The year-end roundup has become an annual tradition here at The Connectome. In 2012 and 2013, we broke down the top five most fascinating, transformative, implication-riddled neuroscience discoveries of the year.
And now we’re back to do the same for 2014.
This year has seen a lot of steps forward in many of the areas we predicted – including optogenetics, connectomics, and brain-to-brain interfaces. It’s also brought some discoveries that seemed to come utterly out of the blue, and that may change the way we look at some of neuroscience’s most central questions.
So here – in countdown order – are this year’s five most thrilling neuroscience discoveries!
5. Brain-to-Brain Transmission of Words
Last year’s #1 breakthrough spot went to Rao and Stocco’s wireless brain-to-brain interface – and this year has already seen some significant steps forward in that technology. Whereas that first system could transmit simple movement impulses from one person’s brain to another, a new system designed this year can send short verbal messages directly from one person’s brain to another. That new system, designed by an interdisciplinary team from Spain, France, and the U.S., successfully transmitted simple greetings like “ciao” and “hola” between the brains of volunteers in labs 5,000 miles apart – with a total error rate of just 15 percent. On the sending end, one volunteer thinks a short greeting, which the system encodes into an electronic signal and sends across the network. Then a machine on the receiving end translates the electronic signal into a series of electrical pulses, and transmits those into the brain of the person on the receiving end, who perceives the signals as a series of flashes of light in the peripheral vision area. It’s not exactly telepathy – but it’s proof that we can pass not just movement impulses, but actual encoded information, from one brain to another.
4. The Open-Source LEGO Robot Brain
Robots controlled by digitized insect brains go back at least to 2007, when a digital moth brain was uploaded into a robot that responded to changes in light – but a project completed this year shows that anyone with some programming skill can create a robot inhabited by an invertebrate’s brain. It started when a company called OpenWorm released a free digital map of all the neural connections in the entire nervous system of a roundworm. This map – known as a connectome – was actually completed way back in 1986, but the people at OpenWorm were the first to make it available online, for free, in a database format that’s easy for programmers to use. This inspired a small group of hobbyist programmers to build a simple light-sensitive robot with an easy-to-use LEGO Mindstorms kit – only instead of programming specific behaviors into their robot, they’d feed its inputs to their digital worm brain, and send that brain’s movement responses to the robot’s motors. The result is a robot that avoids walls, runs from light, and backs up when tapped on the nose – but it wasn’t programmed to do any of those things. It does them because those are the instinctive responses of the worm’s brain. And if you’ve got about a hundred bucks and some programming experience, you can create your very own robot with a worm brain.
3. Super-Brainy Mice
This December, a team of researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center tried an experiment straight out of a sci-fi novel: They injected human brain cells into the brains of mice – and the mice got much, much smarter. Specifically, the researchers injected human glial cells – the brain’s support cells, which shape the growth and development of neurons – into baby mice. As the mice grew, the human glial cells “completely took over,” stopping only when they reached the physical limits of the mice’s brain cavities. Along the way, these glial cells guided the growth of the mice’s neurons, and sculpted them into brains that learned far more quickly and remembered far more vividly than those of normal mice. This suggests not only that it may be possible to create smarter animals simply by injecting them with human support cells – a deeply thought-provoking concept in its own right – but also that we may be able to boost the brains of our fellow humans who suffer from degenerative diseases or genetic disorders. At the end of the study, the team considered injecting human stem cells into baby monkeys, but decided against it due to ethical concerns. Unethical as it may be, it’s still hard not to wonder what might’ve happened if they’d tried it.
2. Copy-Pasted Emotions
Researchers have manipulated memories in a lot of weird ways lately. They’ve erased and then reactivated memories, and even transferred memories from one brain to another. Most of this work has only become possible thanks to optogenetics – the science of communicating with genetically programmed neurons via tiny pulses of light. Unlike the old techniques of electrical stimulation, optogenetics gives investigators a high level of precision when it comes to detecting, predicting, and controlling exactly how specific neurons behave. But this year, a team of researchers at MIT took optogenetic precision to a new level. They taught mice to fear a certain area of their enclosure where they’d get an electric shock – and then they managed to isolate not just that memory, but solely the fear component of the memory. They then reactivated this fear when the mice went to flirt with females – and the mice fled in terror. Although this might sound like supervillain technology – and it certainly could have that implication – it may also someday enable us to “amputate” the fear from traumatic memories, while leaving the memories themselves intact.
1. The Consciousness Switch
In August 2014, a bizarre paper appeared in a little-known scientific journal called Epilepsy & Behavior. It didn’t get a huge amount of press, but its implications for neuroscience and psychology – and for philosophy – may be huge. In the study, researchers at George Washington University plugged some wires into a woman’s brain, and disrupted the electrical activity of a brain area known as the claustrum. Each time they zapped this area, the woman lost conscious awareness, but – here’s the kicker – she remained awake. She just stopped responding and stared blankly into space; and when the electrical stimulation stopped, she regained awareness with no memory of the lapse. Although this is just the behavior of one woman’s brain, it’s eerily reminiscent of a prediction made by Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA. In an intriguing 2005 paper with neuroscientist Cristof Koch, Crick argued that the claustrum – the same brain area these researchers stimulated – looks like an ideal candidate for many of the functions associated with consciousness. Until this year, no one had put that theory to the test – but if these results can be confirmed, we may be well on the way to answering some of our oldest and most profound questions about ourselves.
And there you have it: The Connectome’s picks for the discoveries that changed the neuroscience world this year – or are poised to change it in the near future. Some of them didn’t get a lot of press; some came from small journals; some remain controversial; but each of them brought some genuinely new and creative concepts to the field. You might disagree, though – so speak up in the comments and tell us!