The Brain

Written and researched by Bob Murray, PhD

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Babies Can Learn in the Womb
Babies are able to learn and remember while still in the womb, according to a study.
Violent TV Changes the Brain
Research shows that kids who watch TV violence suffer serious brain damage.
Brain Gets Rest When Hands Do Talking
Talking with your hands appears to take some of the load off your brain, a new study concludes.
Gambling, Like Food and Drugs, Produces Feelings of Reward in the Brain
But casinos don’t produce economic wealth.
Brain Scans Can Reveal Liars
But lying makes you popular.
Are Women Really Brainier?
Research shows women’s brains are more tightly packed with cells in the area that control mental processes such as judgement, personality, planning and working memory.
Drinking’s Long-Term Toll on the Brain
Elderly people who drink alcohol heavily appear to have more brain shrinkage, or atrophy, than those who drink lightly or not at all.
Heart Joins Head in Moral Maze
People may rely on emotion as much as reason deciding moral dilemmas.
Exercise Sharpens the Minds of Aging Women
Elderly women who exercise regularly are less prone to mental decline.
Jetlag ‘Shrinks the Brain’
Research shows that frequent flying damages the brain.
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Babies Can Learn in the Womb

February 10, 2002

It has been taken as fact by most researchers that babies cannot “learn” in the womb. The reason for this is that scientists have been unable to find any connections between neurons — brain cells — in the cerebrum of unborn infants. Without these connections, it was assumed, learning, as we understand the term, would be impossible.

However doctors in the Netherlands used sound to determine if an unborn baby could react, respond to and recognize a specific noise. They found that while a foetus moved when it first heard the sound, it later became used to the noise and did not react. According to the doctors, this showed the foetuses were able to remember the sound and “learn” it was harmless.

The doctors carried out a study on 25 unborn babies between 37 and 40 weeks old. They applied an acoustic sound to the womb and directed it above the unborn baby’s leg. Each of the foetuses reacted. They determined whether the unborn baby had “learnt” not to react to the sound if their body no longer moved after four consecutive sounds. They applied consecutive sounds at three different intervals; initially, 10 minutes later and 24 hours later.

Dr Cathelijne van Heteren from University Hospital Maastricht said the study showed foetuses had both short- and long-term memories. “Compared with the initial habituation test, foetuses not only habituated more rapidly 10 minutes later but also after 24 hours. We therefore conclude that foetuses have a short-term memory of at least 10 minutes and a long-term memory of at least 24 hours.” She added: “Foetuses are able to memorize the stimuli in utero, although they may need more than one stimulus to establish recognition.”

Some years ago a paper was written suggesting that foetal learning may be a function of the cerebellum (that part of the brain specialized in movement) which is known to be active in unborn children. I am not aware if any further research was done on this subject. BM

Read more in The Lancet

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Violent TV Changes the Brain

January 7, 2002

Research conducted over the past 30 years has shown that televised violence does influence viewers’ attitudes, values and behavior. Now scientists have shown the areas of the brain that produce these effects.

Past research has shown that there seem to be three main areas of influence: aggression, desensitization and fear.

Aggression. Viewing televised violence can lead to increases in aggressive behavior and/or changes in attitudes and values favoring the use of aggression to solve conflicts.
Desensitization. Extensive violence viewing may lead to decreased sensitivity to violence and a greater willingness to tolerate increasing levels of violence in society.
Fear. Extensive exposure to television violence may produce the “mean world syndrome,” in which viewers overestimate their risk of victimization.
The exact neurological processes which led to these changes was unknown. However recent developments in the technology of what is called “brain-mapping” have enabled researchers to actually look inside the brain to see what was going on while people watched violent and non-violent TV. The results have been published in Psychiatric Times.

A team led by John Murray, PhD, professor of developmental psychology at Kansas State University, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map the brains of eight children (five boys, three girls; aged 8 to 13 years) while they watched violent and nonviolent videotapes.

The violent video segments consisted of two, three-minute clips of boxing from “Rocky IV”. The nonviolent video segments were two, three-minute clips of a National Geographic program on animals at play and “Ghostwriter,” a children’s literacy program set in a mystery context. In addition, they presented two, three-minute control, rest/fixation clips of an “X” on a blue screen.

They conducted whole-brain fMRI throughout the 18 minutes of viewing. In this study, they found that both violent and nonviolent viewing activated regions implicated in aspects of visual and auditory processing. In contrast, however, viewing violence selectively recruited right precuneus, right posterior cingulate, right amygdala, bilateral hippocampus and parahippocampus, bilateral pulvinar, right inferior parietal and prefrontal, and right premotor cortex.

In this way they found that viewing televised violence appears to activate brain areas involved in arousal/attention, detection of threat, episodic memory encoding and retrieval, and motor programming.

The regions of interest in the brain scans of the eight children included the amygdala, hippocampus and posterior cingulate. These areas of the brain are likely indicators of threat-perception and possible long-term memory storage of the threat-event (particularly, these patterns are similar to the memory storage of traumatic events in post-traumatic stress disorder).

“These activation patterns are important” says Dr Murray, “because they demonstrate that viewing video violence selectively activates right hemisphere and some bilateral areas that collectively suggest significant emotional processing of video violence.”

In other words viewing TV violence can have the same effect on the brain as living in a violent home or neighborhood.

It’s an interesting speculation: was the old Saxon saga Beowolf with it’s tales of bloody deeds and conflicts with fierce dragons a contributory cause of those ancient people’s violent behavior, rapine and looting? Would the people of Britain be Briton rather than Anglo-Saxon if the saga had not been created? BM

Read more in the Psychiatric Times online

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Brain Gets Rest When Hands Do Talking

December 8, 2001

In the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers put 26 children and 32 adults who were observed to use gestures through a five- step exercise. First, they solved age-appropriate math problems. Second, they were given a list of items to memorize. Third, they were asked to explain how they had solved the math problems. Fourth, they were tested on their recall of the memorized items. Finally, they were asked to give the explanation again, this time keeping their hands still on a tabletop, and were tested again.

The researchers, led by Dr Susan Goldin-Meadow, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, found that people who were allowed to gesture recalled on average 20 percent more items than people who were not.

Another author, Dr Howard Nussbaum, explained that the purpose of making the participants explain their math reasoning was to increase their cognitive load, the amount of work their brain had to do in addition to remembering the list of items. “These findings suggest that gesture reduces the cognitive load of explanation, freeing capacity that can be used on a memory task at the same time,” he said.

Dr Goldin-Meadow said the findings could help explain why even blind people gesture and why people gesture when talking on the phone.

Communication through sign-language undoubtedly pre-dates spoken communication by millions of years. Our use of hand gestures is probably an evolutionary hold-over from our pre-verbal past. BM

Read more in the New York Times online

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Gambling, Like Food and Drugs, Produces Feelings of Reward in the Brain

November 26, 2001

A new study published in Neuron lends support to the idea that gambling addictions may well have biological roots. Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital found that prize money could activate many of the same “reward” areas in the brain turned on by food and drugs.

“This work argues that we can begin to dissect the systems that process reward and organize behavior in humans,” says lead author Hans Breiter. “This is also the first demonstration that a monetary reward in a gambling-like experiment produces brain activation very similar to that observed in a cocaine addict receiving an infusion of cocaine.”

The researchers set up an experiment to measure the brain activity of volunteers as they gambled. The subjects were given $50 and told they could lose it all or keep their potential winnings. Each subject played the game with one of three spinners: a “good spinner” offered them the chance to earn $10, $2.50 or nothing; an intermediate spinner offered $2.50, $0 or -$1.50; and a “bad spinner” let them win nothing or lose $1.50 or $6. The researchers measured each subject’s brain activity using high-field functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) both during six-second spins and after the results were in.

The scientists found that depending on whether a subject played the game with the good, intermediate or bad spinner, he or she showed strong, moderate or low activation levels in certain key brain regions. “The results showed that an incentive unique to humans, money, produced patterns of brain activity that closely resembled patterns seen previously in response to other types of rewards,” Breiter says. “This similarity suggests that common brain circuitry is used for various types of rewards.”

Separately another study has shown that casinos, contrary to the belief of numerous cities and Indian tribes, don’t bring economic health to a community.

In the journal Managerial and Decision Economics, two economists describe their recent analysis of the costs and benefits associated with introducing a casino to a community. Earl Grinols of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and David Mustard of the University of Georgia concluded that the costs outstripped the gains almost two fold, an imbalance that amounts to a national loss of at least $27.5 billion each year.

“Much of the information has been funded by the gambling industry itself,” Grinols says, “and is marked by poorly executed or biased economic-impact studies that use incomplete data or make conclusions not supported by facts.” Very often, calculations wrongly include the tax receipts and wages from a casino without also taking into account the establishment’s effect on other businesses, from whom they drain revenue.

Also underestimated, Grinols and Mustard say, are the social costs. Two-thirds to 80 percent of gambling revenues come from just 10 percent of the population. But among this group, one in five files for bankruptcy and 21 to 36 percent gets fired from their job. These pathological gamblers take “a predictable path of exhausting personal resources, selling insurance policies, selling possessions and ‘borrowing’ from family and friends” to the tune of $13,586 a year. So too, crime rates are approximately eight percent higher in counties with casinos at least four years old.

Read more in Scientific American online

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Brain Scans Can Reveal Liars

November 26, 2001

You can cheat the polygraph, a good actor can get around the other body-language signs of a liar — little eye contact, too many shrugs, excessive blinking etc — but researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have come up with the ultimate unbeatable test using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

When people lied fMRI scans revealed significant increases in activity in several brain regions.

Daniel Langleben and his team gave 18 people an object to hide in their pockets. They were then shown a series of pictures, including one of the object itself. As each picture was presented, the participants were instructed to deny that it matched their hidden object.

When there was a match, and the person was lying, activity in several regions increased. This included the anterior cinglate, which is associated with response inhibition and error monitoring, and the adjacent right superior frontal gyrus, which plays a key role in attention. The results suggest there is a “localized brain correlate of deception,” the team says.

“The fact that deception requires extra work in a number of brain regions may indicate that the deception involves inhibition of the ‘default’ response — truth,” adds Langleben. “Interestingly, this agrees with the traditional definition of deception dating back to Saint Augustine: ‘Deception is denial of truth’.”

The problem with the fMRI test is that, unlike the polygraph, it uses large and very expensive equipment which might be difficult to drag into court.

Separately, research into lying carried out by Robert Feldman at the University of Massachusetts found that lying is far from being a social handicap, especially among young people. Rather, he found, lying is a social skill which allows people to maintain their position within their peer group.

“If we were totally honest with other people,” Feldman says “we would get ourselves into lots of unpleasant situations. Nobody wants to hear you don’t like the gift you just gave them.”

The study found that pupils able to lie most convincingly were likely to be among the most popular and socially successful. Girls, apparently, are better liars than boys due to their greater non-verbal communication skills and better use of eye-contact and facial expressions.

Read more in New Scientist online

Read more in BBC News

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Are Women Really Brainier?

November 26, 2001

A team from McMaster University, Ontario, Canada, found that women have up to 15% more brain cell density in the frontal lobe, which controls so-called higher mental processes. However, as they get older, women appear to shed cells more rapidly from this area than men. By old age, the density is similar for both sexes. Researcher Professor Sandra Witelson said it was not yet clear what impact, if any, the difference had on performance.

Dr Tonmoy Sharma, a consultant psychiatrist at Stonehouse Hospital, Dartford, Kent, said the greater density of cells did not mean that women could out-perform men. He told BBC News Online: “Women have smaller brains, but there is no difference in the mental performance of men and women. The greater density of cells could be one way by which nature ensures that women can perform adequately despite the smaller size of their brain.”

Dr Sharma said it was possible that the fact that women shedded cells at a greater rate put them at a higher risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Alzheimer’s disease, for one, is more common among women. But he said there were many factors which could come into play, including the fact that women tend to outlive men by six or seven years.

Read more in BBC News

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Drinking’s Long-Term Toll on the Brain

October 7, 2001

A report in the journal Stroke claims that moderate drinkers have healthier brains than those who indulge to excess.

The lead author, Dr Kenneth J. Mukamal of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and his colleagues studied 3,660 men and women over 65 who had brain M.R.I.’s taken from 1992 to 1994. The researchers found that the more elderly people drank, the more their brains atrophied, and that process can cause problems like diminished hand strength and difficulty rising from a chair.

But the heaviest drinkers, those who consumed 15 or more drinks a week, were also 41 percent less likely than abstainers to have had so-called silent strokes — small strokes that are not noticed when they occur but that can interfere with a range of everyday tasks.

The researchers say they found significantly fewer silent strokes among light drinkers, who had one to six drinks a week, than among people who abstained. On the other hand, the light drinkers did have more brain atrophy than abstainers but less than heavy drinkers.

Read more in the NY Times

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Heart Joins Head in Moral Maze

September 21, 2001

If five people are trapped on a railway track and a train is approaching, is it morally right to divert the train onto another track where there is only one person? Most people would say yes. Would it be right to push a person onto the track to prevent the train from hitting the other five? This time, most people would say no.The different responses puzzle philosophers, because the principle — sacrifice one life to save five — is the same in both cases.

Magnetic resonance images now show that our brains process the two dilemmas in fundamentally different ways, using brain regions responsible for emotion only in the second situation.

“We’ve known almost nothing about how the brain handles moral dilemmas,” says psychologist Jonathan Cohen, who conducted the experiment with colleagues at Princeton University in New Jersey. “Now it appears that when people make moral decisions, emotional responses play as much of a role as logical analyses.”

When study participants made moral decisions about situations that have a personal element, such as throwing people off a sinking lifeboat, activity soared in four parts of the brain involved in processing emotion. Meanwhile, it sank in three regions associated with working memory, which stores and processes information in the short term. The reverse happened when subjects judged less personal moral dilemmas, such as keeping the money found in a lost wallet, or considered questions that were not moral issues, such as whether to travel by bus or train in a given situation.

“This is fascinating research, which brings emotion firmly into the process of reasoning itself,” says Helen Haste, an expert on the psychology of morality at the University of Bath in England. Many researchers have regarded moral reasoning as a purely analytical process, and deemed emotion as “something that gets in the way of reason”, she says.

Perhaps the most crucial finding of the study, says Joshua Greene, who led the Princeton study, was that people took significantly longer to conclude that it was appropriate to push a person in front of the train than to decide it was inappropriate.

“The people who said it was appropriate had to fight their emotions, so they were more hesitant,” he says. “This says that emotion isn’t just incidental, but really exerts a force on people’s judgements.”

Read more in Nature

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Exercise Sharpens the Minds of Aging Women

July 30, 2001

A study by Kristine Yaffie, a psychiatrist and neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, shows that, amongst other things, for every mile that women walked each day they lowered their risk of mental decline by 13%. Interestingly, the speed of the walk was not a factor.

The researchers tracked almost 6000 healthy women of 65 or older living in planned retirement communities. Their mental faculties and level of exercise were evaluated over a 6 to 8 year period. Those who took the most exercise — measured in calories expended in walking, gardening or more rigorous activities — were 26% less likely to develop cognitive decline than those who exercised least.

The report, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, said that at least one in 10 people over 65, and 50% of those over 85, develop some form of cognitive impairment ranging from mild mental deficits to dementia.

“Further research is needed to determine if physical activity programs could prevent clinically significant cognitive impairment and if our findings can be replicated in other populations,” Yaffie wrote.

I am sure that exercise can help in preventing mental decline. However I am also positive that the real problem lies in the loss of a role after a certain age, whether that role is work-related or family-related. This loss of purpose in life is one of the reasons that depression is an increasing problem for the elderly and I am sure that the loss of cognitive ability is related to this. In hunter-gatherer societies people become more important as they age and are revered for their wisdom and experience. Not so in the Western world. Giving the elderly a meaningful role (which doesn’t mean going back to work at MacDonalds) is one of the real challenges of our century. BM

Read more in the Archives of Internal Medicine

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Jetlag ‘Shrinks the Brain’

May 22, 2001

If you fly intercontinental too often you may forget why you’re doing it. That’s the latest news that should send shock waves down the spines of air crews and business travellers. On top of the thrombosis effect (10% of long-distance flyers are affected) this latest finding should sharpen the pencils of litiginous lawyers.

The study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, examined the brains of aircrew, but suggests that any worker who swaps from night to day shifts over a short period may be at risk. Jet lag happens when a traveller passes over a number of time zones and disrupts the normal “circadian” rhythms which help humans wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night.

Dr Kwangwook Cho of the University of Bristol conducted a small study of 20 women, aged between 22 and 28, who had worked for at least five years for an airline, and regularly flew across at least seven time zones. Half of the women, however, had on average at least a fortnight to recover from their jetlag — the rest had only a week. Women were chosen for the test because, in general, they suffer far worse jetlag than their male counterparts.

He found that the aircrew given the shorter period to “turn around” after a jet-lagging flight had an area of the brain called the temporal lobe which was noticeably smaller than the others.

Dr Cho said: “I found there was no deficit of language, but certain short-term objective memory and very simple abstract cognition was quite bad.” It is not known whether the temporal lobe will “recover” given time away from such sleep-disrupting working patterns.

Read more on BBC News

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