“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:
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:
Read the rest
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?
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.
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.
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
Read the rest
...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.
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:
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
University of Western Ontario researchers examined the electrical activity in several patients before and after their life support was turned off and they were declared clinically dead, when the heart had stopped beating. In one patient, brain waves, in the form of single delta wave bursts, continued for minutes after death.
"It is difficult to posit a physiological basis for this EEG activity given that it occurs after a prolonged loss of circulation," the researchers write in their scientific paper. "These waveform bursts could, therefore, be artefactual in nature, although an artefactual source could not be identified."
This kind of research in the niche field of necroneuroscience is relevant to ethical discussions around organ donation and how the moment of death is defined.
Can you "hear" motion or light flashes? If so, according to new research from City University London, you may be experiencing a not-so-rare form of synaesthesia. Synesthesia is the fascinating neurological phenomenon whereby stimulation of one sense involuntarily triggers another sensory pathway. For example, a synesthete might taste sounds or hear colors. (In this study, 8 out of 40 participants, a very high percentage, were considered to have hearing-motion synaesthesia.) Here is their test for you to take yourself. From The Guardian:
Read the rest
(This new study) suggests that many more of us experience a less intrusive version of (synesthesia) in which visual movements or flashes are accompanied by an internal soundtrack of hums, buzzes or swooshes. Since movements are very frequently accompanied by sounds in everyday life, the effect is likely to be barely discernible.
When tested under laboratory conditions, the “hearing motion” effect appeared to enhance a person’s ability to interpret fine visual movements, but also interfered with the ability to hear real sounds when visual and audio signals were mis-matched.
“These internal sounds seem to be perceptually real enough to interfere with the detection of externally-generated sounds,” said Freeman. “The finding that this ‘hearing-motion’ phenomenon seems to be much more prevalent compared to other synaesthesias might occur due to the strength of the natural connection between sound and vision.”
In a separate study, the team tested for the phenomenon in trained musicians and found that it was much more common in the group. It is not clear if this is due to a natural disposition to link sounds and visual cues or whether thousands of hours of training might have strengthened the neural circuitry behind the effect.
The Neurological Institute at Montreal's McGill University is host to the "Tanenbaum Open Science Institute," endowed by a $20M contribution; since last spring, the unit has pursued an ambitious open science agenda that includes open access publication of all research data and findings, and an end to the practice of patenting the university's findings. Instead, they will all be patent-free and usable by anyone. Read the rest
In a new experiment at the University of Washington, test subjects navigated a virtual maze without seeing it. The only input they had were cues delivered in the form of magnetic zaps to the backs of their heads, stimulating particular regions of their brains. From UW Today:
The subjects had to navigate 21 different mazes, with two choices to move forward or down based on whether they sensed a visual stimulation artifact called a phosphene, which are perceived as blobs or bars of light. To signal which direction to move, the researchers generated a phosphene through transcranial magnetic stimulation, a well-known technique that uses a magnetic coil placed near the skull to directly and noninvasively stimulate a specific area of the brain.
“The way virtual reality is done these days is through displays, headsets and goggles, but ultimately your brain is what creates your reality,” said senior author Rajesh Rao, UW professor of Computer Science & Engineering and director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering.
“The fundamental question we wanted to answer was: Can the brain make use of artificial information that it’s never seen before that is delivered directly to the brain to navigate a virtual world or do useful tasks without other sensory input? And the answer is yes.”
In a curious study, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles showed that transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) -- altering brain activity by zapping specific regions with magnetic pulses -- can apparently increase people's libido, at least briefly. Neuroscientist Nicole Prause and her colleagues targeted the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (at the left temple), a region involved in reward-seeking. New Scientist explains the curious protocol used by the researchers:
Read the rest
...A vibrator was either connected to a sheath that the penis goes in or a small hood that fits over the clitoris. Electrodes on each participant’s head measured the strength of their brain’s alpha waves, which are weaker when people are more sexually aroused.
During the experiment, 20 people were given TMS for about two minutes, designed to either excite or inhibit the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Next, each volunteer was taken to a room where the EEG electrodes were placed on their head. They were then left to attach the vibrator themselves.
Finally, each participant carried out a task that involved pressing a button as fast as possible when shapes appeared on a screen. Depending on how quick they were, they were given a genital buzz lasting between half a second and five seconds – but only after a pause.
Their brainwaves were recorded during this waiting period. “They know they’re about to be sexually stimulated, but it hasn’t actually happened yet,” says Prause. It is the closest analogue for measuring desire in the lab, she adds.
As predicted, after excitatory TMS, participants’ alpha waves were weaker – suggesting they were more sexually aroused – than after inhibitory TMS.
Synesthesia is the fascinating neurological phenomenon whereby stimulation of one sense involuntarily triggers another sensory pathway. A synesthete might taste sounds or hear colors. Now, leading synesthesia researcher VS Rakmachandran at the University of California, San Diego is studying "calendar synesthetes" who see very clear images of calendars in their mind's eye when they think about months that have passed or are in the future. For example, according to New Scientist, one participant in the research "sees her months as occupying an asymmetrical “V” shape. Along this V, she sees each month written in Helvetica font." From New Scientist:
Read the rest
The idea that calendars are literally laid out in space for some people suggests that we are all hardwired to some extent to map time in space.
The concepts of time and numbers are something we acquired relatively recently in our evolutionary history, says Ramachandran, but the brain wouldn’t have had time to evolve a specific area to deal with it.
“Given the opportunistic nature of evolution, perhaps the most convenient way to represent the abstract idea of sequences of numbers and time might have been to map them onto a preexisting map of visual space, already present in the brain,” he says.
Indeed, imaging scans show connections between areas of the brain involved in numbers and those involved with mapping the world, memories and our sense of self. The team suggest that when these areas act together, they enable us to navigate mentally through space and time, while being firmly anchored in the present.