Pokémon experts’ brains shed light on neurological development

Photo by Colin Woodcock

Whether parents are dreading or looking forward to taking their kids to see the new “Pokémon” movie may depend on how their brains developed as a child. If they played the video game a lot growing up, a specific region of their visual cortex — the part of the brain that processes what we see — may preferentially respond to Pokémon characters, according to a new research study.

The Stanford psychologists studied the brains of Pokémon experts and novices to answer fundamental questions about how experience contributes to your brain’s development and organization.

Jesse Gomez, PhD, first author of the study and a former neuroscience Stanford graduate student, started playing a lot of Pokémon around first grade. So he realized that early exposure to Pokémon provided a natural neuroscience experiment. Namely, children that played the video game used the same tiny handheld device at roughly the same arm’s length. They also spent countless hours learning the hundreds of animated, pixelated characters, which represent a unique category of stimuli that activates a unique region of the brain.

The research team identified this specialized brain response using functional magnetic resonance to image the brains of 11 Pokémon experts and 11 Pokémon novices, who were adults similarly aged and educated. During the fMRI scan, each participant randomly viewed different kinds of stimuli, including faces, animals, cartoons, bodies, pseudowords, cars, corridors and Pokémon characters.

“We find a big difference between people who played Pokémon in their childhood versus those who didn’t,” explained Gomez in the video below. “People who are Pokémon experts not only develop a unique brain representation for Pokémon in the visual cortex, but the most interesting part to us is that the location of that response to Pokémon is consistent across people.”

In the expert participants, Pokémon activated a specific region in the high-level visual cortex, the part of the brain involved in recognizing things like words and faces. “This helped us pinpoint which theory of brain organization might be the most responsible for determining how the visual cortex develops from childhood to adulthood,” Gomez said.

The study results support a theory called eccentricity bias, which suggests the brain region that is activated by a stimulus is determined by the size and location of how it is viewed on the retina. For example, our ability to discriminate between faces is thought to activate the fusiform gyrus in the temporal lobe near the ears and to require the high visual acuity of the central field of vision. Similarly, the study showed viewing Pokémon characters activates part of the fusiform gyrus and the neighboring region called the occipitotemporal sulcus — which both get input from the central part of the retina — but only for the expert participants.

The eccentricity bias theory implies that a different or larger region of the brain would be preferentially activated by early exposure to Pokémon played on a large computer monitor. However, this wasn’t an option for the 20-something participants when they were children.

These findings have applications well beyond Pokémon, as Gomez explained in the video:

“The findings suggest that the very way that you look at a visual stimulus, like Pokémon or words, determines why your brain is organized the way it is. And that’s useful going forward because it might suggest that visual deficits like dyslexia or face blindness might result simply from the way you look at stimuli. And so that’s a promising future avenue.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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The skinny on how chickens grow feathers and, perhaps, on how humans grow hair

Photo by Kecia O’Sullivan

How do skin cells make regularly spaced hairs in mammals and feathers in birds? Scientists had two opposing theories, but new research at the University of California, Berkeley surprisingly links them.

The first theory contends that the timing of specific gene activation dictates a cell’s destiny and predetermines tissue structure — for example, in the skin, gene activation determines whether a skin cell becomes a sweat gland cell or hair cell, or remains a skin cell. The second theory asserts that a cell’s fate is determined instead by interacting with other cells and the material that it grows on.

Now, Berkeley researchers have found that the creation of feather follicles (like hair follicles) is initiated by cells exerting mechanical tension on each other, which then triggers the necessary changes in gene expression to create the follicles. Their results were recently reported in Science.  

“The cells of the skin in the embryo are pulling on each other and eventually pull one another into little piles that each go on to become a follicle,” said first author Amy Shyer, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow in molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, in a recent news release. “What is really key is that there isn’t a particular genetic program that sets up this pattern. All of these cells are initially the same and they have the same genetic program, but their mechanical behavior produces a difference in the piled-up cells that flips a switch, forming a pattern of follicles in the skin.”

The research team grew skin taken from week-old chicken eggs on different materials with varying stiffness. They found that the stiffness of the substrate material was critical to forming feather follicles — material that was too stiff or too soft yielded only one follicle, whereas material with intermediate stiffness resulted in an orderly array of follicles.

“The fundamental tension between cells wanting to cluster together and their boundary resisting them is what allows you to create a spaced array of patterns,” said co-author Alan Rodgues, PhD, a biology consultant and former visiting scholar at Berkeley.

The researchers also showed that when the cells cluster together, this activated genes in those cells to generate a follicle and eventually a feather.

Although the study used chicken skin, the researchers suggest that they have discovered a basic mechanism, which may be used in the future to help grow artificial skin grafts that look like normal human skin with hair follicles and sweat pores.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.