After providing all the funding for The Brain from Top to Bottom for over 10 years, the CIHR Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction informed us that because of budget cuts, they were going to be forced to stop sponsoring us as of March 31st, 2013.

We have approached a number of organizations, all of which have recognized the value of our work. But we have not managed to find the funding we need. We must therefore ask our readers for donations so that we can continue updating and adding new content to The Brain from Top to Bottom web site and blog.

Please, rest assured that we are doing our utmost to continue our mission of providing the general public with the best possible information about the brain and neuroscience in the original spirit of the Internet: the desire to share information free of charge and with no adverstising.

Whether your support is moral, financial, or both, thank you from the bottom of our hearts!

Bruno Dubuc, Patrick Robert, Denis Paquet, and Al Daigen




Tuesday, 23 May 2017
Two “Trees of Life”

This week I want to tell you about two great websites for learning about the genealogy of every living thing on planet Earth. The first is the evogeneao Tree of Life Explorer, and it uses an incredibly ingenious design that lets you click on any currently living species and trace back to the common ancestor that humans share with it. An animation then shows you where this common ancestor is located in the phylogenetic tree of all living things and tells you how many years ago this common ancestor lived.

For example, if you click on the shark, you discover that our common ancestor is a species that resembled an eel; it lived 460 million years ago, which makes it our 200 million-greats grandparent! This website also offers a 5-minute introductory video explaining how the Tree of Life expresses the relationships between humans and all the other creatures now living on Earth, as well as the many others, such as the dinosaurs, that are now extinct. The graphic design of the Tree of Life Explorer also lets you very clearly visualize the five major periods of massive extinction that have marked the history of evolution. (It does not, however, clearly show the sixth, which unfortunately seems to have begun and appears to be caused by human activity.

The other website depicting the phylogenetic tree of evolution is called the OneZoom Tree of Life Explorer, and it has already been online for some time (since 2012). This Tree of Life Explorer too has many features, different from the other one. In particular, it uses a fractal algorithm to represent an impressive number of species all on one page, where you can zoom in for the details. Fractals always represent the same pattern (in this case, a simple branching pattern) no matter what scale they are observed on. The authors of this site have applied this property to let you see, in increasingly fine detail, all the diverging branches of the various species that have evolved since the great division, 2.125 billion years ago, between the eukaryotes and the archaea. The advantage of this tool is that it lets you see all the major subdivisions of the tree of life in a single glance and then zoom in on the branch that interests you and discover all the finer subdivisions. For example, if you want to start by exploring all the multicellular species that have nervous systems (in other words, animals), click here.

Evolution and the Brain | No comments


Tuesday, 9 May 2017
Protect Your Immune System by Refusing To Be Dominated!

A study published in the November 25, 2016 issue of the journal Science shows that subordinate status in a social group seems to have harmful effects on an individual’s immune system. More specifically, this study found that a female rhesus monkey’s relative position in her group’s dominance hierarchy influenced the functioning of her immune system in the following way: the lower her rank, the fewer immune cells of a certain type her body produced.

And such differences seem to be caused by the activation or non-activation of certain genes. The study’s authors found that when they used experimental manipulations of the group to change individuals’ ranks in the hierarchy, the rate of expression of these genes changed as well. (more…)

Mental Disorders | No comments


Thursday, 20 April 2017
Learning Empathy

The existence of empathy and altruistic behaviour among various species of animals has been amply demonstrated. Among elephants, examples include comforting members of the herd who are frightened, rescuing others when they get get stuck in mud holes, and adopting orphaned babies. Chimpanzees and bonobos display sophisticated altruistic behaviours in dealing with weak or disabled members of their troops, trying to help them stand, bringing them food, and covering them with vegetation after confirming that they have died.

The human species is no exception. We human beings depend so much on one another and our societies are so complex that our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to feel what they are feeling and to act accordingly, is quite obvious. Ethologists and evolutionary biologists agree that in species that form complex societies in which cooperation and mutual assistance constitute an advantage for the entire group, empathy developed naturally. (more…)

Pleasure and Pain | No comments


Wednesday, 22 February 2017
To Retain Information Better, Wait a Few Hours, Then Go for a Run!

The study that I want to tell you about today was done by Eelco V. van Dongen and his colleagues and is entitled “Physical Exercise Performed Four Hours after Learning Improves Memory Retention and Increases Hippocampal Pattern Similarity during Retrieval.”

This study’s findings can be summed up as follows: if you have just made a new mental association and want to remember it better, wait a couple of hours, and then go do some exercise! In van Dongen’s study, three groups of subjects performed a memory-encoding task. One group performed exercise immediately after, one did so four hours after, and the third did not perform any exercise at all. When the three groups were tested for their retention of the encoded memory two days afterward, the group that had exercised four hours after the task showed the best retention among the three groups. (more…)

Memory and the Brain | No comments


Friday, 10 February 2017
You Don’t Catch a Ball by Calculating Its Trajectory, You Catch It by Moving

Today I’d like to talk about a problem that is a classic both for baseball players and for cognitive scientists. And the way that baseball players solve it has helped cognitive scientists to better understand the important role that the body plays in cognition.

The problem is as follows: how does a baseball player go about catching a baseball that has been hit high into the air, especially when the player is in centre field and the ball is following a long, parabolic trajectory that would otherwise cause it to land several metres from where the player is standing? How does the player go about calculating this trajectory and moving, in just a few seconds, to the right place to catch the ball? This is what has long been known in English as “the outfielder problem.” (If you’re more of a soccer fan, imagine a backfielder successfully heading a long throw-in by the goalkeeper.) (more…)

Body Movement and the Brain | No comments


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