Swiss scientists grew mini Neanderthal brains in petri dishes

Researchers at the Institute of Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology in Basel, Switzerland have attempted to isolate the Neanderthal DNA from certain human stem cells. A leader on the project, Grayson Camp, had already performed a similar experiment using chimpanzee stem cells, to get a better understanding of the differences between chimp and human brains.

Their research, titled "Human Stem Cell Resources Are an Inroad to Neandertal DNA Functions," was published on June 18, 2020, and began with analyzing genome data to identify the stem cells most likely to still carry Neanderthal DNA (which, as I've just now learned, mostly persists among Northern Europeans). From there, according to CNN:

The team then grew brain organoids — 3D blobs of brain tissue just a few millimeters wide and only just visible to the naked eye — from these cells by nurturing them in a petri dish with a growth factor.

Organoids, which can mimic in a rudimentary way many human organs, can be used to test the specific effects of drugs safely outside the body, something that has revolutionized and personalized areas such as cancer treatment.

"Researchers have of course generated and analyzed organoids from human cells before, just no one had ever bothered to look at what the Neanderthal DNA might be doing," Camp said.

Camp made certain to clarify that these were not fully functional Neanderthal brains — they were still, technically, human cells, just ones that contained Neanderthal DNA. Which is definitely different from Jurassic Park, he insists, although I'm pretty sure that pseudoscience also relied on isolating the leftover DNA that remained in the modern descendents of certain extinct lifeforms. Read the rest

What near-death experiences can tell scientists about how the brain works

Floating out of your body and looking down on it. The story of your life flashing by before your eyes. Seeing a bright light at the end of a dark tunnel. These are just two of the most common experiences that people report after a near-death experience (NDE). For some people, NDEs are a transformative spiritual or mystical experience. But what's the source of the phenomena? That's a question that fascinates Dr. Christof Koch is president and chief scientist of the Allen Institute for Brain Science who studies the neuroscience of consciousness. In Scientific American, Koch surveys the science of near-death experiences and what they can tell us about how our brains work under extreme duress. From Scientific American:

Modern death requires irreversible loss of brain function. When the brain is starved of blood flow (ischemia) and oxygen (anoxia), the patient faints in a fraction of a minute and his or her electroencephalogram, or EEG, becomes isoelectric—in other words, flat. This implies that large-scale, spatially distributed electrical activity within the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain, has broken down. Like a town that loses power one neighborhood at a time, local regions of the brain go offline one after another. The mind, whose substrate is whichever neurons remain capable of generating electrical activity, does what it always does: it tells a story shaped by the person’s experience, memory and cultural expectations.

Given these power outages, this experience may produce the rather strange and idiosyncratic stories that make up the corpus of NDE reports.

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The "psychobiome" is bacteria in your gut that affects how you think and act

An array of scientific evidence suggest that in some cases, the bacteria in your gut–your microbiome–could be tied to neurological and psychological disorders and differences, from anxiety and autism to Parkinson's and schizophrenia. The journal Science published a survey of the field and the Cambridge, Massachusetts start-up Holobiome that hopes to use insight into this "psychobiome" to develop treatments for depression, insomnia, and other conditions with a neurological side to them. From Science:

For example, many people with irritable bowel syndrome are also depressed, people on the autism spectrum tend to have digestive problems, and people with Parkinson’s are prone to constipation.

Researchers have also noticed an increase in depression in people taking antibiotics—but not antiviral or antifungal medications that leave gut bacteria unharmed. Last year, Jeroen Raes, a microbiologist at the Catholic University of Leuven, and colleagues analyzed the health records of two groups—one Belgian, one Dutch—of more then 1000 people participating in surveys of their types of gut bacteria. People with depression had deficits of the same two bacterial species, the authors reported in April 2019 in Nature Microbiology.

Researchers see ways in which gut microbes could influence the brain. Some may secrete messenger molecules that travel though the blood to the brain. Other bacteria may stimulate the vagus nerve, which runs from the base of the brain to the organs in the abdomen. Bacterial molecules might relay signals to the vagus through recently discovered “neuropod” cells that sit in the lining of the gut, sensing its biochemical milieu, including microbial compounds.

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A neuroscientist's take on synthetic telepathy, electrified ESP, and mind control

Telepathy. ESP. The ability to communicate thoughts, feelings, or experiences without using our known sensory channels is a timeless superpower. Soon, advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, and computer science will make some kinds of synthetic telepathy possible. Meanwhile though, methods to treat brain disorders through magnetic stimulation of brain circuits could enable crude (or eventually not-so-crude) mind control. National Institutes of Health neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields -- author of Electric Brain: How the New Science of Brainwaves Reads Minds, Tells Us How We Learn, and Helps Us Change for the Better -- wrote a brief essay for Scientific American surveying the present, past, and possible future of this strange field. From Scientific American:

Neuroscientist Marcel Just and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University are using fMRI brain imaging to decipher what a person is thinking. By using machine learning to analyze complex patterns of activity in a person’s brain when they think of a specific number or object, read a sentence, experience a particular emotion or learn a new type of information, the researchers can read minds and know the person’s specific thoughts and emotions. “Nothing is more private than a thought,” Just says, but that privacy is no longer sacrosanct....

...The prospect of “mind control” frightens many, and brain stimulation to modify behavior and treat mental illness has a sordid history. In the 1970s neuropsychologist Robert Heath at Tulane University inserted electrodes into a homosexual man’s brain to “cure” him of his homosexual nature by stimulating his brain’s pleasure center.

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US Customs seized a human brain on its way from Toronto to Wisconsin

US Customs and Border Protection seized a human brain that was part of an international mail shipment from Canada to the United States. They discovered the brain during an inspection at Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron, Michigan, US and Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. The brain was on its way from Toronto to Kenosha, Wisconsin. From Fox5NY:

During the routine mail operation, they say they came across a shipment manifested as an "Antique Teaching Specimen..."

The brain specimen is being investigated by the CDC for any potential infectious biological agents, infectious substances, and a decision on what to do with the specimen.

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The secrets within a 2,600-year-old preserved brain of a decapitated man

Back around 500 BCE or so in what is now York, U.K, a gentleman was decapitated for who-knows-why and his head quickly buried. To the amazement of the archaeologists who dug up the skull in 2008, the cranium still contained a well-preserved brain. According to University of London neurologist Axel Petzold and his colleagues, understanding how the tissue has survived for more than 2,500 years may lead to new methods for extracting valuable information from ancient tissue. From Science:

Using several molecular techniques to examine the remaining tissue, the researchers figured out that two structural proteins—which act as the “skeletons” of neurons and astrocytes—were more tightly packed in the ancient brain. In a yearlong experiment, they found that these aggregated proteins were also more stable than those in modern-day brains. In fact, the ancient protein clumps may have helped preserve the structure of the soft tissue for ages..

The research also could provide insight into protein-based neurological diseases like Alzheimer's and dementia.

"Protein aggregate formation permits millennium-old brain preservation" (Journal of the Royal Society Interface) Read the rest

Sadistic jerks delivered strobing images to the Epilepsy Foundation's Twitter followers

Last month, some assholes posted strobing images to Twitter with mentions of the Epilepsy Foundation's username and epilepsy-related hashtags, potentially triggering seizures in followers of the account who have photosensitive epilepsy. What a wonderful way to celebrate National Epilepsy Awareness Month. From CNN:

The Foundation identified at least 30 different accounts participating in the calculated action, Allison Nichol, the Epilepsy Foundation's director of legal advocacy told CNN. The Foundation was not able to say how many people were affected by the attacks.

The Foundation said it has filed criminal complaints with law enforcement and will cooperate with them to ensure the attackers "are held fully accountable."

People with photosensitive epilepsy are sensitive to flashing lights or particular visual patterns that may trigger seizures, the Epilepsy Foundation says.

"While the population of those with photosensitive epilepsy is small, the impact can be quite serious. Many are not even aware they have photosensitivity until they have a seizure," Jacqueline French, chief medical and innovation officer of the Epilepsy Foundation said in a statement.

image: detail of "Generalized 3 Hz spike and wave discharges in a child with childhood absence epilepsy" by Der Lange (CC BY-SA 2.0) Read the rest

People with half a brain. Literally.

For some children with severe epilepsy, the best treatment may be a very rare surgical procedure in which a large portion -- even half -- of the child's brain is removed or disconnected. Amazingly, many of these individuals can relearn motor, language, and cognitive skills. How? The brain reorganizes itself and builds new connections. To better understand this incredible process, and hopefully inform new interventions and rehabilitation, Caltech neuroscientists conducted brain scans on six adults "all of whom received the surgeries as children and now have relatively normal cognitive abilities." From Caltech:

"Despite missing an entire brain hemisphere, we found all the same major brain networks that you find in healthy brains with two hemispheres," says Dorit Kliemann, lead author of the new report and a postdoctoral scholar who works in the laboratory of Ralph Adolphs (PhD '93), the Bren Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Biology, and the director of the Caltech Brain Imaging Center.

The brain scans also revealed an increased number of connections between the brain networks in the patients compared to healthy individuals. For example, the regions in the patients' brains that control the function of walking appeared to be communicating more with the regions that control talking than what is typically observed.

"It appears that the networks are collaborating more," says Kliemann. "The networks themselves do not look abnormal in these patients, but the level of connections between the networks is increased in all six patients...."

Says Kliemann, "It's truly amazing what these patients can do.

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Incredible ultra-high resolution 3D brain scan from 100 hour MRI

More than 100 hours of MIR scanning has generated an image of a whole human brain with unprecedented level of detail. Massachusetts General Hospital researchers and their colleagues used a 7 Tesla MRI machine, recently approved by the FDA, to scan the donated brain from a 58-year-old-woman. The image shows detail down to .1 millimeter. From Science News:

Before the scan began, researchers built a custom spheroid case of urethane that held the brain still and allowed interfering air bubbles to escape. Sturdily encased, the brain then went into a powerful MRI machine called a 7 Tesla, or 7T, and stayed there for almost five days of scanning...

Researchers can’t get the same kind of resolution on brains of living people. For starters, people couldn’t tolerate a 100-hour scan. And even tiny movements, such as those that come from breathing and blood flow, would blur the images...

These (new kinds of) detailed brain images could hold clues for researchers trying to pinpoint hard-to-see brain abnormalities involved in disorders such as comas and psychiatric conditions such as depression.

"7 Tesla MRI of the ex vivo human brain at 100 micron resolution" (bioRxiv.org) Read the rest

Simone Giertz repurposes her radiation therapy mask

Phenomenal maker Simone Giertz shares some of her battle with her brain tumor and makes a great lamp out of her radiation mask.

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Humans have a sixth sense for Earth's magnetic field

A new study suggests that humans can subconsciously sense Earth's magnetic field. While this capability, called magnetoreception, is well known in birds and fish, there is now evidence that our brains are also sensitive to magnetic fields. The researchers from Caltech and the University of Tokyo measured the brainwaves of 26 participants who were exposed to magnetic fields that could be manipulated. Interestingly, the brainwaves were not affected by upward-pointing fields. From Science News:

Participants in this study, who all hailed from the Northern Hemisphere, should perceive downward-pointing magnetic fields as natural, whereas upward fields would constitute an anomaly, the researchers argue. Magnetoreceptive animals are known to shut off their internal compasses when encountering weird fields, such as those caused by lightning, which might lead the animals astray. Northern-born humans may similarly take their magnetic sense “offline” when faced with strange, upward-pointing fields...

Even accounting for which magnetic changes the brain picks up, researchers still don’t know what our minds might use that information for, (Caltech neurobiologist and geophysicist Joseph) Kirschvink says. Another lingering mystery is how, exactly, our brains detect Earth’s magnetic field. According to the researchers, the brain wave patterns uncovered in this study may be explained by sensory cells containing a magnetic mineral called magnetite, which has been found in magnetoreceptive trout as well as in the human brain.

"Transduction of the Geomagnetic Field as Evidenced from Alpha-band Activity in the Human Brain" (eNeuro)

"Evidence for a Human Geomagnetic Sense" (Caltech) Read the rest

Where does consciousness come from?

"Consciousness is what allows us to be aware of both our surroundings and our own inner state." In the first of a three part video series, "Kruzgesagt - In a Nutshell" examines "how unaware things come aware." Stay tuned for theories of consciousness that of course may be as much about philosophy as they are neuroscience.

Sources here.

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Scientific tips on how to cram for an exam

ASAP Science provides some excellent tips for intensive, last-minute studying of just about any subject where you need to remember a lot of information. The video covers a lot of ground, from memory palaces and cortisol to metacognition to other things I can't remember because I didn't study enough.

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Brain-zapping implants that change mood and lift depression

Teams of researchers are developing sesame seed-size neuro-implants that detect brain activity that signals depression and then deliver targeted electrical zaps to elevate your mood. It's very early days in the science and technology but recent studies suggest that we're on the path. Links to scientific papers below. Fortunately, the goal is to develop tools and a methodology more precise than the horrifically blunt "shock therapy" of last century. From Science News:

DARPA, a Department of Defense research agency, is funding (Massachusetts General Hospital's research on new brain stimulation methods) plus work at UCLA on targeted brain stimulation. Now in its fifth and final year, the (DARPA) project, called SUBNETS, aims to help veterans with major depression, post-traumatic stress, anxiety and other psychiatric problems. “It is extremely frustrating for patients to not know why they feel the way they do and to not be able to correct it,” Justin Sanchez, the director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, said in a Nov. 30 statement. “We owe them and their families better options.”

These next-generation systems, primarily being developed at UCSF and Massachusetts General Hospital, might ultimately deliver. After detecting altered brain activity that signals a looming problem, these devices, called closed-loop stimulators, would intervene electrically with what their inventors hope is surgical precision.

In contrast to the UCSF group, Widge, who is at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and his collaborators don’t focus explicitly on mood. The researchers want to avoid categorical diagnoses such as depression, which they argue can be imprecise.

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The neuroscience of creativity (and yes, right brain/left brain is mostly bullshit)

Anna Abraham literally wrote the book on creativity and the brain. The Leeds Beckett University psychology professor is the author of a new textbook titled The Neuroscience of Creativity. From an interview with Abraham by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman in Scientific American:

SBK: Why does the myth of the “creative right brain” still persist? Is there any truth at all to this myth?

AA: Like most persistent myths, even if some seed of truth was associated with the initial development of the idea, the claim so stated amounts to a lazy generalization and is incorrect. The brain’s right hemisphere is not a separate organ whose workings can be regarded in isolation from that of the left hemisphere in most human beings. It is also incorrect to conclude that the left brain is uncreative. In fact even the earliest scholars who explored the brain lateralization in relation to creativity emphasized the importance of both hemispheres. Indeed this is what was held to be unique about creativity compared to other highly lateralized psychological functions. In an era which saw the uncovering of the dominant involvement of one hemisphere over the other for many functions, and the left hemisphere received preeminent status for its crucial role in complex functions like language, a push against the tide by emphasizing the need to also recognize the importance of the right hemisphere for complex functions like creativity somehow got translated over time into the only ‘creative right brain’ meme. It is the sort of thing that routinely happens when crafting accessible sound bites to convey scientific findings.

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Wonderful video of teen with Tourette's cooking an omelette

Ryleigh is a teenager with Tourette Syndrome who makes absolutely wonderful videos like the one below that she hopes will "spread awareness about Tourettes as well as joy and laughter." See more of her clips at Tourettes Teen!

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Watch this journalist uncover how games mess with his brain

There's a lot of text out about how, for better or worse, playing computer games will mess with your brains. Instead of adding to the pile of words already scrawled on the subject, WIRED's Peter Rubin took it upon himself to work up a video that examines how gaming messes with his brain in particular. Read the rest

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