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Human Evolution Mirrored in Brain Development

[ 2 ] July 28, 2010

For a glimpse at how the human brain has evolved since we last shared an ancestor with primates, just observe the development of a brain from infancy through its first few decades.

The expansion, organization, and folding of the human cerebral cortex is a wondrously complex orchestration of genes that displays the very stages it took to get our brains to their current forms. In a study published July 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, neurobiologist David Van Essen of Washington University in St. Louis compared brain scans of infant and adult humans, then took the results and mapped them against similar scans of macaque monkey brains to show the parallels between brain development and evolution since we parted ways with our primate ancestors.

The Musician’s Brain

[ 2 ] July 24, 2010

A research article in last month’s issue of Neuroscience revealed that trained musicians outperformed non-musicians in a word-remembering task:  How did they do it?  By recruiting extra brain resources from the visual cortex.  The musicians’ recruitment of the visual cortex for this non-visual task was attributed to,

“The long-term and demanding nature of musical training to use as much available neural resources as possible (Huang et al, 2010).”

As Oliver Sacks has written,

“Anatomists would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician – but they could recognize the brain of a professional musician without a moment’s hesitation.”

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Good For Charity, Good For Business

[ 1 ] July 22, 2010

An article in the latest issue of Science argues that pay-what-you-want pricing schemes, when combined with charitable donations, increase profits for sellers and charities.  Ayelet Gneezy et al, carried out a study on over 100,000 theme parkers. They manipulated two price-schemes for “souvenir photos:”  One group could “pay what they want” ($0-whatever), the other paid a fixed price (i.e. $5.00).  Additionally, half of each group was told that a large portion of their money was going to charity. Intriguingly, the group with the pay-what-you-want choice not only raised more money for chairty, but maximized profits for the amusement park as well.

In addition to offering a new strategy and incentive for firms to donate to charity, this article also sheds light on the psychology of philanthropy — “Free-riding” (paying $0) was decreased by the philanthropic factor. It appears that individuals are more likely to choose to pay a lot of money for an item if its cost is flexible and it’s “the right thing to do.”

Robert Seyfarth Explains Theory of Mind

[ 2 ] July 21, 2010

The “Theory of Mind” is an important concept in the study of cognition, communication, and child development.  ToM refers to one’s ability to attribute thoughts, feelings, and knowledge to individuals other than themselves.   Dr. Robert Seyfrath is one of the leading researchers in the field of animal communication, and offers a precise, succinct account of ToM in this nice little clip…


[ 0 ] July 20, 2010
NYU neuroscientist Daniela Schiller with an excellent piece in Scientific American about the recent research on courage, linked in last week’s QuickHits:

Mouse OCD linked to Immune System

[ 6 ] July 15, 2010

A recent study published in Cell magazine has shown that mice who exhibit “excessive grooming behavior,”  which is analogous to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in humans (OCD), can be cured by a bone marrow transplant.  The disorder was linked to deficient immune microglia cells, the street-cleaners of the body (they clear-up cluttery microbes and broken down cellular byproducts).  Healthy-mouse bone marrow was transferred to the OCD mice and within four months they returned to normal grooming patterns.  The gene responsible for healthy microglia – Hox8 – is a vital developmental gene, and it’s connections to observable behavioral patterns, like OCD, are intriguing and will certainly inspire further research.

Audio from the Authors:  Pathological Grooming in Mutant Mice

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