March 13-19 is Brain Awareness Week, a worldwide campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research, sponsored by the Dana Foundation.
UC Davis is a leading center for research on the brain and how it works, with researchers at the Center for Neuroscience, Center for Mind and Brain and MIND Institute, as well as research and teaching through the departments of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior, Psychology, and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
UC Davis brainiacs are celebrating Brain Awareness Week March 11 with an afternoon of public talks, interactive activities (touch a brain!) and research posters.
Here are just some examples of recent brain research from UC Davis.
An early biomarker for autism?
Autism spectrum disorders are usually diagnosed from behavior patterns when a child is 2 to 3 years old. In a recent study, researchers at the UC Davis MIND Institute collaborated on a study showing that changes in cerebrospinal fluid in children as young as 6 months could be a marker for developing autism.
Founded in 1998, the UC Davis MIND Institute is a collaborative international research center, committed to the awareness, understanding, prevention, care and cures of neurodevelopmental disorders including autism spectrum disorders.
Learning where we go, and the neuroscience of teleportation
Arne Ekstrom (Department of Psychology, Center for Neuroscience) is studying how we learn to navigate and remember our way around. He uses virtual video game-like environments to study how volunteers navigate, sometimes working with patients who have electrodes temporarily placed in their brains to monitor their epilepsy. Among other discoveries, his work shows how the brain responds when we “teleport” from one place to another – something that’s possible in a virtual world if not in a real one, yet.
Cochlear implants and brain development
Cochlear implants can help profoundly deaf children hear by connecting a microphone directly to the nerves that carry information from the ears to the brain. But the implants work better for some children than for others. Researchers David Corina and Lee Miller (Center for Mind and Brain, Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior) are working with deaf and hearing children to understand how using these implants influences brain development in young children. Learn more about the cochlear study.
Brain activity during reading
By combining magnetic resonance imaging with eye-tracking technology, a team led by Professor John Henderson (Center for Mind and Brain, Psychology) is able to follow brain activity during natural reading. Previously, it was not possible to match up brain imaging data with specific words during natural reading. The team is using the technology to test theories about how the words are represented in the brain.
Monkeys in brain science
Rhesus macaque monkeys at the California National Primate Research Center are providing valuable insights into brain function and aging. A team led by Professor David Amaral (Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences) used newly developed genetic techniques to show that temporarily turning off part of the brain called the amygdala has effects throughout the brain.
John Morrison, director of the CNPRC at UC Davis, is a nationally recognized expert on mental function in aging and was recently elected to the National Academy of Medicine in recognition of his work. While Alzheimer’s disease is unique to humans, aging monkeys show similar cognitive decline to elderly humans. Morrison works with these animals to better understand these processes and how they might be slowed or reversed.
Morrison regularly gives public talks about brain science and is editor-in-chief of the educational website brainfacts.org.
How do we decide what to remember?
Charan Ranganath’s Dynamic Memory Laboratory at the Center for Neuroscience aims to understand how our brains form memories of what happened, when, where and why, keep them together and recall them when needed. In recent work, for example, Ranganath and postdoctoral researcher Matthias Gruber showed that the brain prioritizes more rewarding memories, replaying them when at rest.
The immune system and the brain
Understanding connections between the immune system, which protects the body from disease and infections, and the brain is the goal of Kim McAllister, director of the Center for Neuroscience. Her team discovered, for example, that in rodents, infection during pregnancy could affect later brain development in offspring. That suggests a way that maternal infections could play a role in developing conditions like autism or schizophrenia.
McAllister is a professor in the Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior and also holds an appointment at the UC Davis MIND Institute.
Drugs for autism spectrum disorders
MIND Institute researchers led by Randi Hagerman, the institute’s medical director, carried out a clinical trial of Zoloft (sertraline) to treat a form of autism called fragile X disorder with positive results.
In December 2016, Hagerman’s team received $11.5 million from the National Institutes of Health to carry out a clinical trial of a new drug to treat fragile X syndrome in children.