By Alexandra Maxim
By mapping the human brain, we will inevitably have a greater comprehensive understanding of how it functions. In this TED talk, Allan Jones explains how his team of researchers is mapping the brain by investigating which genes are turned on in each region and how these regions link up. According to Allan Jones: “Understanding how our genes are used in our brains will help scientists and the medical community better understand and discover new treatments for the full spectrum of brain diseases and disorders.”
Sometimes it can be tough to explain the research work that I am involved in right now: I can’t just say “I study the interaction between the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex” because inevitably, I get blank stares. So instead, I say “Neuroscience–brain stuff!” But I find this unfortunate: I want to be able to explain my research interests to people – even though they might be unfamiliar with neuroscience – without having to go into a 15-minute neuroanatomy lesson. But this is no fault of theirs: they have just never been exposed to the anatomy of the brain.
In grade school and high school most people are exposed to the body in anatomy classes and text-book diagrams. This tends not be true for the brain – the first time I was exposed to its anatomy was in my first neuroscience course, at a university. However, I think it is a necessary foundation for children to understand their own brains, even at a simplistic level. This is why I was excited to find that Erica Warp and Jessica Voytek have created an inspirational and fascinating children’s storybook called Ned the Neuron. It’s great to know that there are indeed ways that children can learn accurate information about the brain. And although this is a children’s book, I would recommend it to adults, too! This is certainly a step in the right direction toward bringing knowledge of neuroscience to the general public. I’ve already bought my copy!
Ned the Neuron – Erika Warp and Jessica Voytek
A Dynamic Neuron & His Dynamic Poster At Society for Neuroscience 2012 – CENtral Science
For many feminists, this effort to better understand female sexuality can be a means of empowerment, and it is not surprising that neuroscience research has branched into this area. Many people, rightfully so, believe that to understand our body and mind we must also understand the mechanisms of behavior in the brain. Yet due to its complexity, much of neuroscience research gets misinterpreted, reduced, or even generalized when written about for the public sphere.
Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography, attempts to explain female sexuality by pulling from both subjective accounts and neuroscience to support her arguments. But what exactly does neuroscience research have to contribute to our knowledge of female sexuality? Although Wolf’s attempt at writing such a boldly stated book is admirable, it fell short, especially in terms of the science. Wolf misinterprets the roles of dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin in the brain and how they could plausibly influence a female’s romantic relationships.
As Maia Szalavits so eloquently wrote:
“The kind of oversimplification seen in Wolf’s book and, sadly, in many other popular accounts of neuroscience, threatens to perpetuate a psychological myth. Rather than illuminating the complex interplay between mind and body, it portrays human beings — especially women — as automatons, enslaved by brain chemicals we cannot control.”
So what does neuroscience have to say about female sexuality? At last year’s Society for Neuroscience Conference in Washington D.C., a 3D movie was presented of the brain during a female orgasm. Barry Komisaruk, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to map brain activity in several women. The women were required to masturbate to an orgasm in the fMRI machine. (fMRI results are brain images reflecting activation in specific areas, and these areas are said to be lit up.) More
Creative artists not only experience the world differently they also view the world differently. Picasso and Kandinsky, two of the well known creative geniuses of our time, both had disorders that forced them to perceive their world differently: could these disorders be one of the underlying factors that facilitated their genius?
Strabismus & Picasso
Stereopsis, the ability to have depth perception, is important for artists in order for them to paint the three-dimensional world realistically but new studies have shown that possibly many great artists did not have depth perception. Pablo Picasso, one of the many artists who had strabismus – abnormal alignment of the eyes – was able to create amazing pieces of art despite his inability to perceive depth. For him, this disorder made it easier for him to reproduce his two-dimensional representation of his subject matter. Margaret S. Livingstone and Bevil R. Conway state that “someone who cannot perceive depth from stereopsis may be more aware of—and therefore better able to capture—the other, monocular, cues to depth and distance, such as perspective, shading, and occlusion.” This can be seen in the painting on the left, Picasso’s The Old Guitarist where his shading skill and lack of depth perception is apparent. Picasso, is largely known for his cubist pieces, it is evident that going the route to cubism was ideal for his skill set due to his disorder.
Artist Yaron Steinburg’s installation piece for any brain-lover is a masterpiece. This piece is not only stunningly beautiful but also thought provoking. At first glance, it may look merely like brain model made out of cardboard boxes. After taking a deeper look inside, however, a myriad of complex ideas can be observed. The complexity of the piece is deceptively hidden within the brain itself, wherein a booming city lies. The city looks like a seemingly unorganized mess, much like the many interacting regions of the human brain itself. The true brilliance of the piece though lies in looking past this cluttered city, and viewing the piece (and its message about the nature of the brain) for what it really is: an organized mess of infinite complexity and beauty.
How you feel influences what you see, it is not just what you see that influences how you feel; a top down approach to understanding the visual system.
Affective Circumplex: Affect can vary in terms of valence (positive/negative) and arousal (high/low).
A great analogy for understanding how affect (the experience of an emotion) influences perception is to think of affect as a spotlight, or a source of “attention” that sheds light on the external world. This is known as a top-down process because the cortical and sub cortical levels of the brain directly influence what one externally experiences. This is opposed to a bottom-up process wherein external stimuli influences processing in the brain (an example of this process would be hearing something hit the floor behind you and immediately shifting your attention to that object). The brain uses both of these processes interchangeably, but it has only been recently that a top-down understanding of the visual system (a system that has classically been believed to be primarily regulated by external stimuli and how such stimuli influence attention) has been accepted. Many studies by Lisa Feldman Barrett and the Interdisciplinary Affective Sciences lab at Northeastern University seem to have proved strong evidence against the popular claim that the bottom-up system is the sole means by which perception can be influenced. More
Research has been conducted that proves that our thoughts can control the rate of firing of neurons in our brain. This research reveals the crucial advancement of brain-operated machines in the field. John P. Donoghue at Brown University has conducted research that uses neural interface systems (NISs) to aid paraplegics. NISs allows people to control artificial limbs; individuals simply need to think about commanding their artificial limbs and signals are sent down from their brain to control the movement of these limbs! This great feat is not the only applicable result of current research done by brain-machine interfaces. Dr. Frank Guenther of Boston University uses implanted electrodes in a part of the brain that controls speech to tentatively give a voice back to those who have been struck mute by brain injuries. The signals produced from these electrodes are sent wirelessly to a machine that is able to synthesize and interpret these signals into speech. This is specifically useful for patients suffering from locked in syndrome, wherein an individual with a perfectly normal brain is unable to communicate due to specific brain damage, and thus allowing these individuals to communicate with the world! These discoveries are not only incredibly useful, but they also reveal the astonishing feats that the field of computational neuroscience is accomplishing in the world today.