The brain is one of the most vital organs in the human body. Despite it all, it seems like we have barely just scratched the surface—when it comes to our knowledge and understanding on how the brain functions; and the true details buried beneath.

While the medical science field has a great understanding of the human brain from an anatomical standpoint—understanding how each brain region functions and communicates with one another remains to be the biggest puzzle; and that is our brain’s activity. Nevertheless, new research and discoveries are made every day, which help shed light on this mystery. Here are three recent discoveries in regards to brain activity.

Women have higher brain activity than men

In a recent research published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, women were found to have higher levels of brain activity compared to men. The study looked at the numerous brain region of more than 26,000 adults, with the help of functional neuroimaging techniques. It was discovered that women had higher levels of brain activity; especially those associated with impulse control, anxiety and mood.

According to Dr Amen, the lead researcher of the study, this gender disparity in brain activity could be the underlying factor explaining the disproportionate number of cognitive disorders in men and women. "This is a very important study to help understand gender-based brain differences. The quantifiable differences we identified between men and women are important for the understanding of gender-based risk for brain disorders; such as Alzheimer's disease,” elaborated Dr Amen.

For instance, women are two times more likely to develop depression and two thirds of Alzheimer’s patients in the United States are women. Meanwhile, men more commonly suffer from developmental disorders such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Aside from the underlying medical implications, the team also surmised the difference in brain activity as an attribution factor to women having generally higher levels of empathy and self-control.

Learning during sleep

Sleep is essential not just as a means of rest – it is also vital in promoting learning and processing information, according to a recent discovery by a French research team. Led by sleep psychologist, Thomas Andrillon, the team of researchers studied our brain’s ability to recognise and remember audio cues, whilst in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep compared to non-REM sleep. In all participants of the study, they were found to be better at identifying the audio cues when in REM-sleep, as compared to when in non-REM sleep. This discovery further cemented the importance and benefit of deep sleep.

In addition, learning is not the only important task carried out while we are asleep. “Not only do we show learning is possible – but, that the reverse can happen also,” added Andrillon. “One of the core roles of sleep is to suppress memories; so you will maintain the number of memories to a reasonable level,” he explained. This increased understanding of our brain’s activity during sleep may not seem like much. Nonetheless, the team is working towards teaching the brain more explicit knowledge – such as language and mathematics while we sleep.

Some video games deter brain activity

Video games are one of the biggest and most influential pastime of the 21st century – especially with the growing number of smartphones and gaming consoles. Often thought to promote positive brain activity, two researchers from Montreal have now published a new finding in the journal, Molecular Psychiatry, which shows that not all video games have positive effects on the brain.

By studying the brains of 100 adults before and after playing video games, the researchers found a loss of grey matter in the hippocampus region of the brain – after having played action first-person shooter video games; such as Call of Duty, Killzone, Medal of Honor and Borderlands 2. The hippocampus is a crucial part of the brain responsible for consolidating short-term memory into long-term memory. Cognitive disorders which affect an individual’s memory such as Alzheimer’s disease, depression, schizophrenia and PTSD all have links to a depleted hippocampus.

Nevertheless, these findings did not extend to all video games. Platform-puzzle video games (e.g. Super Mario) indicated an increase in grey matter in the hippocampus. It is with these findings that the team hopes to warn consumers that not all video games are the same with varying effects on brain activity; especially for children, young adults and older adults with cognitive issues.

“Video games have been shown to benefit certain cognitive systems in the brain, mainly related to visual attention and short-term memory. But, there is also behavioural evidence that there might be a cost to that, in terms of the impact on the hippocampus,” remarked lead author, Greg West. The team hopes the findings from their research would encourage game developers to create games which strike a better balance to help promote brain activity. MIMS

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