What is Déjà Vu?

Neuroscience

By: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 5th year student in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

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Erika Wittlieb (Pixabay)

What is déjà vu?  Many of us know the feeling. You’ll be going about your day, minding your own business, folding some laundry…nothing out of the ordinary.

Suddenly a sensation of familiarity washes over you, and you’re completely aware that it’s happening. I’ve been here before. Except you haven’t. Or have I? You might try to think back and pinpoint when you’d experienced this moment before. But just as quickly as the feeling hits you, it’s gone again.

Did you predict the future? Were you seeing something from a past life? What is déjà vu, anyway?

Humans are Wired for Prejudice, but That Doesn’t Have to be the End of the Story

Neuroscience

By: Caitlin Millett, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

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Image credit: CC0 Public Domain/Pixabay

Humans are highly social creatures. Our brains have evolved to allow us to survive and thrive in complex social environments. Accordingly, the behaviors and emotions that help us navigate our social sphere are entrenched in networks of neurons within our brains.

Social motivations, such as the desire to be a member of a group or to compete with others, are among the most basic human drives. In fact, our brains are able to assess “in-group” (us) and “out-group” (them) membership within a fraction of a second. This ability, once necessary for our survival, has largely become a detriment to society.

Understanding the neural network controlling these impulses, and those that temper them, may shed light on how to resolve social injustices that plague our world.

How Fancy Labels Fool Us: The Neuroscience Behind Bias

Neuroscience

By: Caitlin Millett, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

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Image credit: Neesa Rhajbhandari (Wikimedia Commons)

The holiday season is fast approaching, and that means it’s time for gift buying. With each passing season, finding the perfect gift for loved ones seems to become more and more difficulta phenomenon not unrelated to the seemingly exponential growth in buying options each year.

So how do we do it? Many of us would like to believe that our decision-making is based in logic and objectivity. Clearly you’ve chosen the coolest plaid neckerchief for your hipster cousin—you got the thing at an Urban Outfitters! Neuroscience reveals that deciding what we prefer based on a few options is not always based on inherent qualities, but rather is highly biased based on expectations.

Smells Ring Bells: How Smells Can Trigger Emotions and Memories

Neuroscience

By: Amanda White, Research Technologist in the Department of Psychiatry

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A day in the life.

Autumn has arrived, bringing with it some of my favorite scents:  bonfire smoke, pumpkin spice (DON’T JUDGE!), and, most of all, crisp autumn air. Stepping outside on an October morning and breathing instantly transports me back in time.

I’m at Penn State. It’s a cool, crisp morning and there’s not a cloud in the sky as I walk up Shortlidge Road. I’m a freshman on my way to class and I’m a little nervous, but overall I’m excited to be in a new place on my own and for the future.

That complex emotion and memory can be triggered by a simple sensory cue:  the smell of autumn air. How do smells trigger such strong emotions and memories?

NFL Players Sue over Painkillers—Because They’re Addicted

Neuroscience
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Image credit: John Martinez Pavliga (Flickr)

By: Andrew Huhn, 4th year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

America loves football. Brutal, high-flying, smash-mouth football.

The players seem like gladiators from another era. Chiseled out of stone, they feel no pain as they run, jump, and catch with a grace that appears super-human.

The reality is, however, that they do feel pain—and often are playing injured. As news of the most recent lawsuit against the National Football League unfolds,  the realities of America’s favorite sport are slowly being revealed–retired players are claiming that the NFL got them addicted to painkillers.

There are several legal factors to consider in such a claim: did the NFL act recklessly, negligently, or maliciously? Did they create a culture that encouraged drug abuse? Were players informed of side effects and drug interactions?

Most of the drugs mentioned in this case (Oxycontin, Percocet, and Vicodin) are prescription opioids, which have a long history of abuse and addiction. These drugs act on opioid receptors of the central nervous system relieving pain and causing feelings of euphoria.

While the legalities of this particular claim will likely be argued for a long time, the question remains: why are prescription opioids used so often for pain relief, and why are they so addictive?

A Prosthesis to Fix Broken Memories

Neuroscience

By: Daniel Hass, 2nd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

ibm_human_brainThe Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been a major funding source for the development of unique and innovative technologies under its motto of “driving technological surprise.”  Some of DARPA’s current projects include designing bullets that can adjust their course in-flight, novel techniques to investigate brain function (see my previous post on CLARITY), and brain-controlled prosthetic limbs.

As if the line between reality and science fiction was not blurred enough, aid is now being given to researchers for the development of a prosthetic device that will improve the recall and formation of long-term memories.

What’s it like to get an MRI?

Neuroscience

mri_womanBy: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Program

During my first year at Penn State College of Medicine, I participated in an MRI research study. I laid in an MRI machine for 45 minutes and looked at pictures of chocolate while smelling chocolate odors. Tough life, right?

(Hershey really is the sweetest place on Earth…even in the labs!)

The MRI machine is rather big, rather loud (I wore headphones), and…rather claustrophobic. But it operates on a rather GENIUS principle!

Your Brain on Fiction

Neuroscience

By: Lina Jamis, 1st year student in the Anatomy Graduate Program

BrainBook-300x199People love stories—we build social networks around them, we recount them to our friends and families at the end of our day, we whisper them in the dark to our children before they sleep. Stories are all around us, even in the most unlikely of places. It’s a human tradition with an effect on the brain that might explain why we love them so much.

Researchers have long known that classical language regions like Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are heavily involved in the interpretation of spoken and written word, respectively.

But what science has come to realize recently is that fiction stimulates many other parts of the brain, suggesting why the experience of reading can elicit such strong empathy. (You know you cried a little when Dumbledore died).

In fact, it seems that the brain does not make much distinction between reading about an experience and encountering an experience in real life. In each case, the same brain regions are stimulated.

“Clarifying” Neural Circuitry: A New Technique to Image the Brain

Neuroscience

By: Daniel Hass, 1st year PhD student in the Neuroscience Program

brain-functions-1orm1qfThe brain is complicated.

There are hundreds of structures, layers, and cell types interacting with each other in complex ways in order for us to perform simple tasks, such as maintaining heart beat or moving a finger.  Much of this complexity comes from the trillions of connections between brain cells.  These connections are not only the basis for movement and perception, but also for thought and behavior.

A significant portion of neuroscience research is devoted towards mapping the connections between different areas of the brain.  In fact, this is an area of research that has seen an increase in funding due to President Obama’s BRAIN initiative. If we know how neurons (brain cells) are wired, we may be able to determine what is different in the brains of individuals with neurological disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

This is a pretty tall order for neuroscientists, and it is likely going to be years before the first human “connectome,” or map of all the neuronal connections in a human brain, is published.

The greatest roadblock of all, of course, is that the brain is 3-dimensional.

Prosopagnosia: Why Some are Blind to Faces

Neuroscience

By: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Program

ProsopagnosiaA few years ago, I had an hour-long conversation with one of my college professors in his office discussing his course that had just wrapped up. We veered off-topic toward the end of our talk, broaching the subjects of his grad school days, cooking hobby, and my blogging.

Less than an hour later, I was loitering around the college’s entrance in my coat, ready to go home for the day. I spotted Dr. L locking up his office and gave him a wave.

He eyed me strangely and walked a couple steps closer before returning the greeting. “Oh, didn’t recognize you in the coat. You were wearing green earlier. Have a good night, Jordan.”

It would have been a puzzling encounter if I didn’t already know about his strange affliction.