Please Don’t Stop the Music

band students

Research shows that playing a musical instrument is great for your brain. (Photo credit: Radius Images/Alamy)

Do you listen to music or play an instrument? If so, research shows you’re giving your brain an excellent workout. [Read more…]

The Left-Brain, Right-Brain Myth

human brain

New research indicates that left-brain and right-brain dominance is a myth. (Photo credit: Photodisc/Getty Images)

You have probably heard that if you are creative, imaginative, and artistic, you are right-brain dominant, and if you are analytical, logical, and well-organized, you are left-brain dominant. However, recent research by scientists at the University of Utah indicates that the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy is nothing more than a myth.

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Cool Your Brain with a Yawn

Research indicates that yawning helps to cool down your brain. (Photo credit: Will & Deni McIntyre/Photo Researchers, Inc.)

A yawn is the hallmark of boredom or sleepiness, right? According to recent research, that connection may not be correct. Instead, researchers contend that yawning has less to do with how much sleep you got last night or how bored you are in your third period math class. Instead, research results indicate that yawning is the body’s way of cooling down your brain.

These results support the thermoregulatory theory of yawning, which suggests that yawning is caused by brain temperature increases. The act of yawning is therefore used to cool the brain down. Scientists think that this cooling effect occurs due to an increase in blood flow to the brain caused by the stretching of the jaw as well as the countercurrent heat exchange that is associated with the deep inhalation of a yawn.

Andrew Gallup, a post-doctoral research associate at Princeton University, collaborated with Omar Eldakar, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Arizona, on this research study, which was published in the September 2011 issue of the online journal Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience. Their field-observational experiment involved measuring the incidence of yawning among a group of 160 randomly-chosen young adults in Arizona. Eighty of the participants were tested during the summer months and the remaining 80 participants were tested in the winter months. In their study, the scientists showed each participant an image of someone yawning (since yawning is contagious perhaps looking at the photo that accompanies this article made you yawn?) and measured the number of times each participant yawned.

Results from their research show that there is a higher incidence of yawning when ambient air temperatures were lower than human body temperature. They found that study participants yawned less frequently (around 25 percent of the time) during the summer months, when air temperatures often exceeded human body temperature and humidity was lower. During the winter months, when air temperature was mild (around 71 degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity was slightly higher, participants yawned more frequently (nearly 50 percent of the time). Their results also indicate that yawning is related to the amount of time a person spends outside exposed to the elements. The scientists found that though nearly 40 percent of the participants yawned within the first five minutes of being outside, in the summer months, this number drastically reduced as time outside increased. During the winter months, yawning occurred at a slightly higher frequency after more than five minutes outdoors had passed.

The results of this research support previous non-human animal studies. For example, a study involving rats found that the rats’ brain temperatures decreased immediately after a yawn. A second study using rats found that the incidence of yawning increased as air temperature increased. However, when the air temperature became too warm, the frequency of yawning decreased. Similar results occurred in a study involving parakeets. In one such study, parakeets were exposed to three different conditions: moderate air temperature, high air temperature, and increasing air temperature. Though yawning did not increase in the first two situations, the birds yawned at a significantly greater frequency when the air temperature increased over time.

So why do you yawn you are tired? Research indicates that both exhaustion and sleep deprivation are both associated with higher brain temperatures. These increased brain temperatures in turn trigger yawning to help the brain to cool down. Additionally, brain research also shows that yawning helps with the transition from sleeping to waking states, and vice versa.

The results from these studies have many practical implications. For example, studying the mechanism behind yawning could help researchers improve their knowledge about neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, both of which are associated with frequent yawning. The occurrence of excessive yawning could also be used as a diagnostic tool for thermoregulatory impairments.

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Brain Function Differs for Morning People and Night Owls

Researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada have discovered that there really is a difference between those who describe themselves as “morning people” and those who consider themselves “night owls.” Those self-described as “morning people” tend to wake up early and feel most productive in the morning hours. “Night owls,” on the other hand, are the opposite–they tend to feel more productive during the night and do not prefer waking up early in the morning.

A total of 18 people participated in the study. After completing a questionnaire about their habits, the study participants were broken into two equal groups–one group of nine consisted of those who considered themselves morning people and the other group of nine was made up of those who considered themselves night owls. In their experiment, the scientists:

  • measured how much muscle force could be generated during maximum contractions
  • applied electrical stimulation to a nerve in the back of the participant’s knee to assess pathways through the spinal cord
  • used trans-cranial magnetic stimulation to stimulate brain cells to send a signal to different muscles in the body

The most interesting result from the study was that the scientists discovered that there is a significant difference in brain function between morning people and night owls. For morning people, cortical excitability (also referred to as brain activity and inhibition) was the highest in the morning and decreased throughout the day, while for night owls, cortical excitability increased throughout the day and was highest around 9 p.m.. The researchers also found that morning people and night owls both showed an increase in spinal-cord excitability (which is related to muscle reflex response) throughout the day. A third finding was that night owls did better on the maximum muscle force test, meaning they got stronger throughout the day, while morning people showed no change in their maximum muscle force throughout the day.

The scientists who conducted this research were quite intrigued by the results and have already begun to consider future experiments. The researchers are interested to find out whether it is possible to switch someone from being a morning person to being a night owl, and vice versa, and how long such a switch might take. The scientists are also interested in determining how the results from this study may be applied in terms of work efficiency and performance, especially in relation to those who work very early and very late shifts.

The results of the scientists’ research were published in the June edition of the Journal of Biological Rhythms. Scientists who contributed to the research included Dave Collins, Olle Lagerquist, Alex Ley, and Alex Tamm.

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Novel Brain Region for Mammalian Neurogenesis

Adult neurogenesis is a mysterious phenomenon. Previously, scientists thought that adult neurogenesis, or the birth of new neurons, occurred most often in lower vertebrates such as frogs or fish. In mammals such as mice and rats, adult neurogenesis was thought to be rare, and restricted to two particular brain regions.

However, two groups of scientists at the University of Turin in Italy have recently documented neurogenesis in adult rabbits. Surprisingly, the birth of progenitor cells appears to occur in the cerebellum, a brain region previously thought to lack cell turnover in adulthood.

In mammals, progenitor cells typically originate from remnants of embryonic cell layers, such as the ventricular zone or the olfactory bulb. The progenitor cells identified in the current study are generated from neuronal progenitor cells in the functional tissue of the brain, suggesting that these cells might have great potential for the repair of neural damage in adult tissue.

While rabbits do live longer than other model organisms for adult neurogenesis, and thus might have a different neural development profile, this work gives new hope to the study of adult neurogenesis in humans.

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