Children’s brains shaped by music training

Musical training tunes the developing brain, scientists report in the Sept. 3 Journal of Neuroscience. After two years in a music enrichment program, children in Los Angeles had more sophisticated brain responses to spoken syllables than kids who had only a year of training.

Researchers led by neuroscientist Nina Kraus of Northwestern University studied 44 children enrolled with the Harmony Project, an organization that brings music training to kids in low-income communities. The children began music lessons when they were on average 8 years old. After two years of lessons, but not one, kids’ brains showed distinct responses to the rapidly spoken sounds “ba” and “ga.”

Electrodes placed on the kids’ scalps revealed millisecond-scale differences in brain activity in response to the syllables, suggesting that the more musically trained brains were better at distinguishing between the sounds. This neural distinction has been linked to real-life skills such as reading and the ability to pick out speech from a noisy din, says Kraus.

She and her colleagues hope to expand their research and bring musical training to more children. “We’ve opened the window a crack, but I’m hoping it can be thrown wide open,” she says.

ADHD: Scientists discover brain’s anti-distraction system.

Two Simon Fraser University psychologists have made a brain-related discovery that could revolutionize doctors’ perception and treatment of attention-deficit disorders.

Psychologists have made a brain-related discovery that could revolutionize doctors’ perception and treatment of attention-deficit disorders. This discovery opens up the possibility that environmental and/or genetic factors may hinder or suppress a specific brain activity that the researchers have identified as helping us prevent distraction.


This discovery opens up the possibility that environmental and/or genetic factors may hinder or suppress a specific brain activity that the researchers have identified as helping us prevent distraction.
The Journal of Neuroscience has just published a paper about the discovery by John McDonald, an associate professor of psychology and his doctoral student John Gaspar, who made the discovery during his master’s thesis research.
This is the first study to reveal our brains rely on an active suppression mechanism to avoid being distracted by salient irrelevant information when we want to focus on a particular item or task.
McDonald, a Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience, and other scientists first discovered the existence of the specific neural index of suppression in his lab in 2009. But, until now, little was known about how it helps us ignore visual distractions.
“This is an important discovery for neuroscientists and psychologists because most contemporary ideas of attention highlight brain processes that are involved in picking out relevant objects from the visual field. It’s like finding Waldo in a Where’s Waldo illustration,” says Gaspar, the study’s lead author.
“Our results show clearly that this is only one part of the equation and that active suppression of the irrelevant objects is another important part.”
Given the proliferation of distracting consumer devices in our technology-driven, fast-paced society, the psychologists say their discovery could help scientists and health care professionals better treat individuals with distraction-related attentional deficits.
“Distraction is a leading cause of injury and death in driving and other high-stakes environments,” notes McDonald, the study’s senior author. “There are individual differences in the ability to deal with distraction. New electronic products are designed to grab attention. Suppressing such signals takes effort, and sometimes people can’t seem to do it.
“Moreover, disorders associated with attention deficits, such as ADHD and schizophrenia, may turn out to be due to difficulties in suppressing irrelevant objects rather than difficulty selecting relevant ones.”
The researchers are now turning their attention to understanding how we deal with distraction. They’re looking at when and why we can’t suppress potentially distracting objects, whether some of us are better at doing so and why that is the case.
“There’s evidence that attentional abilities decline with age and that women are better than men at certain visual attentional tasks,” says Gaspar, the study’s first author.
The study was based on three experiments in which 47 students performed an attention-demanding visual search task. Their mean age was 21. The researchers studied their neural processes related to attention, distraction and suppression by recording electrical brain signals from sensors embedded in a cap they wore.
Story Source:
The above story is based on materials provided by Simon Fraser University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
Journal Reference:
J. M. Gaspar, J. J. McDonald. Suppression of Salient Objects Prevents Distraction in Visual Search. Journal of Neuroscience, 2014; 34 (16): 5658 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4161-13.2014

Toddler brain scan language insight.

Regions of the brain that show leftward asymmetry of myelin
The left hand side of the brain has more myelin

The brain has a critical window for language development between the ages of two and four, brain scans suggest.

Environmental influences have their biggest impact before the age of four, as the brain’s wiring develops to process new words, say UK and US scientists.

The research in The Journal of Neuroscience suggests disorders causing language delay should be tackled early.

It also explains why young children are good at learning two languages.

The scientists, based at King’s College London, and Brown University, Rhode Island, studied 108 children with normal brain development between the ages of one and six.

“Start Quote

Our work seems to indicate that brain circuits associated with language are more flexible before the age of 4, early intervention for children with delayed language attainment should be initiated before this critical age”

Dr Jonathan O’Muircheartaigh King’s College London

They used brain scans to look at myelin – the insulation that develops from birth within the circuitry of the brain.

To their surprise, they found the distribution of myelin is fixed from the age of four, suggesting the brain is most plastic in very early life.

Any environmental influences on brain development will be strongest in infanthood, they predict.

This explains why immersing children in a bilingual environment before the age of four gives them the best chance of becoming fluent in both languages, the research suggests.

It also suggests that there is a critical time during development when environmental influence on cognitive skills may be greatest.

Dr Jonathan O’Muircheartaigh, from King’s College London, led the study.

He told the BBC: “Since our work seems to indicate that brain circuits associated with language are more flexible before the age of four, early intervention for children with delayed language attainment should be initiated before this critical age.

“This may be relevant to many developmental disorders, such as autism, since delayed language is a common early trait.”

Growing vocabulary

Early childhood is a time when language skills develop very rapidly.

Babies have a vocabulary of up to 50 words at 12 months but by the age of six this has expanded to about 5,000 words.

Language skills are localised in the frontal areas of the left-hand side of the brain.

The researchers therefore expected more myelin to develop in the left-hand side of the brain, as the children learned more language.

In fact, they found it remained constant, but had a stronger influence on language ability before the age of four, suggesting there is a crucial window for interventions in developmental disorders.

“This work is important as it is the first to investigate the relationship between brain structure and language across early childhood and demonstrate how this relationship changes with age,” said Dr Sean Deoni from Brown University, a co-researcher on the study.

“This is important since language is commonly altered or delayed in many developmental disorders, such as autism.”

Commenting on the study, Prof Dorothy Bishop of the department of Developmental Neuropsychology at the University of Oxford said the research added important new information about early development of connections in brain regions important for cognitive functions.

“There is suggestive evidence of links with language development but it is too early to be confident about functional implications of the findings,” she said.

“Ideally we would need a longitudinal study following children over time to track how structural brain changes relate to language function.”

The study was funded by the National Institutes for Mental Health (US) and the Wellcome Trust (UK).

UC Davis researchers find how viral infection disrupts neural development in offspring, increasing risk of autism.

Activating a mother’s immune system during her pregnancy disrupts the development of neural cells in the brain of her offspring and damages the cells’ ability to transmit signals and communicate with one another, researchers with the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and Department of Neurology have found. They said the finding suggests how maternal viral infection might increase the risk of having a child with autism spectrum disorder or schizophrenia.

The research, “MHCI Requires MEF2 Transcription Factors to Negatively Regulate Synapse Density during Development and in Disease,” is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.


The study’s senior author is Kimberley McAllister, professor in the Center for Neuroscience with appointments in the departments of Neurology and Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior, and a researcher with the UC Davis MIND Institute.

“This is the first evidence that neurons in the developing brain of newborn offspring are altered by maternal immune activation,” McAllister said. “Until now, very little has been known about how maternal immune activation leads to autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia-like pathophysiology and behaviors in the offspring.”

The study was conducted in mice and rats and compared the brains of the offspring of rodents whose immune systems had been activated and those of animals whose immune systems had not been activated. The pups of animals that were exposed to viral infection had much higher brain levels of immune molecules known as the major histocompatibility complex I (MHCI) molecules.

“This is the first evidence that MHCI levels on the surface of young cortical neurons in offspring are altered by maternal immune activation,” McAllister said.

The researchers found that the high MHCI levels impaired the ability of the neurons from the newborn mice’s brains to form synapses, the tiny gaps separating brain cells through which signals are transmitted. Earlier research has suggested that ASD and schizophrenia may be caused by changes in the development of connections in the brain, especially the cerebral cortex.

The researchers experimentally reduced MHCI to normal levels in neurons from offspring following maternal immune activation.

“Remarkably, synapse density returned to normal levels in those neurons,” McAllister said.

“These results indicate that maternal immune activation does indeed alter connectivity during prenatal development, causing a profound deficit in the ability of cortical neurons to form synapses that is caused by changes in levels of MHCI on the neurons,” she said.

MHCI did not work alone to limit the development of synapses. In a series of experiments, the UC Davis researchers determined that MHCI interacted with calcineurin and myocyte enhancer factor-2 (Mef2), a protein that is a critical determinant of neuronal specialization.

MHCI, calcineurin and Mef2 form a biological signaling pathway that had not been previously identified. McAllister’s team showed that in the offspring of the maternal immune activation mothers, this novel signaling pathway was much more active than it was in the offspring of non-MIA animals.

“This finding provides a potential mechanism linking maternal immune activation to disease-linked behaviors,” McAllister said.

It also is a mechanism that may help McAllister and other scientists to develop diagnostic tests and eventually therapies to improve the lives of individuals with these neurodevelopmental disorders.

Sleep ‘boosts brain cell numbers’

Scientists believe they have discovered a new reason why we need to sleep – it replenishes a type of brain cell.

Sleep ramps up the production of cells that go on to make an insulating material known as myelin which protects our brain’s circuitry.


The findings, so far in mice, could lead to insights about sleep’s role in brain repair and growth as well as the disease MS, says the Wisconsin team.

The work is in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Dr Chiara Cirelli and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin found that the production rate of the myelin making cells, immature oligodendrocytes, doubled as mice slept.

The increase was most marked during the type of sleep that is associated with dreaming – REM or rapid eye movement sleep – and was driven by genes.

In contrast, the genes involved in cell death and stress responses were turned on when the mice were forced to stay awake.

Precisely why we need to sleep has baffled scientists for centuries. It’s obvious that we need to sleep to feel rested and for our mind to function well – but the biological processes that go on as we slumber have only started to be uncovered relatively recently.

Growth and repair

Dr Cirelli said: “For a long time, sleep researchers focused on how the activity of nerve cells differs when animals are awake versus when they are asleep.


“Now it is clear that the way other supporting cells in the nervous system operate also changes significantly depending on whether the animal is asleep or awake.”

The researchers say their findings suggest that sleep loss might aggravate some symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease that damages myelin.

In MS, the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the myelin coating of nerves in the brain and spinal cord.

Future studies could look at whether or not sleep affects the symptoms of MS, says Dr Cirelli.

Her team is also interested in testing whether lack of sleep, especially during adolescence, may have long-term consequences for the brain.

Sleep appears necessary for our nervous systems to work properly, says the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

Deep sleep coincides with the release of growth hormone in children and young adults. Many of the body’s cells also show increased production and reduced breakdown of proteins during deep sleep.

Since proteins are the building blocks needed for cell growth and for repair of damage from factors like stress and ultraviolet rays, deep sleep may truly be “beauty sleep”, says NINDS.


Nicotine exposure gives baby rats addictive personalities.

Results suggest explanation for why people exposed to nicotine in the womb are more likely to become smokers.

Exposure to nicotine in the womb increases the production of brain cells that stimulate appetite, leading to overconsumption of nicotine, alcohol and fatty foods in later life, according to a new study in rats.


Smoking during pregnancy is known to alter fetal brain development and increase the risk of premature birth, low birth weight and miscarriage. Prenatal exposure to nicotine also increases the likelihood of tobacco use and nicotine addiction in later life, but exactly how is unclear.

To understand the mechanisms behind this effect, Sarah Leibowitz, a behavioural neurobiologist at the Rockefeller University in New York, and her colleagues injected pregnant rats with small doses of nicotine — which the researchers say are comparable to the amount a pregnant woman would get from smoking one cigarette a day — and then examined the brains and behaviour of the offspring.


In a paper published today in Journal of Neuroscience1, they found that nicotine increased the production of specific types of neurons in the amygdala and hypothalamus. These cells produce orexin, enkephalin and melanin-concentrating hormone, neuropeptides that stimulate appetite and increase food intake.

Rats exposed to nicotine in the womb had more of these cells and produced more of the neuropeptides than those that were not, and this had long-term consequences on their behaviour. As adolescents, they not only self-administered more nicotine, but also ate more fat-rich food and drank more alcohol.

“These peptide systems stimulate food intake,” says Leibowitz, “but we found that they similarly increase the consumption of drugs and stimulate the brain’s reward mechanisms that promote addiction and substance abuse.”

Leibowitz notes that children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy are more likely to smoke themselves during adolescence and adulthood. Her team’s findings suggest a possible mechanism for that.

The use of nicotine patches or e-cigarettes during pregnancy could have a similar effect. “Whether given subcutaneously, as in our study, or via smoking or patches, the same amount of nicotine would still get into the brain to affect neuronal development and function,” Leibowitz says.

The results highlight the toxic effects of nicotine exposure on brain development, says George Koob, a neurobiologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. He also adds that the study casts new light on the role of these neuropeptides in reward and motivation.

In earlier work, Leibowitz and her colleagues showed that rats exposed to fat and alcohol in the womb likewise overconsume these substances as adolescents. “Our studies make it very clear that neuronal development in utero is highly sensitive to these substances,” she says, “with each promoting their overconsumption and addictive-like behaviour in the offspring.” 

She and her collaborators are now comparing the effects of nicotine, fat and alcohol to learn more about how this promotion occurs. They are also exploring ways to reverse the effects of prenatal exposure to these substances, thus preventing their overconsumption in later life, which could lead to addiction and obesity.



Source: Nature


The sport hormone?

A review argues that the hormone oxytocin affects athletic performance, because of its role in modulation of emotional and social processes important to team sports. Jill Jouret reports.

In elite sports, winning can come down to subtle aspects of performance. For example, an individual’s gestures and expressions of emotion can affect team performance and a contest’s outcome. A study of touch behaviour (eg, high-fives, chest bumps) among players in America‘s National Basketball Association showed that teams who touched more had better season records. An investigation of football players’ body language after successful penalty kicks in World Cup and European Championship matches noted that specific celebratory behaviours were associated with the team eventually winning a shootout. Perhaps the emotional display by the elated kicker led to a positive emotion in a teammate, who struck the ball better on his attempt. Whether through touch or emotional expression, trust and goodwill communicated among players motivates the team toward higher achievement.

review by Gert-Jan Pepping and Erik J Timmermans, published in September, 2012, in The Scientific World Journal, argues for oxytocin as the biochemical basis of such emotion transfer that can lead to enhanced performance in team sports. Via its action as a peripheral hormone and a central neurotransmitter, oxytocin modulates a diverse range of mammalian processes. Peripheral effects include regulation of uterine contraction during labour, stimulation of lactation, and modulation of inflammation. Oxytocin receptors are expressed by neurons in the brain and spinal cord, and it has been shown to affect pair bonding, maternal behaviour, and sexual receptivity. Oxytocin is destroyed in the gastrointestinal tract, and does not seem to cross the blood—brain barrier when given intravenously, so its effects are studied in animals by injection of a synthetic form directly into the brain, and in humans via administration of a nasal spray.

Oxytocin is often referred to as the feel-good hormone, because it is released in response to touch and is associated with feelings of calmness and stress reduction. A positive feedback loop means that higher oxytocin concentrations further increase the desire for tactile interaction. This association seems to be the basis for its role in promotion of mother—child bonds and fidelity in monogamous pairs. A study in the Journal of Neuroscience provided behavioural evidence of oxytocin’s involvement in maintenance of bonds among committed couples. After administration of intranasal oxytocin, men in monogamous relationships kept a greater distance between themselves and an attractive researcher than did those given placebo, and approached an attractive image more slowly, whereas no such effect was seen with single men. No wonder oxytocin is also known as the love hormone.

In their review, Pepping and Timmermans outline the argument for giving oxytocin yet a third moniker—the sports hormone. Positive emotions and prosocial behaviour are associated with improved performance in achievement settings in general, hence increasing investment in work environments that enhance team spirit and boost individual motivation. In sports, emotional expressions underpin the continuing exchange of information and mood between teammates and opponents. An emotional display by one player can inspire a similar mood in teammates, and the team’s overall disposition can motivate individual performance. This convergence of mood, or emotional contagion, is a key element in team unity. Measuring a player’s hormone levels during competition is a logistical challenge, but the studies reviewed by Pepping and Timmermans show that, in controlled settings, oxytocin affects processes central to emotional contagion and social perception.

Empathy denotes cognitive ability to adopt another person’s point of view, or emotional capacity to have a shared feeling on the basis of another person’s experience. Cognitive empathy is an important quality for an athlete, since it allows them to understand and predict other players’ behaviour, and emotional empathy contributes to convergence of mood (and motivation) among teammates. The Multifaceted Empathy Test is used to measure empathy, by asking study participants to rate emotional reactions to pictorial stimuli; those given one dose of intranasal oxytocin before the test reported higher empathy than those given placebo. Intranasal oxytocin also improved performance on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, which measures participants’ ability to infer a mental state from subtle facial cues.

Reading emotions such as fear or determination in other players can help athletes make quick decisions about their own actions, and oxytocin seems to be a key biological component for processing these social cues. Pepping and Timmermans describe a study in which MRI showed higher brain activity in specific regions associated with emotion recognition when participants given oxytoxin (vs placebo) were shown images of facial expressions. One dose of oxytocin also improved recognition (ie, at lower intensities) of an emotion emerging on a dynamic, computer-generated face that started with a neutral expression.


Studies showing an effect of oxytocin on gaze behaviour suggest a mechanism for how it modulates emotion recognition, and provide further evidence of its involvement in social exchanges. Tracking the eye movements of men given intranasal oxytocin (vs placebo) showed longer gaze duration and fixation on the eye region of neutral faces. Eyes are the main source of information in interpersonal communication, and gaze behaviour is central to impression-forming among athletes. Sports psychologists have studied gaze behaviour in the context of football penalty kicks, to define the best kicking strategy (eg, to look or not to look at the target), but from a goalkeeper’s point of view, kickers who gaze directly at them for longer create a more imposing impression. To the extent that oxytocin is involved in detection of confidence or fear, a boost in either party could make the difference.

At the elite level, in which superior talent is universal (and modesty in interviews is advised), team unity is often credited for a win. Trust, generosity, and cooperation are indispensable processes for building and maintaining team cohesion, and according to Pepping and Timmermans, oxytocin is once again involved. In games with monetary stakes, individuals given oxytocin make trusting decisions more often than those given placebo. People are also more generous under the influence of oxytocin; when asked to make a masked, one-sided decision on how to split a sum of money with a stranger, a group given oxytocin was 80% more generous than those given placebo. Oxytocin enhanced cooperative decision making when participants played games with economic incentives to cooperate. Stronger incentives lead to greater cooperation, but only if social information was present. When social information was absent, players who received oxytocin were actually less cooperative, which suggests that the oxytocin system intricately modulates risk-taking and risk-aversion in social exchanges.

With so much evidence for oxytocin’s role in athletic performance, particularly in the context of team sports, will players be stashing oxytocin inhalers into their equipment bags for a quick hit mid-game? Pepping and Timmermans point out that oxytocin’s effects are not universally prosocial. Compared with placebo, oxytocin administration increased ratings of envy (ie, a negative emotional reaction to another player’s good fortune) and gloating (ie, malicious pleasure at another’s misfortune) in economic games designed to elicit these negative social emotions. Athletic pursuits are awash with relative gain and loss situations, and keeping composure is important for success, so an artificial boost of oxytocin could be ill advised.

As professional cycling joins the rogue’s gallery of sporting doping scandals, talk of another performance-enhancing drug might seem distasteful. But research suggests that there are subtle ways to improve ability through the natural stimulation of oxytocin, which will always be legal. The high-five, the fist-pump, and the group hug remain staple elements of sporting life, and dosing up on a little more might just make the difference between winners and losers.

Source: Lancet






Sleeping pills could actually IMPROVE your memory, claims controversial new research.




  • Researchers claim that the zolpidem in some sleeping pills enhances the brain’s ability to build-up memories
  • They say the findings could help in the development of treatments for Alzheimer’s and dementia
  • Contradicts previous research which found the drug may actually CAUSE memory loss




Taking sleeping tablets could help improve your memory, according to controversial new research.


A team of researchers claim to have discovered the mechanism that enables the brain to build-up memories – and say they found that a commonly prescribed sleeping tablet containing zolpidem enhances this process.


They hope the discovery could lead to new sleep therapies that could improve memory for ageing adults and those with dementia, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.


The findings contradict a wealth of previous research that has suggested that sleeping pills can have devastating effects on health, including memory.


The new research claims to have demonstrated, for the first time, the critical role that sleep spindles play in consolidating memory in the hippocampus.


Sleep spindles are bursts of brain activity that last for a second or less during sleep.


Earlier research found a link between sleep spindles and the consolidation of memories that depend on the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is involved in memory forming, organising, and storing.


The research team say they showed that the drugs could significantly improve that process, far more than sleep alone.


Lead author of the study, Dr Sara Mednick, a psychologist from the University of California Riverside, said: ‘We found that a very common sleep drug can be used to increase memory.


‘This is the first study to show you can manipulate sleep to improve memory.


‘It suggests sleep drugs could be a powerful tool to tailor sleep to particular memory disorders.’


But previous research has suggested that sleeping pills taken by more than a million Britons significantly increase the risk of dementia.


Pensioners who used benzodiazepines – which include temazepam and diazepam – are 50 per cent more likely to succumb to the devastating illness, a Harvard University study found.


They work by changing the way messages are transmitted to the brain, which induces a calming effect but scientists believe that at the same time they may be interfering with chemicals in the brain known as neurotransmitters, which may be causing dementia.


The new study tested normal sleepers, who were given varying doses of sleeping pills and placebos, allowing several days between doses to allow the drugs to leave their bodies.


Researchers monitored their sleep, measured sleepiness and mood after napping, and used several tests to evaluate their memory.


They found that zolpidem significantly increased the density of sleep spindles and improved verbal memory consolidation.


Dr Mednick said: ‘Zolpidem enhanced sleep spindles in healthy adults producing exceptional memory performance beyond that seen with sleep alone or sleep with the comparison drug.


‘The results set the stage for targeted treatment of memory impairments as well as the possibility of exceptional memory improvement above that of a normal sleep period.’


Dr Mednick also hopes to study the impact of zolpidem on older adults who experience poor memory because individuals with Alzheimer’s, dementia and schizophrenia are known experience decreases in sleep spindles.


Dr Mednick, who began studying sleep in the early 2000s, says sleep is a very new field of research and its importance is generally not taught in medical schools.


‘We know very little about it,’ she said.


‘We do know that it affects behaviour, and we know that sleep is integral to a lot of disorders with memory problems.


‘We need to integrate sleep into medical diagnoses and treatment strategies. This research opens up a lot of possibilities.’