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Warm Hands, Warm Heart
Friday, 09 May 2014

People cooperate with each other more when they've been holding hot, as opposed to cold, objects.

This is the finding of a study by Simon Storey and Professor Lance Workman from the University of South Wales presented as part of the poster presentation session at the British Psychological Society's annual conference today, Thursday 8 May 2014, hosted at the International Convention Centre, Birmingham.

The Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma (IPD) task, designed to measure levels of cooperation, was completed by 60 students. Before performing the IPD task, participants were asked to hold either hot or cold objects.

Analysis showed that individuals who held hot objects cooperated significantly more frequently when they had held the hot, as opposed to cold, objects.

Professor Workman said: "There is evidence that, during our evolution, the part of the brain responsible for processing interpersonal warmth came to 'piggyback' on top of the part of the brain responsible for physical warmth. So when we say we have 'warmed to someone' this is, in a sense, literally true."

We used prisoner's dilemma because it is a well-established tool for measuring cooperation, but we suspect that simply by giving someone a sensation of warmth they are more likely to cooperate under other circumstances. Perhaps next time you need to ask someone for a favour it might be worth making them a cup of tea first!"

Full poster paper presentation title: 'Warm hand, warm heart: warm temperature priming increases cooperation on the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma'.
PTSD: Could memory-rewriting drug help?
Sunday, 30 March 2014

A study conducted by neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has looked at a new kind of drug that may be beneficial for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Nearly 8 million Americans are currently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that some people who have been through distressing events suffer from.

Examples of the kind of traumatic events people with PTSD might have experienced include military combat, sexual assault, natural disasters (such as earthquakes or floods) or serious road accidents.

Not everyone who goes through a distressing event will get PTSD, but we know that it is common - nearly 20% of Vietnam veterans experienced PTSD after the war.

People who do have PTSD will usually be treated with psychotherapy. This is a talking therapy where the patient will talk through their experience with a trained therapist, with the goal of understanding and eventually overcoming their fear.

Psychotherapy does not always work, though, especially if the trauma the patient experienced occurred a long time ago. Doctors think this is because the traumatic experience becomes too "entrenched" in the patient's memory.

:Can traumatic memories be 'overwritten'?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) neuroscientists wanted to see if they could "extinguish" traumatic memories using a drug treatment. They tested a drug called a HDAC2 inhibitor - which is normally used to treat cancer - to see if the drug could remove fearful memories in mice.

To test this, the researchers first instilled a fear in the mice of a specific chamber in their habitat by administering a weak electric shock to their feet when they entered that chamber.

The researchers found that they could train the mice to overcome their fear of the chamber if they placed them within the chamber without administering the electric shock. But this only worked on mice whose memories of the electric shock were 24 hours old.

A second group of mice whose memories of the shock were 30 days old could not be trained to overcome their fear of the chamber.

Li-Huei Tsai, the director of MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, says:

"If you do something within this window of time, then you have the possibility of modifying the memory or forming a new trace of memory that actually instructs the animal that this is not such a dangerous place. However, the older the memory is, the harder it is to really change that memory."

Molecular memory

In the mice with the 24-hour-old memories, the researchers observed that, while the mice were being re-trained, the HDAC2 protein became inactive in their brains. This caused a process called histone acetylation to occur, which scientists think enables the brain to make new memories or "overwrite" old memories. But this process did not occur in the brains of the mice with the 30-day-old memories.

So the researchers decided to reduce the HDAC2 protein in the fearful mice using the HDAC2 inhibitors. When they did so, they found that the mice could be trained to overcome their 30-day-old fears of the chamber.

Publishing their findings in the journal Cell, the researchers think this explains the molecular reasons why older traumatic memories are harder to overcome than newer memories.

The researchers also noticed that the HDAC2 inhibitor drug seemed to "switch-on" genes that aid memory formation, and cause increased activity in the hippocampus of these mice - the area of the brain where memories are formed.

Prof. Tsai told Medical News Today that she hopes HDAC2 inhibitors will be investigated as a potential treatment for PTSD, phobias and anxiety disorders in humans:

"If there is no safety issue, I think HDAC2 inhibitors can be used in conjunction with psychotherapy as the first line treatment, as the combo enables much more efficient fear memory extinction, especially for the long-term, remote memories."

Written by David McNamee
Teaching our brains to see better in life and baseball
Wednesday, 19 February 2014

With a little practice on a computer or iPad - 25 minutes a day, 4 days a week, for 2 months - our brains can learn to see better, according to a study of University of California, Riverside baseball players reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology. The new evidence also shows that a visual training program can sometimes make the difference between winning and losing.

The study is the first, as far as the researchers know, to show that perceptual learning can produce improvements in vision in normally seeing individuals.

"The demonstration that seven players reached 20/7.5 acuity - the ability to read text at three times the distance of a normal observer - is dramatic and required players to stand forty feet back from the eye chart in order to get a measurement of their vision," says Aaron Seitz of the University of California, Riverside. For reference, 20/20 is considered normal visual acuity.

In the training game, the players' task was to find and select visual patterns modeled after stimuli to which neurons in the early visual cortex of the brain respond best, Seitz explains. As game play commenced, those patterns were made dimmer and dimmer, exercising the players' vision as they searched.

"The goal of the program is to train the brain to better respond to the inputs that it gets from the eye," Seitz says. "As with most other aspects of our function, our potential is greater than our normative level of performance. When we go to the gym and exercise, we are able to increase our physical fitness; it's the same thing with the brain. By exercising our mental processes we can promote our mental fitness."

After the 2 month training period, players reported "seeing the ball much better," "greater peripheral vision," "easy to see further," "able to distinguish lower-contrasting things," "eyes feel stronger, they don't get tired as much," and so on.

The players also showed greater-than-expected improvements in their game. They were less likely to strike out and got more runs. The researchers estimate that those gains in batting statistics may have given the team an additional four or five wins in the 2013 season.

The researchers are now extending their work to include different groups, including members of the Los Angeles and Riverside Police Departments and people with low vision due to cataracts, macular degeneration, or amblyopia. They will also apply the same principles to other aspects of cognition, including memory and attention.

It all comes down to one thing: "Understanding the rules of brain plasticity unlocks great potential for improvement of health and wellbeing," Seitz says.

Medical News Today
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