenetics encountered early resistance and doubt after its initial publication in 2005, Deisseroth “began working furiously,” the article states. Into work before 6 a.m., Deisseroth slaved over his brainchild often until 1 a.m., his wife, Michelle Monje, MD, PhD, reported.

It took a few more papers — and demonstrations of the applicability of optogenetics to examine real diseases — for the scientific community to catch on. But then, like a contagion of scientific glee, optogenetics rocked the neuroscience community.

Monje realized its popularity at a recent scientific conference:

“People were stopping us at the airport asking to take a picture with him, asking for autographs,” she said. “He can’t walk through the conference hall—there’s a mob. It’s like Beatlemania. I realized, I’m married to a Beatle. The nerdy Beatle.”

For more on the “nerdy Beatle,” and the science behind both optogenetics and CLARITY, check out the article for yourself. It’s well worth your brain power.

Previously: Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth awarded prestigious Albany Prize, Lightning strikes twice: Optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth’s newest technique renders tissues transparent, yet structurally intact and New York Times profiles Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth and his work in optogenetics
Image by Tumisu

Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Stanford neurobiologist takes meandering path to her line of work

Stanford neurobiologist takes meandering path to her line of work

Professor Lisa Giocomo, i Assistant Professor of Neurobiology at the  Stanford University School of Medicine in her lab on Monday, April 27, 2015. ( Norbert von der Groeben/Stanford Health Care )

Why can you stumble, without incident, from your bed to the coffee maker in your kitchen each morning, even though you’re not fully awake? As I write in the latest issue of Inside Stanford Medicine, Lisa Giocomo, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology, knows why.

Giocomo studies special neurons in your brain called “grid cells” that help us remember our environment. Grid cells keep track of physical locations and can be thought of as the brain’s GPS. From grid cell activity, scientists can chart the path an animal took, such as if it walked in a straight line.

While holding a cup of coffee, Giocomo chatted with me recently about how she became a neurobiologist. Giocomo’s path to the field wasn’t a straight line; it included stops at a small mountain town in Colorado, Baylor University, Boston University, and the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Norway. In Norway Giocomo worked with 2014 Nobel laureates Edvard Moser, PhD, and May-Britt Moser, PhD, conducting research on the GPS-like grid cells. (“It was like magic when I talked about my project idea with the Mosers,” she recalled fondly.)

“I started out being interested in biology and then I went into psychology,” she told me. “In the end, I came back to neuroscience and biology.”

Giocomo opened her lab in Stanford’s neurobiology department in 2013. To read more about her journey here, check out the full piece.

Kimberlee D’Ardenne was a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication and Public Affairs.

Previously: Stanford neurobiologist shares insights from working in Nobel-winning lab
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

Big data, Neuroscience, Videos

Countdown to Big Data in Biomedicine: Mining medical records to identify patterns in public health

Countdown to Big Data in Biomedicine: Mining medical records to identify patterns in public health

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The routine information contained in medical records holds the potential to unlock important public-health discoveries. That was the message conveyed at the 2014 Big Data in Biomedicine conference at Stanford by Martin Landray, PhD, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Oxford University and deputy director of the Big Data Institute within the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery. In the above video from last year’s event, Landray explains how he and colleagues are working to better understand the determinants of common life-threatening and disabling diseases through the design, conduct and analysis of large-scale epidemiological studies and the widespread dissemination of both the findings and methods used to generate them.

This month, Landray will return to the Big Data in Biomedicine conference and moderate a discussion on neuroimaging. Among the panelists are Michael Greicius, MD, associate professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford, and Brian Wandell, PhD, founding director of Stanford’s Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging and deputy director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.

Registration for the conference, which will be held May 20-22 at Stanford, is currently open. More details about the program can be found on its website.

Previously: Stanford bioengineer discusses mining social media and smartphone data for biomedical research, Using genetics to answer fundamental questions in biology, medicine and anthropologyBig data used to help identify patients at risk of deadly high-cholesterol disorder, Examining the potential of big data to transform health care and Registration for Big Data in Biomedicine conference now open

Bioengineering, Imaging, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News, Stem Cells

New way to watch what stem cells transplanted into the brain do once they get there

New way to watch what stem cells transplanted into the brain do once they get there

binocularsStem cell replacement therapy is a promising but problem-plagued medical intervention.

In a recent news release detailing a possible way forward, I wrote:

Many brain disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, are characterized by defective nerve cells in specific brain regions. This makes disorders such as Parkinson’s excellent candidates for stem cell therapies, in which the defective nerve cells are replaced. But the experiments in which such procedures have been attempted have met with mixed results, and those conducting the experiments are hard put to explain them.

That’s because there’s been no good way to evaluate what those transplanted stems cells are doing once you’ve put them inside a living individual. I mean, you’re not gonna break into someone’s brain every couple of days to take a peek, right? Instead, you have to look for behavioral changes. Is the patient or experimental animal walking better (if you’re trying to treat Parkinson’s), or (if it’s Alzheimer’s) remembering better ? Then, even when you see those changes, you still don’t know whether new nerve cells derived from the newly transplanted cells integrated into the proper brain circuits and are now functioning correctly there, or whether the originally transplanted cells are just sitting around secreting some kind of feel-good factor to pep up ailing cells in the vicinity, juicing their  performance. Or maybe it was a placebo effect.

It’s hard to improve on a procedure when you don’t really know what went wrong – or even what went right – on the last attempt. Optimizing the regimen becomes a matter of guesswork and luck.

But in a new study in NeuroImage, neuroscientist/bioengineer Jin Hyung Lee, PhD, and her colleagues came up with a way to peer deep into the living brain and view the results of a stem-cell transplant procedure. They combined an established brain-imaging technique with a newer but increasingly widespread one, called optogenetics, that lets researchers stimulate specific cells.

The first step in optogenetics is to genetically modify the cells you want to stimulate, so that their surfaces become coated by a photosensitive protein that generates electric current in response to laser light. Lee’s team performed this operation on the stem cells before transplanting them into rats’ brains. This way, they could selectively stimulate nerve cells derived from those stem cells and,  using the brain-imaging technique, see if doing so triggered nerve-cell activity at the site of the transplant as well as other places in the brain with which the new cells had established connections.

In these experiments, the stem-cell-derived nerve cells survived, matured into nerve cells, integrated into targeted brain circuits and, most important, fired on cue and ignited activity in downstream nerve circuits. But had all that not happened, at least the researchers would have been able to pinpoint the weak link in the chain.

In principle, the new approach should be possible to use for all kinds of stem-cell therapies, and in humans as well as animals. As Lee told me when I interviewed her for my release on her new study, “If we can watch the new cells’ behaviors for weeks and months after we’ve transplanted them, we can learn – much more quickly and in a guided way rather than a trial-and-error fashion – what kind of cells to put in, exactly where to put them, and how.”

If this light-driven stem-cell-monitoring technique or some others I’ve reported on hold up, brave explorers may no longer have to poke around in the dark.

Previously: Alchemy: From liposuction fluid to new liver cells, Iron-supplement-slurping stem cells can be transplanted, then tracked to make sure they’re making new knees, You’ve got a lot of nerve! Industrial-scale procedure for generating plenty of personalized nerve cells and Nano-hitchhikers ride stem cells into heart, let researchers watch in real time and weeks later
Photo by Nicki Dugan Pogue

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