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How “twist my arm” engages the brain

Listening to metaphors involving arms or legs loops in a region of the brain responsible for visual perception of those body parts, scientists have discovered.

The finding, recently published in Brain & Language, is another example of how neuroscience studies are providing evidence for “grounded cognition” – the idea that comprehension of abstract concepts in the brain is built upon concrete experiences, a proposal whose history extends back millennia to Aristotle.

The EBA was shown in 2001 to respond selectively to images of the human body by Nancy Kanwisher and colleagues.

When study participants heard sentences that included phrases such as “shoulder responsibility,” “foot the bill” or “twist my arm”, they tended to engage a region of the brain called the left extrastriate body area or EBA.

The same level of activation was not seen when participants heard literal sentences containing phrases with a similar meaning, such as “take responsibility” or “pay the bill.”  The study included 12 right-handed, English-speaking people, and blood flow in their brains was monitored by functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

“The EBA is part of the extrastriate visual cortex, and it was known to be involved in identifying body parts,” says senior author Krish Sathian, MD, PhD, professor of neurology, rehabilitation medicine, and psychology at Emory University.  “We found that the metaphor selectivity of the EBA matches its visual selectivity.” Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

Going meta

Just before Thanksgiving, Slate writer Katy Waldman had a piece summarizing the growing body of evidence that linguistic metaphors reflect how we actually use our brains.

Emory neuroscientist Krish Sathian and his colleagues have been major contributors to this field (“conceptual metaphor theory”). In 2012, he and Simon Lacey published their brain imaging study, which found that when people listened to sentences involving touch metaphors (“having a rough day”), the parts of the brain involved in the sense of touch were activated. NPR’s Jon Hamilton talked about these findings with him in 2013.

At the recent Society for Neuroscience meeting, Sathian discussed his team’s ongoing work on how the brain processes metaphors that make references to body parts (head, face, arm, hand, leg, foot), as part of a nano symposium on language.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment