By gregsal

How You Can Make Quantum Mechanics Actually Work (for your Brain)!

February 21st, 2012 in Article 3 comments

If you were to ask any reasonable person (or reasonable physicist) how quantum mechanics works, 9 out of 10 times he/she would probably give you the same answer: magic. Yes, the field of quantum physics is known far and wide across academia as being both pretty difficult (lots of math) and pretty confusing (it just seems like it makes stuff up as it goes). However, despite all the tedium and wizardry that surrounds quantum mechanics, if you look hard enough at the many applications that the science has to offer to other fields, you may quickly come to find that it is also pretty dang awesome. Indeed, even the field of neuroscience has experienced some cross over with quantum physics in an attempt to explain many of the mysteries of the mind. But, what specific oddities about the brain are so opaque that they would need something as complex as physics’ black magic to explain them?

What are the quantum mysteries of the mind?

What are the quantum mysteries of the mind?


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A.I. in the "Cloud"

October 26th, 2011 in Opinion 1 comment

The world seems as though it is starting to move faster and faster, and thus the demand for information and information accessibility is drastically speeding up as well. Modern computers and related technologies, however, have done a remarkable job with both creating and keeping up with the ever growing demand for data and access people need to it. Perhaps one of the interesting innovations on the scene as of late is the emergence of a new form of information sharing and storing colloquially called “cloud computing”. More

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"Rage" Stimulating Neurons Have Their Own Little Fight Club in the Amygdala

February 21st, 2011 in Article 1 comment

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Ever been in a situation where you had to deal with someone/something that just really PISSED YOU OFF!?  Of course you have. After all, we’re all human; we’ve all felt that terrible tingle of insatiable rage wash over us from time to time.  It’s a pretty intense emotion, sometimes even frightening in its potential to completely change your whole disposition from that of a mild mannered undergrad to a rampaging Hulk wannabe.  Even more interesting (and a bit more terrifying perhaps) is how such an big emotion like anger can be generated by such a tiny section of your brain!

The amygdala, nexus of RAGE and mystery

The amygdala, nexus of RAGE and mystery

Despite the nigh inevitable incorporation of the frontal lobe in interpreting and modulating emotional responses, when it comes to generating many of the basic motivated behaviors to which mammals are bound (anger, fear, attraction, hunger/thirst, etc.) the amygdala is usually the primary suspect (or at least an important accomplice).  The amygdala itself is a tiny, almond shaped bundle of neurons and fiber tracts located deep within the temporal lobes (usually near the end of the hippocampus). Countless studies from emotion-based research have targeted the amygdala as a playing a minor role in memory and, most famously, as a hot spot for emotional response.  Despite all this work, researchers are still relatively hazy as to how the amygdala is able to help us feel such different emotions as fear, anger and so on.  However, recent research from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Caltech may be starting to turn all of our uncertainty about the amygdala around, as well as shedding some light on the specific neuronal origins of our most primal emotions.

Yes, this actually is what activating those cells does to mice (minus the personality disorder)

Current investigations from the labs of Dayu Lin and David Anderson have led to the discovery of what seems to be a subset of neurons in the amygdala that exclusively help generate aggression in mice.  Upon activation, these “rage” neurons (or “fight cells” as Anderson has dubbed them) can turn an otherwise docile male mouse into a hyper-aggressive brawler.  Indeed, the effects are so strong that the mice can be induced to attack females and other males (usually castrated) that would otherwise not be viewed as a threat.  Talk about domestic violence!  To tease apart the action and sensitivity of these cells even more, Anderson and his team genetically modified a strain of these mice to express fight cells that respond to pulses of laser light.  Upon shining this light in the eyes of mutated mice, an aggressive response in the presence of females, castrated males and even a rubber glove was able to be stimulated!

In the midst of all this bio-molecular wizardry, Anderson and his team stumbled across another interesting discovery: a population of “mate” stimulating cells that seems to be closely knit with the fight cells in the amygdala.  As the name may imply, mate cells seem to play a large role in inducing and modulating sexual behavior.  Interestingly though, upon analyzing the brains of modified mice, after having previously been induced to attack a rubber glove (or something similar) and then allowed to mate, Anderson’s team that a healthy amount of fight cells were activated in concert with mate cells as the mice where engaging in sexual activity.

The fight cells' corner of the amygdala

It is this latest discovery that Anderson and his team have expressed the most excitement about, specifically because of its implications for potential remediation of violent sex offenders and predators who may be suffering from a massive “cross-wiring” of the fight cells and mate cells in their amygdalar/temporal regions. If enough homology can be drawn between these cells and their specific pathways in the mouse brain with that of the human brain, perhaps the future work of Hughes center could produce ways to untangle these connections and offer both sex offenders (and the general public) alternative solutions to their deeply ingrained problems.

Small Part of Brain Itching for a Fight – Science News

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Can Playing Video Games be Beneficial for Your Brain in the Long Run?

November 18th, 2010 in Uncategorized 16 comments

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Most of us are probably not strangers to the recent hub-bub in the media regarding the effects of video gaming on the brain.  From whinny mothers and senators complaining that graphic video games predispose our youth to violence and damage their minds, to the claims that daily “brain training” video game exercises can improve your overall mental well-being, it can be hard to determine just how video games are actually affecting our brains.  While the jury is still out as to whether or not violent video games overload the amygdala or if playing Brain Age everyday on your Nintendo DS can boost your memory and cognitive abilities, several studies produced in the last year or so have made some very interesting discoveries regarding the effects of gaming on the brain.  Though many of us may want to hear that playing StarCraft all day will predispose us to being strategic wizards and give us an edge at the next chess match, such is not the case.  The actually findings, however,  may still surprise you.null

When you think of mentally stimulating activity in the realm of video games, you probably wouldn’t think of something like Call of Duty or the Prince of Persia as a game that would really get synaptic efficacy churning.  One would probably be more inclined to attribute that to electronic chess, or puzzle games like Tetris or Bejeweled, or even a tactical strategy game like Command and Conquer.  According to most independent studies into video gaming, however, it actually has been shown that fast paced, action gaming (and more commonly first person shooter games) just like Call of Duty are the only types of video games that provide any beneficial effects on the brain.  That’s right, your annoying roommate and all his obnoxious friends playing Halo at 3 am while you are trying to devise the perfect battle plan in WarCraft are doing something more mentally constructive than you!  How exactly though do video games provide any benefit (karma, magic, summoned magical demons!?) and what areas of the brain do they act upon?

By testing the reaction times of groups of patients both with and without extensive video gaming experience, researchers C. Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier seem to have provided evidence that playing video games can substantially boost one’s overall attentional skills.  Unlike subjects without any experience playing video games, Green and Bavelier observed that gamers exhibited a much stronger ability to fixate upon specific visual and spatial cues while filtering out superfluous ones.  Subjects with gaming experience also displayed much faster reaction times in the spatial localization and object recognition tests that Green and Bavelier administered to them.  Even more interesting was that the researchers observed that these attentional abilities were not just specific to the test paradigms themselves, and could be applied to multiple other tests and situations with similarly above average results.

When you consider the circumstances of the kind of video games that these subjects are used to performing under, these results seem to make sense.  The action and pace of the games are fast and sporadic, with stimuli randomly popping up all over the place.  The gamers are constantly conditioned and trained to respond quickly to certain stimuli, while filtering other unimportant stimuli out (and of course, they are rewarded for proper responses by either advancing further in the game or winning in general).  Another important aspect of these games that Bavelier points to is the fact that there is no set of right/wrong answers or a specific learning paradigm in them due to how random the games are.  For this reason, and due to the fast pace such gameplay demands, Bavelier and Green also speculate that action video gaming benefits the decision making skills of gamers as well by, again, forcing them to think and react accurately and quickly to specific stimuli while ignoring/rejecting others that would lead to a mistake in the game (a skill that the two have coined as probabilistic interference).  This goes strongly against all that admonishment your mother would give you back in the day about rotting your brain away in front of the Super Nintendo.  In actuality, you could have been sharpening it!


General model of visuomotor processing and the relative brain regions involved in such tasks.

Enhanced spatial attention and quick decision making are apparently not the only unexpected benefit of video gaming; according to a research team in Toronto, Canada, extensive gaming can also improve hand-eye coordinative tasks and overall visuomotor abilities. Through performing fMRI analysis on several test subject both with extensive gaming experience (or week long game training) and no video game experience while they conducted different visuomotor tasks (navigating a maze with joysticks, pointing in one direction while facing the other, etc.), it was found that those with gaming experience performed leagues better than those without.  Even more curious, however, was that it the gamers seemed to perform so much better and quicker than the non-gamers because they utilized a completely different neural network than the non-gamers to process the test data!  While non-gamers primarily employed their parietal lobes in the visuomotor tasks, the gamers utilized the prefrontal, premotor, primary sensorimotor and a larger portion of their parietal regions to process and respond to the tasks.

This shift in processing channels, however, did not result from viewing test information differently, or processing it differently in the retina; instead it came through a complete reorganization of the visuomotor pathways in the brain, developing a more efficient and effective pathway!  Much like Bavelier and Green, the Canadian research team seems to attribute these changes to the fast pace of action gaming and the high attention to detail that said games demand of the players.  Not only must the players translate the movements they desire for their in-game character onto the screen itself (and memorize multiple button patterns to do so), but they must constantly react as quickly and accurately as possible if they want to be able to keep playing.  The researchers even joke at one point that with all the training such games offer to the players in speed, precision and accuracy with hand-eye coordinative movements, many of them could be potential candidates for surgeons someday!

Pwning noobs today, performing life-saving laparoscopic surgery tomorrow.

Despite the fact that video games may not give us amazing deductive powers by playing puzzle games or promote superhuman prefrontal abilities through strategy gaming, they can help us respond faster and develop different processing pathways for visuomotor tasks (a prospect that could prove to be very beneficial for Alzheimer’s patients who are highly impaired in parietal visuospatial performance).  While we know that joystick and button-pad gaming can foster such benefits, it would be interesting to see if any of the new “motion controlled” types of video games could increase the development of such skills by forcing the player to move the controller in the actual direction of movement or action in the game (as pioneered by Nintendo’s Wii and the Playstation’s Move).  This would be most interesting to study in Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect console, a system that translates real time motion captured movements into the game itself, so a player can use his/her arms, legs and entire body as the controllers!  Could this foster enhanced visuomotor skills as well, or only serve to make you look silly as you prance around in front of the TV screen?

Sources and Related Reading:

Neuroscience News – Gamers Have Advantage in Performing Visuomotor Tasks

Medical News Today – Sharpening Decision-Making Skills Through Action Video Game Play

Nature Neuroscience – Carrot Sticks or Joysticks: Video Games Improve Vision

Cortex – Extensive Video Game Experience Alters Cortical Networks for Complex Visuospatial Transformations

PubMed Central – Effects of Action Video Games on the Spatial Distribution of Visuospatial Attention

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