By Jake Grubman, ’11
Photography by Lloyd DeGrane

Sleep: crucial for young starlings and exam-prepping undergrads alike.

Brain at work, body at rest

A good night’s sleep is as helpful for birds learning to sing as for college students cramming for a test. Overnight, young starlings secure and process skills learned during the previous day, showing improvement on those tasks after sleep. Psychology graduate student Timothy Brawn, AB’04, AM’09; psychology chair Howard Nusbaum; biologist Daniel Margoliash; and Michigan State researcher Kimberly Fenn, AM’00, PhD’06, collaborated on a study, published in the January 13 Trends in Cognitive Sciences, that establishes a bridge between human sleep-dependent learning and that of animals. Previously Nusbaum, Margoliash, and Fenn found that sleep helped human adults retain information. In this experiment, starlings were trained to distinguish two bird songs; when tested, they showed improvement across the board after sleep.

Multiple sclerosis’s genetic roots

Agenetic mutation in mice may help lead researchers to a method for slowing the progression of multiple sclerosis. In the January 15 Genes and Development, neurologist Brian Popko and colleagues from Chicago, Stanford, and the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, reported that a gene called ZFP191 plays a role in myelination—the process that wraps nerve fibers of the central nervous system in a soft, white, myelin sheath. Multiple sclerosis causes the body to destroy myelin, leading to numbness, seizures, paralysis, and lost vision. Popko’s team found that mice lacking ZFP191 experienced MS-like tremors and could not properly produce myelin. Involved in making proteins that activate other genes, the gene may provide a key to uncovering methods for increasing myelination in MS patients.

Street-level self-help

In Philadelphia, a system of drug and alcohol recovery homes set up by “street-level entrepreneurs” in formerly abandoned row houses has existed without any kind of oversight or regulation since the early 1980s. In How it Works: Recovering Citizens in Post-Welfare Philadelphia (University of Chicago Press, 2009), SSA assistant professor Robert P. Fairbanks II describes life inside one particular house in the Kensington neighborhood, which provides food, shelter, fellowship, and self-help. Fairbanks connects poverty on an individual level to larger urban-welfare structures. While some homes achieve success through the food, shelter, and environment they provide, others feature substandard conditions and overcrowding. Fairbanks seeks better legal accountability, underlining city, state, and federal governments’ refusal to take an active stance on issues of poverty management.

Not just a middleman

The thalamus, a small brain structure, has never been considered central to sensory processing; it’s long been called a stopover for sensory information—visual, auditory, somatosensory—on its way to the cortex. But two new studies challenge that idea. In an experiment using mouse-brain slices, Medical Center neurobiologist Murray Sherman severed the connection from the primary cortex to the secondary cortex. He found that stimulating the primary somatosensory cortex, which processes data related to the sense of touch, still activated both secondary cortex and the thalamus. But when the thalamus itself was blocked, Sherman couldn’t activate the secondary cortex, indicating the thalamus’s role as a significant conductor of sensory information. He published the findings in the December 6 Nature Neuroscience. In a second study, Sherman also demonstrated the thalamus’s role as a direct route for auditory information through the brain.


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