Basal Ganglia

A meta-analysis of studies reporting brain activity in individuals with a diagnosis of PTSD has revealed differences between the brain activity of individuals with PTSD and that of groups of both trauma-exposed (those who had experienced trauma but didn't have a diagnosis of PTSD) and trauma-naïve (those who hadn't experienced trauma) participants.

The critical difference between those who developed PTSD and those who experienced trauma but didn't develop PTSD lay in the basal ganglia. Specifically:

  • PTSD brains compared with trauma-exposed controls showed differentially active regions of the basal ganglia
  • trauma-exposed brains compared with trauma-naïve controls revealed differences in the right anterior insula, precuneus, cingulate and orbitofrontal cortices, all known to be involved in emotional regulation
  • PTSD brains compared with both control groups showed differences in activity in the amygdala and parahippocampal cortex.

The finding is consistent with other new evidence from the researchers, that other neuropsychiatric disorders were also associated with specific imbalances in specific brain networks.

The findings suggest that, while people who have experienced trauma may not meet the threshold for a diagnosis of PTSD, they may have similar changes within the brain, which might make them more vulnerable to PTSD if they experience a subsequent trauma.

The finding also suggests a different perspective on PTSD — that it “may not actually be abnormal or a 'disorder' but the brain's natural reaction to events and experiences that are abnormal”.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-08/uoo-tec080315.php

So-called ‘Gulf War syndrome’ is a poorly understood chronic condition associated with exposure to neurotoxic chemicals and nerve gas, and despite its name is associated with three main syndromes: impaired cognition (syndrome 1); confusion-ataxia (syndrome 2); central neuropathic pain (syndrome 3). Those with syndrome 2 are the most severely affected. Note that the use of the term ‘impaired cognition’ for syndrome 1 is not meant to indicate that the other syndromes show no impaired cognition; rather, it signals the absence of other primary symptoms such as ataxia and pain.

Symptoms of Gulf War syndrome include fatigue, neuropathic pain, memory and concentration deficits, balance disturbances and depression. Many of these symptoms suggest impairment of the hippocampus (among other regions, in particular the basal ganglia).

The new study follows up on an earlier study, with many of the same participants involved. A new, more sensitive, technique for assessing blood flow in the hippocampus was used to assess 35 patients with Gulf War syndromes and 13 controls. In the study of eleven years previous, those with syndrome 1 (impaired cognition) showed similar responses as the controls, while those with syndrome 2 (confusion-ataxia) showed abnormal blood flow in the right hippocampus.

In the present study, that abnormal hippocampal blood flow had progressed to the left hippocampus for those with syndrome 2 and to both hippocampi for those with syndrome 3. The results indicate that this alteration of hippocampal blood flow persists and can even worsen.

Around a quarter of U.S. military personnel deployed to the 1991 Persian Gulf War are estimated to be affected by Gulf War syndrome. Previous research has suggested genetic variation may underlie individuals’ vulnerability to neurotoxins.

Obesity has been linked to cognitive decline, but a new study involving 300 post-menopausal women has found that higher BMI was associated with higher cognitive scores.

Of the 300 women (average age 60), 158 were classified as obese (waist circumference of at least 88cm, or BMI of over 30). Cognitive performance was assessed in three tests: The Mini-Mental Statement Examination (MMSE), a clock-drawing test, and the Boston Abbreviated Test.

Both BMI and waist circumference were positively correlated with higher scores on both the MMSE and a composite cognitive score from all three tests. It’s suggested that the estrogen produced in a woman’s fat cells help protect cognitive function.

Interestingly, a previous report from the same researchers challenged the link found between metabolic syndrome and poorer cognitive function. This study, using data from a large Argentinean Cardiovascular Prevention Program, found no association between metabolic syndrome and cognitive decline — but the prevalence of metabolic syndrome and cognitive decline was higher in males than females. However, high inflammatory levels were associated with impairment of executive functions, and higher systolic blood pressure was associated with cognitive decline.

It seems clear that any connection between BMI and cognitive decline is a complex one. For example, two years ago I reported that, among older adults, higher BMI was associated with more brain atrophy (replicated below; for more recent articles relating obesity to cognitive impairment, click on the obesity link at the end of this report). Hypertension, inflammation, and diabetes have all been associated with greater risk of impairment and dementia. It seems likely that the connection between BMI and impairment is mediated through these and other factors. If your fat stores are not associated with such health risk factors, then the fat in itself is not likely to be harmful to your brain function — and may (if you’re a women) even help.

Previous:

Overweight and obese elderly have smaller brains

Analysis of brain scans from 94 people in their 70s who were still "cognitively normal" five years after the scan has revealed that people with higher body mass indexes had smaller brains on average, with the frontal and temporal lobes particularly affected (specifically, in the frontal lobes, anterior cingulate gyrus, hippocampus, and thalamus, in obese people, and in the basal ganglia and corona radiate of the overweight). The brains of the 51 overweight people were, on average, 6% smaller than those of the normal-weight participants, and those of the 14 obese people were 8% smaller. To put it in more comprehensible, and dramatic terms: "The brains of overweight people looked eight years older than the brains of those who were lean, and 16 years older in obese people." However, overall brain volume did not differ between overweight and obese persons. As yet unpublished research by the same researchers indicates that exercise protects these same brain regions: "The most strenuous kind of exercise can save about the same amount of brain tissue that is lost in the obese."

Zilberman, J.M., Del Sueldo, M., Cerezo, G., Castellino, S., Theiler, E. & Vicario, A. 2011. Association Between Menopause, Obesity, and Cognitive Impairment. Presented at the Physiology of Cardiovascular Disease: Gender Disparities conference, October 12, at the University of Mississippi in Jackson.

Vicario, A., Del Sueldo, M., Zilberman, J. & Cerezo, G.H. 2011. The association between metabolic syndrome, inflammation and cognitive decline. Presented at the European Society of Hypertension (ESH) 2011: 21st European Meeting on Hypertension, June 17 - 20, Milan, Italy.

[733] Thompson PM, Raji CA, Ho AJ, Parikshak NN, Becker JT, Lopez OL, Kuller LH, Hua X, Leow AD, Toga AW. Brain structure and obesity. Human Brain Mapping [Internet]. 2010 ;31(3):353 - 364. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/hbm.20870

The mental differences between a novice and an expert are only beginning to be understood, but two factors thought to be of importance are automaticity (the process by which a procedure becomes so practiced that it no longer requires conscious thought) and chunking (the unitizing of related bits of information into one tightly integrated unit — see my recent blog post on working memory). A new study adds to our understanding of this process by taking images of the brains of professional and amateur players of the Japanese chess-like game of shogi.

Eleven professional, 9 high- and 8 low-rank amateur players of shogi were presented with patterns of different types (opening shogi patterns, endgame shogi patterns, random shogi patterns, chess, Chinese chess, as well as completely different stimuli — scenes, faces, other objects, scrambled patterns).

It was found that the board game patterns, but not the other patterns, stimulated activity in the posterior precuneus of all shogi players. This activity, for the professional players, was particularly strong for shogi opening and endgame patterns, and activity in the precuneus was the only regional activity that showed a difference between these patterns and the other board game patterns. For the amateurs however, there was no differential activity for the endgame patterns, and only the high-rank amateurs showed differential activity for the opening shogi patterns. Opening patterns tend to be more stereotyped than endgame patterns (i.e., endgame patterns are better reflections of expertise).

The players were then asked for the best next-move in a series of shogi problems (a) when they only had one second to study the pattern, and (b) when they had eight seconds. When professional players had only a second to study the problem, the caudate nucleus was active. When they had 8 seconds, activity was confined to the cerebral cortex, as it was for the amateurs in both conditions. This activity in the caudate, which is part of the basal ganglia, deep within the brain, is thought to reflect the development of an intuitive response.

The researchers therefore suggest that this type of intuition, an instinct achieved through training and experience, is what marks an expert. Making part of the process unconscious not only makes it faster, but frees up valuable space in working memory for aspects that need conscious thought.

The posterior precuneus directly connects with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which in turn connects to the caudate. There is also a direct connection between the precuneus and the caudate. This precuneus-caudate circuit is therefore suggested as a key part of what makes a board-game expert an expert.

When stroke or brain injury damages a part of the brain controlling movement or sensation or language, other parts of the brain can learn to compensate for this damage. It’s been thought that this is a case of one region taking over the lost function. Two new studies show us the story is not so simple, and help us understand the limits of this plasticity.

In the first study, six stroke patients who have lost partial function in their prefrontal cortex, and six controls, were briefly shown a series of pictures to test the ability to remember images for a brief time (visual working memory) while electrodes recorded their EEGs. When the images were shown to the eye connected to the damaged hemisphere, the intact prefrontal cortex (that is, the one not in the hemisphere directly receiving that visual input) responded within 300 to 600 milliseconds.

Visual working memory involves a network of brain regions, of which the prefrontal cortex is one important element, and the basal ganglia, deep within the brain, are another. In the second study, the researchers extended the experiment to patients with damage not only to the prefrontal cortex, but also to the basal ganglia. Those with basal ganglia damage had problems with visual working memory no matter which part of the visual field was shown the image.

In other words, basal ganglia lesions caused a more broad network deficit, while prefrontal cortex lesions resulted in a more limited, and recoverable, deficit. The findings help us understand the different roles these brain regions play in attention, and emphasize how memory and attention are held in networks. They also show us that the plasticity compensating for brain damage is more dynamic and flexible than we realized, with intact regions stepping in on a case by case basis, very quickly, but only when the usual region fails.

Perhaps we should start thinking of language less as some specialized process and more as one approach to thought. A study involving native signers of American Sign Language (which has the helpful characteristic that subject-object relationships can be expressed in either of the two ways languages usually use: word order or inflection) has revealed that there are distinct regions of the brain that are used to process the two types of sentences: those in which word order determined the relationships between the sentence elements, and those in which inflection was providing the information. These brain regions are the ones designed to accomplish tasks that relate to the type of sentence they are trying to interpret. Word order sentences activated areas involved in working memory and lexical access, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the inferior frontal gyrus, the inferior parietal lobe, and the middle temporal gyrus. Inflectional sentences activated areas involved in building and analyzing combinatorial structure, including bilateral inferior frontal and anterior temporal regions as well as the basal ganglia and medial temporal/limbic areas. In other words, as an increasing body of evidence tells us, we process words in the same way as we do the concepts represented by the words; speaking (or reading) is, neutrally speaking, the same as doing.

[453] Newman AJ, Supalla T, Hauser P, Newport EL, Bavelier D. Dissociating neural subsystems for grammar by contrasting word order and inflection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2010 ;107(16):7539 - 7544. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/107/16/7539.abstract

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

August 2009

Overweight and obese elderly have smaller brains

Analysis of brain scans from 94 people in their 70s who were still "cognitively normal" five years after the scan has revealed that people with higher body mass indexes had smaller brains on average, with the frontal and temporal lobes particularly affected (specifically, in the frontal lobes, anterior cingulate gyrus, hippocampus, and thalamus, in obese people, and in the basal ganglia and corona radiate of the overweight). The brains of the 51 overweight people were, on average, 6% smaller than those of the normal-weight participants, and those of the 14 obese people were 8% smaller. To put it in more comprehensible, and dramatic terms: "The brains of overweight people looked eight years older than the brains of those who were lean, and 16 years older in obese people." However, overall brain volume did not differ between overweight and obese persons. As yet unpublished research by the same researchers indicates that exercise protects these same brain regions: "The most strenuous kind of exercise can save about the same amount of brain tissue that is lost in the obese."

Raji, C.A. et al. 2009. Brain structure and obesity. Human Brain Mapping, Published Online: Aug 6 2009

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20327222.400-expanding-waistlines-may-cause-shrinking-brains.htm

October 2006

Brain scans reveal 'chemobrain' no figment of the imagination

A PET study of 21 women who had undergone surgery to remove breast tumors five to 10 years earlier found that the 16 who had been treated with chemotherapy regimens near the time of their surgeries to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence had specific alterations in activity of frontal cortex, cerebellum, and basal ganglia compared to 5 breast cancer patients who underwent surgery only, and 13 control subjects who did not have breast cancer or chemotherapy. The alterations suggested the chemotherapy patients’ brains were working harder to recall the same information.

Silverman, D.H.S. et al. 2006. Altered frontocortical, cerebellar, and basal ganglia activity in adjuvant-treated breast cancer survivors 5–10years after chemotherapy. Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, Published online ahead of print 29 September

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-10/uoc--bn092906.php

March 2005

Primitive brain learns faster than the "thinking" part of our brain

A study of monkeys has revealed that a primitive region of the brain known as the basal ganglia learns rules first, then “trains” the prefrontal cortex, which learns more slowly. The findings turn our thinking about how rules are learned on its head — it has been assumed that the smarter areas of our brain work things out; instead it seems that primitive brain structures might be driving even our most high-level learning.

Pasupathy, A. &Miller, E.K. 2005. Different time courses of learning-related activity in the prefrontal cortex and striatum. Nature, 433, 873-876.

http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2005/basalganglia.html

January 2005

Imaging reveals brain abnormalities in ADHD children

A new type of brain imaging called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) has provided some suggestive evidence about brain abnormalities in children diagnosed with ADHD. Abnormalities were found in the white-matter pathways in the frontal cortex, basal ganglia, brain stem and cerebellum—areas that are involved in regulating attention, impulsive behavior, motor activity, and inhibition, which are all related to ADHD symptoms.

This research was presented at the 2004 annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

http://www.sciencentral.com/articles/view.htm3?article_id=218392460

November 2001

Competition between memory systems

Learning and memory in humans rely upon several memory systems. For example, the medial temporal lobe (MTL) is associated with declarative learning (facts and events). The basal ganglia is associated with nondeclarative learning (learning you derive from experience, that may not be conscious). A recent imaging study looked at how these memory systems interact during classification learning. During the nondeclarative learning task, there was an increase in activity in the basal ganglia, and a decrease in activity in the MTL. During the memorization task (testing declarative learning), the reverse was true. Further examination found rapid modulation of activity in these regions at the beginning of learning, suggesting that subjects relied upon the medial temporal lobe early in learning. However, this dependence rapidly declined with training.

Poldrack, R.A., Clark, J., Paré-blagoev, E.J., Shohamy, D., Moyano, J.C., Myers, C. & Gluck, M.A. 2001. Interactive memory systems in the human brain. Nature, 414, 546 - 550.

http://www.nature.com/cgi-taf/DynaPage.taf?file=/nature/journal/v414/n6863/abs/414546a0_fs.html
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2001-11/mgh-isi112601.php

May 2001

Significant brain differences between professional musicians trained at an early age and non-musicians

Research has revealed significant differences in the gray matter distribution between professional musicians trained at an early age and non-musicians, specifically in the primary sensorimotor regions, the left more than the right intraparietal sulcus region, left basal ganglia region, left posterior perisylvian region, and the cerebellum. It is most likely that this is due to intensive musical training at an early age, although it is also possible that the musicians were born with these differences, which led them to pursue musical training.

The study was presented at the American Academy of Neurology's 53rd Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PA Reference

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2001-05/AAoN-Mtdc-0705101.php