Posts Tagged ‘brain science’

Brain Science: The Dog Ate My Striatum…

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Scientists have shown a connection between the size of three particular brain regions and the ability to adapt quickly and perform well on a new set of abstract mental tasks – in this case, a video game (the article makes too much, I think, of the fact that the study used a video game as its measure of learning.)

Brain Regions Linked to Learning

Brain Regions Linked to Learning

The team set out to discover whether physical characteristics in the brain played a role in the variability in learning rates.

“Our animal work has shown that the striatum is a kind of learning machine – it becomes active during habit formation and skill acquisition,” one of the study’s co-principal investigators, Ann Graybiel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in the news release. “So it made a lot of sense to explore whether the striatum might also be related to the ability to learn in humans.”

Thirty-nine subjects, ten men, twenty-nine women, ages 18 to 28, were recruited at the University of Illinois; none had played video games for more than three hours a week in the past two years.

The video game Space Fortress can be manipulated to test various aspects of cognition.

After brain mapping and measuring with an MRI, each subject played a specially created video game for 20 hours. The researchers instructed some players to focus on scoring as many points as possible, and others to shift their priorities between several goals.

Subjects with a more voluminous nucleus accumbens did significantly better in the early stages of training. Those with larger caudate nucleus and putamen, performed better when shifting strategies.

“These are people who had healthy brains,” Erickson said. “These aren’t learning-disabled people. But we were still able to distinguish essentially who would be more affected by the training in this video game.”

The nucleus accumbens has been previously linked to the brain’s emotional response to reward and punishment; more volume here indicates a greater capacity for absorbing the frustrations of the early learning process.

“The putamen and the caudate have been implicated in learning procedures, learning new skills, and those nuclei predicted learning throughout the 20-hour period,” said the University of Illinois’ Arthur Kramer, another co-principal investigator.

“The fact that we could explain more than 20 percent of the variance in learning rates by measuring the volume of only two or three brain regions is actually quite impressive,” Erickson said. “There must be several other brain regions contributing to performance in learning. These other regions are things that other studies will have to track down.”

Read the full article here: Big Brain For Video Games

Encouraging Appropriate Brain Cell Growth

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

In an interesting story about therapy for those with spinal cord injuries, I saw this nice quote on the importance of appropriate brain training. After explaining that most patients with significant spinal cord trauma suffer more or less permanent neurological deficits, Garrett Riggs, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla., said:

“Nerve cells do grow, but the problem is getting them to grow from the right spot and make the right connections.”

Eloquently put. The same can be said for any brain training. It should be constructed so as to stimulate the production of new brain cells and encourage the brain to put these new nerve cells to use in a way that will benefit our cognition.

Here’s the full story.

More on Environmental Enrichment and Brain Development

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

New research supports the idea that a stimulating environment is good for the brain. Scientists studying the impact of BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor – a protein associated with new brain cell growth) noted that mice in standard housing (i.e., deprived of stimulation) suffered decrease in brain cell proliferation, but that this was restored with enrichment.

The study’s primary focus was the broad impact of BDNF. The team concluded that when BDNF was deactivated, cell proliferation suffered. They also noted that the benefits of environment enrichment were much more marked with the mice who had not had BDNF deactivated.

Bottom line: A stimulating and enriched environment is good for the brain. And while the BDNF protein plays a big role in new brain cell growth, other factors are involved, too.

Abstract –

Mathematical Model – How The Brain Stays In Balance (Maybe)

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

First I should emphasize that this is a mathematical model, which cannot do more than approximate the brain, if that. But interesting nevertheless.

A team led by Marcelo O. Magnasco, head of the Laboratory of Mathematical Physics at The Rockefeller University, created a model to try to see how such a very complex and responsive network like the brain can balance the opposing forces of excitation and inhibition. “The defining characteristic of our system is that the unit of behavior is not the individual neuron or a local neural circuit but rather groups of neurons that can oscillate in synchrony,” Magnasco says. “The result is that the system is much more tolerant to faults: Individual neurons may or may not fire, individual connections may or may not transmit information to the next neuron, but the system keeps going.”

Most models of neural networks assume that each time a neuron fires and stimulates an adjoining neuron, the strength of the connection between the two increases. This is called the Hebbian theory of synaptic plasticity. “Our system is anti-Hebbian,” Magnasco says. “If the connections among any groups of neurons are strongly oscillating together, they are weakened because they threaten homeostasis. Instead of trying to learn, our neurons are trying to forget.” This anti-Hebbian model balances a network which has more of degrees of freedom than classical models can accommodate, which one presumes the brain might require.

Magnasco theorizes that the connections that balance excitation and inhibition often function at the brink of instability. The abstract model does not try to recreate any particular brain function such as memory formation. A systematic theory of how neurons communicate could help answer the questions of researchers exploring brain function, Magnasco hopes. “We’re trying to reverse-engineer the brain and clearly there are some concepts we’re missing,” he says. “This model could be one part of a better understanding. It has a large number of interesting properties that make it a suitable substrate for a large-scale computing device.”

Journal reference:

  1. Magnasco et al. Self-Tuned Critical Anti-Hebbian NetworksPhysical Review Letters, 2009; 102 (25): 258102 DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.102.258102

Adapted from materials from Rockefeller University.

Creativity And High IQ

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Published over on our sister blog at

Bright Minds Create Differently

A study by the MIND Research Network’s Rex Jung, an assistant professor at The University of New Mexico Department of Neurosurgery, shows that high IQ (120 and above, or the top 9%) minds operate differently when forming creative thoughts.

By scanning the brains of 56 college-age students he found that a chemical associated with creativity called N-acetylaspartate, or NAA, works more discretely in the frontal lobe of those with high IQs than it does in those with average IQs.

“It’s a funny kind of finding, and I wish I knew why,” Jung said…

Read more

Doidge – Part 3 – The Science of Brain Training

Friday, November 21st, 2008
Norman Doidge: The Brain That Changes Itself

Norman Doidge: The Brain That Changes Itself

(This post is adapted from an entry on our sister blog at

In Chapter three of his book, Doidge focuses on the remarkable career and contributions to the understanding of brain science of Michael Merzenich , a scientist driven by the desire to solve real world problems (like understanding autism) and not content to leave the solutions to others. With Merzenich, a practical solution is part of the scientific challenge.

This section of the book is a must-read for anyone interested in the science behind brain plasticity, brain training, learning and learning dysfunctions, autism, and brain aging. But I will highlight some of the particularly luminous thoughts:

Merzenich: The brain is “like a living creature with an appetite” what we feed it to some extent determines how it thrives. When we engage our brains it matters what we do with them.

Shifting brain maps: By microscopic mapping of the surface of the brain, Merzenich showed that the areas of the brain controlling and responding to things like touch shifted over time depending upon what the brain needed to do with them. (Use two fingers together all the time, the brain maps for those two fingers become merged.)

Competitive plasticity: The brain is constantly assessing how important it is to allocate space to certain skills and functions. The more we demand of a certain skill (like playing the piano) the more space and brain power it gets. The less we use a certain function or skill, the more it loses its brain real estate to other functions.

The role of close attention in plastic change: Merzenich found that repetition alone isn’t enough for plastic change. When monkeys in his research performed tasks repeatedly their brain maps changed, but only if they paid close attention to the task did the changes hold long term. (This is a underpinning tenet to the Brain Fitness Pro training exercise and crops up on the training blog all the time.)

Why children learn so easily… and why adults don’t. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF plays a critical role in triggering the brain’s ability to absorb and learn. In children during the critical period of learning the child’s body releases a lot of BDNF, keeping the brain constantly stimulated to absorb new information. Children’s brains are engaged and absorbent throughout this period. But at the end of the critical period, the body releases a whole lot more BDNF, a trigger that effectively shuts down the critical period and puts an end to this process.

It may seem odd that we’re designed to stop learning effortlessly past a certain point, but it would be difficult to function as an adult if we were constantly distracted and unable to determine priorities and accumulate the wisdom of trial and error.

Restimulating plasticity in adults: As Doidge puts it, “We rarely engage in tasks in which we must focus our attention as closely as we did when we were younger.” Merzenich found that the brain’s ability to grow new nerve cells, forge plastic change, and learn new skills wasn’t completely shut off in adults, but required certain conditions to be opened up again. The first condition is highly focused attention. The second is reward or satisfaction, which can come from novelty, pleasure, or a sense of achievement. (Again, these are foundations of the Brain Fitness Pro design.)

In Merzenich’s own words: “Everything that you can see happen in a young brain can happen in an older brain.”

This phase of Merzenich’s career lead him to help found Posit Science, a company that publishes brain training software to help children with learning disabilities and to provide brain training for older people who are losing or don’t want to lose memory function or mental sharpness as they age.

(As I’ve written elsewhere, Posit Science seems to have great products, but they’re unfortunately very expensive, and prohibitively expensive in many situations that could really help people. A full program for an adult costs over $600. That’s why I believe that Brain Fitness Pro should remain affordable, in order to bring these kinds of benefits to those who need them but just don’t have hundreds of dollars to spend.)

Related posts:

Building a Better Brain — in the second case study Doidge focuses on Barbara Arrowsmith Young’s discovery that learning disabilities can be mitigated by training the weaker areas of the brain to be stronger.

Part 2 – Rewiring balance — Doidge explores the incredible contributions of Michael Merzenich (the founder of Posit Science).