Tag Archives: #learning

Scientists Test Whether Brain Region is A Key Locus Of Learning (Neuroscience)

Long thought of as a generic alarm system, the locus coeruleus may actually be a sophisticated regulator of learning and behavior, an MIT team posits

Small and seemingly specialized, the brain’s locus coeruleus (LC) region has been stereotyped for its outsized export of the arousal-stimulating neuromodulator norepinephrine. In a new paper and with a new grant from the National Institutes of Health, an MIT neuroscience lab is making the case that the LC is not just an alarm button but has a more nuanced and multifaceted impact on learning, behavior and mental health than it has been given credit for.

With inputs from more than 100 other brain regions and sophisticated control of where and when it sends out norepinephrine (NE), the LC’s tiny population of surprisingly diverse cells may represent an important regulator of learning from reward and punishment, and then applying that experience to optimize behavior, said Mriganka Sur, Newton Professor of Neuroscience in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT.

“What was formerly considered a homogenous nucleus exerting global, uniform influence over its many diverse target regions, is now suggested to be a heterogeneous population of NE-releasing cells, potentially exhibiting both spatial and temporal modularity that govern its functions,” wrote Sur, postdoc Vincent Breton-Provencher and graduate student Gabrielle Drummond in a review article published last month in Frontiers in Neural Circuits.

The article presents copious emerging evidence from Sur’s group and many others, suggesting that that the LC may integrate sensory inputs and internal cognitive states from across the brain to precisely exert its NE-mediated influence to affect actions – by throttling NE to the motor cortex – and the processing of resulting feedback of reward or punishment – by throttling NE to the prefrontal cortex.

To investigate that hypothesis, the team has begun working with a $2.1 million, 5-year NIH grant awarded in April. In this study they are engaging mice in learning tasks where they are cued by tones of varying pitches and volumes. Over the course of training the mice will learn that when a tone is high pitched, pressing a lever will yield a reward and when the tone is low pitched, the correct response would be to not push lest it experience an unpleasant air puff. By varying the tone volume, the experimenters will vary the certainty the mice can feel that they heard the cue correctly.

The hypothesis (borne out by preliminary data) predicts that the NE will matter in multiple crucial ways, Sur said. When the mouse hears the cue tone, if the pitch is low the LC would send less NE via a cadre of neurons to the motor cortex, reflecting the animal’s belief that the lever should not be pushed because no reward will be forthcoming. Meanwhile the lower the volume, the less certainty the animal has in its decision. Conversely, a high tone of high volume would send more NE, reflecting the animal’s certainty that pushing the lever would produce a reward.

After the mouse has acted, the more surprising the feedback, the more NE it will produce and send via a distinct group to the prefrontal cortex, stimulating greater learning. So for instance, if the mouse hears a faint, high tone and gingerly presses the lever, the surprise of a resulting reward will stimulate a strong output of NE to instruct the prefrontal cortex because its expectations weren’t very high. Whenever a mouse guesses wrong and feels an air puff, that will stimulate the strongest NE release to the prefrontal cortex. After such dynamics, Sur’s team has observed consistent performance changes on the subsequent trial.

“This is a way by which norepinephrine can be thought of as an arousal signal, but it’s also, importantly, in the context of ongoing function a learning signal,” Sur said. “It is both an execution signal and a learning signal, for both of which we can describe the actual quantitative relationships.”

Not only will the team be measuring the activity of LC-NE neurons, they’ll also take them over using optogenetics (in which neurons can be controlled with light), so that they can silence or amplify LC-NE output to show how doing each affects action and learning.

Understanding the true nature of how the LC works could be useful for improving treatments for certain disorders, Sur said. A potential treatment for PTSD, for instance, involves damping receptiveness to NE, but that also promotes drowsiness. A more principled and precise treatment could improve efficacy and reduce those side effects, he said.

“The hope is to affect the anxiety but not make you sleepy, if we understand the targets and theory behind it,” Sur said. “That is the hope of basic science for treating disorders—to make things more and more specific, to define the circuits and the specificity of functions that a system is involved in.”

Moreover the LC is an early region affected in Alzheimer’s disease, he said. Addressing that loss in the right way could help sustain forms of learning and cognition.

The study, “Locus Coeruleus Norepinephrine in Learned Behavior: Anatomical Modularity and Spatiotemporal Integration in Targets”, Front. Neural Circuits, 07 June 2021 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fncir.2021.638007

Featured image: The Locus Coeruleus is deep in the brain but projects circuits throughout the organ. © Sur Lab/ MIT Picower Institute

Provided by Picower Institute

Shootin1a – The Missing Link Underlying Learning and Memory (Neuroscience)

Researchers from Nara Institute of Science and Technology find that the shootin1a protein is crucial for allowing dendritic spines to change in size, which is an important process underlying learning and memory

In neurons, changes in the size of dendritic spines – small cellular protrusions involved in synaptic transmission – are thought to be a key mechanism underlying learning and memory. However, the specific way in which these structural changes occur remains unknown. In a study published in Cell Reports, researchers from Nara Institute of Science and Technology (NAIST) have revealed that the binding of cell adhesion molecules with actin, via an important linker protein in the structural backbone of synapses, is vital for this process of structural plasticity.

Actin proteins make up an important part of a cell’s structure, or cytoskeleton, and allow for dynamic changes in this structure by forming microfilaments when growth or movement is required. It was originally thought that the polymerization of actin was all that was needed for dendritic spines to change size in response to synaptic activation, but researchers at NAIST found that this process alone was not enough to cause structural plasticity, and decided to address this problem.

“Current models of structural plasticity in dendritic spines do not take mechanical force into account,” says Naoyuki Inagaki, corresponding author. “We had already identified the role of shootin1a, a protein involved in neuronal development, in axon growth and so we wanted to investigate whether this protein might also have a role in the structural plasticity of dendritic spines.”

To explore this question, the researchers used neurons of control and shootin1a knockout rodents to examine whether shootin1a was involved in the formation of dendritic spines. The researchers wanted to determine if mechanical force was generated in dendritic spines by the shootin1a-mediated coupling of actin and cell adhesion molecules – cell-surface proteins that bind cells together at synapses – similar to what they had observed in axons.

“The results were clear,” explains Inagaki. “We found that shootin1a mechanically linked polymerizing actin with cell adhesion molecules in dendritic spines, and revealed that synaptic activity enhanced this coupling, thus allowing the actin filaments to push against the membranes and enlarge spines.” The results of this study are the first to link mechanical force with synaptic activity-dependent dendritic spine plasticity and provide new insights into the mechanisms of structural plasticity in these spines.

Given that changes in activity-dependent dendritic spine plasticity have been implicated in multiple neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders, including autism spectrum disorder and Alzheimer’s disease, these findings are important because they suggest that shootin1a disruption may lead to the development of neurological disorders. Future studies into this mechanism of structural plasticity in dendritic spines might provide new drug targets for these disorders.

Featured image: Shootin1a Is Required for Spine Structural Plasticity. Fluorescence time-lapse images of dendritic spines (A) and time course of their volume changes (B) of hippocampal neurons in slice culture. Spines were stimulated by local application of a neurotransmitter glutamate for 30 s (red asterisks). 30-sec stimulation of control spines induced their rapid enlargement which persisted for more than 30 min (blue arrows, top). Downregulation of shootin1a significantly inhibited the spine enlargement (middle). Furthermore, re-addition of shootin1a rescued the reduction of the spine enlargement (blue arrows, bottom), thereby indicating that shootin1a plays an essential role in spine structural plasticity. © Naoyuki Inagaki


  • Title: Shootin1a-mediated actin-adhesion coupling generates force to trigger structural plasticity of dendritic spines
  • Authors: Ria Fajarwati Kastian, Takunori Minegishi, Kentarou Baba, Takeo Saneyoshi, Hiroko Katsuno-Kambe, Singh Saranpal, Yasunori Hayashi & Naoyuki Inagaki
  • JournalCell Reports
  • DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2021.109130

Provided by Nara Institute of Science and Technology

Scientists From Russia and Germany Measured How The Brain Learn New Words (Neuroscience)

Researchers from University of Tübingen (Tübingen, Germany) and Ural Federal University (Ekaterinburg, Russia) have developed and experimentally tested new method to understand how the brain builds associations between previously unrelated words. The findings are published in Journal of Neurolinguistics.

The scientists conducted used electroencephalography to measure how the brain responds to the incongruent sentence endings. So, the brain responses to the last word in the phrase “I like my coffee with cream and sugar” have much smaller magnitude as compared to the phrase “I like my coffee with cream and socks”. The brain reacts in a similar way to words in pairs such as cat-dog and cat-sky.

“We get a neural index of how people learn new associations between words, in fact – a language,” said researcher of Department of Psychology at Ural Federal University and Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavioral Neurobiology at University of Tübingen Yuri Pavlov. “At the same time, this index is completely independent from behavioral responses. The brain itself informs us what it has learnt.”

At first stage of the experiment the participants listened to five pairs of semantically unrelated words, each pair repeated twenty times. To give an example, the participants could hear such word pairs as carriage-text, death-fruit, seriousness-cow. Then, to the freshly learnt pairs, new similarly weird but new pairs were added. The experiment showed that the brain responses to the learnt word pairs rapidly attenuated and, after twenty repetitions, did not differ from the responses to familiar word pairs such as coffee-cream.

In the future, the scientists plan to apply the developed experimental paradigm to patients in disorders of consciousness.

“Perhaps those patients whose brains preserve the ability to learn new semantic associations have a chance to regain consciousness,” said Yuri Pavlov. “Indeed, such an ability depends on a multiverse of cognitive functions such as long-term and working memory, speech perception. This means that we can suspect that the underlying anatomical and functional connections within the brain are not entirely destroyed. It is even possible that the patient is conscious, but cannot inform us about this by speech or gestures.”

Featured image: Yuri Pavlov and Germany colleagues are studying the brain signals of people in a vegetative state. © Urfu / Nadezhda Pavlova.

Reference: Maryam Farshad, Yuri G. Pavlov, Boris Kotchoubey, Event-related potentials in an associative word pair learning paradigm, Journal of Neurolinguistics, Volume 59, 2021, 101001, ISSN 0911-6044, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jneuroling.2021.101001. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0911604421000178)

Provided by Ural Federal University

Happiness Can Be Learned (Psychology)

A new study coordinated by the University of Trento shows the beneficial effects of an intensive program on happiness

The results showed that several psychological well-being measures gradually increased within participants from the beginning to the end of the course. That was especially true for life satisfaction, perceived well-being, self-awareness and emotional self-regulation. The participants in the study also reported a significant decrease in anxiety, perceived stress, negative thoughts, rumination and anger tendencies. The researchers observed, simultaneously, improvements in the positive aspects and a reduction of negative emotions, both in the short term and longitudinally throughout the program.

Nicola De Pisapia, researcher of the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Sciences of the University of Trento and scientific coordinator, explained the fundamental principles of the study: “The training that we proposed to the participants was inspired by the idea – present in both Western and Eastern philosophical traditions – that happiness is inextricably linked to the development of inner equilibrium, a kinder and more open perspective of self, others, and the world, towards a better understanding of the human mind and brain. In this training process we need on the one hand the theoretical study of philosophy and science, and on the other meditation practices”.

The study was conducted over nine months (with seven theoretical/practical weekends and two meditation retreats) at the Lama Tzong Khapa Institute of Tibetan culture in Pomaia (Italy). For the theoretical part, the participants attended a series of presentations and watched some video courses, and took part in open discussions on topics of psychology, neuroscience, the history of Western thought and the philosophy of life of Buddhism. The scientific topics included neuroplasticity, the brain circuits of attention and mind wandering, stress and anxiety, pain and pleasure, positive and negative emotions, desire and addiction, the sense of self, empathy and compassion. For the practical part, a series of exercises were proposed, taken from different, Buddhist and Western, contemplative traditions (for example, meditation on the breath, analytical meditation, personal journal).

In recent years, excluding the “recipes” that mistake happiness for hedonism, and the New Age obsession with positive thinking, research has shown that meditation practices have important benefits for the mind, while studies on happiness and wisdom have been scarce. De Pisapia therefore concluded: ” I believe that in times like these, full of changes and uncertainties, it is fundamental to scientifically study how Western and Eastern philosophical traditions, together with the most recent discoveries on the mind and the brain, can be integrated with contemplative practices in secular way. The goal is to give healthy people the opportunity to work on themselves to develop authentic happiness, not hedonism or superficial happiness. With this study we wanted to take a small step in this direction”.

Featured image: Nicola de Pisapia, assistant professor ate the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Science, University of Trento ©UniTrento ph. Alessio Coser

Reference: Clara Rastelli, Lucia Calabrese et al., “The Art of Happiness: An Explorative Study of a Contemplative Program for Subjective Well-being”, Front. Psychol., 11 February 2021 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.600982

Provided by Universitä Di Trento

Difficulty Learning Nonsense Words May Indicate a Child’s High Risk of Dyslexia (Neuroscience)

Studies show disorder is linked to the left cerebral hemisphere and that confidence can help kids overcome difficulties

Researchers at Aalto University and the Niilo Mäki Institute have used neuroimaging to pinpoint where the brain activates – or doesn’t activate – among children identified as having a high risk of dyslexia. Magnetoencephalography (MEG) has rarely been used to study the reading disorder in children.

The brain study was carried out at Aalto University by measuring brain activity with MEG, which measures the weak magnetic fields arising from electrical activity in the brain, over a period of two days. Earlier studies have shown that difficulties in processing sounds may be partly responsible for dyslexia, and that these challenges may relate to the left auditory cortex which processes language.

During the study, the children listened to nonsensical four-syllable words from a loudspeaker and were asked to repeat them. The researchers then asked the children if they had heard the word before.

‘The words were nonsense words that really don’t mean anything. We wanted to see how the kids learned to create memories of new words. We noticed that children at a high risk of dyslexia also have deficiencies in learning new words based on hearing them. Their memories of new words were not very precise, and they weren’t capable of differentiating the made-up words from each other. This is an indication of a broader difficulty in processing words in the brain, which makes learning to read more difficult as well’, says Dr Anni Nora, a postdoctoral researcher who developed the MEG measurement test together with Professor Riitta Salmelin and Assistant Professor Hanna Renvall at Aalto University.

Neural activation in the right cerebral hemisphere of the children at a high risk of dyslexia was comparable to that of children in the control group. Problems in processing the sound content of speech, and in learning new words was focused in activity of the left-hemisphere auditory cortex — the area of the brain that specialises in processing language and speech, and where word memory support is located.

‘Considerably less brain activation was found in the left cerebral hemisphere among children at risk of dyslexia. Particularly in children, the processing of language and speech can also be seen in the right hemisphere, but over time the emphasis moves to the left side – each side focuses on more specific tasks as kids grow older. It would be interesting to know if problems with reading and writing are caused by how the cerebral hemispheres specialise,’ Nora adds.

Study participants were in their first and second years of school and had been identified, with the help of a teacher, as high risk. The research team performed neuropsychological examinations, tested reading and writing skills and cognitive abilities, and measured brain functions. The children were also asked about their motivation, including their beliefs about their own reading skills.

Support from tips and feedback

Anomalous brain activity at age 7 or 8 did not completely predict later development of reading; other factors seem to be involved, including a child’s belief in their own ability to learn. The Niilo Mäki Institute studied this further, using tools and tests including a game called GraphoLearn (in Finnish Ekapeli), which is used to teach reading skills to Finnish children.

‘Children were asked to read out both words and meaningless pseudowords that they could not guess. The study also included a part that tested how GraphoLearn affected difficulties in reading and writing. Generally, playing this learning game did not have a significant effect. But children who were confident about their reading skills got additional benefit from playing the game, and they made better progress in their reading skills than those in the control group. It might be a good idea to develop tools for special education teachers to help them support children’s self-efficacy’, says postdoctoral researcher Miia Ronimus of the Niilo Mäki Institute.

GraphoLearn is a mobile learning game developed at the University of Jyväskylä and the Niilo Mäki Institute. The players connect letters to the sounds of speech and the game adapts to the child’s skill level. Children with the weakest reading and writing skills were selected for the six-week GraphoLearn period. Supervision of the exercise was left to the teachers and parents. Based on the study, features such as tips and verbal feedback were added to the game.

‘The learning game now offers tips on how to improve performance. If a child reacts very quickly, for example, the game might instruct the child to take it easy and slow down,’ Ronimus says.

The research was conducted by a consortium funded by the Academy of Finland. The principal researchers were, in addition to Riitta Salmelin, Professors Heikki Lyytinen from the University of Jyväskylä and Juha Kere from Folkhälsan. The research project began in the autumn of 2015 and took a total of four years. 300 children took part in the reading study, and 35 of them took part in the brain study. Of the children taking part in the brain study, 23 had a high risk of developing dyslexia and 12 read at a normal level.

Featured image: Magnetoencephalography (MEG) was used to study reading difficulties in children. This photo shows preparations for the measurement test. The child in the photo was not part of the study. Picture: Aalto University

Further information:

Article: Children at risk for dyslexia show deficient left-hemispheric memory representations for new spoken word forms
Article: A mobile game as a support tool for children with severe difficulties in reading and spelling

Provided by Aalto University

Studying ‘Hunters and Busybodies,’: Researchers Use Wikipedia To Measure Different Types of Curiosity (Psychology)

Curiosity has been found to play a role in our learning and emotional well-being, but due to the open-ended nature of how curiosity is actually practiced, measuring it is challenging. Psychological studies have attempted to gauge participants’ curiosity through their engagement in specific activities, such as asking questions, playing trivia games, and gossiping. However, such methods focus on quantifying a person’s curiosity rather than understanding the different ways it can be expressed.

Knowledge networks were created as participants browsed Wikipedia, where pages became nodes and relatedness between pages became edges. Two diverging styles emerged — “the busybody” and “the hunter.” (Illustrations by Melissa Pappas)

Efforts to better understand what curiosity actually looks like for different people have underappreciated roots in the field of philosophy. Varying styles have been described with loose archetypes, like “hunter” and “busybody” — evocative, but hard to objectively measure when it comes to studying how people collect new information.

A new study led by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Annenberg School for Communication, and the Department of Philosophy and Religion at American University, uses Wikipedia browsing as a method for describing curiosity styles. Using a branch of mathematics known as graph theory, their analysis of curiosity opens doors for using it as a tool to improve learning and life satisfaction.

The interdisciplinary study, published in Nature Human Behavior, was undertaken by Danielle Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor in Penn Engineering’s Departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, David Lydon-Staley, then a post-doctoral fellow in her lab, now an assistant professor in the Annenberg School of Communication, two members of Bassett’s Complex Systems Lab, graduate student Dale Zhou and postdoctoral fellow Ann Sizemore Blevins, and Perry Zurn, assistant professor from American University’s Department of Philosophy.

David Lydon-Staley, Danielle Bassett, Perry Zurn, Ann Sizemore Blevins, and Dale Zhou (clockwise from top left)

“The reason this paper exists is because of the participation of many people from different fields,” says Lydon-Staley. “Perry has been researching curiosity in novel ways that show the spectrum of curious practice and Dani has been using networks to describe form and function in many different systems. My background in human behavior allowed me to design and conduct a study linking the styles of curiosity to a measurable activity: Wikipedia searches.”

Zurn’s research on how different people express curiosity provided a framework for the study.

“Each curiosity style has its own ‘kinesthetic signature’ that describes how a person naturally searches for information,” says Zurn. “For example, the ‘hunter’ style is characterized by the seeking of closely related information, aiming to dive deeply into a certain topic, while the ‘busybody’ jumps from topic to topic, collecting loosely connected information.”

The study was comprised of 149 participants, who were instructed to browse Wikipedia for 15 minutes a day over the course of 21 days. With no further instructions on what pages to visit, the participants’ paths through the site revealed the kinesthetic signatures of their curiosity styles.

“Wikipedia allowed both introverts and extroverts to have equal opportunity in curious practice, a limitation in other studies of curiosity, while the ad-free search engine allowed individuals to truly be captains of their own curiosity ships,” says Bassett.

While browsing, data was recorded as knowledge networks where each unique Wikipedia page visited became a node and the relatedness between Wikipedia pages, determined by text similarity between two pages, created the thickness of the edges between the nodes.

Curiosity styles as knowledge networks where each node is a Wikipedia page and the paths between nodes represent the similarity between pages. “The hunter” style is characterized by high clustering and low overall path length, while “the busybody” style is characterized by low clustering and high overall path length.

Participants with the hunter curiosity style exhibited a tight network with relatively high clustering of nodes, thick edges, and short overall path lengths. Those with the busybody curiosity style exhibited a looser network with nodes further separated by thin connecting edges and longer path lengths.

The signatures of a participant’s curiosity style were not written in stone, however.

“We found that people are curious in their own ways and fall in and out of different styles, shown by changes in the knowledge network structures over time. We then wanted to understand the drivers of these changes,” says Bassett.

To better understand the factors that influence which curiosity style a person might use, the researchers surveyed the participants on indicators of well-being in a laboratory visit before their Wikipedia browsing began. These indicators included “deprivation sensitivity”, or the tendency to seek information in order to fill knowledge gaps, and “sensation seeking”, or the tendency to seek novel and exciting information. Other factors recorded participants’ tendencies to browse topics for fun, seek out social interaction, and tolerate stress. The information from these surveys was incorporated in the models of the knowledge networks, allowing the team to assess the mechanisms behind curiosity styles.

“We hypothesize that a switch from hunter to busybody style might arise due to sensation seeking, or the craving for novelty and new information during the day,” says Bassett.

“By measuring a person’s level of sensation seeking before each Wikipedia browsing session, we found that people tended to take larger steps between nodes when the tendency to seek new information was high,” says Lydon-Staley, creating a loose knowledge network.

The participants who originally scored higher in deprivation sensitivity tended to form tighter networks as they sought information to fill knowledge gaps. This network structure indicated the hunter style of information seeking. For example, one participant searched for “History of the Jews in Germany”, “Hep-Hep riots”, “Zionism”, “Nathan Birnbaum”, and “Theodor Herzl” all centralized around Jewish history.

On the other end of the spectrum, participants who reported lower deprivation sensitivity exhibited a knowledge network characterized by thinner links, loosely connected topics, and longer overall network paths. An example of this style is a Wikipedia search for “Physical chemistry”, “Me Too movement”, “The Partridge Family”, “Harborne Primary School”, “HIP 79431”, and “Tom Bigelow.”

“With this method, we can now quantify the kind of information or resources we store. Resources affect well-being, and this research complicates, in a good way, how resources affect well-being,” says Lydon-Staley.

Bassett adds that, “while there may be different motivators behind each curiosity style, each style has a purpose.”

In addition to the importance of each style, our ability to learn and our emotional well-being may be more related to the connection of information rather than the information itself.

“Curiosity is edgework. It is more about building structures of information than about acquiring separate informational units. This can motivate us, as educators, to ask how we can help students not only understand existing knowledge connections but get excited about building new ones,” says Zurn.

As to whether we should be directing curiosity to improve education, Lydon-Staley says, “We need more data to know how to use this information in the classroom, but I hope it discourages the idea that there are curious and incurious people.”

“Curiosity should be encouraged and expectations of certain types of curiosity to be exhibited by certain types of students is limiting. We should value and respect each style of curious practice while being less prescriptive for how to accomplish a task,” says Bassett.

Some real-world applications that align with this understanding of curiosity are using projects that students can tune to their own curiosity, supporting quieter students to express their curiosity in less boisterous ways, and realizing that students may be able to solve problems in ways unimaginable to the teacher.

“By visualizing these networks, we can begin to see not only the spectrum of hunter and busybody styles, but the incredible flexibility that characterizes curiosity and the knowledge networks it builds. Appreciating the diversity of curious practice can be really empowering for students, especially those who are otherwise socially marginalized or underserved. Rather than asking ‘am I curious or not?,’ they can ask ‘which style or styles do I have?’ and ‘what can I do with it?’,” says Zurn.

It is clear that curiosity is important for our well-being and the visualization of these knowledge networks may help to pinpoint where curiosity reflects emotional state and vice versa. Recent research from the same team showed that when we maintain a consistent level of curiosity throughout the day, we are more likely to experience increased feelings of life satisfaction and decreased symptoms of depression. Their work suggests that engaging in curiosity more often and having an open mind about what curiosity looks like may improve well-being, a link the team plans to test using interventions in future work.

In a time when human interaction is stinted and our natural curiosity is interrupted by ads and algorithms, curiosity examined through a network perspective helps us see how we can use curiosity to increase life satisfaction and communication with others. While a clear benefit of this study is its potential future applications in education and emotional well-being, its network approach and interdisciplinary research design also promotes collaborative scientific studies. This interdisciplinary approach allows us to learn from many perspectives and propose many applications for knowledge networks as tools to enhance our well-being beyond education.

This research was supported by the Center for Curiosity, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the ISI Foundation, the Paul Allen Foundation, the Army Research Laboratory through grant W911NF-10-2-0022, the Army Research Office through grants W911NF-14-1-0679, W911NF-16-1-0474 and DCIST-W911NF-17-2-0181, the Office of Naval Research, the National Institute of Mental Health through grants 2-R01-DC-009209-11, R01-MH112847, R01-MH107235 and R21-M MH-106799, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development through grant 1R01HD086888-01, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke through grant R01 NS099348, the National Science Foundation through grants PHY-1554488 and BCS-1631550, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse through grant 1K01DA047417.

An infographic summarizing the team’s research on mapping curiosity styles through Wikipedia browsing and graph theory. Results show that participants tend toward either a “busybody” or “hunter” style, but change throughout the day. Surveys served to link how curious practice might influence emotional well-being and vice versa. Continued research on linking the two will help elucidate new applications for mapping knowledge networks. (Melissa Pappas)

Provided by Penn Engineering Today

Operations On Screen: Creating an Accessible Surgery Simulator (Medicine)

A UOC project is developing a program to train surgeons’ psychomotor skills. Offering the possibility of low-cost distribution, this virtual reality tool could also be accessible for low-income countries.

Practice makes perfect. In the complex world of medicine too, where just a millimetre can make the difference between success and failure. In partnership with the University of Manizales (Colombia), the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) is hosting a project to create a low-cost surgery simulator; a much more accessible tool than those currently available and which could be used to train both surgeons who are in the early stages of their career and those who are more experienced.

UOC and Universidad de Manizales in Colombia are developing a low-cost surgery simulator to train surgeons’ psychomotor skills (National Cancer Institute – Unsplash)

The project creates a 3D virtual environment in which users can put their psychomotor skills to the test. But unlike real surgery, the operations carried out in the simulator consist of manoeuvring within a series of geometric shapes. The programme provides real-time feedback on the precision with which users carry out the movements and their overall performance in the exercises. Because “a virtual environment without metrics, feedback or validation is nothing more than a video game,” explained Fernando Álvarez-López, a paediatric surgeon who has created this project as part of his doctoral degree in Education and ITC at the UOC together with the University of Manizalez in Colombia and within the framework of the CYTED – RITMOS Network (Ibero-American Network of Mobile Technologies in Health [RITMOS]).

The advantage of this tool, according to its developers, would be its low cost and its accessibility. Many of the virtual reality environments implemented to date are very expensive and require complicated machinery to operate. The simulator developed by the UOC, on the other hand, may cost less than half the price of its competitors, putting this technology within the reach of professionals from low- or middle-income countries.

Paradigm shift in learning

“This type of tool represents a paradigm shift in medicine,” said Francesc Saigí-Rubió, a professor at the UOC’s Faculty of Health Sciences, researcher at the I2TIC lab and co-creator of this project together with Marcelo Maina, professor at the Psychology and Education Sciences Department and researcher at the Edul@b group. “In surgery, you have to learn a series of movements, watch your time and follow protocols; in a way, like when you learn to drive. These simulators will allow surgeons to train from their office, or even from home, until they perfect their technique,” added Álvarez.

The ability to perform very precise movements is one of the keys to success in minimally invasive surgery, performed using tiny surgical instruments inserted through small incisions made in the body. Patient recovery can be quicker and easier with this type of surgery, but considerable skill is required to ensure success. Hence the importance of creating environments in which surgeons can practise over and over again all the movements that must be performed for a successful operation.

The project’s present and future

The tool has already been tested by 148 users: 100 undergraduates, 20 surgical residents and 28 experts. Among others, professionals from the Vall d’Hebron Hospital in Barcelona have taken part in these tests. The results of the study, published in the specialized open access journal JMIR Publications, endorse the tool’s validity for improving surgeons’ psychomotor skills at different stages in their career. It is equally useful for those who are already familiar with virtual reality platforms and for those who have no prior experience.

The researchers are currently working to take this tool to hospital environments. The programme’s creators hope to develop a version that can be downloaded directly from the internet. Among other things, users will be able to adjust the level of difficulty to their profile and the needs of the time. In the future, it may even be possible to create a more enveloping experience through the use of virtual reality glasses. “Technology is constantly moving forward, so we want to continue improving this project in line with the needs of the moment,” concluded Álvarez.

This research supports Sustainable Development Goals, good health and well-being, quality education; and, reduced inequalities.

References: Fernando Alvarez-Lopez, Marcelo Fabián Maina, Fernando Arango, Francesc Saigí-Rubió, “Use of a Low-Cost Portable 3D Virtual Reality Simulator for Psychomotor Skill Training in Minimally Invasive Surgery: Task Metrics and Score Validity”, JMIR, Vol 8, No 4 (2020). https://games.jmir.org/2020/4/e19723/#Results http://dx.doi.org/10.2196/19723

Provided by Universitat Oberta De Catalunya (UOC)

About UOC R&I

The UOC’s research and innovation (R&I) are helping 21st-century global societies to overcome pressing challenges by studying the interactions between ICT and human activity, with a specific focus on e-learning and e-health. Over 400 researchers and 50 research groups work among the University’s seven faculties and two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).

The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and open knowledge serve as strategic pillars for the UOC’s teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu. #UOC25years

Rock-a-bye fly: Why Vibrations Lead to Sleepiness (Biology)

Researchers discover that gentle vibration can induce sleep in flies through a simple form of learning.

It is common practice to rock babies to sleep. Children and grownups also get drowsy during long car rides. There is something about gentle mechanical stimuli that makes humans of all ages sleepy. Sleep in fruit flies is very much like human sleep, and you can learn a lot about human sleep by studying how fly sleep is regulated. In research published in Cell Reports on December 1st, 2020, researchers report that flies fall asleep during vibration through a simple form of learning called habituation.

Illustration. Image Credit: Dr. Kyunghee Koh, Thomas Jefferson University.

“Babies like to be rocked to sleep, but the neural mechanisms underlying this well-known phenomenon remain largely a mystery. We wanted to establish the fruit fly as a model system to study the mechanisms of sleep induction by mechanical stimulation,” says Kyunghee Koh, PhD, associate professor of neuroscience at the Vickie & Jack Farber Institute for Neurosciences and the Synaptic Biology Center at Thomas Jefferson University and senior author on the study.

The researchers found that flies sleep longer during vibration and are less responsive to light pulses that would otherwise wake the flies. Also, they are more awake after vibration, suggesting they have accumulated “sleep credit.” In other words, they act as if they slept more than they need to during vibration, which allows them to function well with less sleep afterward.

These findings suggest that vibration-induced sleep is similar to regular sleep and serves some of their vital functions. They found that how much extra sleep flies get during vibration depends on the flies’ genetic background as well as the vibration frequency and amplitude. Dr. Koh’s group also learned that multiple sensory organs are involved in the process.

Interestingly, vibration initially makes flies more active than usual, but gradually puts them to sleep. Also, the ability to go to sleep improves when exposure to vibration is repeated several times, implicating habituation, a form of simple learning. “Flies learn over time that vibration is not threatening, which lowers their reaction to stimulation that would otherwise make them alert,” says Dr. Koh. Suppression of alertness appears necessary for vibration-induced sleep because mutant flies with increased dopamine levels that make them more alert do not fall asleep with vibration.

It is yet unclear whether similar mechanisms are at work in humans. But Dr. Koh says, “further investigation may help us develop and optimize sensory stimulation as a sleep aid for humans. Our findings suggest it would be worthwhile to personalize the stimulus parameters for each individual over several sessions.”

However, her team’s initial goals are to learn more about the underlying neural mechanisms using the fruit fly as a model system. They plan to identify specific neurons in the fly brain involved in the process and determine whether vibration-induced sleep functions like normal sleep to enhance memory and longevity and whether repetitive stimulation of other senses (e.g., sight and smell) can also induce sleep.

This work was supported by NIH grants R01NS086887 and R01NS084835, a predoctoral fellowship from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, and funds from Jefferson Synaptic Biology Center.

Article Reference: Arzu Öztürk-Çolak, Sho Inami, Joseph R. Buchler, Patrick D. McClanahan, Andri Cruz, Christopher Fang-Yen, and Kyunghee Koh, “Sleep Induction by Mechanosensory Stimulation in Drosophila,” Cell Reports, DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2020.108462, 2020.

Media Contact: Edyta Zielinska, 267-234-3553, edyta.zielinska@jefferson.edu.

Provided by Thomas Jefferson University

Psychological Factors Contributing to Language Learning (Psychology)

The problem of language acquisition is one of the complicated psychological topics. Teacher education experts are always seeking new ways of improving the efficiency of language learning.

Shishova comments, “In our previous publications we have tackled various factors influencing the success of language learning. Among them are such groups as broadly-pedagogical, methodological, broadly-psychological and individual psychological factors. The first two are external determinants of learning, and the latter two are internal.”

The author conducted an empirical study on the structure of language aptitude and offered her view of language acquisition as a system of interrelated components.

“There are several factors which can be called key components of language acquisition,” she says. “It’s important to take account of a student’s emotional and evaluative attitude towards language learning and their emotional experience in this process. We mustn’t also forget about cognitive components, such as attention, perception, thinking, and memory. Effective language learning is determined by specifics of thought process and completeness of such qualities of this process as depth, flexibility, evidence-based nature, prospective thinking, analytical and conscientious nature. Personal traits, of course, are also important – self-esteem, success and failure experience, extraversion or introversion, anxiety levels, etc.”

Thus, motivation for language learning is a system of cognitive, emotional, and personality-related characteristics.

Click to access XLinguae4_2020_10.pdf

Provided by Kazan Federal University