If consciousness is just the workings of neurons and synapses, how do we explain the phenomenon of near-death experience? By some accounts, about 3% of the U.S. population has had one: an out-of-body experience often characterized by remarkable visions and feelings of peace and joy, all while the physical body is close to death. To skeptics, there are more plausible, natural explanations, like oxygen deprivation. Is the prospect of an existence after death “real” and provable by science, or a construct of wishful thinking about our own mortality?
Most of your body is younger than you are. The cells on the topmost layer of your skin are around two weeks old, and soon to die. Your oldest red blood cells are around four months old. Your liver’s cells will live for around 10 to 17 months old before being replaced. All across your organs, cells are being produced and destroyed. They have an expiry date.
In your brain, it’s a different story. New neurons are made in just two parts of the brain—the hippocampus, involved in memory and navigation, and the olfactory bulb, involved in smell (and even then only until 18 months of age). Aside from that, your neurons are as old as you are and will last you for the rest of your life. They don’t divide, and there’s no turnover.
But do neurons have a maximum lifespan, just like skin, blood or liver cells? Yes, obviously, they die when you die, but what if you kept on living? That’s not a far-fetched question at a time when medical and technological advances promise to prolong our lives well past their usual boundaries. Would we reach a point when our neurons give up before our bodies do?
Image above: Stainless steel sculpture “Neuron” by Roxy Paine. Outside the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.
Excerpt from an article written by Ed Yong at NATGEO. Continue THERE
The Human Brain Project’s first goal is to build an integrated system of six ICT-based research platforms, providing neuroscientists, medical researchers and technology developers with access to highly innovative tools and services that can radically accelerate the pace of their research. These will include a Neuroinformatics Platform, that links to other international initiatives, bringing together data and knowledge from neuroscientists around the world and making it available to the scientific community; a Brain Simulation Platform, that integrates this information in unifying computer models, making it possible to identify missing data, and allowing in silico experiments, impossible in the lab; a High Performance Computing Platform that provides the interactive supercomputing technology neuroscientists need for data-intensive modeling and simulations; a Medical Informatics Platform that federates clinical data from around the world, providing researchers with new mathematical tools to search for biological signatures of disease; a Neuromorphic Computing Platform that makes it possible to translate brain models into a new class of hardware devices and to test their applications; a Neurorobotics Platform, allowing neuroscience and industry researchers to experiment with virtual robots controlled by brain models developed in the project. The platforms are all based on previous pioneering work by the partners and will be available for internal testing within eighteen months of the start of the project. Within thirty months, the platforms will be open for use by the community, receiving continuous upgrades to their capabilities, for the duration of the project.
The second goal of the project is to trigger and drive a global, collaborative effort that uses the platforms to address fundamental issues in future neuroscience, future medicine and future computing. A significant and steadily growing proportion of the budget will fund research by groups outside the original HBP Consortium, working on themes of their own choosing. Proposals for projects will be solicited through competitive calls for proposals and evaluated by independent peer review.
The end result will be not just a new understanding of the brain but transformational new ICT. As modern computers exploit ever-higher numbers of parallel computing elements, they face a power wall: power consumption rises with the number of processors, potentially to unsustainable levels. By contrast, the brain manages billions of processing units connected via kilometres of fibres and trillions of synapses, while consuming no more power than a light bulb. Understanding how it does this – the way it computes reliably with unreliable elements, the way the different elements of the brain communicate – can provide the key not only to a completely new category of hardware (Neuromorphic Computing Systems) but to a paradigm shift for computing as a whole, moving away from current models of “bit precise” computing towards new techniques that exploit the stochastic behaviour of simple, very fast, low-power computing devices embedded in intensely recursive architectures. The economic and industrial impact of such a shift is potentially enormous.
Text via The Human Brain Project
Comic artist Matteo Farinella will collaborate with neuroscientist Dr. Hana Ros of University College London to create Neurocomic.
Neurocomic will be a graphic novel that takes the reader on an exciting and visually captivating adventure through the brain, populated by quirky creatures and famous neuroscientists. Giant squid, talking sea slugs, mysterious trap doors, submarines, parachutes and underwater battles transport the reader on a fantasy journey that fascinates and helps them to understand how the brain works.
Neuroscience is receiving increasing public attention, as our society faces the complex problems of ageing diseases and mental disorders.
The medium of comics has repeatedly proved incredibly efficient as education material, for its clear yet informal approach. The authors aim to combine the two, to create a visually captivating adventure that shows how cells use electricity to communicate, how drugs work, and what happens during brain disorders. The graphic novel will be released in the UK in 2013, together with a short documentary by director Richard Wyllie, who is following the process of collaboration behind the book, in order to explore the interaction between science and drawing. The project is fully supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award.
Text and Images via Neurocomic.
The flip of a single molecular switch helps create the mature neuronal connections that allow the brain to bridge the gap between adolescent impressionability and adult stability. Now Yale School of Medicine researchers have reversed the process, recreating a youthful brain that facilitated both learning and healing in the adult mouse.
Scientists have long known that the young and old brains are very different. Adolescent brains are more malleable or plastic, which allows them to learn languages more quickly than adults and speeds recovery from brain injuries. The comparative rigidity of the adult brain results in part from the function of a single gene that slows the rapid change in synaptic connections between neurons.
Excerpt from an press release by Bill Hathaway at Yale News. Continue HERE
So it goes with the brain. We are the aliens in that landscape, and the brain is an even more complicated cipher. It is composed of 100 billion electrically active cells called neurons, each connected to many thousands of its neighbors. Each neuron relays information in the form of miniature voltage spikes, which are then converted into chemical signals that bridge the gap to other neurons. Most neurons send these signals many times per second; if each signaling event were to make a sound as loud as a pin dropping, the cacophony from a single human head would blow out all the windows. The complexity of such a system bankrupts our language; observing the brain with our current technologies, we mostly detect an enigmatic uproar.
Looking at the brain from a distance isn’t much use, nor is zooming in to a single neuron. A new kind of science is required, one that can track and analyze the activity of billions of neurons simultaneously.
Excerpt from an article written by DAVID EAGLEMAN, NYT. Continue HERE
It is an area of science that has the power to control the human mind with the flick of a light switch.
Scientists have developed a way of using pulses of light to turn the brain cells that control our everyday actions and thoughts on or off at will. It provides a way of controlling the brain that has never been possible before.
The researchers have already conducted tests in monkeys, our closest relatives, using light to send them to sleep. They now hope to develop the techniques further for use in humans.
The technology promises to provide revolutionary new treatments for diseases that are notoriously difficult to control such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s Disease and psychiatric illnesses. It could even help people make new memories.
Excerpt of an article written by Richard Gray, at Telegraph. Continue HERE
David Dobbs says: As faithful readers know, I’m working on a book, provisionally titled The Orchid and the Dandelion and likely to be published next year, about the orchid-dandelion hypothesis: the notion that genes and traits that underlie some of humans’ biggest weaknesses — despair, madness, savage aggression — also underlie some of our greatest strengths — resilience, lasting happiness, empathy. If you’re used to the disease model of genes that are associated with mood and behavioral problems, this hypothesis can seem puzzling. The turn lies in viewing problems such as depression, distractibility, or even aggression as downsides of a heightened sensitivity to experience that can also generate assets and contentment.
I first wrote about the orchid-dandelion hypothesis in an Atlantic article two years ago. Last week, New Scientist published a feature I wrote about some of the research I’ve come across while researching the book. The article is behind a paywall now, so you’ll need a subscription to read it; I’ll post the whole thing here in a few weeks when the New Scientist exclusive-run period ends. In the meantime, I thought I’d excerpt here a couple passages of particular interest.
One is the opener, which describes how toddlers react to a clever test of their generosity and then lays out the gist of the hypothesis. The other is a multigenic study that sought to expand the hypothesis beyond single-gene candidate-gene studies.
Written by David Dobbs, WIRED. Continue HERE