The famous studies of London’s taxi drivers – showing they have larger hippocampi (the comma-shaped brain structure in the temporal lobes) than controls – have become a staple of undergrad psychology courses and a classic example of how your brain changes according to what you do with it. Many other studies have also implied an association between hippocampal size and navigational ability – for instance, people with Alzheimer’s, who have lost neurons in this brain structure, tend to experience problems finding their way around. For some time, then, an obvious, though tentative, inference has been that better navigators have bigger hippcampi, with London taxi drivers (and their mastery of “the knowledge” of the city’s convoluted streets) and people with Alzheimer’s representing opposite extremes of the spectrum. However, a new study, released as a preprint at bioRxiv, raises questions about how far we can safely generalise from the taxi driver and Alzheimer’s-based research.
Steven Weisberg and his colleagues tested young adults’ navigation skills and assessed the size of their hippocampi and found the two were not significantly correlated. “The hippocampus plays a crucial role in spatial navigation in humans, but the volume of the hippocampus may not be a biological marker for navigation ability among typical populations,” the researchers concluded.
As the list of failed replications continues to build, psychology’s reproducibility crisis is becoming harder to ignore. Now, in a new paper that seems likely to ruffle a few feathers, researchers suggest that even many apparent successful replications in neuroimaging research could be standing on shaky ground.As the paper’s title bluntly puts it, the way imaging results are currently analysed “allows presenting anything as a replicated finding.”
The provocative argument is put forward by YongWook Hong from Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea and colleagues, in a preprint posted recently to bioRxiv. The fundamental problem, say the researchers, is that scientists conducting neuroimaging research tend to make and test hypotheses with reference to large brain structures. Yet neuroimaging techniques, particularly functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), gather data at a much more fine-grained resolution.
This means that strikingly different patterns of brain activity could produce what appears to be the same result. For example, one lab might find that a face recognition task activates the amygdala (a structure found on each side of the brain that’s involved in emotional processing). Later, another lab apparently replicates this finding, showing activation in the same structure during the same task. But the amygdala contains hundreds of individual “voxels”, the three-dimensional pixels that form the basic unit of fMRI data. So the second lab could have found activity in a completely different part of the amygdala, yet it would appear that they had replicated the original result.
Anyone who has stood in the supermarket aisle trying to remember their shopping list might have wished for a larger brain. But when it comes to memory, bigger isn’t always better. A study published in Neuropsychologia has found that young children whose cerebral cortex is thinner in certain areas also tend to have better working memory.
Interventions like cognitive behavioural therapy help people better control their emotions by teaching them new ways of thinking. A recent study published in NeuroImage suggests this approach could be augmented by using “neurofeedback” to help regulate activity in a key brain structure – the amygdala.
As every parent knows, gentle rocking helps a baby to fall asleep. Now a new study, published in Current Biology by researchers in Switzerland, shows that a rocking bed also benefits adults, extending the time that they spend in deep, slow-wave sleep, helping them sleep more soundly, and increasing their memory consolidation through the night. A related rocking study on mice, conducted by a team involving some of the same researchers, and published in the same journal issue, helps to reveal how rocking might have these effects.
Choking is a ubiquitous and extremely frustrating human weakness – as the stakes are raised, our performance usually improves, but only up to a point, beyond which the pressure gets too much and our skills suddenly deteriorate. Any new psychological tricks to ameliorate this problem will be welcomed by sports competitors, students and anyone else who needs to be at their best under high pressure situations.
A fascinating paper in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience documents a new technique for reducing choking that has to do with altering how you look at what is at stake. Moreover, the research shows how this act of reappraisal is reflected in altered activity in a key brain area that’s previously been implicated in how well we can maintain our fine motor control under pressure.
Various visual impairments and abnormalities, such as unusual eye movement patterns, blink rates and retinal problems, are more common than usual in people diagnosed with schizophrenia, suggesting these issues may contribute to the development of the condition. Yet paradoxically, since the 1950s, there have also been intriguing hints that people who are blind from birth or an early age are less likely to develop schizophrenia and other kinds of psychoses, suggesting blindness can act as a protective factor against the illness.
Before now, findings – mostly from case-study type research – suggested that cortical blindness (resulting from abnormalities in the occipital cortex of the brain, rather than the eyes) may even be completely protective. As far as the authors of a new study are aware, not a single case of schizophrenia has ever been reported in someone who is cortically blind.
“Note that most authors are cautious to add that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’,” Vera Morgan at the University of Western Australia told me. But a total of zero documented cases among such people to date is striking.
Around 30 per cent of British children fail to meet expected targets in reading or maths at age 11. These children face a future of continuing difficulties in education, as well as poorer mental health and employment success. Understanding why some kids struggle – and providing them with tailored support as early as possible – is clearly vital. Some will be diagnosed with a specific disorder, such as Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder or dyslexia, and get targeted help. But many will not. And even many conventional diagnostic labels may be misleading, and fail to capture the true picture of a child’s problems, according to new work by a team at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge, which has come up with a radical, alternative approach.
Researchers are getting closer to understanding the neurological basis of personality. For a new paper in the Journal of Personality, Nicola Toschi and Luca Passamonti took advantage of a recent technological breakthrough that makes it possible to use scans to estimate levels of myelination in different brain areas (until fairly recently this could only be done at postmortem).
Myelin is a fatty substance that insulates nerve fibres and speeds up information processing in the brain – it tends to be thicker in parts of the cortex involved in movement and perception, while it is lighter in brain regions that evolved later and that are involved in more abstract thought and decision making.
The new findings, though preliminary, suggest that people with “healthier”, more advantageous, personality traits, such as more emotional stability and greater conscientiousness, may benefit during development from more enhanced myelination in key areas of the brain where the myelination process is particularly prolonged in humans, continuing through adolescence and into the twenties.
If you want to know about the special relationship between human and canine you need only watch a dog owner slavishly feed, cuddle and clean up after her furry companion, day after day after day. But is this unique cross-species relationship also reflected at a deeper level, in the workings of the canine brain? A recent study in Learning and Behavior suggests so, finding that highly trained dogs have a dedicated neural area for processing human faces, separate from the area involved in processing the faces of other dogs.
The researchers, led by Andie Thompkins at Auburn University, say their results are of theoretical importance (in relation to the evolutionary origin of cognitive abilities) and could have practical use too, potentially paving the way to using brain scans to validate the expertise of trained dogs.