Saturday, February 27, 2010

Week in Review

There were a lot of neuroscience related stories on Science Daily (and elsewhere) this week.  Most likely a result of the recent meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where scientists from numerous scientific fields presented their research findings and hypotheses, though, here I've only highlighted the neuroscience stories, and at that, only the ones that caught my interest...

 Researchers at the Max Delbruck Center for Molecular Medicine have found a filament protein that appears to be necessary for the sensation of touch (which is still not completely understood at the cellular level).  The research suggests that the protein tethers ion channels on nerve endings to extracellular scaffolds and opens the ion channels in response to vibration or pressure, which results in an action potential in the cell.

An interesting hypothesis has been put forward at Tel Aviv University in Israel to explore the potential for compounds found in scorpion venom to work as pain killers.  Scorpion venom contains neurotoxins that can affect sodium channels on nerve cells.  A specific type of sodium channel is found on nerve cells that respond to painful stimuli.  Thus, if one of the compounds isolated from the venom can inhibit that channel specifically, it would be possible to use it, or compounds like it, as painkillers.

Dr. Douglas Smith at UPenn Medical School proposes that concussions (mild Traumatic Brain Injuries) can have widespread effects throughout the brain as well as long lasting effects.  Since little attention has been paid to concussions in the past, most of this research is new, and much more is needed before we gain a better understanding of how much of an effect concussions can have in the long term.  Given the increasing frequency of concussions seen in military professionals and professional (American) football players and other athletes, this is likely a field that will continue to garner attention in the future.

The steroid hormone Progesterone, which has been known, for over 3 decades, to help neurons survive after a brain injury, is finally about to be tested in phase III clinical trials as a treatment for stroke victims.  My own research is fairly close to this, our lab has looked at similar properties of another steroid hormone, estradiol (more commonly, though incorrectly, known as estrogen).  Both progesterone and estradiol are synthesized in the brains of women and men, and both have been shown to promote the survival of nerve cells after a brain injury.  This is of critical importance because after the initial damage from a stroke or brain trauma, cells around the injury continue to die off in response to signals released by the cells in the damaged area, thus, surrounding healthy tissue also dies.  Progesterone and estradiol have both been shown to lessen the extent of this secondary tissue death, which can mean saving quite a bit of functionality, and for some patients, it may even save their lives.

A new type of PET (positron emission tomography) scan may allow clinicians to diagnose Alzheimer's disease  early.  Alzheimer's is characterized by (amyloid) protein plaques that, as of now, could only be seen at autopsy after the patients had died.  This new imaging technique allows for doctors to see these protein plaques in the brains of living patients, which means it has the potential to be used as a diagnostic tool.

And if that doesn't work, researchers have identified a form of the tau protein (P-tau231) that appears to be elevated in healthy elderly individuals who suffered cognitive decline over a two year period.  Since tau tangles, the equally alliterative and equally nasty step-brother to (amyloid) protein plaques, are also found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, this particular form may be an early indicator.  Obviously, more long term studies will need to be done to see if any (or how many) of the test subjects are diagnosed with Alzheimer's or continue their decline.

2 studies claim that napping increases humans' ability to learn, one in college students, the other in infants.  Sleep has been known to improve our ability to consolidate and later recall information we have learned (i.e. memory), but these studies claim that midday naps can actually improve our ability to learn, not just our ability to remember.

Neuroscientist Nina Kraus makes the claim that musical education for K-12 kids is something that we should consider keeping when budget cuts are needed, stating: "Music training is not only beneficial for processing music stimuli. We've found that years of music training may also improve how sounds are processed for language and emotion."  

Anti-depressant/Anti-anxiety meds Prozac and Celexa have anti-inflammatory properties, and may have potential as treatments for arthritis. Drugs of this class, known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), were hailed as a miracle of modern medicine when they first hit the market decades ago, but lately, some have become disenchanted as more comprehensive data suggests that these drugs tend to have only a modest effect.  However, a lot of new research has begun to examine other effects of these drugs, many of them positive, from aiding the rehabilitation of stroke patients, to regenerating bone, and now, maybe, helping to treat inflammation related pain or disease (like arthritis).

This article talks about a finding in rodents showing that sound and smell are linked in a part of the brain that processes these stimuli: the olfactory tubercle.  An overlap of processing is not unheard of, particularly when it comes to the senses.  A great example of this is the McGurk effect, an illusion I posted about a while back where it is the processing of hearing and vision that overlap, and though they usually work together, allowing us to read someone's lips while listening to them, and thus catch what they are saying even if we are at a loud party, when the visual information doesn't match the auditory, we can get a little confused.

Stem cells have been used to restore sight in a mouse model of retinitis pigmentosa, which is a fairly common cause of blindness in humans.

And, of course, there is this study, which showed that people who identify as liberals have higher IQs than those who identify as conservatives.  Also, there was a less dramatic difference between atheists and those who considered themselves religious, with the atheists having slightly higher IQs.  Now, I know this will create quite a stir, but before either side goes crazy, this is one study.  Also, the differences were small (106 vs. 95 for liberals vs. conservatives, and 103 vs. 97 for atheists vs. religious), and, IQ can be debated as to whether or not it is an adequate measure for overall intelligence.  Also, this study was done in "young adults" (read: college kids) and may not be recapitulated in older adults.  All of that being said, it is certainly interesting, as is the hypothesis put forward by the researchers that higher IQ correlates to seeking more evolutionarily novel worldviews (which liberalism, atheism, and even being more nocturnal are all considered to be).  And I can't wait to see more research in this area, as it can tell us something very important about intelligence and perhaps even open-mindedness and creativity (as they relate to intelligence).

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