1. When students pay attention in class, their brains are in sync

    April 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Cell Press press release:

    When people in a group are more engaged with each other and with the world around them, their brainwaves show remarkably similar patterns. That’s the conclusion of researchers who used portable EEG to simultaneously record brain activity from an entire class of high school students over the course of a full semester as they went about their regular classroom activities. The findings reported in Current Biology on April 27 highlight the promise of investigating the neuroscience of group interactions in real-world settings.

    “We found that students’ brainwaves were more in sync with each other when they were more engaged during class,” says co-lead author Suzanne Dikker of New York University and Utrecht University. “Brain-to-brain synchrony also reflected how much students liked the teacher and how much they liked each other. Brain synchrony was also affected by face-to-face social interaction and students’ personalities. We think that all these effects can be explained by shared attention mechanisms during dynamic group interactions.”

    The researchers, led by David Poeppel of New York University and the Max Planck Institute of Empirical Aesthetics, used portable EEG to simultaneously record the students’ brain activity. Researchers Lu Wan and Mingzhou Ding of the University of Florida then used novel analyses to assess the extent to which that brain activity was synchronized across students and how the degree of synchrony varied with class engagement and social dynamics.

    The researchers think that the level of synchrony comes from a well-known phenomenon called neural entrainment. “Your brainwaves ‘ride’ on top of the sound waves or light patterns in the outside world, and the more you pay attention to these temporal patterns, the more your brain locks to those patterns,” Dikker explains. “So, if you and the person next to you are more engaged, your brainwaves will be more similar because they are locking onto the same information.”

    Brain synchrony most likely supports synchronized behavior during human interaction. For example, synchrony is required for two or more people to have a good conversation, walk down the street, or dance, or carry a heavy piece of furniture. The findings suggest that social dynamics matter, even when people are just listening to the same lecture or watching the same video.

    The researchers are now designing large-scale projects in which they’ll be able to record brain data and other biometrics from up to 45 people simultaneously in an auditorium. They hope to answer questions such as, “What are the ‘optimal’ conditions for an audience to experience a performance or movie? Is there an ideal group size? Does having some joint interaction right before a performance improve the experience? How does the audience affect the performer and vice versa?”


  2. Study shows brain stimulation restores memory during lapses

    by Ashley

    From the University of Pennsylvania press release:

    A team of neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania has shown for the first time that electrical stimulation delivered when memory is predicted to fail can improve memory function in the human brain. That same stimulation generally becomes disruptive when electrical pulses arrive dur
    ing periods of effective memory function.

    The research team included Michael Kahana, professor of psychology and principal investigator of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Restoring Active Memory program; Youssef Ezzyat, a senior data scientist in Kahana’s lab; and Daniel Rizzuto, director of cognitive neuromodulation at Penn. They published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

    This work is an important step toward the long-term goal of Restoring Active Memory, a four-year Department of Defense project aimed at developing next-generation technologies that improve memory function in people who suffer from memory loss. It illustrates an important link between appropriately timed deep-brain stimulation and its potential therapeutic benefits.

    To get to this point, the Penn team first had to understand and decode signaling patterns that correspond to highs and lows of memory function.

    “By applying machine-learning methods to electrical signals measured at widespread locations throughout the human brain,” said Ezzyat, lead paper author, “we are able to identify neural activity that indicates when a given patient will have lapses of memory encoding.”

    Using this model, Kahana’s team examined how the effects of stimulation differ during poor versus effective memory function. The study involved neurosurgical patients receiving treatment for epilepsy at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the Emory University Hospital, the University of Texas Southwestern, the Mayo Clinic, Columbia University, the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center and the University of Washington. Participants were asked to study and recall lists of common words while receiving safe levels of brain stimulation.

    During this process, the Penn team recorded electrical activity from electrodes implanted in the patients’ brains as part of routine clinical care. These recordings identified the biomarkers of successful memory function, activity patterns that occur when the brain effectively creates new memories.

    “We found that, when electrical stimulation arrives during periods of effective memory, memory worsens,” Kahana said. “But when the electrical stimulation arrives at times of poor function, memory is significantly improved.”

    Kahana likens it to traffic patterns in the brain: stimulating the brain during a backup restores the normal flow of traffic.

    Gaining insight into this process could improve the lives of many types of patients, particularly those with traumatic brain injury or neurological diseases, such Alzheimer’s. “Technology based on this type of stimulation,” Rizzuto said, “could produce meaningful gains in memory performance, but more work is needed to move from proof-of-concept to an actual therapeutic platform.”

    This past November, the RAM team publicly released an extensive intracranial brain recording and stimulation dataset that included more than 1,000 hours of data from 150 patients performing memory tasks.


  3. A little support from their online friends calms test-anxious students

    by Ashley

    From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign press release:

    Reading supportive comments, “likes” and private messages from social media friends prior to taking a test may help college students who have high levels of test-anxiety significantly reduce their nervousness and improve their scores, a new study suggests.

    Undergraduate students with high levels of test anxiety who sought social support from their online friends and read the messages prior to a simulated exam reduced their anxiety levels by 21 percent, researchers at the University of Illinois found.

    These students, and peers who performed a seven-minute expressive-writing exercise, were able to perform as well on a set of computer programming exercises as students who had low levels of test anxiety, said lead author Robert Deloatch, a graduate student in computer science at the university.

    Up to 41 percent of students are estimated to suffer from test anxiety, which is a combination of physiological and emotional responses that occur while preparing for and taking tests.

    Test anxiety is associated with lower test scores and grade-point averages, as well as poorer performance on memory and problem-solving tasks. Test anxiety can be particularly acute when students face exams involving open-ended problems, such as those commonly used on computer science exams that require students to write and run code, the researchers wrote.

    When students’ test anxiety is reduced, their test scores, GPAs and task performance improve accordingly, researchers have found.

    Students with high test anxiety strongly fear negative evaluation, have lower self-esteem and tend to experience increased numbers of distracting and irrelevant thoughts in testing situations, according to the study.

    For the simulated exam in the current study, students had to solve two programming problems by writing and running code. Most of the participants were computer science majors or computer engineering students who passed a pretest that ensured they had basic programming knowledge.

    The researchers measured participants’ levels of test anxiety using the Cognitive Test Anxiety scale, which assesses the cognitive problems associated with test-taking such as task-irrelevant thinking and attention lapses.

    Participants also completed two other questionnaires that measured their levels of state anxiety — or “state-of-the-moment” unease — and their trait anxiety, which is anxiety that is considered to be a longstanding characteristic or personality trait.

    The day before the experiment, students in the social support group posted messages on their personal social media pages requesting encouragement — in the form of likes, comments or private messages — about an upcoming computer programming challenge they planned to participate in.

    For seven minutes immediately prior to taking the simulated test, students in the social support group read the responses associated with their online request, while students in the expressive-writing group wrote about their thoughts and feelings, and students in the control group crammed for the exam by reading information on computer programming data structures and answering questions about the text.

    Prior to taking the exam, participants completed a questionnaire to assess their levels of state anxiety. Students were then given 40 minutes to solve two programming problems that had many viable solutions.

    “We found that only the students who received supportive messages from their Facebook network showed a significant decrease in anxiety and an increase in their performance on our simulated exam,” Deloatch said.

    While prior researchers have found expressive writing to be helpful to some students with test anxiety, Deloatch and his co-authors were surprised to find that the expressive-writing exercise increased the pretest jitters of low test-anxious students by 61 percent, instead.

    “We hypothesized that might have occurred because focusing on their anxiety as they wrote caused their apprehensiveness to increase rather than decrease,” Deloatch said.

    Using social support to alleviate state-of-the-moment anxiety may have implications beyond education, such as helping job applicants quell their nervousness prior to interviews with potential employers, Deloatch said.

    While the students who sought social support online felt that reading the supportive messages was helpful, “all of them were uncomfortable with soliciting support from their online friends, perceiving such posts as ‘attention seeking’ and ‘out of place,'” Deloatch said. “As the majority of the participants in our study were computer science students, the competitive environment of the curriculum may have led to concerns about how others would perceive them. They may have felt that such statuses could harm their relations in group project settings.”

    The study is being published in the Proceedings of CHI 2017, the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, held May 6-11 in Denver.


  4. Strong parent connections enhance children’s ability to develop healthy response to stress

    by Ashley

    From the Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health press release:

    Children in low-income families have an increased chance of thriving when their caregiver relationships include certain positive characteristics, according to new research from the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Using data from more than 2,200 low-income families surveyed as part of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, NCCP researchers found that school-age children who reported high levels of parent involvement and supervision were more likely to report behaviors associated with positive emotional development and social growth.

    According to Strong at the Broken Places: The Resiliency of Low-Income Parents, an estimated 14 million families with at least one child earned below 200 percent of the poverty threshold in 2015 — a total of 65 percent of low-income families. Research has found that living in poverty can produce environmental stressors that lead to negative behaviors in children, such as inattention, impulsivity, aggression, withdrawal, depression, anxiety, or fearfulness. Furthermore, children living in poor families are significantly more likely to have trouble developing social-emotional competence — the ability to manage emotions, express needs and feelings, deal with conflict, and get along with others.

    “Too often, when poor families are discussed, the focus is on deficits,” said Renée Wilson-Simmons, DrPH, NCCP director and a co-author of the report. “And chief among those deficits is what’s seen as parents’ inability to successfully parent their children.” Dr. Wilson-Simmons challenged the deficits focus, adding that despite the multitude of obstacles that low-income parents face, many of them succeed in helping their children flourish. “They raise children who possess the social-emotional competence needed to develop and keep friendships; establish good relationships with parents, teachers, and other adults; and experience a range of achievements that contribute to their self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. These families have something to teach us all about thriving amidst adversity.”

    Available online at http://www.nccp.org, Strong at the Broken Places presents findings from the survey responses of 2,210 nine-year-olds who lived in low-income families for three to five years. The report also cites additional research involving low-income families from diverse backgrounds and geographic areas showing certain common attributes among parents who are able to function well when faced with challenges. Those effective protective factors range from exhibiting a positive outlook, establishing family routines, and spending sufficient family time together to having good financial management skills, an adequate support network, and the willingness to seek help.

    The major finding presented in the report is that low-income parents who provide their children with warmth and nurturance as well as rules and consequences are helping them develop both socially and emotionally in ways that will serve them well as they move from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood:

    • Low-income parents who know which friends their children hang out with were twice as likely as parents rated as low in parental supervision to have children who do not to engage in problem behaviors.
    • Those who attend events important to their children were twice as likely to have children who do not engage in negative behaviors as those who rarely attend important events.
    • Caregivers who treat their children fairly were twice as likely to have children who did not engage in negative behaviors as those whose children felt that they are treated unfairly “often” or “always.”

    Overall, most of the nine-year-olds surveyed rated their caregiver high on all of the factors NCCP researchers used to measure resiliency in low-income families:

    • 68 percent reported that their primary caregiver (most often their mother) had knowledge of what they did during their free time and the friends with whom they spent time
    • 74 percent said their mother “always” or “often” spent enough time with them, and 76 percent said they talked about things that matter “extremely well” or “quite well”
    • 92 percent rated their relationship with their mother as “extremely close” or “quite close”

    “The good news is that parents who struggle financially are still finding ways to have the kinds of interactions with their children that help them to develop socially and emotionally, despite the many external stressors competing for their attention,” said co-author Yang Jiang, PhD, who led data analysis. “Since we know that children do better when their families do better, it’s important that advocates and policymakers bolster families’ efforts by supporting policies and programs that help parents develop strong connections with their children.”

    To promote family resiliency, NCCP researchers also recommended two-generation approaches that enhance the well-being and life opportunities of both parents and their children. The following policy strategies, outlined in Strong at the Broken Places, help stabilize low-income households so that parents are better able to engage with their children:

    • Increase parents’ access to health and mental health care, including depression screening and treatment
    • Invest in training for providers of evidence-based parenting and parent-child programs and expansion of these programs
    • Strengthen safety net policies (e.g., unemployment insurance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, housing assistance) to reduce extreme adverse circumstances that can overwhelm families and reduce their chances of escaping poverty and ensuring their children’s success
    • Expand two-generation programs that connect low-income families with early childhood education, job training, and other resources, helping them break the cycle of poverty

    Access the report at: http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_1177.html


  5. Closer look at brain circuits reveals important role of genetics

    by Ashley

    From the Scripps Research Institute press release:

    Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in La Jolla have revealed new clues to the wiring of the brain. A team led by Associate Professor Anton Maximov found that neurons in brain regions that store memory can form networks in the absence of synaptic activity.

    “Our results imply that assembly of neural circuits in areas required for cognition is largely controlled by intrinsic genetic programs that operate independently of the external world,” Maximov explained.

    A similar phenomenon was observed by the group of Professor Nils Brose at the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine in Germany. The two complementary studies were co-published as cover stories in the April 19, 2017, issue of the journal Neuron.

    The “Nature vs. Nurture” Question

    Experience makes every brain unique by changing the patterns and properties of neuronal connections. Vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch play particularly important roles during early postnatal life when the majority of synapses is formed. New synapses also appear in the adult brain during learning. These activity-dependent changes in neuronal wiring are driven by chemical neurotransmitters that relay signals from one neuron to another. Yet, animals and humans have innate behaviors whose features are consistent across generations, suggesting that some synaptic connections are genetically predetermined.

    The notion that neurons do not need to communicate to develop networks has also been supported by earlier discoveries of synapses in mice that lacked transmitter secretion in the entire brain. These studies were performed in the laboratory of Professor Thomas Südhof, who won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

    “We thought these experiments were quite intriguing,” Maximov said, “but they also had a major limitation: mice with completely disabled nervous systems became paralyzed and died shortly after birth, when circuitry in the brain is still rudimental.”

    The TSRI team set out to investigate if neurons can form and maintain connections with appropriate partners in genetically engineered animals that live into adulthood with virtually no synaptic activity in the hippocampus, a brain region that is critical for learning and memory storage. “While the idea may sound crazy at the first glance,” Maximov continued, “several observations hinted that this task is technically feasible.” Indeed, mammals can survive with injuries and developmental abnormalities that result in a massive loss of brain tissue.

    Inspired by these examples, Richard Sando, a graduate student in the Maximov lab, generated mice whose hippocampus permanently lacked secretion of glutamate, a neurotransmitter that activates neurons when a memory is formed. Despite apparent inability to learn and remember, these animals could eat, walk around, groom, and even engage in rudimental social interactions.

    Working closely with Professor Mark Ellisman, who directs the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at the University of California, San Diego, Sando and his co-workers then examined the connectivity in permanently inactive areas. Combining contemporary genetic and imaging tools was fruitful: the collaborative team found that several key stages of neural circuit development widely believed to require synaptic activity were remarkably unaffected in their mouse model.

    The outcomes of ultra-structural analyses were particularly surprising: it turns out that neurotransmission is unnecessary for assembly of basic building blocks of single synaptic connections, including so-called dendritic spines that recruit signaling complexes that enable neurons to sense glutamate.

    Maximov emphasized that the mice could not function normally. In a way, their hippocampus can be compared to a computer that goes though the assembly line, but never gets plugged to a power source and loaded with software. As the next step, the team aims to exploit new chemical-genetic approaches to test if intrinsically-formed networks can support learning.


  6. Study suggests ideological information bubbles conquer financial incentives

    by Ashley

    From the University of Illinois at Chicago press release:

    A new report from social psychologists at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Winnipeg suggests people on both sides of the political aisle are similarly motivated to dismiss monetary enticements in order to distance themselves from hearing or reading opposing ideals and information.

    The research, published online by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, details the findings from five studies involving liberals and conservatives who were presented with statements on issues such as same-sex marriage, U.S. and Canada elections, marijuana, climate change, guns and abortion.

    Approximately two-thirds of respondents declined a chance to win extra money in order to avoid reading statements that didn’t support their position, say report co-authors Linda Skitka, UIC professor of psychology, and Matt Motyl, UIC assistant professor of psychology.

    The UIC researchers and Jeremy A. Frimer, a corresponding author from the University of Winnipeg, indicate the divide goes beyond political topics.

    Respondents also had a “greater desire to hear from like- versus unlike-minded others on questions such as preferred beverages (Coke vs. Pepsi), seasons (spring vs. autumn), airplane seats (aisle vs. window), and sports leagues (NFL vs. NBA),” they wrote.

    The aversion to hearing or learning about the views of their ideological opponents is not a product of people already being or feeling knowledgeable, or attributable to election fatigue in the case of political issues, according to the researchers.

    “Rather, people on both sides indicated that they anticipated that hearing from the other side would induce cognitive dissonance,” such that would require effort or cause frustration, and “undermine a sense of shared reality with the person expressing disparate views” that would harm relationships, they reported.

    The researchers note the drawback of liberals and conservatives retreating to ideological information bubbles.

    “What could ultimately be a contest of ideas is being replaced by two, non-interacting monopolies,” they said.


  7. Context and distraction skew what we predict and remember

    April 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Michigan Technological University press release:

    Context may not be everything, but it’s right up there with content when it comes to our memories. Kevin Trewartha, an assistant professor of both cognitive science and kinesiology at Michigan Technological University, is the lead author on a recent study about linking actions and objects, published in Cognition.

    Trewartha gives an example from real life, showing what could happen when you heave up an empty suitcase that you think is full. He bends over, grasps an invisible handle, and staggers backward as his hand flies over his head.

    “Next time you tried this, you probably wouldn’t pull so hard,” Trewartha says.

    Weighty Memory

    That forceful first yank is informed by our unconscious memory, which the brain builds from a lifetime of experiences that teach us that a big suitcase in the trunk of a car is going to be heavy. But what if there were a second suitcase? As you reach for it, a second system, the conscious memory, would kick in; your shoulder-straining experience with that first suitcase might lead you to ease the second one more tentatively out of the vehicle.

    Imagine a different context: if someone else handed you the second suitcase, would you expect it to be light? And how would you manage the second suitcase if a police officer were ordering you to move your car out of the no-parking zone at the airport while you were unloading your mom’s luggage?

    As it turns out, Trewartha discovered, the context in which we experience weighty objects does affect how we update our memories, both conscious and unconscious.

    Trewartha began by asking human subjects to handle two simple plastic cylinders which, like the first suitcase, were not what they seemed. Though identical in weight, one was much smaller than the other. The participants not only lifted the weights, they also had them placed on their palms. After each test, the subjects estimated the cylinders’ relative weights.

    Size-Weight Illusion

    Experiments like this have long shown that people perceive the smaller cylinder to be heavier than it is, something called the size-weight illusion. That illusion can gradually disappear when people repeatedly handle a different set of objects with unexpected weights. While they look like the weight-illusion objects, one is small but heavy, and the other is large but light.

    When Trewartha had his participants handle that second set of inversely weighted cylinders, they got better at estimating the relative weight of the first two cylinders — but only when they handled both sets of cylinders in the same way. For example, if they lifted both sets, the size-weight illusion diminished, and they got better at estimating the relative weight of the first set. But if they lifted the first set and had the second set placed on their palms, the size-weight illusion persisted.

    “We showed that you only reduce the size-weight illusion if you experience the weight-illusion objects in the same way that you experience the differently weighted objects,” Trewartha said. “This suggests that the unconscious memories depend on context, that the brain maintains more than one representation about the relationship between size and weight, with very little crosstalk.”

    Distractions and Multitasking

    To see if distractions (like the cop at the airport) could affect memory, he had some of the subjects do a simple subtraction problem as they manipulated the objects.

    He found that the distraction had little bearing on how the quickly the size-weight illusion was reduced, because the illusion relies on unconscious memory — something you learn without thinking about it. But it did throw a wrench into the conscious memory, which informs actions such as lifting: subjects who did the math had to practice longer before they were able to lift their objects smoothly.

    “This adds to our understanding of how these two complementary memory systems affect how we interact with objects,” Trewartha said.

    The study may also shed light on the long-term effects of multitasking. While distractions might not interfere too much with building unconscious memories, they may be keeping us from developing the robust web of conscious memories we use to remember specific experiences.


  8. Study suggests beetroot juice may help increase brain efficiency in older adults

    by Ashley

    From the Wake Forest University press release:

    Drinking a beetroot juice supplement before working out makes the brain of older adults perform more efficiently, mirroring the operations of a younger brain, according to a new study by scientists at Wake Forest University.

    “We knew, going in, that a number of studies had shown that exercise has positive effects on the brain,” said W. Jack Rejeski, study co-author. “But what we showed in this brief training study of hypertensive older adults was that, as compared to exercise alone, adding a beet root juice supplement to exercise resulted in brain connectivity that closely resembles what you see in younger adults.”

    While continued work in this area is needed to replicate and extend these exciting findings, they do suggest that what we eat as we age could be critically important to the maintenance of our brain health and functional independence.

    Rejeski is Thurman D. Kitchin Professor and Director of the Behavioral Medicine Laboratory in the Department of Health & Exercise Science. The study, “Beet Root Juice: An Ergogenic Aid for Exercise and the Aging Brain,” was published in the peer-reviewed Journals of Gerontology: Medical Sciences. One of his former undergraduate students, Meredith Petrie, was the lead author on the paper.

    This is the first experiment to test the combined effects of exercise and beetroot juice on functional brain networks in the motor cortex and secondary connections between the motor cortex and the insula, which support mobility, Rejeski said.

    The study included 26 men and women age 55 and older who did not exercise, had high blood pressure, and took no more than two medications for high blood pressure. Three times a week for six weeks, they drank a beetroot juice supplement called Beet-It Sport Shot one hour before a moderately intense, 50-minute walk on a treadmill. Half the participants received Beet-It containing 560 mg of nitrate; the others received a placebo Beet-It with very little nitrate.

    Beets contain a high level of dietary nitrate, which is converted to nitrite and then nitric oxide (NO) when consumed. NO increases blood flow in the body, and multiple studies have shown it can improve exercise performance in people of various ages.

    “Nitric oxide is a really powerful molecule. It goes to the areas of the body which are hypoxic, or needing oxygen, and the brain is a heavy feeder of oxygen in your body,” said Rejeski.

    When you exercise, the brain’s somatomotor cortex, which processes information from the muscles, sorts out the cues coming in from the body. Exercise should strengthen the somatomotor cortex.

    So, combining beetroot juice with exercise delivers even more oxygen to the brain and creates an excellent environment for strengthening the somatomotor cortex. Post-exercise analysis showed that, although the study groups has similar levels of nitrate and nitrite in the blood before drinking the juice, the beetroot juice group had much higher levels of nitrate and nitrite than the placebo group after exercise.


  9. Study suggests motor neurons adjust to control tasks

    by Ashley

    From the College of Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University press release:

    New research from Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering and the University of Pittsburgh reveals that motor cortical neurons optimally adjust how they encode movements in a task-specific manner. The findings enhance our understanding of how the brain controls movement and have the potential to improve the performance and reliability of brain-machine interfaces, or neural prosthetics, that assist paralyzed patients and amputees.

    “Our brain has an amazing ability to optimize its own information processing by changing how individual neurons represent the world. If we can understand this process as it applies to movements, we can design more precise neural prostheses,” says Steven Chase, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Center for Neural Basis of Cognition. “We can one day, for example, design robotic arms that more accurately implement a patient’s intended movement because we now better understand how our brain adjusts on a moment-by-moment basis when we are in motion.”

    The study explored the change in brain activity during simple motor tasks performed through virtual reality in both 2-D and 3-D. The researchers wanted to know if the motor cortical neurons would automatically adjust their sensitivity to direction when presented with a wide range of possible directions instead of a narrow one. Previous research in the field has suggested that this phenomenon, called dynamic range adaptation, is known to occur in neurons sensitive to sound, touch, and light — prompting the researchers to ask if the same phenomena would apply to neurons in the motor system that are associated with movement.

    “When you walk out into the bright summer sun, you squint, and the neurons in your retina use dynamic range adaptation to automatically increase their sensitivity so that you can clearly see until the clouds pass over again,” explains Robert Rasmussen, MD/Ph.D. student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and first author of the study. “This feature allows the brain to better encode information by using its limited resources efficiently. We wanted to find out if our brain encodes movement in the same way.”

    The results revealed that dynamic range adaptation did indeed occur in the motor cortical neurons. Based on these findings, the researchers concluded that this feature is widespread throughout the brain.

    “We found that dynamic range adaptation isn’t restricted to sensory areas of the brain. Instead, it is a ubiquitous encoding feature of the cortex,” explains Andrew Schwartz, distinguished professor of neurobiology and chair in systems neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and a member of the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute. “Our findings show that it is a feature of information processing, which your brain uses to efficiently process whatever information it is given — whether that is light, sound, touch, or movement. This is an exciting result that will motivate further research into motor learning and future clinical applications.”


  10. Study suggests walking up and down stairs may be more energizing than caffeine

    by Ashley

    From the University of Georgia press release:

    A midday jolt of caffeine isn’t as powerful as walking up and down some stairs, according to new research from the University of Georgia.

    In a new study published in the journal Physiology and Behavior, researchers in the UGA College of Education found that 10 minutes of walking up and down stairs at a regular pace was more likely to make participants feel energized than ingesting 50 milligrams of caffeine-about the equivalent to the amount in a can of soda.

    “We found, in both the caffeine and the placebo conditions, that there was not much change in how they felt,” said Patrick J. O’Connor, a professor in the department of kinesiology who co-authored the study with former graduate student Derek Randolph. “But with exercise they did feel more energetic and vigorous. It was a temporary feeling, felt immediately after the exercise, but with the 50 milligrams of caffeine, we didn’t get as big an effect.”

    The study aimed to simulate the hurdles faced in a typical office setting, where workers spend hours sitting and staring at computer screens and don’t have time for a longer bout of exercise during the day. For the study, participants on separate days either ingested capsules containing caffeine or a placebo, or spent 10 minutes walking up and down stairs-about 30 floors total-at a low-intensity pace.

    O’Connor wanted to compare an exercise that could be achieved by people in an office setting, where they have access to stairs and a little time to be active, but not enough time to change into workout gear, shower and change back into work clothes.

    “Office workers can go outside and walk, but weather can be less than ideal. It has never rained on me while walking the stairs,” said O’Connor. “And a lot of people working in office buildings have access to stairs, so it’s an option to keep some fitness while taking a short break from work.”

    Study participants were female college students who described themselves as chronically sleep deprived-getting less than 6½ hours per night. To test the effects of caffeine versus the exercise, each group took some verbal and computer-based tests to gauge how they felt and how well they performed certain cognitive tasks. Neither caffeine nor exercise caused large improvements in attention or memory, but stair walking was associated with a small increase in motivation for work.

    O’Connor added that there is still much research to be done on the specific benefits of exercising on the stairs, especially for just 10 minutes. But even a brief bout of stair walking can enhance feelings of energy without reducing cognitive function. “You may not have time to go for a swim, but you might have 10 minutes to walk up and down the stairs.”