Cerebrum Spring 2021

ADVANCES Notable brain-science findings

eye movements), some volunteer dreamers were able to follow researcher instructions to solve simple math problems, answer yes-or-no questions, or signal the difference between different sensory stimuli (such as flashing lights vs. spoken sounds). After waking, some remembered what the questions or stimuli were, but in the contexts of the stories they were dreaming, such as hearing the researcher’s voice among others during a surreal party. “INTERACTIVE DREAMING,” if it proves out, could help researchers better study dreams and dreaming without having to rely on morning reporting, by which time most of us have forgotten our dreams. l People going under anesthesia during surgery who listen to soothing talk and music via headphones may wake up feeling less PAIN and asking for less pain medicine. In a blinded randomized controlled study of 385 patients, researchers found that those who had listened to music and positive suggestions such as “everything is going well” reported an average of pain scores 25 percent lower, two hours after their operation, compared with those whose earphones gave them only silence—and 70 percent of the audio-plus group asked for no opiates at all, compared with 39 percent of the silence group. l Female mosquitoes love blood—they suck so strongly they can damage an animal’s capillaries. But blood is complex, a combination of components all with their own taste signatures. It’s not a single TASTE like the simple sugars in nectar; how can the mosquitoes be sure this complicated combination is the thing they crave? Researchers have found a group of neurons in the female mosquito’s syringe-like stylet that activate only when a combination of sugar, salts, and other blood components are present. “We knew that the female stylet was unique, but nobody had ever asked what its neurons like to taste,” says Veronica Jové, who led the study . “These neurons break the rules of traditional [single] taste coding, thought to be conserved from flies to humans.” l


The idea that doctors might restore motor function in people with SPINAL CORD INJURIES by using stem cells derived from the patient’s own bone marrow got a big boost in April 2021. In a case-study description of a Phase 2 study , 13 people with relatively recent spine injuries caused by falls or other minor trauma had marrow drawn, converted in the lab to stem cells, and then re-inserted intravenously. The trial aimed to confirm that the method was safe for humans, which it appears to be. But in addition, more than half the patients showed significant improvement in key functions such as bowel function, coordination, and ability to walk. l We know that keeping physically active in later life is important for preserving cognitive function, and now we’re learning how it may help adolescents build their cognitive capacities. ADOLESCENCE is one of the brain’s sensitive periods, when week, using wrist activity-trackers, interviews, health exams, and magnetic resonance imaging, researchers found that those who were physically healthier and more active had signs of healthier brains: more gray matter, stronger white-matter connections, better blood flow, and more. l Scientists in four labs (in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the US) are finding evidence against the common wisdom that it’s pointless to try to communicate with sleeping people. After being trained to signal when they were in a lucid part of dream sleep (by making a series of left-right busy connections strengthen as others are pruned. It can also be a time when children grow more sedentary, spending longer hours at school desks and in front of computers. In a study of 50 12-year-olds over the course of one

In adults, twitches occur for about an hour during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, while in infants, twitches dominate the sleep cycle, helping shape young brain development. Mark Blumberg, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Iowa, found that twitches in baby rat pups trigger activity in the spinal cord, sensory and motor areas, and the hippocampus. He talked about his research findings in a presentation at the Society for Neuroscience’s Global Connectome conference in January.


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