Emotion Learning Computers: The Path to Artificial Intelligence

April 11th, 2016 in Uncategorized 6 comments


Reading and responding to emotions often tends to be a very humanistic thing to do. To be able to understand how one is thinking and how one will respond appropriately, typically is what many would regard as making people human. Recently however, researchers have found that computers may be able to read a person’s body language to see whether they are bored or interested in what is happening on the screen. Dr. Harry Wichel, Discipline Leader in Physiology at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, has shown in his new study that by measuring a person’s movement through a computer, a person’s interest can be judged by following tiny movements; while someone is fully engaged in what they are doing – small involuntary movements decrease, and vice versa. It is said that with this technology, future applications such as online tutoring could be better used as they can be adjusted based on the person’s interest.

This progression in technology is a giant leap for the prospect of artificial intelligence. Having computers respond to emotions and interests of an individual and act accordingly makes it so that humans do not have to control the computer, but rather the computer has control over itself. Examples of artificial intelligence, or at least the very beginnings of it, have already been made – such as with automatic car controls, or flying drones. This is a new leap for artificial intelligence and the question now becomes whether we are able to continue on this path without any consequences. What will artificial intelligence be like in a few decades? How will we prepare for that day? Only time will be able to tell, but we are progressing fast.

~Albert Wang


Examples of Artificial Intelligence

Computers Can Tell If You’re Bored

Non-Instrumental Movement Inhibition (NIMI) Differentially Suppresses Head and Thigh Movements During Screenic Engagement: Dependence on Interaction

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New Advances in Drug Therapy: Crossing the Blood Brain Barrier

April 8th, 2016 in Uncategorized 2 comments


Recent research has discovered new ways to deliver drugs to the brain through the blood brain barrier. This blood brain barrier is created by specialized cells that safeguard the brain from unwanted substances. Cornell researchers were able to create a drug called Lexiscan, which activates receptors that are on the blood brain barrier. Their goal in developing this drug was to open the barrier for a brief amount of time, just enough to deliver the pharmacological treatment to the brain in order to treat neurological disorders. They were able to make headway by delivering chemotherapy drugs into the brains of mice with Lexiscan and then having the antibodies bind onto the Amyloid-β plaques present in Alzheimer’s disease. This new breakthrough shows not only a new development in the pharmaceutical industry, but a new approach to treat diseases that would otherwise be left untreated because of the inability of other therapies to pass through the blood brain barrier. Diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism, and brain tumors that were otherwise unable to be treated with drug therapy, all have a new potential to be cured as drugs are now able to cross the blood brain barrier.

~Albert Wang


Opening the Blood-Brain Barrier to Deliver Drugs For Brain Diseases

A2A Adenosine Receptor Modulates Drug Efflux Transporter P-Glycoprotein at the Blood-Brain Barrier

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Neuroscience For Kids

Should Pregnant Women Exercise?

April 6th, 2016 in Uncategorized 0 comments


Good news! If you have no motivation to exercise, it may not be your fault. Blame your mom instead! Studies at Baylor College of Medicine with pregnant mice show that mice that exercise more (on a volunteer basis) are more likely to produce offspring that are also physically active in adulthood. This study correlates with observational studies in humans that have shown that more physically active pregnant women produce physically active children. In addition, physical exercise when pregnant could also lead to higher neural functioning in the offspring.

The experimenters at Baylor Medical postulate that exercise chemically influences fetal brain development, providing the offspring with a neurological impetus for exercise. This study examines what is referred to as “developmental programming,” or how actions during pregnancy can influence fetal development.  During fetal development, the brain undergoes A LOT of development with complex cell division and migration choreography occurring throughout the duration of pregnancy. This means that there is ample time for the mother to influence, positively or negatively, the neural development of her child, as seen in babies born addicted to certain drugs. Although physical activity of the mother does not influence the fetus in the same way that drugs do, it does appear to be quite impactful, visibly influencing the baby after birth and throughout life.

Doctors have recommended exercise for pregnant women for years, and these findings provide another motivation for the prescription. The study also notes that aside from inducing a propensity for physical activity, exercising during a pregnancy can also increase the child’s short-term memory and spatial learning capacities. Not only can exercise influence exercise affinity, but it can also affect how a child learns.

~Jackie Rocheleau


Baby, Are We Born To Run? Love of Exercise Begins in the Womb

Maternal Exercise During Pregnancy Promotes Physical Activity in Adult Offspring

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Via @laurasykora

Savant Syndrome

March 26th, 2016 in Uncategorized 0 comments


The award-winning movie “Rain Man” tells a story about a car dealer and his autistic brother, Raymond, who go on a life-changing, cross-country trip. The character Raymond from this popular movie was inspired by Kim Peek, a savant in real life. Savant Syndrome is a condition in which someone with a mental disability demonstrates profound and exceptional abilities beyond what is considered normal, and it is incredibly rare. In fact, there are currently fewer than 50 savants existing in the world. Although savant syndrome is commonly associated with autism, such as in “Rain Man,” many savants are not autistic and most people with autism are not savants.

Kim Peek, or “Rain man,” suffered from FG syndrome, a genetic condition that affects intelligence and behavior. He also lacked a corpus callosum, which is the bundle of nerve fibers connecting the two hemispheres of the brain, and was born with macrocephaly—a condition in which the brain is enlarged. Due to these brain abnormalities, Kim developed many special abilities, such as an astounding memory and advanced mental calculation and speed-reading skills. Kim was able to read both pages of a book simultaneously while retaining 98 percent of the information. On the other hand, Kim also had difficulties with many tasks, such as logistical math problems, following certain directions, and reduced physical coordination.

If you are interested in finding out more on this topic, this documentary gives a more in-depth look into Kim Peek’s life.

~Sophia Hon


FG Syndrome

Kim Peek, Inspiration for ‘Rain Man,’ Dies at 58

Kim Peek, The Real Rain Man

Professor Somers’s Lectures

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Wisconsin Medical Society

What We Think We See – Why the Real World is Confusing

March 21st, 2016 in Uncategorized 2 comments


Most of us rely on our eyes in order to help us interact with the world on a daily basis. Yet the visual system often distorts what we see, so what we think we see is actually an altered reality.  According to Dr. Mareschal, as quoted in an article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, “[i]n fact a lot of it is distortion, and it is occurring in the early processing of the brain, before consciousness takes over. Our [researchers from the University of Sydney’s School of Psychology and The Vision Centre] work shows that the cells of the primary visual cortex create small distortions, which then pass on to the higher level of the brain, to interpret as best it can…And we found that even the higher brain cannot always correct for them, as it doesn’t in fact know they are illusions.”

In agreement with previously discovered results, Dr. Mareschal and her colleague Professor Clifford found that these illusions were occurring during early processing in the brain, prior to consciousness.  They then went on to be the first labs to report being able to connect the origin of the tilt illusion to the cells of the primary visual cortex, a highly specialized region in the occipital lobe of the brain.  Let me take this chance to explain what the tilt illusion is.  Take a look at this image before reading on:

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 9.13.26 PM Via Journal of Vision

What direction do the lines of the inner circle appear to be rotated in: clockwise, counterclockwise, or not at all?  Notice how the lines in the inner circle appear to be tilted counterclockwise.  Here’s the catch though: they’re actually vertical.

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 9.13.35 PM

Why is this?  According to Mareschal and Clifford, the brain looks to the surroundings for contextual information in order to determine the pattern and alignment of an image.  Therefore, because the lines in the outer circle are tilted clockwise and because the lines in the inner circle are tilted away from those of the outer circle, the brain concludes that they must be sloped counterclockwise, while the truth is they are simply vertical.

Here is an example of how our brain utilizes context clues to help us form images in our brain: What are these broken pieces a part of?

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 9.14.03 PM Via Ink Covered Optical Illusions

Can you see it now?

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 9.14.17 PM Via Ink Covered Optical Illusions

The only thing that changed between the first picture and the second picture is the presence of the spilled ink.  In the first image, there is too much empty space for the brain to piece together the image because the missing pieces of the image and the background are both white.  However, in the second image, the black ink connects the pieces of the image, allowing our brain to put them together into a familiar object – the letter B.  Here, we use the presence of contextual clues to trick our brains into recognizing the image.

Here is a final example of how our brain can be tricked by contextual information: Is square A or square B darker?

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 7.00.58 PM Via mit.edu

Trick question!  The two squares are actually the same shade of grey, despite the fact that they appear different.  We are able to see this by connecting the two squares with grey strips of the same shade throughout.

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 7.01.15 PM Via mit.edu

In order to explain this, we need to discuss the successes demonstrated by our visual system as well as the failures while interpreting this image.  Notice that square A is supposedly a dark checker and square B is a light one.  Due to the arrangement of squares on a checkerboard, lighter checkers will be surrounded by darker checkers and, likewise, darker checkers will be surrounded by lighter ones.  Despite the presence of the shadow, ultimately making all of the checkers within the shadow a “darker shade of paint,” square B is still surrounded by darker tiles.  This contextual information cues our brain to recognizes B as a light checker and A as a dark one, although we have now proven that they are actually the same shade of grey.

So to summarize: “All I know is that I know nothing” ~ Socrates

~Alexa Aaronson


How Your Eyes Deceive You

Why Does the Illusion Work?

Ink Covered Optical Illusion

Professor Gavornik’s Principles of Neuroscience Lectures – Thanks!

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Sonic Hedgehog and Astrocytes

March 19th, 2016 in Uncategorized 0 comments

Sonic Unleashed - Packshot Pose Full Sonic

During our introductory neuroscience courses, we’re taught that the brain has very poor healing capabilities following an injury. This has always stuck with me because of how terrifying it sounds—if something happens to your brain, it’s pretty much goodbye to that part of the brain.  Putting this harrowing thought aside, new research has shown that astrocytes, star-shaped neurons, are of a greater adaptability and plasticity than what was originally believed, playing an important role in healing the brain following an injury.

A study performed at McGill University revealed that following an injury, surrounding neurons can adjust astrocytes in a way similar to the turning of a dial, changing the function and capabilities of the astrocyte. The Researchers used Bergmann glia, a type of astrocyte, and Purkinje cells, a neuron that secretes a protein referred to as Sonic Hedgehog, to study these effects.  They found that the release of this specially named protein induces significant changes in astrocytes that promote healing.

This discovery is significant for two reasons: firstly, we believed the brain to have very poor recovery capabilities and secondly, we formerly believed that neuronal cells were hardwired during development to perform a single, specific function. Both of these are wrong. Not only does this study show that astrocytes are quite active in neural healing, but it also shows that they are not limited to one specific function, and can adapt to whatever the environment demands based on the Sonic Hedgehog signaling pathway.

On a personal level these findings are exciting because maybe it means I don’t need to be as paranoid about getting a head injury. Sonic the Hedgehog is on my side if anything bad goes wrong up there.

~Jackie Rocheleau


A Key Mechanism that Could Improve Brain Function

Neurons Diversify Astrocytes in the Adult Brain Through Sonic Hedgehog Signaling

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The Effects of Caffeine on the Mind

March 16th, 2016 in Uncategorized 0 comments

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 8.55.47 PM

Coffee. Tea. Energy drinks. Almost everyone drinks at least one to get an energy boost; we have caffeine, the active ingredient in such beverages to thank for that boost. But how exactly does caffeine work – how does it affect the brain and its functions?

Caffeine is considered a stimulant; the drug temporarily improves either mental functions, physical functions, or both. Studies performed by the European Food Safety Authority show that there is a cause and effect relation between improved alertness, attention, and concentration, and 75mg of caffeine (the amount in a regular cup of coffee). The energy boost obtained from caffeine comes from a multitude of neural circuits becoming activated, resulting in the release of adrenaline – the “fight or flight” hormone – from the adrenal gland. Some studies also show that caffeine improves memory based performance, although excessive intake may actually decrease performance, possibly due to overstimulation.

Despite improving mental performance, caffeine has been shown to negatively affect sleep patterns, because the drug reduces the activity of the neuromodulator adenosine, which is responsible for facilitating sleep and slowing down neural activity. Research suggests that if one’s sleep quality declines as a result of high caffeine intake, one can regain sleep quality by abstaining from caffeinated beverages for a whole day.

According to the World Health Organization and several studies, caffeine does not induce dependence. In fact, brain mapping technology shows that caffeine is not linked to the brain’s circuit of dependence. However, caffeine increases the production of dopamine in the brain’s pleasure circuits so that abrupt cessation of caffeine consumption may lead to withdrawal symptoms in some regular caffeine consumers, resulting in headaches, reduced awareness, and drowsiness. These symptoms are generally not severe though, and are transient. If caffeine intake is decreased progressively instead of abruptly, these symptoms can be avoided altogether.

~Nathaniel Meshberg


Coffee and the Mind

How Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters

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Toxicity of Amyloid Bundles and Why Size Matters

March 14th, 2016 in Uncategorized 0 comments


Amyloid Beta Plaques are bundles of protein that accumulate at certain locations within the body, commonly leading to Alzheimer’s Disease, and sometimes other diseases. As a result, scientists are trying to study Amyloid Beta proteins to understand the disease, and any other neurodegenerative diseases related to Alzheimer’s Disease. As for whether the protein itself is toxic or not, that depends on the shape of the Amyloid beta. Amyloid beta (ABeta) only becomes toxic when it forms small bundles, and it become less toxic as they form larger fibrillar structures. The effects of shape on toxicity were discovered by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in India, where scientists used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and froze the samples of ABeta to determine the structure during the different times of evolution. They also found that the toxicity begins to occur due to a transition from intramolecular to intermolecular beta sheets, which makes them less toxic. Discovering how to manipulate the toxic form may ultimately lead to the reduction in the toxicity of certain drugs and also a greater understanding of the molecular basis of man diseases.

Another way to reduce plaque formation is with a new candidate for a drug – a molecule in snake venom that is able to activate the enzymes that break down the plaques in the brain. It was recently discovered by Dr. Sanjaya Kuruppu and Professor Ian Smith from Monash University’s Biomedicine Discovery Institute that this one molecule was able to enhance the enzymes’ ability to break down plaque in the venom of a pit viper from South America. As more discoveries are being made about amyloid beta plaques, we get closer to unraveling its molecular mystery, and hopefully soon we will be able to reduce the harmful side effects of certain drugs or even prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s from occurring at all.

~Albert Wang


The Evolution of Amyloid Toxicity in Alzheimer’s

Snake Venom May Hold Key to Breaking Down Alzheimer’s Plaques

Platform: Intrinsically Disordered Proteins (IDP) and Aggregates II

Function and Toxicity of Amyloid Beta and Recent Therapeutic Interventions Targeting Amyloid Beta in Alzheimer’s Disease 

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A Big Future for Mini-Brains

February 29th, 2016 in Uncategorized 2 comments


Recently, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University developed “mini-brains” from human skin cells that could replace animal models in drug research. The lead researcher, Thomas Hartung, asserts that “the future of brain research will include less reliance on animals, more reliance on human, cell-based models” such as this new method. Miniature brains produce electrical activity similar to real brains. These small bundles of cells “[represent] more or less a two-month-old brain.” Researchers have standardized the mini-brains and can cultivate one hundred identical brain cultures in one petri dish.

The mini-brains were developed from five donors’ skin cells, genetically programmed to produce induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are adult cells that have been genetically reprogrammed to “blank slate” cells and then stimulated to develop into brain cells. Since mini-brains are cultivated in dense clusters, they electrically stimulate one another. The mini-brains develop over the course of eight weeks and grow to about 350 micrometers in diameter. They consist of four different types of neurons found in the human brain. They also contain two types of support cells: astrocytes and oligodendrocytes. Astrocytes support neurons, and oligodendrocytes create myelin, which insulates axons and facilitates neural communication. Researchers can observe myelin development as it starts to sheath the axons. The spontaneous electrophysiological activity of these structures can be measured using a device similar to the EEG, an electrode array, which allows researchers to study the electrical activity of the mini-brains when they are exposed to various drugs. Hartung suggested that specific mini-brains could be developed using the cells of people with conditions caused by both genetic and environmental factors, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and autism, to study the effect of drugs on these traits.

Mini-brains have the potential to revolutionize how drugs are studied. Using animal models in studying the effects of drugs has always been controversial. There are various ethical reasons to consider when using animals. In addition, since human brains are different from the brains of other species in various ways, the results of animal models often do not apply to humans. Since the mini-brains develop from human cells, the results obtained from these new studies may be more reliable than current animal models.

~Sophia Hon


Researchers Create ‘Mini-Brains’ in Lab to Study Neurological Diseases

‘Mini-Brains’ Could Revolutionise Drug Research and Reduce Animal Use

Lab-Grown “Mini-Brains” Could Aid Drug Research

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Repair Stem Cell Institute

Ground Zero in Alzheimer’s Disease

February 25th, 2016 in Uncategorized 0 comments

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 1.14.07 AM

Research in Alzheimer’s disease has been prevalent in recent years and still has been flourishing until now. Recently, a new breakthrough has been discovered in the research of Alzheimer’s: the ground zero has been discovered. This ground zero is where the origin of Alzheimer’s starts and where it begins its development, in a region called the locus coerleus. The locus coerleus has its role in many of the body’s systems, such as that regarding attention, memory, and cognition function. Its main role is to produce norepinephrine, which is the neurotransmitter responsible for the fight or flight response. This locus coerleus has shown tau protein build up in its beginning stages, appearing as early as adolescence, signaling the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Although it was already known that the locus coerleus was involved in the disease, it was only recently discovered that this was the starting point of Alzheimer’s.

This new breakthrough has many implications in how we can treat Alzheimer’s and it further supports previous studies. The Nun Study, a longitudinal study that followed 678 Catholic sisters and studied whether they showed signs of Alzheimer’s disease, is an example of a preceding study that supported cognitive reserve theory. Because, as discussed before, the starting point for this disease is the locus coerleus and the main neurotransmitter released from here is norepinephrine, training the cognitive reserve by reading books and keeping the memory system working will ultimately decrease the chances of getting Alzheimer’s. Hopefully this breakthrough will result in further advances in the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease and maybe, one day, we will find a cure.

~Albert Wang


Healthy Aging and Dementia: Findings from the Nun Study

Researchers Highlight Brain Region as ‘Ground Zero’ of Alzheimer’s Disease

‘Ground Zero’ of Alzheimer’s: Locus Coeruleus Identified as Critical Starting Point of Disease

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