More than a decade of research on children raised in institutions shows that “neglect is awful for the brain,” says Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. Without someone who is a reliable source of attention, affection and stimulation, he says, “the wiring of the brain goes awry.” The result can be long-term mental and emotional problems.
A lot of what scientists know about parental bonding and the brain comes from studies of children who spent time in Romanian orphanages during the 1980s and 1990s. Children likeIzidor Ruckel, who wrote a book about his experiences.
When Ruckel was 6 months old, he got polio. His parents left him at a hospital and never returned. And Ruckel ended up in an institution for “irrecoverable” children.
But Ruckel was luckier than many Romanian orphans. A worker at the orphanage “cared for me as if she was my mother,” he says. “She was probably the most loving, the most kindest person I had ever met.”
Then, when Ruckel was 5 or 6, his surrogate mother was electrocuted trying to heat bath water for the children in her care. Ruckel ended up in an institution for “irrecoverable” children, a place where beatings, neglect, and boredom were the norm.
Researchers began studying the children in Romanian orphanages after the nation’s brutal and repressive government was overthrown in 1989. At the time, there were more than 100,000 children in government institutions. And it soon became clear that many of them had stunted growth and a range of mental and emotional problems.
When Nelson first visited the orphanages in 1999, he saw children in cribs rocking back and forth as if they had autism. He also saw toddlers desperate for attention.
"They’d reach their arms out as though they’re saying to you, ‘Please pick me up,’ " Nelson says. "So you’d pick them up and they’d hug you. But then they’d push you away and they’d want to get down. And then the minute they got down they’d want to be picked up again. It’s a very disorganized way of interacting with somebody."
The odd behaviors, delayed language and a range of other symptoms suggested problems with brain development, Nelson says. So he and other researchers began studying the children using a technology known as electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain.
Many of the orphans had disturbingly low levels of brain activity. “Instead of a 100-watt light bulb, it was a 40-watt light bulb,” Nelson says.
As the children grew older, the researchers were able to use MRI to study the anatomy of their brains. And once again, the results were troubling. “We found a dramatic reduction in what’s referred to as gray matter and in white matter,” Nelson says. “In other words, their brains were actually physically smaller.”
The scientists realized the cause wasn’t anything as simple as malnutrition. It was a different kind of deprivation — the lack of a parent, or someone who acted like a parent.
Top photo: Izidor Ruckel, shown here at age 11 with his adoptive father Danny Ruckel in San Diego, Calif., says he found it hard to respond to his adoptive parents’ love. (Barry Gutierrez for NPR)
Middle photo: In the Institute for the Unsalvageable in Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania, shown here in 1992, children were left in cribs for days on end. (Tom Szalay)
Bottom: Izidor Ruckel dons a hat of a style common in his birthplace, Romania. He now lives in Denver. (Barry Gutierrez for NPR)
Trying to introduce the study of the brain to a bunch of students, I said: “If everything we needed to know the brain about a mile … how far have we walked in this mile?” I got answers [like] 3/4 of a mile… half a mile… quarter mile. And I said, “I think about 3 inches.”
When it comes to the nervous system, there are a large number of diseases where the only real sign that there’s something wrong is the outward manifestation of the disease — the person is acting crazy, or they don’t seem to learn very well, or their movements are disordered in some way. But if you look at the brain with most of the techniques we have, there’s nothing to see.
You’ve gotta see the wires — just have to see where they come from, where they go, what they connect with…
National Geographic looks at the wiring of the brain in exquisite 3D renderings of every synapse, exploring how parts of the brain communicate with each other and animate us.
MRI Scan of the Brain
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques provide an extremely detailed, 3-D view of a living brain. The technique is critical for identifying abnormalities such as tumors, spotting the warning signs of some brain diseases, and revealing the extent of trauma from strokes.
Source: National Geographic
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain is a safe and painless procedure that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to produce detailed images of the brain and the brain stem. An MRI differs from a CAT scan (also called a CT scan or a computed axial tomography scan) because it does not use radiation.
An MRI scanner consists of a large doughnut-shaped magnet that often has a tunnel in the center. Patients are placed on a table that slides into the tunnel. (Some centers have open MRI machines that have larger openings and are helpful for patients with claustrophobia).
During the exam, radio waves manipulate the magnetic position of the atoms of the body, which are picked up by a powerful antenna and sent to a computer. The computer performs millions of calculations, resulting in clear, cross-sectional black and white images of the body. These images can be converted into three-dimensional (3-D) pictures of the scanned area. This helps pinpoint problems in the brain and the brain stem when the scan focuses on those areas. In some cases, MRI can provide clear images of parts of the brain that can’t be seen as well with an X-ray, CAT scan, or ultrasound, making it particularly valuable for diagnosing problems with the pituitary gland and brain stem.
MRI can detect a variety of conditions of the brain such as cysts, tumors, bleeding, swelling, developmental and structural abnormalities, infections, inflammatory conditions, or problems with the blood vessels. It can determine if a shunt is working and detect damage to the brain caused by an injury or a stroke.
As a young neurosurgery resident at UCSF in the late ’90s, Dr. Charles Cobbs developed a hunch about brain tumors. It was a theory that he now concedes “was not based on a lot of scientific things.”
Cobbs had observed that his patients diagnosed with malignant glioma - an aggressive brain cancer that leaves victims with a two-year life expectancy - were mostly older, well-educated and from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.
Their “hyper-hygienic” lifestyles had possibly left their immune systems susceptible to more common viruses, such as the human cytomegalovirus, or CMV, a herpes virus so ubiquitous that it infects 4 of 5 Americans.
During off-hours, and without formal research funding, Cobbs and a lab partner analyzed dozens of brain tumor samples: All of them were riddled with CMV.
In 2002, the doctor published his novel finding in a leading medical journal Cancer Research where it was quickly dismissed by many of his peers.
"I was left with a lot of self doubt," said Cobbs, now 45. "My fear was that we’d done something incorrect. But now, my confidence is growing."
In February, brain cancer researchers at Duke University Medical Center published the first peer-reviewed report that confirmed Cobbs’ discovery, followed by two reports from independent labs at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at University of Texas in Houston and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. And this month, the National Brain Tumor Society is sponsoring a first-of-its-kind gathering in Boston of the world’s top virologists and glioma experts to examine the possible link between CMV and the deadly brain tumors that are diagnosed in 10,000 Americans every year.
"His discovery opens the door and has broad implications in this field," said Dr. Duane Mitchell, a Duke University Medical Center researcher who is conducting vaccine trials based on Cobb’s findings. “And the door has just been opened.”
It may look like a burnt log, but it’s actually one of the oldest-known human brains, preserved for 4,000 years after being “scorched and boiled in its own juices.”
“The level of preservation in combination with the age is remarkable,” Frank Rühli at the University of Zurich, Switzerland told New Scientist, adding that most archaeologists simply don’t even look for brain matter. “”If you publish cases like this, people will be more and more aware that they could find original brain tissue too.”
The brain was found in Seyitömer Höyük, a bronze-age settlement in Turkey, yet analysis of the brain showed that the man had actually died in the mountains. (Photo: Journal of Comparative Human Biology)
Is this the most extraordinary human brain ever seen?
ONCE you know what it is, this apparently innocuous picture of a blob assumes a terrible gravity. It is an adult human brain that is entirely smooth – free of the ridges and folds so characteristic of our species’ most complex organ.
We can only imagine what life was like for this person. He or she was a resident of what is now North Texas State Hospital, a mental health facility,and died there in 1970, but that’s all we know. While the jar containing the brain is labelled with a reference number, the microfilm containing the patient’s medical records has been lost.
Photographer Adam Voorhes spent a year trying to track down more information about this and nearly 100 other human brains held in a collection at the University of Texas, Austin, to no avail. The label on the jar states that the patient had agyria – a lack of gyri and sulci, the ridges and folds formed by the normally wrinkled cerebral cortex. This rare condition, also known as lissencephaly, often leads to death before the age of 10. It can cause muscle spasms, seizures and, as it vastly reduces the surface area of this key part of the brain, a range of learning difficulties.
David Dexter, who runs the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank at Imperial College London, says he has never seen anything like this before: “We do get the odd individual where certain sulci are missing but nothing to the extent of this brain.” Dexter says he is not surprised the person survived to adulthood since the brain is so adaptive, though he guesses there would be deleterious effects.
Earlier this year the University of Texas took delivery of an MRI scanner to document the structure of the brains in the collection in detail. While this might teach us more about the brain itself, the identity of the person who had this extraordinary brain – and details of his or her life – seem to be lost forever.
Gliomas (primary brain tumors) start in the brain or spinal cord tissue. They can spread within the nervous system but do not spread outside the nervous system. Gliomas can be either benign (slow growing) or malignant (fast growing). Annually, about 17,000 Americans are diagnosed with a primary brain tumor.
Source: The Huffington Post
Brain Tumor Removal
Skillful surgeons at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, remove a tumor from a woman’s brain. Malignant tumors indicate often lethal brain conditions, but even nonmalignant growths can preempt normal brain activity. Any tumor may compress regions of the brain and increase internal pressure, upsetting the organ’s delicate functional balance.
Source: National Geographic
Is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) really a disorder or part of the normal range of human behaviour? One problem fuelling this controversy is the lack of a definitive diagnostic test. Currently ADHD is diagnosed by questionnaires, which since they rely on opinion are subjective. The resulting variation can lead to under- or over-diagnosing. Scientists have addressed this problem using magnetic resonance imaging combined with mathematical analysis to outline patterns in brain structure. The ADHD brain pattern (highlighted orange), is still clearly distinguishable when ‘overlaid’ on the ‘normal’ control pattern (blue and purple). Patients with autism (in green) were included as they share some symptoms with ADHD. This pattern recognition technique identified 79% of questionnaire-diagnosed ADHD patients and clearly distinguished ADHD from autism. It’s a promising first step towards an objective diagnostic test for ADHD.
Written by Julie Webb
by Ed Young
In a new study, Borjigin discovered that rats show an unexpected pattern of brain activity immediately after cardiac arrest. With neither breath nor heartbeats, these rodents were clinically dead but for at least 30 seconds, their brains showed several signals of conscious thought, and strong signalsto boot. This suggests that our final journey into permanent unconsciousness may actually involve a brief state of heightened consciousness.
Although the experiments were done in rats, Borjigin thinks they have implications for the near-death experiences (NDEs) reported by one in five people who are resuscitated after their hearts stop. Although they were unconscious, unresponsive and clinically dead at the time, they come back with stories of bright lights, “realer than real” memories, and meetings with people they knew. Some scientists have dismissed these accounts outright. Others have taken NDEs as proof of a religious afterlife or a consciousness that lives on outside the body, as popularised in a recentbestseller of dubious provenance.
But Borjigin’s research suggests that these experiences could just be a natural product of a dying brain. That doesn’t make them any less real, but it does root them in the natural world, without the need for a “super-“ prefix.
“The near-death experience might be considered a “final frontier” of consciousness studies,” says George Mashour, an anaesthesiologist from the University of Michigan and a co-author on the study. “It has been repeatedly proposed as a critical counter-example undermining the hypothesis that consciousness is rooted in the brain. Our study brings the phenomenon back into the realm of brain science.”
What they found
The seeds of this study began in 2007, when Borjigin, together with her husband Michael Wang, was studying the brain activity of rats that had just suffered a stroke. During the experiment, three of the animals unexpectedly died overnight. When the duo found them the next day, they noticed several dramatic peaks of strong brain activity just after at the point of death. “That stuck in my mind,” says Borjigin. “I became convinced that if something is going on in the brain after cardiac arrest, it’s got to be measurable.”
Her team implanted several electrodes across the brains of nine rats to measure their brain waves—rhythmic pulses of neural activity that are denoted by Greek letters, depending on their frequency. The rats were sedated with anaesthetic, and then killed with either a lethal injection that stopped their hearts, or a fatal dose of carbon dioxide.
As you’d expect, after their hearts stopped, most of these brainwaves weakened with time. But one set—the low-gamma waves produced when neurons fire between 25-55 times per second—became stronger for a brief period, in all of the nine rodents. “We weren’t surprised that we found brain activity but we were surprised by the high degree of it,” says Borjigin.
The activity in different parts of their brains also became more synchronised. Their low-gamma waves, in particular, became twice as synchronised when they were in their near-death state than when they were anaesthetised or awake.
These features have been linked to conscious perception in earlier studies. For example, low-gamma waves suddenly become synchronised across distant brain regions at the moment when people recognise a face among some arbitrary shapes. This makes sense—the act of recognition draws upon the brain’s visual centres, as well as areas responsible for face recognition and memory. Neurons all over the brain need to mount a global response, and fire together.
Conscious thought has also been linked to the strength of connections between the front-most areas, associated with many complex mental abilities, and those nearer the back that deal with sensory information. And sure enough, the team saw that these areas became 5-8 times more strongly connected after cardiac arrest than during either anaesthesia or their waking moments. “That’s astonishing,” says Borjigin. “It helps to explain why [humans experiencing NDEs] can ‘see’ during clinical death, and why they claim they can hear conversations during that period.”
What it means
“Near-death experiences are a physiological reality, but science and medicine haven’t taken them seriously for way too long,” says Steven Laureys, who leads the Coma Science Group at the University of Liège. “We can’t just listen to extraordinary stories from patients; we need to measure brain function. The field needs studies like these.”
Laureys compares the study of NDEs to our growing understanding of dreams. For the longest time, we only knew about dreams from the colourful stories people told when they woke up, but electrode measurements revealed their neurological underpinnings, including the existence of REM sleep when most dreams occur. “That’s the way we should go for death and NDEs.”
However, he also cautions that scientists are still arguing about which neural signals are indicators of consciousness, so decoding the patterns that Borjigin saw isn’t straightforward. “It’s terribly hard to make strong claims about what these rats actually perceived, or about possible conscious experiences,” he says. “But the study definitely shows that there is a lot more electrical activity than expected, and it’s very interestingactivity. It’s tempting to link that to what we hear in patients, but we need to be very careful.”
Sam Parnia, a cardiologist from Stony Brook University Hospital, shares that view. He has studied resuscitation and near-death experiences for years and believes that comparing the rat results to the intense visions that humans recount after NDEs “is extremely premature and unsupported by evidence”.
“We have a long way to go,” admits Mashour. “We haven’t correlated the observed brain activity with a conscious experience.” The only way to get around that would be to gather electrode recordings in someone who had a near-death experience and returned to tell the tale. There are only a few possible situations when that wouldn’t be unethical—perhaps with organ donors who are undergoing cardiac death.
Meanwhile, Parnia says that there could be other explanations for the results. “After blood flow to the brain is stopped, there is an influx of calcium inside brain cells that eventually leads to cell damage and death,” he says. “That would lead to measurable electroencephalography (EEG) activity, which could be what is being measured.” This would explain why Borjigin saw the same pattern in every dying rat, while only 20 percent of people experience NDEs after a heart attack.
Parnia also notes that other EEG studies of humans during cardiac arrest haven’t found similar patterns, suggesting that these results might be due to some quirk of the experiment. But Borjigin counters that other groups have mostly placed electrodes on their patients’ scalps, with bone, flesh and skin standing between them and the underlying neurons. Her team, however, surgically implanted their electrodes right on top of the rats’ brains, making them more sensitive to subtle signals.
To her, the signals are a sign of heightened consciousness and she speculates that such spikes of activity might be a sort of built-in defence. “When the brain is in danger, it needs to be hyper-alert, so the individual can deal with a crisis,” she says.
This raises some other intriguing questions, beyond the relevance to NDEs. “We didn’t realise that brains can have heightened consciousness when oxygen and glucose are taken away,” she says. “Could this happen during our waking states, or when we’re ill, praying or meditating? If you have local fluctuations, could that give you hallucinations or artistic visions? We don’t know.”
Reference: Borjigin, Lee, Liu, Pal, Huff, Klarr, Sloboda, Hernandez, Wang & Mashour. 2013. Surge of neurophysiological coherence and connectivity in the dying brain. PNAS http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1308285110
Cerebral angiography is a procedure that uses a special dye (contrast material) and x-rays to see how blood flows through the brain. For a cerebral arteriogram, arterial access is usually obtained in the femoral artery in the groin. Once the catheter is inserted, the contrast dye is injected, and a series of X-ray pictures is made. These X-ray images show the arterial, venous, and capillary blood vessel structures and blood flow in the brain.
A cerebral arteriogram may be performed to detect abnormalities of the blood vessels within or leading to the brain. Such abnormalities include aneurysms, stenosis, arteriovenous malformation (a condition in which there is an abnormal connection between the arteries and veins), thrombosis (a blood clot within a blood vessel), vasospasm (a spasm of the blood vessel causing an irregular narrowing of the vessel), or occlusion (complete obstruction of a blood vessel). Other conditions that cause a displacement of the brain’s blood vessels may be detected by a cerebral arteriogram. These conditions include tumors, edema (swelling), herniation (dislocation of the brain tissue, caused by pressure within the brain due to swelling, bleeding, or other reasons), increased intracranial pressure (ICP, or increased pressure within the brain), and hydrocephalus (fluid in the brain).