Kids, Language & Brains


Scrub Your Brain Clean Nightly

While some are inclined to dismiss the value of a good night's sleep, we should all pay attention to researchers who contend the system that scrubs away neural waste is far more active when the body is at rest.  We have a cleaning system that almost stops when we are awake and starts when we sleep.  It's almost like opening and closing a faucet--it's that dramatic.  So says Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, co-director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the U. of Rochester Medical Center.  She and her colleagues first reported their discovery of the brain's waste removal system in 2012.  Using two-photon microscopy, a new imaging technology that allows scientists to see deeper into living tissue, they found the glymphatic system pumps cerebral spinal fluid, CSF, through the spaces around the brain cells, flushing waste into the circulatory system and on to the liver.  Because brain cells contract significantly during sleep, the spinal fluid can wash more freely through brain tissue.  The brain's own energy is limited and so it has to choose between being awake and aware or asleep and cleaning up. Understanding how and when the brain activates the glymphatic system and clears waste is a critical first step in efforts to potentially modulate the system and make it work more efficiently, according to Nedergaard.  So far, the results they've collected have been on mice brains, brains remarkably similar to human brains.  The next step is to measure the results in human brains where studies are ongoing.  Barbara Mantel, Brain in the News, Nov-Dec 2013.


Breaking the Code

Taking their cue from the 73-year old algorithm British code-breaker Alan Turing used to decode secret German messages during World War II, two neuroscientists turned to cryptography in their attempt to decipher the neural code.  What they were doing might be seen as seeking the Holy Grail of current neuroscience: Figuring out how our three-pound brains are truly the most sophisticated encryption machines imaginable.  Given that the human brain holds about 86 billion neurons, neurons that extract information from the world and put it into code, these scientists and others are trying to figure out what kind of a code breaker there is in the brain that can make sense of these phenomena.  Joshua Gold, now of the U. of Pennsylvania, began post-doctoral work in Michael Shadlen's monkey lab at the U. of Washington.  Together they published a paper in 2002 suggesting the brain used something like Turing's computations to weigh evidence from neuronal firings and make perceptual decisions.  These neuronal firings are electrical impulses that respond with split-second timing to what the body encounters in the external environment. According to Gold, Turing's work represented a form of probabilistic reasoning that the brain appears to have adopted to solve particular problems common to both perception and code breaking, such as the tension between speed and accuracy.  Virginia Hughes, "Safecracking the Brain,"  Brain in the News, Nov-Dec 2013.


“Does the adolescent brain actually exist?”

This rather cutting question is one Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Prof. of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London and Royal Society hears all too frequently when people she meets discover her focus is on the adolescent brain.  Originally attracted to the field of psychology as a teenager herself, she started with  research on autism. Later, as a student of Experimental Psychology, she became intrigued by the fact that schizophrenia, predominantly appearing for the first time in early adulthood, is a late-developing developmental disorder. This kindled her interest in neuroscience and led to her focus on the neuropsychology of schizophrenia. Encountering some high-profile papers from America with longitudinal MRI studies showing the human brain undergoes very protracted development right through adolescence and into the 20's, she knew she had found her field of study: rethinking the adolescent brain. Research on the adolescent brain is still in its own adolescence, but it is now clear, that contrary to the common belief most brain development takes place in early childhood, adolescence is a period of life when the brain is continuing to develop. It is possible that adolescence may represent a second sensitive period of development.   Most people in this still young field support the idea that adolescence is not too late for learning, training and intervention.  The new research suggests that developmental neuroplasticity very much continues.  As the 2013 winner of the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award, this young scientist hopes her success will serve to encourage more women to choose to specialize in the STEM fields of study (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).  She readily admits female role models played a significant part in her own choice of career paths. Niall Boyce, Brain in the News, Nov-Dec 2013.