What We've Learned

The Brain
June 4, 2012

Five things that came out of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences’ annual Brain Awareness Week, a series of public lectures held in March:

1. The brain is inherently empathetic. Human brains are highly evolved from early childhood to read the mental states of those around us within fractions of a second. Making mental-state inferences is so instinctive that we tend to treat a non-human entity as if it were a person, too.

2. Humans aren’t alone in their capacity for emotions. Guest lecturer Jaak Panskepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University and an expert on animal emotion, pointed out that rats and other animals respond to tickling, and brain scans suggest that they’re in on the joke.

3. Telekinesis may be closer than you think. Duke neurobiology professor Miguel Nicolelis reported on advancements in biomedical engineering that may soon make it possible for a human brain to interact directly with a machine. Nicolelis is building a prototype device that would allow paralyzed patients to move their limbs with their thoughts.

4. If you are pregnant, it might be a good idea to eat more foods with choline. This little-known B vitamin not only helps us move our muscles, but it’s also the basis for the main neurotransmitter that fuels memory. Studies in rats have found that adding choline to a prenatal diet gives a boost to the developing brain, making them more resilient to trauma and the effects of aging.

5. Wear a helmet. The brain’s three natural layers of protection are no match for the force of, say, falling on pavement from a bicycle. During the week’s activities, families performed experiments using eggs and prisms to mimic the damage such a fall can inflict.