Sleep Well Today to Learn Well Tomorrow

World War II Poster
Sleep, defined as a state of reversible disconnect from the environment (1), is an integral part of life. In this fast-paced life, you might think of sleep as a waste of time and unnecessary, impinging on productivity. But, nothing can be farther than the truth. Sleep researchers around the world are trying to understand what is the most important physiological function of sleep. It is too simplistic to say that sleep rests the brain, and it is not entirely true since neuronal activity in many parts of the brain do not slow down appreciably during sleep. So, what does sleep do? Continue reading “Sleep Well Today to Learn Well Tomorrow”

Misunderstood: The Ticklish, Empathetic, Laughing, Problem-Solving, Chocolate-Sharing Rat

Rats are social creatures.

In just a few days, my family will be welcoming some new pets in the form of three young rats. We have been planning for them for about a month now, and my kids and I are getting excited (the jury is still out on how my husband or our cat feels).  The response we get when we share the news with friends and family members has been wildly varying. Some can barely repress their shuddering as they ask why on earth would we want rats?? Others will go on and on about the cool rats they have owned or known and share humorous anecdotes about their furry friends.

The difference in opinion is striking. One group sees these creatures as horrid, filthy, vicious, disease-carrying vermin; while the other sees them as intelligent, social, affectionate companions. As a scientist in the lab, my experience with rats was limited to comparing the sequences of rat and human nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (they’re not all that different it turns out), but the more I read, the more I begin to think that rats have been terribly misunderstood. Mind you, I don’t mean that I have been reading Rat Fancier or some other rat enthusiast publication (not that these are bad sources of information). No, I am a scientist and when I want information, I go to the literature, and what the scientific literature says about rats is really quite fascinating. Continue reading “Misunderstood: The Ticklish, Empathetic, Laughing, Problem-Solving, Chocolate-Sharing Rat”

A Food for Happiness? Go Fish

Salmon, smoked
Salmon is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.

We’ve heard that omega-3 fatty acids, such as those from various fish sources, have important anti-inflammatory, as well as cardiac health benefits.

In fact, WebMD has an Omega-3 Fatty Acid Fact Sheet with so much positive health information that you may add “Buy wild-caught salmon” to your list of things to do on the way home tonight.

In other words, eating fish is a no-brainer, right? Continue reading “A Food for Happiness? Go Fish”

Seeing the Potential

neuronal signalingI had never heard of Halorubrum sodomense until a few days ago. It’s name describes it pretty well, it is a salt-tolerant (Halophilic) organism that contains the red-colored photosynthetic pigment archaerhodopsin, and it was originally isolated from the region of Sodom near the Dead Sea. It’s an organism that is well-known only to those with reason to study it. Many of the rest of us will never have cause to say its name, or to even remember it, and may even occasionally wonder why it is studied at all.

Halorubrum sodomense was in the news recently because a genetically engineered form of its rhodopsin was used to create a method that lights up mammalian neurons as they fire. This exciting development was reported in a paper by Kralj et al, published in the Nov 27 issue of Nature Methods. Continue reading “Seeing the Potential”

The Makings Of A Cerebral Music Decoder

A Review Of Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music

ISBN: 978-0-452-28852-2

Physicist Emerson Pugh once quipped, “if the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t” [1]. In his book This Is Your Brain On Music neuroscientist Daniel Levitin notes how the number of ways that brain neurons can connect is so vast that we will never fully comprehend all the thought processes that we are capable of.

In recent years, mapping techniques have revealed a lot about the functional regions of the brain. Wernicke’s area is responsible for language processing, the motor cortex for physical movement and frontal lobes for generating personalities. Both encephalography and MRI have given us key spatial-temporal data about brain function in these regions. But we also find that activities such as listening to music contravene such a simplistic compartmentalization.

In fact the perception of pitch, tempo, the emotions invoked by a piece of music and the lyrics of a song all use different parts of the brain albeit simultaneously. Levitin repeatedly emphasizes the multi-faceted aspects of the music ‘experience’ noting how a, “precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake” leads to our appreciation of music. The brain is thus a massively parallel device, capable of carrying out several different tasks at once.

Continue reading “The Makings Of A Cerebral Music Decoder”

Illuminating The Functional Architecture Of The Broken Brain

The term ‘phrenology’ conjures up images of nineteenth century medics examining bumps on people’s heads as a means of enciphering key aspects of their character (1).  The arch-phrenologist was a man by the name of Franz Josef Gall whose suggestion that “mental faculties might be reflected in the shape of the brain, and hence the skull” kept many a head-feeler on the look out for supportive evidence (1).  But soon recognized for the fraud that it was, phrenology lost traction as a discipline worthy of attention by any serious-minded medical practitioner (1). Continue reading “Illuminating The Functional Architecture Of The Broken Brain”

Shining Light on the Walking Pathway

ResearchBlogging.orgCentral pattern generators (CPGs) are neural networks in the spinal cord that generate the rhythmic patterns observed in many complex movements like chewing, breathing and walking. Within CPGs excitatory glutamatergic neurons have been implicated in generating these rhythmic patterns, and glutamatergic neurons in the hindbrain region that extend into the spinal cord are thought to be important in initiating locomotion. However, direct evidence of the involvement of these neurons in such activities has been hard to obtain.

In a Nature Neuroscience paper, Hägglund et al. present evidence using a transgenic mouse model that these excitatory neurons are indeed involved in rhythmic pattern generation and initiating locomotion. Continue reading “Shining Light on the Walking Pathway”

Hobbie and Doogie: Brainier Rodents With A Therapeutic Potential

C.S. Lewis’ novel The Magician’s Nephew tells of two children named Polly and Digory living in early 20th century London who set off on an adventure to explore a tunnel that runs through the roof of their row of terraced houses (1).  They eventually end up in a strange world ruled by Aslan—a talking lion whose goodness seems altogether repulsive to the evil forces that abound therein. With scenes of jackdaws and moles later competing to see who can be the first to tell a joke, we see in Lewis an author who knows how to inject humor into an otherwise serious message (1).

While recent collaborative studies by groups in China and the United States have not given us Lewis-style talking animals, they have provided some stunning insights into animal memory and learning behaviors.  Specifically Deheng Wang and colleagues from Shanghai, Yunnam and the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) generated a transgenic rat strain, affectionately known as ‘Hobbie-J’, that over-expressed a subunit of the brain NMDA (N-methyl D-aspartate) glutamate receptor called NR2B (2-3).  Their behavior experiments repeatedly showed Hobbie-J rats outperforming control litter mates in object recognition and spatial memory tests (2). Continue reading “Hobbie and Doogie: Brainier Rodents With A Therapeutic Potential”