Neuroscience

In patients with seriously altered states of consciousness, there is also the puzzle about dreaming.   Do ‘vegetative’ patients (also known in clunkier, politically correct fashion as patients in a state of unresponsive wakefulness) or minimally conscious state patients experience normal sleep?  Electrophysiological studies have been no help so the hypothesis is if the vegetative state opens no conscious door onto the external world, the state of minimal consciousness for its part assumes a residual consciousness of the environment, certainly fluctuating but real.

Most of us don’t have a problem attributing emotions to primates, dogs, horses and other vertebrates. But what about invertebrates? That seems less obvious. They have smaller, less complex brains, but is that enough to boldly claim they have no emotions? Of course, studying animal emotions is a precarious business. Studying human emotions has already proven difficult enough, and in animals it is bound to be a lot harder.

One way to go about it, is to take a look at so-called cognitive biases, biases in the processing of information that are typical of negative affective states. An example of this is the pessimistic bias, an increased expectation of punishment, greater attention to potential threats and a tendency to interpret ambiguous stimuli as if they were threats.

For the crowd watching an Illinois high school football game last fall, it was a sickening feeling watching one of their Unity High School cornerbacks collapse to the ground after delivering a heads-down tackle on an opposing running back (see video here.) 

For Steven Broglio, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Michigan, it was a mixed feeling of concern and curiosity as to the extent of the injury.  Since 2007, Broglio has been collecting data on the violent collisions that occur in high school football and their contribution to concussions and other head injuries.

The brain is quite complex (talking about an understatement), with its billions of neurons with many connections between them. These neurons and their connections form an intricate three-dimensional structure which forms the seat for cognition, awareness and much more. Its intricacy, however, also makes mapping it a daunting challenge. Nevertheless, there are some research groups that have put themselves to the task (for example, the Human Brain Project).

Age does  a lot of things to us. And to our brains, which shrink when we grow older. Those incredibly complex neural networks inside our skulls not only shrink, but they also become more susceptible to scourges such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. People who do not suffer from these cognitive dysfunctions, also show aging effects in their brains, such as the accumulation of amyloid-beta plaques.

To trace the evolutionary roots of the aging brain, researchers have previously investigated whether similar effects occur in the brains of rhesus monkeys (which diverged from the ‘human lineage’ about 30 million years ago). These primates showed only very limited effects of age in their brains. So, the mystery remained.

A perhaps somewhat lugubrious study, published in PLoS ONE, set out to investigate whether decapitation is a humane method of euthanasia in small animals, such as rats and birds. To do this, they used 22 rats that were decapitated while an EEG was recorded. Of these rats, 9 were awake and 8 were anesthetized (5 rats lost the electrodes during the experiment).

Not surprisingly, the EEG lost power fast and globally and decreased to about half the initial value in about 4 seconds after the decapitation. Where the EEG markedly differed between both groups before the ‘death sentence’ was carried out, it did not appear different post decapitation.  The authors present two hypotheses to explain this phenomenon:

New neurological research, using, of course, the ever-popular giant axon of squid, shows that neurons are pretty darn clever at picking signal out of noise. And what's more, they're sensitive to context:
Neurons are often compared to transistors on a computer, which search for and respond to one specific pattern, but it turns out that neurons are more complex than that. They can search for more than one signal at the same time, and their choice of signal depends on what else is competing for their attention.
Take that, transistors! Neurons are way smarter than you.

Well, at least squid neurons are.

Sometimes a person who gets drunk can perform functions their friends might regard as ordinary, like carrying on a conversation or driving a car - but the drunkard might have no memory of those things and those periods of amnesia, commonly known as "blackouts", can last from a few minutes to several hours.

We've all had an Asian person say, 'All you Americans look alike' - but they aren't being racist, there may be some biology at work.

The brain works differently when memorizing the face of a person from one's own race, according to a study which used EEG recordings to measure brain activity and which may shed light on one of the most replicated psychology findings - that people are less likely to remember a face from a racial group different from their own.
How easy is it to falsify memory?  Perhaps as easy as a little bit of social pressure, according to research at the Weizmann Institute.

In a forthcoming Science study, they show a unique pattern of brain activity when false memories are formed – one that hints at a surprising connection between our social selves and memory.

The experiment took place in four stages. In the first, volunteers watched a documentary film in small groups. Three days later, they returned to the lab individually to take a memory test, answering questions about the film. They were also asked how confident they were in their answers.