The human brain has long been a mystery. It’s one of the most powerful organs, capable of creating thought, memory, and learning. But scientists have struggled with unlocking exactly how it does these incredible feats. The good news is that every year, more studies and more studies are done. And scientists are discovering more about the brain than ever before. Every month, researchers release dozens of new findings, each one helping to unlock the mysteries that have long eluded science before. We went through the latest neuroscience journals and found five of the best brain discoveries of 2023.
Breathing Network Unlocked
Neuroscientists are one step closer to understanding how breathing affect neural networks in the brain.
Breathing is a fundamental physiological process. The brain controls breathing in the same way it controls all other automatic functions. And scientists know a decent amount about how breathing affects the brain. They know the brain stem controls how you breathe. And that breathing modulates neural activity in various regions in the brain. But the exact extent of that neural control was largely unknown.
Scientists relied on fMRI scans to trace respiration and neural function. But the scans had a difficult time discerning if neural activity was because of breathing or normal C02 fluctuations and body movement.
A new study by Nanyin Zhang, the Lloyd & Dorothy Foehr Huck Chair in Brain Imaging and director of the Center for Neurotechnology in Mental Health Research at Penn State discovered a respiratory network in the brain. For the first time, they were able to map neural responses throughout the brain that were modulated by respiration. Essentially, they’re able to determine exactly how breathing patterns can impact neural activity directly.
While scientists have known that breathing can change your emotional state, and vice versa, the exact mechanisms taking place in the brain were still vague. By pairing fMRI technology with electrophysiology, they hope to further study how breathing can modulate neural activity in practices like deep breathing, meditation, and more.
Read more, here.
Zipping Up Tasks
A new study discovered the underlying mechanism of ‘muscle memory’. Rather than remembering an activity as a whole, the brain actually ‘unzips’ each individual movement before ‘zipping’ them back together in the right order of operations to complete the task. Before this discovery, neurologists believed the brain stored activities and tasks as one cohesive behavior.
They also discovered that the brain stores specific components of these actions in different motor areas of the brain. The brain further separates the tasks into order sequence and timing, and then combines them when it’s time to perform the task.
Researchers believe that storing these elements individually and reviewing them before executing the movements allows for greater flexibility and resilience. Participants had an easier time learning new sequences when the timing of the activity, in this case finger presses, was the same. But learning a known activity with a new timing was more difficult. They hope this discovery will help design new therapies for stroke patients and other brain injuries.
Read more, here.
Alzheimer’s Immune Cell Discovery
Several clinical trials are underway examining the role immune cells play in Alzheimer’s and other neural degenerative disease. Many studies focus on the microglia for treatment, as they are the brain’s immune cells. If activated at the wrong time or in the wrong way, rather than protecting the brain, they can actually damage neural cells. Researchers out of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that neurodegeneration happens when microglia partner with T-cells. T-cells are powerful immune cells designed to attack and kill foreign particles.
Patients with Alzheimer’s disease have large numbers of T-cells in their brain. But scientists didn’t understand why or that this increased number was contributing to neurodegeneration. A new study focused on tau-related neurodegeneration in mice found that when the brain blocks T-cells from entering, those individuals could avoid neurodegeneration.
Tau is a protein that helps stabilize nerve cells in the brain. However, too much of the protein activates the microglia, which then attracts T cells into the brain to fight the buildup. At a certain point, this buildup also begins collecting tau, and that’s when the disease begins to noticeably progress.
Xiaoying Chen, PhD, an instructor in neurology and first author of the study, looked at four study groups of mice. The first two had amyloid beta buildup, the third had tau buildup, and the fourth was a healthy brain group. The third group had the most neurodegeneration and also had the highest level of T cells in the brain. Further, the concentration of T cells was the highest where neurodegeneration occurred. The study found that when they prevented T cells from entering the brain, they prevented most of the neurodegeneration. Researchers are excited to continue studying how this might help prevent tau-related disease from damaging the brain.
Read more, here.
Lab Grown Neurons
Researchers out of Northwestern University have successfully created mature neurons from human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). This is the first time they’ve been able to create these highly mature neurons. Previously, they could create neurons from stem cells, but they were immature and difficult to use in many therapeutic interventions.
The research team took the iPSCs and used a breakthrough technique discovered last year by Northwestern professor Samuel I. Stupp known as ‘dancing molecules’. They then coated them with synthetic nanofibers. This process created a mature neuron that didn’t clump together the way immature neurons using stem cells previously did. Even more exciting, these new neurons weren’t simply more mature, they also displayed better signaling and branching capabilities. That makes them more likely to integrate in the brain and create more synaptic connections.
Researchers are testing new ways to apply their findings. One area of focus will use patient skin cells, converting them into iPSCs, and using them to treat spinal cord injuries and neurodegenerative disorders. In addition to researching new therapeutic protocols, researchers can also use these mature cells to simulate degenerative diseases in order to study how they can be prevented in the future.
Read more, here.
Tune Brainwaves for Learning
Research out of the University of Cambridge shows that not only does every brain have a unique rhythm pattern, but tuning into those wavelengths dramatically improves learning. This is the first time a study has synchronized learning to specific and individualized brain wave patterns.
The study used electroencephalography, or an EEG machine, to tune into the natural brainwave patterns of the participants and find their exact peak alpha wave performance. Alpha waves are the frequency your brain is in when you’re awake and relaxed. Studies show that this is where you feel calm and creative.
Before being presented with new learning material, they showed participants a 1.5-second pulse pattern to tune their brain to various brainwave patterns. This process is called “entrainment”. They gave some peak performance frequencies, other’s low performance, and other’s random patterns. Participants then had to complete over 800 cognitive tasks. Individuals attuned to peak performance brainwaves performed three times faster than all other groups.
Researchers believe that these new findings can help maintain neuroplasticity as people age and encourage lifelong learning. While this study focused on visual perception, researchers believe this approach can enhance motor skills and even auditory learning. Even more exciting, less invasive devices such as headbands can create similar results outside of clinical settings.
Read more, here.
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