Category: Nervous System

Where does intelligence come from?

By Hugo Angel,

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It is amazing how intelligent we can be. We can construct shelter, find new ways of hunting, and create boats and machines. Our unique intelligence has been responsible for the emergence of civilization.
But how does a set of living cells become intelligent? How can flesh and blood turn into something that can create bicycles and airplanes or write novels?
This is the question of the origin of intelligence.
This problem has puzzled many theorists and scientists, and it is particularly important if we want to build intelligent machines. They still lag well behind us. Although computers calculate millions of times faster than we do, it is we who understand the big picture in which these calculations fit. Even animals are much more intelligent than machines. A mouse can find its way in a hostile forest and survive. This cannot be said for our computers or robots.
The question of how to achieve intelligence remains a mystery for scientists.
Recently, however a new theory has been proposed that may resolve this very question. The theory is called practopoiesis and is founded in the most fundamental capability of all biological organisms—their ability to adapt.
Darwin’s theory of evolution describes one way how our genomes adapt. By creating offspring new combinations of genes are tested; the good ones are kept and the bad ones are disposed of. The result is a genome better adapted to the environment.
Practopoiesis tells us that somewhat similar adaptation mechanisms of trials and errors occur while an organism grows, while it digests food and also, while it acts intelligently or thinks.
For example, the growth of our body is not precisely programmed by the genes. Instead, our genes perform experiments, which require feedback from the environment and corrections of errors. Only with trial and errors can our body properly grow.
Our genes contain an elaborate knowledge of which experiments need to be done, and this knowledge of trial-and-error approaches has been acquired through eons of evolution. We kept whatever worked well for our ancestors.
However, this knowledge alone is not enough to make us intelligent.
To create intelligent behavior such as thinking, decision making, understanding a poem, or simply detecting one’s friend in a crowd of strangers, our bodies require yet another type of trial-and-error knowledge. There are mechanisms in our body that also contain elaborate knowledge for experimenting, but they are much faster. The knowledge of these mechanisms is not collected through evolution but through the development over the lifetime of an individual.
These fast adaptive mechanisms continually adjust the big network of our connected nerve cells. These adaptation mechanisms can change in an eye-blink the way the brain networks are effectively connected. It may take less than a second to make a change necessary to recognize one’s own grandmother, or to make a decision, or to get a new idea on how to solve a problem.
The slow and the fast adaptive mechanisms share one thing: They cannot be successful without receiving feedback and thus iterating through several stages of trial and error; for example, testing several possibilities of who this person in distance could be.
Practopoiesis states that the slow and fast adaptive mechanisms are collectively responsible for creation of intelligence and are organized into a hierarchy. 
  • First, evolution creates genes at a painstakingly slow tempo. Then genes slowly create the mechanisms of fast adaptations
  • Next, adaptation mechanisms change the properties of our nerve cells within seconds
  • And finally, the resulting adjusted networks of nerve cells route sensory signals to muscles with the speed of lightning. 
  • At the end behavior is created.
Probably the most groundbreaking aspect of practopoietic theory is that our intelligent minds are not primarily located in the connectivity matrix of our neural networks, as it has been widely held, but instead in the elaborate knowledge of the fast adaptive mechanisms. The more knowledge our genes store into our quick abilities to adapt nerve cells, the more capability we have to adjust in novel situations, solve problems, and generally, act intelligently.
Therefore, our intelligence seems to come from the hierarchy of adaptive mechanisms, from the very slow evolution that enables the genome to adapt over a lifetime, to the quick pace of neural adaptation expressing knowledge acquired through its lifetime. Only when these adaptations have been performed successfully can our networks of neurons perform tasks with wonderful accuracy.
Our capability to survive and create originates, then, 
  • from the adaptive mechanisms that operate at different levels and 
  • the vast amounts of knowledge accumulated by each of the levels.
 The combined result of all of them together is what makes us intelligent.
May 16, 2016
Danko Nikolić
About the Author:
Danko Nikolić is a brain and mind scientist, running an electrophysiology lab at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, and is the creator of the concept of ideasthesia. More about practopoiesis can be read here

Research on largest network of cortical neurons to date published in Nature

By Hugo Angel,

Robust network of connections between neurons performing similar tasks shows fundamentals of how brain circuits are wired
Even the simplest networks of neurons in the brain are composed of millions of connections, and examining these vast networks is critical to understanding how the brain works. An international team of researchers, led by R. Clay Reid, Wei Chung Allen Lee and Vincent Bonin from the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Harvard Medical School and Neuro-Electronics Research Flanders (NERF), respectively, has published the largest network to date of connections between neurons in the cortex, where high-level processing occurs, and have revealed several crucial elements of how networks in the brain are organized. The results are published this week in the journal Nature.
A network of cortical neurons whose connections were traced from a multi-terabyte 3D data set. The data were created by an electron microscope designed and built at Harvard Medical School to collect millions of images in nanoscopic detail, so that every one of the “wires” could be seen, along with the connections between them. Some of the neurons are color-coded according to their activity patterns in the living brain. This is the newest example of functional connectomics, which combines high-throughput functional imaging, at single-cell resolution, with terascale anatomy of the very same neurons. Image credit: Clay Reid, Allen Institute; Wei-Chung Lee, Harvard Medical School; Sam Ingersoll, graphic artist
This is a culmination of a research program that began almost ten years ago. Brain networks are too large and complex to understand piecemeal, so we used high-throughput techniques to collect huge data sets of brain activity and brain wiring,” says R. Clay Reid, M.D., Ph.D., Senior Investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. “But we are finding that the effort is absolutely worthwhile and that we are learning a tremendous amount about the structure of networks in the brain, and ultimately how the brain’s structure is linked to its function.
Although this study is a landmark moment in a substantial chapter of work, it is just the beginning,” says Wei-Chung Lee, Ph.D., Instructor in Neurobiology at Harvard Medicine School and lead author on the paper. “We now have the tools to embark on reverse engineering the brain by discovering relationships between circuit wiring and neuronal and network computations.” 
For decades, researchers have studied brain activity and wiring in isolation, unable to link the two,” says Vincent Bonin, Principal Investigator at Neuro-Electronics Research Flanders. “What we have achieved is to bridge these two realms with unprecedented detail, linking electrical activity in neurons with the nanoscale synaptic connections they make with one another.
We have found some of the first anatomical evidence for modular architecture in a cortical network as well as the structural basis for functionally specific connectivity between neurons,” Lee adds. “The approaches we used allowed us to define the organizational principles of neural circuits. We are now poised to discover cortical connectivity motifs, which may act as building blocks for cerebral network function.
Lee and Bonin began by identifying neurons in the mouse visual cortex that responded to particular visual stimuli, such as vertical or horizontal bars on a screen. Lee then made ultra-thin slices of brain and captured millions of detailed images of those targeted cells and synapses, which were then reconstructed in three dimensions. Teams of annotators on both coasts of the United States simultaneously traced individual neurons through the 3D stacks of images and located connections between individual neurons.
Analyzing this wealth of data yielded several results, including the first direct structural evidence to support the idea that neurons that do similar tasks are more likely to be connected to each other than neurons that carry out different tasks. Furthermore, those connections are larger, despite the fact that they are tangled with many other neurons that perform entirely different functions.
Part of what makes this study unique is the combination of functional imaging and detailed microscopy,” says Reid. “The microscopic data is of unprecedented scale and detail. We gain some very powerful knowledge by first learning what function a particular neuron performs, and then seeing how it connects with neurons that do similar or dissimilar things.
It’s like a symphony orchestra with players sitting in random seats,” Reid adds. “If you listen to only a few nearby musicians, it won’t make sense. By listening to everyone, you will understand the music; it actually becomes simpler. If you then ask who each musician is listening to, you might even figure out how they make the music. There’s no conductor, so the orchestra needs to communicate.
This combination of methods will also be employed in an IARPA contracted project with the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Baylor College of Medicine, and Princeton University, which seeks to scale these methods to a larger segment of brain tissue. The data of the present study is being made available online for other researchers to investigate.
This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (R01 EY10115, R01 NS075436 and R21 NS085320); through resources provided by the National Resource for Biomedical Supercomputing at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (P41 RR06009) and the National Center for Multiscale Modeling of Biological Systems (P41 GM103712); the Harvard Medical School Vision Core Grant (P30 EY12196); the Bertarelli Foundation; the Edward R. and Anne G. Lefler Center; the Stanley and Theodora Feldberg Fund; Neuro-Electronics Research Flanders (NERF); and the Allen Institute for Brain Science.
About the Allen Institute for Brain Science
The Allen Institute for Brain Science, a division of the Allen Institute (, is an independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit medical research organization dedicated to accelerating the understanding of how the human brain works in health and disease. Using a big science approach, the Allen Institute generates useful public resources used by researchers and organizations around the globe, drives technological and analytical advances, and discovers fundamental brain properties through integration of experiments, modeling and theory. Launched in 2003 with a seed contribution from founder and philanthropist Paul G. Allen, the Allen Institute is supported by a diversity of government, foundation and private funds to enable its projects. Given the Institute’s achievements, Mr. Allen committed an additional $300 million in 2012 for the first four years of a ten-year plan to further propel and expand the Institute’s scientific programs, bringing his total commitment to date to $500 million. The Allen Institute’s data and tools are publicly available online at
About Harvard Medical School
HMS has more than 7,500 full-time faculty working in 10 academic departments located at the School’s Boston campus or in hospital-based clinical departments at 15 Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals and research institutes: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston Children’s Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Cambridge Health Alliance, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, Hebrew SeniorLife, Joslin Diabetes Center, Judge Baker Children’s Center, Massachusetts Eye and Ear/Schepens Eye Research Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital, Mount Auburn Hospital, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and VA Boston Healthcare System.
About NERF
Neuro-Electronics Research Flanders (NERF; is a neurotechnology research initiative is headquartered in Leuven, Belgium initiated by imec, KU Leuven and VIB to unravel how electrical activity in the brain gives rise to mental function and behaviour. Imec performs world-leading research in nanoelectronics and has offices in Belgium, the Netherlands, Taiwan, USA, China, India and Japan. Its staff of about 2,200 people includes almost 700 industrial residents and guest researchers. In 2014, imec’s revenue (P&L) totaled 363 million euro. VIB is a life sciences research institute in Flanders, Belgium. With more than 1470 scientists from over 60 countries, VIB performs basic research into the molecular foundations of life. KU Leuven is one of the oldest and largest research universities in Europe with over 10,000 employees and 55,000 students.
ORIGINAL: Allen Institute
March 28th, 2016

Brain waves may be spread by weak electrical field

By Hugo Angel,

The research team says the electrical fields could be behind the spread of sleep and theta waves, along with epileptic seizure waves (Credit:Shutterstock)
Mechanism tied to waves associated with epilepsy
Researchers at Case Western Reserve University may have found a new way information is communicated throughout the brain.
Their discovery could lead to identifying possible new targets to investigate brain waves associated with memory and epilepsy and better understand healthy physiology.
They recorded neural spikes traveling at a speed too slow for known mechanisms to circulate throughout the brain. The only explanation, the scientists say, is the wave is spread by a mild electrical field they could detect. Computer modeling and in-vitro testing support their theory.
Others have been working on such phenomena for decades, but no one has ever made these connections,” said Steven J. Schiff, director of the Center for Neural Engineering at Penn State University, who was not involved in the study. “The implications are that such directed fields can be used to modulate both pathological activities, such as seizures, and to interact with cognitive rhythms that help regulate a variety of processes in the brain.
Scientists Dominique Durand, Elmer Lincoln Lindseth Professor in Biomedical Engineering at Case School of Engineering and leader of the research, former graduate student Chen Sui and current PhD students Rajat Shivacharan and Mingming Zhang, report their findings in The Journal of Neuroscience.
Researchers have thought that the brain’s endogenous electrical fields are too weak to propagate wave transmission,” Durand said. “But it appears the brain may be using the fields to communicate without synaptic transmissions, gap junctions or diffusion.
How the fields may work
Computer modeling and testing on mouse hippocampi (the central part of the brain associated with memory and spatial navigation) in the lab indicate the field begins in one cell or group of cells.
Although the electrical field is of low amplitude, the field excites and activates immediate neighbors, which, in turn, excite and activate immediate neighbors, and so on across the brain at a rate of about 0.1 meter per second.
Blocking the endogenous electrical field in the mouse hippocampus and increasing the distance between cells in the computer model and in-vitro both slowed the speed of the wave.
These results, the researchers say, confirm that the propagation mechanism for the activity is consistent with the electrical field.
Because sleep waves and theta waves–which are associated with forming memories during sleep–and epileptic seizure waves travel at about 1 meter per second, the researchers are now investigating whether the electrical fields play a role in normal physiology and in epilepsy.
If so, they will try to discern what information the fields may be carrying. Durand’s lab is also investigating where the endogenous spikes come from.
ORIGINAL: Eurkalert

Memory capacity of brain is 10 times more than previously thought

By Hugo Angel,

Data from the Salk Institute shows brain’s memory capacity is in the petabyte range, as much as entire Web

LA JOLLA—Salk researchers and collaborators have achieved critical insight into the size of neural connections, putting the memory capacity of the brain far higher than common estimates. The new work also answers a longstanding question as to how the brain is so energy efficient and could help engineers build computers that are incredibly powerful but also conserve energy.
This is a real bombshell in the field of neuroscience,” said Terry Sejnowski from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. “Our new measurements of the brain’s memory capacity increase conservative estimates by a factor of 10 to at least a petabyte (215 Bytes = 1000 TeraBytes), in the same ballpark as the World Wide Web.
Our memories and thoughts are the result of patterns of electrical and chemical activity in the brain. A key part of the activity happens when branches of neurons, much like electrical wire, interact at certain junctions, known as synapses. An output ‘wire’ (an axon) from one neuron connects to an input ‘wire’ (a dendrite) of a second neuron. Signals travel across the synapse as chemicals called neurotransmitters to tell the receiving neuron whether to convey an electrical signal to other neurons. Each neuron can have thousands of these synapses with thousands of other neurons.
When we first reconstructed every dendrite, axon, glial process, and synapse from a volume of hippocampus the size of a single red blood cell, we were somewhat bewildered by the complexity and diversity amongst the synapses,” says Kristen Harris, co-senior author of the work and professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas, Austin. “While I had hoped to learn fundamental principles about how the brain is organized from these detailed reconstructions, I have been truly amazed at the precision obtained in the analyses of this report.
Synapses are still a mystery, though their dysfunction can cause a range of neurological diseases. Larger synapses—with more surface area and vesicles of neurotransmitters—are stronger, making them more likely to activate their surrounding neurons than medium or small synapses.
The Salk team, while building a 3D reconstruction of rat hippocampus tissue (the memory center of the brain), noticed something unusual. In some cases, a single axon from one neuron formed two synapses reaching out to a single dendrite of a second neuron, signifying that the first neuron seemed to be sending a duplicate message to the receiving neuron.
At first, the researchers didn’t think much of this duplicity, which occurs about 10 percent of the time in the hippocampus. But Tom Bartol, a Salk staff scientist, had an idea: if they could measure the difference between two very similar synapses such as these, they might glean insight into synaptic sizes, which so far had only been classified in the field as small, medium and large.
In a computational reconstruction of brain tissue in the hippocampus, Salk scientists and UT-Austin scientists found the unusual occurrence of two synapses from the axon of one neuron (translucent black strip) forming onto two spines on the same dendrite of a second neuron (yellow). Separate terminals from one neuron’s axon are shown in synaptic contact with two spines (arrows) on the same dendrite of a second neuron in the hippocampus. The spine head volumes, synaptic contact areas (red), neck diameters (gray) and number of presynaptic vesicles (white spheres) of these two synapses are almost identical. Credit: Salk Institut
To do this, researchers used advanced microscopy and computational algorithms they had developed to image rat brains and reconstruct the connectivity, shapes, volumes and surface area of the brain tissue down to a nanomolecular level.
The scientists expected the synapses would be roughly similar in size, but were surprised to discover the synapses were nearly identical.
We were amazed to find that the difference in the sizes of the pairs of synapses were very small, on average, only about 8 percent different in size,” said Tom Bartol, one of the scientists. “No one thought it would be such a small difference. This was a curveball from nature.
Because the memory capacity of neurons is dependent upon synapse size, this eight percent difference turned out to be a key number the team could then plug into their algorithmic models of the brain to measure how much information could potentially be stored in synaptic connections.
It was known before that the range in sizes between the smallest and largest synapses was a factor of 60 and that most are small.
But armed with the knowledge that synapses of all sizes could vary in increments as little as eight percent between sizes within a factor of 60, the team determined there could be about 26 categories of sizes of synapses, rather than just a few.
Our data suggests there are 10 times more discrete sizes of synapses than previously thought,” says Bartol. In computer terms, 26 sizes of synapses correspond to about 4.7 “bits” of information. Previously, it was thought that the brain was capable of just one to two bits for short and long memory storage in the hippocampus.
This is roughly an order of magnitude of precision more than anyone has ever imagined,” said Sejnowski.
What makes this precision puzzling is that hippocampal synapses are notoriously unreliable. When a signal travels from one neuron to another, it typically activates that second neuron only 10 to 20 percent of the time.
We had often wondered how the remarkable precision of the brain can come out of such unreliable synapses,” says Bartol. One answer, it seems, is in the constant adjustment of synapses, averaging out their success and failure rates over time. The team used their new data and a statistical model to find out how many signals it would take a pair of synapses to get to that eight percent difference.
The researchers calculated that
  • for the smallest synapses, about 1,500 events cause a change in their size/ability (20 minutes) and
  • for the largest synapses, only a couple hundred signaling events (1 to 2 minutes) cause a change.
This means that every 2 or 20 minutes, your synapses are going up or down to the next size,” said Bartol. “The synapses are adjusting themselves according to the signals they receive.
From left: Terry Sejnowski, Cailey Bromer and Tom Bartol. Credit: Salk Institute
Our prior work had hinted at the possibility that spines and axons that synapse together would be similar in size, but the reality of the precision is truly remarkable and lays the foundation for whole new ways to think about brains and computers,” says Harris. “The work resulting from this collaboration has opened a new chapter in the search for learning and memory mechanisms.” Harris adds that the findings suggest more questions to explore, for example, if similar rules apply for synapses in other regions of the brain and how those rules differ during development and as synapses change during the initial stages of learning.
The implications of what we found are far-reaching. Hidden under the apparent chaos and messiness of the brain is an underlying precision to the size and shapes of synapses that was hidden from us.
The findings also offer a valuable explanation for the brain’s surprising efficiency. The waking adult brain generates only about 20 watts of continuous power—as much as a very dim light bulb. The Salk discovery could help computer scientists build ultra-precise but energy-efficient computers, particularly ones that employ deep learning and neural nets techniques capable of sophisticated learning and analysis, such as speech, object recognition and translation.
This trick of the brain absolutely points to a way to design better computers,”said Sejnowski. “Using probabilistic transmission turns out to be as accurate and require much less energy for both computers and brains.
Other authors on the paper were Cailey Bromer of the Salk Institute; Justin Kinney of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research; and Michael A. Chirillo and Jennifer N. Bourne of the University of Texas, Austin.
The work was supported by the NIH and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
January 20, 2016

Scientists have discovered brain networks linked to intelligence for the first time

By Hugo Angel,

Neurons Shutterstock 265323554_1024
And we may even be able to manipulate them.
For the first time ever, scientists have identified clusters of genes in the brain that are believed to be linked to human intelligence.
The two clusters, called M1 and M3, are networks each consisting of hundreds of individual genes, and are thought to influence our

  • cognitive functions, including 
  • memory, 
  • attention, 
  • processing speed, and 
  • reasoning.
Most provocatively, the researchers who identified M1 and M3 say that these clusters are probably under the control of master switches that regulate how the gene networks function. If this hypothesis is correct and scientists can indeed find these switches, we might even be able to manipulate our genetic intelligence and boost our cognitive capabilities.
“We know that genetics plays a major role in intelligence but until now haven’t known which genes are relevant,said neurologist Michael Johnson, at Imperial College London in the UK. “This research highlights some of the genes involved in human intelligence, and how they interact with each other.
The researchers made their discovery by examining the brains of patients who had undergone neurosurgery for the treatment of epilepsy. They analysed thousands of genes expressed in the brain and combined the findings with two sets of data: genetic information from healthy people who had performed IQ tests, and from people with neurological disorders and intellectual disability.
Comparing the results, the researchers discovered that some of the genes that influence human intelligence in healthy people can also cause significant neurological problems if they end up mutating.
Traits such as intelligence are governed by large groups of genes working together – like a football team made up of players in different positions,said Johnson. “We used computer analysis to identify the genes in the human brain that work together to influence our cognitive ability to make new memories or sensible decisions when faced with lots of complex information. We found that some of these genes overlap with those that cause severe childhood onset epilepsy or intellectual disability.
The research, which is reported in Nature Neuroscience, is at an early stage, but the authors believe their analysis could have a significant impact – not only on how we understand and treat brain diseases, but one day perhaps altering brainpower itself.
Eventually, we hope that this sort of analysis will provide new insights into better treatments for neurodevelopmental diseases such as epilepsy, and ameliorate or treat the cognitive impairments associated with these devastating diseases,” said Johnson. “Our research suggests that it might be possible to work with these genes to modify intelligence, but that is only a theoretical possibility at the moment – we have just taken a first step along that road.
ORIGINAL: Science Alert
22 DEC 2015

The world’s first true “smart drug” enhances cognition and is deemed safe by health experts

By admin,

A perfect start to the day.(Carsten Schertzer/Flickr CC-BY)
Most people looking for a cognitive boost in the morning reach for a cup of coffee or tea. But all caffeine really does is lift up your mood and improve focus, and that is why it isn’t considered a “pure cognitive enhancer.”
There is, however, a real contender for that title: modafnil (also sold as Provigil). This drug—normally used to treat a sleep disorder—may be the world’s first true smart drug, according to a new systematic review. It 
  • enhances attention, 
  • improves learning, and
  •  boosts “fluid intelligence”—which we use to solve problems and think creatively
And it does all that without the addictive qualities of caffeine (also without the delicious variety of drinkable formats, but that’s arguably a small price to pay).
We don’t fully understand how the drug works, but one theory is that it enhances brain activity in areas that manage those skills. The review, published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology, considers 24 placebo-controlled studies of healthy, non-sleep-deprived people conducted between 1990 and 2014. Such an analysis overcomes some of the limitations of each of the smaller studies, such as narrow demographics or conflicting results, and draws an overarching conclusion.
Modafnil has been around for a long time, and its off-label use as smart drug is well-known in some circles. It is increasingly used by students across US and UK universities. A 2008 poll of readers of the science journal Nature, for example, found that nearly half admitted to using modafnil as a cognitive enhancer.
What’s lacking is long-term data—important because study of other promising enhancers has shown that the effect may not last over time. Crucially, however, the new systematic review deems modafnil safe for widespread use. Some previous studies had shown that modafnil led to a small drop in creativity in highly creative people, but the new review says that those negative effects are not seen consistently.
The use of cognitive enhancers is seen by many as cheating, and it is often compared to doping in sports. However, Joao Fabiano, a researcher at the University of Oxford, argues that modafnil’s use should not be seen any differently than caffeine’s. If anything, given that modafnil does more than caffeine, without the downside of addiction, perhaps we should put down that double shot of espresso and take a pill instead.
The cropped image is provided by Carsten Schertzer on Flickr under a CC-BY license.

First almost fully-formed human brain grown in lab, researchers claim

By admin,

Research team say tiny brain could be used to test drugs and study diseases, but scientific peers urge caution as data on breakthrough kept under wraps
The tiny brain, which resembles that of a five-week-old foetus, is not conscious. Photograph: Ohio State University
An almost fully-formed human brain has been grown in a lab for the first time, claim scientists from Ohio State University. The team behind the feat hope the brain could transform our understanding of neurological disease.
Though not conscious the miniature brain, which resembles that of a five-week-old foetus, could potentially be useful for scientists who want to study the progression of developmental diseases. It could also be used to test drugs for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, since the regions they affect are in place during an early stage of brain development.
The brain, which is about the size of a pencil eraser, is engineered from adult human skin cells and is the most complete human brain model yet developed, claimed Rene Anand of Ohio State University, Columbus, who presented the work today at the Military Health System Research Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Scientists create lab-grown spinal cords
Previous attempts at growing whole brains have at best achieved mini-organs that resemble those of nine-week-old foetuses, although these “cerebral organoids” were not complete and only contained certain aspects of the brain. “We have grown the entire brain from the get-go,” said Anand.
Anand and his colleagues claim to have reproduced 99% of the brain’s diverse cell types and genes. They say their brain also contains a spinal cord, signalling circuitry and even a retina.
The ethical concerns were non-existent, said Anand. “We don’t have any sensory stimuli entering the brain. This brain is not thinking in any way.”
Anand claims to have created the brain by converting adult skin cells into pluripotent cells: stem cells that can be programmed to become any tissue in the body. These were then grown in a specialised environment that persuaded the stem cells to grow into all the different components of the brain and central nervous system.
According to Anand, it takes about 12 weeks to create a brain that resembles the maturity of a five-week-old foetus. To go further would require a network of blood vessels that the team cannot yet produce. “We’d need an artificial heart to help the brain grow further in development,” said Anand.
Several researchers contacted by the Guardian said it was hard to judge the quality of the work without access to more data, which Anand is keeping under wraps due to a pending patent on the technique. Many were uncomfortable that the team had released information to the press without the science having gone through peer review.
Zameel Cader, a consultant neurologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, said that while the work sounds very exciting, it’s not yet possible to judge its impact. “When someone makes such an extraordinary claim as this, you have to be cautious until they are willing to reveal their data.
3D-printed brain tissue
If the team’s claims prove true, the technique could revolutionise personalised medicine. “If you have an inherited disease, for example, you could give us a sample of skin cells, we could make a brain and then ask what’s going on,” said Anand.
You could also test the effect of different environmental toxins on the growing brain, he added. “We can look at the expression of every gene in the human genome at every step of the development process and see how they change with different toxins. Maybe then we’ll be able to say ‘holy cow, this one isn’t good for you.’
For now, the team say they are focusing on using the brain for military research, to understand the effect of post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
ORIGINAL: The Guardian
Tuesday 18 August 2015

Scientists have built artificial neurons that fully mimic human brain cells

By admin,

They could supplement our brain function.

Researchers have built the world’s first artificial neuron that’s capable of mimicking the function of an organic brain cell – including the ability to translate chemical signals into electrical impulses, and communicate with other human cells.
These artificial neurons are the size of a fingertip and contain no ‘living’ parts, but the team is working on shrinking them down so they can be implanted into humans. This could allow us to effectively replace damaged nerve cells and develop new treatments for neurological disorders, such as spinal cord injuries and Parkinson’s disease.
Our artificial neuron is made of conductive polymers and it functions like a human neuron,” lead researcher Agneta Richter-Dahlfors from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden said in a press release.

Agneta Richter-Dahlfors

Until now, scientists have only been able to stimulate brain cells using electrical impulses, which is how they transmit information within the cells. But in our bodies they’re stimulated by chemical signals, and this is how they communicate with other neurons.
By connecting enzyme-based biosensors to organic electronic ion pumps, Richter-Dahlfors and her team have now managed to create an artificial neuron that can mimic this function, and they’ve shown that it can communicate chemically with organic brain cells even over large distances.
The sensing component of the artificial neuron senses a change in chemical signals in one dish, and translates this into an electrical signal,said Richter-Dahlfors. “This electrical signal is next translated into the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in a second dish, whose effect on living human cells can be monitored.
This means that artificial neurons could theoretically be integrated into complex biological systems, such as our bodies, and could allow scientists to replace or bypass damaged nerve cells. So imagine being able to use the device to restore function to paralysed patients, or heal brain damage.
Next, we would like to miniaturise this device to enable implantation into the human body,said Richer-Dahlfors.“We foresee that in the future, by adding the concept of wireless communication, the biosensor could be placed in one part of the body, and trigger release of neurotransmitters at distant locations.
Using such auto-regulated sensing and delivery, or possibly a remote control, new and exciting opportunities for future research and treatment of neurological disorders can be envisaged,she added.
The results of lab trials have been published in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics.
We’re really looking forward to seeing where this research goes. While the potential for treating neurological disorders are incredibly exciting, the artificial neurons could one day also help us to supplement our mental abilities and add extra memory storage or offer faster processing, and that opens up some pretty awesome possibilities.
ORIGINAL: Science Alert
29 JUN 2015

A Brain-Computer Interface That Works Wirelessly

By admin,

A wireless transmitter could give paralyzed people a practical way to control TVs, computers, or wheelchairs with their thoughts.

Why It Matters

Electronic brain interfaces may give paralyzed people control over their environments. 

A wireless brain interface uses the head-worn transmitter, shown.

A few paralyzed patients could soon be using a wireless brain-computer interface able to stream their thought commands as quickly as a home Internet connection.

After more than a decade of engineering work, researchers at Brown University and a Utah company, Blackrock Microsystems, have commercialized a wireless device that can be attached to a person’s skull and transmit via radio thought commands collected from a brain implant. Blackrock says it will seek clearance for the system from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so that the mental remote control can be tested in volunteers, possibly as soon as this year.

The device was developed by a consortium, called BrainGate, which is based at Brown and was among the first to place implants in the brains of paralyzed people and show that electrical signals emitted by neurons inside the cortex could be recorded, then used to steer a wheelchair or direct a robotic arm (see “Implanting Hope”).

A major limit to these provocative experiments has been that patients can only use the prosthetic with the help of a crew of laboratory assistants. The brain signals are collected through a cable screwed into a port on their skull, then fed along wires to a bulky rack of signal processors. “Using this in the home setting is inconceivable or impractical when you are tethered to a bunch of electronics,” says Arto Nurmikko, the Brown professor of engineering who led the design and fabrication of the wireless system.

The new interface does away with much of that wiring by processing brain data inside a device about the size of an automobile gas cap. It is attached to the skull and wired to electrodes inside the brain. Inside the device is 

  • a processor to amplify the faint electrical spikes emitted by neurons
  • circuits to digitize the information, and 
  • a radio to beam it a distance of a few meters to a receiver. 

There, the information is available as a control signal; say to move a cursor across a computer screen.
The device transmits data out of the brain at rate of 48 megabits per second, about as fast as a residential Internet connection, says Nurmikko. It uses about 30 milliwatts of power—a fraction of what a smartphone uses—and is powered by a battery.

Scientists have prototyped wireless brain-computer interfaces before, and some simpler transmitters have been sold for animal research. “But there’s just no such thing as a device that has this many inputs and spits out megabits and megabits of data. It’s fundamentally a new kind of device,” says Cindy Shestek, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan.

Although the implant can transmit the equivalent of about 200 DVDs’ worth of data a day, that’s not much information compared to what the brain generates in executing even the simplest movement. Of the billions of neurons in the human cortex, scientists have never directly measured more than 200 or so simultaneously. “You and I are using our brains as petabyte machines,” says Nurmikko. “By that standard, 100 megabits per second is going to look very modest.

Blackrock has begun selling the wireless processor, which it calls “Cereplex-W” and costs about $15,000, to research labs that study primates. Tests in humans could happen quickly, says Florian Solzbacher, a University of Utah professor who is the owner and president of Blackrock. The Brown scientists have plans to try it on paralyzed patients, but haven’t yet done so.

Currently, a half dozen or so paralyzed people, including some in the late stages of ALS, are taking part in BrainGate trials using the older technology. In those studies, underway in Boston and California, the implant that makes contact with the brain is a small array of needle-like electrodes carved from silicon. Also sold by Blackrock, it is commonly called the Utah array. To establish a brain-machine interface, that array is pushed into the tissue of the cerebral motor cortex, where its tips record the firing patterns from 100 neurons or more at once.

Those tiny blasts of electricity, scientists have found, can be decoded into a fairly precise readout of what movement an animal, or a person, is intending. Decoding those signals has permitted hundreds of monkeys, as well as a growing number of paralyzed volunteers, to control a computer mouse, or manipulate objects with a robotic arm, sometimes with surprising dexterity (see “The Thought Experiment”).

But the BrainGate technology will never turn into actual medicine until it’s greatly simplified and made more reliable. The head-mounted wireless module is a step toward that goal. Eventually, scientists say, all the electronics will have to be implanted completely inside the body, with no wires reaching through the skin, since that can lead to infections. Last year, the Brown researchers reported testing a prototype of a fully implanted interface, with the electronics housed inside a titanium can that can be sealed under the scalp. That device is not yet commercialized.

If they could put it in under the skin, then everything you see in the videos could be done at home,” says Shestek, referring to films of patients using mental control to move robotic arms. “That wire going through the skin is the most dangerous part of the system.

Tech Review

January 14, 2015

A Bendable Implant Taps the Nervous System without Damaging It

By admin,

Swiss researchers allow rats to walk again with a rubbery electronic implant.

Why It Matters

Neuroscientists need new materials to restore movement to paralyzed people.

An implant made of silicone and gold wires is as stretchy as human tissue.

Medicine these days entertains all kinds of ambitious plans for reading off brain signals to control wheelchairs, or using electronics to bypass spinal injuries.
But most of these ideas for implants that can interface with the nervous system run up against a basic materials problem: wires are stiff and bodies are soft.

That motivated some researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale, in Lausanne, Switzerland, to design a soft, flexible electronic implant, which they say has the same ability to bend and stretch as dura mater, the membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

The scientists, including Gregoire Courtine, have previously showed that implants can allow mice with spinal injuries to walk again. They did this by sending patterns of electrical shocks to the spinal cord via electrodes placed inside the spine (see “Paralyzed Rats Take 1,000 Steps, Orchestrated by Computer”). But the rigid wires ended up damaging the mice’s nervous systems.

So Courtine joined electrical engineer Stéphanie Lacour (see “Innovators Under 35, 2006: Stéphanie Lacour”) to come up with a new implant they call “e-dura.” It’s made from 

  • soft silicone, 
  • stretchy gold wires, and 
  • rubbery electrodes flecked with platinum, 
  • as well as a microchannel through which the researchers were able to pump drugs.

The work builds on ongoing advances in flexible electronics. Other scientists have built patches that match the properties of the skin and include circuits, sensors, or even radios (see “Stick-On Electronic Tattoos”).

What’s new is how stretchable electronics are merging with a widening effort to invent new ways to send and receive signals from nerves (see “Neuroscience’s New Toolbox”). “People are pushing the limits because everyone wants to precisely interact with the brain and nervous system,” says Polina Anikeeva, a materials scientist at MIT who develops ultrathin fiber-optic threads as a different way of interfacing with neural tissue.

The reason metal or plastic electrodes eventually cause damage, or stop working, is that they cause compression and tissue damage. A stiff implant, even if it’s very thin, will still not stretch as the spinal cord does. “It slides against the tissue and causes a lot of inflammation,” says Lacour. “When you bend over to tie your shoelaces, the spinal cord stretches by several percent.

The implant mimics a property of human tissue called viscoelasticity—somewhere between rubber and a very thick fluid. Pinch the skin on your hand with force and it will deform, but then flow back into place.

Using the flexible implant, the Swiss scientists reported today in the journal Science that they could overcome spinal injury in rats by wrapping it around the spinal cord and sending electrical signals to make the rodent’s hind legs move. They also pumped in chemicals to enhance the process. After two months, they saw few signs of tissue damage compared to conventional electrodes, which ended up causing an immune reaction and impairing the animal’s ability to move.

The ultimate aim of this kind of research is an implant that could restore a paralyzed person’s ability to walk. Lacour says that is still far off, but believes it will probably involve soft electronics. “If you want a therapy for patients, you want to ensure it can last in the body,” she says. “If we can match the properties of the neural tissue we should have a better interface.”

Tech Review
By Antonio Regalado 

January 8, 2015

Neurons Inspire Nobel Laureate May-Britt Moser’s Dress

By admin,

By Alan Boyle
Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images 22 days

What do you wear to receive a Nobel Prize? Norwegian neuroscientist May-Britt Moser wore her work, in the form of an elegant dress with a glittering neuron pattern.

The dress was the brainchild of British designer Matthew Hubble, who saw Wednesday’s Nobel ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, as a fashion opportunity on a par with the Oscars. Moser looked like a million bucks — or, more precisely, 10 million Swedish kronor. That’s the amount of the award she shared with her husband and research colleague, Edvard Moser, as well as with American researcher John O’Keefe, for their discovery of the brain’s “inner GPS” navigation system.

The grid of beaded neurons on the satin-and-leather dress evokes the way that grid cells in our brain light up as they help us determine our position in space.

Geir Mogen / NTNU via Neuroscientist May-Britt Moser and fashion designer Matthew Hubble show off the Nobel neuron dress.

Hubble told NBC News that he wanted to change the perception that scientists have to be lab-coated nerds.

When you actually start looking around, a lot of scientists are into fashion,” he said. “They like to wear lipstick, they like to wear heels and pretty dresses. It’s quite frustrating when you hear people saying, ‘You shouldn’t be like that if you’re going to be a scientist.’ It’s OK to be a girlie girl and do science as well.

Hubble said the story of the Mosers’ love affair with science was particularly inspiring. “It’s really an impressive life she’s had,” he said.

The one-of-a-kind dress is impressive as well. Hubble shied away from saying what it would sell for — if it ever were to go on sale. “It’s not quite a Chanel haute couture, £50,000 dress, but when you look at the red carpet, it’s in that area,” he said.

Although the dress is not for sale, Hubble said the design may influence his fashion collection for next season. He’s also selling a grid-cell scarf for £595, which translates to $935. It’s the perfect holiday gift for the Nobel laureate who has everything.

Tip o’ the Log to Joanne Manaster at Scientific American. Don’t miss Manaster’s video interview with Hubble. First published December 10th 2014, 6:14 pm

Double amputee controls two robotic arms with his mind

By admin,

Here’s one other DARPA-funded robotic limb controlled by thoughts alone — actually make that two, because Colorado man Les Baugh had two bionic arms attached from shoulder level. Baugh got them this summer, 40 years after losing both arms, as part of a Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program test run at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The project’s researchers have been developing these Modular Prosthetic Limbs (MPL) over the past decade, but they say Baugh is the “first bilateral shoulder-level amputee” to wear two MPLs at the same time. Unlike Jan Scheuermann who controlled a robotic arm with a pair of neural implants, though, Baugh had to undergo a procedure called targeted muscle reinnervation, which reassigned the nerves that once controlled his arms and hands.
Once that was done, the team recorded the patterns his brain makes for each muscle he moves, and then they had him control virtual arms to prepare for the real things. Since his arms were cut off from the shoulder, they also had to design a custom socket for his torso where the prosthetics can be attached. All their preparations were worth it in the end, though, as Baugh turned out to be a brilliant test subject: after just 10 days of training, he was already moving cups from one shelf to the other just by thinking it.
As Courtney Moran, one of the researchers, said:
We expected him to exceed performance compared to what he might achieve with conventional systems, but the speed with which he learned motions and the number of motions he was able to control in such a short period of time was far beyond expectation. What really was amazing, and was another major milestone with MPL control, was his ability to control a combination of motions across both arms at the same time. This was a first for simultaneous bimanual control.

Baugh can only use the arms in a lab setting at the moment, but the team aims to develop MPLs he can take home and use whenever he wants.
VIA: Kotaku
ORIGINAL: Engadget
December 18th 2014