Based on a new study of the safety and abuse potential of psilocybin, the hallucinogenic drug in magic mushrooms, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine researchers recommend that "psilocybin should be re-categorized from a schedule I drug—one with no known medical potential—to a schedule IV drug such as prescription sleep aids, but with tighter control."
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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.
We often unconsciously mirror the behavior of people we interact with. This can include mirroring posture, gestures, and voice patterns. A recent paper in Current Biology reports that we can mirror a smile based on speech alone, and even do so without actually detecting the smile.
The researchers applied a signal processing technique for altering recorded speech under a neutral mouth position to what it would have sounded like had the speaker been smiling. They played 60 such recordings (some manipulated, some not) to 35 subjects, and asked them to judge whether the speaker was smiling. The researchers also measured the responses of two subject muscle groups while listening, the zygomatic (smiling) muscles and the corrugator (frowning) muscles.
When the subjects correctly reported neutral expression or smiling in the speech, both of their muscle groups accurately mirrored the speech while listening (e.g., for smiling speakers, zygomatic tensing and corrugator relaxing). Interestingly, even when the subjects were wrong, their zygomatic muscles still mirrored correctly. This was not true for the corrugators, which instead reflected the subjects' report.
Our mirroring capabilities go well beyond what we see, or even perceive. Read the rest
Patrick Costello (previously) writes, "I had to go through a 25 hr EEG, but I didn't let the wires glued to my head stop me from posting my weekly frailing banjo workshop."
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A team of computer scientists, psychologists and neuroscientists used eye-tracking and fMRI to measure how users perceived security warnings, such as warnings about app permissions and browser warnings about insecure pages and plugin installations.
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MIT 9.11, "The Human Brain," is taught by Nancy Kanwisher, the Walther A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences, MIT; Kanwisher is an engaging and lively science communicator and has posted videos of the complete course lecture series for your perusal; her own speciality is neuroimaging, and the introductory lecture is a fascinating (and, at times, terrifying) tale of her colleague's neurological condition and what she learned from it. (via Four Short Links)
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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
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.
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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.
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)
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“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.
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
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
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
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
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?
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