Every year, Brain Awareness Week (13th to 19th March 2023) aims to raise public support for scientific research into the form and function of our brains. International research teams seek to unravel the complex evolutionary history of our sophisticated brains and shed light on the cognitive processes that regulate our thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Here we showcase some of the latest brain research, which you can explore further by joining the Research Communities.
Covid-19 had widespread impacts on our bodies, with 10 to 30% of those infected suffering from long Covid. Researchers are now uncovering the changes that occur within our brains because of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In the Neuroscience Community, Aron Emmi shares that neurological symptoms were observed after Covid-19 infection including cognitive impairment, altered mental state, brain inflammation (encephalitis) and strokes. Whether the virus itself can enter cells of the nervous system to cause these impacts (or if changes to the brain are instead the result of other virus symptoms) is still unclear. However, in an attempt to clarify this, the research team examined brains from patients who died during the first wave of the pandemic, finding damage due to reduced oxygen and blood supply, plus the occurrence of blood clots. Additionally, SARS-Cov-2 viral proteins and RNA were discovered in the brainstem of several patients, including within the vagus nerve (suggested as a pathway for the virus to enter the brain). Read more about the effects of Covid-19 on the brain here.
Neurodevelopmental disorders (including autism, intellectual disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, epilepsy and schizophrenia) are caused by disruptions to signalling molecules and transcription factors in the brain. In the Neuroscience Community, Bettina Weigel explains that the causes of these disruptions are poorly understood, but new research suggests that transcription factor MYT1L may play a role in the occurrence of neurodevelopmental disorders. In 98% of people with MYT1L mutations, autism and intellectual disability were subsequently diagnosed. However, the causal mechanism for disease development due to transcription factor mutations is still unknown so researchers used neurons from humans and genetically engineered mice to investigate the role of MYT1L in brain development. The team found that MYT1L is needed to turn off unwanted genes in neurons and mutations of this transcription factor caused confusion in human neurons, contributing to disease development. Read more about the role of transcription factors in human neurons here.
Neanderthals may have been more like modern humans than we previously thought. New behavioural studies show that Neanderthals were not primitive and may, in fact, have had a concept of symbolism (having objects or activities with a special meaning that become part of their identity). Evidence of funerary rites and personal decoration are known from Neanderthal fossil sites. However, in the Behavioural and Social Science Community, Enrique Baquedano shares the discovery of an animal skull accumulation which suggests that Neanderthals hunted animals for a symbolic purpose. In a cave in the River Lozoya valley, Spain, thirty-five skulls belonging to bison, aurochs, rhinos and red deer were discovered, animals which would not have lived in the cave. Some of the skulls were placed on top of hearths, leading researchers to suggest that the skulls may have been hunting trophies, representing courage, intelligence, leadership or hunting skill. Discover more about symbolism in our Neanderthal ancestors here.
As time passes, our mood changes, but how much does it alter and why? In the Behavioural and Social Science Community, David Jangraw discusses the ‘mood drift over time’ effect, where our mood is influenced by time passed rather than from happy or sad triggers. From studying 28,000 people, the researchers found that mood declined by approximately 2% for every minute that passed. This decline in mood was most strongly felt among individuals who had a stronger response to rewards or losses during study activities. In essence, these individuals became more frustrated as time passed waiting for their reward. The researchers highlight that these results are important for psychology research methods – the longer participants have to wait for activities or rewards, the more their mood and engagement with the study will decline. Read more about the study here.
If you would like to explore more of the latest research into brain evolution, neuroscience and behaviour, visit the Research Communities.
About the author
Charlotte Bird is the Research Communities Content Manager at Springer Nature and is responsible for showcasing the multidisciplinary research published in our journals through commissioning Behind the Paper posts and engaging audiences via the Nature Portfolio Instagram and Twitter accounts.