Chapter 13. Memory, Learning, and Development

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By Knvul Sheikh Shortly after the birth of her first son, Monika Jones learned that he had a rare neurological condition that made one side of his brain abnormally large. Her son, Henry, endured hundreds of seizures a day. Despite receiving high doses of medication, his little body seemed like a rag doll as one episode blended into another. He required several surgeries, starting when he was 3 1/2 months old, eventually leading to a complete anatomical hemispherectomy, or the removal of half of his brain, when he turned 3. The procedure was first developed in the 1920s to treat malignant brain tumors. But its success in children who have brain malformations, intractable seizures or diseases where damage is confined to half the brain, has astonished even seasoned scientists. After the procedure, many of the children are able to walk, talk, read and do everyday tasks. Roughly 20 percent of patients who have the procedure go on to find gainful employment as adults. Now, research published Tuesday in the journal Cell Reports suggests that some individuals recover so well from the surgery because of a reorganization in the remaining half of the brain. Scientists identified the variety of networks that pick up the slack for the removed tissue, with some of the brain’s specialists learning to operate like generalists. “The brain is remarkably plastic,” said Dorit Kliemann, a cognitive neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, and the first author of the study. “It can compensate for dramatic loss of brain structure, and in some cases the remaining networks can support almost typical cognition.” The study was partially funded by a nonprofit organization that Mrs. Jones and her husband set up to advocate for others who need surgery to stop seizures. The study’s findings could provide encouragement for those seeking hemispherectomies beyond early childhood. © 2019 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Laterality
Link ID: 26837 - Posted: 11.20.2019

By Michele C. Hollow As soon as James Griffin gets off the school bus he tells his mom, “Go dance, go dance.” James is 14 and has autism, and his speech is limited. He’s a participant in a program for children on the autism spectrum at the University of Delaware that is studying how dance affects behavior and verbal, social and motor skills. One afternoon while dancing, he spun around, looked at his mother, smiled and shouted, “I love you.” His mom, Rachelan Griffin, said she had waited his whole life to hear him say those words. “I think that the program is a big part of that, because he was dancing when he said it,” she said. According to Anjana Bhat, an associate professor in the department of physical therapy at the University of Delaware, “Parents report that their children with autism enjoy musical activities and show more positive interactions with others through greater eye contact, smiling and speaking after engaging in a dance and music program.” James is one of about a dozen children on the autism spectrum who meet individually with Dr. Bhat’s graduate and undergraduate students for the dance study, which also uses yoga and musical activities. Some children also participated in robotic therapy, in which a humanoid robot helps them learn to follow dance moves. “Across many different studies we find that social skills like smiling and verbalization are substantially higher when children with autism engage in socially embedded movements versus sedentary games like checkers or building a Lego set,” Dr. Bhat said. © 2019 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Autism
Link ID: 26835 - Posted: 11.20.2019

By R. Douglas Fields Neuroscientists have always presumed that learning and memory depend on strengthening or weakening the connection points between neurons (synapses), increasing or decreasing the likelihood that the cell is going to pass along a message to its neighbor. But recently some researchers have started pursuing a completely different theory that does not involve changing the strength of synaptic transmission; in fact, it does not even involve neurons. Instead other types of brain cells, called glia, are responsible. A new study from the University of Toronto, published on-line this week in the journal Neuron furnishes support for this theory. It provides evidence that the basic act of learning whether one’s environs are safe or not, a behavior common to all animals, depends on glial cells that form the fatty sheath called myelin—electrical insulation that covers nerve fibers. The new theory postulates that establishing indelible memories that can be recalled long after sensory input or training on a task involves an interaction between glia and peculiar brain waves produced during sleep. “The role of myelin in cognitive functions has been largely neglected, an omission elegantly rectified by this paper,” says myelin researcher Bernard Zalc, at the Sorbonne Université in Paris, commenting on this new study. Traditionally researchers who study the myelin insulation on nerve fibers, called axons, have focused on diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, in which the fatty sheath is damaged. In multiple sclerosis, neural transmission fails, causing wide-ranging disabilities. Much like the plastic coating on a copper wire, myelin was understood to be vital for neural transmission but inert and irrelevant to information processing and memory storage. © 2019 Scientific American

Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 26832 - Posted: 11.19.2019

Robin McKie Major psychological disorders such as schizophrenia will continue to affect humans because men and women are continually generating genetic mutations that disrupt brain development. This will be the key conclusion of Professor Sir Michael Owen, director of Cardiff University’s centre for neuropsychiatric genetics and genomics, when he gives the annual Darwin Lecture at the Royal Society of Medicine this week. Understanding such conditions at an evolutionary level will be crucial to developing treatments, Owen believes. Thirty years ago, the new technology of DNA analysis raised hopes that schizophrenia – a condition that can track through families – would soon reveal links to one or two specific genes, said Owen. Treatments might then be relatively easy to develop, it was thought. Instead scientists found that hundreds of genes, each having a tiny effect, dictate whether or not a person will be susceptible to the condition. Characterised by profound behavioural changes, hallucinations, and delusions, these transformations in behaviour can have profound consequences, he added. For example, men with schizophrenia have – on average – only a quarter as many children as males in the general population while women with the condition have about half as many as unaffected females. That low reproduction rate should have had one clear result, Owen told the Observer last week. “Schizophrenia cases should have declined and disappeared long ago as those affected were out bred by those unaffected. This has not happened. A steady level of 1% people continue to be affected.” © 2019 Guardian News & Media Limited

Keyword: Schizophrenia; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 26831 - Posted: 11.19.2019

Lorenz Wagner Henry Markram, the neuroscientist behind the billion-dollar Blue Brain Project to build a supercomputer model of the brain, has set the goal of decoding all disturbances of the mind within a generation. This quest is personal for him. The driving force behind his grand ambition has been his son Kai, who suffers from autism. Raising Kai made Henry Markram question all that he thought he knew about neuroscience, and then inspired his groundbreaking research that would upend the conventional wisdom about autism, leading to his now-famous theory of the Intense World Syndrome. When Kai was first diagnosed, his father consulted studies and experts. He knew as much about the human brain as almost anyone but still felt as helpless as any parent confronted with this condition in his child. What’s more, the scientific consensus that autism was a deficit of empathy didn’t mesh with Markram’s experience of his son. He became convinced that the disorder, which has seen a 657 percent increase in diagnoses over the past decade, was fundamentally misunderstood. Bringing his world-class research to bear on the problem, he devised a radical new theory of the disorder: People like Kai don’t feel too little; they feel too much. Their senses are too delicate for this world. The following is an extract condensed from "The Boy Who Felt Too Much: How a Renowned Neuroscientist Changed Our View of Autism Forever," by Lorenz Wagner, just out from Arcade Publishing, which tells this remarkable story. The car was coasting. Kai heard the wheels crunch as it drew to a halt outside his house. The car door opened, and a young man hopped out. He popped the hood and disappeared beneath it. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” he fumed. © 2019 Salon.com, LLC

Keyword: Autism
Link ID: 26828 - Posted: 11.18.2019

Ruth Williams Throughout the animal kingdom, there are numerous examples of neurons that respond to multiple stimuli and faithfully transmit information about those various inputs. In the mouse, for example, there are certain neurons that respond to both temperature and potentially damaging touch. In the fruit fly, there are neurons that sense light, temperature, pain, and proprioceptive stimuli—those arising as a result of body position and movement. And in C. elegans, two sensory neurons, known as PVD neurons, that run the length of the body on either side are thought to regulate proprioception as well as responses to harsh touch and cold temperature. Scientists have now figured out how a single PVD neuron can relay two different stimuli: while harsh touch results in typical firing of the neuron—an impulse that travels the length of the cell—proprioception causes a localized response in one part of the cell with no apparent involvement of the rest. The findings are reported today (November 14) in Developmental Cell. “[The] paper illustrates that different parts of the neuron do different things,” says neuroscientist Scott Emmons of Albert Einstein College of Medicine who did not participate in the research, “and that just makes the whole system much more complex to interpret,” he says. To examine how a single neuron interprets distinct inputs and drives corresponding behaviors, neuroscientist Kang Shen of Stanford University and colleagues focused on PVD neuron–regulated escape behavior when a worm is poked with a wire and the worm’s normal wiggling motion as it responds to proprioceptive stimuli. © 1986–2019 The Scientist

Keyword: Pain & Touch; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 26823 - Posted: 11.16.2019

Emily Makowski China’s approval of the drug oligomannate earlier this month for treating mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease has been met with surprise and skepticism from some members of the scientific community, who claim that the preclinical data raise questions about the underlying mechanism of the drug. One microbiome researcher has pointed out inconsistencies between the researchers’ data and their proposed mechanism for how oligomannate could treat Alzheimer’s. “The field is seeing this [research] with a large dose of skepticism,” Malú Tansey, a neuroimmunologist at the University of Florida College of Medicine, tells The Scientist. On November 2, Shanghai Green Valley Pharmaceuticals announced that oligomannate, an oligosaccharide mixture derived from brown algae, had been approved by the National Medical Product Administration (NMPA), China’s equivalent of the US Food and Drug Administration. The announcement followed the completion of a Phase 3 clinical trial in China that found the drug appeared to slow cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients. In addition, researchers led by Meiyu Geng at the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica published a paper in Cell Research in September on oligomannate’s ability to remodel the gut microbiome in mice and reduce neuroinflammation. There is an emerging link between the gut microbiome and Alzheimer’s disease in humans. In the study, the researchers gave oligomannate to mice that are genetically engineered to show physical and behavioral symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease. The team collected mouse feces to study the microorganisms present in gut microbiota, drew blood to analyze the presence of immune cells, and also examined the levels of cytokines, which are inflammatory compounds, in the brain. © 1986–2019 The Scientist

Keyword: Alzheimers
Link ID: 26821 - Posted: 11.16.2019

By Gary Stix Socrates famously railed against the evils of writing. The sage warned that it would “introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing.” He got a few things wrong. For one, people nurture Socrates’ memory because of all of the books written about him. But he also was off the mark in his musings about a forgetfulness of the soul. If anything, it appears that just the opposite holds: a study of hundreds of illiterate people living at the northern end of an island considered to be a world media capital roundly contradicts the father of Western philosophy. Evaluations of the elderly in the environs of Manhattan’s Washington Heights (the neighborhood immortalized by a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical) reveal that the very act of reading or writing—largely apart from any formal education—may help protect against the forgetfulness of dementia. “The people who were illiterate in the study developed dementia at an earlier age than people who were literate in the study,” says Jennifer J. Manly, senior author of the paper, which appeared on November 13in Neurology. Earlier studies trying to parse this topic had not been able to disentangle the role of reading and writing from schooling to determine whether literacy, by itself, could be a pivotal factor safeguarding people against dementia later in life. The researchers conducting the new study, who are mostly at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, recruited 983 people with four years or less of schooling who were part of the renowned Washington Heights–Inwood Columbia Community Aging Project. Of that group, 238 were illiterate, which was determined by asking the participants point-blank, “Did you ever learn to read or write?”—followed by reading tests administered to a subsample. Even without much time in school, study subjects sometimes learned from other family members. © 2019 Scientific American

Keyword: Alzheimers; Language
Link ID: 26819 - Posted: 11.14.2019

By Karinna Hurley Part of the Museum of Natural History in Paris, the Jardin des Plantes, on the left bank of the Seine River, hosts a collection of galleries and gardens. A couple of miles away, the larger museum also includes the Museum of Mankind, which is, in part, an exploration of what it means to be human. There, like in many other museums worldwide, you can view a collection of stone tools used by the earliest humans. Tool use was long believed to be unique to our species—a defining feature, like language. Utilizing objects to achieve goals is not just a demonstration of advanced cognitive capabilities; it is largely through our symbolic and material tools that we share and transmit culture. In 1960 primatologist Jane Goodall observed wild chimpanzees making and using tools. A connection between humans and other animals, in how we think and learn, was captivating news. Since then, scientists have gone on to establish tool use in a relatively small number of other species. And observations of learning to use a tool from other group members, rather than instinctively, have been even more rare—until now. The Jardin des Plantes is also home to a special couple, Priscilla and Billie. Along with at least one of their daughters, these Visayan warty pigs—residents of the garden’s zoo—are the first in any pig species to be identified using tools and, even more remarkably, to apparently transmit this behavior through social learning. The discovery was made by chance by ecologist Meredith Root-Bernstein, who was watching the family from outside its enclosure. Priscilla, working on building a nest, picked up a piece of bark in her mouth and used it to aid her digging. For six weeks Root-Bernstein frequently returned to the zoo to try to again catch her in the act. Although she didn’t do so, she did notice the digging tool moved among different areas of the enclosure and always near a recently constructed nest. © 2019 Scientific American

Keyword: Evolution; Intelligence
Link ID: 26817 - Posted: 11.14.2019

By Richard C. Paddock CIDAHU, Indonesia — Thousands of children with crippling birth defects. Half a million people poisoned. A toxic chemical found in the food supply. Accusations of a government cover-up and police officers on the take. This is the legacy of Indonesia’s mercury trade, a business intertwined with the lucrative and illegal production of gold. More than a hundred nations have joined a global campaign to reduce the international trade in mercury, an element so toxic there is “no known safe level of exposure,” according to health experts. But that effort has backfired in Indonesia, where illicit backyard manufacturers have sprung up to supply wildcat miners and replace mercury that was previously imported from abroad. Now, Indonesia produces so much black-market mercury that it has become a major global supplier, surreptitiously shipping thousands of tons to other parts of the world. Much of the mercury is destined for use in gold mining in Africa and Asia, passing through hubs such as Dubai and Singapore, according to court records — and the trade has deadly consequences. “It is a public health crisis,” said Yuyun Ismawati, a co-founder of an Indonesian environmental group, Nexus3 Foundation, and a recipient of the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize. She has called for a worldwide ban on using mercury in gold mining. Mercury can be highly dangerous as it accumulates up the food chain, causing a wide range of disorders, including birth defects, neurological problems and even death. ImageA small mine on Sumbawa. Miners often dig for ore on land without permission or government permits. Today, despite the risks, small-scale miners using mercury operate in about 80 countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas. They produce up to 25 percent of all gold sold. © 2019 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Neurotoxins
Link ID: 26809 - Posted: 11.11.2019

New preclinical research reported in animal models shows that exposure to compounds found in marijuana called cannabinoids (CBs), which includes cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), during early pregnancy can cause malformations in the developing embryo. The research also demonstrated that co-exposure to CBs and alcohol increased the likelihood of birth defects involving the face and brain. The study, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health, was published in Scientific Reports. “Prenatal alcohol exposure is a leading preventable cause of birth defects and neurodevelopmental abnormalities in the United States,” said NIAAA Director, George F. Koob, Ph.D. “Since marijuana and alcohol are frequently used simultaneously, the combined effects of cannabinoids and alcohol are worrisome as well as the dangers of either substance alone.” The detrimental effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on human development are well known and include an array of lifelong physical, cognitive, and behavioral problems collectively called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). Alcohol can disrupt fetal development at any stage during pregnancy, even the earliest stages before a woman knows she is pregnant. The effects of marijuana exposure during pregnancy and the combined effect of alcohol and marijuana are less known. In the study, scientists led by Scott Parnell, Ph.D., at the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, administered a variety of CBs alone and in combination with alcohol in varying amounts to mice on day eight of pregnancy, which is similar to the third and fourth weeks of pregnancy in humans. The CBD amounts administered were within what is considered a therapeutic range for several medical conditions in humans. The THC concentration administered was similar to levels reached by a person smoking marijuana.

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Drug Abuse
Link ID: 26806 - Posted: 11.09.2019

Jon Hamilton There's new evidence that girls start out with the same math abilities as boys. A study of 104 children from ages 3 to 10 found similar patterns of brain activity in boys and girls as they engaged in basic math tasks, researchers reported Friday in the journal Science of Learning. "They are indistinguishable," says Jessica Cantlon, an author of the study and professor of developmental neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University. The finding challenges the idea that more boys than girls end up in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) because they are inherently better at the sort of thinking those fields require. It also backs other studies that found similar math abilities in males and females early in life. "The results of this study are not too surprising because typically we don't see sex differences at the ages assessed in this study or for the types of math tasks they did, which were fairly simple," says David Geary, a psychologist and curator's distinguished professor at the University of Missouri who was not involved in the research. But there is evidence of sex differences in some exceptional older students, Geary says. For example, boys outnumber girls by about three to one when researchers identify adolescents who achieve "very, very high-end performance in mathematics," Geary says, adding that scientists are still trying to understand why that gap exists. © 2019 npr

Keyword: Sexual Behavior; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 26803 - Posted: 11.08.2019

By Sara Manning Peskin, M.D. At 66, Bob Karger was losing language. It was not the tip-of-the-tongue feeling that melts when you recall a sought-after word. He had lost the connection between sounds and meaning — the way ba-na-na recalls a soft, yellow fruit or ea-gle calls to mind a large bird of prey. In a recent conversation, he had thought acorns grew on pine trees. Mr. Karger did not know how to use items around the house, either. When he picked up a can opener, he would not realize it could remove the top from a tin. If he held a hammer, he might grasp it by the head, turning it around in his palm, not knowing he could swing it into a nail. His world was filled with incomprehensible items. His wife, Sandy Karger, noticed other changes. When she told her husband about a family member who died, Mr. Karger laughed instead of comforting her. He tipped excessively, slipping $20 bills to strangers, because they reminded him of close friends. He fixated on obese people. “Look at that person, they’re really fat,” he would say loudly, in public. Overcome by impatience, he would push people ahead of him in line at the store. “Can’t you hurry up?” he’d yell. “Do you really need to buy that?” In other ways, Mr. Karger’s mind was as sharp as it had ever been. He could remember upcoming appointments and recent dinners. He didn’t repeat himself in conversation. His long-term memory was at times better than Ms. Karger’s. After two years of worsening symptoms, the Kargers found Dr. Murray Grossman at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Grossman is short and charismatic, a quick-witted Montreal native who has mentored me since I began training in neurology. For the past several decades, he has pioneered research on neurodegenerative diseases that change behavior and language. When he saw Mr. Karger in 2007, the diagnosis was clear within the hour: Mr. Karger had a type of frontotemporal dementia. © 2019 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Alzheimers; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 26799 - Posted: 11.07.2019

By Andrew Joseph, STAT Chinese regulators have granted conditional approval to an Alzheimer’s drug that is derived from seaweed, potentially shaking up the field after years of clinical failures involving experimental therapies from major drug companies. The announcement over the weekend has been met with caution as well as an eagerness from clinicians and others to see full data from the drug maker, Shanghai Green Valley Pharmaceuticals. The company said its drug, Oligomannate, improved cognitive function in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s compared to placebo in a Phase 3 trial, with benefits seen in patients as early as week four and persisting throughout the 36 weeks of the trial. It has been almost two decades since any Alzheimer’s drug was approved. Oligomannate has received scant attention in the United States during its development. Advertisement Although full data on the drug have not yet been made available, the conditional approval by regulators means Oligomannate, also known as GV-971, will on the market in China by the end of the year, Green Valley said. The company will have to submit additional research on the mechanism of the drug and its long-term safety and effectiveness to the country’s National Medical Products Administration, Reuters reported. Green Valley also said it would launch a global Phase 3 trial next year in hopes of filing for approval in other countries as well. “It’s good to see that drug regulators in China are prioritizing emerging treatments for Alzheimer’s, but we do still need to see more evidence that this drug is safe and effective,” Carol Routledge, the director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said in a statement. “For any potential drug to gain a stamp of approval by regulators in the UK, we’ll need to see larger trials in countries around the world to back up the evidence from China.” © 2019 Scientific American

Keyword: Alzheimers
Link ID: 26795 - Posted: 11.06.2019

By Gretchen Reynolds Being physically fit may sharpen the memory and lower our risk of dementia, even if we do not start exercising until we are middle-aged or older, according to two stirring new studies of the interplay between exercise, aging, aerobic fitness and forgetting. But both studies, while underscoring the importance of activity for brain health, also suggest that some types of exercise may be better than others at safeguarding and even enhancing our memory. The scientific evidence linking exercise, fitness and brain health is already hefty and growing. Multiple studies have found that people with relatively high levels of endurance, whatever their age, tend to perform better on tests of thinking and memory than people who are out of shape. Other studies associate better fitness with less risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. But many of these studies have been one-time snapshots of people’s lives and did not delve into whether and how changing fitness over time might alter people’s memory skills or dementia risk. They did not, in other words, tell us whether, by midlife or retirement age, it might be too late to improve our brain health with exercise. So, for the first of the new studies, which was published this month in The Lancet Public Health, researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, helpfully decided to look into that very issue, taking advantage of the reams of health data available on average Norwegians. They began by turning to records from a large-scale health study that had enrolled almost every adult resident in the region around Trondheim beginning in the 1980s. The participants completed health and medical testing twice, about 10 years apart, that included estimates of their aerobic fitness. © 2019 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Alzheimers
Link ID: 26794 - Posted: 11.06.2019

By Pam Belluck The woman’s genetic profile showed she would develop Alzheimer’s by the time she turned 50. She, like thousands of her relatives, going back generations, was born with a gene mutation that causes people to begin having memory and thinking problems in their 40s and deteriorate rapidly toward death around age 60. But remarkably, she experienced no cognitive decline at all until her 70s, nearly three decades later than expected. How did that happen? New research provides an answer, one that experts say could change the scientific understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and inspire new ideas about how to prevent and treat it. In a study published Monday in the journal Nature Medicine, researchers say the woman, whose name they withheld to protect her privacy, has another mutation that has protected her from dementia even though her brain has developed a major neurological feature of Alzheimer’s disease. This ultra rare mutation appears to help stave off the disease by minimizing the binding of a particular sugar compound to an important gene. That finding suggests that treatments could be developed to give other people that same protective mechanism. “I’m very excited to see this new study come out — the impact is dramatic,” said Dr. Yadong Huang, a senior investigator at Gladstone Institutes, who was not involved in the research. “For both research and therapeutic development, this new finding is very important.” A drug or gene therapy would not be available any time soon because scientists first need to replicate the protective mechanism found in this one patient by testing it in laboratory animals and human brain cells. © 2019 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Alzheimers; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 26792 - Posted: 11.05.2019

By David Z. Hambrick, Daisuke S. Katsumata Disagreements are virtually inevitable in a romantic relationship. More than 90 percent of couples argue, according to a survey by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, with nearly half quarreling at least once a month. Common topics of marital disagreement are money, sex and time spent together. None of this will surprise anyone who has been in a long-term relationship. But a new study indicates that a cognitive ability may help to explain why some couples are more successful in resolving their differences. University of North Carolina Greensboro psychologist Levi Baker and his colleagues report that spouses who were high in working memory capacity had better memory for each other’s statements in discussions about problems. In turn, these couples showed greater progress in resolving their problems over time. The study suggests that it’s not just dogged commitment that gets couples through rough spots, but a cognitive factor that directly affects the quality of partners’ communication with each other. The sample included 101 couples (93 heterosexual, 7 lesbian and 1 gay) that had been married for less than three months. Working individually, the newlyweds first completed tests of working memory capacity, which is the ability to hold information in the focus of attention over a short period, as when following what someone is saying to you in a conversation. In one of the tests used by Baker and his colleagues, called “operation span,” the test-taker sees an arithmetic problem on the screen and attempts to solve it, after which a letter appears. After some number of these trials, the person is prompted to recall the letters in the order in which they were presented. © 2019 Scientific American

Keyword: Learning & Memory; Intelligence
Link ID: 26790 - Posted: 11.05.2019

By Christoph Droesser In 2004, a paper appeared in the journal Psychological Science, titled “Music Lessons Enhance IQ.” The author, composer and University of Toronto Mississauga psychologist Glenn Schellenberg, had conducted an experiment with 144 children randomly assigned to four groups: one learned the keyboard for a year, one took singing lessons, one joined an acting class, and a control group had no extracurricular training. The IQ of the children in the two musical groups rose by an average of seven points in the course of a year; those in the other two groups gained an average of 4.3 points. Schellenberg had long been skeptical of the science underpinning claims that music education enhances children’s abstract reasoning, math, or language skills. If children who play the piano are smarter, he says, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are smarter because they play the piano. It could be that the youngsters who play the piano also happen to be more ambitious or better at focusing on a task. Correlation, after all, does not prove causation. The 2004 paper was specifically designed to address those concerns. And as a passionate musician, Schellenberg was delighted when he turned up credible evidence that music has transfer effects on general intelligence. But nearly a decade later, in 2013, the Education Endowment Foundation funded a bigger study with more than 900 students. That study failed to corroborate Schellenberg’s findings, finding no evidence that music lessons improved math and literacy skills.

Keyword: Learning & Memory; Intelligence
Link ID: 26788 - Posted: 11.04.2019

Nicola Davis A potential route to reducing brain injury in premature babies has been found, say researchers who have discovered a way to tackle overactive immune cells in the brain. Microglia are a type of immune cell that play an important part in the building of a baby’s brain. However, if these cells go into overdrive as a result of inflammation – often because of a bacterial infection of the foetal membranes, a maternal infection or even sepsis after delivery of the baby – they can cause harm to the child’s brain. In particular, they can damage white matter, reducing the degree to which neurons are insulated and thereby affecting connectivity in the brain. It is thought that of the 15 million infants born before 37 weeks every year, up to 9 million are left with lifelong harm to the brain, sometimes resulting in conditions such as epilepsy or cerebral palsy. Now researchers say they have found a signalling pathway in these immune cells that is behind their transformation. “We have actually identified the immune switch that turns these immune cells in the developing brain from being helpful in building a brain and taking care of the brain to causing damage,” said Dr Bobbi Fleiss from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, a co-author of the study. What is more, the researchers say, it might even be possible to intervene and turn rogue microglia back into helpful workhorses. Writing in the journal Brain, Fleiss and colleagues reported how they took mouse pups just after birth and injected them with proteins that mimic an infection in the mother or foetus, inducing the transformation of microglia from helpful to harmful. © 2019 Guardian News & Media Limited

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Glia
Link ID: 26785 - Posted: 11.02.2019

By Derek Lowe So Amgen has exited the neuroscience area, with a good-sized round of layoffs at their research site Cambridge. The company has a migraine drug (Aimovig) that they’ll continue to support, and they’ll stick with their existing clinical programs, but it looks like all the early-stage stuff is gone. What does this mean? Not as much as you might think. Neuroscience is indeed hard, and Amgen’s not the only company to rethink its commitment to it (Eli Lilly did something similar last month with their neuro efforts in the UK). But there are still plenty of participants, large and small – it’s not that the field is being totally abandoned by pharma. It’s just being abandoned by Amgen, because they have other areas that look a lot more promising for them. And let’s face it, Amgen is a bit of an oddity, anyway – it’s not for nothing that they get referred to as a law firm with fume hoods. Enbrel is what pays a lot of the bills over there, and Enbrel is (and has long been) a patent-court story, not a research one. Inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and oncology are going to be the focus there, and given the company’s portfolio, that makes a lot of sense. It looks like the only neuro programs going on will be the ones that intersect with the larger inflammation area. One interesting thing that came out of the company’s statements was that management felt that a lot of the neuroscience landscape is focused on what their CFO David Meline called “orphan or niche diseases”, and that the company wants to work on things that will have a broader impact. Now, it’s not like there isn’t a neuroscience disease with a huge health impact, and it’s one that even has some inflammation and cardiovascular connections. So one of the things that Amgen is saying is “No Alzheimer’s research for us, thanks”. © 2017 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Alzheimers
Link ID: 26777 - Posted: 11.01.2019