New research may help explain why curiosity promotes better memory

Everyone knows it’s easier to learn about a topic you’re curious about. Now, a new study reveals what’s going on in the brain during that process, revealing that such curiosity may give a person a memory boost.

When participants in the study were feeling curious, they were better at remembering information even about unrelated topics, and brain scans showed activity in areas linked to reward and memory.

The results, detailed October 2 in the journal Neuron, hint at ways to improve learning and memory in both healthy people and those with neurological disorders, the researchers said.

“Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it,” Matthias Gruber, a memory researcher at the University of California, Davis, said in a statement. “These findings suggest ways to enhance learning in the classroom and other settings.”

Gruber and his colleagues put people in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner and showed them a series of trivia questions, asking them to rate their curiosity about the answers to those questions. Later, the participants were shown selected trivia questions, then a picture of a neutral face during a 14-second delay, followed by the answer. Afterward, the participants were given a surprise memory test of the faces, and then a memory test of the trivia answers.

Not surprisingly, the study researchers found that people remembered more information about the trivia when they were curious about the trivia answers. But unexpectedly, when the participants were curious, they were also better at remembering the faces, an entirely unrelated task. Participants who were curious were also more likley than others to remember both the trivia information and unrelated faces a day later, the researchers found.

The brain scans showed that, compared with when their curiosity wasn’t piqued, when people were curious, they showed more activation of brain circuits in the nucleus accumbens, an area involved in reward. These same circuits, mediated by the neurochemical messenger dopamine, are involved in forms of external motivation, such as food, sex or drug addiction.

Finally, being curious while learning seemed to produce a spike of activity in the hippocampus, an area involved in forming new memories, and strengthened the link between memory and reward brain circuits.

The study’s findings not only highlight the importance of curiosity for learning in healthy people, but could also give insight into neurological conditions. For example, as people age, their dopamine circuits tend to deteriorate, so understanding how curiosity affects these circuits could help scientists develop treatments for patients with memory disorders, the researchers said.

New research shows that sleep functions to allow the brain to eliminate toxins that accumulate while we are awake


While the brain sleeps, it clears out harmful toxins, a process that may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, researchers say.

During sleep, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain increases dramatically, washing away harmful waste proteins that build up between brain cells during waking hours, a study of mice found.

“It’s like a dishwasher,” says Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Rochester and an author of the study in Science.

The results appear to offer the best explanation yet of why animals and people need sleep. If this proves to be true in humans as well, it could help explain a mysterious association between sleep disorders and brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

Nedergaard and a team of scientists discovered the cleaning process while studying the brains of sleeping mice. The scientists noticed that during sleep, the system that circulates cerebrospinal fluid through the brain and nervous system was “pumping fluid into the brain and removing fluid from the brain in a very rapid pace,” Nedergaard says.

The team discovered that this increased flow was possible in part because when mice went to sleep, their brain cells actually shrank, making it easier for fluid to circulate. When an animal woke up, the brain cells enlarged again and the flow between cells slowed to a trickle. “It’s almost like opening and closing a faucet,” Nedergaard says. “It’s that dramatic.”

Nedergaard’s team, which is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, had previously shown that this fluid was carrying away waste products that build up in the spaces between brain cells.

The process is important because what’s getting washed away during sleep are waste proteins that are toxic to brain cells, Nedergaard says. This could explain why we don’t think clearly after a sleepless night and why a prolonged lack of sleep can actually kill an animal or a person, she says.

So why doesn’t the brain do this sort of housekeeping all the time? Nedergaard thinks it’s because cleaning takes a lot of energy. “It’s probably not possible for the brain to both clean itself and at the same time [be] aware of the surroundings and talk and move and so on,” she says.

The brain-cleaning process has been observed in rats and baboons, but not yet in humans, Nedergaard says. Even so, it could offer a new way of understanding human brain diseases including Alzheimer’s. That’s because one of the waste products removed from the brain during sleep is beta amyloid, the substance that forms sticky plaques associated with the disease.

That’s probably not a coincidence, Nedergaard says. “Isn’t it interesting that Alzheimer’s and all other diseases associated with dementia, they are linked to sleep disorders,” she says.

Researchers who study Alzheimer’s say Nedergaard’s research could help explain a number of recent findings related to sleep. One of these involves how sleep affects levels of beta amyloid, says Randall Bateman, a professor of neurology Washington University in St. Louis who wasn’t involved in the study.

“Beta amyloid concentrations continue to increase while a person is awake,” Bateman says. “And then after people go to sleep that concentration of beta amyloid decreases. This report provides a beautiful mechanism by which this may be happening.”

The report also offers a tantalizing hint of a new approach to Alzheimer’s prevention, Bateman says. “It does raise the possibility that one might be able to actually control sleep in a way to improve the clearance of beta amyloid and help prevent amyloidosis that we think can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.”

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

Brain-controlled helicopter may soon be available

For the last few years, Puzzlebox has been publishing open source software and hacking guides that walk makers through the modification of RC helicopters so that they can be flown and controlled using just the power of the mind. Full systems have also been custom built to introduce youngsters to brain-computer interfaces and neuroscience. The group is about to take the project to the next stage by making a Puzzlebox Orbit brain-controlled helicopter available to the public, while encouraging user experimentation by making all the code, schematics, 3D models, build guides and other documentation freely available under an open-source license.

The helicopter has a protective outer sphere that prevents the rotor blades from impacting with walls, furniture, floor and ceiling is very similar in design to the Kyosho Space Ball. It’s not the same craft though, and the ability to control it with the mind is not the only difference.

“There’s a ring around the top and bottom of the Space Ball which isn’t present on the Puzzlebox Orbit,” Castellotti says. “The casing around their server motor looks quite different, too. The horizontal ring at-mid level is more rounded on the Orbit, and vertically it is more squat. We’re also selling the Puzzlebox Orbit in the U.S. for US$89 (including shipping), versus their $117 (plus shipping).”

Two versions of the Puzzlebox Orbit system are being offered to the public. The first is designed for use with mobile devices like tablets and smartphones. A NeuroSky MindWave Mobile EEG headset communicates with the device via Bluetooth. Proprietary software then analyzes the brainwave data in real time and translates the input as command signals, which are sent to the helicopter via an IR adapter plugged into the device’s audio jack.

This system isn’t quite ready for all mobile operating platforms, though. The team is “happy on Android but don’t have access to a wide variety of hardware for testing,” confirmed Castellotti, adding “Some tuning after release is expected. We’ll have open source code available to iOS developers and will have initiated the App Store evaluation process if it’s not already been approved.”

The second offering comes with a Puzzlebox Pyramid, which was developed completely in-house and has a dual role as a home base for the Orbit helicopter and a remote control unit. At its heart is a programmable micro-controller that’s compatible with Arduino boards. On one face of the pyramid there’s a broken circle of multi-colored LED lights in a clock face configuration. These are used to indicate levels of concentration, mental relaxation, and the quality of the EEG signal from a NeuroSky MindWave EEG headset (which wirelessly communicates with a USB dongle plugged into the rear of the pyramid).

Twelve infrared LEDs to the top of each face actually control the Orbit helicopter, and with some inventive tweaking, these can also be used to control other IR toys and devices (including TVs).

In either case, a targeted mental state can be assigned to a helicopter control or flight path (such as hover in place or fly in a straight line) and actioned whenever that state is detected and maintained. Estimated Orbit flight time is around eight minutes (or more), after which the user will need to recharge the unit for 30 minutes before the next take-off.

At the time of writing, a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter to take the prototype system into mass production has attracted almost three times its target. The Puzzlebox team has already secured enough hardware and materials to start shipping the first wave of Orbits next month. International backers will get their hands on the system early next year.

The brain-controlled helicopter is only a part of the package, however. The development team has promised to release the source code for the Linux/Mac/PC software and mobile apps, all protocols, and available hardware schematics under open-source licenses. Step-by-step how-to guides are also in the pipeline (like the one already on the Instructables website), together with educational aids detailing how everything works.

“We have prepared contributor tools for Orbit, including a wiki, source code browser, and ticket tracking system,” said Castellotti. “We are already using these tools internally to build the project. Access to these will be granted when the Kickstarter campaign closes.”

“We would really like to underline that we are producing more than just a brain-controlled helicopter,” he stressed. “The toy and concept is fun and certainly the main draw, but the true purpose lies in the open code and hacking guides. We don’t want to be the holiday toy that gets played with for ten minutes then sits forever in the corner or on a shelf. We want owners to be able to use the Orbit to experiment with biofeedback – practicing how to concentrate better or to unwind and relax with this physical and visual aid.”

“And when curiosity kicks in and they start to wonder how it actually works, all of the information is published freely. That’s how we hope to share knowledge and foster a community. For example, a motivated experimenter should be able to start with the hardware we provide, and using our tools and guides learn how to hack support for driving a remote controlled car or causing a television to change channels when attention levels are measured as being low for too long a period of time. Such advancements could then be contributed back to the rest of our users.”

The Kickstarter campaign will close on December 8, after which the team will concentrate its efforts on getting Orbit systems delivered to backers and ensure that all the background and support documentation is in place. If all goes according to plan, a retail launch could follow as soon as Q1 2013.

It is hoped that the consumer Puzzlebox Orbit mobile/tablet edition with the NeuroSky headset will remain under US$200, followed by the Pyramid version at an as-yet undisclosed price.