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The Brain

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Spectre in the Contraption.

“Since time immemorial, humans have traded stories about ghosts and wraiths — haunting presences that are strongly felt but never seen. Mountaineers often report feeling an unseen presence keeping in step beside them…Blanke was seeing the same phenomenon at work in his patient, but with one critical difference: he could turn it on and off.”

In a nifty experiment involving movement-mimicking robots and a brief time delay, scientists uncover a potential neurological basis for sensing ghostly phenomena. “The mismatched sensory and motor information confused their brains…If those…didn’t match up, my brain would revise its perception of reality to account for the discrepancies. Maybe I’m not inside my body at all, it might think. Maybe I’m over there.”

Also, the Cheese is a Trap.

“The researchers had mice run through a maze to get a reward of chocolate milk. The animals could figure out the location of the reward either through sensory cues such as rough or smooth floors, which corresponds to declarative learning. Or, they could discover the reward was always linked to either a left or right turn, which corresponds to procedural learning. The investigators discovered the mice with the human form of FOXP2 learned profoundly faster than regular mice when both declarative and procedural forms of learning were involved.”

Scared and smarter: In an experiment right out of the The Secret of NIMH, researchers discover that mice learn faster after being given a gene linked to human speech. ‘What surprised me most was that the humanized gene actually improved the animal’s behavior rather than messing up the system.'” Remember…Dubya did try to warn us.

Better Napping Through Chemistry.

“But here’s the trick of the coffee nap: sleeping naturally clears adenosine from the brain. If you nap for longer than 15 or 20 minutes, your brain is more likely to enter deeper stages of sleep that take some time to recover from. But shorter naps generally don’t lead to this so-called ‘sleep inertia’ — and it takes around 20 minutes for the caffeine to get through your gastrointestinal tract and bloodstream anyway.”

Citing various recent research, Vox’s Joseph Stromberg extols the benefits of the coffee nap. “So if you nap for those 20 minutes, you’ll reduce your levels of adenosine just in time for the caffeine to kick in. The caffeine will have less adenosine to compete with, and will thereby be even more effective in making you alert.” And just imagine how much more fulfilling a Red Bull-Guinness-Coffee-Nap would be.

Rdng is Fndmtl.



“[W]hat Spritz does differently (and brilliantly) is manipulate the format of the words to more appropriately line them up with the eye’s natural motion of reading. The ‘Optimal Recognition Point’ (ORP) is slightly left of the center of each word, and is the precise point at which our brain deciphers each jumble of letters. The unique aspect of Spritz is that it identifies the ORP of each word, makes that letter red and presents all of the ORPs at the same space on the screen. In this way, our eyes don’t move at all as we see the words, and we can therefore process information instantaneously rather than spend time decoding each word.”

Whoa…I’ve read about kung-fu. An intriguing new app aims to turn everyone into speed readers. “Spritz is about to go public with Samsung’s new line of wearable technology.”

The Morality of the Tribe.

“[I]f you’re like the average American, here’s a fact you don’t know: in 1953, the United States sponsored a coup in Iran, overthrowing a democratically elected government and installing a brutally repressive regime that ruled for decades. Iranians, on the other hand, are very aware of this, which helps explain why, to this day, many of them are gravely suspicious of American intentions…This is the way the brain works: you forget your sins (or never recognize them in the first place) and remember your grievances.”

In a long piece at The Atlantic, Robert Wright ponders recent arguments about the biological basis of morality. “If Greene thinks that getting people to couch their moral arguments in a highly reasonable language will make them highly reasonable, I think he’s underestimating the cleverness and ruthlessness with which our inner animals pursue natural selection’s agenda. We seem designed to twist moral discourse — whatever language it’s framed in — to selfish or tribal ends, and to remain conveniently unaware of the twisting.”

Of Mice and Memory.


“‘Prof Roger Morris, from King’s College London, said: “This finding, I suspect, will be judged by history as a turning point in the search for medicines to control and prevent Alzheimer’s disease.’ He told the BBC a cure for Alzheimer’s was not imminent but: I’m very excited, it’s the first proof in any living animal that you can delay neurodegeneration. The world won’t change tomorrow, but this is a landmark study.'”

Some good news for a change, by way of Dangerous Meta: Scientists have developed (for mice, at least) what appears to be a breakthrough drug that could prevent Alzheimers and other neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s(!):

When a virus hijacks a brain cell it leads to a build-up of viral proteins. Cells respond by shutting down nearly all protein production in order to halt the virus’s spread. However, many neurodegenerative diseases involve the production of faulty or ‘misfolded’ proteins. These activate the same defences, but with more severe consequences…The researchers used a compound which prevented those defence mechanisms kicking in and in turn halted neurodegeneration.”

We…learn. We…feed.


“‘Slime mould’s remarkable problem-solving capabilities are well-documented and include finding the shortest path between different food sources. It also displays memory, in a similar way to a novel electrical component called a memristor, which has in turn been likened to the functionality of biological brains. ‘It’s one of the simplest organisms that can learn,’ says Gale.”

And now, IT HAS A FACE. Scientists program an old-timey robot to dramatize the electrical signals emanating from slime mold. In a 100,000 years, this is going to seem like one of those Skynet-level bad ideas. And the hat is particularly creepy touch — Very Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Sleep: Nature’s Reset Button.

“More than 20 years ago…we began to suspect that the brain’s activity during slumber may somehow restore to a baseline state the billions of neural connections that get modified every day by the events of waking life. Sleep, in this telling, would preserve the ability of the brain’s circuitry to form new memories continually over the course of an individual’s lifetime without becoming oversaturated or obliterating older memories.”

More Science of Sleep: In Scientific American, two Italian academics put forward their “synaptic homeostasis hypothesis” (SHY) of slumber, whereby the brain weakens (not strengthens, as is usually assumed) synaptic links overnight. “In principle, SHY explains the essential, universal purpose of sleep…sleep restores the brain to a state where it can learn and adapt when we are awake…Most generally, sleep is the price we pay for the brain’s plasticity — its ability to modify its wiring in response to experience.”

Also part of SHY: the idea of “local sleep”: “Recently we have even found that prolonged or intense use of certain circuits can make local groups of neurons ‘fall asleep’ even though the rest of the brain (and the organism itself) remains awake…It seems that when we have been awake for too long or have overexerted certain circuits, small chunks of the brain may take quick naps without giving notice.” I believe in Internet parlance this is known as “haz-ing the dumb.”

Good News, Coffee Achievers.

“In one large-scale epidemiological study from last year, researchers primarily at the National Cancer Institute parsed health information from more than 400,000 volunteers, ages 50 to 71, who were free of major diseases at the study’s start in 1995…men who reported drinking two or three cups of coffee a day were 10 percent less likely to have died than those who didn’t drink coffee, while women drinking the same amount had 13 percent less risk of dying during the study.”

Better living through chemistry: The NYT’s Gretchen Reynolds touts the potential medical benefits of caffeine addiction. “Participants with little or no caffeine circulating in their bloodstreams were far more likely to have progressed to full-blown Alzheimer’s than those whose blood indicated they’d had about three cups’ worth of caffeine.” Factor in all the taurine I consume to boot, and I’m disco.

The Pleasures of the Void.

“I slid the blackout door closed behind me, eased down into the water, and touched a button that switched off the lights. I was floating in total darkness and silence…For what must have been the first 15 minutes, I wondered what I was doing there…Then a transformation began…My brain went a little haywire. When the storm passed, I found myself in a new and unfamiliar state of mind.”

To kick off his new Slate column “Anything Once,” friend Seth Stevenson finds himself reveling in the sensation of sensory deprivation. “I emerged in a profound daze. I spoke slowly and quietly, like a smooth-jazz DJ, to the person at the spa desk who inquired how my session had gone. I felt more rested than if I’d slept for 16 hours on a pile of tranquilized chinchillas. Outside, colors were saturated; sounds were vivid. I had to try this again, as soon as possible.”

Don’t Sleep on Second Sleep.

“In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks…Today, most people seem to have adapted quite well to the eight-hour sleep, but Ekirch believes many sleeping problems may have roots in the human body’s natural preference for segmented sleep as well as the ubiquity of artificial light.”

When you’re lying awake at night, it’s alright: BBC’s Stephanie Hegarty delves into pre-industrial sleep habits and discovers that eight hours of uninterrupted sleep may be a recent invention. “Much like the experience of Wehr’s subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep. ‘It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,’ Ekirch says.”

Braaaaaiiiiiiiiiins.

“‘Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar,’ he said. ‘Today our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s. They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.'”

President Obama makes the case for federal investment in the Brain Activity Map Project. (You heard it here first, tinfoil hat people. The tyranny of the Kenyan socialist will not stop at your precious bodily fluids — He’s going to read your brainwaves too!) Seriously, though, investing in basic scientific research like this is, er, a no-brainer. It creates jobs while advancing the frontiers of human knowledge in all kinds of unanticipated ways. We’d be stupid not to support this — which means, of course, the jury’s still out on whether we will.

Update: “BAM is an acronym you’ll probably be hearing a lot in the weeks and months to come — so let’s talk about what the BAM project is, what it isn’t, and why it’s raising both interest and eyebrows throughout the scientific community.” Io9 has more.

Those Infectious Ideas.

“When we learn something new, our neurons tear down old connections and build new ones. In the process they cast off lots of molecules. To the immune system, this waste may look like an infection or some other kind of trouble, resulting in inflammation and the release of harsh compounds that normally fight viruses but can also interfere with the brain and its function.”

A novel path of brain research suggests our immune system may play a key role in determining intelligence. “The same T cells that protect the brain from inflammation also work to keep us sharp; and in what appears to be a feedback loop, the mere act of learning reinforces the effect.”

The Lightbulb Goes Off.


“The researchers used a new technique to record the footage: a super-sensitive fluorescent probe that detects neuron activity. That lets us see neurons glowing when they’re active — and the cascade of light you see…is the neuronal response of a zebrafish responding to the presence of its prey. In other words, you’re seeing what the fish thinks when it sees its lunch.”

Also in decoding-the-brain news, Japanese scientists visually capture the creation of a zebrafish’s thought. “[W]e shouldn’t play this down: this is a fundamental leap forward in our understanding of how brains work.”

570 Channels (And Nothin’ On).

“‘We don’t know whether the media multitasking is causing symptoms of depression and social anxiety, or if it’s that people who are depressed and anxious are turning to media multitasking as a form of distraction from their problems,’ Becker said in a statement.”

And here I thought Netflix and Warcraft went so well together: A new Michigan State study finds a correlation between depression and multi-tasking media. I wonder if the obverse is true also. One of the many reasons I love seeing a movie in the theater is that (ideally) nothing else but the film is impinging on my attention.

I feel worse already.

‘The work shows that processes like placebo and nocebo happen without us being aware of the cues that trigger them,’ said Jensen. ‘We get these responses due to associative learning. We don’t need somebody standing there saying ‘ok, now you will feel less pain’. It’s being elicited naturally, and without us being aware, all the time.’

A new study finds that subliminal cues help create the placebo effect (and its opposite, the “nocebo effect”)…although, reading the overview of the experiment here, the conclusion sounds more like: People will subliminally recoil from bad things that happen to them.

Target Acquired.

“Then, Daphne Bavelier of Rochester University began publishing studies showing that computer games improved the vision of people with normal eyesight. I couldn’t help but wonder: If they helped the normally sighted, why not people with impairments? Also, I saw studies where enriched environments for rats improved aspects of vision damaged after early deprivation. Well, what’s an enriched visual environment for a human? It might be a computer game. I thought, ‘Click, why not give it a try?'”

Developmental psychiatrist Nancy Maurer discusses her findings that playing first-person-shooters helps people born with cataracts to improve their vision. “I’m a reader. My husband and I don’t have children. So computer games wouldn’t be a part of our lives. I’ve never played one. I can’t imagine enjoying playing one.

Rolling the Clocks Back.

[T]his new method changes everything. To start with, it uses normal adult blood cells from the patient, so there’s not need to keep umbilical cords in storage. It also doesn’t use any virus reprogramming, so it’s completely safe. It’s also very efficient: researchers successfully transformed about 50 to 60 percent of adult blood cells into embryonic stem cells that can then be turn into any type of cell—a heart muscle cell, a bone cell, a nerve cell, anything.

By way of Dangerous Meta, researchers figure out a way to manufacture embryonic stem cells without an embryo, thus clearing the path for future research in that direction unhampered by abortion politics. “The discovery could be the key to cure the incurable – from heart attacks to severed spinal cord to cancer—and open the door, some day, to eternal youth.

With Age comes Wisdom…er, Mutations.

Although older mothers are at higher risk for complications such as diabetes during pregnancy and are more likely to have children with chromosomal disorders such as Down syndrome, the study found that practically all of the new mutations detected in children came from the father.

To me, children of the atom: A scientific study suggests that progeny of older men are more prone to mutations like autism, schizophrenia, telekinesis, and whatnot. “A man aged 29.7 at the time he fathered a child contributed 63 new mutations on average to his offspring, the authors found, and a man aged 46.2 contributed 126 mutations — a doubling, the authors calculated.” My biological clock is ticking like this…

We’ll see how smart you are when the K-9 comes…


Chaser proved to be a diligent student. Unlike human children, she seems to love her drills and tests and is always asking for more. ‘She still demands four to five hours a day,” Dr. Pilley said. “I’m 82, and I have to go to bed to get away from her.‘”

The NYT tells the tale of Chaser, a border collie with a vocabulary of over 1000 words now. “Dr. Pilley said that most border collies, with special training, ‘could be pretty close to where Chaser is.’…Dr. Horowitz agreed: ‘It is not necessarily Chaser or Rico who is exceptional; it is the attention that is lavished on them,” she said.’” (Sorry, Berk…At least I taught you bacon and tacos — you know, the important stuff.)

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