A recent breakthrough in the development of an artificial synapse suggests that assistive devices and other prostheses won’t be limited to just missing joints and failing organs. Researchers in Japan have shown that it’s possible to mimic synaptic function with nanotechnology, a breakthrough that could result in not just artificial neural networks, but fixes for the human brain as well.
Synapses are essential to brain function. It’s what allows a neuron to pass an electric or chemical signal to another cell. Its structure is incredibly complex, with hundreds of proteins and other chemicals interacting in a complicated way. It’s because of this that cognitive scientists and artificial intelligence researchers have had great difficulty trying to simulate this exact function.
But a new study published in Advanced Functional Materials has shown that it may be possible to reproduce synaptic function by using a single nanoscale electrochemical atomic switch. Japanese researchers developed a tiny device that has a gap bridged by a copper filament under a voltage pulse stimulation. This results in a change in conductance which is time-dependant — a change in strength that’s nearly identical to the one found in biological synaptic systems. The inorganic synapses could thus be controlled by changes in interval, amplitude, and width of an input voltage pulse stimulation.
Why this is exciting is that the device is essentially mimicking the major features of human cognition, what the researchers refer to as the “emulation of synaptic plasticity”, including what goes on in short-term and long-term memory. Not only that, it responds to the presence of air and temperature changes, which indicates that it has the potential to perceive the environment much like the human brain.
The researchers are hoping that their newfound insight could help in the development of artificial neural networks, but it’s clear that their system, which operates at a microscopic level, could also be used to treat the human brain. The day may be coming when failing synaptic systems could be patched with a device similar to this one, in which biological function is offloaded to a synthetic one.
Pictured: A new brain map shows what happens when acupuncture points on the body are stimulated.
Originating in ancient China, acupuncture has been used for 2500 years. Traditional Chinese medicine holds that disease is caused by blockages and imbalances of energy (known as chi) flowing through meridians in the body, and can be eased by inserting needles at specific points.
Since the 1970s, acupuncture has become more popular outside east Asia. Once widely considered a quack medicine, there is now tentative support for its use in certain conditions from respected official bodies such as the World Health Organization, the National Health Service in the UK and the National Institutes of Health in the US.
There is evidence that acupuncture is effective in treating a range of conditions including spinal injuries, infertility and the side effects of chemotherapy , and that its effects aren’t entirely due to the placebo effect. However, despite extensive research, the mechanism of this ancient healing art remains unknown.
“You are an ever-morphing 4 dimensional fractal.”
Female Orgasm Captured In Series of Brain Scans
Scientists have used brain scan images to create the world’s first movie of the female brain as it approaches, experiences and recovers from an orgasm. The animation reveals the steady buildup of activity in the brain as disparate regions flicker into life and then come together in a crescendo of activity before gently settling back down again.
To make the animation, researchers monitored a woman’s brain as she lay in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and stimulated herself. The research will help scientists to understand how the brain conducts the symphony of activity that leads to sexual climax in a woman.
By studying people who have orgasms, Professor Barry Komisaruk, a psychologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey and his team hope to uncover what goes wrong in both men and women who cannot reach sexual climax.
The above video displays fMRI images of a woman’s brain as she experiences an orgasm. Oxygen levels in the blood correspond to the activity of different brain regions and are represented here on a spectrum from dark red (lowest) to yellow/white (highest). Twenty snapshots of the data have been taken from a 12-minute sequence during which she approaches orgasm, achieves orgasm and then enters a refractory period.
An excellent read. See more here.
If the human brain – with 100 billion neurons forging trillions of connections – were not complicated enough, new research suggests that every neuron may have its very own genome.
A study of the genomes of individual human neurons created from reprogrammed stem cells reveals huge variability between neurons from the same person. Such variation could explain differences in behaviour and susceptibility to mental illness, says Mike McConnell, a stem cell biologist at the Salk Institute in La Jolla California. He presented the work 13 October at the Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington D.C.
“Monozygotic twins can, from time to time, be discordant for things like schizophrenia, for things like autism. They grew up together. They have the same genome, why are they different,” he says.
McConnell has been exploring this phenomenon for more than a decade. In a 2001 paper, he and his colleagues found that individual mouse cells destined to develop into neurons contain substantial chromosomal changes called aneuploidy. A few years later, he showed that neurons with these changes are active in the mouse brain.
Because humans are born with most of the neurons they will use throughout life, genetic variability among them could have a long-lasting effect on how people behave, McConnell says.
To see if human brain cells are genetic mosaics, McConnell turned to induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. They are created by treating adult cells with a suite of reprogramming factors that transform the cells into an embryonic-like state in which they can form other tissues.His team transformed iPS cells from two people into neuron cells and then examined the genomes of individual neurons, looking for places where the a huge chunk of the genome is missing or duplicated.
No brain cell’s genome looked the same. They all contained numerous duplications and deletions, but never the same pattern. His team also examined the genomes of the adult cells that were reprogrammed into iPS cells and then neurons, and these cells contained numerous insertions and deletion, but not the same ones as the neurons. McConnell says that this suggests that cells acquire their own genomes as they turn into neurons.
Right now, McConnell can only speculate on whether these changes might influence behaviour. But he is eager to go looking for signs of genetic mosaicism in real human brains, as well as reprogrammed neurons from people with conditions such as schizophrenia.
The sorts of genetic changes he found in the mosaic neurons – deletions and duplications – have been linked, in rare cases, to neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental diseases such as schizophrenia, bipolar syndrome and autism. Geneticists discovered these mutations in the germ lines of people with these conditions, i.e. every cell in their body contains the mutations. But McConnell hypothesizes that these mutations could also form in individual neurons in the developing brain.
Add McConnell’s observation to the overwhelming evidence that epigenetic modifications influence traits such as obesity, or the suggestion that the sequences of many genes are subtlty altered after being transcribed, and you get the sense that organism are not content to stick with the genome they were born with.
Habits may be difficult to change, but now at least we have an insight into how they form.
When a group of neurons fire simultaneously, the activity appears as a brainwave. Different brainwave-frequencies are linked to different tasks in the brain.
To track how brainwaves change during learning, Ann Graybiel and Mark Howe at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used electrodes to analyse brainwaves in the ventromedial striatum of rats while they were taught to navigate a maze.
As rats were learning the task their brain activity showed bursts of fast gamma waves. Once the rats mastered the task, their brainwaves slowed to almost a quarter of their initial frequency, becoming beta waves. Graybiel’s team suspects this transition reflects when learning becomes habit.
Graybiel says the slower brainwaves may be the brain weeding out excess activity to refine behaviour. She suggests it might be possible to boost the rate at which you learn a skill by enhancing such beta-wave activity.
(via New Scientist)
BLUEBRAIN | Year One
Henry Markram is attempting to reverse engineer an entire human brain, one neuron at a time. This piece is an introduction to director Noah Hutton’s 10-year film-in-the-making that will chronicle the development of The Blue Brain Project, a landmark endeavor in modern neuroscience.
Since it’ll be the first one I legitimately share outside of the bedroom… I’d be happy for some suggestions. I’m at a loss. Something chill and soothing I would imagine… any suggestions?
I know I have tons of possible options, yet my mind draws a blank. I just want it to be the best it can be.
Update: Thank you guys, so much! Bonobo and Nujabes are definitely viable choices! Safe to say there will also be some Burial in the mix. Keep the suggestions coming.
Jorge De la Paz (Chile) - Curioos
Hang on tight while we grab the next page