Brain's "reward system" also tied to sleep-wake states

According to Stanford University researchers, a primary circuit in the brain's reward involving the chemical "feel-good" chemical dopamine, is also essential for controlling our sleep-wake cycles.

“Insomnia, a multibillion-dollar market for pharmaceutical companies, has traditionally been treated with drugs such as benzodiazepines that nonspecifically shut down the entire brain," says psychiatry and behavior science professor Luis de Lecea "Now we see the possibility of developing therapies that, by narrowly targeting this newly identified circuit, could induce much higher-quality sleep.”

From Stanford:

It makes intuitive sense that the reward system, which motivates goal-directed behaviors such as fleeing from predators or looking for food, and our sleep-wake cycle would coordinate with one another at some point. You can’t seek food in your sleep, unless you’re an adept sleepwalker. Conversely, getting out of bed is a lot easier when you’re excited about the day ahead of you...

The reward system’s circuitry is similar in all vertebrates, from fish, frogs and falcons to fishermen and fashion models. A chemical called dopamine plays a crucial role in firing up this circuitry.

Neuroscientists know that a particular brain structure, the ventral tegmental area, or VTA, is the origin of numerous dopamine-secreting nerve fibers that run in discrete tracts to many different parts of the brain. A plurality of these fibers go to the nucleus accumbens, a forebrain structure particularly implicated in generating feelings of pleasure in anticipation of, or response to, obtaining a desired objective.

“Since many reward-circuit-activating drugs such as amphetamines that work by stimulating dopamine secretion also keep users awake, it’s natural to ask if dopamine plays a key role in the sleep-wake cycle as well as in reward,” Eban-Rothschild said.

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Thought-controlled nanorobots in your body

A team of Israeli scientists devised a system by which a person can use their thoughts alone to trigger tiny DNA-based nanorobots inside a living creature to release a drug.

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Why did it take a private foundation to do public science right?

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen funded the Allen Brain Observatory, a detailed, rich data-set derived from parts of a mouse-brain: what's striking is that the Allen Institute released all the data into the public domain, at once, as soon as it was available, which is exactly what you'd want the publicly funded alternatives to do, and what they almost never do. Read the rest

Study confirms a physical correlate to PTSD: "brown dust" in the brain

Since WWI, doctors have speculated that PTSD's underlying cause was some sort of physical damage caused by blast-waves from bombs, which literally shook loose something important in the brains of sufferers. Read the rest

Neural Dust: tiny wireless implants act as "electroceuticals" for your brain

UC Berkeley researchers are developing "Neural Dust," tiny wireless sensors for implanting in the brain, muscles, and intestines that could someday be used to control prosthetics or a "electroceuticals" to treat epilepsy or fire up the immune system. So far, they've tested a 3 millimeter long version of the device in rats.

“I think the long-term prospects for neural dust are not only within nerves and the brain, but much broader,“ says researcher Michel Maharbiz. “Having access to in-body telemetry has never been possible because there has been no way to put something supertiny superdeep. But now I can take a speck of nothing and park it next to a nerve or organ, your GI tract or a muscle, and read out the data."

Maharbiz, neuroengineer Jose Carmena, and their colleagues published their latest results on "Wireless Recording in the Peripheral Nervous System with Ultrasonic Neural Dust" in the journal Neuron.

From UC Berkeley:

While the experiments so far have involved the peripheral nervous system and muscles, the neural dust motes could work equally well in the central nervous system and brain to control prosthetics, the researchers say. Today’s implantable electrodes degrade within 1 to 2 years, and all connect to wires that pass through holes in the skull. Wireless sensors – dozens to a hundred – could be sealed in, avoiding infection and unwanted movement of the electrodes.

“The original goal of the neural dust project was to imagine the next generation of brain-machine interfaces, and to make it a viable clinical technology,” said neuroscience graduate student Ryan Neely.

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Scientist uses magic (and psychology) to implant thoughts and read minds

In a new scientific study, McGill University researcher Jay Olson combined stage magic with psychology to make people think that an fMRI machine (actually a fake) could read their minds and implant thoughts in their heads. Essentially, Olson and his colleagues used "mentalist" gimmicks to do the ESP and "thought insertion" but convinced the subjects that it was real neuroscience at work. The research could someday help psychologists study and understand why some individuals with mental health problems think they are being controlled by external forces. Vaughan "Mind Hacks" Bell blogged about Olson's research for the British Psychological Society. From Vaughan's post:

(The subjects) reported a range of anomalous effects when they thought numbers were being "inserted" into their minds: A number “popped in” my head, reported one participant. Others described “a voice … dragging me from the number that already exists in my mind”, feeling “some kind of force”, feeling “drawn” to a number, or the sensation of their brain getting “stuck” on one number. All a striking testament to the power of suggestion.

A common finding in psychology is that people can be unaware of what influences their choices. In other words, people can feel control without having it. Here, by using the combined powers of stage magic and a sciency-sounding back story, Olson and his fellow researchers showed the opposite – that people can have control without feeling it.

"Using a cocktail of magic and fMRI, psychologists implanted thoughts in people's minds" (BPS)

"Simulated thought insertion: Influencing the sense of agency using deception and magic" (Consciousness and Cognition)

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Blow half of your mind with this explainer on brain hemispheres

CGP Grey explains that it might be better to think of your brain as two intelligences, with the mute right hemisphere forced to play sidekick to its conjoined twin.

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The mind-blowing neuroscience of hacking your dreams

Moran Cerf, a pen-testing bank-robber turned horribly misunderstood neuroscientist (previously, previously) gets to do consensual, cutting-edge science on the exposed brains of people with epilepsy while they're having brain surgery. Read the rest

Brainjacking: the future of software security for neural implants

In a new scientific review paper published in World Neurosurgery, a group of Oxford neurosurgeons and scientists round up a set of dire, terrifying warnings about the way that neural implants are vulnerable to networked attacks. Read the rest

The woman who can see 100 times more colors than you can

Concetta Antico, who made the paintings above and below, is an artist known for being a tetrachromat, meaning a genetic difference in her eyes enables her to see approximately 100 times more colors than an average person. "I see colors you cannot perceive or imagine," Antico says. (Previous BB posts about Antico here and here.)

While the vast majority of peoples' eyes contain three kinds of cone sensitive to different wavelengths of light, tetrachromats have four. Apparently the genetic difference isn't very rare, but only a tiny fraction of those who have it actually develop unique perception. Why? UC Irvine researcher Kimberly Jameson and University of Nevada's Alissa Winkler studied Antico, another tetrachromat, and an artist with regular vision. From David Robson's article at BBC Future:

The experiment tested the participants’ sensitivity to different levels of "luminance! at certain wavelengths of light; put simply, with Antico’s eye’s extra cone, she should be picking up more light, meaning that she could see very subtle differences in the brightness of certain shades. Sure enough, Antico proved to be more sensitive than the average person, particularly when looking at reddish tones – a finding that perfectly matched the predictions from her genetic test.

As Jameson had suspected, Antico also performed much better than the other potential tetrachromat who was not an artist – supporting the idea that her colour training had been crucial for the development of her abilities.

Using these results, Jameson then reconstructed some photos to give us a better idea of the way the world may look to Antico.

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OpenBCI brain-sensing headset

OpenBCI is an open-source brain computer interface that had a successful Kickstarter a couple of years ago. They are back with a $99 biodata acquisition device and a 3D-printed, brain-sensing headset. They look cool!

The OpenBCI Ganglion is a high-quality, affordable bio-sensing device. On the input side, there are 4 high-impedance differential inputs, a driven ground (DRL), a positive voltage supply (Vdd), and a negative voltage supply (Vss). The inputs can be used as individual differential inputs for measuring EMG or ECG, or they can be individually connected to a reference electrode for measuring EEG.

We are using a Simblee for our on-board microcontroller and wireless connection. Simblee is RF Digital’s next generation Arduino-compatible radio module. It is smaller, cheaper, and more robust than the RFDuino, which we have been using on our OpenBCI 32bit Boards and USB Dongles. The new Simblee provides user programmable flash, 29 GPIO pins, and the ability to update software over the air (OTA). Every Ganglion will be pre-programmed with versatile firmware so you can get started sensing your body right out of the box. We will also break-out up to 20 of the GPIOs for you to hack with.

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The first drawings of neurons

In 1837, Italian physician Camilo Golgi devised a reaction to stain the wispy dendrites and axons of neurons, making it possible to see brain cells in situ. In 1875, he published his first scientific drawing made possibly by his chemical reaction, seen here. It's an illustration of the never fibers, gray matter, and other components of a dog's olfactory bulb. "The First Neuron Drawings, 1870s" (The Scientist) Read the rest

Reality check: we know nothing whatsoever about simulating human brains

In the EU and the USA, high-profile, high-budget programs are underway to simulate a human brain. While these produce some pretty pictures of simulations, they don't display much rigor or advancement of our understanding of how brains work. Read the rest

It's not AI until a robot can take an acid trip

In "Beyond Zero and One," neuroscientist Andrew Smart investigates the relationship of hallucinations to consciousness, and raises some provocative and cool questions about how this relates to AI: Read the rest

Take an interactive look inside an anxious brain with Neurotic Neurons

What our brains learn, they can also unlearn—including what makes us anxious. That's the idea behind Neurotic Neurons, an interactive work by Nicky Case that explores the neuroscience of anxiety, and particularly the theory of Hebbian learning, wherein "neurons that fire together, wire together" and create associations in the mind. Read the rest

Blindsight: weird phenomenon deepens the mystery of consciousness

Blindsight is a strange phenomenon that sometimes occurs when people have lost sight due to visual cortex damage but still respond to visual stimuli outside of their conscious awareness. New research into blindsight is offering clues, and even more riddles, about how we can "pay attention" outside of what we historically have considered conscious thought. From David Robson's fascinating article in BBC Future:

One of the first tasks (in a recent research effort) was to test exactly what blindsight patients are capable of without their conscious visual awareness – and the results have been quite remarkable. Of particular interest has been the fact that they can sense emotion: when presented with faces, they can tell whether it is happy or sad, angry or surprised, and they even start to unconsciously mimic the expressions. “Even though they did not report anything at a conscious level, we could show a change in attitude, a synchronisation of emotional expressions to the pictures in their blind field,” says (Tilburg University scientist Marco) Tamietto...

Besides mirroring expressions, they also show physiological signs of stress when they see a picture of a frightened face...

In 2008, Tamietto and (blindsight research pioneer Lawrence) Weiskrantz’s team put another blindsight patient through the most gruelling test yet... He was blind across the whole of his visual field, and normally walked with a white cane. But the team took away his cane and then loaded a corridor with furniture that might potentially trip him up, before asking him make his way to the other side.

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What mentally ill animals can teach humans

An increasing amount of scientific evidence suggests that animals, from chimpanzees to coyotes to parrots, can suffer from the same mental illnesses as humans. Understanding the biology behind animal depression, OCD, and PTSD could provide insight into why people suffer from mental illness and how these conditions evolved. From BBC Earth:

In a 2011 study, scientists found signs of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in chimpanzees that had been used in laboratory research, orphaned, trapped by snares, or been part of illegal trade.

Stressful events can even leave marks on animals' genes. In 2014, researchers found that African grey parrots that were housed alone suffered more genetic damage than parrots that were housed in pairs...

"All you can do with animals is to observe them," says (University of Mississippi neurogenetics researcher Eric) Vallender. "Imagine if you could study mental disorders in humans only by observing them. It would be really hard to tell what's going on in their brain."

Faced with these obstacles, scientists have begun looking at animals' genes.

"A lot of mental disorders can be quite different. But what we do know is that they have a very, very strong genetic component to them," says Jess Nithianantharajah of the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne, Australia.

All mental disorders, from depression to schizophrenia, involve abnormal behaviours. Those behaviours are influenced by genes just like other behaviours.

So the idea is to identify genes that can cause abnormal behaviours in humans and other animals. By tracing the origins of these genes, we can trace the origins of mental disorders.

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