Neuroscience News During Brain Awareness Week

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Each year, Brain Awareness Week offers an opportunity to celebrate advances in brain research, and generate public enthusiasm and support for brain science fields.

The most recent edition of Brain Awareness Week took place from March 13-19, 2023. Exciting headlines included new ideas like fMRI probes that may allow scientists to see individual neuron populations, the potential use of the placebo effect for therapeutic benefit, and specific neurons lighting up in response to singing.

Other notable headlines included the importance of exercise to aging brains, specific neurons firing when solving math problems, and the combination of mandalas and technology potentially improving mindfulness. 

A final headline for Brain Awareness Week was that pandemic stress may lead to mental health changes in communities around the world, even for those people who did not contract COVID-19. Like the similarly-themed global campaign World Brain Day, Brain Awareness Week can be an excellent time to support your brain health by starting therapy to address any mental health concerns you may have.

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Your brain health can affect your well-being

What is Brain Awareness Week?

Every March, the Dana Foundation (including the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives (DABI) and the European Dana Alliance for the Brain (EDAB)) organizes Brain Awareness Week events in order to foster public enthusiasm about recent developments in brain science. Elementary schools, high schools, universities, advocacy groups, and other agencies are typically welcome to join any event the organizers create. This past year offered options for those celebrating solo with virtual programs and conferences, including imaginative activities and learning opportunities.

In addition to hands-on activities, this past year’s Brain Awareness Week also provided an opportunity to explore some of the latest research on the wonders of the brain. Below are six pieces of news on advances in brain and neurological science.

Advances in brain science

1. New MRI probes may be good news for the future of brain science

Scientists often look for new technology, techniques, and resources to improve our understanding of the human body and brain. Biological engineers at MIT recently developed a genetic probe for fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). The technology for fMRI has been around for decades, but it generally only allows for a broader view of the actions of the brain.

This new technology may allow scientists to see individual neuron populations and how they interact. Neurons are usually defined as nerve cells in the human brain and nervous system that can send information back and forth using electrical and chemical signals. They typically communicate between different areas of the brain and body, sending and receiving information. The technology described here may give scientists a unique view of each region of neurons in the brain.

What may be most exciting about this technology is its potential application to multiple sites in the brain to study various networks and identify brain-wide functions without being too invasive. We're already seeing how helpful it may be in the study of the brain, and the future looks even more exciting.

2. We may be able to utilize the placebo effect for therapeutic benefits

The placebo effect is usually considered a long-studied phenomenon in which a person can feel improvement or change in response to an inactive, "fake," treatment. Placebos are generally used in experiments to test whether a treatment is effective by measuring it against a control. However, research suggests that placebos can affect patients even when they know that what they are taking is an inactive treatment.

The science behind placebos may not yet be fully understood. New theories suspect that it's neurologically based. Investigators from the Gordon Center for Medical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital probed into this theory by analyzing neuroimaging studies as well as studies of people treated with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and deep brain stimulation (DBS), two treatments for depression.

They found that some regions of the brain activated by the placebo effect may also be affected by TMS and DBS. Although more research may be needed, this discovery could be a crucial jumping-off point for understanding these treatments for depression, the placebo effect, and how we can utilize placebos as tools for treating a range of medical needs.

3. Specific neurons may light up in response to singing, but not other music

A study conducted by MIT may bring exciting findings on how our brains respond to singing in particular. Using recordings of electrical activity in the brain, the MIT team found one specific population of neurons that may enact this response. The methods used in the study were generally able to identify those neurons where other strategies, like fMRIs, have failed.

While we already know that neurons can react to music in general, these findings gave more detail into how our brains respond to vocals. More research may be needed to identify which elements of singing elicit those responses (pitch, words, or the connection between the two) and whether it exists in infants.

Listening to music may have effects on levels of anxiety, mood, memory, and even physiology, including reduced blood pressure and pain. By learning more about how music impacts neurons in our brains, scientists may discover how to use this to benefit mental and physical health.

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4. Exercise can help aging brain networks communicate

Exercise has long been celebrated as a form of support for physical and mental well-being, but new research shows just how important exercise may be for the brain as it ages.

A new study assessed 51 older adults, tracking physical activity, fitness, cognitive functioning, and brain functioning. This information may shed more light on how the networks in the human brain can communicate and how fitness may impact that communication. As the authors of the study note, the biggest benefit usually comes from lifestyle changes like taking the stairs and spending less time sitting not only high-intensity or high-performance exercise.

5. Our brains may contain neurons that fire during math problems

Whether or not you're a math whiz, your brain may contain neurons that fire during arithmetic operations, and different neurons may fire for different functions. According to a study from the Universities of Tübingen and Bonn, certain neurons may fire during addition and others during subtraction.

Not only may these neurons know when to fire, but they may also do so regardless of whether a symbol or word identifies the operation needed. The nine-person study found that the cells generally functioned when participants were asked to solve questions like "4 and 2," "4+2," and the same for subtraction problems. Interestingly, while there may be a great deal of study on mathematical neurons in monkeys, there is still much to be learned about how calculations are handled in the human brain. This study may pave the way for new research on the topic.

6. Pandemic stress may lead to mental health changes, even for the uninfected

Another study out of Massachusetts General Hospital may have identified something many have felt but haven't yet labeled. The COVID-19 pandemic may have influenced many people’s brains, not just those who have been infected by the virus. While this may seem like bad news, identifying the change can be the first step to repairing the potential damage it has caused.

The MGH team assessed brain imaging results, blood samples, and behavior tests before and after "lockdowns." Post-lockdown records often showed neuroinflammation, especially in participants with greater fatigue, brain fog, and other distress symptoms.

This information can be helpful for managing pandemic-related mental health concerns and for unrelated stress conditions. Now that scientists are aware of the inflammatory impact of living through a crisis like the pandemic, they can find strategies to address it.

Getty/MoMo Productions
Your brain health can affect your well-being

Improve brain health with therapy

Perhaps one of the best ways to participate in the Brain Awareness Month celebration is to acknowledge your own needs and make a plan to improve your own brain health. One option may be online therapy, which has been found to be effective at treating a variety of mental health conditions.

When you use an online therapy platform, giving your brain the support it needs by working with a licensed therapist can be simple. You can schedule sessions at a time that works for you and connect with a therapist via phone or videoconference. 

Takeaway

One of the most opportune times to check out new neuroscience developments is during Brain Awareness Week. The developments above represent some of the cutting-edge research being conducted to help us better understand the human brain. Brain Awareness Month can also be a good time to explore your own mental health. Whether you are experiencing specific challenges or are simply interested in maintaining your mental health, you might consider connecting with a licensed therapist online. To learn more about speaking with an online therapist, reach out to BetterHelp today.

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