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
Going on vacation with my family for thirteen days was both exciting and daunting. The West Coast adventure was extremely appealing and I couldn’t wait to see the Grand Canyon, explore Yosemite National Park, and drive a convertible down the Pacific Coast Highway. But where was I going to get my brain fix? The Scientific American issue I bought for the flight to Phoenix wasn’t doing it for me. Some hope was gained at The Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum in San Francisco that managed to convince my thirteen-year-old sister that neuroscience might be almost potentially cool, but it wasn’t until a trip to Sonoma County that my curiosity was finally piqued.
Tiger the horse and I were riding along on a vineyard tour and I was talking to the tour guide about school. I’ve got yet another new response to “I’m studying neuroscience”: the tour guide told me about his son’s mysterious mental illness that may or may not be schizophrenia and we rode through wine country discussing psychiatrists, Thorazine, thought disorders and SSRIs. All in all, a good day.
This conversation got me wondering about the kinds of challenges psychologists and psychiatrists face when having to diagnose patients with schizophrenia. All the clinicians have to go on are whatever behavioral abnormalities make themselves apparent. But how do you weed out schizophrenia from other kinds of psychosis (some of which may respond to the typical treatment for schizophrenia)? 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
I have some news that might be a bit disappointing to…well, pretty much anyone who would find themselves on a blog dedicated to the mind and brain. Bear with me (or not, if you’d like, really), but this is a post primarily about the heart.
I was recently introduced via a grad student in the (yes, neuroscience) lab I work in to the latest advancement in the race to perfect an artificial heart. That link is to an NPR article that really tells you everything you need to know…and you should absolutely read it. But to summarize the details you need to know for my purposes here, the design is completely novel, and unlike previous designs, it doesn’t use nature as its inspiration. More
My average morning: My alarm clock blasts the stereotypical sound associated with 7 a.m. mornings. I awake from what I wouldn’t even call sleep, and I stare at the ceiling wondering how I’m going to survive today’s chemistry exam when even the TA insists that this is his “cherry on the top.” Glancing over at my roommate as he snores louder than Yawkey Way on opening day at Fenway Park, I think to myself why couldn’t you just close your mouth and breath through your nose? Looking back at the clock, I guesstimate how much time I have left to savor the comfort of my own bed before jumping up to begin my whole routine. Well, at least this isn’t the worst day I’ve ever had…LOSING. More
As much fun as I had exploring psychology last time I set out to write a blog post, this article from Science Daily caught my eye last week and I had to revert to my biology-related posting habit. Evidently, researchers at Oxford in the UK are using skin cells to grow induced pleuripotent stem (IPS) cells to use in their study of Parkinson’s Disease. What’s so useful about this technique is that skin cells are easily accessible, in contrast to the hard-to-reach tissues of the brain. With the skin cells obtained, the scientists plan to grow dopaminergic neurons and work on techniques for early detection of PD, perhaps finding ways to diagnose it before patients start showing symptoms. The skin cells will be from early-stage Parkinson’s patients, so they can be compared to the dopaminergic cells of healthy individuals to determine where things go wrong in the neurons affected by the disease. More
Hey Scientists, Where’s My Jetpack?! : The future is here; it just looks a little different than expected
In almost every major futuristic science-fiction work of the last century, jetpacks and flying cars are seemingly as ubiquitous as today’s oversized SUV’s, lining the closets and garages of every hardworking American. Understandably, in the year 2011, this has lead many disenchanted Trekkies and purveyors of assorted geek cultures to ask, “Well, scientists, where’s my jetpack?!” While I commiserate with my fellow fans of Asimov and Adams, several recent innovations have led me to believe that we all might be overlooking just how “futuristic” the time we live in really is. Accessing Google on the iPhone is certainly as close to the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy as we may ever come. We have the ability to beam blueprints of intricate plastic objects and now even organs anywhere in the world and literally print them out. We have computers that can beat us in Jeopardy! And last but not least, Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you Brain Driver, the thought-controlled car. On behalf of scientists everywhere, I accept your apologies, geeks. More
Scientists at the Bewundgen University in Germany discovered that a diet rich in petrolatum, a substance of hydrocarbons, can greatly improve performance on a wide variety of cognitive tasks.
The research, led by neuroscientist Dr. Hans Schweinstucken, followed three groups of human subjects for over a year. The first group was instructed to eat regularly, but to also consume 500 grams of petrolatum per day, in the morning after breakfast. The second group was given an energy-deficient supplement of sugar substitutes; and the third were not given anything at all. All groups were tested periodically on tasks of memory, abstract thinking, cognitive speed, and general agility. To their surprise, the researchers found that regular consumption of petrolatum improved subjects’ recall, memory retrieval and abstract thinking while reducing overall agility, motivation and ability to make decisions. In contrast, the group eating sugar substitutes performed significantly worse over time on tests of memory and abstract thinking, with 50% of the subjects hitting an all-time low of 25% correct responses on recall (vs. their performance prior to the experiment).
Dr. Schweinstucken speculates that the first group’s reduced motivation and agility may have something to do with their major weight gain, which by itself remains a mysterious side-effect. As for the mechanisms of action, Dr. Schweinstucken proposes that petrolatum acts via inhibitory GABAergic interneurons in neocortex, the brain part thought to be important in higher cognition, antagonizing GABA action and thereby reducing overall levels of inhibition in the brain. However, he warns that at higher doses than 500 grams per day, petrolatum may actually have a detrimental effect on cognition because it may saturate GABA receptors and the corresponding neurons, causing massive seizures; he is currently conducting experiments to test this hypothesis.
Meanwhile, for all you folks who have exams to study for, I recommend a trip to your local CVS, where petrolatum is sold over-the-counter as “Vaseline,” or petroleum jelly.
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.
Sebastian Seung is a professor of computational neuroscience and physics at MIT. His research in the neuroscience field involves “connectomes,” or the map of connections between and among neurons. The endeavor of investigating and mapping connectomes began in the 1980s and jumped off with the elucidation of the complete connectome of the worm C. elegans in 1986. While C. elegans has about 300 neurons, humans have about 10 billion neurons and ten times that number of connections. These connections can grow and change with and from neural activity and experience, combining to permutations exponentially greater that those of DNA and its four bases. Seung proposes that we “are our connectomes” rather than our genomes, implying that our thoughts, experiences, emotions, and consciousness itself may have a purely neural basis. To refrain from any more spoilers, he artfully expands and explains his hypothesis in the above TED talk that it is surely worth viewing. For a greater philosophical inquiry inspired by his ideas, is our matter all that matters?