Questions Answered

In the interest of transparency and open dialogue, I’ll be structuring this post in the popular “Q&A” format, which will be familiar to fans of talk shows, WoW conventions, and the Gestapo. So without further ado, here are a bunch of questions and answers I made up.

The human brain atlas.

Q. Did something completely awesome happen in the field of neuroscience on April 12, 2011?
A. Yes: the Allen Institute for Brain Science announced that they’ve completed the Allen Human Brain Atlas, “the world’s first anatomically and genomically comprehensive human brain map.” This digital map will allow researchers to examine the precise anatomy, biochemistry, and gene expression within any region of the brain through a point-and-click interface. Anyone can access it online for free.

Q. Will you write a post that explains this mapping technology in layman’s terms, with a sprinkling of humorous anecdotes?
A. Perhaps, if you ask nicely.

Q. Does this mean the human connectome is now mapped?
A. Nope; Seung’s team still have plenty of work cut out for them. The idea behind the Human Connectome Project is to map every structural and functional connection in the brain, so researchers can study digital models of phenomena like synapses and wave patterns at every level of detail.

Q. Will connectomic models enable scientists to build a strong A.I.?
A. It’ll certainly be a step in that direction. Connectomics integrates ideas from several fields that are closely related to A.I. research, like computational neuroscience, theory of mind, and cognitive psychology. The truth is, strong A.I. seems to be a little bit like obscenity – it’s hard to define, but we’ll know it when we see it.

Q. OK, so WTF was up with that last post, anyway?
A. I was trying to explain that visual hallucinations are just one reflection of disruptions that can affect all sensory perceptions – including one’s senses of space, time, and self. It all started when I stumbled on my blog’s doppelganger; the next thing I knew, I was knee deep in research papers, and I’d written three paragraphs on functional networks.

This should perhaps be considered lab equipment.

Q. Was whisky involved?
A. Let’s put it this way: I’m not going to say whisky wasn’t involved.

Q. What exactly is the relationship between neuroscience and alcohol?
A. Repeated ethanol exposure enhances synaptic plasticity in the ventral tegmental area, which initiates dopaminergic reward activity. In short, alcohol promotes the formation of positive memories related to alcohol consumption. This seems to apply most directly to memories of alcohol consumption, but it likely extends to experiences connected with said consumption as well. Thus, not only does the combination of The Macallan and J. Neurosci. make learning fun – when you’re drunkenly learning about your own drunken learning process, you’ve reached the coveted metacognitive level, which means you can wear tweed armor (thesis defense +10).

Q. What’s a common Science Misconception that bugs you?
A. That organic chemistry is equivalent to biological chemistry.

Q. So what’s the difference between “biological” and “organic”?
Biological” is a term describing biota, objects that possess signaling and self-sustaining properties. “Organic” is a term used by Trader Joe’s to denote expensive food items. Or, you know, molecules that contain carbon and hydrogen.

Q. Conan! What is best in life?!
A. Tenure.

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