Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category

Synaptic re-calibration

The premise of this “Connectome” book I’ve been reading is that we can get to the very essence of a person by mapping the specific way their neurons connect within their brain. Neurons connect with each other, as you probably know, via points called synapses. At a synapse, one neuron fires a blast of chemicals (neurotransmitters) to a receiving neuron. If the second neuron gets enough of these sorts of signals it will fire an electrical signal and send its own signals to other neurons down the line. Thus, “Connectome” argues, if we can map out all these synaptic connection points we can basically map out a personality. (There’s more to it than that but that’s the big picture.)

This opens up an interesting sci-fi concept. Could we get to a point where we could perform a kind of synaptic re-calibration – going into the brain and strengthening or removing synaptic connections to create more desirable personalities? Perhaps this would be done under court order – pedophiles would be calibrated to lose their dark urges, for example. Or perhaps we could chose to do so – introverts could become less shy.

Dream girls

I had an interesting dream last night in which I was talking to a girl I used to know. It was definitely her, even though she didn’t exactly look like her. One difference was that the dream girl had this weird bent tooth which the real girl does not have. She did have, however, the large breasts that I so fondly remember.

I woke up and was thinking about the dream. It struck me that I have another female friend who has large breasts and also has that weird bent tooth. My dream factory sort of borrowed this trait from one friend and glued it onto another.

This ties into my earlier post about the discovery of a neuron that only fires when people see pictures of Jennifer Anniston. I’ve seen this explained as follows: the Jennifer Anniston neuron is at the end of a long chain of neural “units” that individually recognize certain traits. Maybe one unit recognizes blue/grey eyes, another a pointy chin, another a diminutive physique, another tan skin etc. When all these units are active they end up firing off this neuron at the end of the chain which says, “Yay! Jennifer Anniston!”

So what happened in my dream? It seems like some wires got crossed and neural units from Girl B (big tits, funny tooth) got fired while thinking about Girl A (big tits, no funny tooth.)

The mind is fascinating.

Here’s some pictures of Jennifer Anniston.

Eternal life via Connectomics

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been reading a book called “Connectome” which argues that the essence of a human being can be understood to be the way their billions of neurons hook up to each other. The idea presumes that if you can map someone’s neural structure and recreate it (in a biological or electronic model), you would essentially be creating a clone of their mind.

With this idea in mind, we can contemplate ways of living forever. If we can maintain the map of our connectome after we die, we (conceivably) could be re-animated in some form via future technology and be the same person. The problem is that it’s hard to maintain the connectome after death – cellular damage can destroy the map. One way to get around this might be to “freeze” our brains in plastic soon after death – so soon that we would have to do it in a controlled situation; essentially we would have to choose to kill ourselves to have a chance at living forever.

That’s what Kenneth Hayward, a futurist with impressive science credentials, would like to do.

That case is deeply speculative. Here’s how Hayworth envisions his own brain-preservation procedure. Before becoming “very sick or very old,” he’ll opt for an “early ‘retirement’ to the future,” he writes. There will be a send-off party with friends and family, followed by a trip to the hospital. “I’m not going in for some back-alley situation. We need to get the science right to convince the medical community. It’s a very clear dividing line: I will not advocate any technique until we have good proof that it works.”

After Hayworth is placed under anesthesia, a cocktail of toxic chemicals will be perfused through his still-functioning vascular system, fixing every protein and lipid in his brain into place, preventing decay, and killing him instantly. Then he will be injected with heavy-metal staining solutions to make his cell membranes visible under a microscope. All of the water will then be drained from his brain and spinal cord, replaced by pure plastic resin. Every neuron and synapse in his central nervous system will be protected down to the nanometer level, Hayworth says, “the most perfectly preserved fossil imaginable.”

His plastic-embedded brain will eventually be cut into strips, perhaps using a machine like the one he invented, and then imaged in an electron microscope. His physical brain will be destroyed, but in its place will be a precise map of his connectome. In 100 years or so, he says, scientists will be able to determine the function of each neuron and synapse and build a computer simulation of his mind. And because the plastination process will have preserved his spinal nerves, he’s hopeful that his computer-generated mind can be connected to a robot body.

Easy as pie.

Powerful tools

The neuroscience book I’m currently reading, “Connectome,” makes an interesting point about scientific discovery. Technology is just as much a driver of discovery as the scientists themselves. Without microscopes, telescopes, MRIs etc. none of the discoveries about the brain (and others areas of scientific study) we’ve made would have been possible.

That speaks to, I think, a bias build into the human species. We become fixated on the people making the discoveries but not the devices. You see this in politics too. We get fixated on Anthony Weiner and his downfall but don’t seem that aware of the sea changing effects on society that technology is poised to bring.

The one theme I’ve been thinking about very the past several months is that technology is going to disrupted our lives more and more from now on. And to fixate on people – to expect politicians or scientists or entrepreneurs to slow or stall that disruption (to “save us”) – is a mistake.

We are doomed.

The Jennifer Aniston neuron

Though I spend a lot of time following brain news, I somehow missed this announcement when it first went around. Scientists have discovered a neuron that fires when a person sees pictures of Jennifer Aniston!

In brain surgery, patients are often kept fully conscious, even when they have a probe implanted in their heads. Brains don’t hurt when they’re open, and this is standard procedure; the doctor needs to map the area where there’s going to be surgery, the patient needs to answer the doctor’s questions.

Fried asked his patients if they wouldn’t mind doing a little exploratory science while on the operating table, and a bunch of them said yes.

So he showed them a set of photographs, and he noticed when they came to a picture of Jen, very often a particular neuron would begin to flash, multiple times. When he showed these same patients pictures of Julia Roberts or random (not famous) people, or animals, or places, the neuron was quiet. Back to Jen? Back came the flash. He found this Aniston-specific brain cell in a number of people, and he wondered, what is going on?

A “Halle Berry neuron” was also discovered. A book I’m reading, “Connectome” makes an interesting point about this discovery.

[The] “Halle Berry neuron” was activated by an image of the actress Halle Berry, suggesting that it plays a role in perceiving her. But the neuron was also activated by the written words Halle Berry, indicating that it participates in thinking about her as well. So it seems the “Halle Berry” neuron” represents the abstract idea of Halle Berry…

Mmmm, there’s nothing abstract about Halle Berry and you know what I mean!

The Brain telegraph

The New York Times blog has an interesting post about brain-to-brain and brain-to-computer interfaces. The concept is that we could eventually pass signals from our brain directly to a computer and from there to another brain. (Interestingly, this was a premise in the movie “Pacific Rim” which I saw last night.) The article says…

Writing to the brain could allow us to interact with our computers, or other human beings, just by thinking about it.

In February, Dr. Miguel A. Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University successfully connected the brains of two rats over the Internet, allowing them to communicate with their minds so when one rat pressed a lever, the other one did the same. The rats were in different locations, one at Duke University, in North Carolina, and another in a laboratory in Natal, Brazil.

Dr. Nicolelis said he has recently performed other experiments in his lab where he has connected the brains of four mice in what he calls a “brain net” allowing them to share information over the Internet. In another experiment, he took two monkeys and gave them both half of a piece of information to successfully move a robotic arm, which required them to share the information through their brain.

Last week scientists at Harvard Medical School created a brain-to-brain interface that enables a human to move a rat’s tail just by thinking about it.

A couple years ago I read a book by Nicolelis and he makes a strong case that a lot of science fiction ideas could become reality.

This is a very interesting section of the article:

In 2011, scientists working in collaboration with Boston University and A.T.R. Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, published a paper on a process called Decoded Neurofeedback, or “DecNef,” which sends signals to the brain through a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or FMRI, that can alter a person’s brain activity pattern. In time, these scientists believe they could teach people how to play a musical instrument while they sleep, learn a new language or master a sport, all by “uploading” information to the brain.

If we presume (correctly, I think, though it’s hard to verify) that a person’s brain changes in a predictable way after learning to play a song, and that we can notate those changes, then, in theory, we should be able to affect those changes in someone else’s brain (via some kind of electrical or magnetic stimulation?) and teach them the song. However, it’s not that simple since no two brains are exactly the same. It’s possible that enacting brain changes to teach a person how to play “Greensleeves” could instead turn them into a cannibalistic killer with lasers for eyes.

The Crumbs

Last night, I rewatched the movie “Crumb” about famed countercultural artist Robert Crumb and his family. It really is a fascinating study of dysfunctional people and their relationships, as well as a look at how subversive art is viewed by different factions of society.

But I was mainly struck by one thing. Robert and his two siblings, Charles and Max, were all highly gifted artists from a young age. Robert’s son is also a terrific representational artist. Robert’s daughter Sofie – a pre-teen at the time the movie was filmed – is also a great artist. It seems like the Crumb family makes a strong case for there being some kind of “visual artist gene.”

Such a theory leads us back into the whole nature versus nature debate. Are the Crumbs’ artistic talents because of DNA or because of an environment that encouraged artistic development? The case might be made that Robert’s children were simply encouraged to explore art. But Robert and his brothers grew up in an environment run by a tyrannical father and a pill popping mother, neither of whom seemed to have much interest in their children’s development.

But how would an art gene work? That’s very complex of course, but I do think a lot of what makes a good artist is a strong understand of spacial relativism. In essence, if you can look at a face and understand that that person’s nose takes up 20% of the width of their face and you can then render that on the page you have a good head start towards creating representational art. (There’s also years of practice, of course, but this natural talent can only help.) If this sort of spatial ability can be passed via genetics that would explain the Crumb family talent.

An interesting experiment would be to take one of the Crumbs, grind up their brain into a liquid, inject it into a non-talented person and see if that person becomes and artistic genius.

I had actually forgotten that Robert’s brother, Maxon, is an artist. In fact, he does some very interesting work – he’s the most non-representational out of all the artist brothers; his work is vaguely cubist. Here’s a Tumblr blog with a lot of his art.

Here’s Sophie’s Tumblr with art.

Unification of perception

You know, I just had a profound insight into psychology and the brain that I am sure will radically alter mankind’s understanding of such things for the rest of its history.

One challenge of understanding how we sense the world has to do with what I would call unity of perception. We know we have five (really more) senses. So we can touch a ball, while also feeling it, maybe even tasting it, but how to we unify those different bits of sensory data into one object: ball? And it gets even more complex because we know different parts of the brain process different aspects of even a single sense. With vision, for example, separate brain parts process colors, movement, faces etc. So a person can have a stroke that targets a certain area and lose their sense of color but retain everything else. The lesson here being that even a single sense can be broken down into subcomponents. How do all those components unify?

Hearing, of course, also has subcomponents: volume, pitch, tone etc. All the other senses do I suppose.

I’ve seen this unification of perception problem described many times but it never really seemed like that great an issue to me. To answer the question, “why do senses and their subcomponents unify?” I was happy with the answer, “they just do.” Maybe it’s just a result of how the brain processes information. It was hard for me to understand what the experience of the brain not doing this would be like.

However, I just got a quick look. I was working on some recorded music and was tweaking a particular passage. There was a little set of about five notes and one of them seemed off. I listened to the set and realized the one note was too quiet. But which one? In my mind, I played back what I had just heard and I “found” the quiet note, but I also knew I was making the wrong choice. I was applying this subcomponent of sound – volume – to the wrong note. And I suddenly understood how – when I listened to this music – my brain was assembling the total sound experience out of these sub components (in this case, incorrectly assembling.) I caught the magician making a mistake.

And the skies opened and puppies rained down on the earth.

Working Memory

One thing I did on my trip was watch a video series from The Teaching Company called “The Intelligent Brain.” I wasn’t a huge fan of it – the instructor stammered a lot – but it did have some interesting nuggets of information. He talked a lot about the concept of working memory. This can be thought of as the chunks of data (like a number) we can keep in our head at a given point. Most people can track about seven bits. (It’s presumed this may be why phone numbers are seven digits long.) Additionally, a strong working memory in a person seems to correlate to general intelligence. (Though not always; there are “Rain Man” like Savants who can remember numbers thousands of digits long but can’t put on their own shoes.)

I watched the video about this and thought it was interesting but was wondering whether working memory is that important. Aside from remembering phone numbers, when do we really need to keep bits of information in our heads? But I was out for a hike yesterday and found myself going off on a lot of new paths. At each turn I mentally made a note so I could find my way back. Of course, when I did turn around I found I had forgotten even the most recent turns. Working memory, or the lack thereof, had screwed me again.

This opens up an interesting point. If working memory correlates to intelligence and my memory sucks then maybe I’m just not that intelligent. (I did have a somewhat informal IQ test in high school and I got a middling 100.) Good thing I can always fall back on my looks.

Giving Head (Transplants)

The headline at Gizmodo says: A Neuroscientist Says Human Head Transplants are Totally Possible. And the story provide details; an Italian scientist thinks the operation may be do-able in coming years.

But the most eye catching bit is this part:

Canavero uses the example of Case Western Reserve scientist Robert White to make his case. In 1970, White completed a head transplant with Rhesus monkeys. It was mostly successful—the recipient monkey was able to hear, taste, smell, and see, and it survived for a while after the operation was complete.

I’m reading this and thinking, “why have I never heard of this?” Sometimes science is crazier than science fiction.