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Using Smartphones Is Reprogramming Our Brains

touchtypeAs 2014 draws to a close, many people contemplate resolutions for next year. I can get a little carried away when it comes to my goals to the extent that remembering them causes me some stress (it’s pretty hard to, say, become fluent in Mandarin over the course of one year while living in the U.S.). More and more, my goals involve technology—learning about it and experimenting with it, sure, but I’m increasingly resolved to limit my interactions with it, particularly on social media (thanks, Black Mirror), and to spend more time reading actual books. Part of this is due to recent studies that suggest just how bad it is to spend so much time in front of a screen, particularly before bed, as well as a new study that offers insight into how spending so much time on our devices is reprogramming our brains.

The screen-sleep connection isn’t a new one, though its seriousness has recently come to light in recent studies, particularly one published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital have found that anyone whose winding down ritual involves using a smartphone, eReader, computer, or most types of TV might be doing themselves serious sleep damage. Scientists already knew that the light from the screen suppresses sleep-inducing melatonin, which makes it tough for people to fall asleep. But the new study indicates “comprehensive results of a direct comparison between reading with a light-emitting device and reading a printed book and the consequences on sleep.” In a two-week study, people who read on an iPad before bed took longer to fall asleep, got less REM sleep, and produced less melatonin than print book readers. They also felt more tired after 8 hours of sleep.

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Woman Has Lived For 24 Years Without A Cerebellum

cerebellum

There’s a dark spot (i.e. nothing) where her cerebellum should be

We’ve met some people who you might describe as brainless, but you never thought that was literally possible—until now. A Chinese woman who walked into the PLA General Hospital of Jinan Military Area Command complaining that she was nauseous and dizzy was recently diagnosed with an unusual condition: the complete lack of a cerebellum.

The cerebellum is pretty damn important when it comes to maintaining a functioning brain, as well as the body as a whole. It governs motor control, particularly when it comes to sensory input and balance, as well as one’s ability to focus, understand and speak language, and feel pleasure and fear. The cerebellum isn’t particularly big—it takes up about 10% of the brain’s space, but it contains dense stores of tissue, as well as 50% of the total neurons.

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Neurogrid Simulates The Computing Power Of The Human Brain

NeurogridWhile many people, including Stephen Hawking, worry about the consequences of artificial intelligence vastly surpassing human intelligence, it makes sense to remind ourselves how much of our own computing power remains untapped. Understanding the way the brain computes is also helpful in understanding efficiency; rather than directing all the information through a CPU, which causes a bottleneck, the brain uses a vast network of neurons and synapses. So why not make the best of both worlds? Stanford University scientists have done just that, creating a circuit board called the Neurogrid, which imitates human brain function.

The Neurogrid has 16 interconnected “Neurocore” chips which allows it to “simulates a million neurons connected by billions of synapses in real-time, rivaling a supercomputer while consuming a 100,000 times less energy—five watts instead of a megawatt!” That’s roughly 9,000 times faster than a conventional computer. Stanford bioengineering professor Kwabena Boahen has been working on such a chip for years and chose the brain as a model because “from a pure energy perspective, the brain is hard to match.”

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Need A Brain Boost? Put On Your Electric Thinking Cap

BrainCap“Let me put on my thinking cap” refers to a metaphorical headpiece, though the idea makes sense — sometimes, our brains seem to slow down and have difficulty thinking, so simply uttering the phrase might prime someone to get the brain ready to focus. Now, a thinking cap is no longer a metaphor — it actually exists, and yes, putting it on can actually help you think.

Robert Reinhart and Geoffrey Woodman, psychologists from Vanderbilt, recently published a study in the Journal of Neuroscience in which they demonstrate how their thinking cap works. They specifically wanted to test the medial-frontal cortex, which, among other things, causes the emission of negative voltage right after someone makes a mistake. Scientists have never understood why this happens, but Reinhart and Woodman had a theory that it’s the brain’s way of learning from mistakes. So they set about determining the purpose of those negative brainwaves. In other words, “We wanted to reach into your brain and causally control your inner critic.” They wanted to see if it’s possible to control the brain’s reaction to making mistakes, and whether that reaction could be regulated via electrical current — specifically, the current’s directional flow.

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Autism Theories Suggest The Disease Starts In The Second Trimester

brain autismThe number of kids diagnosed with autism continues to increase. The CDC just announced that according to its new report, 1 in 68 children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with a disorder somewhere on the autism spectrum, which is about 30% higher than their 2012 report. The numbers vary depending on location in the U.S., as well as gender (autism is roughly five times more common in boys). Global numbers are up too. Maybe this is because we’re broadening the definition of autism to include syndromes such as Asperger’s; maybe awareness of autism has increased and more parents are getting their kids tested for it, which would result in higher positive diagnoses. Maybe there’s an environmental factor(s) or other risk factors to blame. Jenny McCarthy thinks vaccinations are to blame. Now, scientists have a new theory — that autism begins in the womb.

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Electronic Brain Stimulation Awakens Patients In A Vegetative State

neurons-firing-tdcsRemember the movie (or book) Awakenings, in which Robin Williams plays a doctor who injects catatonic patients (including Robert De Niro) with a drug that suddenly brings them to life? It was based on a real-life story about a British neurologist who had some short-lived success with patients in a hospital in the Bronx. Researchers in Belgium and the UK recently performed a study that reminded me a bit of the one in Awakenings, but instead of injecting patients with a medication, scientists performed something called electric brain stimulation, which succeeded in temporarily allowing minimally conscious and vegetative patients to communicate.

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