Category Archives: neuroscience

The Brain That Changes Itself

“The brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined, and nature has gone very far to help us perceive and take in the world around us. It has given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself.”
Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.

The book The Brain that Changes Itself has not only affected the influentials of neuroscience but also has created the turning point for the laypeople to be informed about the complexity of our cognitive organ: the brain.

Until the late 19th centuries, people had believed that neuron cells were not capable of presenting any resilient activities; thus, people thought that once the brain cell has been damaged, the cell is permanently gone. The researchers struggled to understand even the basic 10% of the infrastructures/faculties of the brain, and even in that small percentage had errors.

However, as the emergence of the 21 century, scholars of the field has developed neuroscience technology to “observe” the pattern of brain activities. Well, renown Canadian psychiatrist Norman Doidge was also one of the vanguards of such. His book-The Brain That Changes Itself- is still renown as a prominent opus that amazes the readers within its context dealing with the basics of the functions, to a clear explanation of the answer to the title.

Contrary to the original belief that after childhood the brain begins a gradual process of decline, he shows us that our brains have the remarkable power to grow, change, learn, recover, and has latent effects to the human nature.

The huge leap in the study of neuroscience explained in the book occurs as Doidge explains the “brain’s plasticity”. Long before, scientists believed that each part of the brain takes charge of given function. In the 1860s, with Paul Broca’s discovery that damage to a specific part of the brain—the left frontal lobe which was associated with speech impairment— bolstered the “locational theory”. With further evidence created by other eminent scientists, such as Carl Wernicke, Gustav Fritsch, and J. L. Hitzig, brain locational theory seemed to be the only answer to the unsolvable conundrum that troubled the clique of neuroscience for ages. However, a new theory is given as a novel key to unlock the latch of the mystery.

Plasticity theory, further elaborated in the book, states that now scholars embrace the recognition that the brain is plastic and can actually change itself with exercise and understanding. Although a newbie theory compared to the former one with the paucity of empirical evidence, the theory now pervades the area, flipping every corner of the sects of neuroscience.


Read more: Localization (Brain Function) – Functions, Theories, Damage, and Mental – JRank Articles



Which is smarter?

People are wondering which is smarter, cat or dog. They can get a clear answer from neuroscientists. Intelligence is concerned with the number of neurons in the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is a group of neurons where each of its section has different ability. The cerebral cortex is in charge of memory, concentration, and thought. Famous neuro-scientist Herculano-Houzel wanted to find the relationship between the number of neurons in the brain and size of the brain in his research.  According to the research, “dogs have about 530 million cortical neurons while cats have about 250 million.” The researchers concluded that the number of neurons in a dog’s brain is larger than that of a cat’s brain and it is not required for smarter animals to have bigger brains than less intelligent animals do. Herculano-Houzel and her companions studied the brain of eight carnivore species-ferret, mongoose, raccoon, cat, dog, hyena, lion, and brown bear. They thought the carnivores would have more neurons in their brain than herbivores’ brains do because  hunting is a challenging job. However, the result was different from their hypothesis.  The researchers concluded that the number of neurons in an animal brain is independent from the size of the brain. For instance, a bear has 10 times larger brain than that of a cat, but the bear has almost the same number of neurons.

The hunting is a challenging and demanding work, so it requires a lot of energy. The brain also demands a great deal of energy as its number of neurons increases. If the carnivores have a great number of neurons, it would consume too much energy, making them harder to survive. That is why the carnivore has a smaller number of the neurons; however, it is not always applicable to all cases: that for raccoons. Although the raccoon has a small brain, it has as many nerve cells as we find in a primate’s brain. According to the neuroscientist, “not every species is made in the same way. Yes, there are recognizable patterns, but there are multiple ways that nature has found of putting brains together-and we’re trying to figure out what difference that makes.”

Is Brain Necessary for a Growing Frog?

The embryonic brain of a frog is busy long before it is completely formed. What it usually does is supervising the process of forming the layout of complex patterns of muscles and nerve fibers by sending signals to the part far from it just a day after fertilization. So, if the brain of a frog embryo is missing, the growth of its body goes wrong, reported in Nature Communications on September 25.

The result of this research from brainless embryos and tadpoles helps the biologists to understand the signals of the brain which are involved in the correct development of muscles and nerve fibers. Scientists have usually researched short-range signals that occur between two neighboring cells, not a long one. So, this research is the first example of investigating long-range signals.

Celia Herrera-Rincon of Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and colleagues devised a simple way to observe the body growth of the brainless tadpole. They got rid of growing brains of the African clawed frog embryos just a day after fertilization. Surprisingly, they succeeded in becoming tadpoles from embryos without the brain and became innovative experiment result showing that some organisms can grow without a brain.

This experiment revealed that brains are not essential to the body growth of embryos. However, there are also side effects of having no brain. The brain directs and guides the behavior of the parts of the body before they fully grow. Normally, muscle fibers form a stacked chevron pattern. But in brainless tadpoles, they form incorrectly bungled pattern. “The borders between segments are all wonky,” says the study coauthor Michael Levin, also of Tufts University. “They can’t keep a straight line.”

Nerve fibers spreading on the body of the tadpole were also abnormally grown in the brainless frog embryos. Nerve fibers surrounding the bodies of the tadpoles formed a confusing pattern in the wrong places during their growth. Muscle and nerve abnormalities have been found to be the biggest problems, and major organs such as the heart are also thought to be defective in those embryos, and further research is required to clarify those defects.

In addition, the growth process of brainless embryos was interrupted by certain substances that would not interfere normal embryo’s development. Therefore, it might be reasonable to conclude that the brain of a frog embryo blocks harmful substances at the beginning of its growth.

Scientists were also interested in how the brain transmits long-distance signals to distant cells during the growth process. They do not know the exact process but have some idea about it. Injection of chemical messengers and proteins like acetylcholine and  HCN2 improved the development of muscle system in brainless frog embryos. However, further research is needed to find out if those injections are actually mimicking the process of the embryo’s brain.

Although frogs and mammals cannot be identified as same, it seems plausible that this principle can be applied to humans because the substances forming the bodies are fundamentally same in both organisms.



Have you ever seen a slumberous jellyfish?

Have you ever heard a story that an invertebrate without a brain sleeps? I know it is unbelievable for you. However, it was reported September 21, 2017, in the journal Current Biology that sleeping of invertebrates without a brain might be possible. Paul Stenberg and other researchers involved in Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator observed the upside-down jellyfish Cassiopea. They are known to live in very clear tropical water. They have unusual characteristics. They rest upside-down on the bottom of the water and they are silver dollar–sized, but they pulse like other types of jellyfish. The researchers videotaped the jellies with their iPhone, and they finally figured out a clue for sleeping. Their pulsing activities at night was considerably lower compared to daytime. When the researchers dropped the food, their pulsing came back to normal pulsing as if the smell of coffee wake up at morning. They also found another clue of sleep by dropping the floor out from the slumberous jellies. They put Cassiopea inside a PVC pipe with a mesh bottom. Lowering the pipe, they made Cassiopea float in open water. As a result, Cassiopea showed slow responses to stimulations. The results bring us to many questions; Do you need neurons to sleep? ; Do you need more than one cell to sleep?



Tongues ‘taste’ water by sensing sour

All we know about water is that water is an odorless, tasteless, slightly compressible liquid when it’s pure. However, when we drink water, we can know that it’s water. It might be unsurprising to notice that we’re drinking something liquid. But how do we know that it’s water, not syrup? Then, does it mean that water has a taste? – actually not. According to the new study, we can recognize the water not by tasting the water itself, but by sensing acid which is produced when we drink water.

All mammals need water to sustain their life. When we drink water, we have to drink the water through our mouth.According to Yuki Oka who studies the brain at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, our tongue has evolved to detect some necessary materials for survival like salt and sugar. This, in other words, means that the sense of detecting water would have evolved.

It is already found that a brain area called the hypothalamus controls thirstiness of mammals. But a brain cannot decide the taste of something alone because, in order to taste something, the brain should cooperate with a mouth and receive a signal from it to know what the person’s eating or drinking. Oka says, “There has to be a sensor that senses water, so we choose the right fluid.” If we cannot distinguish the water from others, we might make a fatal decision, such as drinking poison instead of water.

To prove the water sensor, Oka and his group used mice. They dripped different flavors of liquid onto mice’s tongues. They observed a signal from the nerve cells attached to the taste buds when they were drinking, and mice showed a great nerve response to all tastes. However, the main point is that they reacted to water similarly. Somehow, the scientists discovered that taste buds are able to detect water.

Our mouth is filled with a lot of saliva— a mixture of enzymes and other molecules. Also, the mouth includes bicarbonate ions (HCO3-), which make saliva more basic. The pure water has lower pH than basic saliva. When we pour the water into the mouth, it washes out the basic saliva and enzymes in our mouth instantly starts to replace the ions. It combines carbon dioxide and water to produce bicarbonate. As a side effect, it also produces protons. The bicarbonate is basic, but the protons are acid. Then, the receptors on our tongue detect acid that we usually call ‘sour flavor’ and sends a signal to the brain.

To confirm this, Oka and his group used a technique called optogenetics. In this method, scientists insert light-sensitive molecules, which trigger an electrical impulse when shone with light, inside cells. With this principle, Oka’s team added a light-sensitive molecule to the sour-sensing taste bud cells of mice. As they shone the light to their tongues, they started to lick the light as if they lick the water. By stimulating acid sensor, they misunderstood it as water.

To the other group of mice, Oka’s team removed the sour-sensing molecule by blocking the genetic instructions that make this molecule. As a result, they weren’t able to know whether what they’re drinking is water or not. They even drank thin oil instead. Oka and his group published their results on May 29 in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Scott Sternson, who studies brain’s mechanism for controlling animal behavior at a Howard Hughes Medical Institute research center in Ashburn, VA, says it’s crucial to learn how we sense simple but vital things, such as water. “It’s important for the basic understanding of how our bodies work,” he says.

Some people might think it’s a weird concept that the water has a sour ‘taste’. Flavor is a complex interaction between taste and smell. So, detecting water is quite different with tasting. Water may still taste like nothing, but to our tongues, it’s definitely something.



What is “Phantom Pain?”

Phantom pain sensation refers to a person’s feeling related to limbs or organs that are physically not a part of their body. For example, let’s say that a part of a person’s body, such as an arm, was amputated because of an accident. If the person has a phantom pain sensation, then he would feel pain in the position where his arm supposed to exist, even though he doesn’t have an arm (this particular phantom pain related to the limbs are called phantom limb pain).

Then why do these kinds of phenomenon occur? According to the scientists, when a part of a body is amputated, then the region of the brain that was needed for the control of that part of the body is no longer needed, and the neuronal system in the part of the brain falls into disarray. To fill the empty spots in the brain, those parts of the brain take over the tasks of the neighboring neurons and become rearranged to do different things. However, when the brain tries to adapt to the new situation, in some cases this process goes wrong, which eventually causes the phantom pain.

As you can see, there are no apparent causes of the phantom pain discovered by scientists because there might be other reasons other than the cerebral shifts such as inherited nerve damages. However, using fMRI, a method to distinguish the active parts of the brain while it’s working, scientists have discovered that degree of the shifts related to the functions in our brain caused by amputation (and many other factors) is directly proportional to the intensity of pain the patient receives through the phantom pain. Also, researchers found out that a person with a functional artificial limb has felt less phantom limb pain than the patients that do not have it.

Even though it might take some time, a cure for phantom pain keeps on developing as the researches related to phantom pain proceed. I hope that later, the patients would not suffer from their phantom pain, or, in my own words, “false pain.”



12 July, 2017 – Episode 627 – This Week in Science Podcast (TWIS)

10% of Brain??

‘So how much percentage of brain did Einstein took advantage of?’


This is a question we ask ourselves after being mesmerized by the catchy internet phrase; people use only 10% of their brain.

However, this is an error made by two Harvard psychologists William James and Boris Sidis while they were studying a very high IQ child named Willian Sidis(adulthood IQ between 250-300). They claimed that people only attained a fraction of their mental potential. This statement has been misinterpreted my times resulting in the myth.

In fact, it has been proved that humans use all parts of their brains for different tasks throughout their life.

The human brain is very perplexing. Along with some mundane acts-just some millions-, brain carries out manifestos and comes up with neat solutions to equations. It also analyzes human emotions, experiences as well as the repository of memory and self-awareness.

So basically, this mistake made by some psychologists is so wrong that it is even laughable. What is correct, however, is that at certain moments in anyone’s life, such as when we are simply at rest and thinking, we may be using only 10 percent of our brains.

Although it is ironic, people can use 100% of their brain when they don’t even understand half of this soft tissue.