Neuroscience

Monkeys playing a game similar to "Let's Make A Deal" have revealed that their brains register missed opportunities and learn from their mistakes. 

The researchers watched individual neurons in a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) that monitors the consequences of actions and mediates resulting changes in behavior. The monkeys were making choices that resulted in different amounts of juice as a reward. 

Their task was like the TV show "Let's Make a Deal" with the experimenters offering monkeys choices from an array of hidden rewards. During each trial, the monkeys chose from one of eight identical white squares arranged in a circle. A color beneath the white square was revealed and the monkey received the corresponding reward. 
This blog entry is about one of the most interesting discoveries of the 90's in Neuroscience -- Mirror Neurons -- and a recent research paper that adds to their intrigue.

Mirror neurons are found in the premotor cortex, and what has made them so interesting is that they fire both when the individual performs a goal-directed action and when they watch someone else perform the same action. It is as if the mirror neurons encode an understanding about the intentions of someone else. For example, when my husband reaches for his coffee cup I understand that he intends to take a drink before he even raises the cup to his lips. Neuroscientists think it is the mirror neurons that encode the "understanding" when we watch what others are doing.
When you're on a diet, deciding to skip your favorite calorie-laden foods and eat something healthier takes a whole lot of self-control--an ability that seems to come easier to some of us than others. Now, scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have uncovered differences in the brains of people who are able to exercise self-control versus those who find it almost impossible.

The key? While everyone uses the same single area of the brain to make these sorts of value-laden decisions, a second brain region modulates the activity of the first region in people with good self-control, allowing them to weigh more abstract factors--healthiness, for example--in addition to basic desires such as taste to make a better overall choice.

Research presented Thursday at the European Congress on Obesity says scheduling more physical education time in schools does not mean children will increase their activity levels; those who got lots of timetabled exercise at school compensated by doing less at home while those who got little at school made up for it by being more active at home.

They propose it's not the environment that drives physical activity levels in children, but some form of central control in the brain similar to appetite – an 'activitystat.'

Except appetite is learned by practice too.   People who eat a lot get more hungry than people who don't.
A new study from Northwestern University shows what many mothers already know: their babies are a lot smarter than others may realize.

Though only five months old, the study's cuties indicated through their curious stares that they could differentiate water in a glass from solid blue material that looked very much like water in a similar glass. 

The finding that infants can distinguish between solids and liquids at such an early age builds upon a growing body of research that strongly suggests that babies are not blank slates who primarily depend on others for acquiring knowledge. That's a common assumption of researchers in the not too distant past.
Toddlers with autism appear more likely to have an enlarged amygdala, a brain area associated with numerous functions, including the processing of faces and emotion, according to a report in the May issue of Archives of General Psychiatry. In addition, this brain abnormality appears to be associated with the ability to share attention with others, a fundamental ability thought to predict later social and language function in children with autism.
How many times have you wondered where did I leave my keys?  Activity in your hippocampus and medial temporal lobes encodes the answer.
Infants who receive the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) following the combination vaccine for diphtheria, polio, tetanus, pertussis and Haemophilus influenzae type b (DPTaP-Hib vaccine) appear to experience less pain than those who are immunized in the opposite order, according to a report in the May issue of Archives of Pediatrics&Adolescent Medicine, a theme issue on vaccines. 

Injections are the most painful common medical procedure conducted in childhood, according to background information in the article.
The march toward understanding the etiology of autism took a giant step foward today.

In a landmark genome-wide association study, published online today in Nature, researchers found that a variant on chromosome 5 was about 20 percent more common in autistic children.

Researchers examined DNA from more than 3,100 people in 780 families (with at least two autistic children), and then looked at an additional 1,200 individuals from families affected by autism, as well as nearly 6,500 healthy controls.