By Reena Clements
“Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons….In fact there was only one species on the planet more intelligent than dolphins, and they spent a lot of their time in behavioural research laboratories running round inside wheels and conducting frighteningly elegant and subtle experiments on man. The fact that once again man completely misinterpreted this relationship was entirely according to these creatures’ plans.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
As tempting as it may be to believe the science fiction version of the intelligence rankings, real-life science has spoken and suggests (much to my displeasure) that humans may actually be the highest on the intelligence scale.
We have many different types of neurons within our peripheral somatosensory system. In addition to basic mechanoreceptors, we have neurons corresponding to pain sensations, and channels that are temperature sensitive. However, one phenomenon that was not explained at the neuronal level until recently, is the sensation of stroking. On the behavioral level, we know that stroking or grooming is pleasurable in such phenomenon as maternal care. But how is this transduced at the molecular level?
Researchers in David Anderson’s lab at Caltech recently discovered a class of neurons that selectively responds to “massage-like” stimulations. Experiments were performed in-vivo to directly measure the effect of certain stimulations. Calcium imaging, a type of imaging designed to study activity of neurons, was used in the spinal cord, where the cell bodies of neurons projecting to the periphery are located. After mice were pinched, poked, and light-touch stroked on their paws, the researchers found that a subset of neurons was selectively activated to only the light-touch stimulus.
Behold – our recent ancestor, the gorilla, and ourselves, the human:
There are many characteristics that separate us from our monkey fathers. Most notably, factors that mark the evolution are the use of fire, use of tools, and a bigger brain. A recent study suggests that it is actually the onset of the use of fire that explains the ability to begin to grow a larger brain. According to a timeline of human history, the earliest Homo Sapiens appeared shortly after beginning to use fire to cook food:
Technology has largely improved the quality of life for patients needing implantable electronic devices, such as pacemakers or cochlear implants. Pacemakers allow for the heart to function properly and cochlear implants restore hearing to deaf patients. The downfall of these types of technologies is the way in which they are powered. Batteries are a common power source, and while they can be designed to have lifespans of several years, they do eventually need to be replaced. One could argue that this, to an extremely small degree, undermines the benefits of having the implantable device.
Researchers at MIT may have found a way to completely remove this inconvenience associated with having an implantable electronic device. What if we used the resources in our own body to power the electronic components we put into it after injury? More
There are numerous brain imaging techniques that allow us to gain insight into what damage the brain may have incurred after a patient has a traumatic injury. The ever popular fMRI measures blood flow to infer neural activity. Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) uses the magnetic properties of water to look at white matter in the brain, while positron emission tomography (PET) uses radiolabeling to look for a specific chemical in the brain. All of these are important for possible disease diagnosis, however, there is skepticism around how dependent we should be on this technology, as the results should never be taken as the absolute truth.
Now, a new type of brain imaging developed by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh allows researchers to look for connections that have been broken as a result of traumatic brain injury, much like an X-Ray allows doctors to look for broken bones. It is called High Definition Fiber Tracking (HDFT). Although the technology is not specific at the cellular level, it is accurate in observing specific connections that have been lost as a result of injury. These lost connections act as a reliable predictor for cellular information, such as the percentage of axons that have been lost.
The accompanying publication in the Journal of Neurosurgery focuses on a case study of a man who sustained severe brain damage after crashing an all-terrain vehicle (public service announcement: this is why we wear helments!!!). Initial MRI scans showed hemorrhaging in the right basal ganglia, which was confirmed by a later DTI. The patient had extreme difficulty moving the left side of his body, and it was assumed to be a result of damage to the basal ganglia. It was not until the patient had a HDFT test that doctors could pinpoint the true problem: fiber tracts innervating the motor cortex had been lost. More
The parting words of Ken Jennings in last year’s Jeopardy match against Watson, a computer seemingly able to decipher and process language, are a milestone for robotic innovations. Advancements in neuroscience and robotics have focused on giving robots human-like intelligence and processing skills. This concept has been depicted numerous times in popular culture, many times in terms of robotic rebellion, for example in movies such as I, Robot or WALL-E.
Recent robotics research leaves us with a couple of questions. Are really focusing on the right aspects of advancing in robotic technologies? Instead of perfecting intelligence and processing, why not instead focus on perfecting human emotion? More
When humans fall ill, we can go to the doctor to receive a diagnosis and treatment. We have a form of communication, and our body has good indicators that can help the doctor diagnose the problem. But what happens when we are trying to diagnose organisms that have no way to tell us what is wrong, and no way of knowing how badly they are affected? For instance, in the case of many marine organisms, illness is being caused by humans. We have used our oceans such that they now contain areas with little to no oxygen, where life is barely sustainable. How does this, combined with ongoing pollution and human activities, stress marine life? More
City dwellers are all too familiar with crowds. In Boston, students regularly navigate through them on their way to class, and more broadly, natives and visitors all have to navigate through sports crowds. These can be particularly dense and sometimes rowdy crowds (have you ever been near Fenway Park after a Red Sox-Yankees game?!).
With crowds occasionally come large-scale riots. A recent notable riot occurred in Vancouver after the Bruins won the Stanley Cup over the Canucks. One of the first signs of unrest was bottles being thrown at TV screens by spectators outside the stadium. It was followed with burning of Bruins apparel and flags. Eventually, a car and truck were overturned and set on fire, and windows of local businesses were smashed. Chaos followed, 100 people were arrested, and there were numerous injuries.
Researchers at Arizona State University are currently studying human behavior in crowds. They use computer modeling to study the outbreak and containment of city riots. One such example can be found here. This video shows the beginnings of a riot outbreak through an immersive model – the progression of the riot and overall crowd behavior is observed from a participant’s point of view. Though various viewpoints are shown in the video, there is initially a focal point of a key initiator, and users can choose their viewpoint when modeling in the program. More
Dolphins are pretty amazing creatures, to put it simply. In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the dolphins knew of the Earth’s impending doom well before people did (“So long, and thanks for all the fish!”). In addition to their extraordinary cognitive abilities, they have highly developed and extremely interesting social skills (such as killing for pleasure).
Speaking of killing, let’s discuss sharks. Contrary to popular belief, sharks are only dangerous if you give them reason to be. During the course of my summer internship, I’ve seen many sharks, from toothless dogfish to five foot long juvenile tiger sharks. All have been docile; they tend not to try to attack unless you poke them hard enough (in an out of water case). But, say you happened to be standing in front of the aforementioned tiger shark’s mouth and poked it, and it flailed and bit your leg. You’d probably scream in pain, bleed, and need to see a doctor right away.
Now consider an in water encounter between a dolphin and a shark. The dolphin could just be swimming normally and pass a shark. The shark could misinterpret the dolphin swimming nearby as a threat, and attack, leaving a 3 centimeter deep, 30 centimeter long, 10 centimeter wide wound. Not only would the dolphin not feel pain from this, but it would continue feeding, swimming, and behaving normally! Even more amazingly, the wound would heal over time with little scarring or changes in overall contour! More
For patients who have lost their sight to various eye diseases, artificial retina technology allows them to experience limited vision once more.
The external parts of the artificial retina device include glasses with a mounted camera and a small computer.
The device also includes an electrode implanted onto the patient’s retina. When the camera “sees” an image, the computer is able to translate these into a pattern of neural signals. This pattern is then transmitted to the implanted electrode, and directly stimulates the optic nerve. These signals are then able to be processed by the brain and interpreted as very rudimentary images.
The first artificial retina to be implanted in a patient, known as Argus I, included only sixteen electrodes that stimulated the optic nerve. However, the patient with this implant was still able to tell the differences between light and dark, and could make out basic shapes. The newer version of the technology, Argus II, now includes sixty electrodes. However, it is still limited in that patients can only tell the differences between light and dark areas, and can only see shapes, outlines, and blurs, and not detailed images. Regardless, this is a large improvement over no sight, and patients with the implant are satisfied with simply a partial regain of their vision, and are hopeful that the technology will continue to improve. As of late, a third model of the artificial retina is in development, and will include over 200 electrodes.
Though the project began almost ten years ago, the implant has recently been approved for patients in Europe. The company has not yet submitted approval to the FDA, but hopes to do so by the end of this year.
Second Sight – How is Argus II Designed to Produce Sight?
CBS News HealthPop – First Artificial Retina Approved in Europe
US Department of Energy Office of Science – About the Artificial Retina Project