The Map that Never Ends
Ever looked at a map, and the street you’re standing on isn’t there? Time for an update! Until recently, neu- roscientists relied on a 100-year-old brain map. Now researchers at Wash- ington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, have published a much more detailed map of the cerebral cortex, the outermost layer responsible for sense perception, attention, language, tool use, and abstract thinking.
The new map emerged from the Human Connectome Project, a five- year effort to map the brains of 1,200 young adults using MRIs. While the previous map showed 50 regions,
the new map presents 180, based on physical differences, functional dif- ferences (e.g., differing responses to a stimulus), and connectivity to other regions. On the surface, regions look identical, so the brain map “is more akin to a map showing state borders than topographic features; the most important divisions are invisible from the sky but extremely important all the same,” says the university’s Tamara Bhandari.
According to lead author Mat- thew Glasser, “In the past, it was not always clear when the results from
two separate neuroimaging studies referred to the same area.” It is hoped that the new, more precise map, together with an algorithm developed at Oxford University, will allow the results of separate studies to be more accurately compared.
The researchers also expect ongo- ing work will further subdivide the regions identified in this map. The fact that the prestigious journal Nature, which published the map, agreed to include 200 extra pages of detailed information about the brain regions will allow neuroscientists to “dive down and get these maps onto their computer screens and explore as they see fit,” according to coauthor David Van Essen.
Soon after the new map was published, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Seattle, published an open-access digital atlas of the human brain in The Journal of Comparative Neurology. It’s derived from scanning and analyzing one brain. The atlas is more detailed, while the map is more generalizable because it incorporates data from many brains. When it comes to mapping the brain, it seems, the job is never done.
Resisting the Call of the Potato Chip
Winning the battle against obesity typically requires overriding “mindless” urges to indulge in the pleasures of junk food. In a recent study, Evan For- man and colleagues at Drexel Uni- versity in Philadelphia recruited 119 snack-loving undergrads to test different strategies for resisting salty treats. An hour of training in mindful decision-making—aimed at replacing automatic reactions to junk-food cravings with more deliberate, restrained eating responses—resulted in decreased snack consumption in the week afterward.
A Play about Meditation is a Smash in NYC
Want to know someone really well? Meditate together in silence. That’s the finding of many a per- son who’s gone on a retreat. It’s no surprise, then, that a key premise of Small Mouth Sounds—an off- Broadway play about six people on retreat—is how much we say in silence. After a successful first run in 2015, the play was remounted this fall, to great acclaim. Van-
ity Fair wrote that it “pushes the audience to confront how alone we actually feel, and whether
our interpersonal relationships do anything to help.” After one performance, meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg was asked to lead a short meditation and answer questions. “I love this play,” she says. “It beautifully executes the very hard job of depicting what people go through on retreat— with wisdom and humor, and largely without words.”
The Teen Brain on Social Media
UCLA researchers scanned the brains of 32 teenagers viewing images on a photo-sharing network. They tended to “like” photos where the like score was high (even though the researchers had randomly assigned the scores). Seeing such images triggered greater activity in a brain circuit associated with reward. But activity was weaker in decision-making neural regions when teens saw images of risky behaviors such as smoking. These findings are in keeping with earlier studies that have found the brain during this life stage tends to be highly attuned to reward-seeking and peer approval and more apt to take risks.
Art, Love, and Aging
When Canadian-Italian artist Tony Luciani became the full- time caregiver for his 91-year-old mother, his mother in turn became Luciani’s muse. Luciani began to incorporate her into his photog- raphy, and the results are simply stunning. And, he says, it has given her a renewed sense of purpose and youthfulness.
A Model Mindful Office
Meditation app company Headspace isn’t just sitting around doing nothing— they’re doing it well. The company’s Santa Monica headquarters is designed to inspire mindfulness in its employees. Complete with meditation pods, a technology-free “silent” room, floor pillows, and carpeted stadium seating, the office encourages public as well as private meditation. And meetings start out with special 2-minute meditations recorded by company founder Andy Puddicombe.
When Spending is Good for Your Heart
Recent research offers the first evidence that financial generosity may literally do your heart good. Ashley Whillans and colleagues at the University of British Columbia asked 186 older US adults—most of them receiving treatment to control high blood pressure—how much money they contributed each month to friends and family or religious, political, and charitable organizations. The more the participants gave to others, the lower their blood pressure was two years later. But such a correlation doesn’t establish a cause-and-effect connection, so to explore further, the researchers did a six-week experiment with 72 elderly adults in Vancouver who were also being treated for high blood pressure. The investigators gave each of the seniors some money and asked them to splurge either on themselves or on other people. Afterward, the charitable givers exhibited lower blood pressure than the self-spenders, and the difference was on par with blood pressure reductions from exercise or starting new anti-hypertension drugs. Exactly how “pro- social” spending protects cardiovascular health is unknown, but it may help by reducing stress or social isolation.