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Study Pinpoints Regions of the Brain Involved in Delayed Gratification

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Researchers say they've discovered which regions of the brain are involved in the ability to resist, at least temporarily, the pleasures of a slice of cake or throwing another $50 on the poker table. Communication between the hippocampus (a region associated with memory and emotion) and the nucleus accumbens (a region associated with the brain’s reward system and involved in the process of addiction) is integral to the process of delayed gratification, according to a new study of rats in the European Journal of Neuroscience

McGill University psychologists trained rats to choose between two different shapes displayed on an iPad screen, receiving sugar pellets as a reward. They could choose one shape to receive a single pellet immediately, or another to receive four pellets a little bit later. After training, the rats were willing to give up the instant gratification of one sugar pellet in return for more pellets later.

However, when the researchers disrupted the circuit connecting the hippocampus and nucleus accumbens, the rats became unwilling to hold off for a larger reward, even if it only meant waiting a few extra seconds. Without it, the rats just couldn't wait. By contrast, disrupting functions in other parts of the brain, like regions involved in decision-making, did not affect the rats’ willingness to delay their dose of sugar. They still chose to delay gratification and wait for more pellets later. 

“In some ways this relationship makes sense; the hippocampus is thought to have a role in future planning, and the nucleus accumbens is a 'reward' center and a major recipient of dopamine, a chemical responsible for transmitting signals related to pleasure and reward,” lead author Yogita Chudasama said in a press statement. Further research with humans will be necessary, but these findings could eventually underpin the development of treatments for things like anxiety disorders, gambling addictions, and more. 

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Medicine
The World's First VR Brain Surgery Is Here
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A lot of consumers are focused on virtual reality as a means of immersing themselves in games or traveling to exotic locales, but the technology holds some incredible potential as a learning tool. One recent—and graphic—example is VR brain surgery, which allows viewers to examine the amygdala like they never thought possible.

In the experience, which was produced and overseen by Fundamental VR at the Royal London Hospital, users will be able to follow along with surgeons as a patient is wheeled into the operating room and undergoes a real neurosurgical procedure to repair two aneurysms (balloon-like bulges in an artery that can rupture). Cameras installed in the OR and GoPro units on the surgeons provide a first person-perspective; you can also switch to the POV of the patient as instruments enter and exit your field of view.

The idea was embraced by surgeons at Royal London, who see it as having the potential to be a valuable training tool for neurosurgeons by mimicking "hands on" experience. Although the footage is best seen using a VR headset, you can get a feel for the experience in the YouTube footage below. Did we mention it's very, very graphic?

More sophisticated versions of the program—including tactile feedback for users—are expected to be implemented in Fundamental VR's surgical training programs in the future. Currently, programs like Surgical Navigation Advanced Platform (SNAP) are being used at major institutions like Stanford University and University of California, Los Angeles to map the brain prior to incision.

If this whets your appetite for witnessing brain operation footage, don't forget we filmed and broadcast a live brain surgery in partnership with National Geographic. You can still check it out here.

[h/t Wired]

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Health
How Dangerous Is a Concussion?
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It's not football season, but the game is still making headlines: In a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, neuropathologist Ann McKee and her colleagues examined the brains of 111 N.F.L. players and found 110 of them to have the degenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The condition has been linked to repeated blows to the head—and every year in the U.S., professional and novice athletes alike receive between 2.5 and 4 million concussions. This raises the question: What happens to the human brain when we get a concussion or suffer a hard blow to the head, and how dangerous are these hits to our long-term health?

Expert Clifford Robbins explains in the TED-Ed video below:

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