caudate nucleus

is located in the basal ganglia; with the putamen, it forms that part of the basal ganglia known as the striatum. also see left caudate

Crucial factors in the evolution of the human brain

September, 2012

Two recent studies comparing gene expression in the brains of human and other animals reveal a key protein for brain size and others for connectivity and regulation.

Genetic comparisons have pinpointed a specific protein as crucial for brain size, both between and within species. Another shows how genetic regulation in the frontal lobes distinguishes the human brain from that of closely related species, and points to two genes in particular as critical.

The protein determining brain size

Comparison of genome sequences from humans and other animals has revealed what may be a crucial protein in the development of the human brain. The analysis found that humans have more than 270 copies of a protein called DUF1220 — more than any other animal studied — and that the number of copies in a species seems to match how close they are to us. Chimpanzees, for example, have 125, and gorillas 99, while marmosets have only 30, and mice just one.

Moreover, comparison of humans with microcephaly and macrocephaly reveals that those with microcephaly (“small brain”) have lower numbers of this protein than normal for humans, and those with macrocephaly (“large brain”) have higher numbers. Copy numbers of the protein were also correlated with gray matter volume in humans without these brain disorders.

In other words, evidence from three lines of inquiry converge on DUF1220 copy number being associated with brain size.

Differences in gene expression and connectivity

But the development of the human brain is not only about size. The human brain is more complex, more connected, than the brains of most other animals. Another genetic analysis has been comparing gene activity in humans, chimpanzees and rhesus macaques, using post-mortem brain tissue of three regions in particular – the frontal cortex, hippocampus and striatum.

Gene expression in the frontal lobe of humans showed a striking increase in molecular complexity, with much more elaborate regulation and connection. The biggest differences occurred in the expression of human genes involved in plasticity.

One gene in particular stood out as behaving differently in the human brain. This gene — called CLOCK, for obvious reasons — is thought to be the master regulator of our body’s clocks. The finding suggests it has influence beyond this role. Interestingly, this gene is often disrupted in mood disorders such as depression and bipolar syndrome.

A second important distinction was how many more connections there were in human brains among networks that included the language genes FOXP1 and FOXP2.

In comparison to all this, gene expression in the caudate nucleus was very similar across all three species.

The findings point to the role of learning (the genes involved in plasticity) and language in driving human brain evolution. They also highlight the need to find out more about the CLOCK gene.

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Dealing with math anxiety

November, 2011

A new study shows that some math-anxious students can overcome performance deficits through their ability to control their negative responses. The finding indicates that interventions should focus on anticipatory cognitive control.

Math-anxiety can greatly lower performance on math problems, but just because you suffer from math-anxiety doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to perform badly. A study involving 28 college students has found that some of the students anxious about math performed better than other math-anxious students, and such performance differences were associated with differences in brain activity.

Math-anxious students who performed well showed increased activity in fronto-parietal regions of the brain prior to doing math problems — that is, in preparation for it. Those students who activated these regions got an average 83% of the problems correct, compared to 88% for students with low math anxiety, and 68% for math-anxious students who didn’t activate these regions. (Students with low anxiety didn’t activate them either.)

The fronto-parietal regions activated included the inferior frontal junction, inferior parietal lobule, and left anterior inferior frontal gyrus — regions involved in cognitive control and reappraisal of negative emotional responses (e.g. task-shifting and inhibiting inappropriate responses). Such anticipatory activity in the fronto-parietal region correlated with activity in the dorsomedial caudate, nucleus accumbens, and left hippocampus during math activity. These sub-cortical regions (regions deep within the brain, beneath the cortex) are important for coordinating task demands and motivational factors during the execution of a task. In particular, the dorsomedial caudate and hippocampus are highly interconnected and thought to form a circuit important for flexible, on-line processing. In contrast, performance was not affected by activity in ‘emotional’ regions, such as the amygdala, insula, and hypothalamus.

In other words, what’s important is not your level of anxiety, but your ability to prepare yourself for it, and control your responses. What this suggests is that the best way of dealing with math anxiety is to learn how to control negative emotional responses to math, rather than trying to get rid of them.

Given that cognitive control and emotional regulation are slow to mature, it also suggests that these effects are greater among younger students.

The findings are consistent with a theory that anxiety hinders cognitive performance by limiting the ability to shift attention and inhibit irrelevant/distracting information.

Note that students in the two groups (high and low anxiety) did not differ in working memory capacity or in general levels of anxiety.

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Brain differences reflecting expertise

April, 2011

A new imaging study reveals what’s going on in the brains of expert shogi players that’s different from those of amateurs. It’s all about developing instincts.

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.

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