Discover your creativity

Scientists from the Centre for the Mind in Sydney claim to have enhanced the brain’s creative abilities with a few properly-placed magnets.

(NOTE: This research has not yet been published in a refereed, scientific journal. We will keep our eye out for it, and report back here when it does appear. However, BBC News andDiscover Magazine have recently reported on their work.)

The motivation for this approach comes from savants, who are individuals with some developmental disorder, like autism, but also portray extraordinary artistic or mathematical skills. Somehow the brains of these special people are over-compensating for other developmental problems, allowing three-year-old autistic children to sketch stunningly realistic scenes.

Professor Snyder has apparently demonstrated that their magnetic device can improve a person’s drawing skills within minutes. This is a very tantalizing and interesting idea. We should wait for the journal article to appear…

In the meantime, if you want to tap into your unconscious and creative self, why not try developing your lucid dreaming skills? This technique is still a little less scientific than we prefer to be here at DPRI, but lucidity can at least be a great experience!

[Read the article from BBC News]

[Read the article from Discover Magazine]

Monkey Games

One of the ultimate goals in neurotechnology is to develop devices that will allow people tothink their computer to do things. “Hm. Let’s see… I’d like to search for cyber gear suppliers on Google”. Then, off you go.

A potentially more useful application could significantly aid individuals who are retrofitted with a prosthetic limb due to an injury. For example, you could just think about picking up that mouth-watering can of soda, instead of contracting shoulder muscles in complicated way to position the arm into place.

Brown University researchers implanted a small device into a Rhesus monkey’s brain to record the electrical activity from an amazingly small number of cortical neurons (they claim only six!). The monkey moved a cursor around on a computer screen with his hands on a joystick, then the device output the electrical activity from the set of connected neurons. The scientists next determined a mathematical model that will relate the neuron firing to moving the cursor.

Finally, they disconnected the control of the joystick, but allowed the monkey to continue to use it, and instead connect up the neuron device. The monkey continued to think about playing the cursor-moving game, and the cursor moved!

[Read the article from NewsFactor Sci-Tech]

[Read the complementary article from BBC News]

[Read another complementary article from ABC News]

Baby neurons help their elders

Your mother always told you that you if you loose your brain cells to too much booze, then they won’t ever grow back.

Contrary to this popular belief, scientists have found that baby neurons in rat brains can develop and form new, functional connections within established neuron networks. To see this “neurogensis” in action, a stain was introduced into the brain that would only make dividing cells glow. Younger neurons undergoing cell division appeared a distinctive fluorescent color, while the older, non-dividing neurons remained in the dark.

Of course, it is still an assumption that this phenomena occurs in humans as well. However, it is anticipated that by gaining an understanding of how neurogenesis works, scientists can develop therapeutic methods to help reverse degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

[Read the article from Wired News]

Interfacing neurons at the Max Planck Institute

It’s been over 200 years since science has seen the connection between biology and technology when Luigi Galvani first stimulated a frog’s leg to contract with an electrical pulse. However, we are still stuck in a nescient stage of electrically coupling nerve cells will man-made devices.

Peter Fromherz of the Membrane and Neurophysics Department at the Max Plank Institute is guiding his lab to figure out how computer chips can be used to support neurons functioning in a living system, and even help us learn more about how the brain works.

The techniques they are developing involve manually placing large snail nerve cells (100 microns, which is quite large as far as brain cells go) on top of a patterned electrode on a silicon wafer. The electrode is surrounded by a fence of pillars that act to constrain the cell body from movement while it grows branching axons and dendrites to connect up with neighboring cells. Currently, they are focusing on establishing a contact-free method of interfacing where the nerve cell never actually comes into direct contact with the electrode and silicon surface.

Fromherz cautiously approaches the expectations of neuron device research. The brain is connected in such an enormously complicated tangle of dendrites that it is still unclear exactly how far we will succeed by interfacing the nervous system with semiconductor technology.

Fromherz also rightly stresses that any comparison between the computational methods of today’s computers with that of a neuron network is completely misguided. Our brain’s neuron networks function insanely slower than your common desktop computer. Still, your thought processes are much more powerful than your PC’s internal chugging. The computational mechanisms in biological nervous systems are not understood in any complete way, and a significant advancement will need to occur before we will be able to truly harness in the power of interconnected neurons.

[Read the article from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (English)]

[Visit the lab]

Bionic Eye

Optobionics is developing an artificial retina that is being used to help partially restore vision in people with age-related degeneration or retinal diseases.

A small silicon chip with 5,000 electrodes is implanted into the back of the eye. Each electrode transforms incoming light into electrochemical pulses that stimulate existing retinal cells. The first patients are now able to see more light, although cannot yet make out visual details.

This advancement follows a cochlear implant made by Advanced Bionics, which was installed last month in Cora Jean Kleppe, 73. She can now hear her grandchildren and function better in life.

The amazing part is the brain only needs a little bit of crude information to reconstruct the sounds or sights around it. These devices are not sending detailed information, but only rudimentary electrical signals based on light impinging on an electrode or a small microphone mounted on their head. Your brain can adapt its neuron network to properly interpret the environment based on whatever information it can scrounge from these sorts of devices. Don’t be surprised if these first bionic patients experience improved responses over time.

[Read the article from CNN]

Consciousness in the Chemistry

This article from the Washington Post summarizes a few of the current opinions in consciousness studies.

Most philosophers and scientists today firmly believe that a little controller sitting somewhere in your head directing conscious activities does not exist, as René Descartes purported in the 17th century. Consciousness somehow arises from, as is quoted here, “highly organized brain chemistry”. This is somewhat understated, however, because your consciousness certainly is the result of a “highly organized” system, but there’s more than just chemistry.

A few major players in consciousness thinking are quoted. Their ideas for the origins of consciousness cover the gamut from “mundane” mechanisms or it’s a fundamental property of the Universe, like gravity, to the idea that consciousness is only an illusion.

Consider each carefully. You must keep in mind that your brain is a very complex system and no one yet knows the power of billions of interconnected neurons.

[Read the article from the Washington Post]

Last updated May 25, 2020