08. Neuroscience

3 Utterly Surprising Brain Discoveries

December 6, 2019

A prolific field of research, neuroscience is exploding with discoveries year on year. From discovering that we grow new neurons out of progenitor cells well into old age, to finding ways to directly program brain activity through optogenetics, it can be hard to keep up with the latest revelations. Here are 3 surprising discoveries that might challenge your preconceptions of how your brain is wired.

Super Meditators have Brainwaves on Steroids

Revered in many cultures for centuries, neuroscientists are only now beginning to objectively unpick what makes meditation such a special state of brain activity.

American neuroscientist Richard Davidson applied a scientific examination into just how powerful the effects of transcendentalism can be on our brains. He scanned the minds of truly veteran meditators who had practiced their craft for up to 62,000 hours – the equivalent of over 7 years of non-stop meditating! This revealed a major difference between the Zen masters and normal people.

The lifelong experience of meditating amped up their brains' ability to produce gamma waves. Brainwaves are mass pulses of rhythmical electrical activity that resonate through neural networks, a little like how groups of muscles fire in concert. Gamma brainwaves are the fastest frequency pulses, associated with attention, memory and simultaneous processing of information across different brain areas.

The super meditators' gamma waves were already heightened above normal levels when they were not meditating. However, when asked to get into a state of focus on compassion, their gamma levels sky rocketed up to 800 percent faster. If you imagine this as an analogy to physical performance, it would be like be able to run at super human speeds.

Daniel Goleman, coauthor with Davidson, summed up the revelation.

"We have to assume that the special state of consciousness that you see in the highest-level meditators is a lot like something described in the classical meditation literatures centuries ago, which is that there is a state of being which is not like our ordinary state."

Brain Surgeons can Control Laughter

If we had to decide on one thing that makes us genuinely human, it would probably be humor. Laughter activates regions in the center of our brains, heavily influencing emotions and memory formation. It also has distinct physiological effects, reducing pain, as well as boosting heart rate, antibodies and the functioning of blood vessels.

Using an experimental approach at Emory University School of Medicine, neuroscientists and brain surgeons attempted to hack this human behavior in a bid to make surgery safer. By stimulating white matter fibers that communicate between limbic system, they triggered instant laughter in patients on the operating table.

This effect was proceeded by a sense of calm and contentment, even while unconscious. The key advantage was this helped prevent the risk of panicking patients awaking from brain surgery prematurely due to, allowing for safer operations.

Seeing as laughter is the best medicine, known for instance to alleviate the effects of depression, this form of cognitive puppetry could become a future tool for regulating our mental and physical wellness.

A Virus Created Your Capacity for Memory

An international team of researchers recently investigated Arc, a protein that is essential to memory formation. The neuroscientists found that Arc has properties in how it operates that are very similar to the HIV retrovirus - unlike any other non-virus protein. This allows it to transfer RNA to neurons, which floored the researchers who discovered this behavior.

Surprisingly, up to 15% of human DNA is derived from viral DNA that worked its way into our genes over evolutionary timescales. Mostly it is thought of as ‘junk DNA’, though in some cases it is plays a critical part in making us human. For example playing a central role in the development of wombs in female mammals.

Though hard evidence is still needed, it appears that Arc proteins evolved 350-400 million years ago as a very early retrovirus, and inserted its genetic material into animal DNA, leading to in adoption our brains today. No Arc means no long-term memories. Like science on our microbiome, this line of research is very new, but is already shedding important light on what actually makes us human.

This fascinating finding of a viral co-evolution being behind one of our essential brain functions typifies the young and enigmatic field of neuroscience. Lots of breakthroughs are being made, yet it is clear there is still much to discover.

Look out for our end-of-year blog on the top neuroscience discoveries of 2019. In the meantime you can catch-up by checking out these.

7 Major Developments in Neuroscience of 2017

5 Neuroscience Breakthroughs of 2018

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