Creative people have better-connected brains

Seemingly countless self-help books and seminars tell you to tap into the right side of your brain to stimulate creativity. But forget the “right-brain” myth — a new study suggests it’s how well the two brain hemispheres communicate that sets highly creative people apart.

For the study, statisticians David Dunson of Duke University and Daniele Durante of the University of Padova analyzed the network of white matter connections among 68 separate brain regions in healthy college-age volunteers.

The brain’s white matter lies underneath the outer grey matter. It is composed of bundles of wires, or axons, which connect billions of neurons and carry electrical signals between them.

A team led by neuroscientist Rex Jung of the University of New Mexico collected the data using an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging, which allows researchers to peer through the skull of a living person and trace the paths of all the axons by following the movement of water along them. Computers then comb through each of the 1-gigabyte scans and convert them to three-dimensional maps — wiring diagrams of the brain.

Jung’s team used a combination of tests to assess creativity. Some were measures of a type of problem-solving called “divergent thinking,” or the ability to come up with many answers to a question. They asked people to draw as many geometric designs as they could in five minutes. They also asked people to list as many new uses as they could for everyday objects, such as a brick or a paper clip. The participants also filled out a questionnaire about their achievements in ten areas, including the visual arts, music, creative writing, dance, cooking and science.

The responses were used to calculate a composite creativity score for each person.

Dunson and Durante trained computers to sift through the data and identify differences in brain structure.

They found no statistical differences in connectivity within hemispheres, or between men and women. But when they compared people who scored in the top 15 percent on the creativity tests with those in the bottom 15 percent, high-scoring people had significantly more connections between the right and left hemispheres.

The differences were mainly in the brain’s frontal lobe.

Dunson said their approach could also be used to predict the probability that a person will be highly creative simply based on his or her brain network structure. “Maybe by scanning a person’s brain we could tell what they’re likely to be good at,” Dunson said.

The study is part of a decade-old field, connectomics, which uses network science to understand the brain. Instead of focusing on specific brain regions in isolation, connectomics researchers use advanced brain imaging techniques to identify and map the rich, dense web of links between them.

Dunson and colleagues are now developing statistical methods to find out whether brain connectivity varies with I.Q., whose relationship to creativity is a subject of ongoing debate.

In collaboration with neurology professor Paul Thompson at the University of Southern California, they’re also using their methods for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease, to help distinguish it from normal aging.

By studying the patterns of interconnections in healthy and diseased brains, they and other researchers also hope to better understand dementia, epilepsy, schizophrenia and other neurological conditions such as traumatic brain injury or coma.

“Data sharing in neuroscience is increasingly more common as compared to only five years ago,” said Joshua Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University, who founded the Open Connectome Project and processed the raw data for the study.

Just making sense of the enormous datasets produced by brain imaging studies is a challenge, Dunson said.

Most statistical methods for analyzing brain network data focus on estimating properties of single brains, such as which regions serve as highly connected hubs. But each person’s brain is wired differently, and techniques for identifying similarities and differences in connectivity across individuals and between groups have lagged behind.

Posted in Society

Why are there different ‘flavors’ of iron around the Solar System ?


This is a scanning electron microscope image of one of the experiments in Elardo and Shahar’s paper that shows a bright, semi-spherical metal (representing a core) next to a gray, quenched silicate (representing a magma ocean)

New work from Carnegie’s Stephen Elardo and Anat Shahar shows that interactions between iron and nickel under the extreme pressures and temperatures similar to a planetary interior can help scientists understand the period in our Solar System’s youth when planets were forming and their cores were created. Their findings are published by Nature Geoscience.

Earth and other rocky planets formed as the matter surrounding our young Sun slowly accreted. At some point in Earth’s earliest years, its core formed through a process called differentiation — when the denser materials, like iron, sunk inward toward the center. This formed the layered composition the planet has today, with an iron core and a silicate upper mantle and crust.

Scientists can’t take samples of the planets’ cores. But they can study iron chemistry to help understand the differences between Earth’s differentiation event and how the process likely worked on other planets and asteroids.

One key to researching Earth’s differentiation period is studying variations in iron isotopes in samples of ancient rocks and minerals from Earth, as well as from the Moon, and other planets or planetary bodies.

Every element contains a unique and fixed number of protons, but the number of neutrons in an atom can vary. Each variation is a different isotope. As a result of this difference in neutrons, isotopes have slightly different masses. These slight differences mean that some isotopes are preferred by certain reactions, which results in an imbalance in the ratio of each isotope incorporated into the end products of these reactions.

One outstanding mystery on this front has been the significant variation between iron isotope ratios found in samples of hardened lava that erupted from Earth’s upper mantle and samples from primitive meteorites, asteroids, the Moon, and Mars. Other researchers had suggested these variations were caused by the Moon-forming giant impact or by chemical variations in the solar nebula.

Elardo and Shahar were able to use laboratory tools to mimic the conditions found deep inside Earth and other planets in order to determine why iron isotopic ratios can vary under different planetary formation conditions.

They found that nickel is the key to unlocking the mystery.

Under the conditions in which the Moon, Mars, and the asteroid Vesta’s cores were formed, preferential interactions with nickel retain high concentrations of lighter iron isotopes in the mantle. However, under the hotter and higher-pressure conditions expected during Earth’s core formation process, this nickel effect disappears, which can help explain the differences between lavas from Earth and other planetary bodies, and the similarity between Earth’s mantle and primitive meteorites.

“There’s still a lot to learn about the geochemical evolution of planets,” Elardo said. “But laboratory experiments allow us to probe to depths we can’t reach and understand how planetary interiors formed and changed through time.”



Posted in Space

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