1. Researchers link post-right stroke delirium and spatial neglect to common brain mechanism

    December 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Kessler Foundation press release:

    Stroke researchers at Kessler Foundation have proposed a theory for the high incidence of delirium and spatial neglect after right-brain stroke. Their findings are detailed in “Disruption of the ascending arousal system and cortical attention network in post-stroke delirium and spatial neglect,” which was published online ahead of print on September 27, 2017 by Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. The authors are Olga Boukrina, PhD, research scientist, and A.M. Barrett, MD, director of Stroke Rehabilitation Research at Kessler Foundation.

    Delirium and spatial neglect affect approximately half of individuals with right brain stroke, increasing their risk for prolonged stays and rehospitalization. Identifying the factors associated with these often disabling conditions is the initial step toward minimizing their impact on recovery and rehabilitation. Stroke survivors with spatial neglect are more likely to develop delirium, an acute disorder of attention and cognition, suggesting that these conditions may share a common brain mechanism.

    “The brain networks for spatial attention and arousal may underlie the impairments in delirium and spatial neglect,” noted Dr. Boukrina. “These networks comprise ascending projections from the midbrain nuclei and integrate dorsal and ventral cortical and limbic components. We propose that right-brain stroke disproportionately impairs these cortical and limbic components, causing the lateralized deficits that characterize spatial neglect,” she explained. “Spatial neglect may lower the threshold for delirium, which could account for the higher incidence of both post-stroke complications.”

    Further research is needed in order to identify individuals at risk soon after stroke, and develop an effective protocol for reducing the risk of these complications and their contributions to mortality and morbidity.


  2. How spatial navigation correlates with language

    November 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the National Research University Higher School of Economics press release:

    Cognitive neuroscientists from the Higher School of Economics and Aarhus University experimentally demonstrate how spatial navigation impacts language comprehension. The results of the study have been published in NeuroImage.

    Language is a complicated cognitive function, which is performed not only by local brain modules, but by a distributed network of cortical generators. Physical experience such as movement and spatial motion play an important role in psychological experiences and cognitive function, which is related to how an individual mentally constructs the meaning of a sentence.

    Nikola Vukovic and Yury Shtyrov carried out an experiment at the HSE Centre for Cognition & Decision Making, which explains the relations between the systems responsible for spatial navigation and language. Using neurophysiological data, they describe brain mechanisms that support navigation systems use in both spatial and linguistic tasks.

    “When we read or hear stories about characters, we have to represent the inherently different perspectives people have on objects and events, and ‘put ourselves in their shoes’. Our study is the first to show that our brain mentally simulates sentence perspective by using non-linguistic areas typically in charge of visuo-spatial thought” says Dr. Nikola Vukovic, the scientist who was chiefly responsible for devising and running the experiment.

    Previous studies have shown that humans have certain spatial preferences that are based either on one’s body (egocentric) or are independent from it (allocentric). Although not absolute and subject to change in various situations, these preferences define how an individual perceives the surrounding space and how they plan and understand navigation in this space.

    The participants of the experiment solved two types of tasks. The first was a computer-based spatial navigation task involving movement through a twisting virtual tunnel, at the end of which they had to indicate the beginning of the tunnel. The shape of the tunnel was designed so that people with egocentric and allocentric perspectives estimated the starting point differently. This difference in their subjective estimates helped the researchers split the participants according to their reference frame predispositions.

    The second task involved understanding simple sentences and matching them with pictures. The pictures differed in terms of their perspective, and the same story could be described using first (“I”) or second person pronouns (“You”). The participants had to choose which pictures best matched the situation described by the sentence.

    During the experiment, electrical brain activity was recorded in all participants with the use of continuous electroencephalographic (EEG) data. Spectral perturbations registered by EEG demonstrated that a lot of areas responsible for navigation were active during the completion of both types of tasks. One of the most interesting facts for the researchers was that activation of areas when hearing the sentences also depended on the type of individual’s spatial preferences.

    Brain activity when solving a language task is related to a individuals’ egocentric or allocentric perspective, as well as their brain activity in the navigation task. The correlation between navigation and linguistic activities proves that these phenomena are truly connected’, emphasized Yury Shtyrov, leading research fellow at the HSE Centre for Cognition & Decision Making and professor at Aarhus University, where he directs MEG/EEG research. ‘Furthermore, in the process of language comprehension we saw activation in well-known brain navigation systems, which were previously believed to make no contribution to speech comprehension’.

    These data may one day be used by neurobiologists and health professionals. For example, in some types of aphasia, comprehension of motion-related words suffers, and knowledge on the correlation between the navigation and language systems in the brain could help in the search for mechanisms to restore these links.


  3. New brain region identified that assists with spatial memory and navigation

    August 31, 2017 by Ashley

    From the VIB press release:

    Navigation in mammals including humans and rodents depends on specialized neural networks that encode the animal’s location and trajectory in the environment, serving essentially as a GPS, findings that led to the 2014 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Failure of these networks to function properly, as seen in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological conditions, results in severe disorientation and memory deficits. Researchers at NERF (VIB-imec-KU Leuven) have now uncovered striking neural activity patterns in a brain area called the retrosplenial cortex that may assist with spatial memory and navigation.

    The prime example of spatial information coding is the firing of so called place cells in the hippocampus, a brain area known for its role in navigation and memory formation. Place cells fire when an animal enters a specific place in its environment. At any given location, only a small fraction of place cells is active, leaving the remaining neurons largely silent. This sparse firing pattern maximizes information storage in memory networks, but at the same time minimizes energy demands.

    The hippocampus, however, is not the only brain area involved in spatial orientation and learning. The retrosplenial cortex is also highly active during navigation and memory retrieval and connects the hippocampus to the visual cortex and other areas of the brain. Damage to the retrosplenial cortex results in memory deficits and disorientation, and patients with Alzheimer’s disease have reduced activity in their retrosplenial cortex.

    To better understand the role of the retrosplenial cortex, Drs. Dun Mao and Steffen Kandler, researchers in the laboratories of Profs. Vincent Bonin and Bruce McNaughton at NERF, measured its activity in mice that moved on a treadmill fitted with tactile stimuli. In this setting they could precisely track the animal’s behavior and location. By combining genetic labeling of cortical neurons and highly sensitive live microscopic techniques, the researchers were able to compare the activity of the neurons in the retrosplenial cortex with those in the hippocampus.

    “Previous studies could only record from a few retrosplenial neurons simultaneously. With our cellular imaging technique, we could monitor the activity of hundreds to thousands of neurons simultaneously, which gave us a rich view into the neurons’ activity patterns,” explains prof. Vincent Bonin.

    The researchers discovered a new group of cells that fire in smooth sequences as the animals run in the environment. Their activity resembled that of hippocampal place cells in terms of their sparse firing properties; however, the retrosplenial neurons responded differently to sensory inputs.

    These results indicate that the retrosplenial cortex carries rich spatial activity, the mechanisms of which may be partially different from that of the hippocampus. They pave the way for a better understanding of how our brain processes spatial information. Prof. Vincent Bonin: “The next step is to investigate directly the relationship between retrosplenial activity and hippocampus as well as its link to visual inputs. It will also be interesting to know how activity in the retrosplenial cortex relates to the development of different neuronal diseases in mouse models.”

    The study is an international collaboration between the laboratories of Dr. Vincent Bonin at NERF and Dr. Bruce McNaughton at the University of Lethbridge, Canada. Dr. Bonin is Principal investigator at NERF and VIB since 2011 and Associate Professor at KU Leuven since 2017 (Assistant since 2012). Dr. McNaughton is AHFMR/AIHS Polaris Research Chair at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience at The University of Lethbridge, and Distinguished Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior at UC Irvine. Dr. McNaughton held a Senior Visiting Scientist position at NERF from 2010 to 2013. The work was supported by core grants from imec, VIB and KU Leuven and from the Government of Flanders as well as research awards from FWO, Alberta Innovates: Health Solutions, NSERC, and NSF.


  4. Being near colleagues helps cross-disciplinary research on papers and patents

    July 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology press release:

    Want to boost collaboration among researchers? Even in an age of easy virtual communication, physical proximity increases collaborative activity among academic scholars, according to a new study examining a decade’s worth of MIT-based papers and patents.

    In particular, the study finds that cross-disciplinary and interdepartmental collaboration is fueled by basic face-to-face interaction within shared spaces.

    “If you work near someone, you’re more likely to have substantive conversations more frequently,” says Matthew Claudel, a doctoral student in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and the MIT Lab for Innovation Science and Policy, and the lead author of a new paper detailing the findings.

    The study examines 40,358 published papers and 2,350 patents that stemmed from MIT research and appeared between the years 2004 and 2014. The study uses network analysis: The researchers mapped out a network of MIT collaborators and found that it revealed the importance of spatial relations on campus, above and beyond departmental and institutional structures.

    As such, the findings help confirm the importance of proximity on a campus where, through the years, many buildings have indeed been designed to encourage cross-disciplinary research.

    “Intuitively, there is a connection between space and collaboration,” Claudel observes. “That is, you have better chance of meeting someone, connecting, and working together if you are close by spatially.” Even so, he says, “It was an exciting result to find that across papers and patents, and specifically for transdisciplinary collaborations.” He adds, “In many ways, this data really confirms the Allen Curve.”

    That refers to pioneering work by Thomas Allen, a professor emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of many studies about workspace. Allen found that collaboration and interaction diminish as a function of distance (in a way that produces a curve when plotted on a graph); even basic conversations are much less likely to occur among workers situated more than 10 meters apart. Many of Allen’s ideas are in his 1977 book, “Managing the Flow of Technology.”

    In this case, the researchers have extended Allen’s insights by identifying a similar curve; they plotted distance and collaboration on a campus-wide basis, not just within single buildings, and focused on interdisciplinary research.

    The paper, “An exploration of collaborative scientific production at MIT through spatial organization and institutional affiliation,” appears in the journal PLOS ONE. The co-authors are Claudel; Emanuele Massaro, a postdoc in MIT’s Senseable City Lab (part of DUSP); Paolo Santi, a visiting scientist at the Senseable City Lab; Fiona Murray, associate dean for innovation, co-director of the MIT Innovation Initiative, and the William Porter Professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan; and Carlo Ratti, a professor of the practice in DUSP and director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab.

    Papers, patents, and proximity

    Claudel initiated the research on the subject as part of his master’s thesis, which was itself cross-disciplinary, supported by both the Senseable City Lab and MIT’s Lab for Innovation Science and Policy. Ratti and Murray also served as supervisors for Claudel’s thesis. A basic impetus for studying architecture and collaboration, he explains, was his desire “to understand how that plays out on the MIT campus and [to see] if it holds up in the digital era,” when collaborators can communicate quickly by virtual means, whether by instant message, text, Skype, or email.

    The study exploits the fact that many MIT departments and programs are located in multiple buildings; a corollary is that many MIT buildings house multiple academic groups. (There are, for instance, 16 departments and programs in MIT’s Building 3.) This scattering of some areas of inquiry means distance between workspaces might affect how often researchers in similar fields collaborate with each other.

    The study examines the published output of 33 departments and programs at MIT, and shows that the effect of proximity on collaboration is slightly different for papers than for patents.

    When it comes to co-authoring papers, researchers located in the same workspace are more than three times as likely to collaborate compared to those who are 400 meters apart. The frequency of collaboration further drops in half when researchers are 800 meters apart.

    For patents, that curve is slightly less steep. Researchers in the same workspace are more than twice as likely to collaborate compared to those who are 400 meters apart. But the frequency of collaboration does not diminish as quickly, and only drops in half again when researchers are 1,600 meters apart.

    As Claudel interprets the findings, this shows that proximity, even at these middle distances, still has an incremental effect on work that ends up earning patents.

    “Physical space seems to be more defining for patent teams, and departmental affiliation seems to be more defining for paper-publishing,” Claudel says.

    As the paper notes, however, for both papers and patents there is “a persistent relationship between physical proximity and intensity of collaboration.”

    Building for innovation

    Among other data points, the study found that MIT’s Building 76, the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, has the highest rate of intra-MIT co-authorship — that is, the highest percentage of total publications that are written with other Institute faculty (roughly 32 percent).

    When it comes to patents, among buildings whose faculty produced over 100 patents in this time period, Building 32 (the Stata Center) and Building 76 have the highest rates of intra-MIT collaboration (31 percent and 27 percent, respectively).

    To a significant extent, that is by design, since both structures were intended to promote interdisciplinary research. The Stata Center houses faculty in eight departments and programs, ranging from computer science to linguistics; the Koch Institute was intended to place research scientists and bioengineering experts in close proximity as a way of encouraging innovations in cancer-fighting technology.

    MIT has a tradition of architecture built with those kinds of aims in mind, starting with its main building and its famous “Infinite Corridor,” which links a diverse set of researchers. MIT’s former Building 20, demolished in 1997, was also famous for providing malleable workspaces that could be reshaped by a diverse set of faculty. (The Stata Center, opened in 2004, was designed with open-space features in an effort to replicate Building 20’s effects.)

    Meanwhile the MIT.nano building, still under construction, is also intended to bring diverse groups of researchers together.

    “It’s an exciting space, and I think it has been designed with many of these principles in mind,” Claudel says.

    The researchers note that the current study could be extended in many ways — on other campuses, for instance, or over time, by studying the changes in collaborative activity as faculty are relocated to a new building or linked by cross-departmental initiatives. In any case, Massaro points out, “adding an architectural dimension to the field of scientometrics,” as the current paper does, could be a valuable “step toward empirical space-planning policy that supports collaboration within institutions.”

    In sum, studying precisely how architecture can enhance innovation is still a work in progress — but a growing body of evidence suggests it truly matters.

    “You can never predetermine what research will be novel and powerful and exciting,” Claudel says. “But you can create the conditions for collaborative innovation to happen.”


  5. Artists and architects think differently compared to other people

    July 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University College London press release:

    Architects, painters and sculptors conceive of spaces in different ways from other people and from each other, finds a new study by UCL and Bangor University researchers.

    When asked to talk about images of places, painters are more likely to describe the depicted space as a two-dimensional image, while architects are more likely to focus on paths and the boundaries of the space.

    “We found that painters, sculptors and architects consistently showed signs of their profession when talking about the spaces we showed them, and all three groups had more elaborate, detailed descriptions than people in unrelated professions,” said senior author Dr Hugo Spiers (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences).

    For the study, published in Cognitive Science, the researchers brought in 16 people from each of the three professions — they all had at least eight years of experience and included Sir Anthony Gormley — alongside 16 participants without any relevant background, who acted as controls. The participants were presented with a Google Street View image, a painting of St. Peter’s Basilica, and a computer-generated surreal scene. They had to describe the environment, explain how they would explore the space, and suggest changes to the environment in the image.

    The researchers categorised elements of the responses for both qualitative and quantitative analyses using a novel technique called Cognitive Discourse Analysis, developed by one of the co-authors, Dr Thora Tenbrink (Bangor University), designed to highlight aspects of thought that underlie linguistic choices, beyond what speakers are consciously aware of.

    “By looking at language systematically we found some consistent patterns, which turned out to be quite revealing,” Dr Tenbrink said.

    The painters tended to shift between describing the scene as a 3D space or as a 2D image. Architects were more likely to describe barriers and boundaries of the space, and used more dynamic terms, while sculptors’ responses were between the two. Painters and architects also differed in how they described the furthest point of the space, as painters called it the ‘back’ and architects called it the ‘end.’ The control participants gave less elaborate responses, which the authors say went beyond just a lack of expert terminology.

    “Our study has provided evidence that your career may well change the way you think. There’s already extensive research into how culture changes cognition, but here we’ve found that even within the same culture, people of different professions differ in how they appreciate the world,” said Dr Spiers.

    “Our findings also raise the possibility that people who are already inclined to see the world as a 2D image, or who focus on the borders of a space, may be more inclined to pursue painting or architecture,” he said.

    “In their day-to-day work, artists and architects have a heightened awareness of their surroundings, which seems to have a deep influence on the way they conceive of space,” said the study’s first author, Claudia Cialone (now based at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, Australian National University). “We hope our research will lead to further studies into the spatial cognition of other professionals, which could help devise new ways of understanding, representing and communicating space for ourselves.”


  6. Study suggests video games can change your brain

    July 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Scientists have collected and summarized studies looking at how video games can shape our brains and behavior. Research to date suggests that playing video games can change the brain regions responsible for attention and visuospatial skills and make them more efficient. The researchers also looked at studies exploring brain regions associated with the reward system, and how these are related to video game addiction.

    Do you play video games? If so, you aren’t alone. Video games are becoming more common and are increasingly enjoyed by adults. The average age of gamers has been increasing, and was estimated to be 35 in 2016. Changing technology also means that more people are exposed to video games. Many committed gamers play on desktop computers or consoles, but a new breed of casual gamers has emerged, who play on smartphones and tablets at spare moments throughout the day, like their morning commute. So, we know that video games are an increasingly common form of entertainment, but do they have any effect on our brains and behavior?

    Over the years, the media have made various sensationalist claims about video games and their effect on our health and happiness. “Games have sometimes been praised or demonized, often without real data backing up those claims. Moreover, gaming is a popular activity, so everyone seems to have strong opinions on the topic,” says Marc Palaus, first author on the review, recently published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

    Palaus and his colleagues wanted to see if any trends had emerged from the research to date concerning how video games affect the structure and activity of our brains. They collected the results from 116 scientific studies, 22 of which looked at structural changes in the brain and 100 of which looked at changes in brain functionality and/or behavior.

    The studies show that playing video games can change how our brains perform, and even their structure. For example, playing video games affects our attention, and some studies found that gamers show improvements in several types of attention, such as sustained attention or selective attention. The brain regions involved in attention are also more efficient in gamers and require less activation to sustain attention on demanding tasks.

    There is also evidence that video games can increase the size and efficiency of brain regions related to visuospatial skills. For example, the right hippocampus was enlarged in both long-term gamers and volunteers following a video game training program.

    Video games can also be addictive, and this kind of addiction is called “Internet gaming disorder.” Researchers have found functional and structural changes in the neural reward system in gaming addicts, in part by exposing them to gaming cues that cause cravings and monitoring their neural responses. These neural changes are basically the same as those seen in other addictive disorders.

    So, what do all these brain changes mean? “We focused on how the brain reacts to video game exposure, but these effects do not always translate to real-life changes,” says Palaus. As video games are still quite new, the research into their effects is still in its infancy. For example, we are still working out what aspects of games affect which brain regions and how. “It’s likely that video games have both positive (on attention, visual and motor skills) and negative aspects (risk of addiction), and it is essential we embrace this complexity,” explains Palaus.


  7. A little inhibition shapes the brain’s GPS

    April 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the King’s College London press release:

    Researchers from King’s College London have discovered a specific class of inhibitory neurons in the cerebral cortex which plays a key role in how the brain encodes spatial information. The findings are published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

    The cerebral cortex, the brain’s outer layer, is responsible for many complex brain functions, such as thought, movement, perception, learning and memory. It is a complex, highly organised, structure, whose function relies on vast networks containing two main groups of nerve cells, or neurons: pyramidal neurons and interneurons. Neurons communicate with each other through chemical and electrical signals that can be excitatory (activating) or inhibitory (deactivating), depending on their class: Pyramidal cells are excitatory neurons whilst interneurons are inhibitory. Importantly, due to their great diversity, interneurons are uniquely placed to orchestrate the activity of neural networks in multiple ways. Understanding the function of specific classes of cortical interneurons is therefore one of the main challenges of contemporary neuroscience.

    Previous studies have shown that a special type of cortical interneurons, called basket cells, exerts a strongly inhibitory effect on brain circuits. However, their specific contribution to the function of cortical circuits has remained elusive. In their new study, the researchers reveal that one of the main classes of basket cells plays a key role in how the brain represents and remembers our environment, called spatial information coding.

    The multidisciplinary team of researchers from the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology (CDN) at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), and the MRC Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders (MRC CNDD), found that a particular class of basket cells does not function properly in the absence of a protein called ErbB4, making and receiving fewer connections with other neurons. They also found that the disruption of the connectivity of these cells during brain development causes alterations in brain oscillatory activity and disturbs the function of place cells, a type of pyramidal neuron that becomes active when an animal is located in a particular place in its environment. These developmental defects in the wiring of neural circuits cause very selective alterations in spatial learning and memory in adult mice. Together, these results uncover a novel role for interneurons in the coding of spatial information in mice.

    ‘Our work emphasises the high level of functional specialisation that exist among different classes of neurons in the cerebral cortex. This study also exemplifies how relatively subtle developmental changes in neural circuits have a major impact in function and behaviour in adults’, said Professor Oscar Marín, senior co-author of the study and Director of the MRC CNDD and the CDN at King’s College London.

    The present study builds on previous work by the laboratories of Professor Beatriz Rico and Professor Oscar Marín on the role of the disease susceptibility gene ErbB4 in the development of neuronal circuits in the cerebral cortex. In recent years, their work has led to the realisation that cortical inhibitory circuitry is directly involved in cognitive function, and that developmental disruption of the function of cortical interneurons might be linked to the pathophysiology of developmental disorders such as schizophrenia.?

    Professor Beatriz Rico, senior co-author of the study from the MRC CNDD and the CDN, said: ‘Step by step we are building knowledge on how cortical interneurons orchestrate the function of cortical networks. We know that the hippocampus is the brain area where precise maps of spatial information are established. In this study, we have discovered that a subpopulation of inhibitory neurons is essential to maintain the shape and the stability of these maps. Without the proper wiring of these interneurons, the spatial information changes from precise to diffuse and from stable to unstable.’