Neurology Institute Increases its Research

Dr. Rafael Estrada Gonzalez, of the Neurology and Neurosurgery Institute said on Monday in Havana that the center continues to improve in comprehensive treatment and specialized attention of its neurological-degenerative illness and those that increase due to the aging population.

The challenges for the center, reference of Neurological sciences in Cuba, are the development of advanced and minimum invasive neurological surgery techniques for the treatment of tumors of the central nervous system and the increase of research in neurological sciences.

The Head of the Institution’s Neurological physiology, Dr. Yoel Gutierrez Gil said that among the projections this year is the development of diagnostic technology for neurological ailments through MRI with the construction of a high camp equipment and strengthen a comprehensive attention of patients with epilepsy, movement disorders and neuro-muscular ailments.

In addition, neurological stimulation and neurological modulation techniques in diseases of the central nervous system and the treatment of pain, among others.

After 56 years in the creation of the institution, the main impacts are related with the following research topics: epidemiology in neurological ailments (Parkinson, Guillain-Barre; epilepsy, vascular diseases and brain tumors.

Other inquiries are discussed on the development of new methods for the prenatal molecular diagnosis and carriers of severe neurological diseases (spine and muscular atrophy); epidemic neuropathy (optic and peripheral) hyperthyroidism, dementia and the study of neurological psychology in neurological genetic ailments.

The Neurological and Neurosurgery Institute is a national reference for the diagnosis and treatment of the ailments that affect the central and peripheral nervous system includes specialists in Neurology, Neurosurgery and other disciplines in the field.

The center is recognized by its assistance, education and clinical and basic researches, that contribute to stimulating scientific inquiries and offers a better medical attention, achieving a high grade of satisfaction in the patients.

The center is also highlighted by the effective modification of its indicators of neurological and neurosurgical diseases in children and adults, in addition to the development of highly specialized human resources. (ACN)

Brain is less flexible than we thought when learning

Nobody really knows how the activity in your brain reorganizes as you learn new tasks, but new research reveals that the brain has various mechanisms and constraints by which it reorganizes its neural activity when learning over the course of a few hours. The new research finds that, when learning a new task, the brain is less flexible than previously thought.

The research, published today in Nature Neuroscience, examined the changes that take place in the brain when learning a new task. To truly see how neural activity changes during learning, we need to look bigger -- at populations of neurons, rather than one neuron at a time, which has been the standard approach to date.

The research team used a brain-computer interface (BCI), where subjects move a cursor on a computer screen by thought alone. As with learning to play a new sport, they found that subjects learned to control the cursor more accurately with practice. They then investigated how the activity in the brain changed during learning that enabled the improved performance. They found that, on a time scale of a few hours, the brain does not reconfigure its neural activity to maximize the speed and accuracy by which it moves the cursor.

"In this experimental paradigm, we're able to track all of the neurons that can lead to behavioral improvements and look at how they all change simultaneously," says Steve Chase, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon and the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition. "When we do that, what we see is a really constrained set of changes that happen, and it leads to this suboptimal improvement of performance. And so, that implies that there are limits that constrain how flexible your brain is, at least on these short time scales."

When we're learning a new task, we can't instantaneously learn it to proficiency, in part due to the way in which the neurons are wired up in the brain. Learning takes time, and there are mechanisms by which neurons can change the way they communicate with each other to enable learning -- some of which can be fast, and some of which can take longer. The team found that the brain operates under a more stringent set of constraints than originally thought, resulting in good learning on the short term, but nevertheless suboptimal performance in controlling the BCI cursor.

Imagine a tennis player whose friends have asked her to play squash. When she picks up the squash racket, it's lighter than the tennis racket she is used to, and it has a slightly different balance point. But since she's a good tennis player, this difference in rackets doesn't cause her to miss the ball completely. She adjusts quickly, but she hasn't immediately picked up the swing form of a squash player. To really become an expert, it will require a long period of training with the new equipment. However, her experienced squash-playing friends will quickly see that she is a tennis player, because until she's learned the proper technique, she'll be swinging the squash racket the same as she would a tennis racket.

"Just as it takes time to train a person to swing a squash racket like an expert, it takes time to train one's neurons to produce the ideal activity patterns," says Byron Yu, associate professor of biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon. "When faced with a new task, we're finding that the brain is constrained to take the neural activity patterns that it's capable of generating right now and use them as effectively as possible in this new task."

"When we learn, at first the brain tends to not produce new activity patterns, but to repurpose the activity patterns it already knows how to generate," says Aaron Batista, an associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. "Learning over the course of a few hours is suboptimal. When first learning something new, our brain doesn't seem to be able to change its activity in the best possible way to allow us to be proficient at new skills.."

Acquiring a skill is very difficult, and it takes a lot of time and a lot of practice. But when you're first starting to learn a new skill, your brain has to adjust quickly to the new task. The researchers found that the brain is constrained to take neural activity patterns it already knows and use them for the new task. By repurposing neuron patterns the brain is already capable of generating, the brain applies a "quick and dirty fix" to the new problem it's facing.

"None of us predicted this outcome," says Matthew Golub, a postdoctoral researcher in electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon. "Learning is far more limited on the scale of a few hours than any of us were expecting when we started this. We were all surprised that the brain wasn't able to choose the best strategy possible."

The research was done in collaboration with the Center for Neural Basis of Cognition, a cross-university research and educational program between Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh that leverages each institution's strengths to investigate the cognitive and neural mechanisms that give rise to biological intelligence and behavior.

Brain architecture alters to compensate for depression

A study led by Ravi Bansal, PhD, and Bradley S. Peterson, MD, of The Saban Research Institute of Children's Hospital Los Angeles, has found structural differences in the cerebral cortex of patients with depression and that these differences normalize with appropriate medication. The study, published in Molecular Psychiatry on March 7, is the first to report within the context of a randomized, controlled trial, the presence of structural changes in the cerebral cortex during medication treatment for depression and the first to provide in vivo evidence for the presence of anatomical neuroplasticity in human brain.

"Our findings suggest that thickening of the cerebral cortex is a compensatory, neuroplastic response that helps to reduce the severity of depressive symptoms," said Peterson, director of the Institute of the Developing Mind at CHLA and professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. "Patients off medication have a thickened cortex, and the thicker it is, the fewer the symptoms they have. Treatment with medication then reduces the severity of symptoms, which in turn reduces the need for biological compensation in the brain -- so that their cortex becomes thinner, reaching thickness values similar to those in healthy volunteers."

The investigators acquired anatomical brain scans at baseline and again at the end of the 10-week study period for 41 patients with chronic depression, while 39 healthy volunteers were scanned once. This study was conducted with adult patients treated at Columbia University, when Peterson and Bansal were faculty members.

Patients were randomized to receive active medication duloxetine, a selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, or placebo. During the trial, patients receiving medication experienced significant improvement of symptoms compared with patients receiving placebo. In medication-treated patients, cortical thickness declined toward values found in healthy volunteers while placebo-treated patients showed a slight thickening of the cortex. According to Bansal, a researcher at CHLA and professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, this finding suggests that placebo-treated patients continue to require compensation for their ongoing symptoms.

"Although this study was conducted in adults, the methodology developed -- pairing a randomized controlled trial with MRI scanning -- can be applied to many other populations in both children and adults," said Bansal. "Also, our observations of neuroplasticity suggest new biological targets for treatment of persons with neuropsychiatric disorders."

Nasty or nice? Study links personality to brain shape

Personality traits such as moodiness or open-mindedness are linked to the shape of one's brain, a study said Wednesday.

Researchers said they found a striking correlation between structural brain differences and five main personality types.

"The shape of our brain can itself provide surprising clues about how we behave -- and our risk of developing mental health disorders," said a statement from the University of Cambridge, which took part in the study.

Psychologists have previously developed a "Big Five" model of main personality types: neuroticism (how moody a person is), extraversion (how enthusiastic), open-mindedness, agreeableness (a measure of altruism) and conscientiousness (a measure of self control).

Using brain scans from over 500 people aged 22 to 36, the new study looked at differences in the cortex -- the wrinkly outer layer of the brain also known as grey matter.

Specifically it focused on combinations of thickness, surface area, and the number of folds in different people.

"We found that neuroticism... was linked to a thicker cortex and a smaller area and folding in some brain regions," said study co-author Roberta Riccelli of Italy's Magna Graecia University.

Conversely, openness, "was associated with a thinner cortex and greater area and folding".

Neuroticism, the team said, was a trait underlying mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders, whereas "openness" reflects curiosity and creativity.

The deep folds in the human brain were the evolutionary solution to fitting such a large, super-computer into a relatively small skull.

"It's like stretching and folding a rubber sheet -- this increases the surface area, but at the same time the sheet itself becomes thinner," co-author Luca Passamonti of the University of Cambridge explained in a statement.

Nature vs Nurture?

The study was the first to clearly link the "Big Five" personality traits to differences in brain shape, Riccelli told AFP.

This, in turn, was "a crucial step to improving our understanding of mental disorders," she said.

"It may give us the opportunity to detect those who are at high risk of developing mental illnesses early, which has obvious implications for prompt intervention."

The research touches on a question that has occupied the minds of philosophers and scientists for centuries -- are humans more a product of their genes, or of their upbringing and exposure?

The study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, could not conclude that brain shape determines a personality type, its authors said.

"We cannot answer the question: 'What came first, the chicken or the egg?'," said Riccelli.

"Hence we can't say if we have a specific personality type because our brain has a specific shape."

Brain shape, in itself, is determined by genetic as well as environmental factors, she pointed out.

The team hypothesised that brain differences may be even more pronounced in people likelier to suffer from neuro-psychiatric illnesses.

People who meditate are more aware of their unconscious brain

People who meditate are more aware of their unconscious brain activity – or so a new take on a classic “free will” experiment suggests.

The results hint that the feeling of conscious control over our actions can vary – and provide more clues to understanding the complex nature of free will.

The famous experiment that challenged our notions of free will was first done in 1983 by neuroscientist Benjamin Libet. It involved measuring electrical activity in someone’s brain while asking them to press a button, whenever they like, while they watch a special clock that allows them to note the time precisely.

Typically people feel like they decide to press the button about 200 milliseconds before their finger moves – but the electrodes reveal activity in the part of their brain that controls movement occurs a further 350 milliseconds before they feel they make that decision. This suggests that in fact it is the unconscious brain that “decides” when to press the button.


In the new study, a team at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, did a slimmed-down version of the experiment (omitting the brain electrodes), with 57 volunteers, 11 of whom regularly practised mindfulness mediation. The meditators had a longer gap in time between when they felt like they decided to move their finger and when it physically moved – 149 compared with 68 milliseconds for the other people.

This suggests they were recognising their unconscious brain activity earlier than most people, says Peter Lush, a member of the team, supporting the belief among meditators that it helps them to become more aware of their internal bodily process, he says. Such a result has previously been predicted by the Buddhist scholar Georges Dreyfus.

Spectrum of awareness

The non-meditators were also tested on how well they could be hypnotised. After they were out of any hypnotic trance, the experiment was repeated. Those who could be easily hypnotised felt like they decided to move their finger 124 milliseconds later than did those of low hypnotisability. In fact, the easily hypnotisable group had the sensation of deciding to move 23 milliseconds after their finger had actually moved.

It is not that people who are highly hypnotisable are puppets, says Lush, but that they may have less conscious access to their unconscious intentions.

“Self-awareness of our intention to act is a fundamental part of being human, so anything that affects it is important,” says Stephen Fleming of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging in London. “The results indicate that hypnotisability and mindfulness might be at opposite ends of a spectrum of self-awareness,” he says. Previous research has suggested that people who meditate are less easy to hypnotise and people who can be hypnotised are less “mindful”, in other words, are less aware of their internal bodily processes.

Another study using Libet’s set-up has shown that people who are impulsive also have shorter time intervals between their conscious awareness of an intention to act and the act itself.

However others have criticised drawing broad conclusions from such experiments, saying that giving people an instruction to sit and press a button at some random time-point is an artificial situation and may not be relevant to real-life decisions – like voting in a referendum.

Subscribe to this RSS feed