New Clues to Age-Related Cognitive Decline

Mounting evidence suggests that age-related cognitive decline is caused not by nerve cell death, as it is in Alzheimer’s disease, but from a disruption in synapses, the structures that allow a nerve cell to transmit a signal to other nerve cells. Demonstrating these synaptic disruptions in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, and linking such disruptions to synaptic health, has been challenging for scientists—until now.

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Restoring fading memories

Research in Mark Baxter’s laboratory, the Glickenhaus Laboratory of Neuropsychology, focuses on the neural systems underlying memory and other higher cognitive functions, and understanding how disturbances in these systems impair cognitive function in brain disorders. Our general approach is to study the effects on behavior of specific manipulations of neural circuits in animal models, to gain insight into how similar disruptions in human disease may be responsible for cognitive impairment.

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Making an Old Brain More Plastic

We all know that it is easier to learn a new language or musical instrument as a child rather than in adulthood. At no other time in life does the surrounding environment so potently shape brain function – from basic motor skills and sensation to higher cognitive processes like language – than it does during childhood. This experience-dependent process occurs at distinct time windows called “critical periods”, which are times of great opportunity but also of great vulnerability for the developing brain. Early disruption of proper sensory or social experiences will result in mis-wired circuits that will respond sub-optimally to normal experiences in the future. Comparable effects are also seen for the development of vision, where if a child’s binocular vision is compromised and not corrected before the age of eight, amblyopia (‘lazy eye’) is permanent and irreversible.

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Thinking Microglia

For most of us the word brain is synonymous with nerve cells or neurons. All of us are well familiar with the notion of the brain as a mega-computer where billions of neurons govern our life, from simplest tasks to the rare moments of discoveries. It may appear surprising to hear that the function of brain and neurons would not be possible without cells that do not participate in our thinking directly. Instead, these cells, that are called microglia, function as watchdogs of neuron’s functionality and health and remove neurons that stop acting properly.

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Brain Awareness Fair

Have you ever had fun getting dizzy by spinning around? Ever thought of what ears have to do with getting dizzy? Ears are for hearing, right?

When you have a stuffy nose, whatever you eat seems bland and tasteless. What does your nose have to do with taste? We taste food with our tongues and our noses are for smelling, right?

These are just a few of the many complex concepts of how the brain and other parts of our bodies coordinate to keep functioning. Through easy-to-understand demonstrations and activities, these and several other complexities of the brain were adeptly simplified and communicated to our young visitors at Mount Sinai by members of Sinai Neuroscience Outreach Program (SNOP) and their volunteers during the first “Brain Awareness Fair” on March 12th, 2013.

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The NeuroTouch Simulation Project

As a first-year neurosurgery resident at Mount Sinai, I am continuously reminded of the seamless integration of innovative surgical technology and its ability to positively affect the outcomes of our patients. In fact, when I was a medical student at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, I remember being fascinated by the “high-tech” feel of a neurosurgical operating room. Everything, from the microscope, to the cranial and spinal navigation systems seemed like something straight out of a science fiction movie. I realized that neurosurgery was a rapidly evolving field that was fueled by cutting-edge technology. It is one the reasons why I ultimately decided to join the ranks of the neurosurgeons I always idealized as a medical student. With this in mind, I am excited for the opportunity to describe my experiences with the launch our neurosurgery department’s NeuroTouch Simulation Project.

To provide a bit of background, in 2009, the National Research Council of Canada introduced the NeuroTouch, a one-of-a-kind physics-based virtual simulator for cranial micro-neurosurgery training. The development of similar virtual reality simulation devices within the past decade has enabled residents to practice basic surgical procedures in a risk-free environment. These devices have progressively increased in sophistication, playing an increasingly important role in the education and training of new surgeons. In September 2012, The Department of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center became the first in the United States to purchase the NeuroTouch Simulator.

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