BRAIN and BEHAVIOR INITIATIVE WEEKLY DIGEST

November 25, 2019


UMD News

How human language developed from a limited set of vocal actions to the incredibly complex systems of meaning we use today is the subject of the latest issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, featuring UMD researchers in biology, psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience. The issue first took shape at the BBI-sponsored Animal Communications workshop in September 2017.

News

Until now, it has been a great challenge to incorporate sensations of touch into virtual and augmented reality. But researchers recently introduced a skin-integrated technology that applies pressure, vibration, or motion to the user, enabling communication between the user and a machine for virtual and augmented reality. This technology consists of a soft, lightweight sheet of electronics that adheres to skin, and conforms to the body’s shape, in a convenient, non-invasive and reversible manner. Adding sensations of touch to VR and AR could find uses in areas from gaming to prosthetic feedback.
The physical manifestation of a memory, or engram, consists of clusters of brain cells active when a specific memory was formed. The brain’s hippocampus plays an important role in storing and retrieving these memories. In the above cross-section of a mouse hippocampus, cells belonging to an engram are green, while blue indicates those not involved in forming the memory. When a memory is recalled, the cells within an engram reactivate and turn on, to varying degrees, other neural circuits (e.g., sight, sound, smell, emotions) that were active when that memory was recorded.
Respondents to the latest survey of 6,300 graduate students from around the world revealed that, while 71% are generally satisfied with their experience of research, 36% had sought help for anxiety or depression related to their PhD. These findings echo those of a survey of 50,000 graduate students in the UK. Respondents to that survey were similarly positive about their research experiences, but 86% report marked levels of anxiety—a much higher percentage than in the general population. Similar data helped prompt the first international conference dedicated to the mental health and well-being of early-career researchers in May.
As a treatment for severe epilepsy, some children have half their brain surgically removed. Although these patients may end up with sensory, movement, or language deficits, remarkably, many of the kids are able to fully develop their cognitive and language skills. In a study of six adults who underwent hemispherectomy as kids, scientists report that various neural connections between different brain regions were stronger among these patients than in other adults—a possible explanation for how children adapt after the surgery.
People with Borderline Personality Disorder are 13 times more likely to report childhood trauma than people without any mental health problems, according to recent research. The analysis of data from 42 international studies of over 5,000 people showed that 71.1% of people who were diagnosed with the serious health condition reported at least one traumatic childhood experience. The team shows that childhood trauma is much more likely to be associated with BPD than mood disorders, psychosis, and other personality disorders.
Typically, the worm Caenorhabditis elegans falls asleep after it experiences stress or hours of swimming. In a recent study, scientists observed another sleep trigger: being confined to a microfluidic chamber. Microfluidic chambers have become very commonly used and are valuable tools for precise environmental control and for neural imaging. However, this study highlights that the chambers are also significantly impacting the physiology and behavior of animals through confinement. Researchers caution that this sleep induction could interfere with data interpretation.
Researchers have developed a new light-based method to capture and pinpoint the epicenter of neural activity in the brain. The approach—fiber photometry—lays the foundation for novel ways to map connections across different brain regions through the use of a tapered optical probe, which can enable the design of devices to image various areas of the brain and even treat conditions that arise from malfunctions in cells inhabiting these regions. The study marks the first instance of successfully using light to decode the activity of specific neuronal populations as well as manipulation of different brain regions with the use of a single probe.
Scientists believe that there are two separate but interrelated internal systems that regulate sleep. The first is the circadian system that tells our body when to sleep. The second system—the one that tells our body the amount of sleep it needs—is still mysterious. One way to elucidate it would be to find genes that govern how long or deeply people sleep and observe where those genes are active. This fall, researchers announced the discovery of two genetic mutations that seem to cause certain people to sleep far less than average, bringing the number of genes known to be involved in sleep duration to just three.
If you have been following the Democratic presidential primary race, you are likely familiar that the verbal stumbles of national front-runner Joe Biden have voters worried about his mental fitness. However, this Atlantic profile suggests that you may not also realize that Biden is still fighting a stutter. Stuttering is a neurological disorder that affects roughly 70 million people, about 3 million of whom live in the United States. And while the disorder clears up in childhood for some, research suggests that no more than a quarter of people who still stutter at 10 will completely rid themselves of the affliction as adults.

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Funding Announcements

Please visit bbi.umd.edu/news/FOA for the complete list of open Funding Announcements.
 
*New!* The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (RFA-ES-20-002) encourages multidisciplinary projects to investigate the potential health risks of environmental exposures of concern to a community and to implement an environmental public health action plan based on research findings. Projects supported under this program are expected to employ community-engaged research methods to not only conduct research but also to seamlessly translate research findings into public health action. Letters of intent due December 21, 2019. Applications due January 21, 2020.
 
The NSF Science of Learning and Augmented Intelligence Program supports research that looks at how human cognitive function can be augmented through interactions with others, contextual variations, and technologists advance. Applications due January 15, 2020.

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