Neuroscience News During Brain Awareness Week

Updated January 9, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Brain Awareness Week can be a time to appreciate new developments in neuroscience. This year, a few exciting headlines include new 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 may include 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 is that pandemic stress may lead to mental health changes, even for those who did not contract COVID-19. This week can be an excellent time to support your brain health by starting therapy to address any mental health concerns you may have.

Your Brain Health Can Affect Your Well-Being.

What Is Brain Awareness Week?

Every March, the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives (DABI) and the European Dana Alliance for the Brain (EDAB) organize events to increase community awareness about exciting developments in brain science. Elementary schools, high schools, universities, advocacy groups, and other agencies are typically welcome to participate in events and community outreach. This year may offer even more options for those celebrating solo with virtual programs and conferences, including exciting activities and learning opportunities.

In addition to participating in the virtual programs offered, you can celebrate Brain Awareness Week in your own community as well. You might organize an activity with the help of friends, spread the word on social media with the hashtag #BrainAwarenessWeek, or contact your local government officials and prompt them to support brain research. 

Read on to discover seven pieces of neurological news for each day of Brain Awareness Week.

1. New MRI Probes May Be Good News For The Future Of Brain Science

Scientists often look for new technology and techniques to improve our understanding of the human body and brain. This month, biological engineers at MIT 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, studying various networks and identifying 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, placebos can affect patients, even when they are aware that what they are taking is an inactive treatment.

Though the placebo effect may be consistent, its science 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 and 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. Though more research may be needed, this discovery could be a crucial jumping-off point for understandings about 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

study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 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've already known 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, like 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. 

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 this new research shows just how important it 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 can 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 most 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 this 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 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, we are thought to know very little about how calculations are handled in the human brain. This study may pave the way for new research on the topic.

6. Traditional Mandalas Plus Cutting-Edge Technology May Enhance Mindfulness

Researchers may have aligned modern technology with the benefits of traditional mandala coloring to give insight into mindfulness in the human brain. Last month, Lancaster University released information about a prototype that may assess brain signals firing while participants color mandalas.

When people color a mandala, they generally focus on being present in the moment, leading to improved feelings of mental well-being. Traditional Buddhist mandalas are generally geometric symbols representing the spiritual journey and ideology, used as a meditation aid. The use of mandalas has often been adopted by other cultures, and more recently in the western world, as a tool for mindfulness.

In the case of this study, the team developed a prototype based on their research about mandalas and mindfulness best practices. The prototype was then used to monitor brain signals for the levels of mindfulness participants felt while coloring the mandalas. Not only did the study find information based on this analysis, but it may have also established new understandings regarding the benefits of mandalas, why some people enjoy them, which elements of the process may be the most beneficial, and more.

Your Brain Health Can Affect Your Well-Being.

7. 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. 

Improve Brain Health With Therapy

Perhaps the best way to celebrate Brain Awareness Month may be to acknowledge your needs and make a plan to better your own brain health. One option may be online therapy, which has been found to be effective at treating 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 may schedule sessions at a time that works for you and connect with a therapist who has experience treating the concerns you’re currently experiencing.

Conclusion

One of the most opportune times to check out new neuroscience developments may be during Brain Awareness Week. Several of the top headlines for this year may include:

  • New MRI Probes May Be Good News For The Future Of Brain Science

  • We May Be Able To Utilize The Placebo Effect For Therapeutic Benefits

  • Specific Neurons May Light Up In Response To Singing, But Not Other Music

  • Exercise Can Help Aging Brain Networks Communicate

  • Our Brains May Contain Neurons That Fire During Math Problems

  • Traditional Mandalas Plus Cutting-Edge Technology May Enhance Mindfulness

  • Pandemic Stress May Lead To Mental Health Changes, Even For The Uninfected

Brain Awareness Week can also be an excellent time to work on your own brain health through therapy.

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