176 posts tagged Neuroscience
read of the day: A Fundamental Theory to Model the Mind
In 1999, the Danish physicist Per Bak proclaimed to a group of neuroscientists that it had taken him only 10 minutes to determine where the field had gone wrong. Perhaps the brain was less complicated than they thought, he said. Perhaps, he said, the brain worked on the same fundamental principles as a simple sand pile, in which avalanches of various sizes help keep the entire system stable overall — a process he dubbed “self-organized criticality.” As much as scientists in other fields adore outspoken, know-it-all physicists, Bak’s audacious idea — that the brain’s ordered complexity and thinking ability arise spontaneously from the disordered electrical activity of neurons — did not meet with immediate acceptance. But over time, in fits and starts, Bak’s radical argument has grown into a legitimate scientific discipline. Now, about 150 scientists worldwide investigate so-called “critical” phenomena in the brain, the topic of at least three focused workshops in 2013 alone. Add the ongoing efforts to found a journal devoted to such studies, and you have all the hallmarks of a field moving from the fringes of disciplinary boundaries to the mainstream.
Move over focus groups. Neuroscience-based research from Innocean seeks to uncover what people really like (and seemingly reveals that, sometimes, people love brands more than people). In this age of easily shared hyper-hyperbole, where everything is the most amazing, the absolute worst, or the most squee-worthy, to hear someone decree their love for a brand is no big thing. But do people really, truly love certain brands? And if they do, is it possible for someone to love brands as much or more than loved ones? And is what we say we love the same as what our brain shows we love? These provocative questions are among those that agency Innocean sought to explore with its Brand Love study, an experiment conducted with neuroscientist Dr. Paul Zak that tests physiological responses to determine what people like. Intended as an experiment to help the agency get a better understanding of how people respond to advertising, the study has yielded some interesting results. Namely, that in some instances, people do in fact express stronger love for their favored brands than for their chosen loved one.
NERRI (Neuro-Enhancement: Responsible Research and Innovation) is a three-year project supported by the European Commission under the 7th Framework Programme which aims to contribute to the introduction of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) in neuro-enhancement (NE) in the European Area and to shape a normative framework underpinning the governance of neuro-enhancement technologies. The project will involve different stakeholders and will promote a broad societal dialogue about neuro-enhancement. This will be achieved through mobilization and mutual learning (MML) activities such as interviews and workshops engaging scientists, policy-makers, industry, civil society groups, patients and the wider public. The project will also develop an Analytic Classification of neuro-enhancement technologies into currently available methods, experimental and hypothetical technologies.
Let’s say Martians land on the Earth and wish to understand more about humans. Someone hands them a copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare and says: “When you understand what’s in there, you will understand everything important about us.” The Martians set to work – they allocate vast resources to recording every detail of this great tome until eventually they know where every “e”, every “a”, every “t” is on every page. They remain puzzled, and return to Earth. “We have completely characterised this book,” they say, “but we still aren’t sure we really understand you people at all.” The problem is that characterising a language is not the same as understanding it, and this is the problem faced by brain researchers too. Neurons (brain cells) use language of a kind, a “code”, to communicate with each other, and we can tap into that code by listening to their “chatter” as they fire off tiny bursts of electricity (nerve impulses). We can record this chatter and document all its properties. We can also determine the location of every single neuron and all of its connections and its chemical messengers. Having done this, though, we still will not understand how the brain works. To understand a code we need to anchor that code to the real world.
The neurochemistry of power has implications for political change
Power, especially absolute and unchecked power, is intoxicating. Its effects occur at the cellular and neurochemical level. They are manifested behaviourally in a variety of ways, ranging from heightened cognitive functions to lack of inhibition, poor judgement, extreme narcissism, perverted behaviour, and gruesome cruelty. The primary neurochemical involved in the reward of power that is known today is dopamine, the same chemical transmitter responsible for producing a sense of pleasure. Power activates the very same reward circuitry in the brain and creates an addictive “high” in much the same way as drug addiction. Like addicts, most people in positions of power will seek to maintain the high they get from power, sometimes at all costs. When withheld, power – like any highly addictive agent – produces cravings at the cellular level that generate strong behavioural opposition to giving it up. In accountable societies, checks and balances exist to avoid the inevitable consequences of power. Yet, in cases where leaders possess absolute and unchecked power, changes in leadership and transitions to more consensus-based rule are unlikely to be smooth. Gradual withdrawal of absolute power is the only way to ensure that someone will be able to accept relinquishing it. (via The neurochemistry of power has implications for political change)
Neuroscientists monitor inhibitory neurons that link sense of smell with memory and cognition in mice, shaping perception from experiences
Odors have a way of connecting us with moments buried deep in our past. But researchers have long wondered how the process works in reverse: how do our memories shape the way sensory information is collected? In work published in Nature Neuroscience, scientists from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) demonstrate for the first time a way to observe this process in awake animals. The team, led by Assistant Professor Stephen Shea, was able to measure the activity of a group of inhibitory neurons that links the odor-sensing area of the brain with brain areas responsible for thought and cognition. This connection provides feedback so that memories and experiences can alter the way smells are interpreted. The inhibitory neurons that forge the link are known as granule cells. They are found in the core of the olfactory bulb, the area of the mouse brain responsible for receiving odor information from the nose. Granule cells in the olfactory bulb receive inputs from areas deep within the brain involved in memory formation and cognition. Granule cells relay the information they receive from neurons involved in memory and cognition back to the olfactory bulb. There, the granule cells inhibit the neurons that receive sensory inputs. In this way, “the granule cells provide a way for the brain to ‘talk’ to the sensory information as it comes in,” explains Shea. “You can think of these cells as conduits which allow experiences to shape incoming data.” Why might an animal want to inhibit or block out specific parts of a stimulus, like an odor? Every scent is made up of hundreds of different chemicals, and “granule cells might help animals to emphasize the important components of complex mixtures,” says Shea. For example, an animal might have learned through experience to associate a particular scent, such as a predator’s urine, with danger. But each encounter with the smell is likely to be different. Maybe it is mixed with the smell of pine on one occasion and seawater on another. Granule cells provide the brain with an opportunity to filter away the less important odors and to focus sensory neurons only on the salient part of the stimulus. Now that it is possible to measure the activity of granule cells in awake animals, Shea and his team are eager to look at how sensory information changes when the expectations and memories associated with an odor change. “The interplay between a stimulus and our expectations is truly the merger of ourselves with the world. It exciting to see just how the brain mediates that interaction,” says Shea. This work was supported by the Klingenstein fellowship and a fellowship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
What is consciousness and how can a brain, a mere collection of neurons, create it? Michael Graziano, on the neuroscience faculty at Princeton University, is developing a theoretical and experimental approach to these questions. The theory begins with the ability to attribute awareness to others. The human brain has a complex circuitry that allows it to be socially intelligent. One function of this circuitry is to attribute a state of awareness to others: to build the intuition that person Y is aware of thing X. In Graziano’s hypothesis, the machinery that attributes awareness to others also helps attribute the property to oneself. The theory also draws on the relationship between awareness and attention (the brain’s data-handling method of focusing resources on a limited set of signals). Awareness may act as though it were the brain’s cartoon sketch of its own state of attention. That cartoon sketch is sometimes inaccurate, and it is those moments of inaccuracy — when awareness and attention become dissociated — that reveal most about the underlying mechanisms. Through these perspectives Graziano hopes to understand awareness and consciousness as part of the information-processing toolkit used by brains. One possible ultimate benefit from this type of research, perhaps decades in the future, is an artificial intelligence that has the human-like social capability to attribute awareness to itself and to others – a machine that understands what it means to have a mind.
Many have written of the experience of mathematical beauty as being comparable to that derived from the greatest art. This makes it interesting to learn whether the experience of beauty derived from such a highly intellectual and abstract source as mathematics correlates with activity in the same part of the emotional brain as that derived from more sensory, perceptually based, sources. To determine this, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to image the activity in the brains of 15 mathematicians when they viewed mathematical formulae which they had individually rated as beautiful, indifferent or ugly. Results showed that the experience of mathematical beauty correlates parametrically with activity in the same part of the emotional brain, namely field A1 of the medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC), as the experience of beauty derived from other sources.
THIS: -> Your Brain in Love
Cupid’s arrows, laced with neurotransmitters, find their marks
Men and women can now thank a dozen brain regions for their romantic fervor. Researchers have revealed the fonts of desire by comparing functional MRI studies of people who indicated they were experiencing passionate love, maternal love or unconditional love. Together, the regions release neurotransmitters and other chemicals in the brain and blood that prompt greater euphoric sensations such as attraction and pleasure. Conversely, psychiatrists might someday help individuals who become dangerously depressed after a heartbreak by adjusting those chemicals. Passion also heightens several cognitive functions, as the brain regions and chemicals surge. “It’s all about how that network interacts,” says Stephanie Ortigue, an assistant professor of psychology at Syracuse University, who led the study. The cognitive functions, in turn, “are triggers that fully activate the love network.” Tell that to your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day. (via Your Brain in Love - Scientific American)