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Scientists Find Out How Hope Protects the Brain

Since hope appears to come from a physical place in the brain, scientists are hoping to figure out how it shields the rest of the brain from negativity. Really. 

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In a recent study, Chinese psychologists found out that hope protects the brain against anxiety and expanded our understanding of how that may be happening. Because hope is considered a stable personality trait, they reasoned, they might be able to figure out where in the brain they can find hope functioning. They were able not only to pinpoint where hope might potentially reside within the brain, but realized how hope may be shielding the brain from the effects of anxiety.

The scientists defined hope as an important topic in positive psychology, referring to an individual's “goal-oriented expectations" that include both agency (desire to achieve goals) and pathways (finding ways to achieve them).

The researchers used fMRI imaging on 231 high school students from Chengdu, China who were tested according to questionnaires using the DHS hope scale and the Stait-Trait Anxiety test.

The scientists analyzed the data using the fractional amplitude of low-frequency fluctuation (fALFF) approach. They found that the presence of the hope trait was related to lower fALFF values in the bilateral medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) area of the brain. That is the region involved in reward-related procession, the production of motivation, solving problems and goal-oriented behavior, according to the scientists.

The orbitofrontal cortex is located just above the orbits of the eyes and goes back several centimeters into the frontal base of the brain. The scientists discovered that the hope trait worked as a “mediator" between mOFC activity and anxiety.

"Overall, this study provides the first evidence for functional brain substrates underlying trait hope and reveals a potential mechanism that trait hope mediates the protective role of spontaneous brain activity against anxiety," write the researchers.


Orbitofrontal Cortex. Credit: Paul Wicks, Wikipedia

This is the first evidence that hope may have a physical presence in the brain, but the relationship between hope and anxiety has been established in a number of previous studies. A 2002 University of Kansas study, led by C.R. Snyder, looked at the role hope plays for students. The researchers found that students low in hope had greater anxiety, primarily from establishing goals that were too overwhelming and hard to achieve.

A 2011 study from Malaysian and Hong Kong scientists showed the link between having greater hope and reduced anxiety and depression in cancer patients. It was not clear, however, whether hope caused less anxiety or people with less anxiety were more hopeful.

Here you can check out the 2017 study that involved researchers from Sichuan University, Southwest University for Nationalities and Chengdu Mental Health Center in Chengdu, China.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
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  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

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Politics & Current Affairs
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