Category: NeuroScience

29 Mar 2020

The distorted idea of ‘cool’ brain research is stifling psychotherapy

There has never been a problem facing mankind more complex than understanding our own human nature. And no shortage of neat, plausible, and wrong answers purporting to plumb its depths.

Having treated many thousands of psychiatric patients in my career, and having worked on the American Psychiatric Association’s efforts to classify psychiatric symptoms (published as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-IV and DSM-5), I can affirm confidently that there are no neat answers in psychiatry. The best we can do is embrace an ecumenical four-dimensional model that includes all possible contributors to human functioning: the biological, the psychological, the social, and the spiritual. Reducing people to just one element – their brain functioning, or their psychological tendencies, or their social context, or their struggle for meaning – results in a flat, distorted image that leaves out more than it can capture.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) was established in 1949 by the federal government in the United States with the practical goal of providing ‘an objective, thorough, nationwide analysis and reevaluation of the human and economic problems of mental health.’ Until 30 years ago, the NIMH appreciated the need for this well-rounded approach and maintained a balanced research budget that covered an extraordinarily wide range of topics and techniques.

But in 1990, the NIMH suddenly and radically switched course, embarking on what it tellingly named the ‘Decade of the Brain.’ Ever since, the NIMH has increasingly narrowed its focus almost exclusively to brain biology – leaving out everything else that makes us human, both in sickness and in health. Having largely lost interest in the plight of real people, the NIMH could now more accurately be renamed the ‘National Institute of Brain Research’.

This misplaced reductionism arose from the availability of spectacular research tools (eg, the Human Genome Project, functional magnetic resonance imaging, molecular biology, and machine learning) combined with the naive belief that brain biology could eventually explain all aspects of mental functioning. The results have been a grand intellectual adventure, but a colossal clinical flop. We have acquired a fantastic window into gene and brain functioning, but little to help clinical practice.

The more we learn about genetics and the brain, the more impossibly complicated both reveal themselves to be. We have picked no low-hanging fruit after three decades and $50 billion because there simply is no low-hanging fruit to pick. The human brain has around 86 billion neurons, each communicating with thousands of others via hundreds of chemical modulators, leading to trillions of potential connections. No wonder it reveals its secrets only very gradually and in a piecemeal fashion.

Genetics offers the same baffling complexity. For instance, variation in more than 100 genes contributes to vulnerability to schizophrenia, with each gene contributing just the tiniest bit, and interacting in the most impossibly complicated ways with other genes, and also with the physical and social environment. Even more discouraging, the same genes are often implicated in vulnerability to multiple mental disorders – defeating any effort to establish specificity. The almost endless permutations will defeat any easy genetic answers, no matter how many decades and billions we invest.

The NIMH has boxed itself into a badly unbalanced research portfolio. Playing with ‘cool’ brain and gene research toys trumps the much harder and less intellectually rewarding task of helping real people.

Contrast this current NIMH failure with a great success story from NIMH’s distant past. One of the high points of my career was sitting on the NIMH granting committee that funded psychotherapy studies in the 1980s. We helped to support the US psychologist Marsha Linehan’s research that led her to develop dialectical behavior therapy; the US psychiatrist Aaron T Beck’s development of cognitive therapy; along with numerous other investigators and themes. Subsequent studies have established that psychotherapy is as effective as medications for mild-to-moderate depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric problems, and avoids the burden of medication side-effects and complications. Many millions of people around the world have already been helped by NIMH psychotherapy research.

In a rational world, the NIMH would continue to fund a robust psychotherapy research budget and promote its use as a public-health initiative to reduce the current massive overprescription of psychiatric medication in the US. Brief psychotherapy would be the first-line treatment of most psychiatric problems that require intervention. Drug treatments would be reserved for severe psychiatric problems and for those people who haven’t responded sufficiently to watchful waiting or psychotherapy.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a rational world. Drug companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year influencing politicians, marketing misleadingly to doctors, and pushing pharmaceutical treatments on the public. They successfully sold the fake marketing jingle that all emotional symptoms are due to a ‘chemical imbalance’ in the brain and therefore all require a pill solution. The result: 20% of US citizens use psychotropic drugs, most of which are no more than expensive placebos, all of which can produce harmful side-effects.

Drug companies are commercial Goliath with enormous political and economic power. Psychotherapy is a tiny David with no marketing budget; no salespeople mobbing doctors’ offices; no TV ads; no internet pop-ups; no influence with politicians or insurance companies. No surprise then that the NIMH’s neglect of psychotherapy research has been accompanied by its neglect in clinical practice. And the NIMH’s embrace of biological reductionism provides an unintended and unwarranted legitimization of the drug-company promotion that there is a pill for every problem.

A balanced NIMH budget would go a long way toward correcting the two biggest mental-health catastrophes of today. Studies comparing psychotherapy versus medication for a wide variety of mild to moderate mental disorders would help to level the playing field for the two, and eventually reduce our massive overdependence on drug treatments for nonexistent ‘chemical imbalances’. Health service research is desperately needed to determine best practices to help people with severe mental illness avoid incarceration and homelessness, and also escape from them.

The NIMH is entitled to keep an eye on the future, but not at the expense of the desperate needs of the present. Brain research should remain an important part of a balanced NIMH agenda, not its sole preoccupation. After 30 years of running down a bio-reductionistic blind alley, it is long past time for the NIMH to consider a biopsychosocial reset, and to rebalance its badly uneven research portfolio.

Source: https://thenextweb.com/syndication/2020/03/29/the-distorted-idea-of-cool-brain-research-is-stifling-psychotherapy/

09 May 2019
How can neuroscience support the development of ATM in the future?

How can neuroscience support the development of ATM in the future?

As the role of air traffic controllers shifts to a more observatory role, does neuroscience hold the key to ensuring this change doesn’t affect air traffic flows?

Air traffic is growing as is its complexity. Due to the progressive increase of automation levels, the adoption of innovative concepts such as 4D trajectories, and the introduction of drones into the airspace, experts expect the European air traffic management (ATM) system to face drastic challenges in the nearest future.

Soon, the roles and tasks of controllers will change, and it is vital to enhance the comprehension of human response to such changes. It is also vital to develop tools to investigate aspects like the ability to monitor complex situations and face unexpected disruptions, and to monitor in real time controllers’ fitness to the task, in order to anticipate risks and problems.

The Human Performance Envelope

Several aspects such as stress, workload, attentional resources available, attention focus and so on, impact controllers’ performance. In recent years, the concept of “Human Performance Envelope” (HPE) emerged as a new paradigm in human factors (HFs) to account for this complexity. Rather than focusing on one or two individual factors in isolation (e.g. workload, attention), it considers a range of common factors in accidents and maps how they work in combination to lead to a performance decrement that could affect safety.

It is reasonable to expect that the future air traffic control officer’s (ATCO) HPE will be different from the one we would use today. It will have different underlying HF concepts, or at least a different weight among them. For instance, ATCOs are expected to move to a monitoring position of highly-automated systems, with very few tactical interventions, strategic planning by exception when automation cannot find a solution and the need to intervene rapidly to recover disruptions or unexpected events. As compared to pilots, workload may be even less primary, but with sudden bursts when recovery actions are needed. Indeed, stress will be a major factor both in normal conditions, when ATCOs will need to rely on automation without actively controlling it, and in disruptions. Such a monitoring role will probably require even more attention than pilots exert today. In fact, ATCOs will need to deal with very complex systems, with many interacting elements of different typologies (e.g. RPAS) moving in 4D trajectories across space.

Currently, the main research challenge for complex systems is to explore the HPE in highly-automated environments in an innovative and reliable way. This investigation can provide new knowledge and guidelines needed for designing and implementing higher levels of automation and the related procedures and humans’ roles.

To address this issue Deep Blue, a SME based in Rome and specialist in human factors and safety, coordinated the NINA and STRESS research projects. NINA and STRESS were part of a wider research initiative aimed at investigating the application of neuroscience to the development of new technologies for ATM. In fact, these projects investigated the use of neurophysiological indicators to assess air traffic controllers’ mental state during the execution of operational tasks in highly-automated scenarios. The investigation aimed at deriving guidelines and principles for the design of future ATM systems. The European Commission co-financed both projects in the framework of the SESAR Exploratory Research programme.

Neurometrics at work

Neurophysiological indicators are quite advanced today, offering a unique opportunity to objectively monitor the factors composing the HPE. However, a research gap remains in place concerning the customisation of these indicators to (future) ATM tasks. Both STRESS and NINA aimed to fill this gap. While neurophysiology knows what to monitor to detect stress, what we call stress in ATM may correspond to different patterns of neurological activity as compared to everyday stress. This consideration also applies to other complex HFs concepts like attention and vigilance, which have an everyday meaning and are being studied in contexts different from ATM. In addition, aviation research on neurophysiological indicators has mostly focused on cognitive concepts, traditionally disregarding the stress-related aspects. This oversimplification is hard to justify at the light of current neurophysiological knowledge, where the stress-response has been shown to play a key role in “cognitive” processes like decision-making or attentional focus. A good example is the “startle effect”, defined as an automatic reflex elicited by exposure to a sudden, intense event that violates a pilot’s expectations, and is currently one of the hot topics for pilot performance.

The relevance of stress is also recognised by the EASA, that in the Notice of Proposed Amendment (NPA) addresses the issue of licensing and medical certification of air traffic controllers (EASA, 2012), considering stress and fatigue management as an essential topic for training (AMC1 ATCO.D.045(c)(4) human factors training). In particular, stress demands for a systematic approach. In fact, its importance is likely to grow as systems rely more on automation, and humans move to monitoring positions. A typical case is the automation disruption, when humans have to react quickly in highly-stressful conditions. In these situations, stress is known to influence performance and impair attention, memory and decision-making (Angeli et al., 2004).

In order to capture this level of complexity, STRESS and NINA proposed a multidisciplinary approach. They implemented the high time resolution neurophysiological measurement of air traffic controllers’ stress, workload, attention, cognitive control and vigilance during the execution of operational tasks, within a simulated air traffic control environment reproducing the complexity of future airspace scenarios and associated highly-automated technologies. To achieve this, they carried out data fusion of the following measures: Neural patterns of brain activation (EEG), physiologic indicators (heart activity, galvanic skin response), kinematics (body posture data like joint angles, segment kinematics, segment global positions, body centre of mass) and eye tracking.

The composition of the projects Consortia engaged in these projects reflected such multidisciplinarity, bringing together partners with different expertise. Their competence profiles include a strong understanding of human factors (Deep Blue), a solid experience in the use of neurophysiologic measurements (Sapienza University), a deep knowledge of air traffic management domain (ENAC and Anadolu University), and an overall view on what is the strategic agenda for the development of this domain in the upcoming years (EUROCONTROL).

Read more:
https://www.internationalairportreview.com/article/84483/neuroscience-support-atm/

21 Jan 2019
Real-Life Expanding Brain Technique Is Blowing Some Minds

Real-Life Expanding Brain Technique Is Blowing Some Minds

It’s now possible to image an entire fly brain in just a few days, according to a new study—this might sound like a long time, but is in fact an incredible accomplishment, when you consider that the process would otherwise take weeks.

Brains aren’t easy to study—the human brain, for example, contains over 80 billion cells linked via 7,000 connections each, according to the new study published in Science. Even the far smaller fly brains are an incredible challenge to study comprehensively. The new research combines two microscopy methods to image and examine brains like never before.

“It’s a new tool for trying to understand biological tissue, and not in a single cell context, but in a complete multi-cellular context at high resolution,” Eric Betzig, physicist and Nobel Laureate working at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, told Gizmodo.

The researchers combined two kinds of microscopy, called expansion microscopy and lattice light-sheet microscopy, in order to image the fly brain. Expansion microscopy involves first marking interesting features in a sample with fluorescing proteins, and then linking them with a polymer gel. An enzyme digests the tissue, and then the scientists add water, causing the polymer to grow and retain the shape marked by the fluorescing proteins. In this case, they grew the sample by four times.

But imaging the expanded fly brain would require approximately 20 trillion voxels, or 3d pixels, which would take weeks for an electron microscope to image. The team decided to combine expansion microscopy with another imaging method, called light sheet microscopy. This uses thin, flat sheets of laser light and images the sample in flat sections, allowing for a faster process that also reduces background noise.

Even Betzig didn’t think the method would work at first, he told Gizmodo, but when he viewed the results, he was “shocked” by the faithfulness of the expansion. Indeed, they were able to combine the methods to create high-resolution images, down to tens of nanometers, according to the paper.

But the research is nowhere near being able to create similar images of human brains, explained Betzig. They’re extending the method to (and have successfully imaged small pieces of) mouse brains, but a fly brain versus a mouse brain is the equivalent of “going from a mud hut to the Empire State Building,” he said.

The researchers think they may soon be able to image multiple fly brains quickly and with incredible resolution. This is exciting, mainly because brains can vary by the individual, and comparing lots of brains could potentially teach us more about how these incredible feats of biology truly work.

Source: https://gizmodo.com/real-life-expanding-brain-technique-is-blowing-some-min-1831878332

17 Jan 2019
Using neuroscience to prevent drug addiction among teenagers

Using neuroscience to prevent drug addiction among teenagers

One way to deter harmful recreational drug use by teenagers is to treat them like adults. Rather than simply tell them to “Just Say No” to alcohol, tobacco or illicit drugs, it may be more helpful to explain how these substances create unique risks for them — risks that arise due to the changing state of the adolescent brain.

It’s an approach recommended by Dr. Robert DuPont, the first director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the second White House “drug czar” and the current head of the Institute for Behavior and Health.

Scientists have long recognized that people who use alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other drugs while adolescents are far more likely to use more dangerous drugs in their 30s and 40s. Back in 1984, researchers writing in the American Journal of Public Health reported that “the use of marijuana is a good predictor of the use of more serious drugs only if it begins early” and that early drinking is a similar “predictor of marijuana use.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that Americans in their 30s and 40s who used recreational drugs as teenagers are the group most severely affected by opioid overdoses today.

Unfortunately, neither the media nor popular culture adequately informs young people about the neurological damage alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana can inflict on the brain. On the contrary, despite strong evidence that early recreational drug use increases the likelihood of future drug addiction, the media and today’s culture often describe marijuana use as an “organic,” “natural” approach to anxiety and stress management. Indeed, Northern Michigan University launched the nation’s first medicinal plant chemistry major, offering students the chance to focus on marijuana-related studies. What message does that send to the still-developing minds of college students?

One group is taking a non-traditional approach to convincing students otherwise.

One Choice is a drug prevention campaign developed for teenagers by the Institute for Behavior and Health. It relies on cutting-edge neuroscience to encourage young Americans to make decisions that promote their brain health.

Pioneered by Dr. DuPont, One Choice specifically advocates that adolescents make “no use of any alcohol, nicotine, marijuana or other drugs” for health reasons. The theory is that adolescents who make the decision not to use alcohol, nicotine, or marijuana at all — that make “One Choice” to avoid artificial, chemical brain stimulation — are far less likely to wind up addicted to drugs such as opioids later on.

The One Choice approach is evidence-based. In 2017, scientists at Mclean Hospital and Harvard Medical School published their findings on the impact of early substance use on cognitive development. They explained that the brains of teenagers are still developing and can be negatively impacted by substance use. Adolescent brains are still forming the communication routes that regulate motivation, stress and habit-formation well into adulthood. As such, it is easier for substances to hijack and alter those routes in developing brains than in adult brains.

Hindering the vital attributes of habit formation, stress management and motivational behavior can drastically affect a young person’s academic performance. Collectively, and in the long run, that can impair the competitiveness of a national economy. Thus, it is crucial that young Americans learn to prioritize brain health.

The timing for the innovative One Choice approach is propitious. Today’s young Americans are more interested in biology, psychology and health sciences than ever before. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the field of “health professions and related programs” is the second most popular major among college students, with psychology and biological or biomedical sciences following as the fourth and fifth most popular, respectively. By explaining developmental neuroscience to teenagers, One Choice engages young people on a topic of interest to them and presents the reality of a pressing public health issue, instead of throwing moral platitudes and statistics at them.

Pro-marijuana legalization organizations, such as the Drug Policy Alliance, agree: “The safest path for teens is to avoid drugs, doing alcohol, cigarettes, and prescription drugs outside of a doctor’s recommendations.” And certainly honesty, along with scientific accuracy, is critical if we are to persuade adolescents not to use drugs.

Brain health is critical to the pursuit of happiness. And leveraging scientifically accurate presentations and testimonies to convince young Americans to prioritize their own brain health early on can prevent future substance abuse.

Source: https://www.postbulletin.com/opinion/other_views/commentary-using-neuroscience-to-prevent-drug-addiction-among-teenagers/article_4c3ef834-ef62-5e0e-a878-a3e5aba36135.html

19 Nov 2018
Manahel Thabet

How Psychoanalysis Can Help Neuroscience And Neural Networks

We know that neuroscience forms the groundwork for artificial neural networks and in other machine learning applications. Now, this fascinating field surrounding the structure and function of the nervous system and the human mind is playing an important role in improving these applications. Researchers have found out that psychoanalysis — the brainchild of Sigmund Freud — has the potential to bring a fresh face to neuroscience.

The Observable Overlap

If we compare neuroscience with psychoanalysis, certain aspects do match. To break it down, neuroscience deals with the connections or “dialogues” between the brain and the nervous system, while psychoanalysis deals with psychopathology through interactions between a patient and a psychoanalyst. Both fields intersect at the functional level. Instances like thoughts which stem from the nervous system, gaining knowledge through this as a consequence, perception with emotions, etc, share a mutual area when it comes to understanding these two fields.

The above view has garnered strong criticism among neuroscientists because there is no exact evidence establishing a relationship between the two. However, there is a slow uprising in the connection between psychoanalysis and neuroscience. In an article by science journalist Kat McGowan, she details how psychoanalysis could answer problems lingering in neuroscience.

Psychoanalysis has insightful, provocative theories about emotions, unconscious thoughts and the nature of the mind. Neurobiology has the ability to test these ideas with powerful tools and experimental rigour. Together, the two fields might finally answer the most elusive question of them all: How is it that dreams, fantasies, memories and feelings — the subjective self — emerge from a hunk of flesh?  

So, the brain structure is simply a hotbed of cognitive activities. Psychoanalysis specifically delves into this and can uncover more than what lies underneath the network of billions of neural connections.

Exploring The ‘Unconscious’

One of the key elements Freud’s psychoanalysis is the concept of the ‘unconscious state’. What started as a link to unearthing schizophrenia, is now the subject of many studies. In fact, most of them lean toward neuroscience rather than towards psychology, when it comes to deciphering this grey area.

The relationship between neural connections and psychological disorders can explain in detail about why the disorder prevails in the first place. By hinging on this fact, there could be a relation to discovering more on neurons, as these form the basis of subjects such as deep learning. As a matter of fact, one study that looked into the aspect of brain connectivity posits why neuroscience is following the path of psychoanalysis.

In recent years, there has been an increasing interest, in unconscious processes; neuroscientific studies have, in fact, tested subliminal perceptions, implicit cognition, emotion processing and interoceptive perceptions with empirical methods. Though many studies indicate that unconscious processes influence awareness, the cognitive view of the unconscious differs from the psychodynamic notion of the unconscious, which encompasses affect and motivation.

What the study brought out was how psychoanalysis and neuroscience can concur in their approach and lead to an improved scientific temperament.

The Key To Unraveling DL And ML

With psychoanalysis brought into neuroscience, it can answer the mystery behind areas such as machine learning or even deep learning. These areas extensively derive their working based on the human brain. To stress on this point, the key difference between these AI fields and psychoanalysis is the computational factor. While ML or DL is focusing on learning something new, it gradually will follow the footsteps of a computer. This ‘logical’ component misses the ‘biological’ component. Psychoanalysis is where it could help bridge this gap. After all, the essence of mind going into AI is the norm of ‘intelligence’.

As a matter of fact, challenges in these fields could be envisioned in a very different way if emotions and thoughts are brought into the picture. For example, a better model or algorithm could be designed as well as memory requirements are brought down drastically. We see enormous amounts of data going through ML/DL projects. The Freudian field may hold answers ML/DL in the future by evolving into something unknown or unexplored.

Source: https://www.analyticsindiamag.com/how-psychoanalysis-can-help-neuroscience-and-neural-networks/

17 Nov 2018

Playing high school football changes the teenage brain

A single season of high school football may be enough to cause microscopic changes in the structure of the brain, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The researchers used a new type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to take brain scans of 16 high school players, ages 15 to 17, before and after a season of football. They found significant changes in the structure of the grey matter in the front and rear of the brain, where impacts are most likely to occur, as well as changes to structures deep inside the brain. All participants wore helmets, and none received head impacts severe enough to constitute a concussion.

The study, which is the cover story of the November issue of Neurobiology of Disease, is one of the first to look at how impact sports affect the brains of children at this critical age. This study was made available online in July 2018 ahead of final publication in print this month.

“It is becoming pretty clear that repetitive impacts to the head, even over a short period of time, can cause changes in the brain,” said study senior author Chunlei Liu, a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and a member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at UC Berkeley. “This is the period when the brain is still developing, when it is not mature yet, so there are many critical biological processes going on, and it is unknown how these changes that we observe can affect how the brain matures and develops.”

Concerning trends

One bonk to the head may be nothing to sweat over. But mounting evidence shows that repeated blows to the cranium—such as those racked up while playing sports like hockey or football, or through blast injuries in military combat—may lead to long-term cognitive decline and increased risk of neurological disorders, even when the blows do not cause concussion.

Over the past decade, researchers have found that an alarming number of retired soldiers and college and professional football players show signs of a newly identified neurodegenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is characterized by a buildup of pathogenic tau protein in the brain. Though still not well understood, CTE is believed to cause mood disorders, cognitive decline and eventually motor impairment as a patient ages. Definitive diagnosis of CTE can only be made by examining the brain for tau protein during an autopsy.

These findings have raised concern over whether repeated hits to the head can cause brain damage in youth or high school players, and whether it is possible to detect these changes at an early age.

“There is a lot of emerging evidence that just playing impact sports actually changes the brain, and you can see these changes at the molecular level in the accumulations of different pathogenic proteins associated with neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and dementia,” Liu said. “We wanted to know when this actually happens—how early does this occur?”

A matter of grey and white

The brain is built of white matter, long neural wires that pass messages back and forth between different brain regions, and grey matter, tight nets of neurons that give the brain its characteristic wrinkles. Recent MRI studies have shown that playing a season or two of high school football can weaken white matter, which is mostly found nestled in the interior of the brain. Liu and his team wanted to know if repetitive blows to the head could also affect the brain’s gray matter.

“Grey matter in the cortex area is located on the outside of the brain, so we would expect this area to be more directly connected to the impact itself,” Liu said.

The researchers used a new type of MRI called diffusion kurtosis imaging to examine the intricate neural tangles that make up gray matter. They found that the organization of the gray matter in players’ brains changed after a season of football, and these changes correlated with the number and position of head impacts measured by accelerometers mounted inside players’ helmets.

The changes were concentrated in the front and rear of the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for higher-order functions like memory, attention and cognition, and in the centrally located thalamus and putamen, which relay sensory information and coordinate movement.

“Although our study did not look into the consequences of the observed changes, there is emerging evidence suggesting that such changes would be harmful over the long term,” Liu said.

Tests revealed that students’ cognitive function did not change over the course of the season, and it is yet unclear whether these changes in the brain are permanent, the researchers say.

“The brain microstructure of younger players is still rapidly developing, and that may counteract the alterations caused by repetitive head impacts,” said first author Nan-Ji Gong, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley.

However, the researchers still urge caution—and frequent cognitive and brain monitoring—for youth and high schoolers engaged in impact sports.

“I think it would be reasonable to debate at what age it would be most critical for the brain to endure these sorts of consequences, especially given the popularity of youth football and other sports that cause impact to the brain,” Liu said.

Source: https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-11-high-school-football-teenage-brain.html

27 Oct 2018

New tool provides real-time glimpse of brain activity in mice

A transparent set of electrodes enables researchers to simultaneously record electrical signals and visualize neurons in the brains of awake mice1.

Syncing neuronal signals with videos of neurons helps researchers map those signals to particular sites in the brain. The technology could yield insights into how the brain works and what goes awry in conditions such as autism.

Two-photon calcium imaging and electroencephalography (EEG) are both popular tools for studying the brain, but combining them has proved challenging. In the former technique, researchers tag calcium ions with fluorescent proteins. When neurons fire, a microscope picks up the fluorescence as calcium ions rush into the cells. EEG requires inserting a recording electrode into the brain. However, the electrode blocks light in the area from reaching the microscope.

In the new study, researchers built electrodes that transmit light. They layered a metallic material into a flat plastic mold, roughly the size of a single neuron, that is studded with hundreds of plastic spheres. The material fills the space around the spheres, creating holes that allow light to pass through.

Read more: https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/toolbox/new-tool-provides-real-time-glimpse-brain-activity-mice/

23 Oct 2018
Manahel Thabet

Study shows easy-to-use, noninvasive stimulation device can help prevent migraine attacks

A migraine is much more than just a bad headache. Migraine symptoms, which can be debilitating for many people, are the sixth leading cause of disability, according to the World Health Organization. While there is no cure, a new study published in Cephalalgia in March shows single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation is a new way to prevent migraine attacks. It’s safe, easy to use and noninvasive.

Researchers at Mayo Clinic and other major academic headache centers across the U.S. recently conducted the study that examined the effectiveness of using a single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation device to prevent migraine attacks. The eNeura SpringTMS Post-Market Observational U.S. Study of Migraine study, also known as ESPOUSE, instructed participants to self-administer four pulses with the device in the morning and four pulses at night over three months to prevent and treat migraine attacks as needed. Spring TMS stands for Spring transcranial magnetic stimulation or sTMS.

“The migraine brain is hyperexcitable, and basic science studies have demonstrated modulation of neuronal excitability with this treatment modality,” says Amaal Starling, M.D., a Mayo Clinic neurologist, who is first author of the study. “Our study demonstrated that the four pulses emitted from this device twice daily reduce the frequency of headache days by about three days per month, and 46 percent of patients had at least 50 percent or less migraine attacks per month on the treatment protocol. This data is clinically significant. Based on the current study and prior studies in acute migraine attack treatment, sTMS not only helps to stop a migraine attack, but it also helps prevent them.”

“For certain patients, treatment options for migraines, such as oral medications, are not effective, well-tolerated or preferred,” Dr. Starling adds. “The sTMS may be a great option for these patients and allow doctors to better meet their unique needs.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration already had approved the sTMS device for the acute treatment of migraine with aura. The FDA now has approved it to prevent migraine, as well.

Source: https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-03-easy-to-use-noninvasive-device-migraine.html#nRlv

11 Oct 2018
ManahelThabet

Can Neuroscience Teach Robot Cars to Be Less Annoying?

Robot cars make for annoying drivers.

Relative to human motorists, the driverless vehicles now undergoing testing on public roads are overly cautious, maddeningly slow, and prone to abrupt halts or bizarre paralysis caused by bikers, joggers, crosswalks or anything else that doesn’t fit within the neat confines of binary robot brains. Self-driving companies are well aware of the problem, but there’s not much they can do at this point. Tweaking the algorithms to produce a smoother ride would compromise safety, undercutting one of the most-often heralded justifications for the technology.

It was just this kind of tuning to minimize excessive braking that led to a fatal crash involving an Uber Technologies Inc. autonomous vehicle in March, according to federal investigators. The company has yet to resume public testing of self-driving cars since shutting down operations in Arizona following the crash.

If driverless cars can’t be safely programmed to mimic risk-taking human drivers, perhaps they can be taught to better understand the way humans act. That’s the goal of Perceptive Automata, a Boston-based startup applying research techniques from neuroscience and psychology to give automated vehicles more human-like intuition on the road: Can software be taught to anticipate human behavior?

“We think about what that other person is doing or has the intent to do,” said Ann Cheng, a senior investment manager at Hyundai Cradle, the South Korean automaker’s venture arm and one of the investors that just helped Perceptive Automata raise $16 million. Toyota Motor Corp. is also backing the two-year-old startup founded by researchers and professors at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“We see a lot of AI companies working on more classical problems, like object detection [or] object classification,” Cheng said. “Perceptive is trying to go one layer deeper—what we do intuitively already.”

This predictive aspect of self-driving tech “was either misunderstood or completely underestimated” in the early stages of autonomous development, said Jim Adler, the managing director of Toyota AI Ventures.

With Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo planning to roll out an autonomous taxi service to paying customers in the Phoenix area later this year, and General Motor Co.’s driverless unit racing to deploy a ride-hailing business in 2019, the shortcomings of robot cars interacting with humans are coming under increased scrutiny. Some experts have advocated for education campaigns to train pedestrians to be more mindful of autonomous vehicles. Startups and global automakers are busy testing external display screens to telegraph the intent of a robotic car to bystanders.

But no one believes that will be enough to make autonomous cars move seamlessly among human drivers. For that, the car needs to be able to decipher intent by reading body language and understanding social norms. Perceptive Automata is trying to teach machines to predict human behavior by modeling how humans do it.

Sam Anthony, chief technology officer at Perceptive and a former hacker with a PhD in cognition and brain behavior from Harvard, developed a way to take image recognition tests used in psychology and use them to train so-called neural networks, a kind of machine learning based loosely on how the human brain works. His startup has drafted hundreds of people across diverse age ranges, driving experiences and locales to look at thousands of clips or images from street life—pedestrians chatting on a corner, a cyclist looking at his phone—and decide what they’re doing, or about to do. All those responses then get fed into the neural network, or computer brain, until it has a reference library it can call on to recognize what’s happening in real life situations.

Perceptive has found it’s important to incorporate regional differences, since jaywalking is commonplace in New York City and virtually non-existent elsewhere. “No one jaywalks in Tokyo, I’ve never seen it,” says Adler of Toyota. “These social mores and norms of how our culture will evolve and how different cultures will evolve with this tech is incredibly fascinating and also incredibly complex.”

Perceptive is working with startups, suppliers and automakers in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, although it won’t specify which. The company is hoping to have its technology integrated into mass production cars with self-driving features as soon as 2021. Even at the level of partial autonomy, with features such as lane-keeping and hands-off highway driving, deciphering human intent is relevant.

Autonomous vehicles “are going to be slow and clunky and miserable unless they can understand how to deal with humans in a complex environment,” said Mike Ramsey, an analyst at Gartner. Still, he cautioned that Perceptive’s undertaking “is exceptionally difficult.”

Even if Perceptive proves capable of doing what it claims, Ramsey said, it may also surface fresh ethical questions about outsourcing life or death decisions to machines. Because the startup is going beyond object identification to mimicking human intuition, it could be liable for programming the wrong decision if an error occurs.

It’s also not the only company working on this problem.  It’s reasonable to assume that major players like Waymo, GM’s Cruise LLC, and Zoox Inc. are trying to solve it internally, said Sasha Ostojic, former head of engineering at Cruise who is now a venture investor at Playground Global in Silicon Valley.

Until anyone makes major headway, however, be prepared to curb your road rage while stuck behind a robot car that drives like a grandma. “The more responsible people in the AV industry optimize for safety rather than comfort,” Ostojic said.

Source: Bloomberg

28 Aug 2018
Manahel Thabet

Brain cell discovery could help scientists understand consciousness

A team of scientists today unveiled the discovery of a new kind of brain neuron called the rosehip cell. What makes this find important? It may be unique to the human brain – and it’s found in the same area thought to be responsible for consciousness.

A team of international researchers consisting of dozens of scientists made the discovery after running complex RNA sequencing experiments on tissue samples from the cerebral cortices of two brain donors. The results were then confirmed with live tissue taken from patients who’d undergone brain surgery.

Upon discovering the rosehip cell, the researchers immediately tried to replicate the finding using samples gathered from laboratory mice – to no avail. It appears the cell is specific to humans, or potentially primates, but the researchers point out they’re only speculating these neurons are unique to humans at this time.

What matters is what the rosehip cell does. Unfortunately, the scientists aren’t sure. Neurons are tough nuts to crack, but what they do know is this one is belongs to the inhibitor class of brain neurons. It’s possible the rosehip cell is an integral inhibitor to our brain activity, and at least partially responsible consciousness.

Some scientists believe that human consciousness has something to do with wrangling reality from the chaos inside our brains. It’s been shown that an infant’s brain functions much like that of someone on LSD – babies are basically tripping all the time. Perhaps these neural inhibitors develop as our brains grow and help us to separate reality from whatever babies are dealing with.

But, of course, the real science isn’t quite as speculative. For the most part, the rosehip cell research is exciting because it’s filling in some missing pages in our atlas of human neural activity.

The brain is one of the most complex constructs in the universe, and the cerebral cortex is its most complicated part. It’s going to take a long time to figure the whole thing out.

The team intends to look for the rosehip cell in the brains of people who suffer from neurological disorders next – work that could lead to a vastly increased understanding of how the brain functions, and what causes it to break down.

Source: https://thenextweb.com/insider/2018/08/27/brain-cell-discovery-could-help-scientists-understand-consciousness/