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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What people with "calendar synesthesia" reveal about how our minds deal with time

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Synesthesia is the fascinating neurological phenomenon whereby stimulation of one sense involuntarily triggers another sensory pathway. A synesthete might taste sounds or hear colors. Now, leading synesthesia researcher VS Rakmachandran at the University of California, San Diego is studying "calendar synesthetes" who see very clear images of calendars in their mind's eye when they think about months that have passed or are in the future. For example, according to New Scientist, one participant in the research "sees her months as occupying an asymmetrical “V” shape. Along this V, she sees each month written in Helvetica font." From New Scientist:

The idea that calendars are literally laid out in space for some people suggests that we are all hardwired to some extent to map time in space.

The concepts of time and numbers are something we acquired relatively recently in our evolutionary history, says Ramachandran, but the brain wouldn’t have had time to evolve a specific area to deal with it.

“Given the opportunistic nature of evolution, perhaps the most convenient way to represent the abstract idea of sequences of numbers and time might have been to map them onto a preexisting map of visual space, already present in the brain,” he says.

Indeed, imaging scans show connections between areas of the brain involved in numbers and those involved with mapping the world, memories and our sense of self. The team suggest that when these areas act together, they enable us to navigate mentally through space and time, while being firmly anchored in the present.

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Johns Hopkins psychedelics research keeps finding medical uses

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Johns Hopkins is among several institutions challenging a key tenet of outlawing psychedelics: that they have "no medicinal use." Baltimore Magazine examines the progress made by key researchers Roland Griffiths and Bill Richards. Read the rest

Science behind sleeping while you're awake

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You may think you're awake but there's a good chance that part of your brain is asleep. And that can cause real problems, especially since you may not even be aware of it. In fact, indivisual neurons and groups of neurons in the cerebral cortex can be independently offline while others are awake. In Scientific American, Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, explores the counter-intuitive reality of "Sleeping While Awake:"

A case in point for sleep intruding into wakefulness involves brief episodes of sleep known as microsleep. These intervals can occur during any monotonous task, whether driving long distances across the country, listening to a speaker droning on or attending yet another never-ending departmental meeting. You're drowsy, your eyes get droopy, the eyelids close, your head repeatedly nods up and down and then snaps up: your consciousness lapses....

Perniciously, subjects typically believe themselves to be alert all the time during microsleep without recalling any period of unconsciousness. This misapprehension can be perilous to someone in the driver's seat. Microsleep can be fatal when driving or operating machinery such as trains or airplanes, hour after tedious hour. During a microsleep episode, the entire brain briefly falls asleep, raising the question of whether bits and pieces of the brain can go to sleep by themselves, without the entire organ succumbing to slumber.

Indeed, Italian-born neuroscientists Chiara Cirelli and Giulio Tononi, who study sleep and consciousness at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, discovered “sleepy neurons” in experimental animals that showed no behavioral manifestation of sleep...

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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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The coming fight over "nonlethal neuroweapons"

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The Chemical Weapons Convention has a giant loophole in that it allows for the stockpiling and use of chemical agents in law-enforcement; with the Eighth Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) coming up next month, there's an urgent question about whether "neuroweapons" (chemical agents intended to pacify or disperse people) will become tools of law-enforcement and "defensive warfare." Read the rest

What's going on in the brains of people who don't need much sleep?

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Many people claim that they don't need much sleep, insisting that even five hours a night is enough shuteye for them to feel rested. According to new scientific research, "habitual short sleepers" may actually be handling the brain tasks that most of us deal with during the night, like memory consolidation. From Medical Xpress:

Both groups of short sleepers exhibited connectivity patterns more typical of sleep than wakefulness while in the MRI scanner. (University of Utah radiologist Jeff) Anderson says that although people are instructed to stay awake while in the scanner, some short sleepers may have briefly drifted off, even those who denied dysfunction. "People are notoriously poor at knowing whether they've fallen asleep for a minute or two," he says. For the short sleepers who deny dysfunction, one hypothesis is that their wake-up brain systems are perpetually in over-drive. "This leaves open the possibility that, in a boring fMRI scanner they have nothing to do to keep them awake and thus fall asleep," says (Utah neurologist Chirstopher) Jones. This hypothesis has public safety implications, according to Curtis. "Other boring situations, like driving an automobile at night without adequate visual or auditory stimulation, may also put short sleepers at risk of drowsiness or even falling asleep behind the wheel," he says.

Looking specifically at differences in connectivity between brain regions, the researchers found that short sleepers who denied dysfunction showed enhanced connectivity between sensory cortices, which process external sensory information, and the hippocampus, a region associated with memory. "That's tantalizing because it suggests that maybe one of the things the short sleepers are doing in the scanner is performing memory consolidation more efficiently than non-short sleepers," Anderson says.

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Bad trips may be good for you

A "bad trip" on psychedelic mushrooms may lead to "enduring increases in well-being," according to a new study from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Neuroscientist Roland Griffiths and colleagues surveyed nearly 2,000 adults about their psilocybin experiences. Those who experienced bad trips had taken, on average, a powerful dose of 4 grams. From Psypost:

A majority of the participants — 62 percent — said their bad trip was among the top 10 most psychologically difficult situations of their lives. Eleven percent said it was their number one most difficult experience.

But 34 percent of participants said the bad trip was among the top five most personally meaningful experiences of their life and 31 percent said it was the among the top five most spiritually significant. And 76 percent said the bad trip had resulted in an improved sense of personal well-being or life satisfaction. Forty-six percent said they would be willing to experience the bad trip all over again.

"Survey study of challenging experiences after ingesting psilocybin mushrooms: Acute and enduring positive and negative consequences" (Journal of Psychopharmacology) Read the rest

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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Thought-controlled nanorobots in your body

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A team of Israeli scientists devised a system by which a person can use their thoughts alone to trigger tiny DNA-based nanorobots inside a living creature to release a drug.

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Why did it take a private foundation to do public science right?

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Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen funded the Allen Brain Observatory, a detailed, rich data-set derived from parts of a mouse-brain: what's striking is that the Allen Institute released all the data into the public domain, at once, as soon as it was available, which is exactly what you'd want the publicly funded alternatives to do, and what they almost never do. Read the rest

Study confirms a physical correlate to PTSD: "brown dust" in the brain

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Since WWI, doctors have speculated that PTSD's underlying cause was some sort of physical damage caused by blast-waves from bombs, which literally shook loose something important in the brains of sufferers. Read the rest

Neural Dust: tiny wireless implants act as "electroceuticals" for your brain

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UC Berkeley researchers are developing "Neural Dust," tiny wireless sensors for implanting in the brain, muscles, and intestines that could someday be used to control prosthetics or a "electroceuticals" to treat epilepsy or fire up the immune system. So far, they've tested a 3 millimeter long version of the device in rats.

“I think the long-term prospects for neural dust are not only within nerves and the brain, but much broader,“ says researcher Michel Maharbiz. “Having access to in-body telemetry has never been possible because there has been no way to put something supertiny superdeep. But now I can take a speck of nothing and park it next to a nerve or organ, your GI tract or a muscle, and read out the data."

Maharbiz, neuroengineer Jose Carmena, and their colleagues published their latest results on "Wireless Recording in the Peripheral Nervous System with Ultrasonic Neural Dust" in the journal Neuron.

From UC Berkeley:

While the experiments so far have involved the peripheral nervous system and muscles, the neural dust motes could work equally well in the central nervous system and brain to control prosthetics, the researchers say. Today’s implantable electrodes degrade within 1 to 2 years, and all connect to wires that pass through holes in the skull. Wireless sensors – dozens to a hundred – could be sealed in, avoiding infection and unwanted movement of the electrodes.

“The original goal of the neural dust project was to imagine the next generation of brain-machine interfaces, and to make it a viable clinical technology,” said neuroscience graduate student Ryan Neely.

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Scientist uses magic (and psychology) to implant thoughts and read minds

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In a new scientific study, McGill University researcher Jay Olson combined stage magic with psychology to make people think that an fMRI machine (actually a fake) could read their minds and implant thoughts in their heads. Essentially, Olson and his colleagues used "mentalist" gimmicks to do the ESP and "thought insertion" but convinced the subjects that it was real neuroscience at work. The research could someday help psychologists study and understand why some individuals with mental health problems think they are being controlled by external forces. Vaughan "Mind Hacks" Bell blogged about Olson's research for the British Psychological Society. From Vaughan's post:

(The subjects) reported a range of anomalous effects when they thought numbers were being "inserted" into their minds: A number “popped in” my head, reported one participant. Others described “a voice … dragging me from the number that already exists in my mind”, feeling “some kind of force”, feeling “drawn” to a number, or the sensation of their brain getting “stuck” on one number. All a striking testament to the power of suggestion.

A common finding in psychology is that people can be unaware of what influences their choices. In other words, people can feel control without having it. Here, by using the combined powers of stage magic and a sciency-sounding back story, Olson and his fellow researchers showed the opposite – that people can have control without feeling it.

"Using a cocktail of magic and fMRI, psychologists implanted thoughts in people's minds" (BPS)

"Simulated thought insertion: Influencing the sense of agency using deception and magic" (Consciousness and Cognition)

Illustration by Rob Beschizza Read the rest

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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The mind-blowing neuroscience of hacking your dreams

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Moran Cerf, a pen-testing bank-robber turned horribly misunderstood neuroscientist (previously, previously) gets to do consensual, cutting-edge science on the exposed brains of people with epilepsy while they're having brain surgery. Read the rest

Brainjacking: the future of software security for neural implants

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In a new scientific review paper published in World Neurosurgery, a group of Oxford neurosurgeons and scientists round up a set of dire, terrifying warnings about the way that neural implants are vulnerable to networked attacks. Read the rest

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