Neurologist Steven Laureys is an expert on the mysteries of consciousness. A researcher and clinician at the Belgian National Fund of Scientific Research he's known for testing comatose patients for any hidden signs of consciousness. From Scientific American's interview with Laureys:
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So how is it possible to study something as complex as consciousness?
There are a number of ways to go about it, and the technology we have at our disposal is crucial in this regard. For example, without brain scanners we would know much, much less than we now do. We study the damaged brains of people who have at least partially lost consciousness. We examine what happens during deep sleep, when people temporarily lose consciousness. We’ve also been working with Buddhist monks because we know that meditation can trigger alterations in the brain; connections that are important in the networks involved in consciousness show changes in activity. Hypnosis and anesthesia can also teach us a great deal about consciousness. In Lige, surgeons routinely operate on patients under hypnosis ( including Queen Fabiola of Belgium). Just as under anesthesia, the connections between certain brain areas are less active under hypnosis. And finally, we are curious to understand what near-death experiences can tell us about consciousness. What does it mean that some people feel they are leaving their bodies, whereas others suddenly feel elated?
Patients are brought to Lige from all over Europe to undergo testing. How do you determine whether they are conscious?
Well, of course, the physician will say, “Squeeze my hand”—but this time while the patient is in a brain scanner.
Deep brain stimulators -- pacemaker-like implants that deliver electrical impulses to specific regions in the brain -- are common treatments for Parkinson's and other neurological disorders. It's known that strong electromagnetic fields from the likes of ham radio antennae and arc welders can damage the devices. Now, researchers report the case of a 66-year-old woman whose deep brain stimulator was knocked out when lightning hit her apartment. Fortunately, the lightning shut off the device without damaging her brain.
“The patient was not charging the battery of her IPG (implantable pulse generator) during the event, and the recharger for the IPG was disconnected from the power supply during the storm," the researchers wrote. "The recharger and IPG were therefore not destroyed. The patient realized that something was wrong only 1 hour after the storm subsided, when the dystonic tremor in her neck reappeared.”
"Lightning may pose a danger to patients receiving deep brain stimulation: case report" (Journal of Neuroscience via Mysterious Universe) Read the rest
Musician Anna Henry suffered from essential tremor, a movement disorder that causes shaky hands. As the conditioned worsened, it interfered with her flute playing. So she underwent a surgical procedure called deep brain stimulation to cure it. The Texas Medical Center surgeons implanted a battery pack in her chest that delivers tiny voltages to the brain's thalamus, a key region responsible for controlling movement. She was kept awake during the operation, a common practice to test the device and avoid brain damage. The procedure worked. From the Texas Medical Center:
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The result was like flipping a switch. Prior to the surgery, Henry’s neurologist, Mya Schiess, M.D., of the Mischer Neuroscience Institute at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and UTHealth, ran a few motor control tests. Henry could barely sign her name, let alone hold a pen. When handed a cup of water, her hand shook so intensely that the water splashed inside the cup.
But after the electrodes were placed in her brain and the thalamus was stimulated, Henry’s hand was still and stable, without a single detectable tremor. When she signed her name a second time, each pen stroke was smooth and clean. Her handwriting was legible for the first time in decades.
The surgical team handed Henry her flute to test if her hands were stable enough to play. As she remained on the operating bed, she lifted her flute to her mouth and treated everyone in the operating room not only to a sweet melody, but the joy of seeing her tremor disappear.
“What if we told you we could back up your mind?” asks start-up Netcome. According to MIT grad and co-founder Robert McIntyre, he has state-of-the-art technology to preserve your brain in a near-perfect state for scanning in the future once that technology is invented. Thing is, they have to start the preservation process while you're still alive. They're pitching the company at Y-Combinator's "demo daysnext week. Already 25 people have signed up on the waiting list. From Antonio Regalado's feature in Technology Review:
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The brain storage business is not new. In Arizona, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation holds more than 150 bodies and heads in liquid nitrogen, including those of baseball great Ted Williams. But there’s dispute over whether such cryonic techniques damage the brain, perhaps beyond repair.
So starting several years ago, McIntyre, then working with cryobiologist Greg Fahy at a company named 21st Century Medicine, developed a different method, which combines embalming with cryonics. It proved effective at preserving an entire brain to the nanometer level, including the connectome—the web of synapses that connect neurons.
A connectome map could be the basis for re-creating a particular person’s consciousness, believes Ken Hayworth, a neuroscientist who is president of the Brain Preservation Foundation—the organization that, on March 13, recognized McIntyre and Fahy’s work with the prize for preserving the pig brain.
There’s no expectation here that the preserved tissue can be actually brought back to life, as is the hope with Alcor-style cryonics. Instead, the idea is to retrieve information that’s present in the brain’s anatomical layout and molecular details.
Brains are so overrated. Sure, they let us know when it's time to poop and help us to find our car keys, but that's not very impressive for an organ that takes up just about all of the space in a skull. You could totally get away with a smaller brain just fine. Check it out: according to The Washington Post, a seemingly healthy fella was found to have a 3.5" air bubble in his skull where a good chunk of his grey matter should be and he was still walking around, eating sandwiches and everything.
The 84-year-old gentleman's missing brains were discovered after he complained of taking frequent falls and a loss of sensation on one side of his body – symptoms commonly associated with a stroke. When he reported to the emergency room to get checked out, the ER doctors were gobsmacked to discover that their patient had a massive, pressurized air bubble – called a pneumatocoele – in his skull where brains should have been.
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The empty head space was particularly surprising because the man arrived in the emergency department with afflictions otherwise common for his age. He had been complaining to his regular doctor about repeated falls and feeling unsteady in recent months. When the man added left-sided arm and leg weakness to the list of complaints, his doctor advised him to go to the emergency room, fearing a possible stroke.
But aside from the weakness and unsteadiness, the man was in good shape. In the case report, doctors noted that “there was no confusion, facial weakness, visual or speech disturbance… He was otherwise fit and well, independent with physical activities of daily living (PADLs) and lived at home with his wife and two sons.
Computational neuroscientist Anders Sanberg is a senior research fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute where he explores the ethics of future human enhancement through AI, genetic engineering, and brain implants. IEEE Spectrum's Eliza Strickland interviewed Sanberg about the ethics of augmenting your wetware with neurotech:
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Spectrum: Do you worry that neurotech brain enhancements will only be available to the wealthy, and will increase the disparities between the haves and have-nots?
Sandberg: I’m not too worried about it. If the enhancement it is in the form of a device or pill, those things typically come down in price exponentially. We don’t have to worry so much about them being too expensive for the mass market. It’s more of a concern if there is a lot of service required—if you have to go to a special place and get your brain massaged, or you have to take a few weeks off work for training, the prices for those services won’t come down because they’re based on salaries.
The real question is, how much benefit do you get from being enhanced? You have to consider positional benefits versus absolute benefits. For example, being tall is positionally good for men, tall men tend to get ahead in work and have better life outcomes. But if everyone becomes taller, no one is taller. You only get the benefit if you’re taller than everyone else. Many people who are against enhancement use this argument: Enhancement leads to this crazy race and we’re all worse off.
Spectrum: So even if a cognition-enhancing device became available, you don’t think everyone should get one?
Most of us vastly overestimate our understanding of how things work. We think we know more than we do. Why? Because we get by with a little help from our friends. (Sorry.) Cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach explore why we think we're so smart in a new book titled The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. Over at Scientific American, Gareth Cook interviews Sloman about how thinking turns out to be more of a community activity.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT THIS IDEA THAT WHAT WE KNOW IS “SOCIAL”?
People fail to distinguish the knowledge that’s in their own heads from knowledge elsewhere (in their bodies, in the world, and—especially—in others’ heads). And we fail because whether or not knowledge is in our heads usually doesn’t matter. What matters is that we have access to the knowledge. In other words, the knowledge we use resides in the community. We participate in a community of knowledge. Thinking isn’t done by individuals; it is done by communities. This is true at macro levels: Fundamental values and beliefs that define our social, political, and spiritual identities are determined by our cultural communities. It is also true at the micro-level: We are natural collaborators, cognitive team-players. We think in tandem with others using our unique ability to share intentionality.
Individuals are rarely well-described as rational processors of information. Rather, we usually just channel our communities.
The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Amazon) Read the rest
Members of the San Francisco Giants are using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in an effort to improve their performance on the field. According to SF Giants sports scientist Geoff Head (real name!), "some big-name players" are using the Halo Sport device, resembling Beats headphones, to deliver a small amount of current to the wearer's motor cortex. From KQED:
Head decided to try the headset, called Halo Sport, during spring training last year—he gave them to some minor leaguers to wear as they sprinted 20-yard dashes. After two weeks, Head analyzed the results and found that the players who wore the equipment had shaved off a few one-hundredths of a second compared to a control group....
Even though a lot of the data is conflicting, the most positive results do support using tDCS to improve motor control. Hence the slew of startups targeting athletes.
The Giants’ Head says even a tiny advantage can help win games at the major league level. An improvement of two-hundredths of a second can be “the difference between safe and out sometimes,” he says.
"The SF Giants Are Zapping Their Brains With Electricity. Will It Help?" (KQED) Read the rest
Most of us need a computer interface implanted in our brains like we need a hole in our head. That said, there are benefits to bridging the gap between mind and machine. Joel Murphy is the founder of OpenBCI, an inexpensive, and non-invasive, brain-computer interface (BCI) platform. People have used OpenBCI to control robots, compose music by thinking about it, develop games, and help individuals who are "locked in" and can't control their bodies communicate with the outside world. Mark Frauenfelder and I interviewed Joel about open source, DIY neurotech in this episode of For Future Reference, a new podcast from Institute for the Future:
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Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne have developed a neuroprosthetic interface that creates a wireless link between the brain and the spine. In a recent experiment, they used it to enable a paralyzed monkey to walk.
The brain-spine interface overcomes a damaged connection by bridging the spinal cord injury — and it does so in real-time and via wireless technology. The neuroprosthetic device implanted in the monkey’s brain correctly interprets activity generated by the motor cortex, and relays this information to a system of electrodes placed over the surface of the spinal cord, just below the injury. A burst of just a few volts, delivered at the right location, triggers specific muscles in the legs. Monkeys implanted with the device were able to walk within six days of the spinal cord injury.
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Many people claim that they don't need much sleep, insisting that even five hours a night is enough shuteye for them to feel rested. According to new scientific research, "habitual short sleepers" may actually be handling the brain tasks that most of us deal with during the night, like memory consolidation. From Medical Xpress:
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Both groups of short sleepers exhibited connectivity patterns more typical of sleep than wakefulness while in the MRI scanner. (University of Utah radiologist Jeff) Anderson says that although people are instructed to stay awake while in the scanner, some short sleepers may have briefly drifted off, even those who denied dysfunction. "People are notoriously poor at knowing whether they've fallen asleep for a minute or two," he says. For the short sleepers who deny dysfunction, one hypothesis is that their wake-up brain systems are perpetually in over-drive. "This leaves open the possibility that, in a boring fMRI scanner they have nothing to do to keep them awake and thus fall asleep," says (Utah neurologist Chirstopher) Jones. This hypothesis has public safety implications, according to Curtis. "Other boring situations, like driving an automobile at night without adequate visual or auditory stimulation, may also put short sleepers at risk of drowsiness or even falling asleep behind the wheel," he says.
Looking specifically at differences in connectivity between brain regions, the researchers found that short sleepers who denied dysfunction showed enhanced connectivity between sensory cortices, which process external sensory information, and the hippocampus, a region associated with memory. "That's tantalizing because it suggests that maybe one of the things the short sleepers are doing in the scanner is performing memory consolidation more efficiently than non-short sleepers," Anderson says.
When the zombie apocalypse breaks out, the Harvard Brain Bank will resemble the scene at a cheap casino buffet's peel-and-eat shrimp table.
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"Brain scans of insects appear to indicate that they have the capacity to be conscious and show egocentrico, apparently indicating that they have such a thing as subjective experience." That's the finding of study written by Andrew B Barron and Colin Klein, and published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.
From the Independent:
They found that in both, consciousness appeared to be associated with the “midbrain”. That part of the brain is the ancient core of the brain, which supports awareness for us and apparently for insects, too.
Though insects have tiny brains, they appear to serve the same function that the midbrain does for humans. They are able to tie together memory, perception and other key parts of consciousness, and use it to decide what to do - which is the same function that human’s brains do.
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This bee is clearly smarter than me. [via]
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“Bees are known to perform very complex tasks considering the size of their brains and their simplicity compared to high-level organisms,” said Gill. “If we can focus on simple tissues and find the small changes that can have profound effects on behavior, it can give us a basis to start understanding how very small changes to that brain can do that.”
Have you ever tried to draw a brain? I find it hard to get the wrinkles to look right. Scientists at at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland made a solid model of a fetal brain out of gel that developed its own realistic furrows just by dunking it into a solvent.
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They made a solid replica of a foetal brain, still smooth and unfolded, and coated it with a second layer which expanded when dunked into a solvent.
That expansion produced a network of furrows that was remarkably similar to the pattern seen in a real human brain.
This suggests that brain folds are caused by physics: the outer part grows faster than the rest, and crumples.
In GQ, Eric Perry writes about how a brain hemorrhage left him "depressed, stuck in a rut, and strangely fearful of death." Then he learned of new medical research on the benefits of psychedelic therapy to treat anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. So Perry signed up for his own acid test with others who were seeking solace via psychedelic experiences. From GQ:
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My guide for the evening had accepted my 400 dollars, the price for my journey, in tie-dyed pants. It was my own fault I wasn’t tripping very hard—I’d told her, out of nervousness, I didn’t want to travel to other planets—though I suspected she knew less about the “sacraments” she was prescribing to us than she purported to. (“Do you know that Peruvians drip ayahuasca into the eyes of their newborns?” she’d told me earlier. “All Peruvians?” I’d asked, and she’d blushed.) Still, I liked her, partly because there was something in her eyes that made me think of the Wordsworth line from “Elegiac Stanzas”: “A deep distress hath humanized my soul.” I sensed there’d been some suffering in her past. Many of the participants, I noticed, had the same benignly haunted look. An ex-physician told us that ten years ago she’d been diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer; she’d recovered, but couldn’t shake the feeling that it would return any second to finish her off. To allay her lingering fear of death, she’d enrolled in a psilocybin trial, and her “whole reality changed.” She divorced her husband and began to juggle motherhood and what full-time psychonauts call “The Work,” traveling the world to partake in aya ceremonies.
Here's what we know, and what we know we don't know, and what we don't know we know, and what we don't know we don't know. Read the rest