News and Commentary Archive

Explore recent scientific discoveries and news as well as CLBB events, commentary, and press.

Mission

The speed of technology in neuroscience as it impacts ethical and just decisions in the legal system needs to be understood by lawyers, judges, public policy makers, and the general public. The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior is an academic and professional resource for the education, research, and understanding of neuroscience and the law. Read more

An Architecture for Encoding Sentence Meaning in Left Mid-Superior Temporal Cortex

By Steven M. Frankland and Joshua D. Greene | Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences | August 24, 2015

Abstract:

Human brains flexibly combine the meanings of words to compose structured thoughts. For example, by combining the meanings of “bite,” “dog,” and “man,” we can think about a dog biting a man, or a man biting a dog. Here, in two functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments using multivoxel pattern analysis (MVPA), we identify a region of left mid-superior temporal cortex (lmSTC) that flexibly encodes “who did what to whom” in visually presented sentences. We find that lmSTC represents the current values of abstract semantic variables (“Who did it?” and “To whom was it done?”) in distinct subregions. Experiment 1 first identifies a broad region of lmSTC whose activity patterns (i) facilitate decoding of structure-dependent sentence meaning (“Who did what to whom?”) and (ii) predict affect-related amygdala responses that depend on this information (e.g., “the baby kicked the grandfather” vs. “the grandfather kicked the baby”). Experiment 2 then identifies distinct, but neighboring, subregions of lmSTC whose activity patterns carry information about the identity of the current “agent” (“Who did it?”) and the current “patient” (To whom was it done?”). These neighboring subregions lie along the upper bank of the superior temporal sulcus and the lateral bank of the superior temporal gyrus, respectively. At a high level, these regions may function like topographically defined data registers, encoding the fluctuating values of abstract semantic variables. This functional architecture, which in key respects resembles that of a classical computer, may play a critical role in enabling humans to flexibly generate complex thoughts.

Read the full article here.

Slender Man is Watching

By Lisa Miller | New York Magazine | August 25, 2015

Payton had been called “Bella” since about the first grade. Morgan had been ­Bella’s best friend since fourth. Both girls loved cats and ­playing dress-up. Morgan was obsessed with Harry Potter; at least one time at lunch, she and Bella imagined that Voldemort was pursuing them through the cafeteria. Now in sixth grade, they talked on the telephone every night. Morgan’s favorite teacher was Jill Weidenbaum, for reading and writing, and on May 30, 2014, the Friday of Morgan’s 12th-­birthday sleepover, both girls hung around Ms. ­Weidenbaum’s classroom after school, helping her clean up.

There were three girls at the sleepover at Morgan’s house that night: Morgan and Bella and Morgan’s newer friend Anissa, who lived in the same housing complex as Morgan — Sunset Apartments, on Big Bend Road — and rode the school bus with her every day. Anissa and Bella knew each other, but Morgan was what they had in common: Each would have said that Morgan was her closest friend. Continue reading »

The Insula: A “Hub of Activity” in Migraine

By David BorsookRosanna Veggeberg, Nathalie Erpelding, Ronald Borra, Clas LinnmanRami Burstein, and Lino Becerra | The Neuroscientist | August 19, 2015

Abstract:

The insula, a “cortical hub” buried within the lateral sulcus, is involved in a number of processes including goal-directed cognition, conscious awareness, autonomic regulation, interoception, and somatosensation. While some of these processes are well known in the clinical presentation of migraine (i.e., autonomic and somatosensory alterations), other more complex behaviors in migraine, such as conscious awareness and error detection, are less well described. Since the insula processes and relays afferent inputs from brain areas involved in these functions to areas involved in higher cortical function such as frontal, temporal, and parietal regions, it may be implicated as a brain region that translates the signals of altered internal milieu in migraine, along with other chronic pain conditions, through the insula into complex behaviors. Here we review how the insula function and structure is altered in migraine. As a brain region of a number of brain functions, it may serve as a model to study new potential clinical perspectives for migraine treatment.

Read the full paper here.

The Terrible Teens

By Elizabeth Kolbert | The New Yorker | August 31, 2015

C57BL/6J mice are black, with pink ears and long pink tails. Inbred for the purposes of experimentation, they exhibit a number of infelicitous traits, including a susceptibility to obesity, a taste for morphine, and a tendency to nibble off their cage mates’ hair. They’re also tipplers. Given access to ethanol, C57BL/6J mice routinely suck away until the point that, were they to get behind the wheel of a Stuart Little-size roadster, they’d get pulled over for D.U.I.

Not long ago, a team of researchers at Temple University decided to take advantage of C57BL/6Js’ bad habits to test a hunch. They gathered eighty-six mice and placed them in Plexiglas cages, either singly or in groups of three. Then they spiked the water with ethanol and videotaped the results.

Half of the test mice were four weeks old, which, in murine terms, qualifies them as adolescents. The other half were twelve-week-old adults. When the researchers watched the videos, they found that the youngsters had, on average, outdrunk their elders. More striking still was the pattern of consumption. Young male C57BL/6Js who were alone drank roughly the same amount as adult males. But adolescent males with cage mates went on a bender; they spent, on average, twice as much time drinking as solo boy mice and about thirty per cent more time than solo girls.

The researchers published the results in the journal Developmental Science. In their paper, they noted that it was “not possible” to conduct a similar study on human adolescents, owing to the obvious ethical concerns. But, of course, similar experiments are performed all the time, under far less controlled circumstances. Just ask any college dean. Or ask a teen-ager. I happen to have three adolescent sons and in this way recently learned about a supposedly fun pastime known as a “case race.” Participants form teams of two and compete to see which pair can drink its way through a case of beer the fastest. (To get the most out of the experience, I was told, it’s best to use a “thirty rack.”)

Every adult has gone through adolescence, and studies have shown that if you ask people to look back on their lives they will disproportionately recall experiences they had between the ages of ten and twenty-five. (This phenomenon is called the “reminiscence bump.”) And yet, to adults, the adolescent mind is a mystery—a Brigadoon-like place that’s at once vivid and inaccessible. Why would anyone volunteer to down fifteen beers in a row? Under what circumstances could Edward Fortyhands, an activity that involves having two forty-ounce bottles of malt liquor affixed to your hands with duct tape, be construed as enjoyable? And what goes for drinking games also goes for hooking up with strangers, jumping from high places into shallow pools, and steering a car with your knees. At moments of extreme exasperation, parents may think that there’s something wrong with their teen-agers’ brains. Which, according to recent books on adolescence, there is.  Continue reading »

Exposure to Violence in Childhood is Associated with Higher Body Mass Index in Adolescence

By Holly C. Gooding, Carly Milliren, S. Bryn Austin, Margaret A. Sheridan, and Katie A. McLaughlin | Child Abuse & Neglect | August 21, 2015

Abstract:

To determine whether different types of childhood adversity are associated with body mass index (BMI) in adolescence, we studied 147 adolescents aged 13–17 years, 41% of whom reported exposure to at least one adversity (maltreatment, abuse, peer victimization, or witness to community or domestic violence). We examined associations between adversity type and age- and sex-specific BMI z-scores using linear regression and overweight and obese status using logistic regression. We adjusted for potential socio-demographic, behavioral, and psychological confounders and tested for effect modification by gender. Adolescents with a history of sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or peer victimization did not have significantly different BMI z-scores than those without exposure (p > 0.05 for all comparisons). BMI z-scores were higher in adolescents who had experienced physical abuse (β = 0.50, 95% CI 0.12–0.91) or witnessed domestic violence (β = 0.85, 95% CI 0.30–1.40). Participants who witnessed domestic violence had almost 6 times the odds of being overweight or obese (95% CI: 1.09–30.7), even after adjustment for potential confounders. No gender-by-adversity interactions were found. Exposure to violence in childhood is associated with higher adolescent BMI. This finding highlights the importance of screening for violence in pediatric practice and providing obesity prevention counseling for youth.

Read the full paper here.