Neuroscience Around the Web – Issue 28

Here are six interesting new neuroscience studies I came across recently:

Your brain on emojis

Emojis are “incontrovertibly the world’s first truly universal communication.” The brain seems to respond to emojis similarly to words. “There is no innate neural response to emoticons that babies are born with. This is an entirely culturally created neural response.”

Napping is good for your brain

In this study, nappers had, on average, brains that were approximately 15 cubic centimetres larger, equivalent to 2.6 to 6.5 younger brains.

Microbreaks can make you more productive

Taking short breaks, or 'microbreaks,' can improve well-being and task performance, according to a study published in PLoS One. The study found these breaks were particularly effective for clerical and creative tasks. However, the researchers note that microbreaks shouldn't replace longer breaks or days off.

Our minds remain open, like a child's, after consuming psychedelics

Neuroscientist Gül Dölen at Johns Hopkins University has been researching the critical periods of high plasticity that psychedelics can reopen in the brain. She found that a usually asocial type of octopus became social after taking a drug called MDMA. Her research shows that right after taking these drugs, people are more open to new ideas. This is especially helpful for therapy and could be useful for breaking bad habits like smoking. In short, certain drugs could help our brains become more flexible, aiding in therapy and personal change.

Disadvantage neighbourhoods negatively affect brain structure

Living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods affects not just dietary habits and weight gain but also alters the brain's microstructure. These neighbourhoods often have poor food quality and high-calorie foods rich in trans-fatty acids, as well as inactive environments. The study used advanced MRI scans on 92 participants to examine the brain's cortex, finding that such conditions lead to changes in brain regions responsible for emotion, cognition, and reward processing. These findings highlight the need to improve the quality of food and environment in disadvantaged areas to protect brain health.

Chronic stress drives the brain to crave comfort food

Stress can override natural satiety cues to drive more food intake and boost cravings for sweets. An area known as the lateral habenula, which is normally involved in switching off the brain's reward response, is active in mice on a short-term, high-fat diet to protect the animal from overeating. However, when mice are chronically stressed, this part of the brain remains silent -- allowing the reward signals to stay active and encourage feeding for pleasure, no longer responding to satiety regulatory signals.

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