Lightning knocks out woman's brain implant

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

People with implanted neurostimulators are vulnerable to wireless attacks

A group of Belgian academic security researchers from KU Leuwen have published a paper detailing their investigation into improving the security of neurostimulators: electrical brain implants used to treat chronic pain, Parkinson's, and other conditions. Read the rest

Woman plays flute while undergoing brain surgery

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:

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.

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Johns Hopkins University seeks DMT psychonauts who have met machine elves!

Neuroscience researcher Roland Griffiths at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is leading a scientific study on "the experiences of people who have had encounters with seemingly autonomous beings or entities after taking DMT." If that's you, fill out the anonymous survey! Just say know.

From the Daily Grail:

Dr. Roland R. Griffiths is a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. His main line of work has been studying the subjective and behavioral effects of mood-altering drugs, and has written over 360 journal articles and book chapters –e.g. “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.” (Psychopharmacology, July of 2006), which proved instrumental in setting up trials for the testing of the emotional benefits of psylocibin among terminal patients.

So if you’ve had a tête à tête with one of Terence McKenna’s self-dribbling jeweled basketballs, please consider contributing to the Johns Hopkins study...

"Have you had an encounter with a seemingly autonomous entity after taking DMT?"

(image: "The Machine Elves" by seelingphan) Read the rest

This startup promises to preserve your brain for uploading, after they kill you

“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:

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.

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Why neuroscientist David Eagleman thinks we live in the past

When David Eagleman was a kid, he and his friends infiltrated a nearby construction site. Soon enough, he was tumbling three stories to the ground. The fall seemed to take an eternity! But years later, he did the math in a high school physics class, and realized that it lasted a smidgen more than a half second.

Later still, he landed a gig as a neuroscience professor and started investigating this phenomenon. His experiments involved hurling test subjects off a 150-foot tower in Dallas (yes, there was a net), and probing their perception of time during the fall. His conclusion: time doesn't actually slow; it just seems too – because when our lives seem imperiled, an extra track of memory is laid down by the amygdala (the part of the brain whose duties include freaking out). When survivors look back, a higher density of memory is misinterpreted as a longer interval of memory – creating the illusion that time slowed during the frightening incident.

David Eagleman is my guest in this week's edition of the After on Podcast, and you can hear our hour-long conversation by searching “After On” in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

David's insights into our experience of time go far beyond the amygdala’s trick of making our worst moments seem to last forever. Among other things, he believes that we quite literally “live in the past” by a few moments, due to the brain’s trick of stitching together a cacophony of asynchronous input into a unified story. Read the rest

On tumors, MRIs and telepathy: Mary Lou Jepsen on the future of devices that could read images from our brains

Mary Lou Jepsen was finishing her PhD work in holography at Brown University when she started getting sick. Really sick. After a year of steady decline, she was living in a wheel chair and covered in sores. When she could no longer do simple subtraction in her head, she called it quits. She basically went home to die.

That was when a generous professor sprung for an MRI. It revealed a brain tumor – one which had probably afflicted her more subtly since childhood. Shortly after a successful operation, she was firing on all cylinders. Within six months, she completed her Ph.D. and cofounded her first startup. She has since started two more companies; worked in the top engineering echelons of Intel, Google, and Facebook; served briefly as a professor at MIT; and cofounded the One Laptop Per Child initiative.

Impelled by her searing personal experience, Mary Lou is now honing a technology which, she believes, will revolutionize high-end medical imaging. Accessing this is problematic enough in the US, with its 50 MRI machines per million people. But there are just two machines per million Mexicans, and poorer countries may have just one system in the capital city – if that. And with scans averaging about $2,700, even lavishly-insured Americans might be inadequately monitored. MRIs are more effective than mammograms at detecting certain types of breast cancer, for instance. But expense precludes their use as frontline diagnostics.

Mary Lou believes her technology will be 99.9% cheaper than MRIs (that’s an actual estimate, not a euphemism); radically smaller (the size of a ski cap, not a bedroom); and that its resolution will exceed that of MRIs by a factor of a billion. Read the rest

Watch how kids and pro artists draw differently based on eye tracking

While wearing eye tracking glasses, seven young people and three professional artists each donned eye tracking glasses and drew the same scene, and some interesting patterns emerged. Read the rest

Amputee monkeys learn mind control methods to manipulate robotic arm

Neuroscientist Nicho Hatsopoulous and his team taught monkeys that lost limbs through accidents how to control a robotic arm. The work has profound implications on what they call the brain-machine interface.

Via University of Chicago

“That's the novel aspect to this study, seeing that chronic, long-term amputees can learn to control a robotic limb,” said Nicho Hatsopoulos, PhD, professor of organismal biology and anatomy at UChicago and senior author of the study. “But what was also interesting was the brain’s plasticity over long-term exposure, and seeing what happened to the connectivity of the network as they learned to control the device.”

Here's the basic setup in a similar lab with non-amputee monkeys. The monkey gets juice or some other treat for successfully completing the tasks.

Here's a detailed lecture on the current work in the field:

Changes in cortical network connectivity with long-term brain-machine interface exposure after chronic amputation (via University of Chicago) Read the rest

The ethics of upgrading your brain with implants

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:

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?

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Auditory hallucinations induced with Pavlovian conditioning

When people hear voices others can't, the prevailing scientific model describes this as psychosis due to brain abnormality, chemical imbalance, or other affliction. But scientists have now reliably induced auditory hallucinations in some people not diagnosed with psychosis. Read the rest

People with OCD may get relief from watching others perform the compulsive behavior

People with certain kinds of obsessive-compulsive disorder feel a need to repeatedly perform certain physical rituals or routines, such as washing their hands, to gain relief from obsessional thoughts. Now research suggests that when we see someone else perform an action, it triggers the same regions of our brains as when we do the action ourselves. Read the rest

San Francisco Giants are zapping their brains to improve performance

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

Teller on how magicians "alter your perceptions"

Teller, the silent half of the Penn & Teller magic act, explains seven cognitive biases that magicians exploit in order to "alter the perceptions" of their audiences and achieve impossible-seeming feats. Read the rest

Your perception of reality may really be a hallucination

Philosophy and Predictive Processing is a new online research compendium in which neuroscientists, psychiatrists, philosophers-of-mind, and other big thinkers explore the theory that we're always hallucinating. Our brains aren't just processing information from your senses so we can perceive reality, the authors argue, but also constantly predicting what we'll encounter, presenting that to us as what's actually happening, and then doing error connection. From New Scientist:

...Predictive processing argues that perception, action and cognition are the outcome of computations in the brain involving both bottom-up and top-down processing – in which prior knowledge about the world and our own cognitive and emotional state influence perception.

In a nutshell, the brain builds models of the environment and the body, which it uses to make hypotheses about the source of sensations. The hypothesis that is deemed most likely becomes a perception of external reality. Of course, the prediction could be accurate or awry, and it is the brain’s job to correct for any errors – after making a mistake it can modify its models to account better for similar situations in the future.

But some models cannot be changed willy-nilly, for example, those of our internal organs. Our body needs to remain in a narrow temperature range around 37°C, so predictive processing achieves such control by predicting that, say, the sensations on our skin should be in line with normal body temperature. When the sensations deviate, the brain doesn’t change its internal model, but rather forces us to move towards warmth or cold, so that the predictions fall in line with the required physiological state.

Read the rest

Open source interface to connect your brain to your computer

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:

Please subscribe to For Future Reference: iTunes, RSS, Soundcloud Read the rest

Examining the ancient technique of "memory palaces" with brain-imaging

A small (51 men aged 24 +/- 3 years) study published in Neuron tasked experimental subjects with practicing the ancient Greek mnemonic technique of "memory palaces" and then scanned their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging, comparing the scans to scans from competitive "memory athletes" and also measuring their performance on memorization tasks. Read the rest

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