COMET • Vol. 1, No. 38 – 25 December 2000

Editor’s note: This is the final issue of COMET for the year 2000 (sent early due to the holidays). The articles in this issue are focused primarily on the neurosciences.

Best wishes for a relaxing holiday season, and Happy New Millennium!

P.S. There is a partial solar eclipse on Christmas Day. Follow the links at for location-specific information.


(1) “Combining Math And Music — A New Science” by Keith Sharon

Source: The Orange County Register – 15 December 2000

A study of second-graders is examining effects of music training and spatial reasoning on math ability.


…The second-graders at two Orange County schools – Oak Grove Elementary in Aliso Viejo and Madison Elementary in Santa Ana — are part of a 12-school national study measuring the effects of musical training and spatial reasoning on the brains of young students. Specifically, a noted UCI professor is testing his theory that musical math instruction can make students’ scores rise on the Stanford 9 test.

The study was designed by Gordon Shaw, the University of California, Irvine, professor known for his research on the “Mozart Effect,” which drew national attention – and some harsh critics – in 1993. Seven years ago, Shaw found that the math scores of 36 UCI students went up after they listened to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major. The current study of second-graders, however, has little to do with the Mozart Effect.

Shaw believes that by combining the study of fractions, ratios, symmetry and patterns in music and geometric shapes, students will “create neural hardware,” or train their brains to understand complicated math concepts. He predicts that math-test scores will more than double and that second-graders will be computing math equations at a fourth-grade level by the end of this school year.

The study consists of a 40-minute session every school day. In two sessions, students work in a music lab learning the piano keyboard. In two others, they work on a computer program designed to strengthen their spatial reasoning – watching a square divide into cubes and counting the outcome as a way of learning fractions, for instance. In the final session each week, they work on integrating the music and math.

They also listen to the Mozart sonata 10 minutes per week.

Shaw chose schools across the economic and ethnic spectrum to test his theory. At Oak Grove Elementary, 71 percent of the students are white, and 1 percent qualify for free lunches. At Madison Elementary, 95 percent of the students are Latino, and 89 percent qualify for free lunches.

Shaw believes both schools will show marked math improvement. Math, he said, shouldn’t be taught through language, but rather through sounds and shapes. Students, he said, should “see” concepts rather than remember verbal cues about mathematics.

“The revolution in math education is going to be fueled by music training,” Shaw said.

Even if it works, don’t look for school districts to change their teaching methods quickly.

“I believe he (Shaw) is right,” said Dave Chamberlain, the Capistrano Unified School District curriculum-support specialist. “But until there is definitive research, this is just another experiment. People are wary of these new theories.”

Myron Dembo, an educational psychologist at the University of Southern California, said it will be difficult for Shaw to make assumptions based on this study, even if the students score higher in math.

“Is it the music? Or the computer? Or are the kids just giving more attention to math?” Dembo said. “If he concludes it’s the music, he may not have cause to conclude that. If he’s trying to say that any kid who studies music will do well in math, that’s not true.”

Shaw’s theory is particularly revolutionary considering that many school districts across the state severely cut music programs after the recession of the early 1990s.

“If this is the key to unlocking higher levels of learning, that’s what we’re here for,” said Kevin Rafferty, Oak Grove’s principal, who is using Shaw’s study as the basis for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Southern California.

Rafferty divided his 10 second-grade classes (200 students) in half, creating a study group and a control group. At the end of the year, he will compare the math scores of both groups.

At Madison, Principal Marty Baker believes so earnestly in Shaw’s theory that she is putting all her 240 second-graders through the music training.

“I’m not interested in studying my students,” Baker said. “I’m interested in increasing their abilities. So far, they are getting it beautifully.”

Baker said she was stunned recently during a meeting with a special-education student, a parent and a district official. The district official asked the student, who is participating in Shaw’s music study, what he learned in school that day. The dotted half note, the student replied. Then the student explained that the dotted half note has the mathematical value of 3.

“She (the district official) was blown away,” Baker said.

The anecdotal evidence of improvement is compelling.

Kathleen Bargemann, whose son, Keith, participates in the Oak Grove study, said in the past he was so anxious about his math homework he was driven to tears. Now, he asks to do his math homework.

One night, Bargemann said, her family heard music playing from another room and found that Keith, who had never played an instrument, had composed his own song on the piano. He wasn’t merely banging keys; he had actually made up a musical sequence that had a good beat.

“We’re all amazed,” Bargemann said.

“It’ll be interesting to see what he does on the Stanford 9 test in the spring.”


(2) “Science Finds Neurological Clue To Teen Irresponsibility” by Mara Rose Williams

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer – 24 November 2000

On the outside, teenagers appear to be nearly grown up. But inside the skull, a vital part of their brain is closer to a child’s than an adult’s.

New findings in neuroscience and pediatric psychiatry link brain immaturity to teens making foolish judgments and reckless decisions.

Some teens have sex too soon. Some experiment with drugs and alcohol. Some see how far their car will fly on a hilly road.

Adults have long been puzzled about why otherwise “good” teens – smart ones – take deadly chances. But now scientists have made a connection. They have discovered that one of the last parts of the brain to mature is the prefrontal cortex – the part responsible for self-control, judgment, emotional regulation, organization and planning.

“The teenage brain is a work in progress,” said Sandra Witelson, a neuroscientist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who has done research on the subject.

The old belief was that by the time a child reached the age of puberty and pimples, the child’s brain’s hardware was completely connected.

But by using magnetic resonance imaging, researchers got pictures that helped prove that the brain has a good deal of developing to do well beyond the start of adolescence.

The brain does reach about 95 percent of its maturation by age 5. But the corpus callosum, a cable of nerves that connect the right and left halves of the brain, continues growing beyond the 20s. The corpus callosum is linked to intelligence, consciousness and self-awareness.

The prefrontal cortex matures the most between the ages of 12 and 20.

Add to this brew of disconnected neurons a healthy dose of active hormones spiked with the power of peer pressure and a need for autonomy, and one has a recipe for risky teenage behavior.

Leawood, Kan., resident Barb Kane said she grew up in a small rural town where there was little to do but test your limits experimenting with drugs and driving cars too fast.

She said she still thinks about some of the “just plain stupid things,” even dangerous things, she did as a teenager.

“At the time we were doing them, we didn’t think about it being dangerous. You just did it. But as parents now, we stay close to our kids because we know it’s tough being a teenager today. There’s a lot out there that’s scary, even in the suburbs,” said Kane, whose 14-year-old daughter is a freshman in high school.

The biological root of reckless behavior might provide an answer for adults who can’t understand why hill-hopping accidents have taken at least 10 lives in the Kansas City area over the last 18 months.

The most recent death was that of Mistyka Fiedler, a promising 15-year-old Truman High School student. She was thrown from a car in which she was riding and run over by another in a Sept. 15 hill-jumping accident on Ringo Road in Independence, Mo.

Seven of the 10 deaths occurred in eastern Jackson County. Alcohol was not a factor in any of them.

Principals at Truman and William Chrisman High Schools in Independence say that year after year, they drill students on the dangers of hill jumping, drinking and driving, drug and alcohol use and other risky behavior.

“Freshmen take health, and our health classes deal with healthy lifestyles and decision-making,” said John Ruddy, principal at William Chrisman.

“We have a teacher advisory program, which links students and teachers in a non-academic setting so they can talk to kids about these things. And we do programs like this every year with each new crop of students that comes in,” Ruddy said.

“What I see as much as anything is that kids have more freedom than they have ever had before and they may not be ready for that freedom,” he said.

The brain research suggests that Ruddy is right, that teenagers must be trained to handle the freedoms they demand.

The research says that after puberty, a pruning process takes place in the prefrontal cortex. About the age of 10, the prefrontal cortex goes through a growth spurt when neurons grow new connections. But those connections die off if they are not used.

The pruning process allows the brain to work more efficiently, researchers say. But until that process is complete, most young people don’t have all the brain power needed for good judgment.

One result is that many teens cannot walk away from risky activities when they are being coaxed by their peers.

Michael Rapoff, a professor of pediatric psychology at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said most teens lack the skills to resist peer pressure.

“Peer pressure is so powerful that it is difficult to override it by any lecture from adults,” Rapoff said.

Into a teenager’s explosive boil of unbridled emotion and temptation, he said, must be added the adolescent feeling of invincibility.

“Actually,” he said, “teenagers are correct in assuming that this is not a very likely time for them to die. So they tend to underestimate risks.”

Teens, he said, must be trained to handle peer pressure and to “think before they leap.”

Rapoff advises parents to talk with their teenagers without lecturing them. Dialogue and negotiation, he said, make the teenagers part of the learning process.

In the fall 1998 issue of the Journal of American Psychology, neuropsychologist Deborah Yurgelun-Todd said that good judgment is learned once teens have the necessary hardware.

With these latest discoveries about the brain, doctors and educators may have the key to helping teenagers listen to that small voice within that repeats past warnings from parents, teachers or counselors.

“The prefrontal cortex is a source of knowledge about what is most important in our lives,” said Vermont psychiatrist Emma Bragdon, who has written several papers on adolescent behavior. “Without kids being able to be in touch with that, they feel life has no meaning, they can be self destructive or violent toward others.”


(3) “Funny-Brain: Scientists Locate Sense of Humor”

Source: ABCNEWS affiliate WLS in Chicago and Reuters contributed to this report.

The area above your right eye inside your brain may seem rather humorless. But researchers say that’s where your neurons get tickled when you hear a joke.


After thousands of years of speculation, it has been found: your sense of humor.

Call it the brain’s funny bone.

“It’s the right frontal lobe just above the right eye,” says Dr. Dean Shibata, a neurological radiologist at the University of Rochester School of Medicine.

That location, he said, “appears critical to our ability to recognize a joke.”

Shibata’s patients were given MRI exams to measure brain activity.

“We tried to find out what part of the brain is particularly active while telling the punch line of a joke as opposed to the rest of the joke … and funny cartoons in comparison to parts of the cartoon that’s not funny,” explained Shibata. He says the jokes “tickled” the frontal lobes.

While his research was about humor, the results could help lead to answers — and solutions — about depression.

“We know that parts of the brain that are active during humor are actually abnormal in patients with depression,” he said. Shibata predicted that eventually, brain scans might be used to assess patients with depression and other mood disorders.

The research may also explain why some stroke victims lose their sense of humor or suffer other personality changes. The same part of the brain is also associated with social and emotional judgment and planning, the study said.

A Look at Laughter Shibata and colleagues released a report at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America that was based on the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to map activity in the brains of 13 people exposed to humor in four different tests.

“Although the purpose of humor and laughter is still largely unknown despite 2,000 years of speculation, having a sense of humor is a key part of our personalities and it can play a powerful role in balancing negative emotions, such as fear,” he said.

“There have been few studies of humor’s place in the brain, but understanding the basis of positive emotions will likely be as helpful as understanding the negative ones,” he said.


(4) Scientists Reveal Details Of Brain Cell Communication: Implications For Learning & Memory
Contact: Michael Stebbins;; 516-367-8881; Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Forget gigabytes. Even the most powerful computers available today are mere playthings compared to the complexity, efficiency, and information processing capacity of the human brain. Underlying the brain’s far superior design are the billion-million or so connections between brain cells–called synapses–that form vast neural networks in which brain cells, or neurons, are each connected to thousands of other neurons. These networks–and their ability to be shaped by experience–enable us to receive, process, store, and retrieve all manner of information about our world. Unfortunately, the extremely tiny size of synapses and the limitations of conventional experimental techniques have hampered detailed studies of these essential structures. (One trillion synaptic compartments, or “dendritic spines,” could fit into a thimble). Now, scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory have overcome these technical obstacles to gain an extremely close look at the properties of dendritic spines and synapses that govern brain function.

“Our findings reveal fundamental properties of synapses that enables them to trigger the changes in neurons that underlie learning and memory,” says Karel Svoboda, the principal author of the study which will be published tomorrow in Nature. Svoboda, an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, helped pioneer the use of a high resolution imaging technique called “two-photon microscopy” in neuroscience.

In the current study, Svoboda and his colleague Bernardo Sabatini electrically stimulated brain neurons and used two-photon microscopy to watch as calcium rushed-in to single dendritic spines of these neurons (see figure). These measurements enabled the researchers to determine the number and type of “calcium channels” present at synapses in a region of the brain important for learning and memory, the hippocampus. Calcium channels are molecular gates that open in response to electrical stimulation and allow calcium to flow into dendritic spines. Calcium, in turn, triggers biochemical events in the spine which modify synaptic strength and thereby encode memories.

In their study, Sabatini and Svoboda could detect if single calcium channels opened or, by chance, remained closed following stimulation. Measuring the probability of channel opening, “like tossing a coin, where heads is open and tails is closed,” says Svoboda, enabled him and Sabatini to determine the number of calcium channels per spine. The scientists discovered that depending on their size, spines contain from one to twenty, and typically three, calcium channels.

“Visually examining calcium fluctuations in a single dendritic spine in the brain as we have done is akin to examining the wrinkles on a raisin sitting on the 50 yard line of a football stadium from the Goodyear blimp,” says Sabatini.

But nothing is that simple in the brain. Which type of channel is causing these changes in calcium? There are at least six known varieties of calcium channels that could be present in spines, each having different properties. Using chemical probes, Sabatini and Svoboda were able to demonstrate that one specific type of channel (the R type) is solely responsible for the influx of calcium that they observed. “We are looking at the behavior of single calcium channels in their natural environment, the brain.” said Sabatini.

“The local influx of calcium we have observed in spines is a fundamental measure of the information carried in one particular brain neuron and how it is processed locally. The information encoded in the messages passed between neurons is simple,” says Sabatini. “It’s not unlike computer programming code where a single command can be either one for a positive response or zero for a negative response.” When an action potential causes a calcium channel to open, that’s a one, when it fails to open that’s a zero.

Scientists believe that the strengthening of synapses between neurons in response to experience ultimately gives rise to networks of neurons that govern complex brain functions like learning and memory. Moreover, communication within these networks forms the basis of thinking and self-awareness that we call cognition. Visualizing how neurons communicate with each other on the most basic level, as Sabatini and Svoboda have done, provides important clues for understanding how our brains outperform the most sophisticated computers and enable us to grasp the human experience.

For more information about Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, visit the Laboratory’s website ( or call the Department of Public Affairs at 516-367-8455.