Brain areas responsible for “learning by watching” identified

By Nicole Gelfand

Children imitate our every action- from their very first words to even the most miniscule of habits they acquire from their parents. Children are a firsthand example of how human learning often takes place by observing other individuals, a term referred to as observational learning.  From a young age human brains associate observed actions with the rewards and consequences that follow, to subsequently “learn by watching” and change behavior.

Multitasking? “Digital archaeology” shows up to five projects is optimal


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How many projects can you work on at the same time, before losing efficiency? There are many reasons to get involved in multiple projects – impress your boss, gain personal satisfaction, help out colleagues or just because you’re interested. But at some point, there must be one project too many.

“There is a limit,” said Bogdan Vasilescu, postdoctoral researcher in the DECAL lab at the UC Davis Department of Computer Science. “Multitasking fills time that’s otherwise unused, but there is a limit at four or five projects in a week.”

“Love hormone” oxytocin, possible anxiety drug, shows different effects in male and female mice

By Kathleen Holder

Clinical trials are testing whether oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone” for its role in intimacy and social bonding, has potential as a treatment for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. New research by behavioral neuroscientists Michael Steinman, Brian Trainor and colleagues at UC Davis suggests oxytocin may have different effects in men and women—and in certain circumstances the hormone may actually trigger anxiety.

In a series of experiments at the UC Davis Department of Psychology, the team administered doses of oxytocin with a nasal spray to male and female mice. Some of the mice were bullied by an aggressive mouse, an experience that reduces motivation to associate with unfamiliar mice. Consistent with previous studies, oxytocin increased the motivation for social interaction in stressed males.

Does hunting explain why zebras are not domesticated?

By Kathleen Holder

Why do people ride horses but not their striped African cousins?

A few zebras have accepted a rider or pulled a cart, but zebras have never been truly domesticated — and for good reason: They can be aggressive, panicky and unpredictable, making them difficult to halter and saddle train. While smaller than horses, they have powerful legs that can carry them at speeds up to 35 mph, and with a kick, can break the jaw of a predator. Those Chuck Norris-like skills are useful when you have lions, cheetahs and hyenas chasing you down for lunch.

Parenting style affects young voles’ brains

“Nature versus Nurture” is an old debate. How much behavior do you inherit from your parents, and how much from the environment where you grow up? A new study from the University of California, Davis shows that the amount of parental care a prairie vole gives its offspring affects the youngster’s brain structure and connectivity – probably working by changing levels of gene expression. The work is published online in the Journal of Comparative Neurology and will appear in print in a forthcoming special issue of the journal.

The prairie vole is one of the few mammal species in which both parents care for the young. Credit: Adele Seelke

The prairie vole is one of a few mammal species in which both parents care for the young. Credit: Adele Seelke

Psychology researchers build mind map of memories evoked by music

Contributed by Alex Russell

A snatch of music can evoke powerful memories. Now a team led by UC Davis psychologist Petr Janata is working to building a map of brain regions that react to music that triggers particular memories. The results will expand our knowledge on how the brain encodes memories. It could also provide a way to improve quality of life for those suffering debilitating conditions including Alzheimer’s disease.

Map of music in the brain

Brain scans show how different regions light up in response to familiar (green), memory-evoking (red) or “pleasing” (blue) songs. (Janata lab, UC Davis)

21st century linguistics: helping computer scientists write better code

By Jeffrey Day

Raúl Aranovich, an associate professor of linguistics at UC Davis, is using his knowledge of language structure and theory on a project to identify programmers most likely to write vulnerable code.

He is working with UC Davis computer scientists Prem Devanbu and Vladimir Filikov on a National Science Foundation funded project called “Language, Computation and Cybersecurity.

Q&A with Raúl Aranovich

“There’s this big debate whether an author leaves a quantitative fingerprint on his or her work. It could be from things like average sentence length or how many adverbs you include in your writing or your speech,” Aranovich said.

Medicine Nobel: How the brain makes sense of place

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to three neuroscientists, John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser, for their discoveries of brain cells that allow us to make sense of place and location and navigate our environment.

In 1971, O’Keefe, then working at University College London, identified “place cells” in an area of the brain called the hippocampus. In rats, specific place cells activated when a rat was in a specific location, making up a map of the room inside the rat’s brain.

More than 30 years later, the Mosers discovered “grid cells,” that allow our brains to create coordinates and navigate between points.

Curiosity helps learning and memory

Curiosity helps us learn about a topic, and being in a curious state also helps the brain memorize unrelated information, according to researchers at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience. Work published Oct. 2 in the journal Neuron provides insight into how piquing our curiosity changes our brains, and could help scientists find ways to enhance overall learning and memory in both healthy individuals and those with neurological conditions.

“Our findings potentially have far-reaching implications for the public because they reveal insights into how a form of intrinsic motivation — curiosity — affects memory. These findings suggest ways to enhance learning in the classroom and other settings,” says first author Matthias Gruber, a postdoctoral researcher at the center.

Psychologist’s research supports gay marriage decision

When a panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down gay marriage bans in Wisconsin and Indiana this week, the justices cited work by UC Davis professor of psychology Gregory Herek.

In the 40-page opinion, Judge Richard A. Posner wrote, “…there is little doubt that sexual orientation, the ground of the discrimination, is an immutable (and probably an innate, in the sense of in-born) characteristic rather than a choice.” Posner cited a paper published by Herek and colleagues in 2010, which found that 95 percent of gay men and 84 percent of lesbians perceived they had little or no choice about their sexual orientation.