Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Journal: Brain and cognition


One of the brain’s key roles is to facilitate foraging and feeding. It is presumably no coincidence, then, that the mouth is situated close to the brain in most animal species. However, the environments in which our brains evolved were far less plentiful in terms of the availability of food resources (i.e., nutriments) than is the case for those of us living in the Western world today. The growing obesity crisis is but one of the signs that humankind is not doing such a great job in terms of optimizing the contemporary food landscape. While the blame here is often put at the doors of the global food companies - offering addictive foods, designed to hit ‘the bliss point’ in terms of the pleasurable ingredients (sugar, salt, fat, etc.), and the ease of access to calorie-rich foods - we wonder whether there aren’t other implicit cues in our environments that might be triggering hunger more often than is perhaps good for us. Here, we take a closer look at the potential role of vision; Specifically, we question the impact that our increasing exposure to images of desirable foods (what is often labelled ‘food porn’, or ‘gastroporn’) via digital interfaces might be having, and ask whether it might not inadvertently be exacerbating our desire for food (what we call ‘visual hunger’). We review the growing body of cognitive neuroscience research demonstrating the profound effect that viewing such images can have on neural activity, physiological and psychological responses, and visual attention, especially in the ‘hungry’ brain.

Concepts: Nervous system, Psychology, Brain, Nutrition, Attention, Eating, Neuroscience, Visual perception


Auditory cues are frequently used to support movement learning and rehabilitation, but the neural basis of this behavioural effect is not yet clear. We investigated the microstructural neuroplasticity effects of adding musical cues to a motor learning task. We hypothesised that music-cued, left-handed motor training would increase fractional anisotropy (FA) in the contralateral arcuate fasciculus, a fibre tract connecting auditory, pre-motor and motor regions. Thirty right-handed participants were assigned to a motor learning condition either with (Music Group) or without (Control Group) musical cues. Participants completed 20minutes of training three times per week over four weeks. Diffusion tensor MRI and probabilistic neighbourhood tractography identified FA, axial (AD) and radial (RD) diffusivity before and after training. Results revealed that FA increased significantly in the right arcuate fasciculus of the Music group only, as hypothesised, with trends for AD to increase and RD to decrease, a pattern of results consistent with activity-dependent increases in myelination. No significant changes were found in the left ipsilateral arcuate fasciculus of either group. This is the first evidence that adding musical cues to movement learning can induce rapid microstructural change in white matter pathways in adults, with potential implications for therapeutic clinical practice.

Concepts: Nervous system, Psychology, Neuron, Magnetic resonance imaging, Cerebrum, Left-handedness, Diffusion MRI, Music


Empirical research has shown that the amygdala, hippocampus, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) are involved in fear conditioning. However, the functional contribution of each brain area and the nature of their interactions are not clearly understood. Here, we extend existing neural network models of the functional roles of the hippocampus in classical conditioning to include interactions with the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. We apply the model to fear conditioning, in which animals learn physiological (e.g. heart rate) and behavioral (e.g. freezing) responses to stimuli that have been paired with a highly aversive event (e.g. electrical shock). The key feature of our model is that learning of these conditioned responses in the central nucleus of the amygdala is modulated by two separate processes, one from basolateral amygdala and signaling a positive prediction error, and one from the vmPFC, via the intercalated cells of the amygdala, and signaling a negative prediction error. In addition, we propose that hippocampal input to both vmPFC and basolateral amygdala is essential for contextual modulation of fear acquisition and extinction. The model is sufficient to account for a body of data from various animal fear conditioning paradigms, including acquisition, extinction, reacquisition, and context specificity effects. Consistent with studies on lesioned animals, our model shows that damage to the vmPFC impairs extinction, while damage to the hippocampus impairs extinction in a different context (e.g., a different conditioning chamber from that used in initial training in animal experiments). We also discuss model limitations and predictions, including the effects of number of training trials on fear conditioning.

Concepts: Amygdala, Brain, Cerebrum, Hippocampus, Limbic system, Prefrontal cortex, Classical conditioning, Ventromedial prefrontal cortex


Numerous studies have shown an exacerbation of attentional bias towards threat in anxiety states. However, the cognitive mechanisms responsible for these attentional biases remain largely unknown. Further, the authors outline the need to consider the nature of the attentional processes in operation (hypervigilance, avoidance, or disengagement). We adapted a dot-probe paradigm to record behavioral and electrophysiological responses in 26 participants reporting high or low fear of evaluation, a major component of social anxiety. Pairs of faces including a neutral and an emotional face (displaying anger, fear, disgust, or happiness) were presented during 200ms and then replaced by a neutral target to discriminate. Results show that anxious participants were characterized by an increased P1 in response to pairs of faces, irrespective of the emotional expression included in the pair. They also showed an increased P2 in response to angry-neutral pairs selectively. Finally, in anxious participants, the P1 response to targets was enhanced when replacing emotional faces, whereas non-anxious subjects showed no difference between the two conditions. These results indicate an early hypervigilance to face stimuli in social anxiety, coupled with difficulty in disengaging from threat and sustained attention to emotional stimuli. They are discussed within the framework of current models of anxiety and psychopathology.

Concepts: Anxiety, Psychology, Anxiety disorder, Paul Ekman, Fear, Social anxiety, Fight-or-flight response, Bias


Priming reflects an important means of learning that is mediated by implicit memory. Importantly, priming occurs for previously viewed objects (item-specific priming) and their category relatives (category-wide priming). Two distinct neural mechanisms are known to mediate priming, including the sharpening of a neural object representation and the retrieval of stimulus-response mappings. Here, we investigated whether the relationship between these neural mechanisms could help explain why item-specific priming generates faster responses than category-wide priming. Participants studied pictures of everyday objects, and then performed a difficult picture identification task while we recorded event-related potentials (ERP). The identification task gradually revealed random line segments of previously viewed items (Studied), category exemplars of previously viewed items (Exemplar), and items that were not previously viewed (Unstudied). Studied items were identified sooner than Unstudied items, showing evidence of item-specific priming, and importantly Exemplar items were also identified sooner than Unstudied items, showing evidence of category-wide priming. Early activity showed sustained neural suppression of parietal activity for both types of priming. However, these neural suppression effects may have stemmed from distinct processes because while category-wide neural suppression was correlated with priming behavior, item-specific neural suppression was not. Late activity, examined with response-locked ERPs, showed additional processes related to item-specific priming including neural suppression in occipital areas and parietal activity that was correlated with behavior. Together, we conclude that item-specific and category-wide priming are mediated by separate, parallel neural mechanisms in the context of the current paradigm. Temporal differences in behavior are determined by the timecourses of these distinct processes.

Concepts: Memory, Paradigm, Snake scales, Skull, Occipital bone, Implicit memory, Priming, Exemplar


Persons with Parkinson’s disease (PD) are typically more susceptible than healthy adults to impaired performance when two tasks (dual task interference) are performed simultaneously. This limitation has by many experts been attributed to limitations in cognitive resources. Nearly all studies of dual task performance in PD employ walking or balance-based motor tasks, which are commonly impaired in PD. These tasks can be performed using a combination of one or two executive function tasks. The current study examined whether persons with PD would demonstrate greater dual task effects (DTEs) on cognition compared to healthy older adults (HOAs) during a concurrent cycling task. Participants with and without PD completed a battery of 12 cognitive tasks assessing visual and verbal processing in the following cognitive domains: speed of processing, controlled processing, working memory and executive function. Persons with PD exhibited impairments compared to healthy participants in select tasks (i.e., 0-back, 2-back and operation span). Further, both groups unexpectedly exhibited dual task facilitation of response times in visual tasks across cognitive domains, and improved verbal recall during an executive function task. Only one measure, 2-back, showed a speed-accuracy trade-off in the dual task. These results demonstrate that, when paired with a motor task in which they are not impaired, people with PD exhibit similar DTEs on cognitive tasks as HOAs, even when these task effects are facilitative. More generally, these findings demonstrate that pairing cognitive tasks with cycling may actually improve cognitive performance which may have therapeutic relevance to cognitive decline associated with aging and PD pathology.

Concepts: Psychology, Cognitive psychology, Cognition, Cognitive science, Motor control, Dopamine, Working memory, Executive functions


The results from numerous investigations suggest that musical training might enhance how senses interact. Despite repeated confirmation of anatomical and structural changes in visual, tactile, and auditory regions, significant changes have only been reported in the audiovisual domain and for the detection of audio-tactile incongruencies. In the present study, we aim at testing whether long-term musical training might also enhance other multisensory processes at a behavioural level. An audio-tactile reaction time task was administrated to a group of musicians and non-musicians. We found significantly faster reaction times with musicians for auditory, tactile, and audio-tactile stimulations. Statistical analyses between the combined uni- and multisensory reaction times revealed that musicians possess a statistical advantage when responding to multisensory stimuli compared to non-musicians. These results suggest for the first time that long-term musical training reduces simple non-musical auditory, tactile, and multisensory reaction times. Taken together with the previous results from other sensory modalities, these results strongly point towards musicians being better at integrating the inputs from various senses.

Concepts: Present, Time, Sensory system, Sense, Somatosensory system, Proprioception, Music, Reaction time


Inferring the intentions and beliefs of another is an ability that is fundamental for social and affiliative interactions. A substantial amount of empirical evidence suggests that making sense of another’s intentional and belief states (i.e. theory of mind) relies on exteroceptive (e.g. visual and auditory) and proprioceptive (i.e. motor) signals. Yet, despite its pivotal role in the guidance of behaviour, the role of the observer’s interoceptive (visceral) processing in understanding another’s internal states remains unexplored. Predicting and keeping track of interoceptive bodily states - which inform intentions and beliefs that guide behaviour - is one of the fundamental purposes of the human brain. In this paper, we will focus on the role of interoceptive predictions, prescribed by the free energy principle, in making sense of internal states that cause another’s behaviour. We will discuss how multimodal expectations induced at deep (high) hierarchical levels - that necessarily entail interoceptive predictions - contribute to inference about others that is at the heart of theory of mind.

Concepts: Nervous system, Scientific method, Brain, Human brain, Sensory system, Philosophy of mind, Empiricism, Theorem


Transcendental Meditation ™ is defined as a mental process of transcending using a silent mantra. Previous work showed that relatively brief period of TM practice leads to decreases in stress and anxiety. However, whether these changes are subserved by specific morpho-functional brain modifications (as observed in other meditation techniques) is still unclear. Using a longitudinal design, we combined psychometric questionnaires, structural and resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (RS-fMRI) to investigate the potential brain modifications underlying the psychological effects of TM. The final sample included 19 naïve subjects instructed to complete two daily 20-min TM sessions, and 15 volunteers in the control group. Both groups were evaluated at recruitment (T0) and after 3 months (T1). At T1, only meditators showed a decrease in perceived anxiety and stress (t(18) = 2.53, p = 0.02), which correlated negatively with T1-T0 changes in functional connectivity among posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), precuneus and left superior parietal lobule. Additionally, TM practice was associated with increased connectivity between PCC and right insula, likely reflecting changes in interoceptive awareness. No structural changes were observed in meditators or control subjects. These preliminary findings indicate that beneficial effects of TM may be mediated by functional brain changes that take place after a short practice period of 3 months.


Military personnel and emergency responders perform cognitively-demanding tasks during periods of sustained physical exertion and limited caloric intake. Cognitive function is preserved during short-term caloric restriction, but it is unclear if preservation extends to combined caloric restriction and physical exertion. According to the “reticular-activating hypofrontality” model, vigorous exertion impairs prefrontal cortex activity and associated functions. This double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study examined cognitive function during sustained exertion while volunteers were calorically-deprived. Twenty-three volunteers were calorie-depleted for two days on one occasion and fully-fed on another. They completed intermittent bouts of exercise at 40-65% VO2peak while prefrontal cortex-dependent tasks of cognitive control, mood, and perceived exertion were assessed. Calorie deprivation impaired accuracy on the task-switching task of set-shifting (p < .01) and decreased sensitivity on the go/no-go task of response inhibition (p < .05). Calorie deprivation did not affect risk taking on the Rogers risk task. During exercise, calorie deprivation, particularly on day 2, increased perceived exertion (p < .05) and impaired mood states of tension, depression, anger, vigor, fatigue, and confusion (all p < .01). Physical exertion during severe calorie deprivation impairs cognitive control, mood, and self-rated exertion. Reallocation of cerebral metabolic resources from the prefrontal cortex to structures supporting movement may explain these deficits.