fMRI mind-reading of faces

Yale University researchers used brain scans to "read" and reconstruct the faces that individuals were picturing in their minds' eye. The scientists ran fMRI scans on six people as they looked at 300 different faces. Those scans enabled the creation of a database of facial features tied to specific brain response patterns. Then the subjects were shown faces they hadn't seen before. Based on the new fMRI data, a computer was able to generate good approximations of the face the subject was viewing.

“It is a form of mind reading,” said Marvin Chun, Yale professor of psychology, cognitive science and neurobiology who led the study.

The research will be published in the science journal NeuroImage, and an uncorrected proof is available here (only the abstract is free).

More in this Yale press release and Los Angeles Times article.


Brain scans reveal our mind movies? Read the rest

When the octopus says, "ouch"

Given that people are going around doing things like cutting off octopus limbs in order to understand their distributed neuron processing system, it's worth asking some questions about how octopuses perceive pain, as well. That's more complicated than you might think. As Katherine Harmon explains, it's likely that octopuses have some kind of awareness of when they're touching something unpleasant. But just how that works, and how similar it might be to the way we vertebrates understand "pain", is a big mystery. Read the rest

I am itchy. You are itchy. We're all itchy together.

Some itches are caused by obvious physical triggers (OMG, there's a spider on your arm!). Others, though, have a more complicated source. Watching other people itch can make you feel itchy. In this piece at Scientific American blogs, Scicurious explains the neurobiology behind sympathetic itching. I got four paragraphs in before I had to scratch my neck. How about you? Read the rest

Coming soon: Computer finds the face of Jesus in a photo of toast

You know how your brain likes to see faces where there are not actually any faces? (Hint: This tendency, called pareidolia, is the force behind all those faces of Jesus turning up on slices of toast.) Turns out, computer programs can suffer from pareidolia, too. (Via Alexis Madrigal) Read the rest

The beautiful shapes of neurons

I had no idea that neurons came in such a beautiful diversity of shapes. Each of these neurons has a different function, too: A. Purkinje cell B. Granule cell C. Motor neuron D. Tripolar neuron E. Pyramidal Cell F. Chandelier cell G. Spindle neuron H. Stellate cell.

The image, drawn by science journalist Ferris Jabr, comes from a post of his on the Brainwaves blog, explaining the discovery of the neuron—and the first realizations that not all neurons looked the same. It's the first part of a new series he's working on called "Know Your Neuron".

When the leading anatomists of the 19th century examined fragile nervous tissue with the best microscopes available to them, they identified cell bodies that sprouted many tangled projections. German histologist Joseph Gerlach’s observations convinced him that the fibers emerging from different cell bodies fused to form a continuous network, a seamless web known as the “reticulum.” His ideas were popular. Many researchers accepted that, unlike the heart or liver, the brain and nervous system could not be split up into distinct structural units.

In 1873, Italian physician Camillo Golgi discovered a chemical reaction that allowed him to examine nervous tissue in much greater detail than ever before. For some reason, hardening a piece of brain in potassium dichromate, and subsequently dousing it with silver nitrate, dyed only a few cell bodies and their respective projections in the tissue sample, revealing their complete structures and exact arrangement within the unstained tissue. If the reaction had stained all the neurons in a sample, Golgi would have been left with an unfathomable black blotch, as though someone had spilled a bottle of ink.

Read the rest

Killed by something that doesn't exist

Placebos have no repeatable physical effect that can be broadly demonstrated to exist. But, if people believe the placebo can help them, it often does—especially for inherently subjective issues like pain relief.

Nocebos are what happens when a placebo (again, something that technically has no physical effect on the body) causes a negative side-effect, simply because the person believes that such side-effects are likely to happen to them.

There is a lot we don't understand about both of these effects. After all, running really detailed tests would inherently involve unethical behavior—intentionally not treating patients or intentionally trying to induce a negative reaction in them. But that doesn't mean you can ignore these phenomena.

A great example comes in a recent column by Alexis Madrigal on The Atlantic. You're probably familiar with the idea of sleep paralysis—the experience of waking up, being mentally awake, but still physically paralyzed. This happens to people all over the world. And, all over the world, it's long been explained in folklore as the work of demons and evil spirits. (The fact that sleep paralysis is often accompanied by feelings of terror, and the sensation of something sitting on your chest doesn't hurt in that regard.) Normally, sleep paralysis brings a few minutes of terror, but no lasting harm. In the mid-1980s, however, it suddenly became capable of killing. The catch, the men it killed were all recent Hmong immigrants, living in the United States. Researcher Shelley Adler thinks it was actually a nocebo effect that killed these men—they believed themselves into an early grave. Read the rest

How seasonal affective disorder works

Winter is coming. And Scientific American's Bora Zivkovik has a detailed explanation of the biological basics behind seasonal affective disorder. Read the rest