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Welcome to Brain Week on mental_floss! (Yes, There Will Be Live Brain Surgery)

We may be biased, but we think the human brain is pretty great. Sure, it’s just an organ, but it might be the most important thing on Earth. Even better, you and everyone you know has one (believe it or not), which makes us all rather special. All this week, mental_floss is celebrating the wonderful and miraculous brain, leading up to a two-hour live television event unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

Brain Surgery Live With mental_floss will take viewers into the operating room for a close-up look at a revolutionary medical procedure. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery is used to treat essential tremor and Parkinson's disease, and it has been changing lives. Performed with a fully awake patient who is able to speak and answer questions during the procedure, DBS surgery is a vivid example of just how amazing our brains are—and how far we’ve come on our never-ending journey to better understand the wrinkly gray mass that makes us us.

Produced by Leftfield Entertainment, Brain Surgery Live With mental_floss will be hosted by Bryant Gumbel, with co-hosts Cara Santa Maria and Dr. Rahul Jandial providing expert commentary throughout. The surgery will be performed at UH Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio by a neurosurgical team led by Dr. Jonathan Miller, director of the Center for Functional and Restorative Neurosurgery. We’re coming along for the ride too, and all week you’ll be able to find fascinating and crazy stories about the human brain right here on mentalfloss.com.

Brain Surgery Live With mental_floss airs on Sunday, October 25 at 9 p.m. EST on the National Geographic Channel. Our brains are telling us it’s going to be amazing.

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Brain Training Could Help Combat Hearing Loss, Study Suggests
iStock
iStock

Contrary to what you might think, the hearing loss that accompanies getting older isn't entirely about your ears. Studies have found that as people get older, the parts of their brain that process speech slow down, and it becomes especially difficult to isolate one voice in a noisy environment. New research suggests there may be a way to help older people hear better: brain training.

The Verge reports that a new double-blind study published in Current Biology suggests that a video game could help older people improve their hearing ability. Though the study was too small to be conclusive, the results are notable in the wake of several large studies in the past few years that found that the brain-training games on apps like Luminosity don't improve cognitive skills in the real world. Most research on brain training games has found that while you might get better at the game, you probably won't be able to translate that skill to your real life.

In the current study, the researchers recruited 24 older adults, all of whom were long-term hearing-aid users, for eight weeks of video game training. The average age was 70. Musical training has been associated with stronger audio perception, so half of the participants were asked to play a game that asked them to identify subtle changes in tones—like you would hear in a piece of music—in order to piece together a puzzle, and the other half played a placebo game designed to test their memory. In the former, as the levels got more difficult, the background noise got louder. The researchers compare the task to a violinist tuning out the rest of the orchestra in order to listen to just their own instrument.

After eight weeks of playing their respective games around three-and-a-half hours a week, the group that played the placebo memory game didn't perform any better on a speech perception test that asked participants to identify sentences or words amid competing voices. But those who played the tone-changing puzzle game saw significant improvement in their ability to process speech in noise conditions close to what you'd hear in an average restaurant. The tone puzzle group were able to accurately identify 25 percent more words against loud background noise than before their training.

The training was more successful for some participants than others, and since this is only one small study, it's possible that as this kind of research progresses, researchers might find a more effective game design for this purpose. But the study shows that in specific instances, brain training games can benefit users. This kind of game can't eliminate the need for hearing aids, but it can help improve speech recognition in situations where hearing aids often fail (e.g., when there is more than one voice speaking). However, once the participants stopped playing the game for a few months, their gains disappeared, indicating that it would have to be a regular practice.

[h/t The Verge]

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This Virtual Reality Game Is Designed to Help Scientists Spot Dementia
Deutsche Telekom
Deutsche Telekom

There’s a new reason to enter virtual reality, and it’s not to play ping pong or check the weather. A game designed to help diagnose dementia is coming to virtual reality, as CNET and the BBC report.

Sea Hero Quest, a game designed to test players’ ability to navigate, is now available for Oculus and Samsung Gear. Trouble navigating is one of the first signs of dementia, and the game (which was created by neuroscientists and funded by Deutsche Telekom) collects anonymous data on users’ ability to navigate through complicated pathways while captaining a virtual boat. It’s not designed specifically to be played by people with dementia, but rather to test the navigational skills of the population as a whole. The goal is to eventually be able to diagnose dementia far earlier than currently possible, perhaps by as much as 15 years.

Sea Hero Quest already claims to be the largest dementia study in history, with 3 million players so far. It can generate 15 times more data in virtual reality than in the mobile game, according to its developers, because it can capture eye-tracking movements and the movements of the boat within the game. Virtual reality can also support established tests developed for lab settings, like the often-used spatial learning task known as the Morris water maze.

The addition of virtual reality makes the process that much faster, adding a much larger dataset to what the scientists are already working on. They estimate that two minutes of gameplay generates the same amount of data as five hours in the lab.

This isn’t the first scientific foray into virtual reality. Researchers are also using it to explore sites for jaguar habitats, among other applications.

[h/t CNET]

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