CLOSE
iStock
iStock

Ancient Whistling Language Uses Both Brain Hemispheres

iStock
iStock

Although both hemispheres of the brain generally work in tandem, it has long been believed that the left hemisphere plays a larger part in the comprehension of language.  But a recent study conducted with a whistle-speaking population in Northeast Turkey is challenging that assumption.

Though they also use spoken language, the 10,000 or so Turks who converse via this ancient language can communicate with each other from as far away as three miles via a series of whistles that, when strung together, sound like a bird's song. Since it's already known that the right hemisphere of the brain is important for appreciating music, researchers speculated that the lilting whistles' musical melodies might activate this region while also engaging the left hemisphere’s language centers.

To test this theory, Onur Güntürkün of Germany's Ruhr University Bochum asked 31 fluent whistlers in the tiny town of Kuşköy to listen to pairs of different spoken or whistled syllables played into the left and right ears simultaneously and report what they heard. Because the left hemisphere depends slightly more on sounds received by the right ear and vice versa for the right hemisphere, whichever ear the reported syllable was played into corresponded to the opposite engaged hemisphere. By comparing the rate at which each hemisphere was selected, researchers were able to determine that spoken syllables resulted in the right ear/left hemisphere dominating 75 percent of the time, a finding that's consistent with previous studies. But as the researchers suspected, the dominant hemisphere when reacting to whistles was split almost exactly evenly.

This sort of auditory test for neurological activity isn't all that precise. But the results, published in Current Biology, hint at larger issues worth investigating.

"They tell us that the organization of our brain, in terms of its asymmetrical structure, is not as fixed as we assume," Güntürkün told The New Yorker. "The way information is given to us appears to change the architecture of our brain in a radical way."

But researchers who want to study the whistled Turkish language—either for its neurological implications or its cultural value—will have to act fast. The age of texting is causing this unique language to die out. "You can gossip with a mobile phone, but you can’t do that with whistling because the whole valley hears," Güntürkün told New Scientist.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
science
Scientists Identify Cells in the Brain That Control Anxiety
iStock
iStock

People plagued with the uncomfortable thoughts and sensations characteristic of anxiety disorders may have a small group of cells in the brain to blame, according to a new study. As NPR reports, a team of researchers has identified a class of brain cells that regulates anxiety levels in mice.

The paper, published in the journal Neuron, is based on experiments conducted on a group of lab mice. As is the case with human brains, the hippocampus in mouse brains is associated with fear and anxiety. But until now, researchers didn't know which neurons in the hippocampus were responsible for feelings of worry and impending danger.

To pinpoint the cells at work, scientists from Columbia University, the University of California, San Francisco, and other institutions placed mice in a maze with routes leading to open areas. Mice tend to feel anxious in spacious environments, so researchers monitored activity in the hippocampus when they entered these parts of the maze. What the researchers saw was a specialized group of cells lighting up when the mice entered spaces meant to provoke anxiety.

To test if anxiety was really the driving factor behind the response, they next used a technique called optogenetics to control these cells. When they lowered the cells' activity, the mice seemed to relax and wanted to explore the maze. But as they powered the cells back up, the mice grew scared and didn't venture too far from where they were.

Anxiety is an evolutionary mechanism everyone experiences from time to time, but for a growing portion of the population, anxiety levels are debilitating. Generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder can stem from a combination of factors, but most experts agree that overactive brain chemistry plays a part. Previous studies have connected anxiety disorders to several parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which governs memory as well as fear and worry.

By uncovering not just how the brain produces symptoms of anxiety but the individual cells behind them, scientists hope to get closer to a better treatment. There's more work to be done before that becomes a possibility. The anxiety cells in mice aren't necessarily a perfect indicator of which cells regulate anxiety in humans, and if a new treatment does eventually come from the discovery, it will be one of many options rather than a cure-all for every patient with the disorder.

[h/t NPR]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
arrow
Medicine
Wilder Penfield: The Pioneering Brain Surgeon Who Operated on Conscious Patients
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For centuries, epilepsy was a source of mystery to scientists. Seizures were thought to be caused by everything from masturbation to demonic possession, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that a neurosurgeon showed the condition could sometimes be boiled down to specific spots in the brain. To do it, he had to open up patients’ heads and electrocute their brain tissue—while they were still conscious.

Wilder Penfield, the subject of today’s Google Doodle, was born on January 26, 1891 in Spokane, Washington. According to Vox, the Canadian-American doctor revolutionized the way we think about and treat epilepsy when he pioneered the Montreal Procedure. The operation required him to remove portions of the skulls of epilepsy sufferers to access their brains. He believed seizures were connected to small areas of brain tissue that were somehow damaged, and by removing the affected regions he could cure the epilepsy. His theory was based on the fact that people with epilepsy often experience “auras” before a seizure: vivid recollections of random scents, tastes, or thoughts.

To pinpoint the damaged brain tissue, he would have to locate the part of the brain tied to his patient’s aura. This meant that the patient would need to be awake to tell him when he struck upon the right sensation. Penfield stimulated the exposed brain tissue with an electrode, causing the patient to either feel numbness in certain limbs, experience certain smells, or recall certain memories depending on what part of the brain he touched. A local anesthetic reduced pain in the head; shocking the brain didn’t cause any pain because the organ doesn’t contain pain receptors.

During one of his surgeries, a patient famously cried, “I smell burnt toast!” That was the same scent that visited her before each seizure, and after Penfield removed the part of her brain associated with the sensation, her epilepsy went away.

Brain surgery isn’t a cure-all for every type of epilepsy, but treatments similar to the one Penfield developed are still used today. In some cases, as much as half of the brain is removed with positive results.

[h/t Vox]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios