Tumors on Trial – University of Wisconsin Neuroscience and Law Program

One day you wake up and something doesn’t feel right.  You don’t feel like yourself.  You have urges and desires that you never knew were possible.

Later on, you find that a tumor has started to grow in your brain that caused you to have lapses in judgments – changing who you are.  Are you responsible for what you did?  A new program at the UW- Madison will focus on the intersection between the brain and law.

Neuroscience is the study of the brain and spinal cord.  These are the scientists that can tell us how we move, think, or even read this story.

Ronald Kalil, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, helped start the new duel-degree program.

“Recent advances in neuroscience have called into question many of the assumptions that underlie aspects of our legal system,” said Kalil.

Kalil was the director of the Neuroscience Training Program at UW- Madison for 25 years.  He started to notice his students’ poor writing skills and, although his work was in brain damage, Kalil ventured across disciplines to teach neuroscience classes to journalism students.

Kalil also saw that students were interested in aspects of international neuroscience and the associated public policy.  He developed the current Neuroscience and Public Policy dual-degree program.

While the program is in its sixth year, Kalil realized that it wasn’t enough.  He realized many issues today would require more action than just public policy: they need law.

Most people see law little connection between law and neuroscience.  This program brings the two sides together.

“It can be expected that neuroscience will play an increasingly important role in helping to inform legal processes and decisions making,” said Kalil.

Kalil has been taking cues from the larger social atmosphere leaning towards popularizing neuroscience.  The National Institutes of Health has started granting funding specifically for social neuroscience and the MacArthur foundation has funded over 10 million dollars of research designed to implement neuroscience in law.

The MacArthur foundation has created a comprehensive handbook about what neuroscientists should tell judges about how to make a ruling in the court.  The handbook is designed to help judges make decisions about more delicate cases like minors being tried as adults.

“Is that appropriate?” asked Kalil.  Cases with minors can be very difficult to handle without the aid of neuroscience.  “Take him out and shoot him.  He’ll be in jail the rest of his life.  It’s just not right.”

The field of law, on the other hand, may help modern neuroscience address many gray areas.

“On the one hand we have to protect society, but on the other hand, we have to figure out how to punish people not responsible for what they’re doing,” said Kalil.

A broad range of neurological cases will be considered by the class.  For example, a normal man could get into an accident changing his personality and commit a crime that is out of character.  Using neuroscience, doctors could discover a tumor in the man’s brain, remove it, and he would return to normal.  The crime would likely be forgiven.

But what about the professional athlete pumping steroids who kills his family  and blames “roid rage”?  He knowingly took the medication.

Or what about the teacher who isn’t granted tenure and kills the rest of the faculty?  Was she responsible, or was it just an imbalance of the neurochemicals constantly fluctuating within her brain?

This brings up interesting questions about free will.  Are we actually in charge of our choices?  Or is some neuronal circuitry within our brains preventing us from making consciences decisions.

“I don’t know,” said Kalil.  The dual degree program is still working to figure some answers out.  “Students often have a very difficult time learning that they might not be the masters of their own ships.”  Kalil is dedicated to creating a program that addresses these issues.

Help for the criminally insane isn’t the only reason to add neuroscience to the courtroom.  Baby boomers will soon be dealing with neurological diseases.

“It will be a huge public health problem,” said Kalil.  “Plaques [relating to Alzheimer’s] can start forming early in the 30s and 40s.”

Researchers are currently looking for specific indicators called biomarkers that can be early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.  If a marker were found, a possible law might be placed forcing everyone to get screened.

“Who will be at the table making that decision?” asked Kalil.  “We need a neuroscientist who understands both sides.”

Neuroscience is now facing a battle that geneticists have been fighting for years: where do we draw the line between science and law.  Still, there is no genetics and law dual degree program offered by the university.

“The reason neuroscience was chosen instead of genetics, is, well, because I’m a neuroscientist,” Kalil said.




Concussions in Football: A Plea for Safety

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is the neurological degeneration of structures in the brain in areas ranging from the cerebral hemispheres, medial temporal lobe, and brainstem (to name a few).  The degeneration is caused by repetitive brain trauma, often associated with high impact sports like football, boxing, and dwarf wrestling (random, I know).  Outcomes of CTE can be connected to memory loss, personality changes, Parkinsonism, and both physical and verbal stuttering.

Recently, CTE has become an extremely hot topic of debate as it is starting to expose the dangerous side effects of concussions received by professional athletes; more specifically, the National Football League.

In a Nature review, Dr. Ann McKee, a neurologist and co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University in Massachusetts; McKee focused on 48 cases of CTE in amateur/professional boxers, football and soccer players (and a few random cases like head banging and circus clowning).  Besides their findings of mood changes, memory loss, and lack of logic; McKee found a reduction in brain weight, enlargement of the lateral and medial ventricles, thinning of the corpus callosum, and scarring.  Moreover, around 25 locations of the brain were shown to be affected in this review alone.  The mechanisms of injury seem to be directly related to the force of impact given, with blows on the side of the head more severe than those from the front or back.  McKee theorizes that the blood brain barrier is broken and therefore more susceptible to neurotoxins.  Furthermore, the paper examined the lifespan of the illness, ranging around 20 years with only one third of athletes showing symptomatic signs of CTE upon retirement.

McKee did an excellent review, covering psychological testing and section staining, to biomarker assays.  The multiple approaches provided for a more holistic view of CTE.  Still, I would have liked to have seen a few more long term studies indicating a specific time of concussion to neurodegeneration.  Animal models would have been a nice addition to be able to see this effect.

This information will definitely put more pressure on the NFL to enforce safety precautions.  However, I’m still not convinced that this information will have any meaningful results.  Early steps have already started to be taken by redesigning helmets to try and reduce the impact and therefore severity of concussion, but I don’t think that that’s enough.  Rules have to be enforced regulating illegal hits to the head and play time after having a concussion.  Most people think of a ‘concussion’ and don’t actually realize the severity of what might have happened.  If we want to see pro-sports continue, the safety of the players has to be reconsidered and something has to be done.

The brain and GLEE: The songs that just won’t leave your head

Does Gwenyth Paltrow have a point? Is there a way that we can selectively choose which pieces of information we could remember? Will you ever be able to get this song out of your head?  To be honest, maybe.

During the 1800s, the field of phrenology was just developing.  Phrenology is the idea  that the bumps on your skull are representative of your intelligence or personality.  If one part of your brain was larger than others, then you would be ‘more of’ that quality.  However,  neuroscientists tested this idea by removing the area responsible for secrecy, predicting that the patient would tell everyone all of their secrets.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.  The amount of the cortex lesioned, not necessarily the location, had more of an effect.

But these researchers weren’t too far off.  Wilder Penfield, a canadian neurosurgeon, found that patients would experience memories based on stimulation of different parts of the lobe.  They would recount a specific memory or time after the stimulation.  It might be a lot of work, but if we were able to find the location where the song actually is, we might be able to lesion that area to get rid of it.

So is it possible to actually ‘forget you’?  Yes.  Is it worth it?  Definitely not.  Glee is a great show and you should keep the songs stuck in your head!

So What Happens When a Stake Goes Through Your Head?

Have you ever asked yourself this question?  … Yeah… uhh…. me neither… But just in case you have wondered this, here’s a little story of a good friend: Phineas Gage.

In 1848, the railroad business in California was literally booming as formen were hired to lay down railroad through mountainous terrain.  In order to complete this task, our good friend Phineas would have to lay dynamite and then pack it in with a 5 foot iron rod.  On one unfortunate day, Phineas didn’t pack the dynamite well enough as it exploded,  sending the stake flying straight into his face.

The most remarkable thing about all of this?  Phineas not only survived this blast, but immediately got up and walked over to the doctor.  Before the accident: Phineas was an intelligent, shy businessman, energetic and extremely driven.  After the accident: he became impatient, obstinate, and just downright rude.  Because of his change in attitude, he was eventually fired (but interestingly found a job with the circus and his brain rod).

So what happened?  How come he survived?  Why did he have this sudden personality change?  Well, most likely, good ol’ Phineas had his ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex destroyed.  This is the area of the brain that is responsible for personality.  Now his change from Mr. Nice Guy to the rude one is still a mystery, we’re still trying to figure that one out.  This is the area that gives us originality.  This makes us who we are.

 But even if you really don’t like someone, I wouldn’t suggest providing them with a shovel to the face as a ‘personality adjustment’.

The Neuroaesthetics of New Union South

What makes art so attractive?  What makes architecture inspiring?  What makes the new Union South at the University of Wisconsin – Madison so effing sweet?  The answers may lie in your brain.  Here are three new features of the Union South that make our brain go crazy:

1. Symmetrical Lines:

In a paper published in the Journal of Vision, our brains are extremely sensitive to symmetry.  We have certain cells that are sensitive to the orientation of the light hitting our eyes.  When these bands are present in architecture, more cells are activated leading to a greater response.  In the Stett, a restaurant/stage of the Union South, clean lines cross the stage.

2. Color:

The brightly colored union chairs are back!  Sure, you knew that you loved them over at the Memorial Union, but why?  Harvard University pinpointed where color is excited within our brain.  Near the back of the brain, just below our temples, we can see a burst of activity.  The more colors that we see and experience, the more activated our brains will be.  I guess the crayon ‘tickle me pink’ kind of makes sense now…

3.  Juxtaposition:

What makes one view stand out over another?  A Stanford review tells us that the fusiform gyrus has cells that respond to specific orientations.  When something, like the new rock wall, has different angles and points, multiple cells are active and excite a larger area of our brain.  Different walls = different cells = no way I’m making it to the top.

Looks like Union South is doing everything right in order to give us the exciting experience in mind (pun intended).

Don’t Scratch That!

Do you remember when you were a little kid and you would be able to enjoy those beautiful summer nights of playing outside with your friends just long enough to steal the few remaining rays of light?  Remember how fun those nights were?  Yeah, I’m sure they were great… great until the mosqitoes came out.  All it took was one bite, one bite and your night was ruined.  You just wanted to scratch, but your mom told you not to.  I mean, what did she know?  She couldn’t have had any idea of the excrutiating annoyingness of that one bite.  Just.  One.  Scratch.

Now I’ve heard of a lot of different methods to keep your mind off of scratching.  I’ve heard of making a small X with your finger nail right on the spot, covering the spot with an array of dressings (from peanut butter to toothpaste), and trying to resqueeze out the stuff that the mosquito put in you.  I don’t know if any of those would actually work (or be any good for your peanut butter and jelly sandwiches), but I do know one way to fix this.

Your skin has a ton of receptors leading from pain, to heat, to stretch.  A lot of these receptors have common pathways leading to your brain.  So instead of focussing on how to get the bite from itching, you have to get your brain to stop thinking about the bite.  Alright, so how?  By rubbing the area around the mosquito bite, you’re activating a range of other receptors that are sending signals to the brain.  Ultimately, you’re confusing your own brain with this barrage of signals.  The brain is picking up the information from the (now slightly chapped) area instead of the irritating itch receptor.  Itching can actually damage the skin and open your body to easy access for bacteria and other nasty things you don’t want in you.

So next time you get that urge to scratch, just prove your superiority over your brain and trick it.  Rub the area instead of scratching.  Either that or take showers in mosquito repellent.

Mapping the Human Brain

What do you use a map for?  You use it to find things.  You use it to remember where you’ve been.  You bring it up on your iPhone when you don’t want to talk to someone so you look busy.  What do neuroscientists use a brain map for?  Pretty much all the same things (especially when they don’t want to deal with annoying grant deadlines).

The Allen Institute for Brain Science has released a comprehensive map of the human brain.  This is big.  This is really big.  This means that they’ve mapped out (to the best of our ability, so far) what the brain looks like on a genetic level.  They used a combination of imaging and genetic sequencing analyses to create 3D structures of the brain that can be used for future research in things like Alzheimers, obesity, or MS.

Before this map, the Allen Institute had mapped a rat brain which has lead to at least 500 scientific breakthroughs in the field of neuroscience.   Researchers and scientists alike can access this free material to examine what other research has found, hoping to find some sort of overlooked, unexamined bit of information.

In the end, all this means is that we’re going to see a lot new research possible because of this.  Most people won’t even know what a big impact this will have, but it’s great for research.  Neuroscience FTW!