Posts Tagged ‘ biology ’

Neuroscience Friends!

I’ve just returned from a thrilling weekend at the BIL Conference in Long Beach, California (yes, the pun on “TED” is very intentional) where I met all kinds of smart, fun people – including lots of folks who share my love for braaaiiins!

The conference was held in... The Future!

So I thought I’d introduce you guys to some of the friends I made. I think you’ll be as surprised – and as excited – as I am.

Backyard Brains
Their motto is “neuroscience for everyone” – how cool is that? They sell affordable kits that let you experiment at home with the nervous systems of insects and other creatures. They gave a super-fun presentation where I got to help dissect a cockroach and send electrical signals through its nerves.

Interaxon
They build all kinds of cutting-edge tools that let home users study their brain activity, and even control machines and art projects with it. Their founder, Ariel Garten, has a great TED talk here – I’ve rarely met anyone else who was so excited to have weird new neuroscience adventures.

Deltaself and Dangerously Hardcore
Two blogs by the very smart Naomi Most – the first is about how scientific data is changing the way we all understand our minds and bodies; the second is about hacking your own behavior to stay healthier and live better.

Halcyon Molecular
Their aim is to put the power to sequence and modify genomes in everyone’s hands within the next few decades. They’re getting some huge funding lately, and lots of attention in major science journals.

Bonus – XCOR Aerospace
They’re building a privately-funded suborbital spacecraft for independent science missions. If there’s anybody who can help us all join the search for alien life in the near future, I bet it’s these guys.

So check those links out and let me know what you think. I’d love to get these folks involved in future videos, especially if you’re interested in any of them.

Consider This an Invitation

This photo got me thinking. Only 24 percent? Really?

We’re finding weird new exoplanets every day – hell, NASA hasn’t even ruled out the possibility that there could be life on Europa and Titan, two moons in our own solar system – yet so many people have lost faith in space’s limitless potential to surprise us.

But we’re entering an age when that potential is no longer the exclusive domain of first-world governments and media conglomerates. The fact that we even have a contest like Google’s X Prize proves that independent space exploration is becoming a very real possibility for each one of us.

The question isn’t whether a private company is going to mount an alien-hunting expedition – it’s who’s gonna be the first to try?

Crazy? Of course it’s crazy! Every awesome expedition is!

So what do you guys say? I say it’s possible if we put our resources and our heads together. Even if we don’t find E.T., we’ll have one hell of a story to tell our grandkids.

Why I Love and Hate “Game”

Yes, it’s that special time of year again – time for flamboyant bouquets and chalky candy to appear at office desks – time for Facebook pages to drown in cloying iconography – time for self-labeled “forever aloners” to dredge the back alleys of OKCupid in last-ditch desperation – and time for me to load up my trusty gatling crossbow with oxytocin-tipped darts and hit the streets.

Valentine's Day also means it's time to enjoy the traditional dish of Earlobe.

Oh, and it’s time for everyone to complain about how misogynistic all this “Game” stuff is.

So, while I guess I could write about, say, a new study that says cutting your romantic partner some slack can make him or her more capable of actual change, or this one that says love and chocolate are good for cardiovascular health, I think it’ll be much more interesting to talk about what’s really on most of our minds today:

What does science have to say about “getting the girl” (or guy) of your dreams? And what do actual girls (and guys) think about it?

Let’s start with some full disclosure: about this time last year, I decided to see what all the fuss was about, and I read The Game for myself – and then I read some of the other works it cites, too. And I started talking to my friends (both male and female) about what they thought of the ideas in those books – and I tested a lot of the ideas I read, the same way I’d test any hypothesis: I wrote down the predictions various authors made, and checked how well those predictions lined up with my own real-world experiences.

In short, I went Full Geek on the topic.

What I learned is that, on the spectrum of scientific rigorousness – a scale from, say, astrology (0) to molecular chemistry (10) – most of this stuff falls somewhere in the 4-to-6 range: It tends to be more evidence-based than, say, ghost-hunting; but it still falls firmly into the realm of the “softer” sciences, like psychotherapy and so on.

The reason for this is that – as many pick-up artists freely admit – their craft is at least as much an artistic pursuit as a scientific one. Much like, say, Aristotle and Hobbes and Descartes, PUAs do their best to ground their conclusions logically in real-world data that anyone is free to test and refute – but at the same time, like those great philosophers of old, PUAs tend to be more intent on constructing elaborate thought systems than on presenting their “ugly” raw data for independent labs to crunch through.

This means pick-up manuals tend to read more like philosophical treatises than scientific papers.

And I think it’s this very feature of pick-up art that explains why it’s such a polarizing topic – why many women (and plenty of men) find the very concept insulting and distasteful, while other men swear that it’s transformed them from self-loathing losers into sexually fulfilled alpha males.

See, many women will tell you in no uncertain terms that pickup “tricks” don’t work on someone as intelligent and experienced as them; and that even if such tricks did work, they don’t want to be “picked up” –  instead, they want to fall in love (or at least in lust) with a man who’s honest about his real self and his real feelings. Many men, too, would agree that crafty seduction techniques somehow cheapen the process – that it’s better to be “forever alone” than to be surrounded by adoring women who were manipulated into their romantic feelings.

Meanwhile, men who’ve had “success” (however they choose to define it) as a result of a pick-up system’s techniques will often defend that system to the death – much like how a person who’s found inner peace thanks to, say, Buddhism will often defend it passionately against anti-Buddhist viewpoints.

What I’m arguing here, though, is that none of these reactions pertain directly to the underlying process of seduction at all – rather, they’re reactions to the (often sleazy-sounding) thought-systems that various writers have constructed around their experiences with that process.

Because – let’s get right down to it – in all our interactions with other humans, we’re hoping to manipulate the outcome somehow. Double entendres, pop-cultural references, stylish clothes and makeup, kind gestures, subtle dishonesty – even honesty itself – all these are tools and techniques that we hope will garner us a certain response.

For example, if you choose to callously manipulate the people around you, you may get a lot more sex than you would otherwise – but you’ll also end up with a lot of shallow relationships, which you’ll probably come to regret eventually. If you choose to be completely honest all the time, you may repel some people – but you’ll probably also find that those who stick around end up respecting you for who you really are.

It’s Game Theory 101: Players who “win” are those who understand the rules, risks and rewards of the game – and play accordingly. All the sleazy lingo and tricks – all the elaborate systems – are just various people’s attempts to explain these dynamics as they play out in gender relations, and to sell their vision of the process to a demographic of sex-starved men, whose desires they understand quite well.

But still – the underlying process itself is no more and no less sleazy than the mind of the person using it.

In other words, when you read between the lines of these PUA systems, most of them turn out to be geared toward the same premises: That to grow as a person, you need to 1) be fully honest with yourself about what you want from the people around you, 2) acknowledge the personal changes that need to be made in order to achieve those results, and 3) steadily work to make those changes in yourself.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, it’s hard for me to see how that’s inherently more “cheap” than, say, a woman learning how to dress and speak seductively in order to get what she wants.

Yes, there are a lot of sleazy men out there who objectify women and sweet-talk them into one-night stands. There are also plenty of sweet-talking women out there who milk men for the contents of their wallets, then move on. And so we label each other “douchebags” and “bitches,” and keep engaging in the same defensive behaviors, and no one’s really happy.

And I hate that Game. I despise it.

At the same time, though, it’s clear that we humans, like many other animals, have evolved to play competitive social games – there’s no getting around that fact. But unlike many animals, we don’t have to play the game exactly as our instincts tell us to – we’re metacognitive, so we can learn to play using strategies that don’t result in zero-sum outcomes: We can develop tactics that help both sides get more of what they want. We can harness our evolutionary drives to mutually-beneficial behavior patterns.

Doesn’t that make you want to learn to play more creatively, instead of trying not to play at all?

I mean, at the end of the day, it kinda fills me with love for the Game.

What do you think?

Silicon Synapses

A new kind of computer chip mimics the way a neuron learns, a new study reports.

Behold! The mighty Synapse Chip!

The 400-transistor chip simulates the activity of a single synapse – a connection between two neurons. Because of the chip’s complexity, it’s able to mimic a synapse’s plasticity – its ability to subtly change structure and function in response to new stimuli.

For example, a synapse that repeatedly responds to an electric shock might, over time, become less sensitive to that shock. Thus, synaptic plasticity forms the basis of neural learning, well below the level of conscious processing.

The human brain contains approximately 100 billion neurons, and more than 100 trillion synapses. Ever since the anatomist  Santiago Ramón y Cajal discovered the function of neurons back in the early 1900s, scientists have dreamed of building a device that replicated the behavior of even a single synapse. For decades, they had to content themselves with mathematical models and digital simulations.

But now, as the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports, a team led by MIT’s Chi-Sang Poon has constructed a working silicon model of a synapse in the physical world.

The chip uses transistors to mimic the activity of ion channels – small “ports” in the cell membranes of neurons that allow various amounts of neurotransmitter chemicals and ions (positively or negatively charged atoms) to pass in and out of the cell. These channels form the basis for synaptic communication – and for some of the most hotly researched topics in neuroscience.

While ordinary transistors act as binary “on/off” gates, neural synapses conduct signals along fairly smooth gradients, allowing the signals to increase in strength until they finally trigger the neuron to “fire” a signal on to its neighbor(s). It was this gradient property that Poon’s team sought to mimic with their new chip:

While most chips operate in a binary, on/off mode, current flows through the transistors on the new brain chip in analog, not digital, fashion. A gradient of electrical potential drives current to flow through the transistors just as ions flow through ion channels in a cell.

Since the researchers can also tweak the chip’s properties to mimic different kinds of ion channels, this provides one of the most realistic models yet for studying how individual synapses actually work.

The researchers have already used the chip to study long-term depression (LTD), the process by which some ion channels can weaken the synaptic activity of others. They also hope they’ll soon be using chips like this one in conjunction with lab-grown biological neurons, to discover all kinds of exciting new things about how cells behave “in the wild.”

Who knows – by this time next year, we may be watching nature documentaries about Neuron Cyborgs – but my guess is that the SyFy channel will get there first.

Brief and tangentially relevant side-note: Connectome posts may be somewhat spotty over the next few weeks, as I’m currently launching a new project, the details of which need to be kept under wraps (or “on the DL,” as the kids say) for the time being. I’ll do my best to report on neuroscience breakthroughs as often as I can during this period, and things should be back to (relatively) normal soon. Thanks for stickin’ with me.

Chemical Parasites

A certain brain parasite actually turns off people’s feelings of fear by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter chemical dopamine, says a new study.

T. gondii, gettin' ready to blow your %@&#$ mind.

Toxoplasma gondii, a parasitic protozoan (a kind of single-celled organism), mostly likes to live in the brains of cats – but it also infects birds, mice, and about 10 to 20 percent of people in the U.S. and U.K. This might sound like science fiction, but plenty of microbiologists will assure you it’s very real.

In fact, T. gondii isn’t the only parasite that controls its hosts’ behavior – a fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis makes infected ants climb to the highest point they can find, sprout fungal spore pods from their heads, then stay there and starve to death; at which point the spores are unleashed to recruit more ants for the fungus’s zombie army. Other microbes force spiders to weave cocoons for them, or make roaches lay immobile while larvae grow inside their bodies, then chew their way out. Um, yeah, so… nature is pretty frickin’ hardcore.

Anyway, back to the parasite at hand. Throughout the past few years, a University of Leeds microbiologist named Glenn McConkey has worked at the forefront of T. gondii research – in 2009, his team made the astonishing discovery that the microbe’s genome encodes instructions for producing dopamine: in essence, this bug is living cocaine, and it’s bending the minds of millions of people at this very moment.

And now, as the journal PLoS ONE reports, McConkey’s team has made a breakthrough that is, if anything, even more incredible: once the parasite has taken up residence in a brain, it triggers the production and release of dopamine at a much greater level than normal, causing infected animals (including people) to engage in impulsive, compulsive and/or fearless behavior:

In this study, infection of mammalian dopaminergic cells with T. gondii enhanced the levels of K+-induced release of dopamine several-fold, with a direct correlation between the number of infected cells and the quantity of dopamine released … Based on these analyses, T. gondii orchestrates a significant increase in dopamine metabolism in neural cells.

In short, by changing the electrochemical properties of dopaminergic neurons (those that deal with dopamine transmission and reception), T. gondii basically causes its host’s brain to shout “I’m awesome!” ceaselessly at top volume. You can imagine the havoc this wreaks.

If the host is, say, a mouse or a bird, impulsive and fearless behavior will typically get it gobbled up by a predator, which allows the parasite to move into a new host and spawn a new generation. But if the host happens to be a human being – well, there’s no telling what might happen. For one thing, studies have found a strong link between T. gondii infection and schizophrenia.

Thanks to Science, though, there’s hope – McConkey’s team is optimistic that these new results will help doctors diagnose T. gondii infections more quickly and accurately, and perhaps use dopamine antagonists – drugs that block dopaminergic activity – to fight some of the psychotic symptoms these crazy little guys cause.

So, I guess one big question remains: why the hell isn’t this story making front-page news? Your guess is as good as mine. Kinda spooky, isn’t it?

The Roots of Consciousness

The origins of subjective consciousness probably lie in an introspective brain network common to most mammals, says a new study.

What's going on in that furry little head of yours?! TALK!

When we “zone out” and let our minds wander, a functional (as opposed to structural) brain network known as the default mode network (DMN) becomes active. The DMN links our frontal lobe – an area associated with planning and abstract thought – with areas of the temporal and parietal lobes that help us associate memories with ideas and emotions. In short, this network allows us to become “lost” in thought, rather than occupied with our environment, or with a specific goal.

Since goal-directed behavior – say, hunting for food or a mate – seems to be more crucial for a species’s survival than mind-wandering is, the discovery of the DMN (which, like most new discoveries in neuroscience, has seen its share of controversy) prompted scientists to ask what purpose the DMN’s ancestors might have originally served.

Now, researchers are zoning in on the origins of zoning out, by mapping what they think is a primitive version of the DMN in rat brains. By comparing fMRI scans of rats’ brains when the animals were at rest with scans of those same rats’ brains when the animals received a mild electric shock, a team led by Yihong Yang at the US National Institute on Drug Abuse has identified a rat brain network that corresponds to non-goal-directed behavior – in short, a proto-DMN.

Though rats don’t seem to have much capacity for abstract thought, it’s likely that this network allows them to review their memories:

“[The rats could be] thinking about their past, mind wandering, and this kind of passive brain activity might be important for memory in the rat,” Yang says.

Whether rats have what we’d consider a sense of self is a more complicated question. The rat brain does include a more primitive version of our prefrontal cortex (PFC), but exactly what this region does for the rat remains an open question:

“The activity in frontal areas [could suggest] the notion of a sense of self in the rat,” says Michael Greicius of the Stanford University School of Medicine. “I’ve got to believe it’s different from humans, but it’s certainly provocative.”

Some other new findings make this question even more intriguing: a recent paper described a close analog of the DMN in monkey brains, and a 2009 study found that while the DMN is active in human patients suffering from locked-in syndrome, it seems to be disrupted in vegetative patients. But, since recent research demonstrates that vegetative patients can respond to questions by thinking certain thoughts for “yes” and others for “no,” it seems that what we call “consciousness” may be much more multi-layered than we think.

If so, it may be that rats possess some of the abilities we associate with consciousness – such as mind-wandering and memories – but that they still lack a true concept of “I.” It may be that their minds lack abstract concepts altogether, or that “abstract concepts” are a more complex phenomenon than we’re assuming. That’s the tough thing about analyzing consciousness: nothing else remotely like it seems to exist in nature, and our minds seem to be poorly adapted for understanding what exactly it is.

Still, discoveries like these are helping us inch closer to that understanding – even if it’s in tiny little mouse steps.

The Sound of Fear

A certain inaudible sound frequency may directly trigger feelings of “creepiness” and physical symptoms of fear, one scientist says.

Don't look now, but I think I see a g-g-g-gh-gh-sound wave!

A sound frequency of around 19hz – just below the range of human hearing – has been detected in several “haunted” places, including a laboratory where staff had reported inexplicable feelings of panic, and and a pub cellar where many people have claimed to see ghosts.

Though no peer-reviewed studies have examined this phenomenon yet, I think it’s still intriguing enough to be worth talking about – and after all, it is that special time of year. So huddle up close, and let me tell you a tale – the tale of… The Frequency of Fear!

Back in the 1980s, an engineer named Vic Tandy began hearing strange stories from his otherwise-scientifically minded coworkers: whenever they spent time working in a certain laboratory, they’d experience inexplicable feelings of unease, and glimpses of ghostly apparitions.

At first, Tandy chalked these reports up to stress, or to the irritating wheeze of life-support machines that permeated the building. But one foreboding night, as Tandy toiled alone in the lab, he suddenly broke into a cold sweat, and felt the hairs on his neck stand up. He was overcome with the feeling that he was being watched. From the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a sinister gray form moving toward him – but when he turned to face it, it vanished. Tandy fled the lab for the safety of his home, his keen scientific mind churning, asking what could have triggered this bizarre episode.

The next day, Tandy happened to catch sight of a clue: in the lab, he noticed that a foil blade clamped in a vice was vibrating at a rapid rate. Fetching his trusty frequency meter, he discovered that the sound wave behind these vibrations was bouncing off the walls of the lab, and that its peak intensity was focused in the room’s center. Its frequency was 19hz – slightly below the minimum human-audible frequency of 20hz, but easy for a human body to feel as a subtle vibration.

Tandy began to delve into ancient forbidden texts (OK, actually he started reading biology papers) and learned that frequencies near this range can cause animals to behave nervously, hyperventilate, stumble dizzily, and even have trouble seeing clearly.

It’s likely that these animals’ sensitivity to these vibrations evolved as an early-warning system for earthquakes, tsunamis and related disasters, and may explain why animals flee the sites of these disasters en masse long before humans suspect anything’s the matter.

Over the years, subsequent investigations have found that similar frequencies occur in other reputedly haunted spots, which seems to indicate that we humans may be sensitive to these frequencies as well.

If you ask me, though, the scariest part of this story is that as you read this, scientists with less noble purposes could potentially be developing devices to project these frequencies directly into a target’s body. Not to be paranoid here, but I’m not too keen on the idea of a fear ray. Just putting that out there.

On the whole, I think right now is a pretty awesome time to be alive – we’ve got mind-controlled computers, we’ll soon be able to record videos of our thoughts and dreams, and it won’t be long before we can see, hear and even touch virtual worlds. But we’ve also learned that magnetic stimulation can make people want to lie, that electrical stimulation can alter our decision-making processes, and that sound waves can make us feel pain and fear.

We’re on the brink of an unprecedented epoch in human history, when miracle-working may quite literally lie within any person’s grasp – but with that power also comes the potential to create truly unimaginable hells at the push of a button. All I can say is, I hope with all my might that our better nature wins out.

Because, I don’t know about you guys, but I can hardly wait to see what the future holds.

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