Humans Wonder, Anybody Home?

Synaptic Gasp

Clues to consciousness in nonmammals: “Many people (some scientists among them) would like to believe that consciousness sets the human mind apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. But whether in humans or other creatures, behavioral signs of cognizance all arise from the tangled interactions of neurons in the brain. So a growing number of scientists contend that animals with brain structures and neural circuitry similar to humans’ might experience something like human awareness, even if a bit less sophisticated.” (Science News)


Autoimmune response to pig brain mist fells slaughterhouse workers

A human brain showing frontotemporal lobar deg...

‘Doctors at the Mayo Clinic and government public health experts have confirmed the mysterious illnesses in 24 slaughterhouse workers in Minnesota and Indiana from 2006 to 2008 was caused by an autoimmune response to a mist of pig brain tissue.

Their article was published Monday in the British medical journal Lancet Neurology. Mayo Clinic neurologist Dr. Daniel Lachance, the lead author, said it was the first comprehensive account of the outbreak and response from Mayo, the state Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This was really a kind of unique experiment of nature where an unusual form of harvesting a part of an animal was utilized and inadvertently exposed individuals through their respiratory tract or their eyes or mouth and ended up triggering an autoimmune response in their own bodies”…

The immune response attacked the nervous systems of the 21 workers in Minnesota and three in Indiana from November 2006 to May 2008, causing painful symptoms that included weakness and fatigue to confusion and seizures.

All are improving and most no longer have measurable symptoms… although two may have permanent damage.

All the patients worked in or near areas where compressed air was used to extract pig brains, which are considered a delicacy in some Asian countries. It was a rarely used process then, he said, and he knows of no slaughterhouses that still use it.’ (The Associated Press)


Keystone Neuro-Cops

autism neuroimaging study

Judging Murder with an MRI: “People are being jailed after lie-detecting brain scans find them guilty. The science is flaky, but this is just the latest instance of neuro imaging being used to ‘read’ the human mind – and even acclaimed studies are now being challenged as spurious.” (Wired via Steve Silberman).


Left brain, right brain

Human and gorilla skeleton

Interesting piece in Prospect by Matthew Taylor about how neuroscientific advances should inform political theory and help take us, as the cliche goes, “beyond left and right.” It makes sense when you think about it, as political debates usually come down to competing notions about human nature.

“Altruism makes us happy. Supportive communities create better people. Inequality and stigma rob us of potential. Good guidance helps us make wise decisions for the long term. All these seem commonsense conclusions, all are now based on evidence. They break the oppressive grip of Homo economicus on the right and the alluring but dangerous myth of human perfectibility on the left. Instead, we are left with the mission of progressive humanism; to develop practical utopias based on the good enough people we really are.”


Neuroculture – Home Page

“Increasingly, ideas, images and concepts of the neurosciences are being assimilated into global culture and becoming part of our daily discourses and practices.

Visual and digital technologies of the brain, the widespread dissemination of psychotropic drugs, expanding programs in consciousness studies and other neurotechnologies are having a significant impact on individuals and society.

These ongoing transformations in science and society are deeply pervading popular culture and are appearing in a profusion of media and artistic expanse- from the visual arts to film, theatre, novels and advertisements.

With this website, we explore and document past and current manifestations of this phenomenon and introduce an online platform for the analysis and exchange of cultural projects intersecting neuroscience, the arts and the humanities.”


This Is Your Brain on Facebook

Google Trends Facebook

“Recent studies on the effects of the internet and other new media on brain plasticity raises an open research question: Is Google making us smarter?” via Seed.

This, in contrast to the perennial spate of dire warnings, some from prominent neuroscientists, about the web making us stupider.


The human brain is on the edge of chaos

A human brain.

“Cambridge-based researchers provide new evidence that the human brain lives “on the edge of chaos”, at a critical transition point between randomness and order. The study, published March 20 in the open-access journal PLoS Computational Biology, provides experimental data on an idea previously fraught with theoretical speculation.

Self-organized criticality (where systems spontaneously organize themselves to operate at a critical point between order and randomness), can emerge from complex interactions in many different physical systems, including avalanches, forest fires, earthquakes, and heartbeat rhythms.

According to this study, conducted by a team from the University of Cambridge, the Medical Research Council Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit, and the GlaxoSmithKline Clinical Unit Cambridge, the dynamics of human brain networks have something important in common with some superficially very different systems in nature. Computational networks showing these characteristics have also been shown to have optimal memory (data storage) and information-processing capacity. In particular, critical systems are able to respond very rapidly and extensively to minor changes in their inputs.” via PhysOrg.


Prions Complicit In Alzheimer’s Disease

Amyloid plaques in Alz-
heimer’s brain tissue

This may be a blockbuster finding:

Prion protein, notorious for causing the brain-wasting mad cow and Creutzfeldt-Jakob diseases, may also be a coconspirator in Alzheimer’s disease, a new study in mice suggests.

In mad cow and Creutzfeldt-Jakob diseases, misshapen prion proteins do the damage. But the new paper, appearing February 26 in Nature, offers evidence that the harmless version of the prion protein assists the amyloid-beta protein responsible for brain cell death in Alzheimer’s disease.”

The prion protein — a role for which in the brain has been a headscratcher for neuroscientists — acts as the middleman in amyloid-beta binding to the cell membrane. This may hint at a new therapeutic strategy for Alzheimer’s prevention.

‘Get rid of the prion protein middleman, or its ability to bind A-beta oligomers, and get rid of the disease. “In many ways it may be better than addressing A-beta levels,” which are difficult to reduce completely, [one of the investigators] says.’ via Science News.


Scientists identify the neural circuitry of first impressions


‘The neuroimaging results showed significant activity in two regions of the brain during the encoding of impression-relevant information. The first, the amygdala, is a small structure in the medial temporal lobe that previously has been linked to emotional learning about inanimate objects, as well as social evaluations based on trust or race group. The second, the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), has been linked to economic decision-making and assigning subjective value to rewards. In the Nature Neuroscience study, these parts of the brain, which are implicated in value processing in a number of domains, showed increased activity when encoding information that was consistent with the impression.

“Even when we only briefly encounter others, brain regions that are important in forming evaluations are engaged, resulting in a quick first impression,” commented NYU’s Phelps.

NYU’s Schiller, the study’s lead author, concluded, “When encoding everyday social information during a social encounter, these regions sort information based on its personal and subjective significance, and summarize it into an ultimate score–a first impression.” ‘ via physorg.com.


Voodoo Hullabaloo

Ed Vul’s bombshell of a paper, Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience, is a strong indictment of the spate of studies using fMRI to localize complex brain functions, arguing that the statistical correlations between behaviors and brain activity of many social neuroscientists are spurious. It has provoked a spate of angry responses from other neuroscientists. Jonah Lehrer (Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide) interviewed Vul at Scientific American and excerpts the interview at his own weblog The Frontal Cortex.


A neuroscientist imagines the afterlife

[Image 'http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/3f/GuideToTheAfterlife-CustodianForGoddessAmun-AltesMuseum-Berlin.png/202px-GuideToTheAfterlife-CustodianForGoddessAmun-AltesMuseum-Berlin.png' cannot be displayed]
from the Egyptian Book of the Dead...

“Something interesting almost always happens when thinkers with a scientific bent write fiction. (Jonah Lehrer discusses this in “Proust Was a Neuroscientist.”) But David Eagleman really is a neuroscientist — he heads the Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine. Each vignette here describes a possible afterlife.

“There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” The afterlife is soft in one story, has “San Diego weather” in another. Not surprising, God’s favorite book is “Frankenstein,” so Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley gets her own throne.

God is a woman. God is a married couple. We are God’s internal organs. In one afterlife, you relive your life with events shuffled in a different order; for example, you take all your pain at once or spend six days clipping your nails. Another afterlife is made up of only people you know. There’s less traffic, but “The missing crowds make you lonely.” “Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives” is teeming, writhing with imagination. It’s the Duomo between covers, reinvented and distilled.” via Seattle Times.


Protein reverses Alzheimer’s brain damage

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor

“Injections of a natural growth factor into the brains of mice, rats and monkeys offers hope of preventing or reversing the earliest impacts of Alzheimer’s disease on memory. The benefits arose even in animals whose brains contained the hallmark plaques that clog up the brains of patients.

By delivering brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) directly into the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus, the parts of the brain where memories are formed then consolidated, the researchers successfully tackled damage exactly where Alzheimer’s strikes first…” via New Scientist.


The fMRI smackdown cometh

“To fully understand what happens during a brain imaging experiment you need to be able to grasp quantum physics at one end, to philosophy of mind at the other, while travelling through a sea of statistics, neurophysiology and psychology. Needless to say, very few, if any scientists can do this on their own.

So the first strand involves how brain imaging experiments are reported in the media. Under the sheer weight of conceptual strain, journalists panic, and do this: “Brain's adventure centre located”.

It's a story published this morning on the BBC News website based on an interesting fMRI study looking at brain activity associated with participants choosing a novel option in a simple gambling task. But out of the four words of the headline, only the first is accurate.

And this leads to the second strand of the debate, which, until recently, has been largely conducted away from the media's gaze, amongst the people doing cognitive science themselves.

It starts with this simple question: what is fMRI measuring?”

via Mind Hacks.


Rubber hand feels real for amputees

nitrile glove

“…Swedish researchers show that a simple illusion can induce amputees to experience a rubber hand as their own, so that tactile stimuli directed to it produce sensations which are localized to their missing limbs. The study, which is published in an open access paper in the journal Brain, is therefore an important step towards the development of neuroprostheses which feel like real limbs.”

via Neurophilosophy.


101 Fascinating Brain Blogs

A sketch of the human brain by artist Priyan W...

“Whether you are a specialist in the field of neuropsychology or just love reading about how the human brain works, there are plenty of interesting blogs on the Internet to help you find out more. In order to make it easier to for you to discover great blogs, the following list is categorized for easy browsing. With blogs by psychiatrists, scientists, psychologist, and even those dealing with mental disorders, you will find many thoughtful and thought-provoking blogs to keep your brain stimulated.”

via Online Education Database.


Immaculate perception (or: It’s All in Your Head)

“It had to happen really. After years of religious images seeming to appear in windows, cement, trees and even toast, someone’s ‘identified’ an image of the Virgin Mary in a brain scan.

And from the look of the scan, the Holy Virgin has decided to make a divine appearance in the upper tip of the cerebellum.

Inevitably, the scan is being auctioned off on EBay, although at least on this occasion it’s to help pay for the uninsured patient who has racked up huge bills due to her having the misfortune of being ill.”

via Mind Hacks.