Michael Merzenich Talks About Neuroplasticity (BSP 54)

Brain Science Podcast #54 is an interview with Dr. Michael Merzenich, one of the pioneers of neuroplasticity.  We talk about how the success of the cochlear implant revealed unexpected plasticity in adult brains and about how brain plasticity can be tapped to improve a wide variety of problems including dyslexia, autism, damage from disease and injury.  Healthy people of all ages can also tap the resource of brain plasticity to help maintain and improve their mental functions.

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Links and References

Previous Episodes on Brain Plasticity

Send email feedback to Ginger Campbell, MD at brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com

From SharpBrains: Neurogenesis and Brain Plasiticity

In her latest post for SharpBrains Laurie Bartels reviews some of the principles of brain plasticity.  One principle that she mentions that I think deserves more attention is the importance of learning new things.

Adults may have a tendency to get set in their ways – I’ve been doing it this way for a long time and it works, so why change?  Turns out, though, that change can be a way to keep aging brains healthy.  At the April Learning & the Brain conference, the theme of which was neuroplasticity, I attended several sessions on adult learning. (Click here to read Laurie's post.)

She goes on to review the highlights of the Learning and Brain Conference.  You can read the full post at: http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog/2008/08/07/neurogenesis-and-brain-plasticity-in-adult-brains/

Don't Miss Neuroscience Pioneer, Dr. Brenda Milner, on Futures in Biotech

In Episode 33 Futures in Biotech  host Marc Pelletier, PhD, interviews pioneering researcher, Dr. Brenda Milner from the Montreal Neurological Institute.  Dr. Milner is best known for her work with HM, the patient that she worked with for many decades.  Her work helped neuroscientists appreciate the role of the hippocampus in memory and the fact that there are multiple types of memory, some of which do not require the hippocampus.

One of the things that makes this interview special is that Dr. Milner gives us the inside story on some of the pioneering work that we now take for granted.  She emphasizes how the work fit into the context of its time, giving an unique glimpse into the history of how science really unfolds.

Click here to learn more.

Futures in Biotech is a valuable contributor to SCIENCEPODCASTERS.ORG.

From SharpBrains™: Ten Tips for Improved Learning

Last year I interviewed Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg about the effects of aging on the brain (Episode 18).  Dr. Elkhonon is the co-founder of the website SharpBrains™, which is an excellent place to find the latest information about brain health.  Recently Dr. Alvaro Fernandez, who runs the SharpBrains™ website invited me to become an expert contributor to the site's blog.  He has also given me permission to share content from his site here.

It seems fitting that I start by mentioning a recent post from Laurie Bertels who writes the Neurons Firing blog. Laurie is a regular Brain Science Podcast listener.  Her blog focuses on how neuroscience applies to learning.  You can find lots of useful background information on her Brain 101 page.

Here is are some excerpts from Laurie's post on SharpBrains™:
If you agree that our brains are designed for learning, then as educators it is incumbent upon us to be looking for ways to maximize the learning process for each of our students, as well as for ourselves.  Some of what follows is simply common sense, but I’ve learned that all of it has a scientific basis in our brains. (Read more...)

She goes on to list 10 tips for applying brain science to help promote better learning. You will find that these tips dovetail nicely with what we learned from Dr. John Medina in Episode 37.

Read Laurie's complete post.

"The Psych Files" Explores the "Mozart Effect"

Dr. Michael Britt of The Psych Files podcast has just completed an excellent two-part discussion of the so-called Mozart Effect.  With his guest, Dr. Kenneth Steele, he examines the origins of this popular idea, as well as the fact that no one has replicated the original research that suggested such an effect might exist.  If you have ever wondered whether listening to classic music could make you (or your baby) smarter, you will want to listen to this podcast.  Also, check out his blog for a full list of references.

I recently started listening to The Psych Files , and  I think the style and content of The Psych Files compliments the Brain Science Podcast.  For that reason, I have just added the feed from Dr. Britt's blog to our new Brain Science Podcast room in FriendFeed.

"All in the Mind" Explores the Implications of Cognitive Enhancement

The June 14 Episode of All in the Mind has a thoughtful discussion of the implications of using drugs to improve cognitive performance. Natasha Mitchell interviewed Barbara Sahakian, professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge (UK) and William Glannon, a bioethicist from the University of Calgary (Canada). Several important issues emerged including the fact that that it is unknown whether the drugs currently available are safe for long-term use. There is also the nagging question of whether the use by normal people of drugs originally intended to treat medical conditions (like ADHD) constitutes cheating? What do you think? You can find the podcast and its transcript here. If you want to share you opinion with Natasha go to her All in the Mind Blog.
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Cognitive Computing: Videos from 2007

Last week I had Dr. Michael Arbib on the Brain Science Podcast. While our discussion focused on his work related to mirror neurons, we also talked a little about his general area of expertise, which is cognitive neuroscience. Most of us don't have a real feel for what this field involves, but those of you who are interested in learning more might want to check out  the archive of videos from Cognitive Computing 2007, which was held at UC-Berekeley on May 2 and 3 last year. The site includes Dr. Arbib's presentation "From Cognitive Neuroscience to Computer Archictectures." http://cognitivecomputing2007.berkeley.edu/CognitiveComputing2007Video.htm
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"All in the Mind" Looks at Nicotine and the Brain

The May 10th episode of All in the Mind is an excellent discussion of the latest research about nicotine addiction.  It includes a very balanced look at the controversy over the new smoking cessation drug, varenicline, which is sold in the US as Chantix.  Nicotine has a unique effect on certain neurotransmitter receptors in the brain.  Varenicline works as a partial agonist, which means it mimics some of the effects of nicotine, but it also blocks the receptor so that when a person smokes the experience is not rewarding.  However, since the receptors involved also have other functions (they aren't there to respond to the nicotine in cigarettes just like the opiate receptors are not there to respond to man-made narcotics), using the drug can lead to a wide variety of side effects. Balancing the risks and benefits of the drug is one of the topics discussed in the podcast.

I have to admit that addiction is a subject in which I have little personal interest, but obviously addiction to smoking effects millions of people. I highly recommend this podcast to everyone who smokes or loves some who does.

Be sure to go to the site for both the show's transcript and links to everyone featured on the show.


Transcript of György Buzsáki's Interview Is Now Online

Episode 31 of the Brain Science Podcast was a challenging interview with György Buzsáki about his book Rhythms of the Brain.  Thanks to listener Diane Jacobs, we now have a transcript available for Episode 31.

Click here for the transcript.

Be sure to visit Diane's Blog at http://humanantigravitysuit.blogspot.com/.  When it comes to reading books about neuroscience, Diane makes me feel like a slacker.

Exploring Consciousness in the Blogospere

I am not very good at keeping up with all the great blogs about neuroscience, but I did happen to find two that I thought you might enjoy.  Both Developing Intelligence and Conscious Entities explore both the meaning of consciousness and the relationship between the human brain and computers.

More on BDNF: "Miracle Grow" for the Brain

In Episode 33 of the Brain Science Podcast, Harvard's Dr. John Ratey introduced us to brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which he described as "Miracle Grow for the Brain" because it actually stimulates the grow of new neurons in the brain.  The emphasis in our discussion was on the importance of exercise in stimulating the release of BDNF.

If you are interested in checking out some further references on BDNF, you may want to check out Charles Daney's Science and Reason Blog.  Daney also does a good job of explaining exactly what a neurotropic factor is and does.

Treating Vets with Mirrors

Jamie Davis of MedicCast sent me a link to an interesting article from the CNN website.  It describes how mirror box therapy is being used to help veterans who have suffered amputations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Those of you who heard Sandra Blakeslee's interview about body maps back in Episode 23 will remember that she described how her son built the first mirror box for VS Ramachandran several years ago, while working as a graduate student.

It is good to see that military physicians are beginning to apply some of the recent findings of neuroscience to helping injured vets, but you may also recall that when we talked with Dr. Edward Taub about stroke rehab, he reported the difficulty of getting new methods of head injury treatment into the VA clinics.

link to article about mirrors: http://www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/03/19/mirror.therapy/index.html

Excellent Recent Episodes of All in the Mind

Most of you know that I am a fan of the All in the Mind podcast from Australian radio.  I want to recommend the two most recent episodes:

The March 22 episode is actually  hosted by Volkart Wildermuth, from Germany.  He interviews several of the world's leading primate researchers.  You will learn some of the recent discoveries about primate intelligence and culture, and also hear an excellent discussion of what makes humans different.  Go to the website not just to hear the show, but to get a transcript and to see the extensive links.

The March 29 episode is a fascinating interview with Dan Ariely from MIT, who is the author the new bestseller Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, which describes his experiments in what is called behavioral economics.  His work has shown that people often do not make economic decisions in a logical manner.  He is an extremely likable guest who shares stories from his own life as well as some of the highlights of his work.  The show notes include extensive references.

"Brains Matter" Podcast Has an Excellent Interview About the Philosophical Implications of Robotics


Brains Matter is a podcast about science from Australia.  It was one of the shows on my ill-fated Podango™ Science channel, and it is now one of the charter members of SCIENCEPODCASTERS.ORG.  Unfortunately, I don't have a chance to listen to it on a regular basis, but I want to recommend the most recent episode, which is a discussion of robotics in history and in fiction.  The guest is Adam Parker, who is studying for a PhD in Robotics in Australia.  He has a surprising knowledge of the history of the field and brings that perspective to the conversation . I think that that is one of the things that makes the interview interesting.  This is not a technical conversation, but one that everyone can enjoy.  As I said on Digg™, if you liked Blade Runner, you will enjoy this interview.

Reflections on Brain Oscillations

A recent episode of the Brain Science Podcast was an interview with György Buzsáki author of Rhythms of the Brain.  The significance of brain oscillations is a complex and somewhat controversial subject, so it is not surprising that the episode had generated mixed reviews.  It is quite challenging to present an area of this sort, and I thought Dr. György Buzsáki did a good job of putting his work into layman's language.

I chose Rhythms of the Brain because several listeners requested it.  One of those was Diane Jacobs, who is an energetic contributor to the Brain Science Podcast Discussion Forum.  In a recent blog post Jacobs explains why this subject has captured her interest.

Jacobs is currently working on a transcript of the episode (31), which I will post when it is available.  I want to publicly thank her for her efforts.  You can read her blog post at http://humanantigravitysuit.blogspot.com/2008/03/oscillatory-matters.html.

Journey to Perplexity: "The Mind Is Not a Computer"

The blog, Journey to Perplexity, notes that Gerald Edelman's book, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge, offers some valuable insights into why "the mind is not a computer."   I am not sure who writes this blog, but he seems to be writing from a philosophical background.

It has been a while since I read Edelman's book.  Edelman won the Nobel Prize in 1972 for important discoveries about the structure of antibodies, but he has devoted the last several decades to studying neuroscience.  His two most well-known contributions are his theory of so-called 'neural Darwinism,' and his study of the importance of redundancy and feedback loops within the brain.  He has written quite a few books on the subject including, Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (2005).

Second Nature is Edelman's attempt to address some of the philosophical issues about consciousness, while Wider than the Sky introduces some of his theories about how the brain generates consciousness.

What Do We Know about the Evolution of Human Thought?

In a recent blog post I objected to Richard Lewontin's claim that we know nothing about the evolution of the human brain.  Apparently my reaction was shared by quite a few researchers in the field.  Michael Balter describes their reaction at an interdisciplinary panel that was also held at this year's AAAS annual meeting.

One thing that seems to drive some of these discussions is a difference of opinion about whether their is an insurmountable gap between human intelligence and what other animals can do.  This connects with the ongoing debate about the importance of genetic factors.  But there seems to be no doubt that this is an extremely fruitful area of research.

"How Human Intelligence Evolved--Is It Science or 'Paleofantasy'?" by Michael Balter. Science 22 February 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5866, p. 1028

Lewontin Claims We Know Nothing About Brain Evolution

Episode 30 of the Brain Science Podcast was devoted to the subject of language evolution.  In that episode, I mentioned Steven Jay Gould's claim that language was a spandrel, an incidental by-product of evolution.  Gould's co-author on his famous 1970's paper about spandrels was Richard Lewontin, who is well-known for disagreeing with prevailing opinions in evolution.  At the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he reportedly gave a talk that discounted all the current theories about brain evolution.

I have not read the transcript of his lecture, but I just finished reading Georg Striedter's comprehensive textbook, Principles of Brain Evolution  (2005).  This text is highly regarded by leaders in neuroscience research like Michael S Gazzaniga.  It does an excellent job of describing both the challenges and progress in the field, as well as exploring the pros and cons of alternative theories.  I can't help wondering what Lewontin's comments contribute to the field.  Of course, it is reasonable to point out how limited our knowledge is, but to  dismiss the work of so many scientists seems rather arrogant. If anyone has access to the transcript I would like to read it.