Opening the new science frontier: Your brain
Researchers have discovered a way to make the human brain transparent, which in turn makes it possible to explore three-dimensional images right down to the molecular circuitry.
So what’s the big deal about making the brain transparent?
The recipe for transforming cadaver brains into see-through research tools stands to accelerate investigations of Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and a host of other brain maladies, and already has led to a significant insight into the peculiar characteristics of neurons associated with Down syndrome and autism.
Photo: Raoul Ranoa / Los Angeles Times, Brady MacDonald / Nature
Science is fundamentally amazing. There just isn’t a fact that isn’t remarkable. What drew me to write about science is that, although I had been a terrible student of science at school, I was certain that there must be some level at which even I could engage with science.
What happens when a conservative website “discovers” a study that studies the explosive corkscrew nature of duck genitalia and how it relates to sexual evolution? Their commenters completely lose their minds at the idea that the government would fund such basic science research (srsly, read the comments … or actually maybe don’t).
Except that basic science research like this is the cornerstone of innovation and discovery. Carl Zimmer stands up for this kind of science in this must-read article, and I stand behind him. Besides, xkcd’s money chart reminds us that this isn’t why the budget is in trouble, maybe?
Science is a journey of unknowns, a slow and careful march into uncharted territories of human knowledge. We can not predict how research will benefit humanity, because those benefits might be years, or even decades down the road. Or they might not materialize at all.
You can’t fund the invention of an MRI machine, instead you fund basic research in the physics of magnetic resonance on living tissues. Likewise, studies of sexual conflict in ducks can unlock the secrets of our own evolution, and might even help us understand mysterious conditions like preeclampsia (which killed Sybil on Downton Abbey, an event I have not fully recovered from).
This is why it is so important to share science with your friends, and to make sure that scientists and science folks everywhere are connecting with the public. Because if you don’t communicate your science, then someone else will do it for you, and nefariously.
By this point, you probably want to see the slo-mo videos of those explosive corkscrew genitalia, right? Here ya go.
Perhaps most tragically, the critics seem to be missing the easy opportunity to make “stimulus package” jokes … which is funny, I don’t care who ya are.
Our understanding of brain activity has traditionally been linked to brain areas – when we speak, the speech area of the brain is active. New research by an international team of psychologists led by David Alexander and Cees van Leeuwen (Laboratory for Perceptual Dynamics) shows that this view may be overly rigid. The entire cortex, not just the area responsible for a certain function, is activated when a given task is initiated. Furthermore, activity occurs in a pattern: waves of activity roll from one side of the brain to the other.
The brain can be studied on various scales, researcher David Alexander explains: “You have the neurons, the circuits between the neurons, the Brodmann areas – brain areas that correspond to a certain function – and the entire cortex. Traditionally, scientists looked at local activity when studying brain activity, for example, activity in the Brodmann areas. To do this, you take EEG’s (electroencephalograms) to measure the brain’s electrical activity while a subject performs a task and then you try to trace that activity back to one or more brain areas.”
In this study, the psychologists explore uncharted territory: “We are examining the activity in the cerebral cortex as a whole. The brain is a non-stop, always-active system. When we perceive something, the information does not end up in a specific part of our brain. Rather, it is added to the brain’s existing activity. If we measure the electrochemical activity of the whole cortex, we find wave-like patterns. This shows that brain activity is not local but rather that activity constantly moves from one part of the brain to another. The local activity in the Brodmann areas only appears when you average over many such waves.”
Each activity wave in the cerebral cortex is unique. “When someone repeats the same action, such as drumming their fingers, the motor centre in the brain is stimulated. But with each individual action, you still get a different wave across the cortex as a whole. Perhaps the person was more engaged in the action the first time than he was the second time, or perhaps he had something else on his mind or had a different intention for the action. The direction of the waves is also meaningful. It is already clear, for example, that activity waves related to orienting move differently in children – more prominently from back to front – than in adults. With further research, we hope to unravel what these different wave trajectories mean.”
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Some of my interests (list has not been updated in years):
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Things I've saved for later.