Brain Scientists Take on|Major League Fastballs


     BERKELEY, Calif. (CN) – Humans’ ability to respond almost instantaneously to bewildering amounts of data may be linked to “connector hubs” in the brain, scientists at UC Berkeley reported in a new study.
     The university announced the study by asking how it’s possible for a baseball player to react so rapidly as to hit a 90 mph fastball. A fastball takes about 0.4 seconds to get to the plate, but a hitter needs 0.25 seconds to see the ball and react, other Berkeley researchers said in a 2013 study on the visual cortex. That leaves a batter just 0.15 seconds to swing at a small object moving, as often as not, in three dimensions: toward him, up or down and perhaps left or right, and perhaps adjusting his swing on the way. How is that possible?
     According to the new study, it’s partly due to the connector hubs’ ability to coordinate the brain’s diverse networks.
     The hubs filter and route information throughout the brain, and coordinate and integrate the flow of data so that brain networks operating in specific roles – vision, for example – can focus on their functions.
     In addition, the brain’s connector hubs, of which there are about two dozen, are crucial in complex cognitive tasks, and are vulnerable to brain damage and dysfunction.
     The study’s lead author Maxwell Bertolero, a Ph.D student in neuroscience at UC-Berkeley, told Berkeley News that the findings could “help neuroscientists shed more light on the neural bases of disorders such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s,” which are characterized by malfunctions in the brain’s wiring.
     The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the result of a meta-analysis conducted by Bertolero and fellow researchers at UC-Berkeley and the National University of Singapore.
     The researchers looked at more than 9,000 brain imaging studies in the BrainMap database, which cover more than 75 cognitive tasks.
     The study found heightened neural activity in the connector hubs during complex mental tasks that did not require other complex functions: such as figuring out puzzles or playing video games.
     As with most such brain studies, the research did not trace the neural firing directly, but used functional magnetic resonance imaging to track increased blood flow to brain areas, as a gauge of increased neural activity there. The study was funded by grants from the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, the National University of Singapore and the Singapore Ministry of Education.

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