Can the brain be enhanced by adding more neurons?

Can the brain be enhanced by adding more neurons?

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I was wondering of ways to enhance the brain. Couldn't we add a sort of substance to improve the brain? Will it somehow adapt? The brain should 'wire up' the new substance to the existing one.

As far as I know, the brain is just neural connections, so why just not add more connections? I mean, why not add more neurons, therefore enhancing the human mind, getting closer to answering questions like "Does God exist?".

Maybe modifying DNA to produce more neurons, making the brain bigger… ? In my opinion the future lies in enhancing the mind, what ways are there to do that?

P.S - I'm only 16 y/o.

I'll try to tackle this question from a developmental vantage point.

You hit the nail on the head by saying

… the brain is just neural connections…

Indeed, the power of the brain is based on the connectivity of its neurons. The number of connections is what counts, not just absolute neuronal numbers. In fact, more than 50% of neurons are lost during development, as a result of limiting trophic support from the target tissue they are destined to innervate. This neuronal cell death facilitates proper connections in the nervous system. The apoptotic cells are indeed unwanted in the nervous system, and apoptosis continues throughout life and is the central mechanism for the removal of surplus, unwanted, damaged or aged cells. (Mazarakis, 1998). Leaving them could result in aberrant functionality. For instance, it is claimed that synesthesia may be linked to incomplete neural cell death in development, leading to aberrant connections between the senses. Many sysnesthetes for instance see certain numbers appear in specific colors. These cross-sensory associations are thought to be caused by faulty cell death between the respective sensory systems in the central nervous system (the brain).

In effect, adding neurons to an existing functioning brain is expected to lead to disruptive brain function, rather than improvement.

The practical limitations of injecting additional neurons are mountainous -

  • Where would you obtain viable neurons from? Stem cells?
  • In the case of stem cells there's a chance of uncontrolled growth (cancer);
  • If the neurons don't come from a genetic identical individual there's the issue of immunological graft rejection;
  • How would you deliver the neurons to their appropriate position in the brain? Just drill a diffuse set of holes in the skull? How would you reach the deeper layers of the brain? How would you contain the neurons to the brain and prevent 'leakage' to unwanted sites in the body, such as the blood stream?

- Mazarakis, Archives Disease Childhood (1997); 77:F165-F70

Scientists Say Child's Play Helps Build A Better Brain

Deion Jefferson, 10, and Samuel Jefferson, 7, take turns climbing and jumping off a stack of old tires at the Berkeley Adventure Playground in California. The playground is a half-acre park with a junkyard feel where kids are encouraged to "play wild." David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

Deion Jefferson, 10, and Samuel Jefferson, 7, take turns climbing and jumping off a stack of old tires at the Berkeley Adventure Playground in California. The playground is a half-acre park with a junkyard feel where kids are encouraged to "play wild."

This week, NPR Ed is focusing on questions about why people play and how play relates to learning.

When it comes to brain development, time in the classroom may be less important than time on the playground.

"The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain," says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. "And without play experience, those neurons aren't changed," he says.

Our friends at MindShift have been looking at the role of play in learning. Play is as much a part of childhood as school and an organic way of learning. Check out these articles that dig into play:

Free, unstructured play is crucial for children to build the skills they'll need to be happy, productive adults.

At a school where free play and exploration are encouraged, children can educate themselves under the right conditions.

Many children in public school are getting less and less time outside, despite the documented benefits of free play.

It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain's executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, Pellis says. So play, he adds, is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork.

But to produce this sort of brain development, children need to engage in plenty of so-called free play, Pellis says. No coaches, no umpires, no rule books.

"Whether it's rough-and-tumble play or two kids deciding to build a sand castle together, the kids themselves have to negotiate, well, what are we going to do in this game? What are the rules we are going to follow?" Pellis says. The brain builds new circuits in the prefrontal cortex to help it navigate these complex social interactions, he says.

Learning From Animals

Much of what scientists know about this process comes from research on animal species that engage in social play. This includes cats, dogs and most other mammals. But Pellis says he has also seen play in some birds, including young magpies that "grab one another and start wrestling on the ground like they were puppies or dogs."

For a long time, researchers thought this sort of rough-and-tumble play might be a way for young animals to develop skills like hunting or fighting. But studies in the past decade or so suggest that's not the case. Adult cats, for example, have no trouble killing a mouse even if they are deprived of play as kittens.

Where does play come from? Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp gives a playful answer in this NPR animation.

John Poole / NPR YouTube

So researchers like Jaak Panksepp at Washington State University have come to believe play has a very different purpose: "The function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways," Panksepp says.

Panksepp has studied this process in rats, which love to play and even produce a distinctive sound he has labeled "rat laughter." When the rats are young, play appears to initiate lasting changes in areas of the brain used for thinking and processing social interactions, Panskepp says.

The changes involve switching certain genes on and off. "We found that play activates the whole neocortex," he says. "And we found that of the 1,200 genes that we measured, about one-third of them were significantly changed simply by having a half-hour of play."

Of course, this doesn't prove that play affects human brains the same way. But there are good reasons to believe it does, Pellis says.

An overview of the Berkeley Adventure Playground, where children and their parents can paint, hammer, saw and run free. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

An overview of the Berkeley Adventure Playground, where children and their parents can paint, hammer, saw and run free.

For one thing, he says, play behavior is remarkably similar across species. Rats, monkeys and children all abide by similar rules that require participants to take turns, play fair and not inflict pain. Play also helps both people and animals become more adept socially, Pellis says.

And in people, he says, an added bonus is that the skills associated with play ultimately lead to better grades. In one study, researchers found that the best predictor of academic performance in eighth grade was a child's social skills in third grade.

Another hint that play matters, Pellis says, is that "countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less."

Can you grow new brain cells?

Image: Decade3d/ Thinkstock

There are many aspects of aging you cannot prevent, but surprisingly, memory trouble is not one of them.

"The dogma for the longest time was that adult brains couldn't generate any new brain cells. You just use what you were born with," says Dr. Amar Sahay, a neuroscientist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. "But the reality is that everyone has the capacity to develop new cells that can help enhance cognitive functions."

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What Can Neurogenesis Do?

As you can imagine, neurogenesis has remarkable potential. The fact that our brains can grow new cells suggests that we can repair cognitive damage that has been done through months or years of abuse.

We can also improve our mental health and cognitive processing by enhancing the rate at which we create neurons.

Here are a few critical benefits of increasing neurogenesis.

Improved memory

Memory is one of the basic functions of intelligence.

As humans, if we want to remember more, we need to be capable of building better connections between neurons.

If you imagine each memory as a node in our mind, and the number of neurons relational to the number of possible connections or paths we could take to get to that memory, it's easy to see how having more neurons could lead to enhanced memory recall. [1]

Neurogenesis allows us to better store memories. Think of it as adding extra space to a computer's hard drive. The more gigabytes, the better - just like with humans, the more neurons, the better (to an extent).

Mood stability

Damaged neurons can negatively impact our mental health and lead to emotional problems like apathy or personality disorders.

Sometimes, these problems can be remedied by restoring function to the damaged areas of the brain by promoting neurogenesis.

Repairing damage from substance abuse

One of the most common schools of thought regarding drug users and ex-addicts was that the damage they have done to their brains is irreversible.

Now, research is showing that recovering addicts and others are having success fixing damage done to their brains with neurogenesis. [2] Some report success with correcting emotional problems, others report cognitive deficits disappearing.

Why Fun, Curiosity & Engagement Improves Learning: Mood, Senses, Neurons, Arousal, Cognition

There is ample anecdotal evidence that shows listening to a fun lecture or lesson is great for learning. It’s intuitive. Having fun & interactive learning sessions does improve learning on the whole and engender a positive attitude toward learning. It’s one of the reasons why MOOCs are popular.

But why does this happen? Why does having fun, enjoyment, engagement, curiosity, and liveliness improve the learning experience? And more generally, why does a good mood enhance our ability to learn? The results are in and we know a few things.

Now, let us get into the why. I’ve split the answer into 3 sections. One, why mood affects learning. Two, why engaging our senses is better for learning. And three, how do brain resources affect learning.

I’ve also included a list at the end with some ideas on how to make learning enjoyable.

Research shows that having fun while learning avails unique cognitive resources, associates reward and pleasure with information, strengthen and broaden memory networks, and toggle between 2 basic neural modes – one for diffused mind-wandering and the other for focused attention.

A Neuroscientist Explores The Biology Of Addiction In 'Never Enough'

Growing up, neuroscientist Judith Grisel would take little sips of alcohol at family events, but it wasn't until she was 13 that she experienced being drunk for the first time. Everything changed.

"It was so complete and so profound," she says. "I suddenly felt less anxious, less insecure, less inept to cope with the world. Suddenly I was full and OK in a way that I had never been."

Grisel began chasing that feeling. Over the years, she struggled with alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. But along the way, she also became interested in the neuroscience of addiction.

"I'm always interested in the mechanisms of things," she says. "And when I heard that I had a disease, I kind of felt naturally that that would have a biological basis, and I figured that I could study that biological basis and understand it and then maybe fix it."

Now it has been 30 years without using drugs or alcohol for Grisel, a professor of psychology at Bucknell University, where she studies how addictive drugs work on the brain. Her new book is Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction.

Interview Highlights

The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction

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On how drug and alcohol abuse affects the brains of young people

The changes in behavior that happen during adolescence are so important and lasting because the brain is forming permanent structures. So whatever you experience as an adolescent is going to have a much more impactful influence on the rest of your life trajectory than it would, say, if you did this at another time in development when your brain wasn't so prone to changing.

When the circuits are being laid down, if they're laid down under the influence of a drug, then they're going to be laid down differently than if it's not under the influence of a drug. If you start using at 28, when the circuits are already more or less set, then you're not going to have such a long-lasting impact. .

Probably [the brain is] not mature until about 25, and this is a really critical time. We see definitely lasting changes on the brain and behavior. So binge drinking certainly predisposes toward alcoholism. It also alters the circuits, the connections, between nerve cells and the pathways, including the dopamine pathway. It's not just drinking early or how much you drink, but the pattern that you drink — and binge drinking is probably the worst pattern if you want to predispose toward problem use.

Shots - Health News

Why Teens Are Impulsive, Addiction-Prone And Should Protect Their Brains

On how alcohol is like a pharmacological sledgehammer

Alcohol is such a mess. It's a tiny, tiny molecule, and it acts all over the brain in so many different pathways. It affects endorphins, as I said, and dopamine. It affects glutamate and GABA, the two primary excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters. It affects all kinds of ion channels. It's so small that it can act all over the place. And so it's been really hard to study. In fact, we still are just beginning to understand how it is that you feel drunk — what the mechanisms are for feeling drunk — because it acts kind of like a sledgehammer or just in a widespread way to disrupt all kinds of cell functioning.

On how cocaine is like a laser

Shots - Health News

A Brain Tweak Lets Mice Abstain From Cocaine

Cocaine is the perfect opposite of alcohol in this way. It does one thing. It does it really effectively. It blocks the recycling of dopamine and other neurotransmitters like . norepinephrine, and that enhances pleasure and enhances arousal and enhances movement. So it's very specific. It's easy to study, relatively, I should say, and much easier to understand how it works.

On how marijuana floods the brain

Marijuana is both like cocaine and like alcohol. So it's like cocaine in that its actions are very specific, and it's like alcohol in that those actions are all over the brain. . It does one thing, but it does it everywhere. So for cocaine, it does one thing, but it does it in just a few pathways. Alcohol does many things all over the place. THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, does one thing more or less, but everywhere, and that thing is to enhance communication between cells, to enhance the message. So to kind of turn up the gain or the volume on a particular message that neurons are communicating. .

When we smoke marijuana, the whole brain is flooded with THC, and that causes the cell-to-cell communication in cells throughout the brain to be enhanced or to be exaggerated. And that's really fun, because it seems like, "Wow, everything is so interesting! Everything is beautiful! The music is so rich! The colors are so wonderful! The food is delicious!" Everything at once is turned on. That's not how the natural system would work with discretion. .

What's unfortunate is the brain does adapt to that, and it adapts by decreasing the number of sites that THC can have an effect [on]. So those sites down-regulate, meaning they go away over time, and it doesn't take long, but . the more you use and the more often you use, the less of those receptors there will be. . When you take away the drug, then things seem sort of lifeless and gray and maybe less interesting.

Opiates make a user feel like they are not suffering, that they are completely content, completely comfortable, completely well, that everything is OK the way it is. And I think that for that reason they're so attractive, because often we don't experience that things are OK the way they are. So they are kind of a perfect antidote to suffering of any kind.

Shots - Health News

Anatomy Of Addiction: How Heroin And Opioids Hijack The Brain

The problem is [that] if we reduce suffering and we produce euphoria using opiates, the brain adapts. And so now we don't feel high and completely content with them we just feel not sick and miserable. And when we take them away, we feel full of suffering — much more suffering than we had started with to begin with. So the brain produces its own type of suffering.

On why she does not believe methadone is a good solution to opiate dependency

Methadone is a pure substitute addiction, so it takes the place of other opiates. It's easier for society because it's very long-lasting, so people aren't going through this really intense period of withdrawal. . It's cheap and it lasts a long time, and it makes the user not withdraw.

Shots - Health News

Many 'Recovery Houses' Won't Let Residents Use Medicine To Quit Opioids

So for the rest of us, it's kind of a nice thing because these people who are opiate dependent are kind of out of the way they're not so hard to deal with. But for those users — especially if they're young — it's even harder to get off of methadone than it is to get off of, say, heroin, because it lasts such a long time.

On how drug and alcohol use is so ingrained in society

It's just something to notice how much of society is focused . on kind of buffering or escaping or mitigating reality in some way. And for people who can get away with that without self-destructing, I think that's something still to notice. But for the rest of us [who struggle with addiction] — and we're not really that rare — it's a pretty common disorder. .

I do think we really, as a society, cannot get enough. It's everywhere. I also think, though, that it's important to ask individually, I guess, "Is this drug use enhancing my life, or is it diminishing it?" So for coffee I can say, happily, it's enhancing my life and the costs of a little tolerance and dependence are not so bad, because I can just drink three cups. But I think that is something that we have to go into our own hearts to know the answer to.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Scott Hensley adapted it for the Web.

Correction Feb. 15, 2019

In the audio version of this story, Judith Grisel incorrectly refers to Ambien as a benzodiazepine. In fact, Ambien (zolpidem) belongs to a different class of drugs — sedatives or hypnotics.

10 Proven Ways To Grow Your Brain: Neurogenesis And Neuroplasticity

Scientists once thought the brain stopped developing after the first few years of life. But new research has shown that the brain can form new neural pathways and create neurons even in adulthood (Neuroplasticity and Neurogenesis).

Exercise for 30 minutes per day or meditation stimulates the production of new synapses eating foods rich in flavonoids (cocoa and blueberries) and antioxidants (green tea) also helps with brain growth. In addition to these, here are ten proven ways to promote neurogenesis and neuroplasticity in your brain:

Calorie-restriction/fasting increases synaptic plasticity, promotes neuron growth, decreases risk of neurodegenerative diseases, and improves cognitive function according to the Society for Neuroscience.

During fasting, a metabolic shift lowers the body's leptin levels, a hormone produced by fat. As a result, the brain receives a chemical signal for neurons to produce more energy.

Popular methods include: fasting one day per week, for an entire 24-hour period a 16-hour fast -- having your last meal at 8pm and breaking your fast at lunch (12pm) the next day the "5-2" model -- five days of regular eating and two days (non-consecutive) of calorie-restricted eating in a week (between 400-600 calories).

Traveling promotes neurogenesis by exposing your brain to new, novel, and complex environments. Paul Nussbaum, a neuropsychologist from the University of Pittsburgh explains, "Those new and challenging situations cause the brain to sprout dendrites."

You don't need to travel across the world to reap these benefits either taking a weekend road trip to a different city gives your brain the same stimulation.

Memory training promotes connectivity in your brain's prefrontal parietal network and can slow memory loss with age. Mnemonic devices are a form of memory training that combines visualization, imagery, spatial navigation, and rhythm and melody.

A popular technique is known as the Method of Loci (MoL). Explained by Scientific American: It involves visualizing a familiar route -- through a building, your home, or your way to work -- and placing items to be remembered at attention-grabbing spots along the way. The more bizarre you make these images, the better you will recall them later. By simply retracing your steps, like a fishing line, you will "pull up" items to the surface. Along with objects, numbers, and names, this method has helped people with depression store happy memories that they can retrieve in times of stress.

Begin using mnemonic techniques and engage in memory training start working on remembering names, scriptures, or poems. Here are some mnemonic techniques to get you started.

Brain scans on musicians show heightened connectivity between brain regions. Neuroscientists explain that playing a musical instrument is an intense, multi-sensory experience. The association of motor actions with specific sounds and visual patterns leads to the formation of new neural networks.

If you've always wanted to learn an instrument, consider brain growth as a motivator to get you started.

5. Non-Dominant Hand Exercises

Using your non-dominant hand to do simple tasks such as brushing your teeth, texting, or stirring your coffee/tea can help you form new neural pathways. These cognitive exercises, also known as "neurobics," strengthen connectivity between your brain cells. "It's like having more cell towers in your brain to send messages along. The more cell towers you have, the fewer missed calls," explains Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, chief of biological psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center.

Studies have also shown that non-dominant hand activities improves your emotional health and impulse control. Switch hands with simple tasks to give you brain a workout.

A study conducted over 19 consecutive days by Emory University showed increased and ongoing connectivity in the brains of participants after they all read the same novel. Researcher Gregory Berns, noted, "Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity."

Enhanced brain activity was observed in the region that controls physical sensations and movement systems. Berns explains that reading a novel "can transport you into the body of the protagonist." This ability to shift into another mental state is a crucial skill for mastering the complex social relationships. Add some novels to your reading list for these extra brain benefits.

Learning new words activates the brain's visual and auditory processes (seeing and hearing a word) and memory processing. A small vocabulary is linked with poor cognitive efficiency in children, while an expansive vocabulary is an indicator of student success.

Learn one new word each day to expand your vocabulary and give your brain a workout. Use apps or online courses to make it fun.

In a journal article titled, "How Art Changes Your Brain," participants in a 10-week art course (a two hour session, one day per week) showed enhanced connectivity of the brain at a resting state known as the "default mode network" (DMN). The DMN influences mental processes such as introspection, memory, and empathy. Engaging in art also strengthens the neural pathway that controls attention and focus.

Whether it's creating mosaics, jewelry, pottery, painting, or drawing, the combination of motor and cognitive processing will promote better brain connectivity. Join a local art class just once a week will help your brain grow.

Not many of us would think of dancing as a "decision-making process," but that's the reason why it's healthy for your brain. Especially free-style dancing and forms that don't retrace memorized paths. Researchers compared the effectiveness of cognitive activities in warding off Alzheimer's and dementia and found that dancing had the greatest effect (76% risk reduction) higher than doing crossword puzzles at least four days a week (47%) and reading (35%).

Dancing increases neural connectivity because it forces you to integrate several brain functions at once --kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional. If you're dancing with a partner, learning both "Lead" and "Follow" roles will increase your cognitive stimulation.

Studies from NYU showed that sleep helps learning retention with the growth of dendritic spines, the tiny protrusions that connect brain cells and facilitates the passage of information across synapses.

Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night. If you're struggling to get a consistently good sleep, try creating a nightly ritual going to bed at the same time drinking some sleep-inducing tea or making your room as dark as possible.

Infographic created by VisMe.
For more of Thai's articles on strategic living, visit The Utopian Life. Connect with him on FB and Twitter.

Scientists Found a New Way to Control the Brain With Light—No Surgery Required

If I had to place money on a neurotech that will win the Nobel Prize, it’s optogenetics.

The technology uses light of different frequencies to control the brain. It’s a brilliant mind-meld of basic neurobiology and engineering that hijacks the mechanism behind how neurons naturally activate—or are silenced—in the brain.

Thanks to optogenetics, in just ten years we’ve been able to artificially incept memories in mice, decipher brain signals that lead to pain, untangle the neural code for addiction, reverse depression, restore rudimentary sight in blinded mice, and overwrite terrible memories with happy ones. Optogenetics is akin to a universal programming language for the brain.

But it’s got two serious downfalls: it requires gene therapy, and it needs brain surgery to implant optical fibers into the brain.

This week, the original mind behind optogenetics is back with an update that cuts the cord. Dr. Karl Deisseroth’s team at Stanford University, in collaboration with the University of Minnesota, unveiled an upgraded version of optogenetics that controls behavior without the need for surgery. Rather, the system shines light through the skulls of mice, and it penetrates deep into the brain. With light pulses, the team was able to change how likely a mouse was to have seizures, or reprogram its brain so it preferred social company.

To be clear: we’re far off from scientists controlling your brain with flashlights. The key to optogenetics is genetic engineering—without it, neurons (including yours) don’t naturally respond to light.

However, looking ahead, the study is a sure-footed step towards transforming a powerful research technology into a clinical therapy that could potentially help people with neurological problems, such as depression or epilepsy. We are still far from that vision—but the study suggests it’s science fiction potentially within reach.


To understand optogenetics, we need to dig a little deeper into how brains work.

Essentially, neurons operate on electricity with an additional dash of chemistry. A brain cell is like a living storage container with doors—called ion channels—that separate its internal environment from the outside. When a neuron receives input and that input is sufficiently strong, the cells open their doors. This process generates an electrical current, which then gallops down a neuron’s output branch—a biological highway of sorts. At the terminal, the electrical data transforms into dozens of chemical “ships,” which float across a gap between neurons to deliver the message to its neighbors. This is how neurons in a network communicate, and how that network in turn produces memories, emotions, and behaviors.

Optogenetics hijacks this process.

Using viruses, scientists can add a gene for opsins, a special family of proteins from algae, into living neurons. Opsins are specialized “doors” that open under certain frequencies of light pulses, something mammalian brain cells can’t do. Adding opsins into mouse neurons (or ours) essentially gives them the superpower to respond to light. In classic optogenetics, scientists implant optical fibers near opsin-dotted neurons to deliver the light stimulation. Computer-programmed light pulses can then target these newly light-sensitive neurons in a particular region of the brain and control their activity like puppets on a string.

It gets cooler. Using genetic engineering, scientists can also fine-tune which populations of neurons get that extra power—for example, only those that encode a recent memory, or those involved in depression or epilepsy. This makes it possible to play with those neural circuits using light, while the rest of the brain hums along.

This selectivity is partially why optogenetics is so powerful. But it’s not all ponies and rainbows. As you can imagine, mice don’t particularly enjoy being tethered by optical fibers sprouting from their brains. Humans don’t either, hence the hiccup in adopting the tool for clinical use. Since its introduction, a main goal for next-generation optogenetics has been to cut the cord.

Goodbye Surgery

In the new study, the Deisseroth team started with a main goal: let’s ditch the need for surgical implants altogether. Immediately, this presents a tough problem. It means that bioengineered neurons, inside a brain, need to have a sensitive and powerful enough opsin “door” that responds to light—even when light pulses are diffused by the skull and brain tissue. It’s like a game of telephone where one person yells a message from ten blocks away, through multiple walls and city noise, yet you still have to be able to decipher it and pass it on.

Luckily, the team already had a candidate, one so good it’s a ChRmine (bad joke cringe). Developed last year, ChRmine stands out in its shockingly fast reaction times to light and its ability to generate a large electrical current in neurons—about a 100-fold improvement over any of its predecessors. Because it’s so sensitive, it means that even a spark of light, at its preferred wavelength, can cause it to open its “doors” and in turn control neural activity. What’s more, ChRmine rapidly shuts down after it opens, meaning that it doesn’t overstimulate neurons but rather follows their natural activation trajectory.

As a first test, the team used viruses to add ChRmine to an area deep inside the brain—the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which is critical to how we process reward and addiction, and is also implicated in depression. As of now, the only way to reach the area in a clinical setting is with an implanted electrode. With ChRmine, however, the team found that a light source, placed right outside the mice’s scalp, was able to reliably spark neural activity in the region.

Randomly activating neurons with light, while impressive, may not be all that useful. The next test is whether it’s possible to control a mouse’s behavior using light from outside the brain. Here, the team added ChRmine to dopamine neurons in a mouse, which in this case provides a feeling of pleasure. Compared to their peers, the light-enhanced mice were far more eager to press a lever to deliver light to their scalps—meaning that the light is stimulating the neurons enough for the mice to feel pleasure and work for it.

As a more complicated test, the team then used light to control a population of brain cells, called serotonergic cells, in the base of the brain, called the brainstem. These cells are known to influence social behavior—that is, how much an individual enjoys social interaction. It gets slightly disturbing: mice with ChRmine-enhanced cells, specifically in the brainstem, preferred spending time in their test chamber’s “social zone” versus their siblings who didn’t have ChRmine. In other words, without any open-brain surgery and just a few light beams, the team was able to change a socially ambivalent mouse into a friendship-craving social butterfly.

Brain Control From Afar

If you’re thinking “creepy,” you’re not alone. The study suggests that with an injection of a virus carrying the ChRmine gene—either through the eye socket or through veins—it’s potentially possible to control something as integral to a personality as sociability with nothing but light.

To stress my point: this is only possible in mice for now. Our brains are far larger, which means light scattering through the skull and penetrating sufficiently deep becomes far more complicated. And again, our brain cells don’t normally respond to light. You’d have to volunteer for what amounts to gene therapy—which comes with its own slew of problems—before this could potentially work. So keep those tin-foil hats off scientists can’t yet change an introvert (like me) into an extrovert with lasers.

But for unraveling the inner workings of the brain, it’s an amazing leap into the future. So far, efforts at cutting the optical cord for optogenetics have come with the knee-capped ability to go deep into the brain, limiting control to only surface brain regions such as the cortex. Other methods overheat sensitive brain tissue and culminate in damage. Yet others act as 1990s DOS systems, with significant delay between a command (activate!) and the neuron’s response.

This brain-control OS, though not yet perfect, resolves those problems. Unlike Neuralink and other neural implants, the study suggests it’s possible to control the brain without surgery or implants. All you need is light.

A Data Hub to Measure Well-Being

Despite the dramatic economic growth, immense technological progress, and substantial increases in average disposable income seen in numerous countries over the last 50 years, doubts have been raised, both in the social sciences and in society at large, as to whether people in those nations really are better off.

Social scientists in Europe have built an empirical way to “map out” societal trends, giving psychological scientists, economists, and other researchers data that they can use to better understand the causes and consequences of social transformation, says sociologist Jürgen Schupp of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin).

Schupp, who spoke in the Integrative Science Symposium on cognition, behavior, and development in socioeconomic contexts during the International Convention of Psychological Science in March, directs the research unit of DIW Berlin’s Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) Study. That project began in 1984 as a longitudinal, multiple-cohort study of private households. Among the data captured in the SOEP are living standards, availability and quality of work, societal distribution of prosperity, educational opportunities, health and life expectancy, and subject experiences of life satisfaction.

The results, which present longitudinal indicators of such trends as household income growth and the length of time individuals live in poverty, have become major parts of government economic reports.

References and Further Reading

Farah, M. J., Betancourt, L., Shera, D. M., Savage, J. H., Giannetta, J. M., Brodsky, N. L., … Hurt, H. (2008). Environmental stimulation, parental nurturance and cognitive development in humans. Developmental Science, 11, 793–801. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2008.00688.x

García Coll, C. T., & Szalacha, L. A. (2004). The multiple contexts of middle childhood. Future of Children, 14, 80–97.

Guarini, T. E., Marks, A. K., Patton, F., & Garcia Coll, C. T. (2011). The immigrant paradox in sexual risk behavior among Latino adolescents: Impact of immigrant generation and gender. Applied Developmental Science, 15, 201–209. doi: 10.1080/10888691.2011.618100

Hackman, D. A., Betancourt, L. M., Brodsky, N. L., Kobrin, L., Hurt, H., & Farah, M. J. (2013). Selective impact of early parental responsivity on adolescent stress reactivity. PLoS ONE, 8. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0058250

Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E., & Zhao, J. (2013). Poverty impedes cognitive function. Science, 341, 976–980. doi: 10.1126/science.1238041

Noble, K. G., Houston, S. M., Kan, E., & Sowell, E. R. (2012). Neural correlates of socioeconomic status in the developing human brain. Developmental Science, 15, 516–527. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2012.01147.x

Racz, S. J., McMahon, R. J., & Luthar, S. S. (2011). Risky behavior in affluent youth: Examining the co-occurrence and consequences of multiple problem behaviors. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 20, 120–128. doi: 10.1007/s10826-010-9385-4

Shah, A. K., Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2012). Some consequences of having too little. Science, 338, 682–685. doi: 10.1126/science.1222426


Neuroplasticity Edit

Neuroplasticity is the mechanism by which the brain encodes experience, learns new behaviours and relearns lost behaviour if the brain has been damaged. [1]

Experience-dependent neuroplasticity suggests that the brain changes in response to what it experiences. London taxicab drivers provide a great example of this dynamic. They undergo extensive training for 2–4 years, learning and memorizing street names, layout of streets within the city and the quickest cross-city routes. After studying London taxicab drivers over a period of time, it was found that the grey matter volume increased over time in the posterior hippocampus, an area in the brain involved heavily in memory. The longer taxi drivers navigated the streets of London, the greater the posterior hippocampal gray matter volume. This suggests a correlation between a healthy person's mental training or exercise and their brains capacity to manage greater volume and more complex information. The increase in volume actually led to a decrease in the taxi drivers' ability to acquire new visuo-spatial information. [2]

Stress Edit

Research has found that chronic and acute stress have adverse effects on memory processing systems. Therefore, it is important to find mechanisms in which one can reduce the amount of stress in their lives when seeking to improve memory.

  • Chronic stress has been shown to have negative impacts on the brain, especially in memory processing systems. [3] The hippocampus is vulnerable to repeated stress due to adrenal steroid stress hormones. [4] Elevated glucocorticoids, a class of adrenalsteroid hormones, results in increased cortisol, a well known stress response hormone in the brain, [5] and glucocorticoids are known to affect memory. [6] Prolonged high cortisol levels, as seen in chronic stress, have been shown to result in reduced hippocampal volume as well as deficits in hippocampal-dependent memory, as seen in impaired declarative, episodic, spatial, and contextual memory performance. [6] Chronic, long-term high cortisol levels affect the degree of hippocampal atrophy, resulting in as much as a 14% hippocampal volume reduction and impaired hippocampus-dependent memory when compared to elderly subjects with decreased or moderate cortisol levels. [6][7][8] An example may be found in the London taxi drivers, as the anterior hippocampus was hypothesized to decrease in volume as a result of elevated cortisol levels from stress. [2][nb 1]
  • Acute stress, a more common form of stress, results in the release of adrenal steroids resulting in impaired short-term and working memory processes such as selective attention, memory consolidation, as well as long-term potentiation. [9][10] The human brain has a limited short-term memory capacity to process information, which results in constant competition between stimuli to become processed. Cognitive control processes such as selective attention reduce this competition by prioritizing where attentional resources are distributed. Attention is crucial in memory processing and enhances encoding and strength of memory traces. [11] It is therefore important to selectively attend to relevant information and ignore irrelevant information in order to have the greatest success at remembering. [12]

Cognitive training Edit

Discovering that the brain can change as a result of experience has resulted in the development of cognitive training. Cognitive training improves cognitive functioning, which can increase working memory capacity and improve cognitive skills and functions in clinical populations with working memory deficiencies. [15] Cognitive training may focus on attention, speed of processing, neurofeedback, dual-tasking and perceptual training. [15]

Cognitive training has been shown to improve cognitive abilities for up to five years. In one experiment, the goal was to prove that cognitive training would increase the cognitive functions in older adults by using three types of training (memory, reasoning and speed of processing). It was found that improvements in cognitive ability not only was maintained over time but had a positive transfer effect on everyday functioning. Therefore, these results indicate that each type of cognitive training can produce immediate and lasting improvements in each kind of cognitive ability, thus suggesting that training can be beneficial to improving memory. [16]

Cognitive training in areas other than memory has actually been seen to generalize and transfer to memory systems. For example, the Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training (IMPACT) study by the American Geriatrics Society in 2009 demonstrated that cognitive training designed to improve accuracy and speed of the auditory system presented improvements in memory and attention system functioning as well as auditory functioning. [17]

Two cognitive training methods are:

  • Strategy training is used to help individuals remember increasing amounts of information of a particular type. It involves teaching effective approaches to encoding, maintenance, and/or recall from working memory. The main goal of strategy training is to increase performance in tasks requiring retention of information. Studies strongly support the claim that the amount of information remembered can be increased by rehearsing out loud, telling a story with stimuli, or using imagery to make stimuli stand out. Strategy training has been used in children with Down syndrome and also in older adult populations. [15]
  • Core training involves repetition of demanding working memory tasks. Some core training programs involve a combination of several tasks with widely varying stimulus types. The diversity of exercises increase the chance that one of, or some combination of the training tasks, will produce desired training-related gains. A goal of cognitive training is to impact the ease and success of cognitive performance in one's daily life. Core training can reduce the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and improve the quality of life involving patients with multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia and also, those who have suffered from stroke. [15]

The manner in which a training study is conducted could affect the outcomes or perspection of the outcomes. Expectancy/effort effects occur when the experimenter subconsciously influences the participants to perform a desired result. One form of expectancy bias relates to placebo effects, which is the belief that training should have a positive influence on cognition. A control group may help to eliminate this bias because this group would not expect to benefit from the training. Researchers sometimes generalize their results, which can be misleading and incorrect. An example is to generalize findings of a single task and interpret the observed improvements as a broadly defined cognitive ability. The study may result in inconsistency if there are a variety of comparison groups used in working memory training, which is impacted by: training and assessment timeline, assessment conditions, training setting and control group selection. [15]

The Five x Five System is a set of memory enhancement tools that are scientifically validated. The system was created by Dr Peter Marshall for research purposes at Royal Holloway, University of London. The system involves 5 groups of 5 tactics designed to maximise storage and recall at each stage of the process of registering, short-term storage, long-term storage, consolidation and retrieval and was designed to test efficacy of including memory training in school curricula. Each section is of equal text length so that it can be taught verbatim in the same amount of time by all competent teachers. [18]

Personal Application & Intellectual Conception Edit

Testing Effect is when most of the learning is allocated to declarative knowledge long term memory is enhanced, this is otherwise known as the testing effect . [19] In order to retrieve information from your memory you must practice doing it. [20] The more frequent practicing memorizing the more capable and likely you are to remember it later. [20] The development of an effective retrieval structure that makes it easier to access information that has been stored in long-term memory is facilitated by using repeated retrieval practice. [19] Testing effect occurs because of the development of an adequate retrieval structure. [19] The testing effect is different from re-reading because the information being learned is being practiced and tested which forces the information to be drawn from memory to recall. [20] The testing effect allows for information to be recalled over a longer period as it is used as a self-testing tool and aids in having the ability to recall information in the future. [21] This strategy is effective when using memory recall especially for information that is being tested on and needs to be in long-term memory. [19]

Concept Maps “are diagrams that link word concepts in a fluid manner to central key concepts.” [19] They center around a main topic or idea, with lines protruding from the center with related information. [22] Other concepts and ideas are then written at the end of each of the lines with new, related information. These related ideas are usually one or two words in length, giving only the essence of what is needed for memory retrieval. [19] Related ideas can also be drawn at the ends of the lines. This may be especially useful, given the drawing effect (people remember images better than words). [23] These diagrams are beneficial because they require the creator to link and integrate different ideas, which improve critical thinking and leads to more meaningful learning. [24] Concept maps also help to facilitate the storage of material in long term memory, as well as help to show visually an knowledge gaps that may be present. [19] Concept maps have been shown to improve people's ability to complete novel problem solving tasks. [25]

The Drawing Effect is another way to improve memory. Studies show that images are better remembered than words, something that is now known as the picture-superiority effect. [23] Furthermore, another study found that when people are studying vocabulary, they remember more when they draw the definition, in comparison to writing it. [26] This is thought to be because drawing uses 3 different types of memory- elaborative, motor, and pictorial. [27] The benefit of using pictures to enhance memory is even seen at an older age, including in dementia patients. [27]

Techniques to improve memory: visual memory Edit

Method of loci is a technique utilized for memory recall when to-be-remembered items are associated with different locations that are well known to the learner. [19] Method of loci is one of the oldest and most effective mnemonics based on visual imagery. [19] The more you exercise your visual memory through using objects to recall information better memory recall you will have. [28] The locations that are utilized when using the method of loci aids in the effectiveness of memory recall. [19] For example, using the location of a driving route to work is more effective than using a room within a home because items in a room can be moved around while a route to work is more constant without items being moved around. [19] There are limitations when using method of loci, it is difficult to recall any given item without working your way through the list sequence, which can be time consuming. [19] Another limitation is that it is not useful when an individual is trying to learn and remember the real world. [19] This mnemonic technique plus others are effective because they allow the learner to apply their own knowledge to enhance their memory recall. [19]

Psychopharmacology Edit

Psychopharmacology is the scientific study of the actions of drugs and their effects on mood, sensation, thought, and behavior.

Evidence that aspects of memory can be improved by action on selective neurotransmitter systems, such as the cholinergic system which releases acetylcholine, has possible therapeutic benefits for patients with cognitive disorders. [29]

Findings from studies have indicated that acute administration of nicotine can improve cognitive performance (particularly tasks that require attention), short-term episodic memory and prospective memory task performance. Chronic usage of low-dose nicotine in animals has been found to increase the number of neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) and improve performance on learning and memory tasks. [30]

Short-term nicotine treatment, utilising nicotine skin patches, have shown that it may be possible to improve cognitive performance in a variety of groups such as normal non-smoking adults, Alzheimer's disease patients, schizophrenics, and adults with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. [31] Similarly, evidence suggests that smoking improves visuospatial working memory impairments in schizophrenic patients, possibly explaining the high rate of tobacco smoking found in people with schizophrenia. [32]

Diet Edit

Food and memory may be connected. While no link has been isolated to prove a direct connection between diet and memory, there are several correlational studies to support the theory that food may affect memory.

Some foods may be tied to improving cognitive function. Foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids have shown a correlation with improvements in memory and brain maintenance because they increase the brain’s cell membranes. [33] Foods high in Omega-3s include some fish and seafood, plant oils, seeds, and nuts. [34] Some of the B vitamins may also be associated with the brain and the decrease in the likelihood of the development of Alzheimer’s disease. [35] Vitamin B6 can be found in high quantities in fish, organ meats like liver, starches, and fruits. [36] It is the combination of these foods and their nutrients that seems to have the greatest impact on the brain. Some diets incorporate many of these foods and are therefore may be considered as a potential diet for helping brain functions like memory. The Mediterranean diet is the strongest contender for one of these diets that may be beneficial to the brain, but the data on the connection between memory and diet is not as certain as data on a diet that is known to be good for the heart. [37] Some of the foods that are recommended in the Mediterranean diet are the same as ones already mentioned here such as fish, nuts, oil, fruits, and vegetables. This diet also recommends whole grains (a good source of vitamin E) and limiting the amount of red meat consumed. [38] [39]

Free radicals are a threat to memory processes because they cause oxidative stress. [40] Antioxidants combat the effects that free radicals cause. [41] It appears that foods that are high in antioxidants can provide the extra help that is needed in order to combat free radicals. Plant foods have antioxidants and seem to be more effective than their supplemental drug counterparts most likely because of the way the other nutrients contained within the food item combine to work in the body along with the antioxidant. [42] Fruits and vegetables make the list of antioxidants alongside seafood, seeds, nuts, and protein sources like beef and poultry. [42] Vitamin E is an antioxidant, and like Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E can also be found in seeds and nuts, plant oils, and fruits and vegetables. [43]

In support of fruits and vegetables and their possible connection to aiding memory, a study found that men who ate more fruits and vegetables over the course of four years performed better on memory tests than the men who did not eat as many servings of fruit and vegetables daily. [44]

Flavonoids may also help with preserving memory by protecting neurons in the brain and promoting regeneration. [45] Some examples of foods with flavonoids are dark colored berries and dark chocolate. [46]

While not a true element of diet, chewing on a piece of gum may also help to improve certain elements of episodic and working memory. [47]

There is some evidence glucose consumption may have a positive impact on memory performance, though not in young adults. [48]

Stress management Edit

Meditation, a form of mental training to focus attention, [12] has been shown to increase the control over brain resource distribution, improving both attention and self-regulation. [13] The changes are potentially long-lasting as meditation may have the ability to strengthen neuronal circuits as selective attentional processes improve. [49] Meditation may also enhance cognitive limited capacity, affecting the way in which stimuli are processed. [12]

Meditation practice has also been associated with physical changes in brain structure. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of Buddhist insight meditation practitioners who practiced mindfulness meditation were found to have an increase in cortical thickness and hippocampus volume compared to the control group. [50] This research provides structural evidence that meditation practice promotes neural plasticity and experience-dependent cortical plasticity. [51]

Exercise Edit

In both human and animal studies, exercise has been shown to improve cognitive performance on encoding and retrieval tasks. Morris water maze and radial arm water maze studies of rodents found that, when compared to sedentary animals, exercised mice showed improved performance traversing the water maze and displayed enhanced memory for the location of an escape platform. [52] Likewise, human studies have shown that cognitive performance is improved due to physiological arousal, which speeded mental processes and enhanced memory storage and retrieval. [53] Ongoing exercise interventions have been found to favourably impact memory processes in older adults [54] and children. [55]

Exercise has been found to positively regulate hippocampal neurogenesis, [56] which is considered an explanation for the positive influence of physical activities on memory performance. Hippocampus-dependent learning, for example, can promote the survival of newborn neurons which may serve as a foundation for the formation of new memories. [57] Exercise has been found to increase the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) protein in rats, with elevated BDNF levels corresponding with strengthened performance on memory tasks. Data also suggests that BDNF availability at the beginning of cognitive testing is related to the overall acquisition of a new cognitive task and may be important in determining the strength of recall in memory tasks. [52]

Hence, brain exercises are found being practiced and adopted early by children to enhance brain sensory responses and improve performance of the brain by maintaining its health.

A meta-analysis concluded that specifically resistance training, as compared to cardiovascular exercise, had no measurable effect on working memory. [58]

There is some evidence that also shows that the amount of effort put into exercising is positively correlated with the level of cognitive performance after working out both in the short term and long term. [59]

Mental exercise Edit

Aristotle wrote a treatise about memory: De memoria et reminiscentia. To improve recollection, he advised that a systematic search should be made and that practice was helpful. He suggested grouping the items to be remembered in threes and then concentrating upon the central member of each triad (group of three). [60]

Music playing has recently gained attention as a possible way to promote brain plasticity. Promising results have been found suggesting that learning music can improve various aspects of memory. For instance, children who participated in one year of instrumental musical training showed improved verbal memory, whereas no such improvement was shown in children who discontinued musical training. [61] Similarly, adults with no previous musical training who participated in individualized piano instruction showed significantly improved performance on tasks designed to test attention and working memory compared to a healthy control group. [62] Evidence suggests that the improvements to verbal, working and long-term memory associated to musical training are a result of the enhanced verbal rehearsal mechanisms musicians possess. [63]

Another study tested elderly participants in how learning a new activity impacts their memory and mental control. [64] They were divided into 5 groups that each spent 15 hours a week doing one of 5 different scenarios: learning digital photography, learning to quilt, learning both digital photography and how to quilt, socializing with others, or doing solitary activities by themselves. It was found that all groups improved with regard to mental control, however learning a new skill(s) led to improved episodic memory. [64]

Memory aids Edit

Physical memory aids, typically worn on the wrist or finger, can help the user remember something they might otherwise forget. Common aids such as this are used by people with memory loss. [65] Typical memory aids for people with Alzheimer's includes sticky notes and color-coded memory aids. [66] Tying a string around one's finger to remember something important is both a literary device, [67] and an actual practice. [68] One school yearbook from 1849 suggests using either a string tied around a finger or a knot tied in the corner of a handkerchief to remember something important to the student. [69] The oldest documented legend of a string used as a memory aid was in the myth Ariadne's thread, where a thread was presented by Ariadne to her lover Theseus to find his way out of the minotaur's labyrinth. The knot-in-the-handkerchief memory aid was used by German philosopher Martin Heidegger. [70]

A memory clamp (also called a "reality clamp") is a generic name for a type of physical memory aid designed be worn on the wrist or finger to help the user remember something they might otherwise forget, and was originally invented by physicist Rick Yukon to create difficult-to-ignore visuals and a deliberately intrusive shape and size. [71] [72] (For example, a child in a car seat, an important meeting, or the need to take one's own medicine.) A well designed memory clamp is designed to be difficult to ignore visually, typically with bright colors and sometimes contrasting base colors. A memory clamp is designed to cause a slight amount of visual discomfort and a slight amount of physical discomfort, so that the user maintains at least partial awareness of the intrusion, and is thus designed to be worn only intermittently, so the user doesn't become accustomed to it. [73]

Other memory methods include writing on one's own hand, sending a text message to oneself, or using sticky notes. [74] Wrist-worn, finger-worn and ankle-worn memory aids have apparently been used for hundreds of years. [75]