Active Learning Environment Until 5 Years Old Found to Shape the Brain 4 Decades Later

The development children have until 5 years old is an especially important time of brain development.

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An enhanced learning environment during the first five years of life shapes the brain in ways that are apparent four decades later, say Virginia Tech and University of Pennsylvania scientists writing in the June edition of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

The researchers used structural brain imaging to detect the developmental effects of linguistic and cognitive stimulation starting at six weeks of age in infants. The influence of an enriched environment on brain structure had formerly been demonstrated in animal studies, but this is the first experimental study to find a similar result in humans.

“Our research shows a relationship between brain structure and five years of high-quality, educational and social experiences,” said Craig Ramey, professor and distinguished research scholar with Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and principal investigator of the study. “We have demonstrated that in vulnerable children who received stimulating and emotionally supportive learning experiences, statistically significant changes in brain structure appear in middle age.”

The results support the idea that early environment influences the brain structure of individuals growing up with multi-risk socioeconomic challenges, said Martha Farah, director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at Penn and first author of the study.

“This has exciting implications for the basic science of brain development, as well as for theories of social stratification and social policy,” Farah said.

The study follows children who have continuously participated in the Abecedarian Project, an early intervention program initiated by Ramey in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1971 to study the effects of educational, social, health, and family support services on high-risk infants.

Both the comparison and treatment groups received extra health care, nutrition, and family support services; however, beginning at six weeks of age, the treatment group also received five years of high quality educational support, five days a week, 50 weeks a year.

When scanned, the Abecedarian study participants were in their late 30s to early 40s, offering the researchers a unique look at how childhood factors affect the adult brain.

“People generally know about the potentially large benefits of early education for children from very low resource circumstances,” said co-author Sharon Landesman Ramey, professor and distinguished research scholar at Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “The new results reveal that biological effects accompany the many behavioral, social, health, and economic benefits reported in the Abecedarian Project. This affirms the idea that positive early life experiences contribute to later positive adjustment through a combination of behavioral, social, and brain pathways.”

During follow-up examinations, structural MRI scans of the brains of 47 study participants were conducted at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute Human Neuroimaging Lab. Of those, 29 individuals had been in the group that received the educational enrichment focused on promoting language, cognition, and interactive learning.

The other 18 individuals received the same robust health, nutritional, and social services supports provided to the educational treatment group, and whatever community childcare or other learning their parents provided. The two groups were well matched on a variety of factors such as maternal education, head circumference at birth and age at scanning.

Analyzing the scans, the researchers looked at brain size as a whole, including the cortex, the brain’s outermost layer, as well as five regions selected for their expected connection to the intervention’s stimulation of children’s language and cognitive development.

Those included the left inferior frontal gyrus and left superior temporal gyrus, which may be relevant to language, and the right inferior frontal gyrus and bilateral anterior cingulate cortex, relevant to cognitive control. A fifth, the bilateral hippocampus, was added because its volume is frequently associated with early life adversity and socioeconomic status.

The researchers determined that those in the early education treatment group had increased size of the whole brain, including the cortex.

Several specific cortical regions also appeared larger, according to study co-authors Read Montague, professor and director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab and Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, and Terry Lohrenz, research assistant professor and member of the institute’s Human Neuroimaging Laboratory.

The scientists noted the group intervention treatment results for the brain were substantially greater for males than for females. The reasons for this are not known, and were surprising, since both the boys and girls showed generally comparable positive behavioral and educational effects from their early enriched education. The current study cannot adequately explain the sex differences.

“When we launched this project in the 1970s, the field knew more about how to assess behavior than it knew about how to assess brain structure,” Craig Ramey said. “Because of advances in neuroimaging technology and through strong interdisciplinary collaborations, we were able to measure structural features of the brain. The prefrontal cortex and areas associated with language were definitely affected; and to our knowledge, this is the first experimental evidence on a link between known early educational experiences and long-term changes in humans.”

“We believe that these findings warrant careful consideration and lend further support to the value of ensuring positive learning and social-emotional support for all children — particularly to improve outcomes for children who are vulnerable to inadequate stimulation and care in the early years of life,” Craig Ramey said.

Naturally Creative Brains Found to be Wired Differently

The increased connectivity in brain regions among naturally creative people leads to higher creative potential in the real world.

Scientists studying brain scans of people who were asked to come up with inventive uses for everyday objects found a specific pattern of connectivity that correlated with the most creative responses. Researchers were then able to use that pattern to predict how creative other people’s responses would be based on their connections in this network. The study is described in a January 15 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“What this shows is that the creative brain is wired differently,” said Roger Beaty, a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Psychology and the first author of the study. “People who are more creative can simultaneously engage brain networks that don’t typically work together. We also used predictive modeling to show we could predict, with some degree of accuracy, how creative people’s ideas were (based on brain scans) that had already been published.” Beaty and colleagues reanalyzed brain data from previous studies and found that, by simply measuring the strength of connections in these peoples’ brain networks, they could estimate how original their ideas would be.

While the data showed that regions across the brain were involved in creative thought, Beaty said the evidence pointed to three subnetworks — the default mode network, the salience network and the executive control network — that appear to play key roles in creative thought.

The default mode network, he said, is involved in memory and mental simulation, so the theory is that it plays an important role in processes like mind-wandering, imagination, and spontaneous thinking.

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Ultimately, Beaty said he hopes the study dispels some myths about creativity and where it comes from.

“One thing I hope this study does is dispel the myth of left versus right brain in creative thinking,” he said. “This is a whole-brain endeavor.”

It’s also not clear that this can’t be modified with some kind of training. “It’s not something where you have it or you don’t,” he added. “Creativity is complex, and we’re only scratching the surface here, so there’s much more work that’s needed.”

Experimental Device Could Help People Suffering from Tinnitus

Tinnitus impairs the livelihoods of millions of people, so it’s good that there’s scientific progress in developing treatment for it.

Millions of Americans hear ringing in their ears — a condition called tinnitus — and new research shows an experimental device could help quiet the phantom sounds by targeting unruly nerve activity in the brain.

In a new study in Science Translational Medicine, a team from the University of Michigan reports the results of the first animal tests and clinical trial of the approach, including data from 20 human tinnitus patients.

Based on years of scientific research into the root causes of the condition, the device uses precisely timed sounds and weak electrical pulses that activate touch-sensitive nerves, both aimed at steering damaged nerve cells back to normal activity.

Human participants reported that after four weeks of daily use of the device, the loudness of phantom sounds decreased, and their tinnitus-related quality of life improved. A sham “treatment” using just sounds did not produce such effects.

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“The brain, and specifically the region of the brainstem called the dorsal cochlear nucleus, is the root of tinnitus,” said Susan Shore, the U-M Medical School professor who leads the research team. “When the main neurons in this region, called fusiform cells, become hyperactive and synchronize with one another, the phantom signal is transmitted into other centers where perception occurs.

“If we can stop these signals, we can stop tinnitus. That is what our approach attempts to do, and we’re encouraged by these initial parallel results in animals and humans.”

Amazing Virus Attacks Brain Cancer and Boosts Immune System

This virus-based approach is at the forefront of the new ways medicine is tackling cancer.

A study attempting to show that viruses could be delivered to brain tumours has delivered that and more.

Not only did the virus in question reach its target, it also stimulated the patient’s own immune system – which then also attacked the tumour.

Preclinical experiments in mice, followed by window-of-opportunity trials in nine human patients, showed that the naturally occurring virus offers potential for a new type of cancer therapy that could be used alongside other treatments.

The virus they used is one that has previously shown potential for cancer treatment – what is known as an oncolytic virus.

It’s called mammalian orthoreovirus type 3, from the reovirus family, and it has previously been shown to kill tumour cells, but leave healthy cells alone.

Previous experiments have demonstrated this mechanism, but researchers from the University of Leeds are the first to successfully direct it at brain tumours.

This is because, until now, it was thought unlikely that the reovirus would be able to cross the blood-brain barrier, a membrane that protects the brain from pathogens.

“This is the first time it has been shown that a therapeutic virus is able to pass through the brain-blood barrier, and that opens up the possibility this type of immunotherapy could be used to treat more people with aggressive brain cancers,” co-lead author Adel Samson said.

Nine patients were selected to be injected with the virus via a single-dose intravenous drip. All either had brain tumours that had spread to other parts of the body, or fast-growing gliomas – a type of brain tumour that is difficult to treat and has a poor prognosis.

All were scheduled to have their brain tumours surgically removed in a matter of days following the reovirus experiment.

The researchers took samples from their tumours after they had been removed, and compared to the tumours of patients who had had brain surgery, but not the reovirus treatment beforehand.

The researchers found the virus in the tumour samples of the trial patients, clearly showing that the virus has been able to reach the cancer.

But they also found an elevated level of interferons, the proteins that activate our immune system. The team says that these interferons were attracting white blood cells to the site to fight the tumour.

“Our immune systems aren’t very good at ‘seeing’ cancers – partly because cancer cells look like our body’s own cells, and partly because cancers are good at telling immune cells to turn a blind eye. But the immune system is very good at seeing viruses,” said co-lead author Alan Melcher.

“In our study, we were able to show that reovirus could infect cancer cells in the brain. And, importantly, brain tumours infected with reovirus became much more visible to the immune system.”

These findings are already being applied in a clinical trial, where patients are being given the reovirus treatment in addition to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. One patient’s treatment is already underway – he is being given 16 doses of the reovirus to treat his glioblastoma.

The reason he is being given multiple doses is because of the way the virus activates the immune system. This clinical trial will determine how well cancer patients can tolerate the treatment, since the virus creates flu-like side effects, and whether it makes the standard treatments more effective.

“The presence of cancer in the brain dampens the body’s own immune system. The presence of the reovirus counteracts this and stimulates the defence system into action,” said one of the researchers, oncologist Susan Short, who is also leading the clinical trial.

“Our hope is that the additional effect of the virus on enhancing the body’s immune response to the tumour will increase the amount of tumour cells that are killed by the standard treatment, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.”

Scientists Find Where Nicotine Addiction Can be Blocked in the Mouse Brain, Providing an Advance to Blocking It in the Human Brain

Humans and mice have some similar enough brain structures that make this a relevant advance in giving people increased control to stop the scourge of nicotine addiction.

Brain researchers have pinpointed a small group of brain cells that are especially responsive to nicotine, and which might be the main culprits in driving addiction to the substance.

By tweaking these neurons in mouse brains, scientists were able to curb nicotine addiction in the animals. Not only have their results solved an important piece of the nicotine addiction puzzle, but they could also lead us towards new treatments for the problem.

Nicotine is one of humanity’s most popular drugs – it’s considered to be the third most addictive substance we know. And because it holds such a sway on our brains, it’s extremely difficult to quit.

According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking is a leading cause of preventable death, with about 1,300 people in the US dying every day due to cigarette smoking or smoke exposure.

Which is why a team led by researchers from The Rockefeller University has been digging around brain chemistry to identify potential new drug targets that could help curb the addiction.

They focussed on two small brain regions located in the midbrain – the evolutionary older part of vertebrate brains, and one of the many brain features we share with mice.

These two interconnected regions – the medial habenula and the interpeduncular nucleus (IPN) – are known to be involved in drug dependence, and also contain the receptors that nicotine binds to once it enters the bloodstream and crosses into the brain.

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Even though so far we only have seen these results in mice, we do share similar brain structures with these animals, so the researchers are confident we can learn something about human addiction here.

“What all of this tells us is that the habenula-IPN pathway is important for smoking in humans,” says Ibanez-Tallon.

Now that the researchers know where to look, they’ll be further investigating how to manipulate the Amigo1 neurons in order to discover new ways to target nicotine addiction.

The study has been published in PNAS.

Smartphone Addiction Creates Brain Imbalance, Study Suggests

My advice is to control the phone instead of letting it control you. As with many other parts of life, for some that will be much easier said than done.

Researchers have found an imbalance in the brain chemistry of young people addicted to smartphones and the internet, according to a study presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 46 percent of Americans say they could not live without their smartphones. While this sentiment is clearly hyperbole, more and more people are becoming increasingly dependent on smartphones and other portable electronic devices for news, information, games, and even the occasional phone call.

Along with a growing concern that young people, in particular, may be spending too much time staring into their phones instead of interacting with others, come questions as to the immediate effects on the brain and the possible long-term consequences of such habits.

Hyung Suk Seo, M.D., professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea, and colleagues used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to gain unique insight into the brains of smartphone- and internet-addicted teenagers. MRS is a type of MRI that measures the brain’s chemical composition.

The study involved 19 young people (mean age 15.5, 9 males) diagnosed with internet or smartphone addiction and 19 gender- and age-matched healthy controls. Twelve of the addicted youth received nine weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, modified from a cognitive therapy program for gaming addiction, as part of the study.

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Researchers used standardized internet and smartphone addiction tests to measure the severity of internet addiction. Questions focused on the extent to which internet and smartphone use affects daily routines, social life, productivity, sleeping patterns and feelings.

The researchers performed MRS exams on the addicted youth prior to and following behavioral therapy and a single MRS study on the control patients to measure levels of gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain that inhibits or slows down brain signals, and glutamate-glutamine (Glx), a neurotransmitter that causes neurons to become more electrically excited. Previous studies have found GABA to be involved in vision and motor control and the regulation of various brain functions, including anxiety.

The results of the MRS revealed that, compared to the healthy controls, the ratio of GABA to Glx was significantly increased in the anterior cingulate cortex of smartphone- and internet-addicted youth prior to therapy.

Dr. Seo said the ratios of GABA to creatine and GABA to glutamate were significantly correlated to clinical scales of internet and smartphone addictions, depression and anxiety.

Having too much GABA can result in a number of side effects, including drowsiness and anxiety.

More study is needed to understand the clinical implications of the findings, but Dr. Seo believes that increased GABA in the anterior cingulate gyrus in internet and smartphone addiction may be related to the functional loss of integration and regulation of processing in the cognitive and emotional neural network.

The good news is GABA to Glx ratios in the addicted youth significantly decreased or normalized after cognitive behavioral therapy.

“The increased GABA levels and disrupted balance between GABA and glutamate in the anterior cingulate cortex may contribute to our understanding the pathophysiology of and treatment for addictions,” Dr. Seo said.