We’re used to thinking of neglect as a lack of appropriate care, but to a neuroscientist, it has a very different meaning. “Spatial neglect” is a neurological condition caused by damage to one half of the brain (usually the right), where patients find it difficult to pay attention to one half of their visual space (usually the left).
This bias can affect their mental images too. If neglect patients are asked to draw clocks, many only include the numbers from 12 to 6, while some shunt all the numbers to the right side. When two famous neglect patients were asked to describe a familiar square in Milan, the city they grew up in, the landmarks they reported shifted depending on where they pictured themselves standing in the square. They would only report buildings to the right of their imagined position – swap the location and new buildings would suddenly come into mental view.
Patients tend to be particularly unaware of things on the left if other objects on the right are vying for their attention – this phenomenon, where only one of two simultaneously presented objects is seen, is called “visual extinction“.
Neglect is clearly a fascinating condition but also a debilitating and underappreciated one. It affects up to 60% of patients who suffer strokes on the right side of their brain, and it can hamper recovery and deny patients their independence. As such, there are plenty of researchers interested in finding ways of improving its symptoms. David Soto from Imperial College London is one of them, and he has discovered a deceptively simple way of helping neglect patients to regain their lost awareness – listen to their favourite music.
Soto was encouraged by a recent study, which found that stroke victims showed greater improvements in both memory and attention when they tuned into music than when they listened to audiobooks or worked in silence. And other studies have suggested that emotional faces are less likely to fall prey to visual extinction than less compelling images. But Soto wanted to see if the patient’s own emotional state had anything to do with their awareness. Would it be possible to reduce the symptoms of neglect simply by making patients feel happier through the medium of pleasant melodies?
The trauma of child abuse can last a lifetime, leading to a higher risk of anxiety, depression and suicide further down the line. This link seems obvious, but a group of Canadian scientists have found that it has a genetic basis.
By studying the brains of suicide victims, Patrick McGowan from the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, found that child abuse modifies a gene called NR3C1 that affects a person’s ability to deal with stress. The changes it wrought were “epigenetic”, meaning that the gene’s DNA sequence wasn’t altered but it’s structure was modified to make it less active. These types of changes are very long-lasting, which strongly suggests that the trauma of child abuse could be permanently inscribed onto a person’s genes.
Child abuse, from neglect to physical abuse, affects the workings of an important group of organs called the “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis” or HPA. This trinity consists of the hypothalamus, a funnel-shaped part of the brain; the pituitary gland, which sits beneath it; and the adrenal glands, which sit above the kidneys. All three organs secrete hormones. Through these chemicals, the HPA axis controls our reactions to stressful situations, triggering a number of physiological changes that prime our bodies for action.
The NR3C1 gene is part of this system. It produces a protein called the glucocorticoid receptor, which sticks to cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone”. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress, and when it latches on to its receptor, it triggers a chain reaction that deactivates the HPA axis. In this way, our body automatically limits its own response to stressful situations.
Without enough glucocorticoid receptors, this self-control goes awry, which means that the HPA is active in normal situations, as well as stressful ones. No surprise then, that some scientists have found a link between low levels of this receptor and schizophrenia, mood disorders and suicide. So, childhood trauma alters the way the body reacts to stress, which affects a person’s risk of suicide or mental disorders later in life. Now, McGowan’s group have revealed part of the genetic (well, epigenetic) basis behind this link.