Not actually “mental time travel” at all, is it?

Paul Raven @ 19-07-2011

But it makes for an attention-grabbing skiffy-tastic headline, AMIRITEZ? The actual story here is rather less OMFG: University of Pennsylvania have obtained the first neurobiological evidence in support of the theory of episodic memory.

“Theories of episodic memory suggest that when I remember an event, I retrieve its earlier context and make it part of my present context,” Kahana said.  “When I remember my grandmother, for example, I pull back all sorts of associations of a different time and place in my life; I’m also remembering living in Detroit and her Hungarian cooking. It’s like mental time travel. I jump back in time to the past, but I’m still grounded in the present.”

Jumping back in time to perceptions of the past while still grounded in the present? Strikes me that rewatching old home movies is at least as good a metaphor as time travel, but I’ll grant you that a lot less people would have reported it if it were pitched that way.

Neuroscience is still a fairly new scientific frontier, and while the last decade has seen the arrival of amazing new tools (and enhancements of existing ones), I believe it’s fair to say that these methods are still pretty crude, and the interpretations of results somewhat speculative. But even so, it’s interesting to see these early phases of our attempts to measure something as inherently intangible as the mind:

The memory experiment consisted of patients memorizing lists of 15 unrelated words. After seeing a list of the words in sequence, the subjects were distracted by doing simple arithmetic problems. They were then asked to recall as many words as they could in any order. Their implanted electrodes measured their brain activity at each step, and each subject read and recalled dozens of lists to ensure reliable data.

“By examining the patterns of brain activity recorded from the implanted electrodes,” Manning said, “we can measure when the brain’s activity is similar to a previously recorded pattern. When a patient recalls a word, their brain activity is similar to when they studied the same word.   In addition, the patterns at recall contained traces of other words that were studied prior to the recalled word.”

“What seems to be happening is that when patients recall a word, they bring back not only the thoughts associated with the word itself but also remnants of thoughts associated with other words they studied nearby in time,” he said.

The findings provide a brain-based explanation of a memory phenomenon that people experience every day.

“This is why two friends you met at different points in your life can become linked in your memory,” Kahana said. “Along your autobiographical timeline, contextual associations will exist at every time scale, from experiences that take place over the course of years to experiences that take place over the course of minutes, like studying words on a list.”


Brain achieves motor memory with a prosthetic device

Tom James @ 22-07-2009

braindevelopMore progress has been made in the field of artificial telekinesis by researchers at University of California, who have shown that the brains of macacque monkeys can learn how to manipulate a prosthetic through thought alone:

…macaque monkeys using brain signals learned how to move a computer cursor to various targets. What the researchers learned was that the brain could develop a mental map of a solution to achieve the task with high proficiency, and that it adhered to that neural pattern without deviation, much like a driver sticks to a given route commuting to work.

“The profound part of our study is that this is all happening with something that is not part of one’s own body. We have demonstrated that the brain is able to form a motor memory to control a disembodied device in a way that mirrors how it controls its own body. That has never been shown before.”

This is an exciting development. Developing the means to control prosthetics as if they were part of your own body would improve the lives of paraplegics, and even offer the possibility of extending baseline human abilities.

[from Physorg, via KurzweilAI][image from Physorg]


Artificial nerve cell breakthrough

Tom James @ 06-07-2009

line_curve_buildingResearchers at Karolinska Institutet and Linköping University in Sweden have made one more step towards artificial nerve cells with the creation of an artificial nerve cell that can communicate with natural nerve cells using neurotransmitters:

Scientists have now used an electrically conducting plastic to create a new type of “delivery electrode” that instead releases the neurotransmitters that brain cells use to communicate naturally. The advantage of this is that only neighbouring cells that have receptors for the specific neurotransmitter, and that are thus sensitive to this substance, will be activated.

The scientists intend to continue with the development of a small unit that can be implanted into the body. It will be possible to program the unit such that the release of neurotransmitters takes place as often or as seldom as required in order to treat the individual patient.

As ever the initial applications are intended to be towards treating diseases like Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy. Progress on these fronts would be wonderful. But what further applications will become possible when this product matures?

[from Physorg][image from takanawho on flickr]


Your new designer brain

Tom James @ 15-05-2009

neuroneA fascinating article in New Scientist on neural prosthesese and the possibility of a new source of inequality: between those who can afford to pay for technological mental enhancements and those who cannot:

People without enhancement could come to see themselves as failures, have lower self-esteem or even be discriminated against by those whose brains have been enhanced, Birnbacher says. He stops short of saying that enhancement could “split” the human race, pointing out that society already tolerates huge inequity in access to existing enhancement tools such as books and education.

The perception that some people are giving themselves an unfair advantage over everyone else by “enhancing” their brains would be socially divisive, says John Dupré at the University of Exeter, UK. “Anyone can read to their kids or play them music, but put a piece of software in their heads, and that’s seen as unfair,” he says. As Dupré sees it, the possibility of two completely different human species eventually developing is “a legitimate worry”.

But the news is not all bad, with the observation that the human brain is becoming ever more plastic and capable of adaptation:

Today, our minds are even more fluid and open to enhancement due to what Merlin Donald of Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, calls “superplasticity”, the ability of each mind to plug into the minds and experiences of countless others through culture or technology. “I’m not saying it’s a ‘group mind’, as each mind is sealed,” he says. “But cognition can be distributed, embedded in a huge cultural system, and technology has produced a huge multiplier effect.”

It is interesting to speculate what the long-term consequences of dense technological interconnectedness will be on the human condition. Even assuming actual precise neuroengineering proves difficult, neural prosthesese offer a world of opportunity.

[via KurzweilAI][image from n1/the larch on flickr]


Brain electrodes: in and out

Tom James @ 30-04-2009

silke1Following on nicely from Paul’s discussion of direct-to-brain broadband – and Robert Koslover’s comment – here we have news of the first read-write brain electrode from a company called IMEC:

Today’s deep-brain stimulation probes use millimeter-size electrodes. These stimulate, in a highly unfocused way, a large area of the brain and have significant unwanted side effects.

IMEC’s design and modeling strategy allows developing advanced brain implants consisting of multiple electrodes enabling simultaneous stimulation and recording. This strategy was used to create prototype probes with 10 micrometer-size electrodes and various electrode topologies.

These new design approaches open up possibilities for more effective stimulation with less side effects, reduced energy consumption due to focusing the stimulation current on the desired brain target, and closed-loop control adapting the stimulation based on the recorded effect.

Presumably the avenue towards the development of devices for direct-to-brain broadband will be through the development of ever more sophisticated products of this kind, possibly travelling via wirehead-style ecstasy generators.

[from this press release from IMEC, via Technovelgy][image from IMEC press release]


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