Tag Archives: neurobiology

Brain control with light: neuroengineering at MIT

Just a nod to a must-read article at Wired on the new1 technology of neuroengineering:

Boyden directs MIT’s Neuroengineering and Neuromedia Lab, part of the MIT Media Lab. He explains the mission of neuroengineering this way: “If we take seriously the idea that our minds are implemented in the circuits of our brains, then it becomes a top priority to understand how to engineer brains for the better.”

Here, neuroscience is not merely studied, it is applied. Which is why we’re off again, to see the molecular engineer’s microscope, the viral growing area, and the machine where they cut micron-thin slices of mouse brains in order to evaluate what changes they’ve made using the rest of the equipment.

This video illustrates one of the most potentially disruptive technologies ever:

1:Although the article points out that, depending on how far you expand the definition, human beings have been “neuroengineering” for all history.

Neurocosmetics: wireheads for congress

neurospasmNeurocosmetics has yet to take off in the backstreets of Birmingham, but is likely to change everything, at least according to Marcel Kinsbourne in his Edge question answer:

…the novel method of deep brain stimulation (DBS), by which electrodes are inserted into the brain to stimulate precisely specified locations electrically, is already used to correct certain brain disorders (Parkinsonism, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

Not only are the targeted symptoms often relieved; there have been profound changes in personality, although the prior personality was not abnormal.

A patient of lifelong somber disposition may not only be relieved of obsessions, but also shift to a cheerful mood, the instant the current is switched on (and revert to his prior subdued self, the instant it is switched off). The half empty glass temporarily becomes the glass that is half full. The brain seems not entirely to respect our conventional sharp distinction between what is normal and what is not.

Paging Larry Niven, Arthur C. Clarke, Iain Banks, Greg Egan et al – but how will society change when people are free to choose their personalities at a whim?

In fact, could that be the solution to the Fermi Paradox? Could it be that all technological civilizations advance to the point where they develop a technique for inducing whatever their alien equivalent of permanent happiness is and then stop developing?

If you can track down a copy Arthur C. Clarke’s The Lion of Comarre deals with a similarly themed subject rather well.

[from the Edge question][image from TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³]

American lifestyle must change, says neuroscientist

According to neuroscientist Peter Whybrow, head honcho of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Behavior at UCLA the concept of the American DreamTM is a “biological impossibility.” From the Wired article:

“We’ve been taught, especially in America, that happiness will be at the end of some sort of material road, where we have lots and lots of things that we want,” said Whybrow

Our built-in dopamine-reward system makes instant gratification highly desirable, and the future difficult to balance with the present. This worked fine on the savanna, said Whybrow, but not the suburbs: We gorge on fatty foods and use credit cards to buy luxuries we can’t actually afford. And then, overworked, underslept and overdrawn, we find ourselves anxious and depressed.

This seems to be related to the newly-emerging discipline of behavioural economics, as pioneered by Richard Thaler and others. Here is a good introduction to behavioural economics on Edge.org.

Behavioural economics seem to reflect the fact that economists are coming round to the intuitively obvious idea that human beings really are not super-intelligent, near-psychopathic, wholly self-interested beings like homo economicus.

[image from Orin Optiglot on flickr]

Brain computer interface works on monkeys

Good news on the Brain Computer Interface front, from PhysOrg:

Researchers in a study funded by the National Institutes of Health have demonstrated for the first time that a direct artificial connection from the brain to muscles can restore voluntary movement in monkeys whose arms have been temporarily anesthetized.

“A robotic arm would be better for someone whose physical arm has been lost or if the muscles have atrophied, but if you have an arm whose muscles can be stimulated, a person can learn to reactivate them with this technology,” says Dr. Fetz.

Here, the researchers discovered that any motor cortex cell, regardless of whether it had been previously associated with wrist movement, was capable of stimulating muscle activity.

This finding greatly expands the potential number of neurons that could control signals for brain-computer interfaces and also illustrates the flexibility of the motor cortex.

Researcher Dr. Fetz says that this is still around a decade away from clinical applications, but hopefully this kind of research will eventually lead to new treatments for paralysis.

[image from Retinafunk on flickr]

Plastic Fantastic: Developing Fluid Intelligence

A recent topic of interest in the reputable journals of opinion, including Wired Magazine and The Independent has been the possibility of artificially enhancing human intelligence. Methods suggested include Viagra for your Brain, or nootropics: drugs that are thought to enhance intelligence and cognitive ability.

Examples include ritalin, a drug used primarily to help ADHD sufferers which is also claimed to promote alertness and concentration in healthy people, and modafinil, a drug designed to combat sleep disorders but which is also being used to extend the period for which people can stay awake and active.

Fortunately there are also options for squares like myself who don’t have the guts to pop pills bought on the Net: algorithmic approaches to learning, and most recently the possibility of boosting IQ by enhancing fluid intelligence:

Most IQ tests attempt to measure two types of intelligence–crystallized and fluid intelligence. pillsCrystallized intelligence draws on existing skills, knowledge and experiences to solve problems by accessing information from long-term memory.

Fluid intelligence, on the other hand, draws on the ability to understand relationships between various concepts, independent of any previous knowledge or skills, to solve new problems.

The research by brain boffins Susanne M. Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl appears to occupy the class of scientific experiments entitled confirming the bleedin’ obvious (facetiousness aside, this is of course as necessary and laudable as any scientific endeavour :-)) :

Researchers gathered four groups of volunteers and trained their working memories using a complex training task called “dual n-back training,” which presented both auditory and visual cues that participants had to temporarily store and recall.

Participants received the training during a half hour session held once a day for either eight, 12, 17 or 19 days. For each of these training periods, researchers tested participants’ gains in fluid intelligence. They compared the results against those of control groups to be sure the volunteers actually improved their fluid intelligence, not merely their test-taking skills.

The results were surprising. While the control groups made gains, presumably because they hadneurons practice with the fluid intelligence tests, the trained groups improved considerably more than the control groups. Further, the longer the participants trained, the larger were their intelligence gains.

“Our findings clearly show that training on certain memory tasks transfer to fluid intelligence,” says Jaeggi. “We also find that individuals with lower fluid intelligence scores at pre-test could profit from the training.”

So practice makes you better, if not perfect. As I’ve mentioned before, combining a better understanding of learning methods with drugs that have a direct affect on cognitive ability will have a huge impact on life over the course of the next century, even changing what it means to be human.

[main story via PhysOrg][other stories from The Independent and Wired][images by e-magic and LoreleiRanveig]