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Near bottom: focus triggered by new activity or movement?

Research has shown that the electrical activity of the neocortex of the brain changes, when we focus our attention. Neurons stop signalling in sync with one another and start firing out of sync. This is helpful, says Williams, because it allows individual neurons to respond to sensory information in different ways. Thus, you can focus on a car speeding down the road or on what a friend is saying in a crowded room. It's known that the cholinergic system in the brain plays an important role in triggering this desynchronization. The cholinergic system consists of clusters of special neurons that synthesise and release a signalling molecule called acetylcholine, he explains, and these clusters make far reaching connections throughout the brain. Not only does this cholinergic system act like a master switch, but mounting evidence suggests it also enables the brain to identify which sensory input is the most salient -- i.e. worthy of attention -- at any given moment and then shine a spotlight on that input. "The cholinergic system broadcasts to the brain, 'this thing is really important to be vigilant to'," says Williams. He adds that the cholinergic system has been proposed to have a far-reaching impact on our cognitive abilities. "Destruction of the cholinergic system in animals profoundly degrades cognition, and the formation of memory," he says. "Importantly, in humans a progressive degeneration of the cholinergic system occurs in devastating diseases that blunt cognition and memory, such as Alzheimer's disease." But precisely which neurons in the cortex are being targeted by this master switch and how it's able to influence their function was unknown. Williams and QBI researcher Lee Fletcher wondered if layer 5 B-pyramidal neurons, the 'output' neurons of the neocortex, might be involved, because they are intimately involved in how we perceive the world. "The output neurons of the neocortex perform computations that are thought to underlie our perception of the world," says Williams. Williams and Fletcher wanted to know if the cholinergic system is able to influence the activity of these output neurons. Using a technique called optogenetics, they modified neurons in the cholinergic system in the brains of mice so that they could be activated with a flash of blue light, triggering a sudden release of acetylcholine. This allowed the researchers to closely monitor the interaction between the cholinergic system and the output neurons. They discovered that if the output neurons were not currently active, not much happened. But when those neurons received excitatory input to their dendrites, the cholinergic system was able to massively increase their activity. "It's as if the cholinergic system has given a 'go' signal," says Fletcher, enabling the output neurons of the neocortex to powerfully respond. Importantly, this change was selective, and only apparent when excitatory input was being processed in the dendrites of the 'output' neurons. "We have known for some time that the dendrites of the output neurons of the neocortex only become active when animals are actively performing a behaviour, and that this activity is correlated with perception and task performance," says Williams. This new work demonstrates that the cholinergic system is critical to this transition in mice and rats, allowing the output neurons to perform computations in a state-dependent manner. "We suggest that this switch also occurs in the human neocortex, allowing us to rapidly switch our state of vigilance and attention," says Williams. "Our work therefore provides important insight into how the progressive degeneration of the cholinergic system in disease blunts human cognition."

Touch can produce detailed, lasting memories -- ScienceDaily

Participants showed almost perfect recall on the test that followed the exploration period, correctly identifying the object they had explored 94% of the time. Remarkably, participants still showed robust memory for the original objects 1 week later, with 84% accuracy. But would they still remember objects so well if they weren't intentionally memorizing them? And could objects that were explored by touch be recognized via a different sensory modality? In a second experiment, a new group of participants explored the same 168 objects without knowing they would be tested on them. Instead, the experimenters said that they were investigating aesthetic judgments, and they asked the participants to rate the pleasantness of each object based on texture, shape, and weight. Participants returned 1 week later for a surprise memory test, completing a blindfolded touch-based recognition task for half of the objects. For the rest of the objects, they completed a visual recognition task, in which they saw the original object and a similar object placed on a table, and indicated which one they previously explored. After each trial, the participants also reported if they answered based on recalling details of their touch-based exploration, feeling a vague familiarity, or simply guessing. Again, the results showed that participants remembered the objects with high accuracy. In the blindfolded test, participants answered correctly on 79% of the trials. In the cross-modal visual test, participants identified the correct object 73% of the time.

The role of touch in regulating inter-partner physiological coupling during empathy for pain | Scientific Reports

The results indicate that the partner touch increased interpersonal respiration coupling under both pain and no-pain conditions and increased heart rate coupling under pain conditions. In addition, physiological coupling was diminished by pain in the absence of the partner’s touch. Critically, we found that high partner’s empathy and high levels of analgesia enhanced coupling during the partner’s touch.

Touching synchronizes NBA teams

The study, which was titled "Tactile Communication, Cooperation and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA," was authored by Michael W. Kraus, Cassy Huang and Dacher Keltner. After reviewing broadcasts of games from the 2008-09 season, they concluded that good teams tend to be much more hands-on than bad ones. Teams whose players touched the most often were more cooperative, played better and won more games, they said.

New Research Focuses on the Power of Physical Contact - The New York Times

In a paper due out this year in the journal Emotion, […] with a few exceptions, good teams tended to be touchier than bad ones. The most touch-bonded teams were the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, currently two of the league’s top teams; at the bottom were the mediocre Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Bobcats. The same was true, more or less, for players. […] To correct for the possibility that the better teams touch more often simply because they are winning, the researchers rated performance based not on points or victories but on a sophisticated measure of how efficiently players and teams managed the ball — their ratio of assists to giveaways, for example. And even after the high expectations surrounding the more talented teams were taken into account, the correlation persisted. Players who made contact with teammates most consistently and longest tended to rate highest on measures of performance, and the teams with those players seemed to get the most out of their talent.