Tag Archives: Brain

Scientists seek drug to ‘rewire’ adult brain after stroke

Therapies may one day enable healthy part of brain to take over tasks from damaged areas

Imaging of the brain on mri scan.


Blocking molecules that hinder the brain’s plasticity may make it possible for tasks to be done in different areas.
Photograph: akesak/Getty Images/iStockphoto


Adults who have experienced a stroke may one day be able to take a drug to help their brain “rewire” itself, so that tasks once carried out by now-damaged areas can be taken over by other regions, researchers have claimed.

The ability for the brain to rewire, so-called “brain plasticity”, is thought to occur throughout life; however, while children have a high degree of brain plasticity, adult brains are generally thought to be less plastic.

Research looking at children and young adults who had a stroke as a baby – a situation thought to affect at least one in 4,000 around the time of their birth – has highlighted the incredible ability of the young brain to rewire.

Elissa Newport, a professor of neurology at Georgetown University school of medicine in Washington DC, detailed a new study involving 12 such individuals, aged between 12 and 25.

“What you see is the right hemisphere, which is never in control of language in anyone who is healthy, is apparently capable of taking over language if you lose left hemisphere,” said Newport, who presented the findings at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas. “This does not happen in adults,” she added.

Using brain imaging the team found that the regions in the right hemisphere of the brain that took over were in the mirror image location to those used on the left side of the brain in healthy people. That, she said, emphasises that it is not just any area of the brain that takes over a function should a region become damaged.

Newport said that by understanding what underpins the brain plasticity seen in youngsters, scientists might be able to come up with ways to make the adult brain more plastic, potentially offering hope to adults who have had a stroke.

While less of a priority, the same kind of mechanisms that might help reorganise language areas in those who have had a stroke could work in healthy people to help them learn a second language, Newport admitted.

Takao Hensch, a professor of molecular and cell biology at Harvard University, who was also speaking at the meeting, said that his research in mice showed that by blocking certain molecules in the adult brain that hinder plasticity, it was possible to increase its ability to rewire.

“The baseline of the brain is plastic, to rewire itself. Through evolution it is necessary to layer on brake-like factors to prevent too much rewiring from happening after a certain point,” he said. “This offers novel therapeutic possibilities. If we could judiciously lift the brakes later in life perhaps we could reopen this window.”

Hensch is already working on possible therapeutics. He said that among the possibilities, drugs routinely used for mood disorders might show potential to increase plasticity in adults. His previous research has shown that adults given the drug valproate, used to treat bipolar disorder, regain the ability to learn perfect pitch – a skill that is usually only seen in children who began studying music before the age of six.

But he said there was cause for caution when it came to tinkering with the ability for the brain to change. “We have to consider though that the brain is well formed by then [adulthood] and has passed through its own critical period. The starting point is quite different,” he said. “We worry a lot about translating these results to humans. What would it mean to reopen the critical period a second time? Would we be wiping out your identity, who you’d become through all those years of development?”

But Nick Ward, a professor of clinical neurology and neurorehabilitation at University College London, said that it was not the case that adults recovering from a stroke could not use other parts of their brain to take over tasks. “Relatively well-recovered adult stroke patients tend to have different activity patterns compared with healthy people. Other parts of the language network might be used to support language recovery,” he said.

Ward also noted that it is thought, from animal models, that the stroke itself can increase brain plasticity in adults for a few months, meaning that timely rehabilitation and training are key.

“Drugs that keep the window open longer or reopen it would be good too,” said Ward. “It’s just that at the moment, services are being slashed and so the ‘dose’ of rehab is so low, no drug is going to help – doubling the effect of not very much rehab still gives you not very much rehab.”

Scientists seek drug to ‘rewire’ adult brain after stroke

Therapies may one day enable healthy part of brain to take over tasks from damaged areas

Imaging of the brain on mri scan.


Blocking molecules that hinder the brain’s plasticity may make it possible for tasks to be done in different areas.
Photograph: akesak/Getty Images/iStockphoto


Adults who have experienced a stroke may one day be able to take a drug to help their brain “rewire” itself, so that tasks once carried out by now-damaged areas can be taken over by other regions, researchers have claimed.

The ability for the brain to rewire, so-called “brain plasticity”, is thought to occur throughout life; however, while children have a high degree of brain plasticity, adult brains are generally thought to be less plastic.

Research looking at children and young adults who had a stroke as a baby – a situation thought to affect at least one in 4,000 around the time of their birth – has highlighted the incredible ability of the young brain to rewire.

Elissa Newport, a professor of neurology at Georgetown University school of medicine in Washington DC, detailed a new study involving 12 such individuals, aged between 12 and 25.

“What you see is the right hemisphere, which is never in control of language in anyone who is healthy, is apparently capable of taking over language if you lose left hemisphere,” said Newport, who presented the findings at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas. “This does not happen in adults,” she added.

Using brain imaging the team found that the regions in the right hemisphere of the brain that took over were in the mirror image location to those used on the left side of the brain in healthy people. That, she said, emphasises that it is not just any area of the brain that takes over a function should a region become damaged.

Newport said that by understanding what underpins the brain plasticity seen in youngsters, scientists might be able to come up with ways to make the adult brain more plastic, potentially offering hope to adults who have had a stroke.

While less of a priority, the same kind of mechanisms that might help reorganise language areas in those who have had a stroke could work in healthy people to help them learn a second language, Newport admitted.

Takao Hensch, a professor of molecular and cell biology at Harvard University, who was also speaking at the meeting, said that his research in mice showed that by blocking certain molecules in the adult brain that hinder plasticity, it was possible to increase its ability to rewire.

“The baseline of the brain is plastic, to rewire itself. Through evolution it is necessary to layer on brake-like factors to prevent too much rewiring from happening after a certain point,” he said. “This offers novel therapeutic possibilities. If we could judiciously lift the brakes later in life perhaps we could reopen this window.”

Hensch is already working on possible therapeutics. He said that among the possibilities, drugs routinely used for mood disorders might show potential to increase plasticity in adults. His previous research has shown that adults given the drug valproate, used to treat bipolar disorder, regain the ability to learn perfect pitch – a skill that is usually only seen in children who began studying music before the age of six.

But he said there was cause for caution when it came to tinkering with the ability for the brain to change. “We have to consider though that the brain is well formed by then [adulthood] and has passed through its own critical period. The starting point is quite different,” he said. “We worry a lot about translating these results to humans. What would it mean to reopen the critical period a second time? Would we be wiping out your identity, who you’d become through all those years of development?”

But Nick Ward, a professor of clinical neurology and neurorehabilitation at University College London, said that it was not the case that adults recovering from a stroke could not use other parts of their brain to take over tasks. “Relatively well-recovered adult stroke patients tend to have different activity patterns compared with healthy people. Other parts of the language network might be used to support language recovery,” he said.

Ward also noted that it is thought, from animal models, that the stroke itself can increase brain plasticity in adults for a few months, meaning that timely rehabilitation and training are key.

“Drugs that keep the window open longer or reopen it would be good too,” said Ward. “It’s just that at the moment, services are being slashed and so the ‘dose’ of rehab is so low, no drug is going to help – doubling the effect of not very much rehab still gives you not very much rehab.”

Scientists seek drug to ‘rewire’ adult brain after stroke

Therapies may one day enable healthy part of brain to take over tasks from damaged areas

Imaging of the brain on mri scan.


Blocking molecules that hinder the brain’s plasticity may make it possible for tasks to be done in different areas.
Photograph: akesak/Getty Images/iStockphoto


Adults who have experienced a stroke may one day be able to take a drug to help their brain “rewire” itself, so that tasks once carried out by now-damaged areas can be taken over by other regions, researchers have claimed.

The ability for the brain to rewire, so-called “brain plasticity”, is thought to occur throughout life; however, while children have a high degree of brain plasticity, adult brains are generally thought to be less plastic.

Research looking at children and young adults who had a stroke as a baby – a situation thought to affect at least one in 4,000 around the time of their birth – has highlighted the incredible ability of the young brain to rewire.

Elissa Newport, a professor of neurology at Georgetown University school of medicine in Washington DC, detailed a new study involving 12 such individuals, aged between 12 and 25.

“What you see is the right hemisphere, which is never in control of language in anyone who is healthy, is apparently capable of taking over language if you lose left hemisphere,” said Newport, who presented the findings at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas. “This does not happen in adults,” she added.

Using brain imaging the team found that the regions in the right hemisphere of the brain that took over were in the mirror image location to those used on the left side of the brain in healthy people. That, she said, emphasises that it is not just any area of the brain that takes over a function should a region become damaged.

Newport said that by understanding what underpins the brain plasticity seen in youngsters, scientists might be able to come up with ways to make the adult brain more plastic, potentially offering hope to adults who have had a stroke.

While less of a priority, the same kind of mechanisms that might help reorganise language areas in those who have had a stroke could work in healthy people to help them learn a second language, Newport admitted.

Takao Hensch, a professor of molecular and cell biology at Harvard University, who was also speaking at the meeting, said that his research in mice showed that by blocking certain molecules in the adult brain that hinder plasticity, it was possible to increase its ability to rewire.

“The baseline of the brain is plastic, to rewire itself. Through evolution it is necessary to layer on brake-like factors to prevent too much rewiring from happening after a certain point,” he said. “This offers novel therapeutic possibilities. If we could judiciously lift the brakes later in life perhaps we could reopen this window.”

Hensch is already working on possible therapeutics. He said that among the possibilities, drugs routinely used for mood disorders might show potential to increase plasticity in adults. His previous research has shown that adults given the drug valproate, used to treat bipolar disorder, regain the ability to learn perfect pitch – a skill that is usually only seen in children who began studying music before the age of six.

But he said there was cause for caution when it came to tinkering with the ability for the brain to change. “We have to consider though that the brain is well formed by then [adulthood] and has passed through its own critical period. The starting point is quite different,” he said. “We worry a lot about translating these results to humans. What would it mean to reopen the critical period a second time? Would we be wiping out your identity, who you’d become through all those years of development?”

But Nick Ward, a professor of clinical neurology and neurorehabilitation at University College London, said that it was not the case that adults recovering from a stroke could not use other parts of their brain to take over tasks. “Relatively well-recovered adult stroke patients tend to have different activity patterns compared with healthy people. Other parts of the language network might be used to support language recovery,” he said.

Ward also noted that it is thought, from animal models, that the stroke itself can increase brain plasticity in adults for a few months, meaning that timely rehabilitation and training are key.

“Drugs that keep the window open longer or reopen it would be good too,” said Ward. “It’s just that at the moment, services are being slashed and so the ‘dose’ of rehab is so low, no drug is going to help – doubling the effect of not very much rehab still gives you not very much rehab.”

Scientists seek drug to ‘rewire’ adult brain after stroke

Therapies may one day enable healthy part of brain to take over tasks from damaged areas

Imaging of the brain on mri scan.


Blocking molecules that hinder the brain’s plasticity may make it possible for tasks to be done in different areas.
Photograph: akesak/Getty Images/iStockphoto


Adults who have experienced a stroke may one day be able to take a drug to help their brain “rewire” itself, so that tasks once carried out by now-damaged areas can be taken over by other regions, researchers have claimed.

The ability for the brain to rewire, so-called “brain plasticity”, is thought to occur throughout life; however, while children have a high degree of brain plasticity, adult brains are generally thought to be less plastic.

Research looking at children and young adults who had a stroke as a baby – a situation thought to affect at least one in 4,000 around the time of their birth – has highlighted the incredible ability of the young brain to rewire.

Elissa Newport, a professor of neurology at Georgetown University school of medicine in Washington DC, detailed a new study involving 12 such individuals, aged between 12 and 25.

“What you see is the right hemisphere, which is never in control of language in anyone who is healthy, is apparently capable of taking over language if you lose left hemisphere,” said Newport, who presented the findings at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas. “This does not happen in adults,” she added.

Using brain imaging the team found that the regions in the right hemisphere of the brain that took over were in the mirror image location to those used on the left side of the brain in healthy people. That, she said, emphasises that it is not just any area of the brain that takes over a function should a region become damaged.

Newport said that by understanding what underpins the brain plasticity seen in youngsters, scientists might be able to come up with ways to make the adult brain more plastic, potentially offering hope to adults who have had a stroke.

While less of a priority, the same kind of mechanisms that might help reorganise language areas in those who have had a stroke could work in healthy people to help them learn a second language, Newport admitted.

Takao Hensch, a professor of molecular and cell biology at Harvard University, who was also speaking at the meeting, said that his research in mice showed that by blocking certain molecules in the adult brain that hinder plasticity, it was possible to increase its ability to rewire.

“The baseline of the brain is plastic, to rewire itself. Through evolution it is necessary to layer on brake-like factors to prevent too much rewiring from happening after a certain point,” he said. “This offers novel therapeutic possibilities. If we could judiciously lift the brakes later in life perhaps we could reopen this window.”

Hensch is already working on possible therapeutics. He said that among the possibilities, drugs routinely used for mood disorders might show potential to increase plasticity in adults. His previous research has shown that adults given the drug valproate, used to treat bipolar disorder, regain the ability to learn perfect pitch – a skill that is usually only seen in children who began studying music before the age of six.

But he said there was cause for caution when it came to tinkering with the ability for the brain to change. “We have to consider though that the brain is well formed by then [adulthood] and has passed through its own critical period. The starting point is quite different,” he said. “We worry a lot about translating these results to humans. What would it mean to reopen the critical period a second time? Would we be wiping out your identity, who you’d become through all those years of development?”

But Nick Ward, a professor of clinical neurology and neurorehabilitation at University College London, said that it was not the case that adults recovering from a stroke could not use other parts of their brain to take over tasks. “Relatively well-recovered adult stroke patients tend to have different activity patterns compared with healthy people. Other parts of the language network might be used to support language recovery,” he said.

Ward also noted that it is thought, from animal models, that the stroke itself can increase brain plasticity in adults for a few months, meaning that timely rehabilitation and training are key.

“Drugs that keep the window open longer or reopen it would be good too,” said Ward. “It’s just that at the moment, services are being slashed and so the ‘dose’ of rehab is so low, no drug is going to help – doubling the effect of not very much rehab still gives you not very much rehab.”

Is your child at risk of brain injury from playing football or rugby?

Despite increasing concern about the long-term risk of dementia and other problems from heading a ball or tackling, children are still playing contact sports. Should you play it safe and stop them?

Remove tackling ‘and you don’t have rugby any more’.


Remove tackling ‘and you don’t have rugby any more’. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

I love to watch my daughter play football, but when she heads the ball, I feel a surge of pride (she isn’t one of those who duck out the way) and a surge of fear. How many brain cells did she knock out? And what goes on inside her head when the ball hits it?

Since the case of Jeff Astle, the former West Bromwich Albion footballer who died of a degenerative brain disease in 2002, the potential risks of heading have come under intensive scrutiny. The coroner cited “industrial disease” as the cause of Astle’s death. At about the same time, Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist played by Will Smith in the film Concussion, was establishing a link between the sudden death of NFL player Mike Webster and a form of brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), that had previously been associated only with boxers.

But despite these findings, little has changed for children on the field of play. Sport carries risks that science is still struggling to evaluate. So how should you strike the balance between encouraging children’s competitiveness and keeping them safe?

Globally, the response of sporting bodies has varied hugely. In the US, children under 11 are not allowed to head the ball, but the Football Association in England feels there is insufficient evidence to follow suit. In England, there is no tackling in rugby for under-nines, in New Zealand it’s under-eights, in Canada under-11s. Omalu advocates no contact sports for anyone under 18.

Allyson Pollock, director of the Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle university, has called repeatedly for schools to ban tackling in rugby. Last year, she sent a list of 36 questions to the UK’s chief medical officers on this subject, and, in the absence of any answers, has sent out a follow-up. “You have to think of it as being like tobacco,” she says. “The sporting bodies fund the research.” The weight of tradition (and vast amounts of sponsorship money) is behind them. As Omalu found when he first presented his evidence to the NFL, bringing about change can be difficult.

It was watching her own son play that led Pollock to investigate injuries in youth rugby. By age 16, he had broken his nose, fractured his leg, broken his cheekbone and had experienced concussion. “When I looked at the data, 95% of [youth] players were injured by the time they left [the sport]. I thought: this isn’t worth it.” Children, she believes, should not practise collision sports. “If they are going to play rugby, I’d ask them to play non-collision rugby.”

These sorts of questions “consume a significant proportion of my working life”, says Martin Raftery, chief medical officer at World Rugby. “In life you can minimise risk, but never eliminate it.” This does not sound like a proactive response to the problem of how to reduce injuries in his sport. Why not ban tackles in school rugby? “Why don’t we stop them riding bikes?” he asks.

Jeff Astle in 1970.


Jeff Astle in 1970. Photograph: Hulton Getty

According to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, tackles are responsible for 64% of all injuries in youth rugby and 87% of concussions. Raftery himself co-authored an article in the same journal accepting that “the most effective, although extreme, method for preventing concussion would be to eliminate exposure by removing the tackle from the game”. So why doesn’t World Rugby do so, at least in schools? “Well, you don’t have rugby any more.”

World Rugby is researching the possibility of changing the rules on tackling – to reduce the height at which it is permitted, for instance – but a change was first mooted in 2015 and the research is only 12 months in. Progress is slow.

Ninety years after “punch-drunk syndrome” in boxers, now recognised as CTE, was first identified, research into how brain injury relates to sport is still relatively young. There have been many cases of professional athletes who have developed brain ill-health – three of the players who won the World Cup in 1966 have dementia, for instance – but evidence of a correlation is lacking.

“There is no science that can prove a correlation between the sports impact and the pathologies that are being observed,” says Hannah Wilson of the Drake Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to understanding concussion injuries in sport. “That’s really where the gap in our understanding is.” The foundation is funding – despite Pollock’s comments about the influence of sporting bodies – independent research into the possible increased risks of neurodegenerative diseases in retired contact-sport athletes.

Parents can still withdraw their children if they are concerned about tackling.


Parents can still withdraw their children if they are concerned about tackling. Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images

Willie Stewart, the Glasgow-based neurosurgeon who examined Astle’s brain and found evidence of CTE, is this month signing the contract on a research project funded by the FA to explore the connection between heading the ball and dementia.

“What we don’t know is whether people who play football get dementia more than you would expect,” Stewart says. Crucially, his researchers will examine 15,000 former professional footballers against 45,000 otherwise comparable people who were not in the sport. The volume of sampling “should be able to answer the question we’ve got: was the risk of degenerative brain disease in former footballers against population expectations?”

It will take two to three years to gather the data. In the meantime, Stewart is in favour of tackling in rugby and finds no reason to tell children not to head the ball. “But would I go out with kids and have them head the ball 20 times over? No.”

Parents, meanwhile, can check whether heading is overemphasised in training. They can withdraw their child from school rugby if they and their child object to the tackles. But the most important question to ask of any coach or teacher, Stewart says, is: “Do they have a concussion policy?” In England, the sport’s governing body, the RFU, has a concussion education programme including an online audio course for parents, and Stewart himself co-produced a pocket concussion guide for all sports in Scotland.

So, while I will continue to applaud those rare headers (until the research tells me otherwise) and committed tackles, I will do so as a concussion-literate spectator.

Is your child at risk of brain injury from playing football or rugby?

Despite increasing concern about the long-term risk of dementia and other problems from heading a ball or tackling, children are still playing contact sports. Should you play it safe and stop them?

Remove tackling ‘and you don’t have rugby any more’.


Remove tackling ‘and you don’t have rugby any more’. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

I love to watch my daughter play football, but when she heads the ball, I feel a surge of pride (she isn’t one of those who duck out the way) and a surge of fear. How many brain cells did she knock out? And what goes on inside her head when the ball hits it?

Since the case of Jeff Astle, the former West Bromwich Albion footballer who died of a degenerative brain disease in 2002, the potential risks of heading have come under intensive scrutiny. The coroner cited “industrial disease” as the cause of Astle’s death. At about the same time, Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist played by Will Smith in the film Concussion, was establishing a link between the sudden death of NFL player Mike Webster and a form of brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), that had previously been associated only with boxers.

But despite these findings, little has changed for children on the field of play. Sport carries risks that science is still struggling to evaluate. So how should you strike the balance between encouraging children’s competitiveness and keeping them safe?

Globally, the response of sporting bodies has varied hugely. In the US, children under 11 are not allowed to head the ball, but the Football Association in England feels there is insufficient evidence to follow suit. In England, there is no tackling in rugby for under-nines, in New Zealand it’s under-eights, in Canada under-11s. Omalu advocates no contact sports for anyone under 18.

Allyson Pollock, director of the Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle university, has called repeatedly for schools to ban tackling in rugby. Last year, she sent a list of 36 questions to the UK’s chief medical officers on this subject, and, in the absence of any answers, has sent out a follow-up. “You have to think of it as being like tobacco,” she says. “The sporting bodies fund the research.” The weight of tradition (and vast amounts of sponsorship money) is behind them. As Omalu found when he first presented his evidence to the NFL, bringing about change can be difficult.

It was watching her own son play that led Pollock to investigate injuries in youth rugby. By age 16, he had broken his nose, fractured his leg, broken his cheekbone and had experienced concussion. “When I looked at the data, 95% of [youth] players were injured by the time they left [the sport]. I thought: this isn’t worth it.” Children, she believes, should not practise collision sports. “If they are going to play rugby, I’d ask them to play non-collision rugby.”

These sorts of questions “consume a significant proportion of my working life”, says Martin Raftery, chief medical officer at World Rugby. “In life you can minimise risk, but never eliminate it.” This does not sound like a proactive response to the problem of how to reduce injuries in his sport. Why not ban tackles in school rugby? “Why don’t we stop them riding bikes?” he asks.

Jeff Astle in 1970.


Jeff Astle in 1970. Photograph: Hulton Getty

According to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, tackles are responsible for 64% of all injuries in youth rugby and 87% of concussions. Raftery himself co-authored an article in the same journal accepting that “the most effective, although extreme, method for preventing concussion would be to eliminate exposure by removing the tackle from the game”. So why doesn’t World Rugby do so, at least in schools? “Well, you don’t have rugby any more.”

World Rugby is researching the possibility of changing the rules on tackling – to reduce the height at which it is permitted, for instance – but a change was first mooted in 2015 and the research is only 12 months in. Progress is slow.

Ninety years after “punch-drunk syndrome” in boxers, now recognised as CTE, was first identified, research into how brain injury relates to sport is still relatively young. There have been many cases of professional athletes who have developed brain ill-health – three of the players who won the World Cup in 1966 have dementia, for instance – but evidence of a correlation is lacking.

“There is no science that can prove a correlation between the sports impact and the pathologies that are being observed,” says Hannah Wilson of the Drake Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to understanding concussion injuries in sport. “That’s really where the gap in our understanding is.” The foundation is funding – despite Pollock’s comments about the influence of sporting bodies – independent research into the possible increased risks of neurodegenerative diseases in retired contact-sport athletes.

Parents can still withdraw their children if they are concerned about tackling.


Parents can still withdraw their children if they are concerned about tackling. Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images

Willie Stewart, the Glasgow-based neurosurgeon who examined Astle’s brain and found evidence of CTE, is this month signing the contract on a research project funded by the FA to explore the connection between heading the ball and dementia.

“What we don’t know is whether people who play football get dementia more than you would expect,” Stewart says. Crucially, his researchers will examine 15,000 former professional footballers against 45,000 otherwise comparable people who were not in the sport. The volume of sampling “should be able to answer the question we’ve got: was the risk of degenerative brain disease in former footballers against population expectations?”

It will take two to three years to gather the data. In the meantime, Stewart is in favour of tackling in rugby and finds no reason to tell children not to head the ball. “But would I go out with kids and have them head the ball 20 times over? No.”

Parents, meanwhile, can check whether heading is overemphasised in training. They can withdraw their child from school rugby if they and their child object to the tackles. But the most important question to ask of any coach or teacher, Stewart says, is: “Do they have a concussion policy?” In England, the sport’s governing body, the RFU, has a concussion education programme including an online audio course for parents, and Stewart himself co-produced a pocket concussion guide for all sports in Scotland.

So, while I will continue to applaud those rare headers (until the research tells me otherwise) and committed tackles, I will do so as a concussion-literate spectator.

Brain game: the cognitive loop when we hide presents | Daniel Glaser

In homes across the country, cupboards and high shelves are being pressed into service as secret stores, where small parcels of joy are being accumulated in preparation for Christmas or Hanukkah.

The essence of hiding something is a social not a practical problem. It doesn’t matter where you put a present as long as the eventual recipient doesn’t see you put it there. To succeed in this you’ve got to be very aware of whether or not you’re being observed.

Amazingly, we’re not the only species to navigate this complex domain successfully. Birds from the crow family exhibit ‘caching’ behaviour that uses social cognition, the ability to read the minds of others, to decide when to hide a piece of food for future consumption.

If, by looking at others behaviour, they suspect they’ve been observed they’ll even return later and move the cache to a new location. Some of these birds can hide and then retrieve thousands of items – which would put even the keenest human seasonal gifter to shame. At least for now, wrapping presents is something that we alone have mastered. Some of us, at least.

Dr Daniel Glaser is director of Science Gallery at King’s College London

Brain game: the cognitive loop when we hide presents | Daniel Glaser

In homes across the country, cupboards and high shelves are being pressed into service as secret stores, where small parcels of joy are being accumulated in preparation for Christmas or Hanukkah.

The essence of hiding something is a social not a practical problem. It doesn’t matter where you put a present as long as the eventual recipient doesn’t see you put it there. To succeed in this you’ve got to be very aware of whether or not you’re being observed.

Amazingly, we’re not the only species to navigate this complex domain successfully. Birds from the crow family exhibit ‘caching’ behaviour that uses social cognition, the ability to read the minds of others, to decide when to hide a piece of food for future consumption.

If, by looking at others behaviour, they suspect they’ve been observed they’ll even return later and move the cache to a new location. Some of these birds can hide and then retrieve thousands of items – which would put even the keenest human seasonal gifter to shame. At least for now, wrapping presents is something that we alone have mastered. Some of us, at least.

Dr Daniel Glaser is director of Science Gallery at King’s College London

Brain drain: our default responses to flu | Daniel Glaser

I’ve been laid up with flu and as I return to full cognitive function, I’ve been pondering the neuroscience. A fever’s tweak to your temperature regulation circuits triggers not only shivering, but also indirect loops. ‘Feeling’ cold can make you turn up the thermostat, grab blankets and take to your bed.

It’s not clear whether it’s the bug or your defences that are in control, but using your body as a laboratory, it’s fascinating to wait for the paracetamol to work. When it hits you suddenly start sweating and kick off the covers as your hypothalamus catches on to the actual temperature of your body.

Researchers have been looking at external signs, too. Evidence suggests the walking patterns, sweat and facial expression of sufferers can reflect their infection before even they are aware of it. This may help others to steer clear.

Internet activity is a promising avenue, too. The ‘Google flu trends’ project is currently suspended, in public at least, pending improvements. But within the rich mine of subconscious information we reveal through our searches, we perhaps find the earliest traces of infection. Keep well, everyone.

Dr Daniel Glaser is director of Science Gallery at King’s College London

Brain drain: our default responses to flu | Daniel Glaser

I’ve been laid up with flu and as I return to full cognitive function, I’ve been pondering the neuroscience. A fever’s tweak to your temperature regulation circuits triggers not only shivering, but also indirect loops. ‘Feeling’ cold can make you turn up the thermostat, grab blankets and take to your bed.

It’s not clear whether it’s the bug or your defences that are in control, but using your body as a laboratory, it’s fascinating to wait for the paracetamol to work. When it hits you suddenly start sweating and kick off the covers as your hypothalamus catches on to the actual temperature of your body.

Researchers have been looking at external signs, too. Evidence suggests the walking patterns, sweat and facial expression of sufferers can reflect their infection before even they are aware of it. This may help others to steer clear.

Internet activity is a promising avenue, too. The ‘Google flu trends’ project is currently suspended, in public at least, pending improvements. But within the rich mine of subconscious information we reveal through our searches, we perhaps find the earliest traces of infection. Keep well, everyone.

Dr Daniel Glaser is director of Science Gallery at King’s College London