A nuzzle of the neck, a stroke of the wrist, a brush of the knee—these caresses often signal a loving touch, but can also feel highly aversive, depending on who is delivering the touch, and to whom. Interested in how the brain makes connections between touch and emotion, neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have discovered that the association begins in the brain's primary somatosensory cortex, a region that, until now, was thought only to respond to basic touch, not to its emotional quality.
In sports, on a game show, or just on the job, what causes people to choke when the stakes are high? A new study by researchers at Caltech suggests that when there are high financial incentives to succeed, people can become so afraid of losing their potentially lucrative reward that their performance suffers.
When jurors consider shortening the prison sentences of convicted criminals, they use parts of the brain associated with sympathy and making moral judgments, according to new work by Caltech neuroeconomist Colin Camerer and colleagues. They found that the most lenient jurors show heightened levels of activity in a brain region associated with discomfort, pain, and imagining the pain that others feel.
In both animals and humans, vocal signals used for communication contain a wide array of different sounds that are determined by the vibrational frequencies of vocal cords. Knowing how the brain sorts out these different frequencies—which are called frequency-modulated (FM) sweeps—is believed to be essential to understanding many hearing-related behaviors, like speech. Now, a pair of biologists at Caltech has identified how and where the brain processes this type of sound signal.
Nearly all motile bacteria can sense and respond to their surroundings through a process called chemotaxis, which begins with proteins known as chemoreceptors. Now researchers at Caltech have built the first model that depicts precisely how chemoreceptors and the proteins around them are structured at the sensing tip of bacteria. Because chemotaxis plays a critical role in the first steps of bacterial infection, a better understanding of the process could pave the way for the development of new, more effective antibiotics.
Our bodies are full of tiny superheroes—antibodies that fight foreign invaders, cells that regenerate, and structures that ensure our systems run smoothly. One such structure is myelin, a material that forms a protective cape around the axons of our nerve cells so that they can send signals quickly and efficiently. But myelin becomes damaged in demyelinating diseases like multiple sclerosis, leaving neurons without their sheaths. Researchers from Caltech now believe they have found a way to help the brain replace damaged myelin.
A key feature of human and animal brains is that they are adaptive; they are able to change their structure and function based on input from the environment and on the potential associations, or consequences, of that input. To learn more about such neural adaptability, researchers at Caltech have explored the brains of insects and identified a mechanism by which the connections in their brain change to form new and specific memories of smells.
Our cognitive abilities and decision-making skills can be dramatically hindered in social settings where we feel that we are being ranked or assigned a status level, such as classrooms and work environments, according to new findings from a team of researchers from Caltech and four other institutions. The finding flies in the face of long-held ideas about intelligence and cognition that regard IQ as a stable, predictive measure of mental horsepower.
Although many mental illnesses are uniquely human, animals sometimes exhibit abnormal behaviors similar to those seen in humans with psychological disorders. Such behaviors are called endophenotypes. Now, Caltech researchers have found that mice lacking a gene that encodes a particular protein found in the synapses of the brain display a number of endophenotypes associated with schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders.
Many meat-eating animals have unique ways of hunting down a meal using their senses. To find a tasty treat, bats use echolocation, snakes rely on infrared vision, and owls take advantage of the concave feathers on their faces, the better to help them hear possible prey. Leeches have not just one but two distinct ways of detecting dinner, and, according to new findings from biologists at Caltech, their preferred method changes as they age.