Tag Archives: Carol Clark

Two bits about the brain: fiction affects your brain and the US’s BRAIN Initiative is soliciting grant submissions

As a writer I love to believe my words have a lasting impact and while this research is focused on fiction, something I write more rarely than nonfiction, hope springs eternal that one day nonfiction too will be proved as having an impact (in a good way) on the brain. From a Jan. 3, 2014 news release on EurekAlert (or you can read the Dec. 17, 2013 Emory University news release by Carol Clark),

Many people can recall reading at least one cherished story that they say changed their life. Now researchers at Emory University have detected what may be biological traces related to this feeling: Actual changes in the brain that linger, at least for a few days, after reading a novel.

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

His co-authors included Kristina Blaine and Brandon Pye from the Center for Neuropolicy, and Michael Prietula from Emory’s Goizueta Business School.

Neurobiological research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has begun to identify brain networks associated with reading stories. Most previous studies have focused on the cognitive processes involved in short stories, while subjects are actually reading them while they are in the fMRI scanner.

All of the study subjects read the same novel, “Pompeii,” a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris that is based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy.

“The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,” Berns says. “He tries to get back to Pompeii in time to save the woman he loves. Meanwhile, the volcano continues to bubble and nobody in the city recognizes the signs.”

The researchers chose the book due to its page-turning plot. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Berns says. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”

For the first five days, the participants came in each morning for a base-line fMRI scan of their brains in a resting state. Then they were fed nine sections of the novel, about 30 pages each, over a nine-day period. They were asked to read the assigned section in the evening, and come in the following morning. After taking a quiz to ensure they had finished the assigned reading, the participants underwent an fMRI scan of their brain in a non-reading, resting state. After completing all nine sections of the novel, the participants returned for five more mornings to undergo additional scans in a resting state.

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

The neural changes were not just immediate reactions, Berns says, since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.

“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” Berns says. “But the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain by Gregory S. Berns, Kristina Blaine, Michael J. Prietula, and Brandon E. Pye. Brain Connectivity. 2013, 3(6): 590-600. doi:10.1089/brain.2013.0166.

This is an open access paper where you’ll notice the participants cover a narrow range of ages (from the Materials and Methods section of the paper,

A total of 21 participants were studied. Two were excluded from the fMRI analyses: one for insufficient attendance, and the other for image abnormalities. Before the experiment, participants were screened for the presence of medical and psychiatric diagnoses, and none were taking medications. There were 12 female and 9 male participants between the ages of 19 and 27 (mean 21.5). Emory University’s Institutional Review Board approved all procedures, and all participants gave written informed consent.

It’s always good to remember that university research often draws from student populations and the question one might want to ask is whether or not those results will remain the same, more or less, throughout someone’s life span.In any event, I find this research intriguing and hope they follow this up.

Currently known as the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), I first wrote about the project under its old name BAM (Brain Activity Map) in two postings, first in a March 4, 2013 posting featuring brain-to-brain communication and other brain-related tidbits, then again, in an April 2, 2013 posting featuring an announcement about its federal funding. Today (Jan. 6, 2014), I stumbled across some BRAIN funding opportunities for researchers, from the BRAIN Initiative funding opportunities webpage,

NIH released six funding opportunity announcements in support of the President’s BRAIN Initiative. Collectively, these opportunities focus on building a new arsenal of tools and technologies for helping scientists unlock the mysteries of the brain. NIH [US National Institutes of Health] plans to invest $40 million in Fiscal Year 2014 through these opportunities, contingent upon the submission of a sufficient number of scientifically meritorious applications.

The opportunities currently available are as follows:

For the interested, in the near future there will be some informational conference calls regarding these opportunities,

Informational Conference Calls for Prospective Applicants

NIH will be hosting a series of informational conference calls to address technical questions regarding applications to each of the RFAs released under the BRAIN Initiative.   Information on dates and contacts for each of the conference calls is as follows:

January 10, 2014, 2:00-3:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-215, Transformative Approaches for Cell-Type Classification in the Brain

For call-in information, contact Andrea Beckel-Mitchener at [email protected].

January 13, 2014, 2:00-3:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-216, Development and Validation of Novel Tools to Analyze Cell-Specific and Circuit-Specific Processes in the Brain

For call-in information, contact Michelle Freund at [email protected].

January 15, 2014, 1:00-2:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-217, Planning for Next Generation Human Brain Imaging

For call-in information, contact Greg Farber at [email protected].

February 4, 2014, 1:00-2:30 PM EST
RFA-NS-14-007, New Technologies and Novel Approaches for Large-Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System
RFA-NS-14-008, Optimization of Transformative Technologies for Large Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System
RFA-NS-14-009, Integrated Approaches to Understanding Circuit Function in the Nervous System

For call-in information, contact Karen David at [email protected].
In addition to accessing the information provided in the upcoming conference calls, applicants are strongly encouraged to consult with the Scientific/Research Contacts listed in each of the RFAs to discuss the alignment of their proposed work with the goals of the RFA to which they intend to apply.

Good luck!

It’s kind of fascinating to see this much emphasis on brains what with the BRAIN Initiative in the US and the Human Brain Project in Europe (my Jan. 28, 2013 posting announcing the European Union’s winning Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) research projects, The prizes (1B Euros to be paid out over 10 years to each winner) had been won by the Human Brain FET project and the Graphene FET project, respectively

Ramanujan—a math genius who left behind math formulas that took 90 years to decode

1920, the year mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan died, is also the year he left behind mathematical formulas that may help unlock the secrets of black holes (from the Dec. 11, 2012 posting by Carol Clark for Emory University’s e-science commons blog),

“No one was talking about black holes back in the 1920s when Ramanujan first came up with mock modular forms, and yet, his work may unlock secrets about them,” Ono [Emory University mathematician Ken Ono] says.

Expansion of modular forms is one of the fundamental tools for computing the entropy of a modular black hole. Some black holes, however, are not modular, but the new formula based on Ramanujan’s vision may allow physicists to compute their entropy as though they were.

Ramanujan was on his death bed (at the age of 32) when he devised his last formulas (from the Clark posting),

Accessed from http://esciencecommons.blogspot.ca/2012/12/math-formula-gives-new-glimpse-into.html

Accessed from http://esciencecommons.blogspot.ca/2012/12/math-formula-gives-new-glimpse-into.html

… A devout Hindu, Ramanujan said that his findings were divine, revealed to him in dreams by the goddess Namagiri.

While on his death-bed in 1920, Ramanujan wrote a letter to his mentor, English mathematician G. H. Hardy. The letter described several new functions that behaved differently from known theta functions, or modular forms, and yet closely mimicked them. Ramanujan conjectured that his mock modular forms corresponded to the ordinary modular forms earlier identified by Carl Jacobi, and that both would wind up with similar outputs for roots of 1.

No one at the time understood what Ramanujan was talking about. “It wasn’t until 2002, through the work of Sander Zwegers, that we had a description of the functions that Ramanujan was writing about in 1920,” Ono says.

This year (2012) a number of special events have been held to commemorate Ramanujan’s accomplishments (Note: I have removed links), from the Clark posting,

December 22 [2012] marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian mathematician renowned for somehow intuiting extraordinary numerical patterns and connections without the use of proofs or modern mathematical tools. ..

“I wanted to do something special, in the spirit of Ramanujan, to mark the anniversary,” says Emory mathematician Ken Ono. “It’s fascinating to me to explore his writings and imagine how his brain may have worked. It’s like being a mathematical anthropologist.”

Ono, a number theorist whose work has previously uncovered hidden meanings in the notebooks of Ramanujan, set to work on the 125th-anniversary project with two colleagues and former students: Amanda Folsom, from Yale, and Rob Rhoades, from Stanford.

The result is a formula for mock modular forms that may prove useful to physicists who study black holes. The work, which Ono recently presented at the Ramanujan 125 conference at the University of Florida, also solves one of the greatest puzzles left behind by the enigmatic Indian genius.

Here’s a trailer for the forthcoming movie (a docu-drama) about Ramanujan, from the Clark posting,

Here’s a description of Ramanujan from Wikipedia, which gives some insight into the nature of his genius (Note: I have removed links and a footnote),

Srinivasa Ramanujan FRS (…) (22 December 1887 – 26 April 1920) was an Indian mathematician and autodidact who, with almost no formal training in pure mathematics, made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions. Living in India with no access to the larger mathematical community, which was centered in Europe at the time, Ramanujan developed his own mathematical research in isolation. As a result, he sometimes rediscovered known theorems in addition to producing new work. Ramanujan was said to be a natural genius by the English mathematician G.H. Hardy, in the same league as mathematicians like Euler and Gauss.

There is a little more to Ono’s latest work concerning Ramanujan’s deathbed math functions (from the Clark posting),

After coming up with the formula for computing a mock modular form, Ono wanted to put some icing on the cake for the 125th-anniversary celebration. He and Emory graduate students Michael Griffin and Larry Rolen revisited the paragraph in Ramanujan’s last letter that gave a vague description for how he arrived at the functions. That one paragraph has inspired hundreds of papers by mathematicians, who have pondered its hidden meaning for eight decades.

“So much of what Ramanujan offers comes from mysterious words and strange formulas that seem to defy mathematical sense,” Ono says. “Although we had a definition from 2002 for Ramanujan’s functions, it was still unclear how it related to Ramanujan’s awkward and imprecise definition.”

Ono and his students finally saw the meaning behind the puzzling paragraph, and a way to link it to the modern definition. “We developed a theorem that shows that the bizarre methodology he used to construct his examples is correct,” Ono says. “For the first time, we can prove that the exotic functions that Ramanujan conjured in his death-bed letter behave exactly as he said they would, in every case.”

Ono is now on a mathematicians’ tour in India (from the Clark posting),

Ono will spend much of December in India, taking overnight trains to Mysore, Bangalore, Chennai and New Dehli, as part of a group of distinguished mathematicians giving talks about Ramanujan in the lead-up to the anniversary date.

“Ramanujan is a hero in India so it’s kind of like a math rock tour,” Ono says, adding, “I’m his biggest fan. My professional life is inescapably intertwined with Ramanujan. Many of the mathematical objects that I think about so profoundly were anticipated by him. I’m so glad that he existed.”

Between this and the series developed by Alex Bellos about mathematics in Japan (my Oct. 17, 2012 posting), it seems that attention is turning eastward where the study and development of mathematics is concerned. H/T to EurekAlert’s Dec. 17, 2012 news release and do read Clark’s article if you want more information about Ono and Ramanujan.

Looking at glass on the molecular scale

Glass isn’t transparent (at the molecular scale) as it’s cooling and scientists have been curious about this transition from liquid to glass state. According to an Oct. 15, 2012 posting by Carol Clark for Emory University’s eScienceCommons, a team from Emory University (and New York University)  has cracked this mystery. First, here’s more about the mystery (from Clark’s article)

Scientists fully understand the process of water turning to ice. As the temperature cools, the movement of the water molecules slows. At 32 F, the molecules lock into crystal lattices, solidifying into ice. In contrast, the molecules of glasses do not crystallize.The movement of the glass molecules slows as the temperature cools, but they never lock into crystal patterns. Instead, they jumble up and gradually become glassier, or more viscous. No one understands exactly why.

The phenomenon leaves physicists to ponder the molecular question of whether glass is a solid, or merely an extremely slow-moving liquid.

This purely technical physics question has stoked a popular misconception: That the glass in the windowpanes of some centuries-old buildings is thicker at the bottom because the glass flowed downward over time.

“The real reason the bottom is thicker is because they hadn’t yet learned how to make perfectly flat panes of glass,” Weeks says [Emory physicist Eric Weeks]. “For practical purposes, glass is a solid and it will not flow, even over centuries. But there is a kernel of truth in this urban legend: Glasses are different than other solid materials.”

Speaking more technically about the transition,

“Cooling a glass from a liquid into a highly viscous state fundamentally changes the nature of particle diffusion,” says Emory physicist Eric Weeks, whose lab conducted the research. “We have provided the first direct observation of how the particles move and tumble through space during this transition, a key piece to a major puzzle in condensed matter physics.”

Weeks specializes in “soft condensed materials,” substances that cannot be pinned down on the molecular level as a solid or liquid, including everyday substances such as toothpaste, peanut butter, shaving cream, plastic and glass.

The scientists have prepared a video animation of what they believing is occurring as glass cools (no sound),

Here’s what the movie depicts (from the Clark article),

The movie and data from the experiment provide the first clear picture of the particle dynamics for glass formation. As the liquid grows slightly more viscous, both rotational and directional particle motion slows. The amount of rotation and the directional movements of the particles remain correlated.

“Normally, these two types of motion are highly coupled,” Weeks says. “This remains true until the system reaches a viscosity on the verge of being glass. Then the rotation and directional movements become decoupled: The rotation starts slowing down more.”

He uses a gridlocked parking lot as an analogy for how the particles are behaving. “You can’t turn your car around, because it’s not a sphere shape and you would bump into your neighbors. You have to wait until a car in front of you moves, and then you can drive a bit in that direction. This is directional movement, and if you can make a bunch of these, you may eventually be able to turn your car. But turning in a crowded parking lot is still much harder than moving in a straight line.”

There’s more about the work and team in Clark’s article. H/T to the Oct. 16, 2012 news item on Nanowerk for alerting me to this work. You can find the article the researchers have written at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS),

Decoupling of rotational and translational diffusion in supercooled colloidal fluids by Kazem V. Edmond, Mark T. Elsesser, Gary L. Hunter, David J. Pine, and Eric R. Weeks. Published online before print October 15, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1203328109 PNAS October 15, 2012

The article is behind a paywall.