Tag Archives: neuroscience

music and the brain

Evidence continues to mount that musical training is good for the brain:

According to a new Canadian study led by the Rotman Research Institute (RRI) at Baycrest Health Sciences, older adults who had musical training in their youth were 20% faster in identifying speech sounds than their non-musician peers on speech identification tests, a benefit that has already been observed in young people with musical training…

Among the different cognitive functions that can diminish with age is the ability to comprehend speech. Interestingly, this difficulty can persist in the absence of any measurable hearing loss. Previous research has confirmed that the brain’s central auditory system which supports the ability to parse, sequence and identify acoustic features of speech – weakens in later years.

Starting formal lessons on a musical instrument prior to age 14 and continuing intense training for up to a decade appears to enhance key areas in the brain that support speech recognition. The Rotman study found “robust” evidence that this brain benefit is maintained even in the older population.

fluoride and neurotoxicity

A coalition of groups including the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology is petitioning the EPA to ban the practice of water fluoridation.

EPA should exercise its authority under TSCA to prohibit fluoridation additives because application of the Agency’s own Guidelines for Neurotoxicity Risk Assessment to the existing database on fluoride shows that (1) neurotoxicity is a hazard of fluoride exposure, and (2) the reference dose that would reasonably protect against this hazard is incompatible with the doses now ingested by millions of Americans in fluoridated areas. In fact, the amount of fluoride now regularly consumed by many people in fluoridated areas exceeds the doses repeatedly linked to IQ loss and other neurotoxic effects; with certain subpopulations standing at elevated risk of harm, including infants, young children, elderly populations, and those with dietary deficiencies, renal impairment, and/or genetic predispositions.

The risk to the brain posed by fluoridation additives is an unreasonable risk because, inter alia, it is now understood that fluoride’s predominant effect on tooth decay comes from topical contact with teeth, not ingestion. Since there is little benefit in swallowing fluoride, there is little justification in exposing the public to any risk of fluoride neurotoxicity, particularly via a source as essential to human sustenance as the public drinking water and the many processed foods and beverages made therefrom. The addition of fluoridation chemicals to water thus represents the very type of unreasonable risk that EPA is duly authorized to prohibit pursuant to its powers and responsibilities under Section 6 of TSCA, and Petitioners urge the Agency to exercise its authority to do so.

I admit I hadn’t heard of these particular groups, but at first glance they appear to be reputable. I might have previously lumped the anti-fluoride movement in with the anti-vaccine movement or the anti-global warming movement, as pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo at best and a serious danger to the public at worse. But unlike vaccines, the health benefits of fluoridation might not be all that great. If something is not useful and we are not sure if it is toxic or not, there is a strong argument for erring on the side of caution. Maybe one day we’ll look back at water fluoridation similarly to how we look at leaded gasoline or mercury thermometers today – “what were we thinking?”

“hundreds of mini-brains on a chip”

This Wired article talks about tiny balls of mouse brain cells complete with blood vessels connected to a “microfluidic” chip that essentially acts as a heart.

In the last five years, researchers have engineered lots of dish-dwelling micro-organs, from itsy bitsy intestines to Lilliputian livers. They’ve simultaneously made major advances in biochips: small, Flash-drive-sized structures lined with a layer or two of cells and studded with biosensors and microfluidic channels. Those two-dimensional chips are useful for testing, say, how lung cells react to a piped-in toxin, but they’re too simplistic to truly mimic organs. That’s where organoids like Hoffman-Kim’s brain balls come in. For the first time, 2-D biochips are colliding with 3-D mini-organs—and together they’re making some of the best organ simulations ever.

Using these mashups, the idea is that scientists will be able to take a few of your skin cells, grow miniature versions of all your major organs, and put them on a chip. Then doctors can test out the best compounds for whatever disease you might have—not in a mouse, but in a mini-you. “This will enable a new era of personalized medicine,” says Ali Khademhosseini, a bioengineer at Harvard’s Wyss Institute who has been working on both mini-organs and biochips for the last decade.

In a paper that will be published later this month, Khademhosseini’s team created a series of chips connecting liver organoids and cancer cells with loops of tiny tubes. They pumped an anticancer drug through the system, tracking whether it killed the tumor cells and whether the liver cells could survive the toxic onslaught. That way, they could optimize a drug dosage that maxed cancer-killing power while keeping the liver out of harm’s way.

I can’t help wondering if these body-less mouse brains are sentient on some level, or if they could be. Do they have a natural life span, or can they regenerate and repair themselves indefinitely? Could someone create a human consciousness this way? If so, could it survive and develop in the absence of a body? Could it be plugged into a simulation so it thought it had a body? Could it be plugged into a spacecraft or a submarine and sent out to explore?

wireless ECG

This paper from MIT describes a technology that can read emotions accurately by detecting heartbeats simply by bouncing a wireless signal off a person. It is supposedly as accurate as a an electrocardiogram. Reading emotions this way is pretty amazing, but to me just the idea of reading a heartbeat accurately this way sounds like a pretty big deal in a medical setting. It also could have obvious implications in psychology, and quite possibly disturbing uses in security, intelligence, military and business settings. Imagine something like Google Glass giving you information on the health and emotions of a person you are talking to.

Emotion Recognition using Wireless Signals

This paper demonstrates a new technology that can infer
a person’s emotions from RF signals reflected off his body.
EQ-Radio transmits an RF signal and analyzes its reflections
off a person’s body to recognize his emotional state (happy,
sad, etc.). The key enabler underlying EQ-Radio is a new
algorithm for extracting the individual heartbeats from the
wireless signal at an accuracy comparable to on-body ECG
monitors. The resulting beats are then used to compute
emotion-dependent features which feed a machine-learning
emotion classifier. We describe the design and implementation
of EQ-Radio, and demonstrate through a user study
that its emotion recognition accuracy is on par with state-of-the-art
emotion recognition systems that require a person
to be hooked to an ECG monitor.

The Secret of N.I.M.H.

I remember going to see the rats of N.I.M.H. way too young and being terrified (perhaps second only to my fear of the Wicked Witch of the West). Anyway, the secret is out…

Wong FK, Fei J-F, Mora-Bermúdez F, Taverna E, Haffner C, Fu J, et al. (2015) Sustained Pax6 Expression Generates Primate-like Basal Radial Glia in Developing Mouse Neocortex. PLoS Biol 13(8): e1002217. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002217

The evolutionary expansion of the neocortex in mammals has been linked to enlargement of the subventricular zone (SVZ) and increased proliferative capacity of basal progenitors (BPs), notably basal radial glia (bRG). The transcription factor Pax6 is known to be highly expressed in primate, but not mouse, BPs. Here, we demonstrate that sustaining Pax6 expression selectively in BP-genic apical radial glia (aRG) and their BP progeny of embryonic mouse neocortex suffices to induce primate-like progenitor behaviour.

NIMH stood for “National Institute of Mental Health”. Which was, of course, secretly creating super-intelligent rats.

Holmes’s Brain

Sherlock Holmes knew that science and problem solving are about logic and reason, supported by facts. Creativity is the opposite of all that, right? Not so fast, according to an article and book by Maria Konnikova. Facts play a role, and Holmes had a large but carefully organized “attic” of the ones that he felt were most useful. To solve problems, you need a lot of information in your head, and access to a lot more, because you never know in advance which facts are going to combine in which way to produce an answer. The process of putting those facts together is not always cold, organized, and logical. In fact, you can’t force it. Holmes was willing to sit and contemplate as long as it took, distract his mind with music and recreational drugs, and let his mind access the facts in the background and bring him the solutions.



According to the BBC, telepathy is here, sort of. Human brain waves can be read by machines, then transmitted by machines to other human brains, which can perceive them. At the moment, they are perceived only as light, not the original thoughts that they were. Before we get too excited, the researchers say they think the technology will eventually allow perception of the original thoughts, but not in our current lifetime. I can see another implication though – if brain patterns are already being read into computers, we will eventually figure out how to have computers interpret them. Assuming progress in computing power continues to be exponential or super-exponential, I wouldn’t be so sure that we won’t see this relatively soon. Lots of exciting, and scary, implications, of course.