Tag Archives: neuroscience

Bio and neuro inspiration at Metro Vancouver’s (Canada) 2020 Zero Waste Conference (ZWC)

For anyone not familiar with Metro Vancouver (and before I launch into the 2020 Zero Waste conference [ZWC] news and discuss why this year is particularly interesting [to me, anyway]), here’s a description from the Metro Vancouver About Us webpage,

Metro Vancouver is a federation of 21 municipalities [including Vancouver, Canada], one Electoral Area and one Treaty First Nation that collaboratively plans for and delivers regional-scale services. Its core services are drinking water, wastewater treatment and solid waste management. Metro Vancouver also regulates air quality, plans for urban growth, manages a regional parks system and provides affordable housing. The regional district is governed by a Board of Directors of elected officials from each local authority.

2020 Zero Waste Conference (ZWC) celebrates 10 years?

Apparently, the organizers are planning some limited in-person participation for the 2020 edition of the Zero Waste conference (from the Aug. 7, 2020 ZWC blog posting) Note: Pay special attention to the second sentence in the first paragraph,

For the past 10 years, Metro Vancouver’s annual Zero Waste Conference has been at the forefront of Canada’s journey into the circular economy. This year, we are pleased to keep the engagement going online and with an in-person option for a limited number of participants (more to come).

The 2020 Zero Waste Conference promises the same insightful programming we’ve provided over the past decade, but in a new, virtual format. For the first time, conference participants will be able to hear from and connect with the thought leaders, innovators and change agents working to advance waste prevention and the circular economy in Canada – all from the comfort of their own homes or offices.

The COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing public health response may have resulted in some near-term setbacks for the zero waste movement. However, as we work together to ‘Build Back Better,’ it is essential that we critically examine our society’s relationships with products, packaging and waste, and garner the courage to create systems and build infrastructure that will enable a transition to a circular and zero waste economy, creating solutions that combine economic opportunity with benefits to wider society and the environment.

We are living through an era of unprecedented change and transformation. How do we apply our creativity and knowledge to craft a future for Canada that embraces new materials, new ways of doing business and new policies that not only prevent waste and promote circularity, but that help us move toward a more sustainable, healthy and equitable future?

We look forward to highlighting some of the best ideas from the last 10 years and presenting pioneering solutions that take us to a future most of us have only begun to dare dream is possible.

I imagine the option for in-person participation is contingent on the COVID-19 situation in the province of British Columbia and, specifically, the Metro Vancouver region. At the time of this writing, the number of cases in the province are rising steadily, again.

As for the question mark in the head for this subsection, it’s unusual for an organization to not make a big fuss of their 10th annual [anything] leading me to wonder why?

Now, onto the item that sparked my interest in the 2020 ZWC.

Suzanne Lee and growing your clothes

Here’s the August 27, 2020 ZWC notice (received via email) announcing a speaker’s proposed new paradigm for fashion,

Growing a New Paradigm:
Biofabrication Pioneer Suzanne Lee at #ZWC20

The textiles & fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters on earth, accounting for a staggering amount of carbon emissions, water consumption and ocean microplastics.

But what if we could produce durable and beautiful clothes with far less pollution and waste, using the processes at the heart of life itself?

We are pleased to welcome Suzanne Lee, material innovator and founder of Biofabricate, as morning keynote for the “Next Generation Materials” session.

“Biofabrication” uses microscopic organisms to reinvent the way we make everything from clothes to couches to buildings, and holds the promise for radically cutting emissions and eliminating waste.

Join us at the 2020 Zero Waste Conference to hear how Suzanne Lee and her colleagues are using fungi, bacteria, yeast and algae to revolutionize the fashion world from the ground up.

As Suzanne Lee says,

“Once you realize that these materials are better for the planet, animals and us, why would we go back to the toxic, polluting materials of the past?”

Join us on Friday, November 13th for the next phase of Canada’s zero waste journey.

Registration is now open for the 2020 Zero Waste Conference

REGISTER NOW

I haven’t stumbled across Lee’s work in the last few years but between 2010 and 2014, I featured her work here three times:

You can find out more about Suzanne Lee and her work here (Note: This website seems to consist of a single page with links to other sites associated with Lee) and you can find out more about Lee’s latest company, Biofabricate here.

ZWC 2020 opening keynote address from a ‘neuro guy’

I’ve not come across Dr. Beau Lotto before but according to an August 18, 2020 posting on the ZWC blog, he’s giving the opening keynote address,

Embracing Uncertainty to Spark Innovation – ZWC20 Keynote Beau Lotto

We find ourselves amid uncertain times, and for those of us passionate about systems change and innovation, these are also times of great opportunity. But how exactly do we meet goals like advancing waste prevention and expanding the circular economy in the face of all this uncertainty?

To help answer that question, we’re pleased to introduce you to this year’s Zero Waste Conference opening keynote: Dr. Beau Lotto.

Frontiers in Science of Uncertainty

#ZWC20 Keynote Beau Lotto is no stranger to uncertainty – in fact, that is his main focus as a neuroscientist and entrepreneur.

Through his presentations (including three TED Talks), masterclasses and a proprietary form of consultancy build on “experiential experiments,” Dr. Lotto teaches organizations and individuals how to apply scientific truths about perception to adapt and thrive in an ever-changing world.

His work probes how the human mind deals with the unknown and reveals fascinating and actionable implications for creativity, courage, emotional well-being and social connections.

Unlocking Our Creativity

How do we use the upheaval represented by COVID-19 as an opportunity to build back a more equitable and sustainable future?

The key, as Dr. Lotto said in a recent podcast interview, is to embrace uncertainty:

““Uncertainty is the only place you can go if you’re ever going to see differently the only place you can go if you’re going to be creative.”

As a researcher well versed in the circular economy and the challenges associated with global systems change, Beau Lotto brings a deep understanding of the importance of risk-taking and innovation.

We are pleased to welcome Dr. Lotto to #ZWC20 to set the stage and inspire us to embrace uncertainty and to step forward toward the future we want to bring about.  

How we proceed as a region – indeed, as a province, a country and continent – to address issues affecting our economy, environment and social make-up depends on our collective ability to be creative, innovative, and on our willingness to protect and nurture our communities.

We hope you will join us in the next phase of Canada’s zero waste journey.

You can find out more about Dr. Beau Lotto here.

This advertising video is largely comprised of a number of clips from various talks. He’s a dynamic speaker as opposed to being a quiet speaker,

Interesting, eh?

You can find out more about Metro Vancouver’s 2020 Zero Waste Conference here.

Repairing brain circuits using nanotechnology

A July 30, 2019 news item on Nanowerk announces some neuroscience research (they used animal models) that could prove helpful with neurodegenerative diseases,

Working with mouse and human tissue, Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers report new evidence that a protein pumped out of some — but not all — populations of “helper” cells in the brain, called astrocytes, plays a specific role in directing the formation of connections among neurons needed for learning and forming new memories.

Using mice genetically engineered and bred with fewer such connections, the researchers conducted proof-of-concept experiments that show they could deliver corrective proteins via nanoparticles to replace the missing protein needed for “road repairs” on the defective neural highway.

Since such connective networks are lost or damaged by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or certain types of intellectual disability, such as Norrie disease, the researchers say their findings advance efforts to regrow and repair the networks and potentially restore normal brain function.

A July 30, 2019 Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine news release (also on EurekAlert) provides more detail about the work (Note: A link has been removed),

“We are looking at the fundamental biology of how astrocytes function, but perhaps have discovered a new target for someday intervening in neurodegenerative diseases with novel therapeutics,” says Jeffrey Rothstein, M.D., Ph.D., the John W. Griffin Director of the Brain Science Institute and professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“Although astrocytes appear to all look alike in the brain, we had an inkling that they might have specialized roles in the brain due to regional differences in the brain’s function and because of observed changes in certain diseases,” says Rothstein. “The hope is that learning to harness the individual differences in these distinct populations of astrocytes may allow us to direct brain development or even reverse the effects of certain brain conditions, and our current studies have advanced that hope.”

In the brain, astrocytes are the support cells that act as guides to direct new cells, promote chemical signaling, and clean up byproducts of brain cell metabolism.

Rothstein’s team focused on a particular astrocyte protein, glutamate transporter-1, which previous studies suggested was lost from astrocytes in certain parts of brains with neurodegenerative diseases. Like a biological vacuum cleaner, the protein normally sucks up the chemical “messenger” glutamate from the spaces between neurons after a message is sent to another cell, a step required to end the transmission and prevent toxic levels of glutamate from building up.

When these glutamate transporters disappear from certain parts of the brain — such as the motor cortex and spinal cord in people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — glutamate hangs around much too long, sending messages that overexcite and kill the cells.

To figure out how the brain decides which cells need the glutamate transporters, Rothstein and colleagues focused on the region of DNA in front of the gene that typically controls the on-off switch needed to manufacture the protein. They genetically engineered mice to glow red in every cell where the gene is activated.

Normally, the glutamate transporter is turned on in all astrocytes. But, by using between 1,000- and 7,000-bit segments of DNA code from the on-off switch for glutamate, all the cells in the brain glowed red, including the neurons. It wasn’t until the researchers tried the largest sequence of an 8,300-bit DNA code from this location that the researchers began to see some selection in red cells. These red cells were all astrocytes but only in certain layers of the brain’s cortex in mice.

Because they could identify these “8.3 red astrocytes,” the researchers thought they might have a specific function different than other astrocytes in the brain. To find out more precisely what these 8.3 red astrocytes do in the brain, the researchers used a cell-sorting machine to separate the red astrocytes from the uncolored ones in mouse brain cortical tissue, and then identified which genes were turned on to much higher than usual levels in the red compared to the uncolored cell populations. The researchers found that the 8.3 red astrocytes turn on high levels of a gene that codes for a different protein known as Norrin.

Rothstein’s team took neurons from normal mouse brains, treated them with Norrin, and found that those neurons grew more of the “branches” — or extensions — used to transmit chemical messages among brain cells. Then, Rothstein says, the researchers looked at the brains of mice engineered to lack Norrin, and saw that these neurons had fewer branches than in healthy mice that made Norrin.

In another set of experiments, the research team took the DNA code for Norrin plus the 8,300 “location” DNA and assembled them into deliverable nanoparticles. When they injected the Norrin nanoparticles into the brains of mice engineered without Norrin, the neurons in these mice began to quickly grow many more branches, a process suggesting repair to neural networks. They repeated these experiments with human neurons too.

Rothstein notes that mutations in the Norrin protein that reduce levels of the protein in people cause Norrie disease — a rare, genetic disorder that can lead to blindness in infancy and intellectual disability. Because the researchers were able to grow new branches for communication, they believe it may one day be possible to use Norrin to treat some types of intellectual disabilities such as Norrie disease.

For their next steps, the researchers are investigating if Norrin can repair connections in the brains of animal models with neurodegenerative diseases, and in preparation for potential success, Miller [sic] and Rothstein have submitted a patent for Norrin.

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

Molecularly defined cortical astroglia subpopulation modulates neurons via secretion of Norrin by Sean J. Miller, Thomas Philips, Namho Kim, Raha Dastgheyb, Zhuoxun Chen, Yi-Chun Hsieh, J. Gavin Daigle, Malika Datta, Jeannie Chew, Svetlana Vidensky, Jacqueline T. Pham, Ethan G. Hughes, Michael B. Robinson, Rita Sattler, Raju Tomer, Jung Soo Suk, Dwight E. Bergles, Norman Haughey, Mikhail Pletnikov, Justin Hanes & Jeffrey D. Rothstein. Nature Neuroscience volume 22, pages741–752 (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-019-0366-7 Published: 01 April 2019 Issue Date: May 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

September 2019’s science’ish’ events in Toronto and Vancouver (Canada)

There are movies, plays, a multimedia installation experience all in Vancouver, and the ‘CHAOSMOSIS mAchInesexhibition/performance/discussion/panel/in-situ experiments/art/ science/ techne/ philosophy’ event in Toronto. But first, there’s a a Vancouver talk about engaging scientists in the upcoming federal election. .

Science in the Age of Misinformation (and the upcoming federal election) in Vancouver

Dr. Katie Gibbs, co-founder and executive director of Evidence for Democracy, will be giving a talk today (Sept. 4, 2019) at the University of British Columbia (UBC; Vancouver). From the Eventbrite webpage for Science in the Age of Misinformation,

Science in the Age of Misinformation, with Katie Gibbs, Evidence for Democracy
In the lead up to the federal election, it is more important than ever to understand the role that researchers play in shaping policy. Join us in this special Policy in Practice event with Dr. Katie Gibbs, Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, Canada’s leading, national, non-partisan, and not-for-profit organization promoting science and the transparent use of evidence in government decision making. A Musqueam land acknowledgement, welcome remarks and moderation of this event will be provided by MPPGA students Joshua Tafel, and Chengkun Lv.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019
12:30 pm – 1:50 pm (Doors will open at noon)
Liu Institute for Global Issues – xʷθəθiqətəm (Place of Many Trees), 1st floor
Pizza will be provided starting at noon on first come, first serve basis. Please RSVP.

What role do researchers play in a political environment that is increasingly polarized and influenced by misinformation? Dr. Katie Gibbs, Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, will give an overview of the current state of science integrity and science policy in Canada highlighting progress made over the past four years and what this means in a context of growing anti-expert movements in Canada and around the world. Dr. Gibbs will share concrete ways for researchers to engage heading into a critical federal election [emphasis mine], and how they can have lasting policy impact.

Bio: Katie Gibbs is a scientist, organizer and advocate for science and evidence-based policies. While completing her Ph.D. at the University of Ottawa in Biology, she was one of the lead organizers of the ‘Death of Evidence’—one of the largest science rallies in Canadian history. Katie co-founded Evidence for Democracy, Canada’s leading, national, non-partisan, and not-for-profit organization promoting science and the transparent use of evidence in government decision making. Her ongoing success in advocating for the restoration of public science in Canada has made Katie a go-to resource for national and international media outlets including Science, The Guardian and the Globe and Mail.

Katie has also been involved in international efforts to increase evidence-based decision-making and advises science integrity movements in other countries and is a member of the Open Government Partnership Multi-stakeholder Forum.

Disclaimer: Please note that by registering via Eventbrite, your information will be stored on the Eventbrite server, which is located outside Canada. If you do not wish to use this service, please email Joelle.Lee@ubc.ca directly to register. Thank you.

Location
Liu Institute for Global Issues – Place of Many Trees
6476 NW Marine Drive
Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z2

Sadly I was not able to post the information about Dr. Gibbs’s more informal talk last night (Sept. 3, 2019) which was a special event with Café Scientifique but I do have a link to a website encouraging anyone who wants to help get science on the 2019 federal election agenda, Vote Science. P.S. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to post this in a more timely fashion.

Transmissions; a multimedia installation in Vancouver, September 6 -28, 2019

Here’s a description for the multimedia installation, Transmissions, in the August 28, 2019 Georgia Straight article by Janet Smith,

Lisa Jackson is a filmmaker, but she’s never allowed that job description to limit what she creates or where and how she screens her works.

The Anishinaabe artist’s breakout piece was last year’s haunting virtual-reality animation Biidaaban: First Light. In its eerie world, one that won a Canadian Screen Award, nature has overtaken a near-empty, future Toronto, with trees growing through cracks in the sidewalks, vines enveloping skyscrapers, and people commuting by canoe.

All that and more has brought her here, to Transmissions, a 6,000-square-foot, immersive film installation that invites visitors to wander through windy coastal forests, by hauntingly empty glass towers, into soundscapes of ancient languages, and more.

Through the labyrinthine multimedia work at SFU [Simon Fraser University] Woodward’s, Jackson asks big questions—about Earth’s future, about humanity’s relationship to it, and about time and Indigeneity.

Simultaneously, she mashes up not just disciplines like film and sculpture, but concepts of science, storytelling, and linguistics [emphasis mine].

“The tag lines I’m working with now are ‘the roots of meaning’ and ‘knitting the world together’,” she explains. “In western society, we tend to hive things off into ‘That’s culture. That’s science.’ But from an Indigenous point of view, it’s all connected.”

Transmissions is split into three parts, with what Jackson describes as a beginning, a middle, and an end. Like Biidaaban, it’s also visually stunning: the artist admits she’s playing with Hollywood spectacle.

Without giving too much away—a big part of the appeal of Jackson’s work is the sense of surprise—Vancouver audiences will first enter a 48-foot-long, six-foot-wide tunnel, surrounded by projections that morph from empty urban streets to a forest and a river. Further engulfing them is a soundscape that features strong winds, while black mirrors along the floor skew perspective and play with what’s above and below ground.

“You feel out of time and space,” says Jackson, who wants to challenge western society’s linear notions of minutes and hours. “I want the audience to have a physical response and an emotional response. To me, that gets closer to the Indigenous understanding. Because the Eurocentric way is more rational, where the intellectual is put ahead of everything else.”

Viewers then enter a room, where the highly collaborative Jackson has worked with artist Alan Storey, who’s helped create Plexiglas towers that look like the ghost high-rises of an abandoned city. (Storey has also designed other components of the installation.) As audience members wander through them on foot, projections make their shadows dance on the structures. Like Biidaaban, the section hints at a postapocalyptic or posthuman world. Jackson operates in an emerging realm of Indigenous futurism.

The words “science, storytelling, and linguistics” were emphasized due to a minor problem I have with terminology. Linguistics is defined as the scientific study of language combining elements from the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. I wish either Jackson or Smith had discussed the scientific element of Transmissions at more length and perhaps reconnected linguistics to science along with the physics of time and space, as well as, storytelling, film, and sculpture. It would have been helpful since it’s my understanding, Transmissions is designed to showcase all of those connections and more in ways that may not be obvious to everyone. On the plus side, perhaps the tour, which is part of this installation experience includes that information.

I have a bit .more detail (including logistics for the tours) from the SFU Events webpage for Transmissions,

Transmissions
September 6 – September 28, 2019

The Roots of Meaning
World Premiere
September 6 – 28, 2019

Fei & Milton Wong Experimental Theatre
SFU Woodward’s, 149 West Hastings
Tuesday to Friday, 1pm to 7pm
Saturday and Sunday, 1pm to 5pm
FREE

In partnership with SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs and produced by Electric Company Theatre and Violator Films.

TRANSMISSIONS is a three-part, 6000 square foot multimedia installation by award-winning Anishinaabe filmmaker and artist Lisa Jackson. It extends her investigation into the connections between land, language, and people, most recently with her virtual reality work Biidaaban: First Light.

Projections, sculpture, and film combine to create urban and natural landscapes that are eerie and beautiful, familiar and foreign, concrete and magical. Past and future collide in a visceral and thought-provoking journey that questions our current moment and opens up the complexity of thought systems embedded in Indigenous languages. Radically different from European languages, they embody sets of relationships to the land, to each other, and to time itself.

Transmissions invites us to untether from our day-to-day world and imagine a possible future. It provides a platform to activate and cross-pollinate knowledge systems, from science to storytelling, ecology to linguistics, art to commerce. To begin conversations, to listen deeply, to engage varied perspectives and expertise, to knit the world together and find our place within the circle of all our relations.

Produced in association with McMaster University Socrates Project, Moving Images Distribution and Cobalt Connects Creativity.

….

Admission:  Free Public Tours
Tuesday through Sunday
Reservations accepted from 1pm to 3pm.  Reservations are booked in 15 minute increments.  Individuals and groups up to 10 welcome.
Please email: sfuw@sfu.ca for more information or to book groups of 10 or more.

Her Story: Canadian Women Scientists (short film subjects); Sept. 13 – 14, 2019

Curiosity Collider, producer of art/science events in Vancouver, is presenting a film series featuring Canadian women scientists, according to an August 27 ,2019 press release (received via email),

Her Story: Canadian Women Scientists,” a film series dedicated to sharing the stories of Canadian women scientists, will premiere on September 13th and 14th at the Annex theatre. Four pairs of local filmmakers and Canadian women scientists collaborated to create 5-6 minute videos; for each film in the series, a scientist tells her own story, interwoven with the story of an inspiring Canadian women scientist who came before her in her field of study.

Produced by Vancouver-based non-profit organization Curiosity Collider, this project was developed to address the lack of storytelling videos showcasing remarkable women scientists and their work available via popular online platforms. “Her Story reveals the lives of women working in science,” said Larissa Blokhuis, curator for Her Story. “This project acts as a beacon to girls and women who want to see themselves in the scientific community. The intergenerational nature of the project highlights the fact that women have always worked in and contributed to science.

This sentiment was reflected by Samantha Baglot as well, a PhD student in neuroscience who collaborated with filmmaker/science cartoonist Armin Mortazavi in Her Story. “It is empowering to share stories of previous Canadian female scientists… it is empowering for myself as a current female scientist to learn about other stories of success, and gain perspective of how these women fought through various hardships and inequality.”

When asked why seeing better representation of women in scientific work is important, artist/filmmaker Michael Markowsky shared his thoughts. “It’s important for women — and their male allies — to question and push back against these perceived social norms, and to occupy space which rightfully belongs to them.” In fact, his wife just gave birth to their first child, a daughter; “It’s personally very important to me that she has strong female role models to look up to.” His film will feature collaborating scientist Jade Shiller, and Kathleen Conlan – who was named one of Canada’s greatest explorers by Canadian Geographic in 2015.

Other participating filmmakers and collaborating scientists include: Leslie Kennah (Filmmaker), Kimberly Girling (scientist, Research and Policy Director at Evidence for Democracy), Lucas Kavanagh and Jesse Lupini (Filmmakers, Avocado Video), and Jessica Pilarczyk (SFU Assistant Professor, Department of Earth Sciences).

This film series is supported by Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science and Technology (WWEST) and Eng.Cite. The venue for the events is provided by Vancouver Civic Theatres.

Event Information

Screening events will be hosted at Annex (823 Seymour St, Vancouver) on September 13th and 14th [2019]. Events will also include a talkback with filmmakers and collab scientists on the 13th, and a panel discussion on representations of women in science and culture on the 14th. Visit http://bit.ly/HerStoryTickets2019 for tickets ($14.99-19.99) and http://bit.ly/HerStoryWomenScientists for project information.

I have a film collage,

Courtesy: Curiosity Collider

I looks like they’re presenting films with a diversity of styles. You can find out more about Curiosity Collider and its various programmes and events here.

Vancouver Fringe Festival September 5 – 16, 2019

I found two plays in this year’s fringe festival programme that feature science in one way or another. Not having seen either play I make no guarantees as to content. First up is,

AI Love You
Exit Productions
London, UK
Playwright: Melanie Anne Ball
exitproductionsltd.com

Adam and April are a regular 20-something couple, very nearly blissfully generic, aside from one important detail: one of the pair is an “artificially intelligent companion.” Their joyful veneer has begun to crack and they need YOU to decide the future of their relationship. Is the freedom of a robot or the will of a human more important?
For AI Love You: 

***** “Magnificent, complex and beautifully addictive.” —Spy in the Stalls 
**** “Emotionally charged, deeply moving piece … I was left with goosebumps.” —West End Wilma 
**** —London City Nights 
Past shows: 
***** “The perfect show.” —Theatre Box

Intellectual / Intimate / Shocking / 14+ / 75 minutes

The first show is on Friday, September 6, 2019 at 5 pm. There are another five showings being presented. You can get tickets and more information here.

The second play is this,

Red Glimmer
Dusty Foot Productions
Vancouver, Canada
Written & Directed by Patricia Trinh

Abstract Sci-Fi dramedy. An interdimensional science experiment! Woman involuntarily takes an all inclusive internal trip after falling into a deep depression. A scientist is hired to navigate her neurological pathways from inside her mind – tackling the fact that humans cannot physically re-experience somatosensory sensation, like pain. What if that were the case for traumatic emotional pain? A creepy little girl is heard running by. What happens next?

Weird / Poetic / Intellectual / LGBTQ+ / Multicultural / 14+ / Sexual Content / 50 minutes

This show is created by an underrepresented Artist.
Written, directed, and produced by local theatre Artist Patricia Trinh, a Queer, Asian-Canadian female.

The first showing is tonight, September 5, 2019 at 8:30 pm. There are another six showings being presented. You can get tickets and more information here.

CHAOSMOSIS mAchInes exhibition/performance/discussion/panel/in-situ experiments/art/ science/ techne/ philosophy, 28 September, 2019 in Toronto

An Art/Sci Salon September 2, 2019 announcement (received via email), Note: I have made some formatting changes,

CHAOSMOSIS mAchInes

28 September, 2019 
7pm-11pm.
Helen-Gardiner-Phelan Theatre, 2nd floor
University of Toronto. 79 St. George St.

A playful co-presentation by the Topological Media Lab (Concordia U-Montreal) and The Digital Dramaturgy Labsquared (U of T-Toronto). This event is part of our collaboration with DDLsquared lab, the Topological Lab and the Leonardo LASER network


7pm-9.30pm, Installation-performances, 
9.30pm-11pm, Reception and cash bar, Front and Long Room, Ground floor


Description:
From responsive sculptures to atmosphere-creating machines; from sensorial machines to affective autonomous robots, Chaosmosis mAchInes is an eclectic series of installations and performances reflecting on today’s complex symbiotic relations between humans, machines and the environment.


This will be the first encounter between Montreal-based Topological Media Lab (Concordia University) and the Toronto-based Digital Dramaturgy Labsquared (U of T) to co-present current process-based and experimental works. Both labs have a history of notorious playfulness, conceptual abysmal depth, human-machine interplays, Art&Science speculations (what if?), collaborative messes, and a knack for A/I as in Artistic Intelligence.


Thanks to  Nina Czegledy (Laser series, Leonardo network) for inspiring the event and for initiating the collaboration


Visit our Facebook event page 
Register through Evenbrite


Supported by


Main sponsor: Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, U of T
Sponsors: Computational Arts Program (York U.), Cognitive Science Program (U of T), Knowledge Media Design Institute (U of T), Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST)Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Société et culture (FRQSC)The Centre for Comparative Literature (U of T)
A collaboration between
Laser events, Leonardo networks – Science Artist, Nina Czegledy
ArtsSci Salon – Artistic Director, Roberta Buiani
Digital Dramaturgy Labsquared – Creative Research Director, Antje Budde
Topological Media Lab – Artistic-Research Co-directors, Michael Montanaro | Navid Navab


Project presentations will include:
Topological Media Lab
tangibleFlux φ plenumorphic ∴ chaosmosis
SPIEL
On Air
The Sound That Severs Now from Now
Cloud Chamber (2018) | Caustic Scenography, Responsive Cloud Formation
Liquid Light
Robots: Machine Menagerie
Phaze
Phase
Passing Light
Info projects
Digital Dramaturgy Labsquared
Btw Lf & Dth – interFACING disappearance
Info project

This is a very active September.

ETA September 4, 2019 at 1607 hours PDT: That last comment is even truer than I knew when I published earlier. I missed a Vancouver event, Maker Faire Vancouver will be hosted at Science World on Saturday, September 14. Here’s a little more about it from a Sept. 3, 2019 at Science World at Telus Science World blog posting,

Earlier last month [August 2019?], surgeons at St Paul’s Hospital performed an ankle replacement for a Cloverdale resident using a 3D printed bone. The first procedure of its kind in Western Canada, it saved the patient all of his ten toes — something doctors had originally decided to amputate due to the severity of the motorcycle accident.

Maker Faire Vancouver Co-producer, John Biehler, may not be using his 3D printer for medical breakthroughs, but he does see a subtle connection between his home 3D printer and the Health Canada-approved bone.

“I got into 3D printing to make fun stuff and gadgets,” John says of the box-sized machine that started as a hobby and turned into a side business. “But the fact that the very same technology can have life-changing and life-saving applications is amazing.”

When John showed up to Maker Faire Vancouver seven years ago, opportunities to access this hobby were limited. Armed with a 3D printer he had just finished assembling the night before, John was hoping to meet others in the community with similar interests to build, experiment and create. Much like the increase in accessibility to these portable machines has changed over the years—with universities, libraries and makerspaces making them readily available alongside CNC Machines, laser cutters and more — John says the excitement around crafting and tinkering has skyrocketed as well.

“The kind of technology that inspires people to print a bone or spinal insert all starts at ground zero in places like a Maker Faire where people get exposed to STEAM,” John says …

… From 3D printing enthusiasts like John to knitters, metal artists and roboticists, this full one-day event [Maker Faire Vancouver on Saturday, September 14, 2019] will facilitate cross-pollination between hobbyists, small businesses, artists and tinkerers. Described as part science fair, part county fair and part something entirely new, Maker Faire Vancouver hopes to facilitate discovery and what John calls “pure joy moments.”

Hopefully that’s it.

Human Brain Project: update

The European Union’s Human Brain Project was announced in January 2013. It, along with the Graphene Flagship, had won a multi-year competition for the extraordinary sum of one million euros each to be paid out over a 10-year period. (My January 28, 2013 posting gives the details available at the time.)

At a little more than half-way through the project period, Ed Yong, in his July 22, 2019 article for The Atlantic, offers an update (of sorts),

Ten years ago, a neuroscientist said that within a decade he could simulate a human brain. Spoiler: It didn’t happen.

On July 22, 2009, the neuroscientist Henry Markram walked onstage at the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford, England, and told the audience that he was going to simulate the human brain, in all its staggering complexity, in a computer. His goals were lofty: “It’s perhaps to understand perception, to understand reality, and perhaps to even also understand physical reality.” His timeline was ambitious: “We can do it within 10 years, and if we do succeed, we will send to TED, in 10 years, a hologram to talk to you.” …

It’s been exactly 10 years. He did not succeed.

One could argue that the nature of pioneers is to reach far and talk big, and that it’s churlish to single out any one failed prediction when science is so full of them. (Science writers joke that breakthrough medicines and technologies always seem five to 10 years away, on a rolling window.) But Markram’s claims are worth revisiting for two reasons. First, the stakes were huge: In 2013, the European Commission awarded his initiative—the Human Brain Project (HBP)—a staggering 1 billion euro grant (worth about $1.42 billion at the time). Second, the HBP’s efforts, and the intense backlash to them, exposed important divides in how neuroscientists think about the brain and how it should be studied.

Markram’s goal wasn’t to create a simplified version of the brain, but a gloriously complex facsimile, down to the constituent neurons, the electrical activity coursing along them, and even the genes turning on and off within them. From the outset, the criticism to this approach was very widespread, and to many other neuroscientists, its bottom-up strategy seemed implausible to the point of absurdity. The brain’s intricacies—how neurons connect and cooperate, how memories form, how decisions are made—are more unknown than known, and couldn’t possibly be deciphered in enough detail within a mere decade. It is hard enough to map and model the 302 neurons of the roundworm C. elegans, let alone the 86 billion neurons within our skulls. “People thought it was unrealistic and not even reasonable as a goal,” says the neuroscientist Grace Lindsay, who is writing a book about modeling the brain.
And what was the point? The HBP wasn’t trying to address any particular research question, or test a specific hypothesis about how the brain works. The simulation seemed like an end in itself—an overengineered answer to a nonexistent question, a tool in search of a use. …

Markram seems undeterred. In a recent paper, he and his colleague Xue Fan firmly situated brain simulations within not just neuroscience as a field, but the entire arc of Western philosophy and human civilization. And in an email statement, he told me, “Political resistance (non-scientific) to the project has indeed slowed us down considerably, but it has by no means stopped us nor will it.” He noted the 140 people still working on the Blue Brain Project, a recent set of positive reviews from five external reviewers, and its “exponentially increasing” ability to “build biologically accurate models of larger and larger brain regions.”

No time frame, this time, but there’s no shortage of other people ready to make extravagant claims about the future of neuroscience. In 2014, I attended TED’s main Vancouver conference and watched the opening talk, from the MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte. In his closing words, he claimed that in 30 years, “we are going to ingest information. …

I’m happy to see the update. As I recall, there was murmuring almost immediately about the Human Brain Project (HBP). I never got details but it seemed that people were quite actively unhappy about the disbursements. Of course, this kind of uproar is not unusual when great sums of money are involved and the Graphene Flagship also had its rocky moments.

As for Yong’s contribution, I’m glad he’s debunking some of the hype and glory associated with the current drive to colonize the human brain and other efforts (e.g. genetics) which they often claim are the ‘future of medicine’.

To be fair. Yong is focused on the brain simulation aspect of the HBP (and Markram’s efforts in the Blue Brain Project) but there are other HBP efforts, as well, even if brain simulation seems to be the HBP’s main interest.

After reading the article, I looked up Henry Markram’s Wikipedia entry and found this,

In 2013, the European Union funded the Human Brain Project, led by Markram, to the tune of $1.3 billion. Markram claimed that the project would create a simulation of the entire human brain on a supercomputer within a decade, revolutionising the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders. Less than two years into it, the project was recognised to be mismanaged and its claims overblown, and Markram was asked to step down.[7][8]

On 8 October 2015, the Blue Brain Project published the first digital reconstruction and simulation of the micro-circuitry of a neonatal rat somatosensory cortex.[9]

I also looked up the Human Brain Project and, talking about their other efforts, was reminded that they have a neuromorphic computing platform, SpiNNaker (mentioned here in a January 24, 2019 posting; scroll down about 50% of the way). For anyone unfamiliar with the term, neuromorphic computing/engineering is what scientists call the effort to replicate the human brain’s ability to synthesize and process information in computing processors.

In fact, there was some discussion in 2013 that the Human Brain Project and the Graphene Flagship would have some crossover projects, e.g., trying to make computers more closely resemble human brains in terms of energy use and processing power.

The Human Brain Project’s (HBP) Silicon Brains webpage notes this about their neuromorphic computing platform,

Neuromorphic computing implements aspects of biological neural networks as analogue or digital copies on electronic circuits. The goal of this approach is twofold: Offering a tool for neuroscience to understand the dynamic processes of learning and development in the brain and applying brain inspiration to generic cognitive computing. Key advantages of neuromorphic computing compared to traditional approaches are energy efficiency, execution speed, robustness against local failures and the ability to learn.

Neuromorphic Computing in the HBP

In the HBP the neuromorphic computing Subproject carries out two major activities: Constructing two large-scale, unique neuromorphic machines and prototyping the next generation neuromorphic chips.

The large-scale neuromorphic machines are based on two complementary principles. The many-core SpiNNaker machine located in Manchester [emphasis mine] (UK) connects 1 million ARM processors with a packet-based network optimized for the exchange of neural action potentials (spikes). The BrainScaleS physical model machine located in Heidelberg (Germany) implements analogue electronic models of 4 Million neurons and 1 Billion synapses on 20 silicon wafers. Both machines are integrated into the HBP collaboratory and offer full software support for their configuration, operation and data analysis.

The most prominent feature of the neuromorphic machines is their execution speed. The SpiNNaker system runs at real-time, BrainScaleS is implemented as an accelerated system and operates at 10,000 times real-time. Simulations at conventional supercomputers typical run factors of 1000 slower than biology and cannot access the vastly different timescales involved in learning and development ranging from milliseconds to years.

Recent research in neuroscience and computing has indicated that learning and development are a key aspect for neuroscience and real world applications of cognitive computing. HBP is the only project worldwide addressing this need with dedicated novel hardware architectures.

I’ve highlighted Manchester because that’s a very important city where graphene is concerned. The UK’s National Graphene Institute is housed at the University of Manchester where graphene was first isolated in 2004 by two scientists, Andre Geim and Konstantin (Kostya) Novoselov. (For their effort, they were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 2010.)

Getting back to the HBP (and the Graphene Flagship for that matter), the funding should be drying up sometime around 2023 and I wonder if it will be possible to assess the impact.

Controlling neurons with light: no batteries or wires needed

Caption: Wireless and battery-free implant with advanced control over targeted neuron groups. Credit: Philipp Gutruf

This January 2, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily describes the object seen in the above and describes the problem it’s designed to solve,

University of Arizona biomedical engineering professor Philipp Gutruf is first author on the paper Fully implantable, optoelectronic systems for battery-free, multimodal operation in neuroscience research, published in Nature Electronics.

Optogenetics is a biological technique that uses light to turn specific neuron groups in the brain on or off. For example, researchers might use optogenetic stimulation to restore movement in case of paralysis or, in the future, to turn off the areas of the brain or spine that cause pain, eliminating the need for — and the increasing dependence on — opioids and other painkillers.

“We’re making these tools to understand how different parts of the brain work,” Gutruf said. “The advantage with optogenetics is that you have cell specificity: You can target specific groups of neurons and investigate their function and relation in the context of the whole brain.”

In optogenetics, researchers load specific neurons with proteins called opsins, which convert light to electrical potentials that make up the function of a neuron. When a researcher shines light on an area of the brain, it activates only the opsin-loaded neurons.

The first iterations of optogenetics involved sending light to the brain through optical fibers, which meant that test subjects were physically tethered to a control station. Researchers went on to develop a battery-free technique using wireless electronics, which meant subjects could move freely.

But these devices still came with their own limitations — they were bulky and often attached visibly outside the skull, they didn’t allow for precise control of the light’s frequency or intensity, and they could only stimulate one area of the brain at a time.

A Dec. 21, 2018 University of Azrizona news release (published Jan. 2, 2019 on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, discusses the work in more detail,

“With this research, we went two to three steps further,” Gutruf said. “We were able to implement digital control over intensity and frequency of the light being emitted, and the devices are very miniaturized, so they can be implanted under the scalp. We can also independently stimulate multiple places in the brain of the same subject, which also wasn’t possible before.”

The ability to control the light’s intensity is critical because it allows researchers to control exactly how much of the brain the light is affecting — the brighter the light, the farther it will reach. In addition, controlling the light’s intensity means controlling the heat generated by the light sources, and avoiding the accidental activation of neurons that are activated by heat.

The wireless, battery-free implants are powered by external oscillating magnetic fields, and, despite their advanced capabilities, are not significantly larger or heavier than past versions. In addition, a new antenna design has eliminated a problem faced by past versions of optogenetic devices, in which the strength of the signal being transmitted to the device varied depending on the angle of the brain: A subject would turn its head and the signal would weaken.

“This system has two antennas in one enclosure, which we switch the signal back and forth very rapidly so we can power the implant at any orientation,” Gutruf said. “In the future, this technique could provide battery-free implants that provide uninterrupted stimulation without the need to remove or replace the device, resulting in less invasive procedures than current pacemaker or stimulation techniques.”

Devices are implanted with a simple surgical procedure similar to surgeries in which humans are fitted with neurostimulators, or “brain pacemakers.” They cause no adverse effects to subjects, and their functionality doesn’t degrade in the body over time. This could have implications for medical devices like pacemakers, which currently need to be replaced every five to 15 years.

The paper also demonstrated that animals implanted with these devices can be safely imaged with computer tomography, or CT, and magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, which allow for advanced insights into clinically relevant parameters such as the state of bone and tissue and the placement of the device.

This image of a combined MRI (magnetic resonance image) and CT (computer tomography) scan bookends, more or less, the picture of the device which headed this piece,

Combined image analysis with MRI and CT results superimposed on a 3D rendering of the animal implanted with the programmable bilateral multi µ-ILED device. Courtesy: University of Arizona

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

Fully implantable optoelectronic systems for battery-free, multimodal operation in neuroscience research by Philipp Gutruf, Vaishnavi Krishnamurthi, Abraham Vázquez-Guardado, Zhaoqian Xie, Anthony Banks, Chun-Ju Su, Yeshou Xu, Chad R. Haney, Emily A. Waters, Irawati Kandela, Siddharth R. Krishnan, Tyler Ray, John P. Leshock, Yonggang Huang, Debashis Chanda, & John A. Rogers. Nature Electronics volume 1, pages652–660 (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41928-018-0175-0 Published 13 December 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Democratizing science .. neuroscience that is

What is going on with the neuroscience folks? First it was Montreal Neuro opening up its science  as featured in my January 22, 2016 posting,

The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) in Québec, Canada, known informally and widely as Montreal Neuro, has ‘opened’ its science research to the world. David Bruggeman tells the story in a Jan. 21, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) at McGill University announced that it will be the first academic research institute to become what it calls ‘Open Science.’  As Science is reporting, the MNI will make available all research results and research data at the time of publication.  Additionally it will not seek patents on any of the discoveries made on research at the Institute.

Will this catch on?  I have no idea if this particular combination of open access research data and results with no patents will spread to other university research institutes.  But I do believe that those elements will continue to spread.  More universities and federal agencies are pursuing open access options for research they support.  Elon Musk has opted to not pursue patent litigation for any of Tesla Motors’ patents, and has not pursued patents for SpaceX technology (though it has pursued litigation over patents in rocket technology). …

Whether or not they were inspired by the MNI, the scientists at the University of Washington (UW [state]) have found their own unique way of opening up science. From a March 15, 2018 UW news blog posting (also on EurekAlert) by James Urton, Note: Links have been removed,

Over the past few years, scientists have faced a problem: They often cannot reproduce the results of experiments done by themselves or their peers.

This “replication crisis” plagues fields from medicine to physics, and likely has many causes. But one is undoubtedly the difficulty of sharing the vast amounts of data collected and analyses performed in so-called “big data” studies. The volume and complexity of the information also can make these scientific endeavors unwieldy when it comes time for researchers to share their data and findings with peers and the public.

Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a set of tools to make one critical area of big data research — that of our central nervous system — easier to share. In a paper published online March 5 [2018] in Nature Communications, the UW team describes an open-access browser they developed to display, analyze and share neurological data collected through a type of magnetic resonance imaging study known as diffusion-weighted MRI.

“There has been a lot of talk among researchers about the replication crisis,” said lead author Jason Yeatman. “But we wanted a tool — ready, widely available and easy to use — that would actually help fight the replication crisis.”

Yeatman — who is an assistant professor in the UW Department of Speech & Hearing Sciences and the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) — is describing AFQ-Browser. This web browser-based tool, freely available online, is a platform for uploading, visualizing, analyzing and sharing diffusion MRI data in a format that is publicly accessible, improving transparency and data-sharing methods for neurological studies. In addition, since it runs in the web browser, AFQ-Browser is portable — requiring no additional software package or equipment beyond a computer and an internet connection.

“One major barrier to data transparency in neuroscience is that so much data collection, storage and analysis occurs on local computers with special software packages,” said senior author Ariel Rokem, a senior data scientist in the UW eScience Institute. “But using AFQ-Browser, we eliminate those requirements and make uploading, sharing and analyzing diffusion-weighted MRI data a simple, straightforward process.”

Diffusion-weighted MRI measures the movement of fluid in the brain and spinal cord, revealing the structure and function of white-matter tracts. These are the connections of the central nervous system, tissue that are made up primarily of axons that transmit long-range signals between neural circuits. Diffusion MRI research on brain connectivity has fundamentally changed the way neuroscientists understand human brain function: The state, organization and layout of white matter tracts are at the core of cognitive functions such as memory, learning and other capabilities. Data collected using diffusion-weighted MRI can be used to diagnose complex neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Researchers also use diffusion-weighted MRI data to study the neurological underpinnings of conditions such as dyslexia and learning disabilities.

“This is a widely-used technique in neuroscience research, and it is particularly amenable to the benefits that can be gleaned from big data, so it became a logical starting point for developing browser-based, open-access tools for the field,” said Yeatman.

The AFQ-Browser — the AFQ stands for Automated Fiber-tract Quantification — can receive diffusion-weighted MRI data and perform tract analysis for each individual subject. The analyses occur via a remote server, again eliminating technical and financial barriers for researchers. The AFQ-Browser also contains interactive tools to display data for multiple subjects — allowing a researcher to easily visualize how white matter tracts might be similar or different among subjects, identify trends in the data and generate hypotheses for future experiments. Researchers also can insert additional code to analyze the data, as well as save, upload and share data instantly with fellow researchers.

“We wanted this tool to be as generalizable as possible, regardless of research goals,” said Rokem. “In addition, the format is easy for scientists from a variety of backgrounds to use and understand — so that neuroscientists, statisticians and other researchers can collaborate, view data and share methods toward greater reproducibility.”

The idea for the AFQ-Browser came out of a UW course on data visualization, and the researchers worked with several graduate students to develop and perfect the browser. They tested it on existing diffusion-weighted MRI datasets, including research subjects with ALS and MS. In the future, they hope that the AFQ-Browser can be improved to do automated analyses — and possibly even diagnoses — based on diffusion-weighted MRI data.

“AFQ-Browser is really just the start of what could be a number of tools for sharing neuroscience data and experiments,” said Yeatman. “Our goal here is greater reproducibility and transparency, and a more robust scientific process.”

Here are a couple of images the researchers have used to illustrate their work,

AFQ-Browser.Jason Yeatman/Ariel Rokem Courtesy: University of Washington

Depiction of the left hemisphere of the human brain. Colored regions are selected white matter regions that could be measured using diffusion-weighted MRI: Corticospinal tract (orange), arcuate fasciculus (blue) and cingulum (green).Jason Yeatman/Ariel Rokem

You can find an embedded version of the AFQ-Browser here: http://www.washington.edu/news/2018/03/15/democratizing-science-researchers-make-neuroscience-experiments-easier-to-share-reproduce/ (scroll down about 50 – 55% of the way).

As for the paper, here’s a link and a citation,

A browser-based tool for visualization and analysis of diffusion MRI data by Jason D. Yeatman, Adam Richie-Halford, Josh K. Smith, Anisha Keshavan, & Ariel Rokem. Nature Communicationsvolume 9, Article number: 940 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41467-018-03297-7 Published online: 05 March 2018

Fittingly, this paper is open access.

Yes! Art, genetic modifications, gene editing, and xenotransplantation at the Vancouver Biennale (Canada)

Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings Courtesy: Vancouver Biennale [downloaded from http://dailyhive.com/vancouver/vancouver-biennale-unsual-public-art-2018/]

Up to this point, I’ve been a little jealous of the Art/Sci Salon’s (Toronto, Canada) January 2018 workshops for artists and discussions about CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))/Cas9 and its social implications. (See my January 10, 2018 posting for more about the events.) Now, it seems Vancouver may be in line for its ‘own’ discussion about CRISPR and the implications of gene editing. The image you saw (above) represents one of the installations being hosted by the 2018 – 2020 edition of the Vancouver Biennale.

While this posting is mostly about the Biennale and Piccinini’s work, there is a ‘science’ subsection featuring the science of CRISPR and xenotransplantation. Getting back to the Biennale and Piccinini: A major public art event since 1988, the Vancouver Biennale has hosted over 91 outdoor sculptures and new media works by more than 78 participating artists from over 25 countries and from 4 continents.

Quickie description of the 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale

The latest edition of the Vancouver Biennale was featured in a June 6, 2018 news item on the Daily Hive (Vancouver),

The Vancouver Biennale will be bringing new —and unusual— works of public art to the city beginning this June.

The theme for this season’s Vancouver Biennale exhibition is “re-IMAGE-n” and it kicks off on June 20 [2018] in Vanier Park with Saudi artist Ajlan Gharem’s Paradise Has Many Gates.

Gharem’s architectural chain-link sculpture resembles a traditional mosque, the piece is meant to challenge the notions of religious orthodoxy and encourages individuals to image a space free of Islamophobia.

Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings is expected to be one of the most talked about installations of the exhibit. Her style of “oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creature” is meant to be shocking and thought-provoking.

Piccinini’s interactive [emphasis mine] experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging biotechnology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.”

Piccinini’s work will be displayed in the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. The 90-day ticketed exhibition [emphasis mine] is scheduled to open this September [2018].

Given that this blog is focused on nanotechnology and other emerging technologies such as CRISPR, I’m focusing on Piccinini’s work and its art/science or sci-art status. This image from the GOMA Gallery where Piccinini’s ‘Curious Affection‘ installation is being shown from March 24 – Aug. 5, 2018 in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia may give you some sense of what one of her installations is like,

Courtesy: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)

I spoke with Serena at the Vancouver Biennale office and asked about the ‘interactive’ aspect of Piccinini’s installation. She suggested the term ‘immersive’ as an alternative. In other words, you won’t be playing with the sculptures or pressing buttons and interacting with computer screens or robots. She also noted that the ticket prices have not been set yet and they are currently developing events focused on the issues raised by the installation. She knew that 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but I’m not sure how the Biennale folks plan (or don’t plan)  to integrate any recognition of the novle’s impact on the discussions about ‘new’ technologies .They expect Piccinini will visit Vancouver. (Note 1: Piccinini’s work can  also be seen in a group exhibition titled: Frankenstein’s Birthday Party at the Hosfselt Gallery in San Francisco (California, US) from June 23 – August 11, 2018.  Note 2: I featured a number of international events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, in my Feb. 26, 2018 posting. Note 3: The term ‘Frankenfoods’ helped to shape the discussion of genetically modified organisms and food supply on this planet. It was a wildly successful campaign for activists affecting legislation in some areas of research. Scientists have not been as enthusiastic about the effects. My January 15, 2009 posting briefly traces a history of the term.)

The 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale and science

A June 7, 2018 Vancouver Biennale news release provides more detail about the current series of exhibitions,

The Biennale is also committed to presenting artwork at the cutting edge of discussion and in keeping with the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math[ematics]) approach to integrating the arts and sciences. In August [2018], Colombian/American visual artist Jessica Angel will present her monumental installation Dogethereum Bridge at Hinge Park in Olympic Village. Inspired by blockchain technology, the artwork’s design was created through the integration of scientific algorithms, new developments in technology, and the arts. This installation, which will serve as an immersive space and collaborative hub for artists and technologists, will host a series of activations with blockchain as the inspirational jumping-off point.

In what is expected to become one of North America’s most talked-about exhibitions of the year, Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings will see the intersection of art, science, and ethics. For the first time in the Biennale’s fifteen years of creating transformative experiences, and in keeping with the 2018-2020 theme of “re-IMAGE-n,” the Biennale will explore art in unexpected places by exhibiting in unconventional interior spaces.  The hyperrealist “world of oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creatures” will be the artist’s first exhibit in a non-museum setting, transforming a wing of the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel. Situated in Vancouver’s oldest neighbourbood of Strathcona, Piccinini’s interactive experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging bio-technology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.” In this intimate hotel setting located in a neighborhood continually undergoing its own change, Curious Imaginings will empower visitors to personally consider questions posed by the exhibition, including the promises and consequences of genetic research and human interference. …

There are other pieces being presented at the Biennale but my special interest is in the art/sci pieces and, at this point, CRISPR.

Piccinini in more depth

You can find out more about Patricia Piccinini in her biography on the Vancouver Biennale website but I found this Char Larsson April 7, 2018 article for the Independent (UK) more informative (Note: A link has been removed),

Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures are deeply disquieting. Walking through Curious Affection, her new solo exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, is akin to entering a science laboratory full of DNA experiments. Made from silicone, fibreglass and even human hair, her sculptures are breathtakingly lifelike, however, we can’t be sure what life they are like. The artist creates an exuberant parallel universe where transgenic experiments flourish and human evolution has given way to genetic engineering and DNA splicing.

Curious Affection is a timely and welcome recognition of Piccinini’s enormous contribution to reaching back to the mid-1990s. Working across a variety of mediums including photography, video and drawing, she is perhaps best known for her hyperreal creations.

As a genre, hyperrealism depends on the skill of the artist to create the illusion of reality. To be truly successful, it must convince the spectator of its realness. Piccinini acknowledges this demand, but with a delightful twist. The excruciating attention to detail deliberately solicits our desire to look, only to generate unease, as her sculptures are imbued with a fascinating otherness. Part human, part animal, the works are uncannily familiar, but also alarmingly “other”.

Inspired by advances in genetically modified pigs to generate replacement organs for humans [also known as xenotransplantation], we are reminded that Piccinini has always been at the forefront of debates concerning the possibilities of science, technology and DNA cloning. She does so, however, with a warm affection and sense of humour, eschewing the hysterical anxiety frequently accompanying these scientific developments.

Beyond the astonishing level of detail achieved by working with silicon and fibreglass, there is an ethics at work here. Piccinini is asking us not to avert our gaze from the other, and in doing so, to develop empathy and understanding through the encounter.

I encourage anyone who’s interested to read Larsson’s entire piece (April 7, 2018 article).

According to her Wikipedia entry, Piccinini works in a variety of media including video, sound, sculpture, and more. She also has her own website.

Gene editing and xenotransplantation

Sarah Zhang’s June 8, 2018 article for The Atlantic provides a peek at the extraordinary degree of interest and competition in the field of gene editing and CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))/Cas9 research (Note: A link has been removed),

China Is Genetically Engineering Monkeys With Brain Disorders

Guoping Feng applied to college the first year that Chinese universities reopened after the Cultural Revolution. It was 1977, and more than a decade’s worth of students—5.7 million—sat for the entrance exams. Feng was the only one in his high school to get in. He was assigned—by chance, essentially—to medical school. Like most of his contemporaries with scientific ambitions, he soon set his sights on graduate studies in the United States. “China was really like 30 to 50 years behind,” he says. “There was no way to do cutting-edge research.” So in 1989, he left for Buffalo, New York, where for the first time he saw snow piled several feet high. He completed his Ph.D. in genetics at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Feng is short and slim, with a monk-like placidity and a quick smile, and he now holds an endowed chair in neuroscience at MIT, where he focuses on the genetics of brain disorders. His 45-person lab is part of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, which was established in 2000 with the promise of a $350 million donation, the largest ever received by the university. In short, his lab does not lack for much.

Yet Feng now travels to China several times a year, because there, he can pursue research he has not yet been able to carry out in the United States. [emphasis mine] …

Feng had organized a symposium at SIAT [Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology], and he was not the only scientist who traveled all the way from the United States to attend: He invited several colleagues as symposium speakers, including a fellow MIT neuroscientist interested in tree shrews, a tiny mammal related to primates and native to southern China, and Chinese-born neuroscientists who study addiction at the University of Pittsburgh and SUNY Upstate Medical University. Like Feng, they had left China in the ’80s and ’90s, part of a wave of young scientists in search of better opportunities abroad. Also like Feng, they were back in China to pursue a type of cutting-edge research too expensive and too impractical—and maybe too ethically sensitive—in the United States.

Here’s what precipitated Feng’s work in China, (from Zhang’s article; Note: Links have been removed)

At MIT, Feng’s lab worked on genetically engineering a monkey species called marmosets, which are very small and genuinely bizarre-looking. They are cheaper to keep due to their size, but they are a relatively new lab animal, and they can be difficult to train on lab tasks. For this reason, Feng also wanted to study Shank3 on macaques in China. Scientists have been cataloging the social behavior of macaques for decades, making it an obvious model for studies of disorders like autism that have a strong social component. Macaques are also more closely related to humans than marmosets, making their brains a better stand-in for those of humans.

The process of genetically engineering a macaque is not trivial, even with the advanced tools of CRISPR. Researchers begin by dosing female monkeys with the same hormones used in human in vitro fertilization. They then collect and fertilize the eggs, and inject the resulting embryos with CRISPR proteins using a long, thin glass needle. Monkey embryos are far more sensitive than mice embryos, and can be affected by small changes in the pH of the injection or the concentration of CRISPR proteins. Only some of the embryos will have the desired mutation, and only some will survive once implanted in surrogate mothers. It takes dozens of eggs to get to just one live monkey, so making even a few knockout monkeys required the support of a large breeding colony.

The first Shank3 macaque was born in 2015. Four more soon followed, bringing the total to five.

To visit his research animals, Feng now has to fly 8,000 miles across 12 time zones. It would be a lot more convenient to carry out his macaque research in the United States, of course, but so far, he has not been able to.

He originally inquired about making Shank3 macaques at the New England Primate Research Center, one of eight national primate research centers then funded by the National Institutes of Health in partnership with a local institution (Harvard Medical School, in this case). The center was conveniently located in Southborough, Massachusetts, just 20 miles west of the MIT campus. But in 2013, Harvard decided to shutter the center.

The decision came as a shock to the research community, and it was widely interpreted as a sign of waning interest in primate research in the United States. While the national primate centers have been important hubs of research on HIV, Zika, Ebola, and other diseases, they have also come under intense public scrutiny. Animal-rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States have sent investigators to work undercover in the labs, and the media has reported on monkey deaths in grisly detail. Harvard officially made its decision to close for “financial” reasons. But the announcement also came after the high-profile deaths of four monkeys from improper handling between 2010 and 2012. The deaths sparked a backlash; demonstrators showed up at the gates. The university gave itself two years to wind down their primate work, officially closing the center in 2015.

“They screwed themselves,” Michael Halassa, the MIT neuroscientist who spoke at Feng’s symposium, told me in Shenzhen. Wei-Dong Yao, another one of the speakers, chimed in, noting that just two years later CRISPR has created a new wave of interest in primate research. Yao was one of the researchers at Harvard’s primate center before it closed; he now runs a lab at SUNY Upstate Medical University that uses genetically engineered mouse and human stem cells, and he had come to Shenzhen to talk about restarting his addiction research on primates.

Here’s comes the competition (from Zhang’s article; Note: Links have been removed),

While the U.S. government’s biomedical research budget has been largely flat, both national and local governments in China are eager to raise their international scientific profiles, and they are shoveling money into research. A long-rumored, government-sponsored China Brain Project is supposed to give neuroscience research, and primate models in particular, a big funding boost. Chinese scientists may command larger salaries, too: Thanks to funding from the Shenzhen local government, a new principal investigator returning from overseas can get 3 million yuan—almost half a million U.S. dollars—over his or her first five years. China is even finding success in attracting foreign researchers from top U.S. institutions like Yale.

In the past few years, China has seen a miniature explosion of genetic engineering in monkeys. In Kunming, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, scientists have created monkeys engineered to show signs of Parkinson’s, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, autism, and more. And Feng’s group is not even the only one in China to have created Shank3 monkeys. Another group—a collaboration primarily between researchers at Emory University and scientists in China—has done the same.

Chinese scientists’ enthusiasm for CRISPR also extends to studies of humans, which are moving much more quickly, and in some cases under less oversight, than in the West. The first studies to edit human embryos and first clinical trials for cancer therapies using CRISPR have all happened in China. [emphases mine]

Some ethical issues are also covered (from Zhang’s article),

Parents with severely epileptic children had asked him if it would be possible to study the condition in a monkey. Feng told them what he thought would be technically possible. “But I also said, ‘I’m not sure I want to generate a model like this,’” he recalled. Maybe if there were a drug to control the monkeys’ seizures, he said: “I cannot see them seizure all the time.”

But is it ethical, he continued, to let these babies die without doing anything? Is it ethical to generate thousands or millions of mutant mice for studies of brain disorders, even when you know they will not elucidate much about human conditions?

Primates should only be used if other models do not work, says Feng, and only if a clear path forward is identified. The first step in his work, he says, is to use the Shank3 monkeys to identify the changes the mutations cause in the brain. Then, researchers might use that information to find targets for drugs, which could be tested in the same monkeys. He’s talking with the Oregon National Primate Research Center about carrying out similar work in the United States. ….[Note: I have a three-part series about CRISPR and germline editing* in the US, precipitated by research coming out of Oregon, Part 1, which links to the other parts, is here.]

Zhang’s June 8, 2018 article is excellent and I highly recommend reading it.

I touched on the topic of xenotransplanttaion in a commentary on a book about the science  of the television series, Orphan Black in a January 31,2018 posting (Note: A chimera is what you use to incubate a ‘human’ organ for transplantation or, more accurately, xenotransplantation),

On the subject of chimeras, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) featured a January 26, 2017 article about the pig-human chimeras on its website along with a video,

The end

I am very excited to see Piccinini’s work come to Vancouver. There have been a number of wonderful art and art/science installations and discussions here but this is the first one (I believe) to tackle the emerging gene editing technologies and the issues they raise. (It also fits in rather nicely with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which continues to raise issues and stimulate discussion.)

In addition to the ethical issues raised in Zhang’s article, there are some other philosophical questions:

  • what does it mean to be human
  • if we are going to edit genes to create hybrid human/animals, what are they and how do they fit into our current animal/human schema
  • are you still human if you’ve had an organ transplant where the organ was incubated in a pig

There are also going to be legal issues. In addition to any questions about legal status, there are also fights about intellectual property such as the one involving Harvard & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley (March 15, 2017 posting)..

While I’m thrilled about the Piccinini installation, it should be noted the issues raised by other artworks hosted in this version of the Biennale are important. Happily, they have been broached here in Vancouver before and I suspect this will result in more nuanced  ‘conversations’ than are possible when a ‘new’ issue is introduced.

Bravo 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale!

* Germline editing is when your gene editing will affect subsequent generations as opposed to editing out a mutated gene for the lifetime of a single individual.

Art/sci and CRISPR links

This art/science posting may prove of some interest:

The connectedness of living things: an art/sci project in Saskatchewan: evolutionary biology (February 16, 2018)

A selection of my CRISPR posts:

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning (August 15, 2017)

NOTE: An introductory CRISPR video describing how CRISPR/Cas9 works was embedded in part1.

Why don’t you CRISPR yourself? (January 25, 2018)

Editing the genome with CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-carrying nanoparticles (January 26, 2018)

Immune to CRISPR? (April 10, 2018)

Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the butterflies of the soul

The Cajal exhibit of drawings was here in Vancouver (Canada) this last fall (2017) and I still carry the memory of that glorious experience (see my Sept. 11, 2017 posting for more about the show and associated events). It seems Cajal’s drawings had a similar response in New York city, from a January 18, 2018 article by Roberta Smith for the New York Times,

It’s not often that you look at an exhibition with the help of the very apparatus that is its subject. But so it is with “The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal” at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, one of the most unusual, ravishing exhibitions of the season.

The show finished its run on March 31, 2018 and is now on its way to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, Massachusetts for its opening on May 3, 2018. It looks like they have an exciting lineup of events to go along with the exhibit (from MIT’s The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal exhibit and event page),

SUMMER PROGRAMS

ONGOING

Spotlight Tours
Explorations led by local and Spanish scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs who will share their unique perspectives on particular aspects of the exhibition. (2:00 pm on select Tuesdays and Saturdays)

Tue, May 8 – Mark Harnett, Fred and Carole Middleton Career Development Professor at MIT and McGovern Institute Investigator Sat, May 26 – Marion Boulicault, MIT Graduate Student and Neuroethics Fellow in the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering Tue, June 5 – Kelsey Allen, Graduate researcher, MIT Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines Sat, Jun 23 – Francisco Martin-Martinez, Research Scientist in MIT’s Laboratory for Atomistic & Molecular Mechanics and President of the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology Jul 21 – Alex Gomez-Marin, Principal Investigator of the Behavior of Organisms Laboratory in the Instituto de Neurociencias, Spain Tue, Jul 31– Julie Pryor, Director of Communications at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT Tue, Aug 28 – Satrajit Ghosh, Principal Research Scientist at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, Assistant Professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School, and faculty member in the Speech and Hearing Biosciences and Technology program in the Harvard Division of Medical Sciences

Idea Hub
Drop in and explore expansion microscopy in our maker-space.

Visualizing Science Workshop
Experiential learning with micro-scale biological images. (pre-registration required)

Gallery Demonstrations
Researchers share the latest on neural anatomy, signal transmission, and modern imaging techniques.

EVENTS

Teen Science Café: Mindful Matters
MIT researchers studying the brain share their mind-blowing findings.

Neuron Paint Night
Create a painting of cerebral cortex neurons and learn about the EyeWire citizen science game.

Cerebral Cinema Series
Hear from researchers and then compare real science to depictions on the big screen.

Brainy Trivia
Test your brain power in a night of science trivia and short, snappy research talks.

Come back to see our exciting lineup for the fall!

If you don’t have a chance to see the show or if you’d like a preview, I encourage you to read Smith’s article as it has embedded several Cajal drawings and rendered them exceptionally well.

For those who like a little contemporary (and related) science with their art, there’s a March 30, 2018 Harvard Medical Schoo (HMS)l news release by Kevin Jang (also on EurekAlert), Note: All links save one have been removed,

Drawing of the cells of the chick cerebellum by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, from “Estructura de los centros nerviosos de las aves,” Madrid, circa 1905

 

Modern neuroscience, for all its complexity, can trace its roots directly to a series of pen-and-paper sketches rendered by Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

His observations and drawings exposed the previously hidden composition of the brain, revealing neuronal cell bodies and delicate projections that connect individual neurons together into intricate networks.

As he explored the nervous systems of various organisms under his microscope, a natural question arose: What makes a human brain different from the brain of any other species?

At least part of the answer, Ramón y Cajal hypothesized, lay in a specific class of neuron—one found in a dazzling variety of shapes and patterns of connectivity, and present in higher proportions in the human brain than in the brains of other species. He dubbed them the “butterflies of the soul.”

Known as interneurons, these cells play critical roles in transmitting information between sensory and motor neurons, and, when defective, have been linked to diseases such as schizophrenia, autism and intellectual disability.

Despite more than a century of study, however, it remains unclear why interneurons are so diverse and what specific functions the different subtypes carry out.

Now, in a study published in the March 22 [2018] issue of Nature, researchers from Harvard Medical School, New York Genome Center, New York University and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have detailed for the first time how interneurons emerge and diversify in the brain.

Using single-cell analysis—a technology that allows scientists to track cellular behavior one cell at a time—the team traced the lineage of interneurons from their earliest precursor states to their mature forms in mice. The researchers identified key genetic programs that determine the fate of developing interneurons, as well as when these programs are switched on or off.

The findings serve as a guide for efforts to shed light on interneuron function and may help inform new treatment strategies for disorders involving their dysfunction, the authors said.

“We knew more than 100 years ago that this huge diversity of morphologically interesting cells existed in the brain, but their specific individual roles in brain function are still largely unclear,” said co-senior author Gordon Fishell, HMS professor of neurobiology and a faculty member at the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad.

“Our study provides a road map for understanding how and when distinct interneuron subtypes develop, giving us unprecedented insight into the biology of these cells,” he said. “We can now investigate interneuron properties as they emerge, unlock how these important cells function and perhaps even intervene when they fail to develop correctly in neuropsychiatric disease.”

A hippocampal interneuron. Image: Biosciences Imaging Gp, Soton, Wellcome Trust via Creative CommonsA hippocampal interneuron. Image: Biosciences Imaging Gp, Soton, Wellcome Trust via Creative Commons

Origins and Fates

In collaboration with co-senior author Rahul Satija, core faculty member of the New York Genome Center, Fishell and colleagues analyzed brain regions in developing mice known to contain precursor cells that give rise to interneurons.

Using Drop-seq, a single-cell sequencing technique created by researchers at HMS and the Broad, the team profiled gene expression in thousands of individual cells at multiple time points.

This approach overcomes a major limitation in past research, which could analyze only the average activity of mixtures of many different cells.

In the current study, the team found that the precursor state of all interneurons had similar gene expression patterns despite originating in three separate brain regions and giving rise to 14 or more interneuron subtypes alone—a number still under debate as researchers learn more about these cells.

“Mature interneuron subtypes exhibit incredible diversity. Their morphology and patterns of connectivity and activity are so different from each other, but our results show that the first steps in their maturation are remarkably similar,” said Satija, who is also an assistant professor of biology at New York University.

“They share a common developmental trajectory at the earliest stages, but the seeds of what will cause them to diverge later—a handful of genes—are present from the beginning,” Satija said.

As they profiled cells at later stages in development, the team observed the initial emergence of four interneuron “cardinal” classes, which give rise to distinct fates. Cells were committed to these fates even in the early embryo. By developing a novel computational strategy to link precursors with adult subtypes, the researchers identified individual genes that were switched on and off when cells began to diversify.

For example, they found that the gene Mef2c—mutations of which are linked to Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and neurodevelopmental disorders in humans—is an early embryonic marker for a specific interneuron subtype known as Pvalb neurons. When they deleted Mef2c in animal models, Pvalb neurons failed to develop.

These early genes likely orchestrate the execution of subsequent genetic subroutines, such as ones that guide interneuron subtypes as they migrate to different locations in the brain and ones that help form unique connection patterns with other neural cell types, the authors said.

The identification of these genes and their temporal activity now provide researchers with specific targets to investigate the precise functions of interneurons, as well as how neurons diversify in general, according to the authors.

“One of the goals of this project was to address an incredibly fascinating developmental biology question, which is how individual progenitor cells decide between different neuronal fates,” Satija said. “In addition to these early markers of interneuron divergence, we found numerous additional genes that increase in expression, many dramatically, at later time points.”

The association of some of these genes with neuropsychiatric diseases promises to provide a better understanding of these disorders and the development of therapeutic strategies to treat them, a particularly important notion given the paucity of new treatments, the authors said.

Over the past 50 years, there have been no fundamentally new classes of neuropsychiatric drugs, only newer versions of old drugs, the researchers pointed out.

“Our repertoire is no better than it was in the 1970s,” Fishell said.

“Neuropsychiatric diseases likely reflect the dysfunction of very specific cell types. Our study puts forward a clear picture of what cells to look at as we work to shed light on the mechanisms that underlie these disorders,” Fishell said. “What we will find remains to be seen, but we have new, strong hypotheses that we can now test.”

As a resource for the research community, the study data and software are open-source and freely accessible online.

A gallery of the drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal is currently on display in New York City, and will open at the MIT Museum in Boston in May 2018.

Christian Mayer, Christoph Hafemeister and Rachel Bandler served as co-lead authors on the study.

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (R01 NS074972, R01 NS081297, MH071679-12, DP2-HG-009623, F30MH114462, T32GM007308, F31NS103398), the European Molecular Biology Organization, the National Science Foundation and the Simons Foundation.

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

Developmental diversification of cortical inhibitory interneurons by Christian Mayer, Christoph Hafemeister, Rachel C. Bandler, Robert Machold, Renata Batista Brito, Xavier Jaglin, Kathryn Allaway, Andrew Butler, Gord Fishell, & Rahul Satija. Nature volume 555, pages 457–462 (22 March 2018) doi:10.1038/nature25999 Published: 05 March 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.