The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

June 1, 2023

The links between personality and cognitive ability

Is someone’s personality connected to their cognitive abilities? Do things like openness, agreeableness, and extroversion influence how a person perceives, processes, and recalls information—and uses reason to decide on a best course of action? The answer, according to two psychologists at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, is a compelling yes. Analyzing a century of research, including 1,325 studies from 50 countries involving more than two million people, their meta-analysis has connected 79 personality traits with 97 cognitive abilities. It reveals the benefits of traits like industriousness and compassion on cognitive abilities and the negative effects of suspiciousness and neurotic depression on things like reasoning and knowledge acquisition. “Overall, the results provide an encyclopedic quantification of what is currently known about personality-ability relations,” they write. PNAS

Deep brain stimulation during sleep improves memory recall

A small clinical experiment led by surgeons at UCLA and Tel Aviv University suggests that giving people deep-brain stimulation while they sleep improves memory consolidation overnight and could be a way of treating memory disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. The study involved 18 people who were already undergoing neuronal surgery for epilepsy. That sort of surgery requires researchers to implant electrodes directly into the brain, which allowed them to test whether electrical stimulation could enhance memory consolidation. On two separate nights, the people were shown 25 pairs of pictures—one a photo of a famous celebrity like Marilyn Monroe, and the other an image of an animal. On the second night, they received targeted electrical stimulation to their brains while they slept, and in the morning their ability to recall which animal was paired with which famous face was improved. This could help design a device for memory disorders and dementia, the surgeons write. Nature Neuroscience

A new measure of human health

Researchers at the University of Lucerne and the Swiss Paraplegic Research institute in Nottwil, Switzerland, want you to forget everything you learned, have ever been told, or think you know about health. In a paper this week they are calling for the wide adoption of human functioning—a new World Health Organization (WHO) concept of human health. Meant to complement existing metrics like morbidity, which measures a society’s disease burden, and mortality numbers that correspond with death counts, human functioning is a metric intended to be a broad measure of health in society. The researchers argue that society could profit by taking into account this third indicator of health, and it may lead to a whole new field. Human functioning science, they write, “holds the promise to integrate research inputs and methods from diverse biomedical and social disciplines to provide a more comprehensive understanding of human health.” Frontiers in Science

Bacteriophages: Poised to disrupt gene therapy

One hundred years ago, author Sinclair Lewis was writing his great American novel Arrowsmith, winning him the Pulitzer Prize which he famously refused. The plot centers on a doctor who designs an experimental plague treatment based on “bacteriophage” viruses—a technology all the rage in the 1920s because these viruses are designed by nature to insert their DNA into bacteria and kill them. Bacteriophages fell out of favor after the 1930s with the discovery of penicillin and other antibiotics, but interest in them has resurged in recent years with the rise of drug-resistant bacteria. Now researchers at Catholic University in Washington D.C. are suggesting bacteriophages could transform gene therapy and personalized medicine, showing how to make more effective designer vectors for gene therapy in an assembly-line process. In a proof of principle, they showed they can insert larger genes and more therapeutic DNA into human cells to correct genetic defects. Nature Communications

A model of a sub-microscopic 120 x 86 nm bacteriophage T4 capsid for gene therapy and personalized medicine. Courtesy Venigalla B. Rao; Victor Padilla-Sanchez, Andrei Fokine, Jingen Zhu, and Qianglin Fang

A call for more spiritual meaning in psychedelic-assisted therapy

Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta are calling for integrating spirituality and religious beliefs into psychedelic-assisted therapy. They note data that shows psychedelic-assisted therapy often produces mystical experiences already and that those experiences may appear to specifically contribute to therapeutic results. Some 66–86 percent of people who get psychedelic-assisted therapy have reported the experiences to be among the most spiritually meaningful in their lives. Knowing that, we should explicitly acknowledge religious or spiritual beliefs, they say. It could maximize the effectiveness of psychedelic-assisted therapy and enhance its safety. Neglecting those beliefs, they warn, could undermine treatment, contribute to patient risk, and make outcomes worse. JAMA Psychiatry