TAG: "Neuroscience"

Tackling brain injuries head on


UC Davis scientists developing system to better assess on-field concussions.

For much of this fall, as in falls past, a Friday night crowd comes out for the weekly football game and likely witnesses the star running back getting rattled by a hard tackle.

The coach faces a decision: keep the player in the game and risk serious head injury or pull him and face the wrath of the player, the team and the crowd. What the coach needs is a way to accurately assess the player’s status – right now.

This scenario is being played out at sports fields around the world. How do we make objective decisions about a player’s health in the heat of competition?

The problem intrigues UC Davis physician Khizer Khaderi. A neuro-ophthalmologist, Khaderi is applying his expertise in the eye-brain connection to investigate traumatic brain injury (TBI). Whether the result of a car accident, explosion, skiing or a tackle, TBI can affect vision, memory and even mental health.

Imperfect solutions

Khaderi and colleagues are developing a system that will take the guesswork out of assessing an on-field concussion, an early form of TBI.

It would replace a system of neurocognitive tests that many teams use now. In these tests, a player is asked a number of questions, of which answers are compared to baseline results recorded earlier. However, with players’ strong incentive to stay in the game, some have learned to circumvent the system.

“One of the problems with the neurocognitive approach is that it’s very subjective,” says Khaderi, an assistant professor of clinical ophthalmology and head of the Sports Vision Lab. “Players will intentionally do poorly on the baseline test, so if they do get injured, it won’t look as severe.”

Khaderi’s solution focuses on the eyes. A third of the brain is devoted to the visual system, making the eyes an ideal window on brain health. Several biometric tests exist but Khaderi’s team has found that relying on three established biometric tests greatly increases the chances of accurately assessing TBI risk on the field in real time.

UC Davis neuro-ophthalmologist Khizer Khaderi tests a system he and his team developed to facilitate a quick assessment of an on-field concussion, an early form of traumatic brain injury. Helping with the test is medical resident Rachel Simpson.

Eyes, pupils and brain waves

Using eye movements to assess TBI has advantages. For example, researchers have measured how long the eye takes to move from a central to peripheral focus. This would be the motion a driver would make when shifting attention from the road to a child crossing it. This motion takes less than seven-tenths of a second for a healthy person, but much longer for those who’ve experienced a brain injury.

The opposite motion is also informative. In the same scenario, the driver could make the decision to look away from the child stepping into the road.

“The natural reaction is to look at the child,” says Khaderi, “but instead you look away. This involves cognition, so it’s a good measure of executive function.”

Pupil function can also measure an injury’s severity. A coach could use a flashlight to assess dilation, but background light can skew results. To combat this, Khaderi has adopted a psychological method called the International Affective Picture System, which uses pictures to make the pupil respond.

The third metric measures brain waves. When they’re awake, people generally have a higher ratio of fast alpha waves to slow theta waves. However, that ratio is reversed after a brain injury. High theta waves indicate a dreamy state of mind.

Moving forward

Khaderi plans to bring these tools to playing fields everywhere. Fortunately, much of this technology is being used for other purposes and can be repurposed for TBI detection.

“Our goal is to create a platform that integrates commercially available eye tracking hardware and EEG (brain wave) systems,” says Khaderi.

The group has found a development partner and is working with the UC Davis athletic department to set up clinical trials. The ultimate goal is to create a system that could be accessed through a tablet computer or other device.

“These injuries don’t just strike kids who are playing sports, but anyone who leads an active life,” says Khaderi. “Our brains are precious and we need to do all we can to protect them.”

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Why protein mutations lead to familial form of Parkinson’s


UC San Diego study focuses on alpha-synuclein.

By Jan Zverina, UC San Diego

Researchers at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California, San Diego, have shown for the first time why protein mutations lead to the familial form of Parkinson’s disease.

The study, available online in prepublication in ACS Chemical Neuroscience and partially funded by the National Institutes of Health, focuses specifically on alpha-synuclein (αsyn), a protein whose function in healthy tissue is unknown but which represents the major structural component of Lewy bodies – protein clumps found in the brains of individuals with Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders.

Parkinson’s disease is characterized by impairment or deterioration of neurons in an area of the brain known as the substantia nigra. In the familial form of the disorder, a set of mutations in αsyn had been identified but what was unknown was the molecular mechanism by which these mutations caused disease.

“As an unstructured protein, αsyn is sometimes called ‘chameleon’ because it has no stable configuration and constantly changes its shape,” said lead author Igor F. Tsigelny, a research scientist with SDSC as well as the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center and the Department of Neurosciences. “Nevertheless when these changes seem to be random on first glance, they have specific intrinsic rules that control the evolution of the αsyn shape.”

Using SDSC’s data-intensive Gordon supercomputer to find hidden rules of the conformational changes of αsyn, researchers conducted extensive calculations of the possible evolution of the protein structure.

Through computer modeling, researchers showed that αsyn mostly can bind the membrane with four main sites, or zones. While binding was shown to be superficial by three of the sites, one site – Zone 2 – had a particular affinity for the membrane. Researchers found that αsyn contacting the neuron membrane in that site immediately and deeply penetrated it, which led to the creation of ring oligomers in the membrane, and eventually opened pores that allowed an uncontrolled influx of ions that ultimately killed the cell. Most of the mutations changed the shape of the protein in a way that increased binding of αsyn to the membrane by this zone.

These theoretical predications were confirmed by a set of experimental methods conducted in the laboratory of Eliezer Masliah, a professor in UC San Diego’s Department of Neurosciences. “Previous to this study, researchers could not say why these mutations caused Parkinson’s disease,” said Tsigelny. “The discovery of Zone 2 as the distinguishing feature of the membrane-penetrating configurations of αsyn paves the road to possible prevention of such a binding. Now we can affect this region with rational drug design, for example by creating compounds that would change its electrostatic profile.”

In addition to Tsigelny and Masliah, researchers involved in the study include Yuriy Sharikov, Valentina L. Kouznetsova, and Jerry P. Greenberg from SDSC; Wolf Wrasidlo from the Moores Cancer Center; and Cassia Overk, Tania Gonzalez, Margarita Trejo, Brian Spencer, and Kori Kosberg, from the Department of Neurosciences at UC San Diego.

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Multiple, short learning sessions strengthen memory formation in fragile X


UC Irvine study suggests the method could aid children with the autism-related condition.

Christine Gall and Gary Lynch found that fragile X model mice trained in three short, repetitious episodes spaced one hour apart performed as well on memory tests as normal mice. (Photo by Chris Nugent, UC Irvine)

By Tom Vasich, UC Irvine

A learning technique that maximizes the brain’s ability to make and store memories may help overcome cognitive issues seen in fragile X syndrome, a leading form of intellectual disability, according to UC Irvine neurobiologists.

Christine Gall, Gary Lynch and colleagues found that fragile X model mice trained in three short, repetitious episodes spaced one hour apart performed as well on memory tests as normal mice. These same fragile X rodents performed poorly on memory tests when trained in a single, prolonged session – which is a standard K-12 educational practice in the U.S.

“These results are dramatic and never seen before. Fragile X model mice trained using this method had memory scores equal to those of control animals,” said Gall, professor of anatomy & neurobiology and neurobiology & behavior. “Our findings suggest an easily implemented, noninvasive strategy for treating an important component of the cognitive problems found in patients with fragile X syndrome.”

Fragile X syndrome is an inherited genetic condition that causes intellectual and developmental disabilities and is commonly associated with autism. Symptoms include difficulty learning new skills or information.

It’s been known since classic 19th century educational psychology studies that people learn better when using multiple, short training episodes rather than one extended session.

Two years ago, the Lynch and Gall labs found out why. They discovered a biological mechanism that contributes to the enhancing effect of spaced training: Brain synapses – which are the connection points among neurons that transfer signals – encode memories in the hippocampus much better when activated briefly at one-hour intervals.

The researchers found that synapses have either low or high thresholds for learning-related modifications and that the high-threshold group requires hourlong delays between activation in order to store new information.

“This explains why prolonged ‘cramming’ is inefficient – only one set of synapses is being engaged,” said Lynch, professor of psychiatry & human behavior and anatomy & neurobiology. “Repeated short training sessions, spaced in time, engage multiple sets of synapses. It’s as if your brain is working at full power.”

The finding was significant, Gall added, because it demonstrated that a ubiquitous and fundamental feature of psychology can, at least in part, be explained by neurobiology.

It also gave the researchers time-sequencing rules for optimizing forms of learning dependent upon the hippocampus – utilized in the current study. Results appear in the Nov. 25 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The UCI scientists stress that the new brain-based training protocols, if applied during childhood, have the potential to offset many aspects of fragile X-related autism. “We believe that synaptic memory mechanisms are used during postnatal development to build functional brain circuits for dealing with confusing environments and social interactions,” Lynch said. “Implementing the brain-based rules during childhood training could result in lifelong benefits for patients.”

He and Gall look forward to collaborating with UCI’s Center for Autism Research & Translation to further evaluate the effect of multiple, short training episodes on learning in fragile X children.

Ronald Seese led the study as part of his work toward a Ph.D. and was assisted by Kathleen Wang and Yue Qin Yao. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation (grant 1146708), the National Institutes of Health (grants MH082042 and NS04260), and the William & Nancy Thompson Family Foundation, via UCI’s Center for Autism Research & Translation.

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Scientists detect brain network that gives humans superior reasoning skills


Findings suggest subtle shifts in frontal, parietal lobes of brain linked to superior cognition.

By Yasmin Anwar, UC Berkeley

When it comes to getting out of a tricky situation, we humans have an evolutionary edge over other primates. Take, as a dramatic example, the Apollo 13 voyage in which engineers, against all odds, improvised a chemical filter on a lunar module to prevent carbon dioxide buildup from killing the crew.

UC Berkeley scientists have found mounting brain evidence that helps explain how humans have excelled at “relational reasoning,” a cognitive skill in which we discern patterns and relationships to make sense of seemingly unrelated information, such as solving problems in unfamiliar circumstances.

Their findings, reported in today’s (Dec. 3) issue of the journal Neuron, suggest that subtle shifts in the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain are linked to superior cognition. Among other things, the frontoparietal network plays a key role in analysis, memory retrieval, abstract thinking and problem-solving, and has the fluidity to adapt according to the task at hand.

“This research has led us to take seriously the possibility that tweaks to this network over an evolutionary timescale could help to explain differences in the way that humans and other primates solve problems,” said UC Berkeley neuroscientist Silvia Bunge, the study’s principal investigator.

“It’s not just that we humans have language at our disposal. We also have the capacity to compare and integrate several pieces of information in a way that other primates don’t,” she added.

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Memory expert receives Grawemeyer Award for Psychology


UC Irvine founding faculty member James McGaugh honored for learning, memory research.

UC Irvine neuroscientist and founding faculty member James McGaugh stands in front of the campus building that is named after him. (Photo by Steve Zylius, UC Irvine)

UC Irvine neurobiologist James McGaugh, whose research has vastly contributed to our knowledge of the brain’s learning and memory abilities, has won the 2015 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.

A research professor in neurobiology & behavior and a founding UCI faculty member, McGaugh is receiving the prize for discovering that stress hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol are key to why we remember some things more vividly than others.

The hormones activate the brain’s emotional center, the amygdala, which in turn regulates other brain areas that process and consolidate memories – a sequence that explains why emotional experiences are easier to recall, he found.

“His work has transformed the field,” said award director Woody Petry. “It has profound implications for helping us understand and treat memory disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.”

McGaugh began studying the link between emotion and memory in the 1960s, when he discovered that giving stimulants to animals immediately after training fostered retention of the new skills. Later, he learned that naturally occurring stress hormones had a similar memory-enhancing effect.

Recently, McGaugh has been studying people with highly superior autobiographical memory to see if differences in brain structure may account for the trait.

“The list of previous Grawemeyer Award for Psychology recipients is remarkable,” he said. “It’s an honor to be included.”

Five Grawemeyer Award winners are being named this week. The University of Louisville presents the prizes annually for excellence in music composition, ideas improving world order, psychology and education; it confers a religion prize jointly with Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This year’s awards are $100,000 each.

UCI’s Elizabeth Loftus, Distinguished Professor of social ecology and professor of law, received the Grawemeyer Award for Psychology in 2005.

About James McGaugh

James McGaugh’s seminal work on emotion and memory has been featured on popular television programs such as CBS’s “60 Minutes,” described in dozens of textbooks, and cited about 31,000 times in more than 15,000 professional papers.

McGaugh joined UCI in 1964, a year before classes began. Over the ensuing decades, he served as executive vice chancellor, vice chancellor of academic affairs, dean of biological sciences and department chair, in addition to founding and directing the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory.

UCI named McGaugh Hall after him in 2001 and also awarded him the UCI Medal and established a neurobiology & behavior graduate research award of excellence in his name.

Among McGaugh’s many other honors are the Association for Psychological Science’s William James Fellow Award, the American Psychological Association’s Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions, the American Philosophical Society’s Karl Spencer Lashley Award, the Society of Experimental Psychologists’ Norman Anderson Lifetime Achievement Award, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s John McGovern Lecture award, and the Western Psychological Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

A former president of the Association for Psychological Science, McGaugh is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Society for Neuroscience, the International Brain Research Organization, the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, the Society of Experimental Psychologists and the World Academy of Art & Science.

He also is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

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Research aims to help veterans with hearing loss


UC Riverside team tries crowdfunding to support project.

Alison Smith, a disabled veteran and UC Riverside graduate student, is part of a research team that is developing a brain-training game to help veterans suffering combat-related hearing loss.

By Bettye Miller, UC Riverside

Many combat veterans suffer hearing loss from blast waves that makes it difficult to understand speech in noisy environments — a condition called auditory dysfunction — which may lead to isolation and depression. There is no known treatment.

Building on promising brain-training research at UC Riverside related to improving vision, researchers at UC Riverside and the National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research are developing a novel approach to treat auditory dysfunction by training the auditory cortex to better process complex sounds.

The team is seeking public support to raise the estimated $100,000 needed to fund research and develop a computer game they believe will improve the brain’s ability to process and distinguish sounds.

“This is exploratory research, which is extremely hard to fund,” said Aaron Seitz, UCR professor of neuropsychology. “Most grants fund basic science research. We are creating a brain-training game based on our best understanding of auditory dysfunction. There’s enough research out there to tell us that this is a solvable problem. These disabled veterans are a patient population that has no other resource.”

Seitz said the research team is committed to the project regardless of funding, but donations will accelerate development of the brain-training game by UCR graduate and undergraduate students in computer science and neuroscience; pilot studies on UCR students with normal hearing; testing the game with veterans; and refining the game to the point that it can be released for public use.

Auditory dysfunction is progressive, said Alison Smith, a graduate student in neuroscience studying hearing loss in combat vets who is a disabled veteran. Nearly 8 percent of combat veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from traumatic brain injury, she said. Of those, a significant number complain about difficulty understanding speech in noisy environments, even though they show no external hearing loss.

“Approximately 10 percent of the civilian population is at risk for noise-induced hearing loss, and there have been more than 20,000 significant cases of hearing loss per year since 2004,” added Smith, who served in the Army National Guard as a combat medic for five years.

This research also may help many other hearing-impaired populations, including musicians, mechanics and machinists; reduce the effects of age-related hearing loss; and aid individuals with hearing aids and cochlear implants.

“This kind of training has never been done before,” Seitz said. “We’re taking what we know about the building blocks of speech and what we know about the auditory cortex and the building blocks of hearing, and developing a way to retrain the auditory cortex to process complex sounds.”

The goal is to revive the auditory processing system that was damaged by blast waves and improve hearing, he said. “They may not hear as well as they did before the damage occurred, but we’re hoping to get them to a more normal point.”

UC Riverside launched the research project after audiologists at the Veterans Administration hospital in Loma Linda approached UCR neuroscientist Khaleel Razak about the hearing difficulties faced by returning combat veterans after he presented a seminar on age-related hearing loss. Razak is a consultant on the project.

In addition to Seitz and Smith, team members include Frederick J. Gallun, a researcher at the National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research and associate professor in otolaryngology and the Neuroscience Graduate Program at Oregon Health and Science University; Victor Zordan, UCR associate professor of computer science who specializes in video game design and intelligent systems; and Dominique Simmons, a cognitive psychology graduate student studying audiovisual speech perception.

Seitz said he hopes to begin testing the game on veterans by summer 2015.

“Whether or not you agree with the war, these are people who have gone overseas to serve their country,” he said. “When they come back, it’s our responsibility to care for them. We have to find a way to help our disabled vets. Right now, there’s nothing out there for veterans who are suffering this kind of hearing loss. This is our best shot.”

Contributions made through experiment.com are not tax-deductible. Individuals who wish to make a tax-deductible donation may give to the UCR Brain Game Center through UCR Online Giving and use the “special instructions” field to designate the gift for the “Can brain training help soldiers with brain injury regain hearing?” project.

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Study puts more natural movement for artificial limbs within reach


Providing simple neural signals to brain implants could stand in for body’s own feedback system.

By Pete Farley, UC San Francisco

In new research that brings natural movement by artificial limbs closer to reality, UC San Francisco scientists have shown that monkeys can learn simple brain-stimulation patterns that represent their hand and arm position, and can then make use of this information to precisely execute reaching maneuvers.

Goal-directed arm movements involving multiple joints, such as those we employ to extend and flex the arm and hand to pick up a coffee cup, are guided both by vision and by proprioception — the sensory feedback system that provides information on the body’s overall position in three-dimensional space. Previous research has shown that movement is impaired when either of these sources of information is compromised.

The most sophisticated artificial limbs, which are controlled via brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) that transmit neural commands to robotic mechanisms, rely on users’ visual guidance and do not yet incorporate proprioceptive feedback. These devices, though impressive, lack the fluidity and accuracy of skilled natural reaching movements, said Philip Sabes, Ph.D., senior author of the new study, published today (Nov. 24) in the Advance Online Edition of Nature Neuroscience.

“State-of-the-art BMIs generate movements that are slow and labored — they veer around a lot, with many corrections,” said Sabes, whose research to improve prosthetics has been funded by the REPAIR (Reorganization and Plasticity to Accelerate Injury Recovery) initiative of the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA). “Achieving smooth, purposeful movements will require proprioceptive feedback.”

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Tolman, behavior and academic freedom


UC Berkeley day of talks honors pioneering professor.

In Tolman Hall, Seth Rosenfeld, author of "Subversives," connected the dots from Edward Tolman's stand against the UC loyalty oath to the Free Speech Movement. (Photo by Barry Bergman, UC Berkeley)

If you’ve ever been to Tolman Hall, you probably reached it not by rigid adherence to a series of mechanical steps — start at West Circle, go up Hilgard Way, first right to the end of Morgan Hall, then first left and voila — but by navigating via the map in your head. That is, you pictured its location, and figured out a suitable route.

If you’d made the trip Monday, you would have learned it was the man who lent the aging psychology building his name, longtime UC Berkeley professor Edward Tolman, whose pre-World War II work with rats in mazes changed how we think about how we think. His groundbreaking insights laid the foundation for the discovery of what’s been called “the brain’s GPS” — the underlying neural machinery of the cognitive map — and this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Edward Moser, who shared the 2014 Nobel with his wife, May-Britt Moser, and John O’Keefe, gave the keynote address at Monday’s daylong celebration of Tolman’s legacy. While Moser and fellow neuroscientist David Foster, of Johns Hopkins University, gave technical presentations on their clinical research — with due credit to Tolman’s pioneering work in psychology — others highlighted his role as a pioneer in the realm of academic freedom.

In 1949, as McCarthyism raged, Tolman took a high-profile stand against the special “loyalty oath” demanded of UC employees by President Robert Gordon Sproul and the Board of Regents. Although he was fired, he not only won back his faculty position but was instrumental in winning the fight against the oath, which was ultimately found to be unconstitutional.

“The issue I am concerned with involves not communists but liberals,” explained Tolman, reading a letter to Sproul at a meeting of the Academic Senate. “For, when one reads the second part of the oath again, one discovers certain ambiguities of statement and meaning which would make it very difficult for many of us liberals to be certain just what we were being asked to commit ourselves to.”

He further objected that because only individuals can “believe,” it was dangerous to require faculty to disavow membership in organizations that “believe in” the overthrow of the U.S. government. This, he said, was “neither good psychology nor good civil rights.”

In 1963, the year before the Free Speech Movement — whose support from the Berkeley faculty, said author and journalist (and one-time Daily Cal reporter) Seth Rosenfeld, was an extension of the loyalty-oath fight — Berkeley’s new psychology building was dedicated in his name.

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UCSF professor awarded Ralph W. Gerard Prize in Neuroscience


Roger Nicoll receives Society for Neuroscience’s highest award.

Roger Nicoll, UC San Francisco

UC San Francisco neuroscientist Roger Nicoll, M.D., has received the Society for Neuroscience’s (SfN) highest award, the Ralph W. Gerard Prize in Neuroscience. He and Richard W. Tsien, D.Phil., of New York University, will share the $25,000 prize.

The prize honors outstanding scientists who have made significant contributions to neuroscience throughout their careers. The Gerard Prize was established in the name of Ralph W. Gerard, who was instrumental in establishing SfN and served as honorary president from 1970 until his death in 1974.

“It is a pleasure to award the 2014 Gerard Prize jointly to Drs. Nicoll and Tsien. They have performed seminal work that has transformed our understanding of the mechanisms that the mammalian brain uses to transmit and store information,” SfN President Carol Mason said. “In addition to their many scientific accomplishments, Nicoll and Tsien have played a crucial role as mentors in the field of synaptic physiology and biophysics.”

Nicoll’s research has guided new understandings of the basic mechanisms underlying synaptic transmission, the process by which neurons communicate using chemicals called neurotransmitters. Specifically, he pioneered understanding of slow synaptic transmission, in which neurotransmitters communicate by initiating a series of chemical changes in target neurons.

Nicoll’s research also revealed new information about synaptic plasticity, particularly long-term potentiation (LTP), the strengthening of the synapses (connections) between nerve cells related to learning and memory. By using a combination of electrophysiological and molecular techniques, Nicoll’s lab has uncovered the role of several families of synaptic proteins involved in LTP and is currently exploring how LTP is stabilized and maintained. Nicoll will deliver the Grass Lecture on his work at Neuroscience 2014.

Nicoll also shared the 2014 Warren Alpert Foundation Prize with Oleh Hornykiewicz of the Medical University of Vienna and the University of Toronto; and Solomon Snyder of the Johns Hopkins University. They were honored for their pioneering research into neurotransmission and neurodegeneration. The three recipients shared an unrestricted prize of $250,000 and were honored at a special symposium at Harvard Medical School on Oct. 2.

Nicoll earned his M.D. from University of Rochester School of Medicine and is currently a professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at UCSF.

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Evaluating cognitive growth in people with intellectual disability


Researchers to establish new tests to track improved thinking and problem-solving skills.

David Hessl, UC Davis

Researchers with the UC Davis MIND Institute will develop and evaluate tests designed to measure and track changes in the cognitive functioning of people who typically are difficult to assess accurately: those with an intellectual disability, formerly termed mental retardation. The research will be funded through a new, five-year, $3.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The effort will be paired with other research conducted at the MIND Institute and elsewhere, which seeks to evaluate the efficacy of new, investigational treatments for people with intellectual disability. The tests will eventually be used to ascertain the effectiveness of medications and other treatments, specifically for people with fragile X and Down syndromes and other intellectual disabilities. Fragile X and Down syndromes are among the leading causes of intellectual disability in the United States and around the world. Fragile X syndrome also is the leading single-gene cause of autism spectrum disorder.

At the MIND Institute, the research will be led by principal investigator David Hessl, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Translational Psychophysiology and Assessment Laboratory, and co-investigator Leonard Abbeduto, director of the MIND Institute and Tsakopoulos-Vismara Endowed Chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

“There are virtually no comprehensive and developmentally appropriate, well-validated and reliable cognitive measures suitable for tracking treatment responses in people with intellectual disability,” Hessl said, “but there are exciting new therapies being evaluated now and more on the horizon, which suggests that substantial gains in cognitive functioning are possible, even for adults with lifelong cognitive deficits.”

“Most currently available standardized tests have been developed mainly for the general population and are not well-suited for people with intellectual disabilities,” he said. “They just weren’t designed for people with the level of functioning we typically see in fragile X and Down syndromes. What we will be working to do is modify and then validate the NIH Toolbox Cognition Battery so that it works well for individuals with intellectual disability.”

The NIH Toolbox is a multidimensional set of brief measures assessing cognitive, emotional, motor and sensory function from ages 3 to 85, meeting the need for a standard set of measures that can be used as a common currency across diverse study designs and settings. The cognitive test battery used in the study is a computer-based set of tests tapping processing speed, memory, attention and language.

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Monkeying around: What monkeys can teach us about pitching in World Series


Even the most highly practiced expert movements are being continually relearned.

Storied baseball pitchers are renowned for consistently throwing strike after strike, even under the pressure of the World Series.

But even the seasoned pros are actually continually relearning their machine-like throwing movements, according to a new study by UC San Francisco neuroscientist Philip Sabes, Ph.D., about how the brain integrates motor learning.

Sabes studies sensory and motor learning in macaque monkeys, with a focus on reaching behavior. One goal of this work is designing better arm prostheses for amputees or victims of paralysis that will allow the user to “feel” the prosthetic limb’s position in space.

In the course of that work, he and colleagues noticed that even the most highly trained monkeys exhibit significant variability in their performance; even when completing well-practiced reaching movements, the monkeys’ movements showed drift. Not only that, but the researchers found this motor variability correlated with similar drifts in the average firing rate of motor neurons.

Contrary to notions of highly stable “motor memories,” the team thinks that this correlation suggests that even the most highly practiced expert movements are actually being continually relearned on a trial-by-trial basis.

To illustrate the relevance of these primate studies to human behavior, the group exploited Major League Baseball’s obsessive data collection, obtaining detailed quantitative information on each four-seam fastball thrown during the 2011 baseball season. They even found measurable drifts in fast pitches thrown by the notoriously consistent Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in a game against the New York Mets on May 8, 2011.

For Sabes, a diehard San Francisco Giants fan whose lab is just blocks from AT&T Park, settling on the Giants’ arch-nemesis Kershaw as an example of expert motor behavior, was a concession to first author and postdoctoral fellow Kris S. Chaisanguanthum, Ph.D., a lifelong Dodgers follower.

And it can’t be denied that the precision of Kershaw’s delivery is the stuff of legend – earlier this year, ESPN’s website ran a headline reading “Clayton Kershaw’s Consistency Is Mind-Numbing.”

In the Sept. 3 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, however, Sabes, Chaisanguanthum and former UCSF graduate student Helen H. Shen, Ph.D., show that, however it might appear from the stands, even two-time Cy Young Award-winner Kershaw’s release of his fabled four-seamer is subject to precisely the sort of behavioral drift they’ve observed in the lab.

The Giants and Kansas City Royals could learn a few things from those monkeys as they face off this week.

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Researcher receives award from American Academy of Pediatrics


Randi Hagerman honored with one of most prestigious awards for pediatricians in U.S.

Randi Hagerman, UC Davis

Randi Jenssen Hagerman, medical director of the UC Davis MIND Institute, Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics and Endowed Chair in Fragile X Research and Treatment, has received the prestigious C. Anderson Aldrich Award in Child Development for her outstanding contributions in the field of child development from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the professional organization for pediatricians in the United States.

The award recognizes pediatricians and non-pediatricians for their respective contributions to the field of developmental and behavioral pediatrics. It was presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics national conference in San Diego on Oct. 12.

I am greatly honored by this award, humbled  after reading the list of previous recipients, and pleased that the AAP recognizes the importance of targeted treatments for individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders,” Hagerman said.

Hagerman is an internationally recognized clinician/scientist, director of the clinical trials program and founder of the Fragile X Research and Treatment Center at the MIND Institute. In 2001, with her husband, Paul J. Hagerman, UC Davis Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine, she discovered fragile X-associated tremor/ataxia syndrome (FXTAS), a neurological disorder that affects older carriers of the fragile X premutation. In 1984 she co-founded the National Fragile X Foundation.

“This award is well-deserved recognition for Dr. Hagerman’s lifelong commitment to children with fragile X syndrome and their families,” said Leonard Abbeduto, Tsakopoulos-Vismara Endowed Chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the MIND Institute. “She has helped thousands of people directly through her clinical care, and countless more through her groundbreaking research on the causes, consequences and treatment of FMR1-related disorders.”

“She also has trained and mentored a generation of pediatricians who will carry the field forward for decades to come,” Abbeduto continued. “It is certainly fitting that Dr. Hagerman is added to the list of luminaries who have received this award before her.“

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