Tag Archives: neuroscience

Two bits about the brain: fiction affects your brain and the US’s BRAIN Initiative is soliciting grant submissions

As a writer I love to believe my words have a lasting impact and while this research is focused on fiction, something I write more rarely than nonfiction, hope springs eternal that one day nonfiction too will be proved as having an impact (in a good way) on the brain. From a Jan. 3, 2014 news release on EurekAlert (or you can read the Dec. 17, 2013 Emory University news release by Carol Clark),

Many people can recall reading at least one cherished story that they say changed their life. Now researchers at Emory University have detected what may be biological traces related to this feeling: Actual changes in the brain that linger, at least for a few days, after reading a novel.

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

His co-authors included Kristina Blaine and Brandon Pye from the Center for Neuropolicy, and Michael Prietula from Emory’s Goizueta Business School.

Neurobiological research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has begun to identify brain networks associated with reading stories. Most previous studies have focused on the cognitive processes involved in short stories, while subjects are actually reading them while they are in the fMRI scanner.

All of the study subjects read the same novel, “Pompeii,” a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris that is based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy.

“The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,” Berns says. “He tries to get back to Pompeii in time to save the woman he loves. Meanwhile, the volcano continues to bubble and nobody in the city recognizes the signs.”

The researchers chose the book due to its page-turning plot. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Berns says. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”

For the first five days, the participants came in each morning for a base-line fMRI scan of their brains in a resting state. Then they were fed nine sections of the novel, about 30 pages each, over a nine-day period. They were asked to read the assigned section in the evening, and come in the following morning. After taking a quiz to ensure they had finished the assigned reading, the participants underwent an fMRI scan of their brain in a non-reading, resting state. After completing all nine sections of the novel, the participants returned for five more mornings to undergo additional scans in a resting state.

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

The neural changes were not just immediate reactions, Berns says, since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.

“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” Berns says. “But the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain by Gregory S. Berns, Kristina Blaine, Michael J. Prietula, and Brandon E. Pye. Brain Connectivity. 2013, 3(6): 590-600. doi:10.1089/brain.2013.0166.

This is an open access paper where you’ll notice the participants cover a narrow range of ages (from the Materials and Methods section of the paper,

A total of 21 participants were studied. Two were excluded from the fMRI analyses: one for insufficient attendance, and the other for image abnormalities. Before the experiment, participants were screened for the presence of medical and psychiatric diagnoses, and none were taking medications. There were 12 female and 9 male participants between the ages of 19 and 27 (mean 21.5). Emory University’s Institutional Review Board approved all procedures, and all participants gave written informed consent.

It’s always good to remember that university research often draws from student populations and the question one might want to ask is whether or not those results will remain the same, more or less, throughout someone’s life span.In any event, I find this research intriguing and hope they follow this up.

Currently known as the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), I first wrote about the project under its old name BAM (Brain Activity Map) in two postings, first in a March 4, 2013 posting featuring brain-to-brain communication and other brain-related tidbits, then again, in an April 2, 2013 posting featuring an announcement about its federal funding. Today (Jan. 6, 2014), I stumbled across some BRAIN funding opportunities for researchers, from the BRAIN Initiative funding opportunities webpage,

NIH released six funding opportunity announcements in support of the President’s BRAIN Initiative. Collectively, these opportunities focus on building a new arsenal of tools and technologies for helping scientists unlock the mysteries of the brain. NIH [US National Institutes of Health] plans to invest $40 million in Fiscal Year 2014 through these opportunities, contingent upon the submission of a sufficient number of scientifically meritorious applications.

The opportunities currently available are as follows:

For the interested, in the near future there will be some informational conference calls regarding these opportunities,

Informational Conference Calls for Prospective Applicants

NIH will be hosting a series of informational conference calls to address technical questions regarding applications to each of the RFAs released under the BRAIN Initiative.   Information on dates and contacts for each of the conference calls is as follows:

January 10, 2014, 2:00-3:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-215, Transformative Approaches for Cell-Type Classification in the Brain

For call-in information, contact Andrea Beckel-Mitchener at [email protected].

January 13, 2014, 2:00-3:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-216, Development and Validation of Novel Tools to Analyze Cell-Specific and Circuit-Specific Processes in the Brain

For call-in information, contact Michelle Freund at [email protected].

January 15, 2014, 1:00-2:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-217, Planning for Next Generation Human Brain Imaging

For call-in information, contact Greg Farber at [email protected].

February 4, 2014, 1:00-2:30 PM EST
RFA-NS-14-007, New Technologies and Novel Approaches for Large-Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System
RFA-NS-14-008, Optimization of Transformative Technologies for Large Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System
RFA-NS-14-009, Integrated Approaches to Understanding Circuit Function in the Nervous System

For call-in information, contact Karen David at [email protected].
In addition to accessing the information provided in the upcoming conference calls, applicants are strongly encouraged to consult with the Scientific/Research Contacts listed in each of the RFAs to discuss the alignment of their proposed work with the goals of the RFA to which they intend to apply.

Good luck!

It’s kind of fascinating to see this much emphasis on brains what with the BRAIN Initiative in the US and the Human Brain Project in Europe (my Jan. 28, 2013 posting announcing the European Union’s winning Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) research projects, The prizes (1B Euros to be paid out over 10 years to each winner) had been won by the Human Brain FET project and the Graphene FET project, respectively

Putting a new spin on it: Whirling Dervishes and physics and ballet dancers and neuroscience

Many years ago I was dragged to a movie about J. Krishnamurti (a philosopher and spiritual teacher; there’s more in this Wikipedia essay) which, for some reason, featured Whirling Dervishes amongst many other topics. Watching those dervishes was hypnotic and I now find out it was also an experience in physics, according to a Nov. 26, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

A force that intricately links the rotation of the Earth with the direction of weather patterns in the atmosphere has been shown to play a crucial role in the creation of the hypnotic patterns created by the skirts of the Whirling Dervishes.

This is according to an international group of researchers who have demonstrated how the Coriolis force is essential for creating the archetypal, and sometimes counterintuitive, patterns that form on the surface of the Whirling Dervishes skirts by creating a set of very simple equations which govern how fixed or free-flowing cone-shaped structures behave when rotating.

The Nov. 26, 2013 Institute of Physics (IOP) news release on EurekAlert (also on the IOP website but dated Nov. 27, 2013), which originated the news item, gives an explanation of Whirling Dervishes and describes the research further,

The Whirling Dervishes, who have become a popular tourist attraction in Turkey, are a religious movement who commemorate the 13th-century Persian poet, Rumi, by spinning on the spot and creating mesmerising patterns with their long skirts. A YouTube video of the Whirling Dervishes in action can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_Cf-ZxDfZA.

Co-author of the study James Hanna, from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, said: “The dancers don’t do much but spin around at a fixed speed, but their skirts show these very striking, long-lived patterns with sharp cusp-like features which seem rather counterintuitive.”

Hanna, along with Jemal Guven at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Martin Michael Müller at Université de Lorraine, found that it was the presence of a Coriolis force that was essential in the formation of the different patterns.

The Coriolis effect accounts for the deflection of objects on a rotating surface and is most commonly encountered when looking at the Earth’s rotations and its effect on the atmosphere around it. The rotation of the Earth creates the Coriolis force which causes winds to be deflected clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere – it is this effect which is responsible for the rotation of cyclones.

“Because the sheet is conically symmetric, material can flow along its surface without stretching or deforming. You can think of the rotating Earth, for example, with the air of the atmosphere free to flow around it.

“The flow of a sheet of material is much more restrictive than the flow of the atmosphere, but nonetheless it results in Coriolis forces. What we found was that this flow, and the associated Coriolis forces, plays a crucial role in forming the dervish-like patterns,” Hanna continued.

By providing a basic mathematical description of the spinning skirts of the Dervishes, the researchers hope their future research will discern how different patterns are selected, how stable these patterns are and if gravity or any other effects make a qualitative difference.

The news release notes,

The equations, which have been published today, 27 November,[2013], in the Institute of Physics and German Physical Society’s New Journal of Physics, were able to reproduce the sharp peaks and gentle troughs that appear along the flowing surface of the Dervishes’ skirts and showed a significant resemblance to real-life images.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Whirling skirts and rotating cones by Jemal Guven, J A Hanna, and Martin Michael Müller. New Journal of Physics Volume 15 November 2013 doi:10.1088/1367-2630/15/11/113055  Published 26 November 2013

© IOP Publishing and Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft

This paper is open access.

While the Whirling Dervishes and the fabric in their clothing provide insights into aspects of physics, ballet dancers are providing valuable information to neuroscientists and geriatric specialists with pirouettes, according to a Sept. 26, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists have discovered differences in the brain structure of ballet dancers that may help them avoid feeling dizzy when they perform pirouettes.

The research suggests that years of training can enable dancers to suppress signals from the balance organs in the inner ear.

The findings, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, could help to improve treatment for patients with chronic dizziness. Around one in four people experience this condition at some time in their lives.

The Imperial College of London (ICL) Sept. 26, 2013 news release on EurekAlert (also on the ICL website but dated Sept. 27, 2013), which originated the news item, describes dizziness, this research, and ballet dancers’ unique brains in more detail,

Normally, the feeling of dizziness stems from the vestibular organs in the inner ear. These fluid-filled chambers sense rotation of the head through tiny hairs that sense the fluid moving. After turning around rapidly, the fluid continues to move, which can make you feel like you’re still spinning.

Ballet dancers can perform multiple pirouettes with little or no feeling of dizziness. The findings show that this feat isn’t just down to spotting, a technique dancers use that involves rapidly moving the head to fix their gaze on the same spot as much as possible.

Researchers at Imperial College London recruited 29 female ballet dancers and, as a comparison group, 20 female rowers whose age and fitness levels matched the dancers’.

The volunteers were spun around in a chair in a dark room. They were asked to turn a handle in time with how quickly they felt like they were still spinning after they had stopped. The researchers also measured eye reflexes triggered by input from the vestibular organs. Later, they examined the participants’ brain structure with MRI scans.

In dancers, both the eye reflexes and their perception of spinning lasted a shorter time than in the rowers.

Dr Barry Seemungal, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, said: “Dizziness, which is the feeling that we are moving when in fact we are still, is a common problem. I see a lot of patients who have suffered from dizziness for a long time. Ballet dancers seem to be able to train themselves not to get dizzy, so we wondered whether we could use the same principles to help our patients.”

The brain scans revealed differences between the groups in two parts of the brain: an area in the cerebellum where sensory input from the vestibular organs is processed and in the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for the perception of dizziness.

The area in the cerebellum was smaller in dancers. Dr Seemungal thinks this is because dancers would be better off not using their vestibular systems, relying instead on highly co-ordinated pre-programmed movements.

“It’s not useful for a ballet dancer to feel dizzy or off balance. Their brains adapt over years of training to suppress that input. Consequently, the signal going to the brain areas responsible for perception of dizziness in the cerebral cortex is reduced, making dancers resistant to feeling dizzy. If we can target that same brain area or monitor it in patients with chronic dizziness, we can begin to understand how to treat them better.”

Another finding in the study may be important for how chronic dizzy patients are tested in the clinic. In the control group, the perception of spinning closely matched the eye reflexes triggered by vestibular signals, but in dancers, the two were uncoupled.

“This shows that the sensation of spinning is separate from the reflexes that make your eyes move back and forth,” Dr Seemungal said. “In many clinics, it’s common to only measure the reflexes, meaning that when these tests come back normal the patient is told that there is nothing wrong. But that’s only half the story. You need to look at tests that assess both reflex and sensation.”

For the curious, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

The Neuroanatomical Correlates of Training-Related Perceptuo-Reflex Uncoupling in Dancers by Yuliya Nigmatullina, Peter J. Hellyer, Parashkev Nachev, David J. Sharp, and Barry M. Seemungal. Cereb. Cortex (2013) doi: 10.1093/cercor/bht266 First published online: September 26, 2013

Delightfully, this article too is open access.

I love these kinds of stories where two very different branches of science find information of interest in something as ordinary as spinning around.

Courtesy: Imperial College of London (downloaded from: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_26-9-2013-17-43-4]

Courtesy: Imperial College of London (downloaded from: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_26-9-2013-17-43-4]

Here are some Whirling Dervishes,

Istanbul - Monestir Mevlevi - Dervixos dansaires Credit: Josep Renalias [downloaded from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Istanbul_-_Monestir_Mevlevi_-_Dervixos_dansaires.JPG]

Istanbul – Monestir Mevlevi – Dervixos dansaires Credit: Josep Renalias [downloaded from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Istanbul_-_Monestir_Mevlevi_-_Dervixos_dansaires.JPG]

ETA Nov. 28, 2013: I was most diverted by the Nov. 27, 2013 Virginia Tech news release (also on EurekAlert) which describes how two physicists and an engineer came to study Whirling Dervishes,

James Hanna likes to have fun with his engineering views of physics.

So when he and his colleague Jemal Guven visited their friend Martin Michael Müller in France on a rainy, dreary day, the three intellects decided to stay in. Guven, absent-mindedly switching between channels on the television, stumbled upon a documentary on whirling dervishes, best described as a Sufi religious order, who commemorate the teachings of 13th century Persian mystic and poet Rumi through spinning at a fixed speed in their floor length skirts.

“Their skirts showed these very striking, long-lived patterns,” Hanna, the engineer, recalled.

The film caused physicists Guven and Müller to think about structures with conical symmetry, or those shapes that can be defined as a series of straight lines emanating from a single point. By contrast, Hanna, the engineer with a physicist’s background, thought about rotating flexible structures, namely strings or sheets.

A new science magazine edited and peer-reviewed by children: Frontiers for Young Minds

November 15, 2013 article by Alice Truong about Frontiers for Young Minds (for Fast Company), profiles a new journal meant to be read by children and edited and peer-reviewed by children. Let’s start with an excerpt from the Truong article as an introduction to the Frontiers for Young Minds journal (Note: Links have been removed),

Frontiers for Young Minds is made up of editors ages 8 to 18 who learn the ropes of peer review from working scientists. With 18 young minds and 38 adult authors and associate editors lending their expertise, the journal–an offshoot of the academic research network Frontiers …

With a mission to engage a budding generation of scientists, UC [University of California at] Berkeley professor Robert Knight created the kid-friendly version of Frontiers and serves as its editor-in-chief. The young editors review and approve submissions, which are written so kids can understand them–”clearly, concisely and with enthusiasm!” the guidelines suggest. Many of the scientists who provide guidance are academics, hailing from Harvard to Rio de Janeiro’s D’Or Institute for Research and Education. The pieces are peer reviewed by one of the young editors, but to protect their identities only their first names are published along with the authors’ names.

Great idea and bravo to all involved in the project! Here’s an excerpt from the Frontiers for Young Minds About webpage,

Areas in Development now include:

  • The Brain and Friends (social neuroscience)
  • The Brain and Fun (emotion)
  • The Brain and Magic (perception, sensation)
  • The Brain and Allowances (neuroeconomics)
  • The Brain and School (attention, decision making)
  • The Brain and Sports (motor control, action)
  • The Brain and Life (memory)
  • The Brain and Talking/Texting (language)
  • The Brain and Growing (neurodevelopment)
  • The Brain and Math (neural organization of math, computational neuroscience)
  • The Brain and Health (neurology, psychiatry)
  • The Brain and Robots (brain machine interface)
  • The Brain and Music (music!)
  • The Brain and Light (optogenetics)
  • The Brain and Gaming (Fun, Action, Learning)
  • The Brain and Reading
  • The Brain and Pain
  • The Brain and Tools (basis of brain measurements)
  • The Brain and History (the story of brain research)
  • The Brain and Drugs (drugs)
  • The Brain and Sleep

I believe the unofficial title for this online journal is Frontiers (in Neuroscience) for Young Minds. I guess they were trying to make the title less cumbersome which, unfortunately, results in a bit of confusion.

At any rate, there’s a quite a range of young minds at work as editors and reviewers, from the Editorial Team’s webpage,

Sacha
14 years old
Amsterdam, Netherlands

When I was just a few weeks old, we moved to Bennekom, a small town close to Arnhem (“a bridge too far”). I am now 14 and follow the bilingual stream in secondary school, receiving lessons in English and Dutch. I hope to do the International Bacquelaurate before I leave school. In my spare time, I like to play football and hang out with my mates. Doing this editing interested me for three reasons: I really wanted to understand more about my dad’s work; I like the idea of this journal that helps us understand what our parents do; and I also like the idea of being an editor!

Abby
11 years old
Israel

I currently live in Israel, but I lived in NYC and I loved it. I like wall climbing, dancing, watching TV, scuba diving, and I love learning new things about how our world works. Oh, I also love the Weird-but-True books. You should try reading them too.

Caleb
14 years old
Canada

I enjoy reading and thinking about life. I have a flair for the dramatic. Woe betide the contributor who falls under my editorial pen. I am in several theatrical productions and I like to go camping in the Canadian wilds. My comment on brains: I wish I had one.

Darius
10 years old
Lafayette, CA, USA

I am in fifth grade. In my free time I enjoy reading and computer programming. As a hobby, I make useful objects and experiment with devices. I am very interested in the environment and was one of the founders of my school’s green committee. I enjoy reading about science, particularly chemistry, biology, and neuroscience.

Marin
8 years old
Cambridge, MA, USA

3rd grader who plays the piano and loves to sing and dance. She participates in Science Club for Girls and she and her Mom will be performing in their second opera this year.

Eleanor
8 years old
Champaign, IL, USA

I like reading and drawing. My favorite colors are blue, silver, pink, and purple. My favorite food is creamed spinach. I like to go shopping with my Mom.

….

At age 8, I would have been less Marin and more Eleanor. I hated opera; my father made us listen every Sunday afternoon during the winters.

Here’s something from an article about brain-machine interfaces for the final excerpt from the website (from the articles webpage),

[downloaded from http://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/brain-machine_interfaces/7/]

[downloaded from http://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/brain-machine_interfaces/7/]

Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMI), or brain-computer interfaces (BCI), is an exciting multidisciplinary field that has grown tremendously during the last decade. In a nutshell, BMI is about transforming thought into action and sensation into perception. In a BMI system, neural signals recorded from the brain are fed into a decoding algorithm that translates these signals into motor output. This includes controlling a computer cursor, steering a wheelchair, or driving a robotic arm. A closed control loop is typically established by providing the subject with visual feedback of the prosthetic device. BMIs have tremendous potential to greatly improve the quality of life of millions of people suffering from spinal cord injury, stroke, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and other severely disabling conditions.6

I think this piece written by Jose M. Carmena and José del R. Millán and reviewed by Bhargavi, 13 years old, is a good beginner’s piece for any adults who might be interested, as well as,, the journal’s target audience. This illustration the scientists have provided is very helpful to anyone who, for whatever reason, isn’t that knowledgeable about this area of research,

Figure 1 - Your brain in action: the different components of a BMI include the recording system, the decoding algorithm, device to be controlled, and the feedback delivered to the user (modified from Heliot and Carmena, 2010).

Figure 1 – Your brain in action:
the different components of a BMI include the recording system, the decoding algorithm, device to be controlled, and the feedback delivered to the user (modified from Heliot and Carmena, 2010).

As for getting information about basic details, here’s some of what I unearthed. The parent organization, ‘Frontiers in’ is based in Switzerland and describes itself this way on its About page,

Frontiers is a community-oriented open-access academic publisher and research network.

Our grand vision is to build an Open Science platform that empowers researchers in their daily work and where everybody has equal opportunity to seek, share and generate knowledge.

Frontiers is at the forefront of building the ultimate Open Science platform. We are driving innovations and new technologies around peer-review, article and author impact metrics, social networking for researchers, and a whole ecosystem of open science tools. We are the first – and only – platform that combines open-access publishing with research networking, with the goal to increase the reach of publications and ultimately the impact of articles and their authors.

Frontiers was launched as a grassroots initiative in 2007 by scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, out of the collective desire to improve the publishing options and provide better tools and services to researchers in the Internet age. Since then, Frontiers has become the fastest-growing open-access scholarly publisher, with a rapidly growing number of community-driven journals, more than 25,000 of high-impact researchers across a wide range of academic fields serving on the editorial boards and more than 4 million monthly page views.

As of a Feb. 27, 2013 news release, Frontiers has partnered with the Nature Publishing Group (NPG), Note: Links have been removed,

Emerging publisher Frontiers is joining Nature Publishing Group (NPG) in a strategic alliance to advance the global open science movement.

NPG, publisher of Nature, today announces a majority investment in the Swiss-based open access (OA) publisher Frontiers.

NPG and Frontiers will work together to empower researchers to change the way science is communicated, through open access publication and open science tools. Frontiers, led by CEO and neuroscientist Kamila Markram, will continue to operate with its own platform, brands, and policies.

Founded by scientists from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in 2007, Frontiers is one of the fastest growing open access publishers, more than doubling articles published year on year. Frontiers now has a portfolio of open access journals in 14 fields of science and medicine, and published over 5,000 OA articles in 2012.

Working with NPG, the journal series “Frontiers in” will significantly expand in 2013-2014. Currently, sixty-three journals published by NPG offer open access options or are open access and NPG published over 2000 open access articles in 2012. Bilateral links between nature.com and frontiersin.org will ensure that open access papers are visible on both sites.

Frontiers and NPG will also be working together on innovations in open science tools, networking, and publication processes.

Frontiers is based at EPFL in Switzerland, and works out of Innovation Square, a technology park supporting science start-ups, and hosting R&D divisions of large companies such as Logitech & Nestlé.

As for this new venture, Frontiers for Young Minds, this appears to have been launched on Nov. 11, 2013. At least, that’s what I understand from this notice on Frontier’s Facebook page (Note: Links have been removed,

Frontiers
November 11 [2013?]
Great news for kids, parents, teachers and neuroscientists! We have just launched the first Frontiers for Young Minds!

Frontiers in #Neuroscience for Young Minds is an #openaccess scientific journal that involves young people in the review of articles.

This has the double benefit of bringing kids into the world of science and offering scientists a platform for reaching out to the broadest of all audiences.

Frontiers for Young Minds is science edited for kids, by kids. Learn more and spread the word! http://bit.ly/1dijipy #sfn13

I am glad to see this effort and I wish all the parties involved the best of luck.

The brain and poetry; congratulations to Alice Munro on her 2013 Nobel prize

There’s an intriguing piece of research from the University of Exeter (UK) about poetry and the brain. From an Oct. 9, 2013 University of Exeter news release (also on EurekAlert),

New brain imaging technology is helping researchers to bridge the gap between art and science by mapping the different ways in which the brain responds to poetry and prose.

Scientists at the University of Exeter used state-of-the-art functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, which allows them to visualise which parts of the brain are activated to process various activities. No one had previously looked specifically at the differing responses in the brain to poetry and prose.

In research published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, the team found activity in a “reading network” of brain areas which was activated in response to any written material. But they also found that more emotionally charged writing aroused several of the regions in the brain which respond to music. These areas, predominantly on the right side of the brain, had previously been shown as to give rise to the “shivers down the spine” caused by an emotional reaction to music. .

When volunteers read one of their favourite passages of poetry, the team found that areas of the brain associated with memory were stimulated more strongly than ‘reading areas’, indicating that reading a favourite passage is a kind of recollection.

In a specific comparison between poetry and prose, the team found evidence that poetry activates brain areas, such as the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, which have been linked to introspection.

I did find the Journal of Consciousness Studies in two places (here [current issues] and here [archived issues]) but can’t find the article in my admittedly speedy searches on the website and via Google. Unfortunately the university news release did not include a citation (as so many of them now do); presumably the research will be published soon.

I’d like to point out a couple of things about the research, the sample was small (13) and not randomized (faculty and students from the English department). From the news release,

Professor Adam Zeman, a cognitive neurologist from the University of Exeter Medical School, worked with colleagues across Psychology and English to carry out the study on 13 volunteers, all faculty members and senior graduate students in English. Their brain activity was scanned and compared when reading literal prose such as an extract from a heating installation manual, evocative passages from novels, easy and difficult sonnets, as well as their favourite poetry.

Professor Zeman said: “Some people say it is impossible to reconcile science and art, but new brain imaging technology means we are now seeing a growing body of evidence about how the brain responds to the experience of art. This was a preliminary study, but it is all part of work that is helping us to make psychological, biological, anatomical sense of art.”

Arguably, people who’ve spent significant chunks of their lives studying and reading poetry and prose might have developed capacities the rest of us have not. For a case in point, there’s a Sept. 26, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily about research on ballet dancers’ brains and their learned ability to suppress dizziness,

The research suggests that years of training can enable dancers to suppress signals from the balance organs in the inner ear.

Normally, the feeling of dizziness stems from the vestibular organs in the inner ear. These fluid-filled chambers sense rotation of the head through tiny hairs that sense the fluid moving. After turning around rapidly, the fluid continues to move, which can make you feel like you’re still spinning.

Ballet dancers can perform multiple pirouettes with little or no feeling of dizziness. The findings show that this feat isn’t just down to spotting, a technique dancers use that involves rapidly moving the head to fix their gaze on the same spot as much as possible.

Researchers at Imperial College London recruited 29 female ballet dancers and, as a comparison group, 20 female rowers whose age and fitness levels matched the dancers’.

The volunteers were spun around in a chair in a dark room. They were asked to turn a handle in time with how quickly they felt like they were still spinning after they had stopped. The researchers also measured eye reflexes triggered by input from the vestibular organs. Later, they examined the participants’ brain structure with MRI scans.

In dancers, both the eye reflexes and their perception of spinning lasted a shorter time than in the rowers.

Yes, they too have a small sample. Happily, you can find a citation and a link to the research at the end of the ScienceDaily news item.

ETA Oct. 10, 2013 at 1:10 pm PDT: The ballet dancer research was not randomized but  that’s understandable as researchers were trying to discover why these dancers don’t experience dizziness. It should be noted the researchers did test the ballet dancers against a control group. By contrast, the researchers at the University of Exeter seemed to be generalizing results from a specialized sample to a larger population.

Alice Munro news

It was announced today (Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013) that Canada’s Alice Munro has been awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. Here’s more from an Oct. 10, 2013 news item on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news website,

Alice Munro wins the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first Canadian woman to take the award since its launch in 1901.

Munro, 82, only the 13th woman given the award, was lauded by the Swedish Academy during the Nobel announcement in Stockholm as the “master of the contemporary short story.”

“We’re not saying just that she can say a lot in just 20 pages — more than an average novel writer can — but also that she can cover ground. She can have a single short story that covers decades, and it works,” said Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy.

Reached in British Columbia by CBC News on Thursday morning, Munro said she always viewed her chances of winning the Nobel as “one of those pipe dreams” that “might happen, but it probably wouldn’t.”

Congratulations Ms. Munro! For the curious, there’s a lot more about Alice Munro and about her work in the CBC news item.

DARPA (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) wants to crowdsource cheap brain-computer interfaces

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants the DIY (or Maker community) to develop inexpensive brain-computer interfaces according to a Sept. 27, 2013 news item by John Hewitt on phys.org,

This past Saturday [Sept. 21, 2013], at the Maker Faire in New York, a new low-cost EEG recording front end was debuted at DARPA’s booth. Known as OpenBCI, the device can process eight channels of high quality EEG data, and interface it to popular platforms like Arduino. …

DARPA program manager William Casebeer said that his goal was to return next year to the Maker meeting with a device that costs under $30.

Adrianne Jeffries’ Sept. 22, 2013 article for The Verge provides more information (Note: Links have been removed),

A working prototype of a low-cost electroencephalography device funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) made its debut in New York this weekend [Sept. 21 - 22, 2013], the first step in the agency’s effort to jumpstart a do-it-yourself revolution in neuroscience.
There are some products like those in the Neurosky lineup, which range from $99 to $130. But most neural monitoring tools are relatively expensive and proprietary, the OpenBCI [OpenBCI, an open source device built to capture signals from eight electrodes at a time] team explained, which makes it tough for the casual scientist, hacker, or artist to play with EEG. If neural monitoring were cheap and open, we’d start to see more science experiments, art projects, mind-controlled video games, and even serious research using brainwaves. You could use an at-home EEG to create a brain-powered keyboard, for example, Dr. Allen [Lindsey Allen, engineer for Creare;  OpenBCI was built by Creare and biofeedback scientist Joel Murphy, and the prototype was finished only two weeks ago] said, and learn how to type with your mind.

I have written about various brain-computer interfaces previously, the most recent being a Dec. 5, 2012 posting about Muse, a $199 brainwave computer controller.

Ouch, my brain hurts! Information overload in the neurosciences

Alcino Silva, a professor of neurobiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, has been working on the information overload problem in neuroscience for almost 30 years. In Silva’s latest effort he and his team are designing and testing  research maps, from the Aug. 8, 2013 news item  on ScienceDaily,

Before the digital age, neuroscientists got their information in the library like the rest of us. But the field’s explosion has created nearly 2 million papers — more data than any researcher can read and absorb in a lifetime.

That’s why a UCLA [University of California at Los Angeles] team has invented research maps. Equipped with an online app, the maps help neuroscientists quickly scan what is already known and plan their next study. The Aug. 8 edition of Neuron describes the findings.

The Aug. 8, 2013 UCLA news release written by Elaine Schmidt, which originated the news item, provides details about the team’s strategy for developing and testing this new tool,

Silva collaborated with Anthony Landreth, a former UCLA postdoctoral fellow, to create maps that offer simplified, interactive and unbiased summaries of research findings designed to help neuroscientists in choosing what to study next. As a testing ground for their maps, the team focused on findings in molecular and cellular cognition.

UCLA programmer Darin Gilbert Nee also created a Web-based app to help scientists expand and interact with their field’s map.

“We founded research maps on a crowd-sourcing strategy in which individual scientists add papers that interest them to a growing map of their fields,” said Silva, who started working on the problem nearly 30 years ago as a graduate student and who wrote, along with Landreth, an upcoming Oxford Press book on the subject. “Each map is interactive and searchable; scientists see as much of the map as they query, much like an online search.”

According to Silva, the map allows scientists to zero in on areas that interest them. By tracking published findings, researchers can determine what’s missing and pinpoint worthwhile experiments to pursue.

“Just as a GPS map offers different levels of zoom, a research map would allow a scientist to survey a specific research area at different levels of resolution — from coarse summaries to fine-grained accounts of experimental results,” Silva said. “The map would display no more and no less detail than is necessary for the researcher’s purposes.”

Each map encodes information by classifying it into categories and scoring the weight of its evidence based on key criteria, such as reproducibility and “convergence” — when different experiments point to a single conclusion.

The team’s next step will be to automate the map-creation process. As scientists publish papers, their findings will automatically be added to the research map representing their field.

According to Silva, automation could be achieved by using journals’ existing publication process to divide an article’s findings into smaller chapters and build “nano-publications.” Publishers would use a software plug-in to render future papers machine-readable.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the published paper,

The Need for Research Maps to Navigate Published Work and Inform Experiment Planning by Anthony Landreth and Alcino J. Silva.  Neuron, Volume 79, Issue 3, 411-415, 7 August 2013 doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2013.07.024

Copyright © 2013 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

I have provided a link to the HTML with thumbnail images version of the paper, which appears to  be open access (at least for now). I found this paper to be quite readable, from the Introduction,

The amount of published research in neuroscience has grown to be massive. The past three decades have accumulated more than 1.6 million articles alone. The rapid expansion of the published record has been accompanied by an unprecedented widening of the range of concepts, approaches, and techniques that individual neuroscientists are expected to be familiar with. The cutting edge of neuroscience is increasingly defined by studies demanding researchers in one area (e.g., molecular and cellular neuroscience) to have more than a passing familiarity with the tools, concepts, and literature of other areas (e.g., systems or behavioral neuroscience). [emphasis mine] As research relevant to a topic expands, it becomes increasingly more likely that researchers will be either overwhelmed or unaware of relevant results (or both).

Interestingly, neither author not any other team members (in addition to Nee, John Bickle, not mentioned in the news release, has co-written the forthcoming book with Silva and Landreth) mentioned seem to have any background in library or archival sciences or in information architecture or records management, all fields where people deal with massive amounts of information and accessibility issues. For example, the US National and Records Administration (NARA) is developing a data visualization tool (Action Science Explorer; my Dec. 9, 2011 posting profiles this project) to address some very similar issues to those faced in the neuroscience community.

Listening to an individual brain cell using a carbon nanotube ‘harpoon’

Apparently, the prime motivation for listening to individual neurons or brain cells is to “better understand the computational complexity of the brain,” according to a June 20,  2013 news item on Azonano,

The new brain cell spear is a millimeter long, only a few nanometers wide and harnesses the superior electromechanical properties of carbon nanotubes to capture electrical signals from individual neurons.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time scientists have used carbon nanotubes to record signals from individual neurons, what we call intracellular recordings, in brain slices or intact brains of vertebrates,” said Bruce Donald, a professor of computer science and biochemistry at Duke University who helped developed the probe.

The June 19, 2013 Duke University news release by Ashley Yeager, which originated the news item, provides some insight into the current state of the art and how this new technique is an improvement,

Currently, they use two main types of electrodes, metal and glass, to record signals from brain cells. Metal electrodes record spikes from a population of brain cells and work well in live animals. Glass electrodes also measure spikes, as well as the computations individual cells perform, but are delicate and break easily.”The new carbon nanotubes combine the best features of both metal and glass electrodes. They record well both inside and outside brain cells, and they are quite flexible. Because they won’t shatter, scientists could use them to record signals from individual brain cells of live animals,” said Duke neurobiologist Michael Platt, who was not involved in the study.

This is not the first time researchers have tried to use carbon nanotubes for this purpose, from the news release,

In the past, other scientists have experimented with carbon nanotube probes. But the electrodes were thick, causing tissue damage, or they were short, limiting how far they could penetrate into brain tissue. They could not probe inside individual neurons.

To change this, Donald began working on a harpoon-like carbon-nanotube probe with Duke neurobiologist Richard Mooney five years ago. The two met during their first year at Yale in the 1976, kept in touch throughout graduate school and began meeting to talk about their research after they both came to Duke.

Mooney told Donald about his work recording brain signals from live zebra finches and mice. The work was challenging, he said, because the probes and machinery to do the studies were large and bulky on the small head of a mouse or bird.

With Donald’s expertise in nanotechnology and robotics and Mooney’s in neurobiology, the two thought they could work together to shrink the machinery and improve the probes with nano-materials.

To make the probe, graduate student Inho Yoon and Duke physicist Gleb Finkelstein used the tip of an electrochemically sharpened tungsten wire as the base and extended it with self-entangled multi-wall carbon nanotubes to create a millimeter-long rod. The scientists then sharpened the nanotubes into a tiny harpoon using a focused ion beam at North Carolina State University.

Yoon then took the nano-harpoon to Mooney’s lab and jabbed it into slices of mouse brain tissue and then into the brains of anesthetized mice. The results show that the probe transmits brain signals as well as, and sometimes better than, conventional glass electrodes and is less likely to break off in the tissue. The new probe also penetrates individual neurons, recording the signals of a single cell rather than the nearest population of them.

Based on the results, the team has applied for a patent on the nano-harpoon.  Platt said scientists might use the probes in a range of applications, from basic science to human brain-computer interfaces and brain prostheses.

Donald said the new probe makes advances in those directions, but the insulation layers, electrical recording abilities and geometry of the device still need improvement.

The research paper is available in the open access journal PLoS ONE,

Intracellular Neural Recording with Pure Carbon Nanotube Probes by Inho Yoon, Kosuke Hamaguchi, Ivan V. Borzenets, Gleb Finkelstein, Richard Mooney, and Bruce R. Donald. 2013. PLOS ONE. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065715

As for calling this a ‘harpoon’, these carbon nanotube probes really do resemble harpoons,

This image, taken with a scanning electron microscope, shows a new brain electrode that tapers to a point as thick as a single carbon nanotube. Credit: Inho Yoon and Bruce Donald, Duke.  [downloaded from http://today.duke.edu/2013/06/brainharpoon]

This image, taken with a scanning electron microscope, shows a new brain electrode that tapers to a point as thick as a single carbon nanotube. Credit: Inho Yoon and Bruce Donald, Duke. [downloaded from http://today.duke.edu/2013/06/brainharpoon]

You can compare it to this harpoon from The Specialists Prop House, Traditional harpoon page,

[downloaded from The Specialists Prop House, Traditional harpoon page, http://thespecialistsltd.com/traditional-harpoon]

[downloaded from The Specialists Prop House, Traditional harpoon page, http://thespecialistsltd.com/traditional-harpoon]

I have written about some of the neuroscience work coming out of Duke University in the past, e.g., my March 4, 2013 posting about Miguel Nicolelis’ work on brain-to-brain communication.

Meditating and neuroscience: Canada National Film Board movie and a Dalai Lama talk

These documentaries are usually focused on Buddhism and its meditation practices but in The Mystical Brain, Isabelle Raynaud starts with some archival footage of brain work, paintings of brains through history, and a Buddhist monk  before segueing to a neuroscientist trying to talk some Carmelite nuns into a research experiment he wants to run. I haven’t seen the whole film yet but The Mystical Brain, a National Film Board (NFB) of Canada production, by  Raynaud offers a fresh and neuroscientific approach to the age old question, ‘Is there really such a thing as a mystical experience and, if so, can we measure it?’

Carolyn Weldon in her Apr. 9, 2013 posting about The Mystical Brain on the NFB.ca blog describes it thusly (Note  a link has been removed),

First, the film follows a team of Université de Montréal researchers studying, through electroencephalography (or EEG), the brains of Carmelite nuns asked to remember a moment of divine communion they experienced in the past. This was as close to the “real deal” as they could study as Carmelite nuns, like most of us, apparently can’t trigger mystical experiences on command.

Nine nuns later, the 2 scientists were able to demonstrate that prayer increased the brain’s Theta activity, or Theta waves. Theta waves (4-7.5 Hz) are some of the slowest waves our brains emits. These waves are associated with REM sleep, daydreaming, super learning, and increased memory and creativity. For most people, Theta activity is only experienced momentarily, as one drifts off to sleep from Alpha, or wakes from deep sleep, from Delta. For nuns, especially cloistered ones, like Carmelite [sic], this is a state they spend hours in – consciously – every day.

Next, the film takes us to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where a different team is studying the meditating brain of Matthieu Ricard, a French-born Buddhist monk who also happens to be the French interpreter to the Dalai Lama [and holds a PhD in molecular genetics]. Ricard, the author of numerous bestselling books on meditation and happiness, is a natural at explaining what meditation is and isn’t, and his on-camera sequences are some of the film’s strongest.

Buddhist monks and long-time meditation practitioners, on the other hands, are like the Olympic athletes of the mind. Their minds are clear, serene, and less vulnerable to the vagaries of external events. At Wiconsin-Madison U. [sic], the neuroscientists found that meditation has a robust impact on brain function…. and not only for Ricard and his kind. Positive physical and psychological changes can already be observed in new practitioners, as early as 2 months into their practice.

The documentary, for those who are interested,  is embedded in Weldon’s posting. As she notes, meditation has gone mainstream in a very big way. And not only with the general public, it sometimes seems that I come across at least one new research study about meditation and the brain on a daily basis.

Raynaud’s film about meditation and neuroscience reminded me of my Aug. 21, 2012 posting where I mentioned an upcoming dialogue with the Dalai Lama about science. At the time I was under the impression that it was to be his third such dialogue with Natasha Mitchell in an Australia Broadcasting Corporation series but I’m no longer sure about that.  Yesterday, I searched and found the Happiness & its causes event (June 19 – 20, 2013 in Melbourne, Australia) which features Natasha Mitchell and the Dalai Lama in two presentations, from the Day 2 Conference page, (Note: Links have been removed)

9.15am     In conversation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Be inspired by words of wisdom and compassion from one of the world’s most revered spiritual leaders. In this intimate conversation with the Dalai Lama, Natasha Mitchell delves for practical advice on how we can lead a happy and meaningful life.

9.45am     Science of Mind Forum

Isn’t the mind amazing? Science is only just beginning to glimpse the extraordinary workings of the mind and how it governs everything. Witness a  unique dialogue between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a panel of world renowned scientists.

› His Holiness the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Australia
› Dr Mario Beauregard, Associate Researcher, Departments of Psychology and Radiology, Neuroscience Research Center; author: Brain Wars, University of Montreal, Canada
› Professor Jayashri Kulkarni, Professor of Psychiatry, The Alfred and Monash University, Australia
› Professor Lorimer Moseley, Professor of Clinical Neuroscience, University of South Australia, Australia
› Natasha Mitchell, Presenter, Life Matters, ABC Radio National, Australia

I could not find any information about a third dialogue for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Nanotechnology and the US mega science project: BAM (Brain Activity Map) and more

The Brain Activity Map (BAM) project received budgetary approval as of this morning, Apr. 2, 2013 (I first mentioned BAM in my Mar. 4, 2013 posting when approval seemed imminent). From the news item, Obama Announces Huge Brain-Mapping Project, written by Stephanie Pappas for Yahoo News (Note: Links have been removed),

 President Barack Obama announced a new research initiative this morning (April 2) to map the human brain, a project that will launch with $100 million in funding in 2014.

The Brain Activity Map (BAM) project, as it is called, has been in the planning stages for some time. In the June 2012 issue of the journal Neuron, six scientists outlined broad proposals for developing non-invasive sensors and methods to experiment on single cells in neural networks. This February, President Obama made a vague reference to the project in his State of the Union address, mentioning that it could “unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s.”

In March, the project’s visionaries outlined their final goals in the journal Science. They call for an extended effort, lasting several years, to develop tools for monitoring up to a million neurons at a time. The end goal is to understand how brain networks function.

“It could enable neuroscience to really get to the nitty-gritty of brain circuits, which is the piece that’s been missing from the puzzle,” Rafael Yuste, the co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Circuits at Columbia University, who is part of the group spearheading the project, told LiveScience in March. “The reason it’s been missing is because we haven’t had the techniques, the tools.” [Inside the Brain: A Journey Through Time]

Not all neuroscientists support the project, however, with some arguing that it lacks clear goals and may cannibalize funds for other brain research.

….

I believe the $100M mentioned for 2014 would one installment in a series totaling up to $1B or more. In any event, it seems like a timely moment to comment on the communications campaign that has been waged on behalf of the BAM. It reminds me a little of the campaign for graphene, which was waged in the build up to the decision as to which two projects (in a field of six semi-finalists, then narrowed to a field of four finalists) should receive a FET (European Union’s Future and Emerging Technology) 1 billion euro research prize each. It seemed to me even a year or so before the decision that graphene’s win was a foregone conclusion but the organizers left nothing to chance and were relentless in their pursuit of attention and media coverage in the buildup to the final decision.

The most recent salvo in the BAM campaign was an attempt to link it with nanotechnology. A shrewd move given that the US has spent well over $1B since the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was first approved in 2000. Linking the two projects means the NNI can lend a little authority to the new project (subtext: we’ve supported a mega-project before and that was successful) while the new project BAM can imbue the ageing NNI with some excitement.

Here’s more about nanotechnology and BAM from a Mar. 27, 2013 Spotlight article by Michael Berger on Nanowerk,

A comprehensive understanding of the brain remains an elusive, distant frontier. To arrive at a general theory of brain function would be an historic event, comparable to inferring quantum theory from huge sets of complex spectra and inferring evolutionary theory from vast biological field work. You might have heard about the proposed Brain Activity Map – a project that, like the Human Genome Project, will tap the hive mind of experts to make headway in the understanding of the field. Engineers and nanotechnologists will be needed to help build ever smaller devices for measuring the activity of individual neurons and, later, to control how those neurons function. Computer scientists will be called upon to develop methods for storing and analyzing the vast quantities of imaging and physiological data, and for creating virtual models for studying brain function. Neuroscientists will provide critical biological expertise to guide the research and interpret the results.

Berger goes on to highlight some of the ways nanotechnology-enabled devices could contribute to the effort. He draws heavily on a study published Mar. 20, 2013 online in ACS (American Chemical Society)Nano. Shockingly, the article is open access. Given that this is the first time I’ve come across an open access article in any of the American Chemical Society’s journals, I suspect that there was payment of some kind involved to make this information freely available. (The practice of allowing researchers to pay more in order to guarantee open access to their research in journals that also have articles behind paywalls seems to be in the process of becoming more common.)

Here’s a citation and a link to the article about nanotechnology and BAM,

Nanotools for Neuroscience and Brain Activity Mapping by A. Paul Alivisatos, Anne M. Andrews, Edward S. Boyden, Miyoung Chun, George M. Church, Karl Deisseroth, John P. Donoghue, Scott E. Fraser, Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, Loren L. Looger, Sotiris Masmanidis, Paul L. McEuen, Arto V. Nurmikko, Hongkun Park, Darcy S. Peterka, Clay Reid, Michael L. Roukes, Axel Scherer, Mark Schnitzer, Terrence J. Sejnowski, Kenneth L. Shepard, Doris Tsao, Gina Turrigiano, Paul S. Weiss, Chris Xu, Rafael Yuste, and Xiaowei Zhuang. ACS Nano, 2013, 7 (3), pp 1850–1866 DOI: 10.1021/nn4012847 Publication Date (Web): March 20, 2013
Copyright © 2013 American Chemical Society

As these things go, it’s a readable article for people without a neuroscience education provided they don’t mind feeling a little confused from time to time. From Nanotools for Neuroscience and Brain Activity Mapping (Note: Footnotes and links removed),

The Brain Activity Mapping (BAM) Project (…) has three goals in terms of building tools for neuroscience capable of (…) measuring the activity of large sets of neurons in complex brain circuits, (…) computationally analyzing and modeling these brain circuits, and (…) testing these models by manipulating the activities of chosen sets of neurons in these brain circuits.

As described below, many different approaches can, and likely will, be taken to achieve these goals as neural circuits of increasing size and complexity are studied and probed.

The BAM project will focus both on dynamic voltage activity and on chemical neurotransmission. With an estimated 85 billion neurons, 100 trillion synapses, and 100 chemical neurotransmitters in the human brain,(…) this is a daunting task. Thus, the BAM project will start with model organisms, neural circuits (vide infra), and small subsets of specific neural circuits in humans.

Among the approaches that show promise for the required dynamic, parallel measurements are optical and electro-optical methods that can be used to sense neural cell activity such as Ca2+,(7) voltage,(…) and (already some) neurotransmitters;(…) electrophysiological approaches that sense voltages and some electrochemically active neurotransmitters;(…) next-generation photonics-based probes with multifunctional capabilities;(18) synthetic biology approaches for recording histories of function;(…) and nanoelectronic measurements of voltage and local brain chemistry.(…) We anticipate that tools developed will also be applied to glia and more broadly to nanoscale and microscale monitoring of metabolic processes.

Entirely new tools will ultimately be required both to study neurons and neural circuits with minimal perturbation and to study the human brain. These tools might include “smart”, active nanoscale devices embedded within the brain that report on neural circuit activity wirelessly and/or entirely new modalities of remote sensing of neural circuit dynamics from outside the body. Remarkable advances in nanoscience and nanotechnology thus have key roles to play in transduction, reporting, power, and communications.

One of the ultimate goals of the BAM project is that the knowledge acquired and tools developed will prove useful in the intervention and treatment of a wide variety of diseases of the brain, including depression, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, and others. We note that tens of thousands of patients have already been treated with invasive (i.e., through the skull) treatments. [emphases mine] While we hope to reduce the need for such measures, greatly improved and more robust interfaces to the brain would impact effectiveness and longevity where such treatments remain necessary.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, there was this Mar. 29, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

Some human cells forget to empty their trash bins, and when the garbage piles up, it can lead to Parkinson’s disease and other genetic and age-related disorders. Scientists don’t yet understand why this happens, and Rice University engineering researcher Laura Segatori is hoping to change that, thanks to a prestigious five-year CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Segatori, Rice’s T.N. Law Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and assistant professor of bioengineering and of biochemistry and cell biology, will use her CAREER grant to create a toolkit for probing the workings of the cellular processes that lead to accumulation of waste material and development of diseases, such as Parkinson’s and lysosomal storage disorders. Each tool in the kit will be a nanoparticle — a speck of matter about the size of a virus — with a specific shape, size and charge.  [emphases mine] By tailoring each of these properties, Segatori’s team will create a series of specialized probes that can undercover the workings of a cellular process called autophagy.

“Eventually, once we understand how to design a nanoparticle to activate autophagy, we will use it as a tool to learn more about the autophagic process itself because there are still many question marks in biology regarding how this pathway works,” Segatori said. “It’s not completely clear how it is regulated. It seems that excessive autophagy may activate cell death, but it’s not yet clear. In short, we are looking for more than therapeutic applications. We are also hoping to use these nanoparticles as tools to study the basic science of autophagy.”

There is no direct reference to BAM but there are some intriguing correspondences.

Finally, there is no mention of nanotechnology in this radio broadcast/podcast and transcript but it does provide more information about BAM (for many folks this was first time they’d heard about the project) and the hopes and concerns this project raises while linking it to the Human Genome Project. From the Mar. 31, 2013 posting of a transcript and radio (Kera News; a National Public Radio station) podcast titled, Somewhere Over the Rainbow: The Journey to Map the Human Brain,

During the State of the Union, President Obama said the nation is about to embark on an ambitious project: to examine the human brain and create a road map to the trillions of connections that make it work.

“Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar,” the president said. “Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s.”

Details of the project have slowly been leaking out: $3 billion, 10 years of research and hundreds of scientists. The National Institutes of Health is calling it the Brain Activity Map.

Obama isn’t the first to tout the benefits of a huge government science project. But can these projects really deliver? And what is mapping the human brain really going to get us?

Whether one wants to call it a public relations campaign or a marketing campaign is irrelevant. Science does not take place in an environment where data and projects are considered dispassionately. Enormous amounts of money are spent to sway public opinion and policymakers’ decisions.

ETA Ap. 3, 2013: Here are more stories about BAM and the announcement:

BRAIN Initiative Launched to Unlock Mysteries of Human Mind

Obama’s BRAIN Only 1/13 The Size Of Europe’s

BRAIN Initiative Builds on Efforts of Leading Neuroscientists and Nanotechnologists

Magic, science, and neuro

This latest news from the University of Leicester brings to mind Arthur C. Clarke’s famous (and overused) quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” From the Mar. 12, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

A magician is using his knowledge of magic theory and practice to investigate the brain’s powers of observation.

Hugo Caffaratti, engineer and semi-professional magician from Barcelona, Spain, has embarked on a PhD with the University of Leicester’s Centre for Systems Neuroscience.

Hugo has 12 years of experience working with magic — specialising in card tricks — and is a member of the Spanish Society of Illusionism (SEI-ACAI).

The engineer also has a longstanding interest in neuroscience and bioengineering, having taken a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering at University of Barcelona.

He hopes to combine his two interests in his PhD thesis project, which covers a new field of Cognitive Neuroscience:Neuro-Magic.

The University of Leicester Mar. 11, 2013 press release, which originated the news item, goes on to reveal that Caffaratti’s study is about observation and choice,

As part of his work, he will investigate how our brains perceive what actually happens before our eyes – and how our attention can be drawn away from important details.

He also plans to study “forced choice” – a tool often used by magicians where we are fooled into thinking we have made a free choice.

Among other experiments, Hugo will ask participants to watch videos of card trick performances, while sitting in front of an eye-tracker device.

This will allow him to monitor where our attention is focused during illusions – and how our brain can be deceived when our eyes miss the whole picture.

Hugo said: “I have always been interested in the study of the brain. It is amazing to be involved in the process of combining the disciplines of neuroscience and magic.

“I am really interested in the fields of decision making and forced-choice. It is incredible that many times a day we make a decision and feel free. We do not realise that we have been forced to make that decision.

“I am constructing an experiment to study what happens when we make forced decisions – to try and find the reasons for it. I am thinking about which kinds of tricks I know could be useful to give more insights about brain function.”

He will work under the tutelage of Professor Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, director of the Centre for Systems Neuroscience.

I am intrigued by Quian Quiroga’s perspective on this work,

Professor Rodrigo Quian Quiroga said: “I am very interested in connections between science and the arts. Last year, for example, we organized an art and science exhibition as a result of a 1-year rotation in my lab of visual artist Mariano Molina. Hugo’s PhD will look at decision-making and attention – and although he is doing his first steps in neuroscience, I think he already has a lot of expertise in this area based on his training as a magician.

“Magic theory has thousands of years of experience. Magicians have been answering similar questions that we have in the lab, and they have an intuitive knowledge of how the mind works. Hugo will likely bring a fresh new view on how to address questions we deal with in neuroscience.”

Happily, Caffaratti plans to continue as a magician while he studies,

Hugo is also keen to carry on with his work in magic while studying for his PhD, and is hoping to perform in bars in Leicester while staying here.

He has also applied for membership with The Magic Circle – a prestigious magic society of London. He will have to sit exams to prove his magical mettle in order to join the exclusive club.

Hopefully one of these days I’ll get to Leicester and have a chance to Caffaratti in action at a bar. Perhaps I’ll be able to recognize him from this image,

L-R: Professor Quian Quiroga, Director of the Centre for Systems Neuroscience, with PhD student and semi-professional magician Hugo Caffaratti. [downloaded from http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/press-releases/2013/march/neuro-magic-magician-uses-magic-tricks-to-study-the-brain2019s-powers-of-perception-and-memory]

L-R: Professor Quian Quiroga, Director of the Centre for Systems Neuroscience, with PhD student and semi-professional magician Hugo Caffaratti. [downloaded from http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/press-releases/2013/march/neuro-magic-magician-uses-magic-tricks-to-study-the-brain2019s-powers-of-perception-and-memory]

For anyone who’s intrigued by Clarke’s quote and its overuse, there’s a good May 9, 2011 essay by Kyle Munkittrick about the movie Thor, magic, and science on the Science not Fiction Discover magazine blog,

If you haven’t seen it yet, Thor is a ridiculous and entertaining superhero spectacle. All the leads did a great job, particularly Hopkins as Odin. If you can take a man seriously when he’s standing on a rainbow bridge wearing a gold-plate eyepatch, he’s doing something right. Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of Asgard was visually overwhelming, but weirdly believable.

The reason? Branagh leans heavily on the magi-tech rule of Arthur C. Clarke, which Natalie Portman’s character quotes in the film, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So what is the difference between really-really advanced technology and actual magic? Sean Carroll, who did some science advising for the film, clears the idea up a bit: …

… Clarke’s rule of magical tech helps create some of that consistency. I both love and loathe Clarke for that statement. Love because it strikes at the heart of what technology is: a way for humans to do things previously believed not just implausible, but impossible. Loathe because it creates an infinite caveat for lazy authors and screenwriters.

So there you have it: two approaches to science and magic.