Stories tagged neuroscience

Jan
05
2010

After some three and a half billion years of life’s evolution on this planet – and after almost two million years since people recognizable as human first walked its surface – a new human burst upon the scene, apparently unannounced.

It was us.

Until then our ancestors had shared the planet with other human species. But soon there was only us, possessors of something that gave us unprecedented power over our environment and everything else alive. That something was – is – the Human Spark.

What is the nature of human uniqueness? Where did the Human Spark ignite, and when? And perhaps most tantalizingly, why?

In a three-part series to be broadcast on PBS in 2010, Alan Alda takes these questions personally, visiting with dozens of scientists on three continents, and participating directly in many experiments – including the detailed examination of his own brain.

"The Human Spark"

Twin Cities area show dates and times:

  • Wednesday, January 6, 7:00 pm, on 2
  • Thursday, January 7, 1:00 am, on 2
  • Thursday, January 7, 3:00 pm, on LIFE
  • Wednesday, January 13, 7:00 pm, on 2
  • Thursday, January 14, 1:00 am, on 2
  • Thursday, January 14, 3:00 pm, on LIFE
  • Wednesday, January 20, 7:00 pm, on 2
  • Thursday, January 21, 1:00 am, on 2
  • Thursday, January 21, 3:00 pm, on LIFE
  • Sunday, January 24, 1:00 pm, on 2
  • Sunday, January 24, 2:00 pm, on 2
  • Sunday, January 24, 3:00 pm, on 2

"Our Origins: Exploring the Human Spark"

Twin Cities area show dates and times:

  • Sunday, January 24, 4:00 pm, on 2
  • Sunday, January 24, 8:00 pm, on MN
  • Sunday, January 31, 12:00 pm, on LIFE
Dec
06
2009

Finding better ways for computers to see

.

Building biologically-inspired vision systems

Living organisms are very good at making sense out of what they see. Designing machines that can recognize objects when seen from an angle or at various distances is challenging. Facial or gesture recognition is becoming common in our computing devices.

Reverse engineering the visual cortex

In an attempt to improve upon current state of the art visual systems, scientists are attempting to reverse engineer biological visual systems.

Huge advances have been recently made in visualizing the structure of our visual cortex (hardware) but the inner workings of the neuronal systems (software) remain a mystery. Mimicking natural selection, scientists are testing thousands of software algorithms at a time.

Using processors from game playing computers

Using graphical processors from game playing computers (such as those found in the PlayStation 3 and high-end NVIDIA graphics cards), scientists have discovered better visual modeling systems.

"The best of these models, drawn from thousands of candidates, outperformed a variety of state-of-the-art vision systems across a range of object and face recognition tasks."

"GPUs are a real game-changer for scientific computing. We made a powerful parallel computing system from cheap, readily available off-the-shelf components, delivering over hundred-fold speed-ups relative to conventional methods,"

Sources
PLoS Computational Biology published research paper
PhysOrg.com
Visual Neuroscience Group @ The Rowland Institute at Harvard

What makes humans unique? Do we have characteristics that make us different from other animals? PBS will be broadcasting a three-part series on the topic this fall. In advance of the series premiere, the producers want you to tell them why humans are special. You can submit a photo, a video, or text. Some entries will appear on screen, so make a grab for your 15 seconds of fame, and send in your ideas.

Apr
06
2009

What if your doctor could prescribe a pill that would erase any and all of your worst memories instantly?!

Rather than reliving it every single day, you could simply forget the time in 6th grade when you farted while doing sit-ups in gym class, and the day that your beloved cat Pookie was run down by your mother's Buick, and the boyfriend who broke your heart when he ran off to join the circus.

Rather than dwelling on bad memories, you could forget about them and move on to live the rest of your happy sunshiny life.

While it may sound like the plot of a certain indie film, brain scientists at a lab in Brooklyn are working on a scientific breakthrough that may make all of this possible. They've discovered that a chemical in the brain called PKMzeta acts like a speed dial to all of our worst (and best) memories. When a drug called ZIP is injected directly into the brain, memories are blocked and viola! No more dwelling on the painful, embarrassing, traumatic past.

Nevermind that it isn't quite that simple, or that this method has only been tested on rats, or that it involves a chemical being injected directly into the brain. It's from Brooklyn, so you know it'll be on the gifts & novelties table at Urban Outfitters just in time for the holidays. In fact, I can already see the marketing campaign involving lots of waifish models who apparently forgot to eat.

While this kind of 'made to order' miracle memory eraser won't be hitting the shelves anytime soon, there is a whole lot of money being spent on research that aims to better understand how memory works inside our brains. The reason that scientists want to know how memory works is that memory is so important to our emotions, our ability to learn, our spatial knowledge, our motor skills and much much more. When it isn't working as it should be, all kinds of problems can result.

For some people, painful and traumatic memories can wreak havoc on their emotional and social lives. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression are examples of diseases that involve the unconscious recall of frightening or upsetting memories. If these memories could be blocked, patients might experience a dramatically improved quality of life. Bad habits are also tied to our memories, since addictive behaviors are learned. If memories of experiences with drugs and alcohol could be blocked, some addicts might stand a better chance of recovery. And for those who suffer from Alzheimer's or Dementia, improvements in the understanding of memory could lead to new methods of memory enhancement, helping to reduce the impact of these diseases.

While plenty of good things will come from this kind of research, it also raises ethical questions. Any drug that can dramatically improve or block selected parts of our memory will inevitably find a commercial market among people who may not suffer from any disease at all. Students who can afford them might start taking memory enhancing drugs right before an exam, criminals might use memory blockers to short circuit the moral questions that arise from their behavior and ordinary people might be tempted to use memory blockers to forget painful or embarrassing moments, rather than learning from them.

To top it all off, since our good and bad memories are not neatly sorted for doctors to target, erasing painful memories would probably mean getting rid of some of the good ones as well. Sometimes it's hard to tell which is which, since good or bad, your memories make you who you are today.

Source: New York Times