Brain Power: Studying Animal Brains for Future Gains

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The brain is a complex organ responsible for controlling, monitoring and regulating many functions and actions. While much is understood about the brain, many questions still remain, with animal brains sometimes serving as a forum to explore various mysteries. From tiny insects detailing the importance of brain size to genetically-altered mice helping researchers better understand Alzheimer’s disease to sea lions examining the relationship between toxic exposure and brain damage, these and other animals have recently provided some compelling insights on the inner workings of the brain.

Does Brain Size Matter? Not for Some Tiny Insects

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The age-old question of whether bigger brains are necessarily better has been recently explored in studies of tiny insect brains that demonstrated impressive abilities to perform complex tasks. Despite having brains that were only the size of pinheads, some insects were able to count, categorize objects and even recognize human faces, causing some researchers to propose that complex communication between brain cells, rather than brain size, is more important. Since it is easier to study such cell communication in smaller brains rather than larger brains, scientists are excited about what future research on insect brains may suggest about cell communication and understanding more about the human brain.

 

Not Your Average Street Rat: Hobbie-J, the Super Smart Rat

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Speaking of brain cell communication, researchers have created the world’s smartest rat by altering a single gene during the embryonic stage. Named Hobbie-J, this rat can retain memory three times longer than other rats and easily perform complex tasks like moving through mazes with few clues. The reason? Scientists injected Hobbie-J with a chemical that caused an overexpression of the NR2B gene, which helps control brain cell communication. With her brain cells able to communicate just a second longer, Hobbie-J has shown herself to be quite smarter than ordinary rats. According to researchers, targeting NR2B may help resolve brain disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s, although there are some important considerations to keep in mind. Since embryonic modification is a very controversial topic, scientists would have to create a drug that targeted NR2B. Also, having the ability to retain so many memories could be detrimental to superbly smart people, with the possibility that they could struggle to forget bad memories and move forward with their lives.

 

Pinky and the Brain, Cell Phones and Alzheimer’s

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Cell phones are all the rage, with another mice study indicating that these wireless devices may actually protect the brain rather than harm it. In a recent study, scientists once again genetically altered mice, this time to develop sticky brain deposits called beta amyloid plaques that occur between the brain cells and can help lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Approximately 96 mice were genetically altered, with many of these mice showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s at 6 months and experiencing declines in cognitive ability at 8 months. The researchers then went a step further, exposing these mice and normal mice to cell phone radiation for several hours a day. According to the study’s findings, cell phone radiation, when exposed to the genetically-altered mice before they started showing signs of Alzheimer’s, reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer’s later. Also interesting, memory impairment in the mice that had begun to develop Alzheimer’s disappeared after several months of cell phone radiation. According to researchers, cell phone radiation may actually create cellular stress in the brains, causing DNA repair and offsetting some aspects of Alzheimer’s. Of course, researchers caution that more research is needed to understand not only these findings but how mice brains compare to human brains.

 

Does Toxic Pollution Cause Sea Lion Brain Damage?

 

 

In what’s believed to be the first anatomical analysis of a living species, researchers recently began to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other diagnostic tools to learn more about brain damage in California sea lions, especially those that have been exposed to man-made chemicals in recent years. More specifically, researchers are interested in learning more about the effects of a natural neurotoxin called domoic acid, which sea lions can ingest while eating prey that largely feed on algae. Domoic acid has been linked in past studies to epilepsy and seizures in sea lions, with researchers thus hoping that MRI analysis will provide more information on how this neurotoxin affects the brains of these mammals. According to researchers, sea lion exposure to various man-made chemicals that were once frequently dumped in their waters may make them vulnerable to domoic acid, which causes shrinkage of the hippocampus, a component of the brain that plays an important role in spatial navigation and long-term memory.

 

Right Hand, Left Brain: Chimpanzee Communication

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Chimpanzees predominantly signal with their right hands, yet again showing that they are like humans, according to a recent study. Just as we communicate by using the left side of our brains, chimpanzees apparently do the same, based on a 10-month study of chimpanzee hand use. According to the study’s researchers, these findings once again suggest that human speech evolved from gestures used by these ancestors.

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