Zapping the brain with magnetic pulses boosts libido

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In a curious study, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles showed that transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) -- altering brain activity by zapping specific regions with magnetic pulses -- can apparently increase people's libido, at least briefly. Neuroscientist Nicole Prause and her colleagues targeted the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (at the left temple), a region involved in reward-seeking. New Scientist explains the curious protocol used by the researchers:

...A vibrator was either connected to a sheath that the penis goes in or a small hood that fits over the clitoris. Electrodes on each participant’s head measured the strength of their brain’s alpha waves, which are weaker when people are more sexually aroused.

During the experiment, 20 people were given TMS for about two minutes, designed to either excite or inhibit the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Next, each volunteer was taken to a room where the EEG electrodes were placed on their head. They were then left to attach the vibrator themselves.

Finally, each participant carried out a task that involved pressing a button as fast as possible when shapes appeared on a screen. Depending on how quick they were, they were given a genital buzz lasting between half a second and five seconds – but only after a pause.

Their brainwaves were recorded during this waiting period. “They know they’re about to be sexually stimulated, but it hasn’t actually happened yet,” says Prause. It is the closest analogue for measuring desire in the lab, she adds.

As predicted, after excitatory TMS, participants’ alpha waves were weaker – suggesting they were more sexually aroused – than after inhibitory TMS.

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"Self-control" can be switched off with electromagnetic brain stimulation

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University of Zurich researchers used transcranial magnetic stimulation, a noninvasive method of inhibiting activity in parts of the brain, to "turn off" people's ability to control their impulses. They focused on the temporoparietal junction, an area of the brain thought to play an important role in moral decisions, empathy, and other social interactions. They hope their research could help inform our understanding of addiction and self-discipline. From Scientific American:

In their study, subjects underwent 40 seconds of disruptive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)—in which a magnetic coil placed near the skull produced small electric currents in the brain that inhibited activity of the posterior TPJ—then spent 30 minutes completing a task. To rule out a placebo effect, a control group received TMS in a different area of the brain. In one task, subjects made a choice between a reward (ranging between 75 and 155 Swiss francs) for themselves or one that was shared equally between themselves and another person, who ranged from their closest confidante to a stranger on the street. In another task subjects were offered an immediate reward of between zero and 160 Swiss francs or a guarantee of 160 Swiss francs after waiting three to 18 months. In a final task, subjects were instructed to take the perspective of an avatar and indicate the number of red dots on a ball that the avatar would see.

Subjects with an inhibited TPJ were less likely to share the money and were more likely to take the money up front rather than delay gratification and wait for a larger prize.

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Brain's "reward system" also tied to sleep-wake states

According to Stanford University researchers, a primary circuit in the brain's reward involving the chemical "feel-good" chemical dopamine, is also essential for controlling our sleep-wake cycles.

“Insomnia, a multibillion-dollar market for pharmaceutical companies, has traditionally been treated with drugs such as benzodiazepines that nonspecifically shut down the entire brain," says psychiatry and behavior science professor Luis de Lecea "Now we see the possibility of developing therapies that, by narrowly targeting this newly identified circuit, could induce much higher-quality sleep.”

From Stanford:

It makes intuitive sense that the reward system, which motivates goal-directed behaviors such as fleeing from predators or looking for food, and our sleep-wake cycle would coordinate with one another at some point. You can’t seek food in your sleep, unless you’re an adept sleepwalker. Conversely, getting out of bed is a lot easier when you’re excited about the day ahead of you...

The reward system’s circuitry is similar in all vertebrates, from fish, frogs and falcons to fishermen and fashion models. A chemical called dopamine plays a crucial role in firing up this circuitry.

Neuroscientists know that a particular brain structure, the ventral tegmental area, or VTA, is the origin of numerous dopamine-secreting nerve fibers that run in discrete tracts to many different parts of the brain. A plurality of these fibers go to the nucleus accumbens, a forebrain structure particularly implicated in generating feelings of pleasure in anticipation of, or response to, obtaining a desired objective.

“Since many reward-circuit-activating drugs such as amphetamines that work by stimulating dopamine secretion also keep users awake, it’s natural to ask if dopamine plays a key role in the sleep-wake cycle as well as in reward,” Eban-Rothschild said.

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Blow half of your mind with this explainer on brain hemispheres

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CGP Grey explains that it might be better to think of your brain as two intelligences, with the mute right hemisphere forced to play sidekick to its conjoined twin.

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Split brain explainer video: You Are Two

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The narrator uses a near-parody of the "youtube voice" to explain what happens when the bundle of neural fibers (corpus callosum) connecting the left and right hemispheres of a person's brain is severed. The hemispheres will operate independently of each other, sometimes in an adversarial way. For example, when the right brain (which is less verbal than the left brain) is given a written instruction, the person reacts appropriately, but the left brain won't know why the person followed the instruction, and will make up a reason for performing the action.

Here's a video about a man who had his corpus callosum severed to treat his epilepsy. He said he doesn't feel different but experiments reveal unusual behavior. Read the rest

Man missing for 30 years realizes that he's someone else

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This is Edgar Latulip of southwestern Ontario. The developmentally disabled man has been missing since 1986 but was just found about 120 kilometers from his hometown. Or rather, he found himself. Latulip had lost his memory due to a head injury after he disappeared and had created a new identity. Last month, he realized he wasn't who he thought he was. From CBC:

On Jan. 7, Latulip met with a social worker and told her he thought he was somebody else, Gavin said. The social worker found his missing persons case file and police were then called in. Latulip volunteered to have a DNA test done and on Monday, the results came back indicating he was Latulip.

Gavin said it is an unusual, but happy resolution to the case.

"When someone goes missing for an extended period of time, they don't want to be found and they're off the grid and we don't find them," Gavin said. "Or the other option, sadly, is sometimes people are deceased. I've never heard of something like this where someone's memory has come back and their identity is recovered.

"It is absolutely a good news story," Gavin added. "I try not to only think about his mother's side, but also Mr. Latulip's side where for 30 years you've learned a certain way and someone tells you and confirms to you that's not who you are. That's a lot to take in, personally, right, so there's interesting pieces for him as well."

"Ontario man missing 30 years suddenly remembers own identity" (CBC) Read the rest

New neuroscience-based platform to get to know your mind

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My friend Stanford neuroscientist Melina Uncapher and her colleagues are piloting a new public project called mymntr meant to create a "user guide for your brain" through brain tests for self-knowledge, interviews with fascinating creative folks to get a sense of the minds behind the madness, and lots of other cool stuff at the intersection of science and culture. Read the rest

Psychological disorder causes you to hallucinate your doppelgänger

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In the book The Man Who Wasn't There, Anil Ananthaswamy explores mysteries of self, including the weirdness of autoscopic phenomena, a kind of hallucination in which you are convinced that you are having an out-of-body experience or face to face with your non-existent twin. Read the rest

How neurotech will transform the way we work

Over at Backchannel, I wrote about how brain tech could transform how we work in the future, from displays that react to our mental state to offices that respond to our brainwaves.

Stanford and University of California neuroscientist Melina Uncapher is currently leading a pilot study with a large technology company to use mobile EEG tracking to study how the office environment — from lighting to natural views to noise levels — impacts the brain, cognition, productivity, and wellness of workers. Prepping a room for a big brainstorm? Maybe it’s time to change the light color.

“If you want to encourage abstract thinking and creative ideas, do you pump in more oxygen or less?” says Uncapher, a fellow at Institute for the Future. “Do you raise the ceiling height? Do you make sure you have a view of the natural environment, simulated or real? And if you want people to be more heads-down, is it better for them to be in a room with a lower ceiling?”

The goal, she explains, would be to develop a “quantified environment” that you could precisely tune to different types of working modes.

"Our Highest Selves?" (Backchannel)

(Illustration by Anna Vignet) Read the rest

California woman killed by brain-eating amoeba

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A 21-year-old California woman died from an amoeba that settles in the brain and destroys its tissue. The disease she contracted is called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). It is rare, with only zero to eight cases reported a year, says Inyo Public Health officer Dr. Richard Johnson. But it is almost 100 percent fatal.

Humans are infected by the amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, when swimming or diving in fresh, warm water. The amoeba then migrates through the nose and skull, where it reaches the brain and begins to destroy brain tissue.

"I advise people to be cautious when using untreated hot springs in the Sierras," Dr. Johnson said, "The best way to do that is to keep your head above water."

Image: "Focal hemorrhage and necrosis in frontal cortex due to Naegleria fowleri." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Read the rest

A breakthrough mind-reading experiment turned thoughts into text

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No, it's not science fiction. For the first time ever, scientists in Albany, NY were able to use a "brain-to-text" interface to read thoughts and translate them into text. But it wasn't as simple as one might imagine. In fact, the experiment made me a bit squeamish. To use the "device," researchers placed seven patients in a controlled environment to perform a bit of surgery.

The patients' skulls were split open and electrode sheets were attached directly to their brains. They were also asked to read aloud from various texts (the Gettysburg Address, JFK's inaugural address, Charmed fan fiction, and a children's story) to get a baseline of what their brains were doing while they were speaking.

Finally, the "brainwave recognition device" was able to translate the patients' thoughts onto paper, although the translations were rough and limited. Until this device can read minds without cracking someone's head open, I think I'll keep my thoughts to myself.

For more details see the full story on Vice. Read the rest

Could you possibly transfer your consciousness to another body?

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From Ben Kingsley to brain stimulation, dream recorders to optogenetics... Read the rest

Genetic links between creativity, schizophrenia, and autism

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How is creativity related to schizophrenia and autism? Psychology professor Scott Barry Kaufman looks at a scientific paper suggesting that "creativity and psychosis share genetic roots" in the context of his own research on how different forms of creativity might relate to the schizophrenia spectrum and the autism spectrum. Read the rest

What I learned from Lumosity: fluid intelligence doesn't matter

One of the controversies surrounding brain training sites has been the creators' claims that they build fluid intelligence. Read the rest

Beautiful brain images take over Times Square

Brain City, this beautiful film by Noah Hutton made from neuroimagery collected at leading brain science labs, will screen in New York City just before midnight on Times Square's massive electronic billboards every night this month. Read the rest

Audio illusion: understanding gibberish

WHYY's The Pulse radio show visited The Franklin Institute's new exhibition "Your Brain" where chief bioscientist Jayatri Das demonstrated an incredible audio illusion. Read the rest

fMRI mind-reading of faces

Yale University researchers used brain scans to "read" and reconstruct the faces that individuals were picturing in their minds' eye. The scientists ran fMRI scans on six people as they looked at 300 different faces. Those scans enabled the creation of a database of facial features tied to specific brain response patterns. Then the subjects were shown faces they hadn't seen before. Based on the new fMRI data, a computer was able to generate good approximations of the face the subject was viewing.

“It is a form of mind reading,” said Marvin Chun, Yale professor of psychology, cognitive science and neurobiology who led the study.

The research will be published in the science journal NeuroImage, and an uncorrected proof is available here (only the abstract is free).

More in this Yale press release and Los Angeles Times article.

Previously:

Brain scans reveal our mind movies? Read the rest

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