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




Sunday, 25 March 2018
The Many Events Without Which We Wouldn’t Be Here To Talk About Them

In the course of evolution, there have been many times when the future existence of my brain as I write these lines and yours as you read them has hung by the slenderest thread. Without the events, many of them quite unlikely, that occurred at these times, we would not be here today to speculate about their nature (or at least not in our current form).

We have all heard about the extinction of the dinosaurs, about 66 million years ago. After having ruled over practically every ecosystem on Earth for tens of millions of years, the dinosaurs disappeared suddenly (as measured on the geological time scale, of course), after an immense meteorite collided with the Earth, resulting in a nuclear winter. (Recent research suggests that intense volcanic activity at the same time probably contributed to this nuclear winter as well.) In the aftermath, small mammals that had previously led a somewhat insignificant existence were able to prosper in the ecological niches vacated by the dinosaurs. Thus an entirely fortuitous event is part of the reason that mammals, including the primate family to which we belong, exist in their present form.

But the impact of that meteorite isn’t the only event that seems to have been crucial to our current existence. An article that appeared in 2016, and whose title I have always loved (“The aliens are silent because they’re dead”), states that the universe is probably full of planets that are habitable: neither too close nor too far from their star for water to exist on their surface in liquid form, which is a prerequisite for the development of life as we know it. But this article also states that while it is highly likely that some primitive forms of life have developed on these planets, it seems increasingly unlikely that these life forms can evolve beyond a certain stage, because the unstable environments in which they have evolved have made them so fragile.

Little do we realize how many unbelievable random events had to take place on Earth for life here to evolve beyond these early stages. And these events begin with another collision—the one that, according to the most heavily debated hypothesis at present, resulted in the formation of the Earth’s largest natural satellite, the Moon. Somewhat like a gyroscope, the Moon has a stabilizing effect on the rotation of the Earth’s axis, resulting in a regularity in the seasons without which life on our planet would be vulnerable to many more risks. Likewise, until modern times, a subtle equilibrium regulated the composition of the gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, including the proportion of carbon dioxide. Now that industrialization has upset this balance, we see how greenhouse gas effects and global warming are threatening life on Earth as we know it.

Many other events have been crucial to the evolution of human beings. I will end this post with just a few examples: the formation of lipid bilayer cell membranes; the emergence of photosynthesis, leading in turn to the emergence of oxygen in the atmosphere; the emergence of sexual reproduction; and the emergence of multicellular organisms.

From the Simple to the Complex | No comments


Wednesday, 7 March 2018
“Winner effect” Makes Subordinate Mice Dominant

This week I’d like to tell you about an experiment by Hailan Hu and his team at Zhejiang University, in China. These researchers used optogenetic methods and various wavelengths of light to excite or inhibit, on command, a particular population of neurons in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) of mice. (These neurons receive their natural inputs from the mediodorsal portion of the thalamus.) When the researchers excited these neurons in previously subordinate mice, they began to win confrontations with previously dominant mice, forcing them to retreat in a tube resembling a narrow tunnel (see photo above) and let them pass first. (more…)

Pleasure and Pain | No comments


Thursday, 22 February 2018
Walking in Nature Stops You from Brooding

If you can manage it, try to go out and walk a bit each day in a large park or other green space (not always easy in poor neighbourhoods. Why? Because yet another study, since the first one by Roger Ulrich in 1984, has confirmed the benefits of natural environments for reducing our tendency to ruminate (focus our thoughts repetitively on negative aspects of ourselves). This new study was done by Gregory Bratman and his colleagues. It is entitled “Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation”, and it was published in the journal PNAS in July 2015. (more…)

Body Movement and the Brain | No comments


Wednesday, 7 February 2018
Are crows just as good at planning as the great apes?

Over the years, many studies have been published on the intelligence of crows, ravens, jays and other corvids (members of the crow family). But according to several specialists on the subject, a study entitled “Ravens parallel great apes in flexible planning for tool-use and bartering,” published in July 2017 in the journal Science, reveals that birds in this family have a heretofore unexpected ability to plan a future behaviour after learning something under experimental conditions. The conditions in this study were such that the behaviour was unlikely to have arisen from a more or less innate adaptation to the birds’ natural environment. The ravens learned to use a rock to get a piece of food out of a box built by humans—certainly not a natural feature of the ecological niche in which their species evolved. Nevertheless, once they had learned this behaviour, they were able to select the rock out of a group of objects, then wait for as many as 17 minutes for the researchers to show them the box again, and then use the rock to get the food out of the box. (more…)

From Thought to Language | No comments


Tuesday, 23 January 2018
The Mere Presence of Your Smartphone Reduces Your Cognitive Capacity

An article entitled “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity”, published by Adrian Ward and his colleagues in April 2017, suggests that smartphone owners’ cognitive capacities may be reduced by the mere fact of knowing that their devices are close at hand.

Ward’s study included nearly 800 subjects, all of whom were smartphone users. They were asked to perform a series of tests that required a high degree of concentration in order to achieve good results. In the first experiment, the subjects were divided into three groups. The subjects in the first group placed their phones on the table in front of them, face down; those in the second group kept their phones in their pockets or handbags; and those in the third group left their phones in another room. The subjects who had left their phones in another room achieved significantly better test results than those who had their phones in front of them on the table, and slightly better results than those who had their phones in their pockets or bags. (more…)

From Thought to Language | No comments


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