Published by
Stanford Medicine

Category

Research

Humor, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Looking at how a child’s sense of humor takes its shape

Looking at how a child's sense of humor takes its shape

girl2Where does a child’s sense of humor come from? That depends on how you define humor and where you look to find it. A recent blog post from the Cognitive Neuroscience Society reports:

Humor can be a very complex and hard concept for some kids to grasp, said [Jessica Black, PhD,] of the Graduate School of Social Work Boston College, speaking yesterday about her poster on this new work at the CNS meeting in Boston. It requires people to both detect and resolve incongruities and to find amusement – involving many regions of the brain, including those that process cognitive computations and those that process emotions.

Black and others, including Allan Reiss, MD, the study’s director, and Pascal Vrticka, PhD, both of Stanford, studied how different brain regions were activated as children watched a video with funny, positive or neutral content. Twenty-two children ages 6 to 13 were asked to rate their ability to create and appreciate humor. Then, researchers examined their brain activity using fMRI scans.

The CNS blog post continues:

In general, the researchers found greater brain activity in children who rated themselves low on the sense of humor scale. The systems related to detecting incongruities and those involved in language and working memory had to ramp up to process the funny videos, as did the arousal network that is usually more active when processing negative emotional information. Interestingly, the brain activity related to social processing was lower in these children, suggesting perhaps more difficulty in being able to think about the mental state of others.

Their results suggest that children with a low sense of humor may require more cognitive effort to process humor, Black said. The data also imply that children with a low sense of humor may experience stress and increased levels of arousal during social interactions involving humor.

Previously: A closer look at the way our brains process humorHumor as a mate selection strategy for women? and Making kids laugh for science: Study shows how humor activates children’s brains
Photo by Maria del Carmen Gomez

Autism, Genetics, Neuroscience, Research, Videos

Building a blueprint of the developing human brain

Building a blueprint of the developing human brain

In an effort to identify and better understand how genes turned on or off before birth influence early brain development, scientists at the Allen Institute for Brain Science have created a comprehensive three-dimensional map that illustrates the activity of some 20,000 genes in 300 brain regions during mid-prenatal development.

A post on the NIH Director’s blog discusses the significance of the project, known as the BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Human Brain:

While this is just the first installment of what will be an atlas of gene activity covering the entire course of human brain development, this rich trove of data is already transforming the way we think about neurodevelopmental disorders.

To test the powers of the new atlas, researchers decided to use the database to explore the activity of 319 genes, previously linked to autism, during the mid-prenatal period. They discovered that many of these genes were switched on in the developing neocortex—a part of the brain that is responsible for complex behaviors and that is known to be disrupted in children with autism. Specifically, these genes were activated in newly formed excitatory neurons, which are nerve cells that send information from one part of the brain to another. The finding provides more evidence that the first seeds for autism are planted at the time when the cortex is in the midst of forming its six-layered architecture and circuitry.

In the above video, Ed Lein, PhD, an Allen Institute investigator, talks about the atlas and explains how it will allow researchers to examine genes that have been associated with a range of neurodevelopmental disorders and pinpoint when and where that gene is being used.

Previously: NIH announces focus of funding for BRAIN initiative, Brain’s gain: Stanford neuroscientist discusses two major new initiatives and Co-leader of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative to direct Stanford’s interdisciplinary neuroscience institute

In the News, Research, Sleep

Sleep: More important than ever?

Sleep: More important than ever?

A headline today caught my eye: “It’s Time to Pay Attention to Sleep, the New Health Frontier.” (Since installing a sleep-tracking app on my phone, I’ve been playing with different bed times, forms of exercise and other factors to measure their effects on sleep time and quality.) Anyway, the piece, on Time.com, explains why sleep’s importance to health is more serious than many of us really acknowledge. And it offers this bit of historical perspective on why now is the time to pay attention:

According to a 2013 Gallup survey, 40% of Americans get less than the recommended seven to eight hours a night. While the typical person still logs about 6.8 hours of sleep per night, that’s a drop from the 7.9 Americans were getting in the 1940s.

Previously: Exploring the benefit of sleep appsSleep on it: The quest for rest in the modern hospital, Mobile devices at bedtime? Sleep experts weigh in and Stanford doc talks sleep (and fish) in new podcast

Behavioral Science, Genetics, In the News, Research

Can procrastination and impulsivity be inherited?

procrastination_040814Do you always finish items on your to-do list in a timely fashion, or do you wait until the last minute? New research shows that the tendency to defer tasks could be inherited, and that the traits of procrastination and impulsivity could be genetically linked.

In the study (subscription required), researchers at University of Colorado Boulder asked 181 identical-twin pairs and 166 fraternal-twin pairs to complete surveys designed to measure individuals’ propensity to act impulsively or procrastinate, as well as their aptitude to set and maintain goals. Pysch Central reports:

They found that procrastination is indeed heritable, just like impulsivity. Not only that, there seems to be a complete genetic overlap between procrastination and impulsivity — that is, there are no genetic influences that are unique to either trait alone.

That finding suggests that, genetically speaking, procrastination is an evolutionary byproduct of impulsivity — one that likely manifests itself more in the modern world than in the world of our ancestors.

In addition, the link between procrastination and impulsivity also overlapped genetically with the ability to manage goals. This finding supports the idea that delaying, making rash decisions, and failing to achieve goals all stem from a shared genetic foundation.

Researchers hope that better understanding the underpinnings of procrastination will be useful in determining how these two traits relate to higher cognitive abilities.

Previously: Ask Stanford Med: Answers to your questions about willpower and tools to reach our goals, The science of willpower and How your perceptions about willpower can affect behavior, goal achievement
Photo by EvelynGiggles

Cancer, Genetics, Patient Care, Research, Science, Stanford News

Blood will tell: In Stanford study, tiny bits of circulating tumor DNA betray hidden cancers

Blood will tell: In Stanford study, tiny bits of circulating tumor DNA betray hidden cancers

5507073256_36387f3df9_zBlood is a remarkable liquid. Not only does it carry red blood cells to deliver oxygen, it also transports cells of the immune system to protect us from infection. But there’s another, hidden payload: bits of genetic material derived from dying cells throughout the body. In a patient with cancer, a tiny fraction of this circulating DNA comes from tumor cells.

Now researchers in the laboratories of Stanford radiation oncologist Maximilian Diehn, MD, PhD, and hematologist and oncologist Ash Alizadeh, MD, PhD, have found a way to read these genetic messages and use them to diagnose lung tumors and monitor how they respond (or don’t) to treatment. The technique is highly sensitive and should be broadly applicable to many types of solid tumors. It also bypasses some of the more fussy patient-optimization steps that have previously been required.

From our release:

“We set out to develop a method that overcomes two major hurdles in the circulating tumor DNA field,” said [Diehn]. “First, the technique needs to be very sensitive to detect the very small amounts of tumor DNA present in the blood. Second, to be clinically useful it’s necessary to have a test that works off the shelf for the majority of patients with a given cancer.”

“We’re trying to develop a general method to detect and measure disease burden,” said Alizadeh, a hematologist and oncologist. “Blood cancers like leukemias can be easier to monitor than solid tumors through ease of access to the blood. By developing a general method for monitoring circulating tumor DNA, we’re in effect trying to transform solid tumors into liquid tumors that can be detected and tracked more easily.”

Using their technique, the researchers were able to identify 50 percent of patients with Stage I cancers, and all patients with more advanced disease. The research was published Sunday in Nature Medicine.

Continue Reading »

Clinical Trials, NIH, Nutrition, Obesity, Research, Stanford News

Stanford seeks participants for weight-loss study

Stanford seeks participants for weight-loss study

Should diets come in different shapes and sizes? Stanford researchers are exploring that question and are seeking participants for a year-long weight-loss study that aims to understand why people may respond differently to the same diet. Titled “One Diet Does Not Fit All,” the study will examine how factors such as genetic influences and eating and sleeping habits have an impact on a diet’s effectiveness.

From a release:

Participants will be assigned randomly to either a very low-fat or very low-carbohydrate diet for 12 months. They will be required to attend weekly classes at Stanford for the first three months, once every other week for the following three months, and once a month for the remainder of the study. Participants must also be willing to have fasting blood samples drawn four times during the 12-month period and participate in online and written surveys. They will receive all test results at the end of the study.

The study is part of a five-year project funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Nutrition Science Initiative. Following an enrollment last year of 200, this spring researchers hope to enroll at least 135 men and women (pre-menopausal only) between the ages of 18 and 50 who are overweight or obese and are generally in good health.

For a complete list of inclusion criteria, click here. To determine eligibility for this study, complete a brief online survey. For more information, contact Jennifer Robinson at nutrition@stanford.edu.

Previously: How physicians address obesity may affect patients’ success in losing weight, To meet weight loss goals, start exercise and healthy eating programs at the same time, The trouble with the current calorie-counting system, Smaller plates may not be helpful tools for dieters, study suggests and Losing vitamins – along with weight – on a diet

Behavioral Science, Nutrition, Obesity, Research, Women's Health

Obesity and smoking together may decrease taste of fat and sweet but increase consumption

puddingA study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Philadelphia’s Monell Center has found that obese women who smoke cigarettes may have reduced sensitivity to the tastes of sweetness and fat in food and may be more likely to eat more calories.

Researchers engaged 47 female participants ages 21 to 41, grouped as follows: obese smokers, obese nonsmokers, normal-weight smokers, and normal-weight nonsmokers. All of the participants tasted vanilla puddings and were asked to rate the sweetness and creaminess of each one. The researchers found that the women who were obese and smokers rated less creaminess and sweetness in the puddings than the other three groups did.

From a release:

[Study author Yanina Pepino, PhD,] cautioned that the study only identified associations between smoking and taste rather than definitive reasons why obese smokers were less likely to detect fat and sweetness. But the findings imply that the ability to perceive fat and sweetness — and to derive pleasure from food — is compromised in female smokers who are obese, which could contribute to the consumption of more calories.

“Obese people often crave high-fat foods,” she said. “Our findings suggest that having this intense craving but not perceiving fat and sweetness in food may lead these women to eat more. Since smoking and obesity are risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, the additional burden of craving more fats and sugars, while not fully tasting them, could be detrimental to health.”

The results were published in the journal Obesity.

Previously: Obesity is a disease – so now what?How eating motivated by pleasure affects the brain’s reward system and may fuel obesity and The brain’s control tower for pleasure
Photo by dutchfulthinking.blogspot.com

Cancer, Research, Stanford News, Stem Cells, Videos

The latest on stem-cell therapies for leukemia

The latest on stem-cell therapies for leukemia

Leukemia research was the focus of a recent Google Hangout hosted by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine; included in the conversation were Stanford’s Ravi Majeti, MD, PhD; Catriona Jamieson, MD, PhD, with the University of California San Diego; and Karen Berry, PhD, DVM, a CIRM science officer. In the words of CIRM blogger Kevin McCormack, “Between the three of them they painted an optimistic look at the state of stem cell research into leukemia, the progress we are making, and the obstacles we still have to overcome.”

Majeti, whose works focuses on a potential leukemia treatment using an antibody to a protein called CD47, begins talking around the 10-minute mark.

Previously: Blood cancers shown to arise from mutations that accumulate in stem cells and Leukemia prognosis and cancer stem cells
Related: Cancer roundhouse

Immunology, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Double vision: How the brain creates a single view of the world

Double vision: How the brain creates a single view of the world

eyes close-upAbout a decade ago, Stanford Bio-X director Carla Shatz, PhD, found that some proteins from the immune system seemed to be playing a role in the brain. Not all scientists were on board with the protein’s double life. Then Ben Barres, MD, PhD, a neurobiologist at Stanford, started finding the same thing with a different set of proteins – these immune system denizens appeared to be functioning in the brain (here’s a write-up on that work by my colleague Bruce Goldman). And still, not all immunologists accepted that the brain might also be using these proteins.

Now Shatz has published a paper online March 30 in Nature that should put the disagreement to rest. She very carefully showed that a protein originally known for its role in the immune system, called MHC Class I D, or D for short, was present in the nerves of the developing brain. She told me, ”The nervous system has just as much right to these immune proteins as the immune system.”

The role D plays is in helping the brain trim back connections as it develops. I didn’t know this before working on my story, but the brain starts out with about double the number of nerve connections than it will eventually use. The ones the brain doesn’t use get trimmed back. Shatz studies this process in a part of the brain that tries to create a single view of the world out of signals coming from the two eyes. In my press release I wrote:

Shatz said the rule of which connections the brain cuts back to create that single vision follows a simple mantra: “Fire together, wire together. Out of sync, lose your link.” Or rather, if early in life the left sides of both eyes see the same duck motif wallpaper, those neurons fire together and stay linked up. When the top of one eye and bottom of the other eye form a connection, the nerves fire out of sync, and the connection weakens and is eventually pruned back. Over time, the only connections that remain are between parts of the two eyes that are seeing the same thing.

I spoke with Lawrence Steinman, MD, PhD, a neurologist at Stanford who studies multiple sclerosis, a disease of both the immune system and the nervous system. He has a foot in both worlds and has followed Shatz’ work from the beginning. He says part of the problem in gaining acceptance for Shatz’ findings was in a name. A rose by any name may smell as sweet, but a protein with a name like “major histocompatibility complex I” only sounds to a biologist like an immune protein. He says he teaches students that if Shatz had published her work first the protein would have an entirely different name and it would be the immunologists fighting to claim the protein’s role in their world.

“They clearly have major roles in both the nervous system and the immune system,” he said.

Previously: Protein known for initiating immune response may set our brains up for neurodegenerative disorders and Pioneers in science
Photo by Ali Moradmand

Clinical Trials, Mental Health, Research, Stanford News

Examining an app’s effectiveness at helping those with PTSD

Examining an app's effectiveness at helping those with PTSD

Can a mobile app help people manage the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder? As some local readers may have heard on KCBS today (or may remember from a previous Scope entry), this is a question that a group of researchers here are studying.

I explain more about the app in a recent release:

The study involves the use of a Veterans Affairs-developed app designed to provide immediate help for patients’ symptoms. The app contains four sections: “learn,” which provides basic information about PTSD; “find support,” which helps users find professional care; “self-assessment,” which allows users to fill out a survey that measures PTSD symptoms; and “manage symptoms,” which provides tools to address acute symptoms such as insomnia and anger.

The VA-funded trial follows earlier research showing that the decrease in PTSD symptoms for those study participants who used the app for one month was significant when compared to participants in the control group who didn’t use the app. For this study, participants will use the app for three months and fill out online surveys at the start of the study and at the three-month follow-up.

The researchers are looking for 30 participants experiencing symptoms of PTSD; they must not be currently receiving care for the disorder and they must have either an iPhone or Android smartphone on which they can download the app being tested. Those interested in participating or learning more should contact study coordinator Nitya Kanuri at nkanuri@stanford.edu.

Previously: The remarkable impact of yoga breathing for trauma, Relieving stress, anxiety and PTSD with emerging technologies, Using a mobile-based app to help manage PTSD and Stanford and other medical schools to increase training and research for PTSD, combat injuries

Stanford Medicine Resources: