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Research Topic 1: Resting Brain

Small areas of the brain cycle in and out of a sleep-like, low activity state all the time, even when we are awake, suggests research in Science. Scientists used electrodes to measure activity in small, targeted areas of neurons in a monkey’s visual cortex as the monkey watched for changes in portions of its visual field. When the monkey was paying attention to one particular spot, neurons in the area associated with that portion of the visual field began spending more time in the “awake” state, and when the monkey’s attention shifted elsewhere, the neurons spent more time in the “sleep” state. Such cycling could allow neurons in areas we are not using to conserve energy, the researchers hypothesize.

Research Topic 2: Baby’s Brain

The visual cortex of young infants is organized similarly to that of adults, according to research in Nature Communications. In the past it has been difficult to use fMRI to study babies because the machines are loud and require participants to stay still for long periods of time. The researchers adapted the fMRI device to make it more comfortable for infants by making the machine quieter and allowing the baby to recline in a car-seat-like contraption. They then scanned 4 to 6 month olds babies’ brains as the babies watched videos of faces, natural scenes, scrambled scenes, human bodies and objects. They found that regions of the visual cortex responded preferentially to faces and scenes, with a spatial organization similar to adult brains.

Research Topic 3: Pregnancy Brain

Pregnancy can cause long lasting changes in the women’s brain structure that may enhance the mother’s parenting skills, suggests a study in Nature Neuroscience. Researchers used MRI to scan the brains of 250 first time moms before their pregnancies and again soon after birth. In the post-pregnancy scan, the researchers found significant reductions in gray matter volume in cortical regions associated with social cognitions. Scans done 2 years later found the changes remained. The researchers did not find any changes related to the women’s memory or other cognitive skills. They hypothesize the brain changes may reflect synaptic “pruning” that increase the efficiency of mothers’ brains at, for example, detecting their baby’s emotional state and assessing threats to the baby from others.

Susie Bean Gives Team