From AAAS: The Evolution of Morality

The Science magazine podcast is providing highlights from this year's AAAS meeting in Boston.

So far, I found the discussion of the evolution of morality with Marc Hauser and several other scientists to very interesting.  One issue that was raised was whether the utility of a theory depends on its ability to generate testable hypotheses.  Listen and let me know what you think.

Do People Hear Sounds Differently?

There is lots of interesting stuff coming out of this year's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  I hope to attend the meeting in person next year. This year's meeting is  ove,r but I hope to bring you a few brain-related highlights in the next few days.

Since Episode 30, I have been on the lookout for linguistics related news, which is why the following item in caught my eye:  Linguistics professor, Jackson T. Gandour, presented information from several of his pitch processing studies entitled "Brain Basis of Speech."
"Everyone has a brainstem, but it's tuned differently depending on what sounds are behaviorally relevant to a person; for example, the sounds of his or her mother tongue," Gandour said.

Jackson T. Gandour is a researcher in neurophonetics at Purdue University.  The complete article, "Linguist Tunes In To Pitch Processing In Brain" is available at the Science Daily website.

A Clue To Why Tobacco Is So Addictive

Nancy Yanes-Hoffman sent me this review of an article just published in the Journal of Neuroscience:

That was good!" "Do it again."
This is what the brain says when people use tobacco, as well as ‘hard drugs’ such as heroin.  New research published in the February 13 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience indicates that the effects of nicotine and opiates on the brain's reward system are equally strong in a key pleasure-sensing areas of the brain – the nucleus accumbens.
"Testing rat brain tissue, we found remarkable overlap between the effects of nicotine and opiates on dopamine signaling within the brain’s reward centers," says Daniel McGehee, Associate Professor in Anesthesia & Critical Care at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
McGehee and colleagues are exploring the control of dopamine, a key neurotransmitter in reward and addiction.  Dopamine is released in areas such as the nucleus accumbens by naturally rewarding experiences such as food, sex, some drugs, and the neutral stimuli or ‘cues’ that become associated with them.
Nicotine and opiates are very different drugs, but the endpoint, with respect to the control of dopamine signaling, is almost identical.  “There is a specific part of the nucleus accumbens where opiates have been shown to affect behavior, and when we tested nicotine in that area, the effects on dopamine are almost identical,” says McGehee.
This research is important to scientists because it demonstrates overlap in the way the two drugs work, complementing previous studies that showed overlapping effects on physiology of the ventral tegmenal area, another key part of the brain’s reward circuitry.  The hope is that this study will help identify new methods for treating addiction – and not just for one drug type.
"It also demonstrates the seriousness of tobacco addiction, equating its grip on the individual to that of heroin.  It reinforces the fact that these addictions are very physiological in nature and that breaking away from the habit is certainly more than just mind over matter," says McGehee.
This work is supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, T32GM07839 and F31DA023340 to JPB, DA015918 and DA019695 to DSM.
    • Jonathan P. Britt and Daniel S. McGehee, "Presynaptic Opioid and Nicotinic Receptor Modulation of Dopamine Overflow in the Nucleus Accumbens,"The Journal of Neuroscience, February 13, 2008 • 28(7):1672–1681

      Visit Nancy's blog at


      Taking Tests Might Help Your Memory!

      There is an interesting paper in this week's Science magazine that suggests that being tested might be an essential component of making what we study part of longterm memory.  In the study, students had memorize Swahili-English word pairs.  According to the authors,"Repeated studying after learning had no effect on delayed recall, but repeated testing produced a large positive effect."

      "The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning," by Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Henry L. Roediger, III2, Science 15 February 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5865, pp. 966 - 968

      BrainConnection: A Website from the Creators of FastForward™

      I get a monthly newsletter from BrainConnection, which is an educational website managed by Scientific Learning, the people who market Dr. Michael Merzenich's FastForward™ method for helping dyslexic children learn to read.

      This month they have several language-related articles that might be of interest, including part 1 of a series about how children learn to talk and an article about the evolution of language.  The latter article includes a discussion in favor of Chomsky's universal grammar, which many linguists still find to be quite fundamental to their work.

      Natasha Mitchell Interviews Jonah Lehrer about "Proust was a Neuroscientist"

      The February 9th episode of All in the Mind  is an excellent interview of author Jonah Lehrer about his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist.  In the interview, Lehrer reflects on the danger of viewing science as the sole source of discovery, but he also talks a little about several of the people explored in his book.  His basic premise is that artists from various fields often intuitively grasped truths that are now being revealed by neuroscience.  One example is the insights that Proust had about memory.

      Proust was a Neuroscientist is a valuable contribution to the current exploration of the relevance of neuroscience to everyday life.  It can be easily read in a few sittings or savored one artist at a time.

      Natasha Mitchell is an excellent interviewer because she always asks interesting and probing questions.  (I think of her as the Australian Terry Gross.).  All in the Mind is an excellent compliment to the Brain Science Podcast.

      Mitchell has recently begun an All in the Mind blog and there is a new All in the Mind group on Facebook.

      Check Out This Interview with Linguist Alice Gaby


      I just listened to the February 6, episode of Science Talk, the podcast from Scientific American.  Steve Mirsky talks with linguist Alice Gaby, from the University of California-Berkeley, about the relationship between language, culture, cognition and perception.   This is very relevant to Episode 30 of the Brain Science Podcast  (due out on February 8), which is about the evolution of language.

      Jeff Hawkins Talks About Why Computers Aren't More Like Brains

      I often emphasize the fact that our brains our different from computers.  If you would like to read an article that comes at the subject from the opposite direction (computers are not brains), read this summary of a recent talk given by Jeff Hawkins about "why computers can't be more like a brain on Dean Takahashi's Tech Talk Blog.

      Jeff Hawkins was the co-founder of Palm, Inc. and he is author of On Intelligence, which was discussed in the Brain Science Podcast  Episode 2.

      Easter Seals Announces Program to Help Vets with Head Injuries

      In a recent interview with Dr. Edward Taub (Brain Science Podcast #28), we learned that Constraint-Induced Movement Therapy has been shown to help people with traumatic brain injuries, but that the Veteran's Administration has been slow to acknowledge the needs of veterans returning from Iraq and  Afghanistan.  Fortunately, the problem seems to be receiving increasing attention.

      The January 25th episode of the Science Magazine podcast discusses an article exploring the possible mechanisms of brain injury ocurring in near-blast conditions, where often the effects may be delayed and subtle.

      Also, Easter Seals has just announced that it is funding a program that will provide access to Michael Merzenich's highly regarded Posit Science Program, an on-line program originally developed to help older patients regain and maintain their mental agility.  I don't know if they have done any work with traumatic brain injury, but the program certainly shows promise.


      Philosopher's Zone Podcast Explores "Minds and Computers"


      The Philosopher's Zone is one of the excellent Australian podcasts that I listen to regularly.  The episode of January 12, 2007, is especially relevant to our recent discussion of embodied intelligence.  Host Alan Saunders interviews Matt Carter , author of Minds and Computers: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence.

      Their conversation is a good brief introduction to some of the issues of philosophy of mind, the relevance of the computational theory of the mind (introduced in Brain Science Podcast #15), and the  importance of embodiment to the field of artificial intelligence.

      If anyone has already read this book, I would love to hear your feedback and impressions.

      "All in the Mind" Has a New blog


      All in the Mind is one of my favorite podcasts, and I am happy to report that host, Natasha Mitchell, has recently launched a companion blog, which generally talks a little bit more about each episode, as well as providing some content in between shows. Best of all there is now a link there for sending her email.

      Neuropod Reviews the 2007 Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience


      Nature recently relaunched its neuroscience podcast under the new name: Neuropod with host Keri Smith.  The show is supposed to come out once a month, and while there is some overlap in content with the main Nature Podcast, the focus on neuroscience allows them to expand the coverage of related topics.

      I got an email from Keri Smith today that said there is a special episode available on the website that is devoted to coverage of the recent Society for Neuroscience meeting that was held in San Diego.  I have enjoyed all the episodes so far and look forward to more.

      Check Out Deric Bownd's Mind Blog


      Thanks to listener Ian Stevens I have discovered a blog that you might enjoyed. It is Deric Bownd's MindBlog.  He does a great job of keeping up with news on the neuroscience front. 

      Bownds is retired from the University of Wisconsin where he spent many years exploring how vision works and then the evolution of the human brain.

      Latest Episode of Talking Robots Explores Mirror Neurons

      talkingrobotpodcastlogo.jpg Michael Arbib of USC discusses (Talking Robots 10/12/07) how the discovery of mirror neurons is inspiring attempts to design robots that can emulate human emotions. This is part of a larger trend in robotics which is called biological robotics in which designs are inspired by biological systems. It is significant that what is learned by attempts to design robotic animals can in turn shed light on how biological systems work. This kind of interdisciplinary work is at the intersection of neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and computer engineering. Dr. Arbib also discusses the challenges of doing interdisciplinary work in an age of exploding knowledge. You can find more about his work including links to a few of his numerous publications on his website.
      Read More

      Nature Relaunches its Neuroscience Podcast

      I am happy to report that Nature has relaunched its neuroscience podcast under the new name NeuroPod.  If you like the Nature podcast but would rather hear a show devoted to the latest Nature articles on neuroscience, you will want to check this out at

      If you prefer blogs, you might want to check out Action Potential (also from the editors of Nature).  I am not very good at keeping my blogroll up-to-date, but another site worth checking out (suggested to me by Adam Rutherford at Nature) is Mind Hacks.

      As always, remember that you can submit your favorite podcasts, blogs, and other neuro-related websites at the Brain Science Podcast Discussion Forum.

      Eric Kandel Talks About Memory on Futures in Biotech


      The latest episode of Futures in Biotech (FiB 20) is an interview with Dr. Eric Kandel, who won a Nobel Prize in 2000 for his discoveries about how memory works.  I think you will enjoy listening to Dr. Kandel's interview.

      I discussed Dr. Kandel's book, In Search of Memory, in Episode 3 of the Brain Science Podcast.  I also discussed his textbook, Memory: From Mind to Molecules in Episode 12.

      For anyone who would like to go back and listen to these episodes, I have provided direct links to the audio files below:

      #3: In Search of Memory

      #12: Memory: From Mind to Molecules

      Author Sharon Begley Talks About Neuroplasticity

      Science writer, Sharon Begley, was interviewed about neuroplasticity. on the August 7 episode of Science Talk, the podcast from Scientific American.

      I discussed her book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves, on Episode 10 of the Brain Science Podcast.

      Listen to Science Talk interview of Sharon Begley

      Listen to the Brain Science Podcast #10: Neuroplasticity

      You can also find more on neuroplasticity, including links to some of the scientists she mentions in her interview here.

      Some Recent Podcasts Worth Listening To

      I haven't done a very good of posting about other podcasts that are relevant to the Brain Science Podcast, but here are a few you might enjoy: 

      The July 27 edition of Science Friday included a discussion of discoveries related to depression and language acquisition.

      The July 14 episode of All in The Mind addresses the nature versus nurture question.

      The July 13 episode of the Science Magazine Podcast includes recent research on autism, and a discussion of the question of memory suppression.

      There is also an interesting discussion of depression on the July 14 episode of the Science Show.

      I have mentioned all of these podcasts in the past.  It is interesting that both All in the Mind and the Science Show come from Australia.  These shows are both consistently worthwhile. Transcripts are available on their websites.

      Talking Robots: A podcast About Artificial Intelligence


      Talking Robots from the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems, EPFL, Switzerland  Talking Robots "is a podcast featuring interviews with high-profile professionals in robotics and artificial intelligence for an inside view on the science, technology, and business of intelligent robotics"  (description quoted from the website).  The host and project director is Dario Floreano , Director of the School of Engineering at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland.

      Thanks to David Gordan, one of my  Brain Science Podcast  listeners, for letting me know about this really fascinating podcast produced in Switzerland.  I think it will be of interest to those of you interested in the human brain as well people interested in computers and especially artificial intelligence.  I have only listened to a couple of episodes so far, but I have been amazed to learn how far this field has come.

      From Nature: The Idling Brain


      On the May 3rd episode of the Nature Magazine Podcast, the front page story The Idling Brain is featured.  Researchers present evidence that there is a large amount of brain activity going on even while we are asleep or under anesthesia.  This is actually rather surprising, as it was previously assumed that the brain was quiescent during unconsciousness.

      The full article is current on the newstand, or you can buy it on line.  You can also get a full transcript of the podcast.  At the very leas,t I recommend subscribing to the Nature Podcast if you haven't already.  This week's episode also includes discussion of some research that might have implications in the future for treating Alzheimer's dementia.