Neuron News

The Neural Connections of our Decisions

Much research into brain function looks at large-scale electrical behavior of the brain. For example, fMRI is a wonderful tool and can peer deep into our brain’s function while we are alert and making decisions that might be detected by the machine.

Although this sort of information and attempt at a broad understanding of brain activity is valuable, a pure understanding of how our complex minds truly work is still locked away at a lower level of structure. Not as low as the individual neuron itself, but at the level of the interconnectivity of enormous collections of neurons.

A single neuron is impressive, but is biologically rudimentary in function (and this is such an understatement!). A ball of 10^11 neurons is a biological mess. However, a vast, interconnected network of 10^11 neurons is really something, and it somehow produces something else truly special: our minds.

The following two articles provide a crucial reminder of the importance that a global view doesn’t quite get us to the deepest answers… and that the specific interactivity of the neuron networks themselves presents some interesting behaviors.

But, even this latter work (as you must read by following the links below) is entirely based on mathematical modeling, which is certainly an important method for creating hypothesis of how neuron networks might work in the real world. This theoretical computational approach also offers new inspirations to what to look for during actual experiments on living neural communication. It’s “just” a model, however, and not quite the real world. So, we’re still far from complete understanding.

As has already been said here on Neuron News before (and will be written about many more times because it is so critical!), the future of neurotechnology will rely on our deep understanding of the network behavior of neurons because it is the network — in particular, the structure of this network — that is the underlying physics of higher brain functioning.

To understand the network is to understand the brain. With this understanding, we will be able to develop the technology to externally connect into the brain.

“Decision Making in the Brain: Eavesdropping on Neurons” :: Scientific American :: August 5, 2008 :: [ READ ARTICLE ]

“When Neurons Fire Up: Study Sheds Light On Rhythms Of The Brain” :: ScienceDaily :: August 5, 2008 :: [ READ ARTICLE ]

“Nonperiodic Synchronization in Heterogeneous Networks of Spiking Neurons” :: The Journal of Neuroscience :: August 6, 2008, 28(32):7968-7978 :: [ READ ABSTRACT(full article text requires subscription)

Latest Success in ALS Research is Fundamental for the Future of Neurotechnology

It might not be immediately obvious how research developments in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS — or, Lou Gehrig’s Disease) would be appropriate to follow here on Neuron News. However, this author has a personal family member currently dealing with the devastating disease, so we’ve been personally reviewing the progress in the field. And, with a little trivial forward thinking, there is an important connection with the advancement of neurotechnology.

Yesterday, a collaboration between Columbia and Harvard Universities announced in Science a fabulous new development that offers promise in the short-term discovery of drugs as well as longer term neuro-therapeutic technologies.

Credit: J. T. Dimos et al., Science Express

The key problem with ALS patients is that motor neurons–particularly those affecting function in breathing and swallowing–degenerate and die off for unknown reasons. So, the general idea of this research program is to develop a technique to take skins cells of a patient and convert them into stem cells, or the “universal cell” that can potentially turn itself into any other cell given just the right biochemical nudge. Now, with a vast supply of genetically appropriate stem cells that will agree with the personal biology of the patient, convert them into motor neurons and implant them into regions of the body to integrate into neural systems that have been severely degraded by the disease.

This is certainly an exciting development for nearing potential therapies for ALS, although real clinical progress is likely still many years away. If you know of anyone affected by ALS or are interested in supporting the research, please thoroughly read the articles referenced below and consider a donation to The ALS Association.

In addition, this research provides experimental evidence of a new technique developed just last Fall called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. This is a very important fundamental technological advance that should guide the future of neurotechnologies.

Specifically, if neuroprosthetic devices are to be successfully integrated into the nervous system of a human being, it seems reasonable that the genetic make-up of the neurons living on the implanted device should compatible, if not identical, to the genetics of the host neurons. There might be unrealized neuro-communication factors that are influenced by genetic coding, and a fully successful device might need to be grown using neurons developed directly from the human host.

“Harvard-Columbia Team Creates Neurons from ALS Patient’s Skin Cells” :: CUMC News :: July 31, 2008 :: [ READ CUMC Press Release ]

“Stem Cell Breakthrough in ALS Research” :: ScienceNOW Daily News :: July 31, 2008 :: [ READ ]

“Stem cell technique is ‘significant advance'” :: :: August 1, 2008 :: [ READ ]


How the Mind works According to Books

No one understands how our brains work.

But, there are certainly a lot of people trying to figure it out, and this author at Neuron News is certainly swimming in this ocean of many fish.

Here we reference a new list of published books that take another stab a cracking the code of the miraculous human mind. Brief reviews are written for each book, and Neuron News is neither subscribing to nor endorsing any particular approach… however, nearly any viewpoint on the brain is worth a look-see when one has no honest clue about what is really going on (and no one can honestly say that they have a fundamental grasp of brain function… we are just not there, yet.)

In the near future, Neuron News will likely plan on picking up a copy of A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination by Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi, so we will certainly let you know what we think. But, in the mean time please feel free to browse the collection and reviews, and let Neuron News know what you think by posting comments here in the journal.

“How the Mind Works: Revelations” :: The New York Review of Books :: Volume 55, Number 11 :: June 26, 2008 :: [ READ REVIEW ]

Developing Three-Dimensional Cultured Neuron Networks

Visualize a computer chip for a moment… it’s a “flat”, 2-dimensional piece of electronics that does some fancy electron dance somewhere within the green-toned plastic. Now, visualize what a neurological computer chip might look like… how about we start with the same flat, green-toned plastic electrical processing unit and toss on a bunch of living neural cells scrambled all over the surface.

This sort of technological device–which is not entirely science fiction–is this idea of a two-dimensional, cultured neuron network interfaced with a microfabricated electrical circuit. This system in no way resembles the network structuring seen in the human brain, so the first immediate question would be to ask why would this living, 2-D neuron network successfully electrically interface with the brain?

Well, that is a good question… but this 2-D world was (and still is) a reasonable starting point for developing the technology. In fact, because the 2-D world is still an important system for developing merged devices composed of electrical circuits and living networked neurons, developing an understanding of the fundamental neuron network function–in two dimensions–is still critical and valuable for neurotechnological research.

But, the brain is still in three dimensions, so advancing the technology to grow cultured neuron networks in controlled ways in 3-D is quite exciting. With a current published article inNature Methods, researchers from the University of California Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab have begun some initial work on controlling the cultured growth of neurons in three dimensions along the bumps of blobs of colloidal crystals.

Micron-sized colloidal particles (i.e., really tiny balls made of clear plastic) are interesting for patterning neuron networks, because there has been a great deal of work on learning how to manipulate these objects using focused laser light called optical tweezers. If the wavelength of the laser beam is selected appropriately, then the living neurons will not absorb the wavelength and heat up and die. So, additional modifications to the underlying colloidal matrix could be made to the system while the neurons were growing and interconnecting along the 3-D lattice.

“Colloidal crystals make better neural networks” :: Ars Technica :: July 28, 2008 :: [ READ ]

“Colloid-guided assembly of oriented 3D neuronal networks” :: Nature Methods :: published online July 20, 2008 :: (doi:10.1038/nmeth.1236) [ READ ABSTRACT ]

Re-developing Hearing with Neural Network Implants

A research team from the Yonsei University College of Medicine, including Dr. Choi Jae Young, have recently completed a neural implant surgery on a young female patient to help her regain lost hearing. Although the girl’s brain functions normally, she has a damaged nerve that transmits auditory signals from her ear to her brain stem.

The implanted device converts sound into digital signal and transmits this to the brain stem and further processing in the brain. The details of the work is not clear in the posted media report below, and no published research with the results has yet been found by Neuron News (but, we’ll post updates as soon as possible).

Presumably, the electrical information transmitted by the computer chip implant is being received by the brain, but the child’s brain must first train itself to interpret the signals into meaningful patterns. The girl may have never before heard sound–let alone process and interpret sound–so, this work might also be an extremely interesting observation of how well the brain can take new electrical signals and integrate them successfully into a brain state that might be considered “normal” to another human who was born with complete hearing capabilities.

Will the girl hear differently, in some way, than other humans? Will we ever be able to determine if she is interpreting sounds in different ways, even if her brain figures out a way to process the signals and still interact with its environment “normally”?

“Doctors Use Artificial Network to Help Hearing Impaired” :: Arirang News IT/Science :: July 22, 2008 :: [ READ ]

Neurotechnology Market Review Report 2008-2012

This past December, Research & published a 230-page detailed analysis of the neurotechnology market covering the next four years of expected activity and performance. The full report is accessible only with a purchase, but an introductory summary is available on line and is worth a read.

In particular, the report projects a worldwide market of $3.6 billion in 2008, which will grow to $8.8 billion by 2012. This market reach is focused over segments of neural prostheses,neuromodulationneurorehabilitation, and neurosensing.

There’s nothing like a little money in a free market to help drive and expedite the advance of new technologies… so, get ready for some rather exciting news in neurotechnological developments in the next decade.

The report also covers a detailed review of the following neurotech companies, which Neuron News will certainly be tracking in the near future with our latest addition of our Neurotech Companies category…

St. Jude Medical
Boston Scientific
Cardinal Health
Cochlear Ltd.
Northstar Neuroscience
Victhom Human Bionics

“New Detailed Report on the Neurotechnology Market for 2008-2012” :: :: July 16, 2008 :: [ READ ]

“The Market for Neurotechnology: 2008-2012” from Research and Markets

Last updated May 25, 2020