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Silk-printed brain chips & social fMRI, April 18 – 24

April 25, 2010

Among the most scientifically significant publications to hit the popular press this week was the finding published in Nature that C. elegans recruit latent neurons during environmental cues for stress. I think it’s hard to create widespread excitement for a worm system when you’re competing against news on kids with autism or grandparents with Alzheimer’s. So kudos to this publication for getting air time.

There were lots of cool articles that chipped away toward what I believe are the big two revolutions that neuroscience will ultimately yield: 1) a revolution in human mental capacities, and 2) a revolution in human morality. I’ll cluster the articles under each of these two headings, respectively:

1) Toward a revolution in human mental capacities:

Silk–Printed Ultra-thin circuits dissolve into brain

  • This was an enormously cool find. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have been able to print micro-circuits onto ultra-thin silk. The silk is then physically placed on top of the brain during an open-brain surgery. When the brain is closed back up into the skull, the silk dissolves, and the micro-circuitry is effectually printed directly onto the surface of the brain itself. Admittedly I don’t understand how this would work to produce a signal that could be discernible by a device outside of the head (you would need to have a power supply to amplify any signal output). Nonetheless, the ability to place fine micro-circuitry directly onto the surface of the brain is a very suggestive development for the ultimate pursuit of full-scale brain-computer interfacing.

Cat brains used to model next generation supercomputers

  • The basic take home messages here are 1) that cat brains are being used to model “memristors” that will preserve a record of their previous states (as opposed to “resistors” that only encode a moment-to-moment binary state of 1 or 0), and 2) that future super computers will be massively parallel similar to the way a cat brain processes data. Check out the article for some more fun stats about the size of the challenge at hand and how far along we are in cracking open the problems involved. (Incidentally, it made me laugh that the links to “related content” from this page include “Dolphin births up since Hurricane Katrina” and “Donners ate dog, maybe not people.”)

Toward nano neuro sensors

  • This article definitely indicates that nano neuro sensing is taking steps in the right direction. But it also just as effectively points to some major, major problems yet to be overcome. Bottom line: carbon nanotubules with a 2 micron diameter are fixed with a glutamate oxidase enzyme that reacts with glutamate when it is in the synaptic cleft and produces a peroxide which can then be detected in order to indicate the presence of glutamate. The juxtaposition of the phrases “produces a peroxide” and “in the synaptic cleft” sends up all kinds of red flags. The take home message here is that these are very cool and clever strategies being created for neuro molecular detection. But–oof–translating them into living systems in ways that are non-disruptive physiologically seems like it’s going to be a rocky climb. But I’m SUPER glad people are making that climb! Seriously–once we have effective in vivo systems for gauging molecular brain transactions, our understanding of brain processes is going to take off exponentially.

2) Toward a revolution in human morality:

Baylor professor receives $72K grant to study forgiveness

  • I find news like this encouraging. If I were independently wealthy, I would take the list of values enumerated on www.values.com and fund basic research initiatives for each of them. I see this type of research as an essential component to promoting the health of the human soul in addition to the health of the human body.

First fMRI study of live social interaction

  • Major props to the journal NeuroImage for publishing the first fMRI study of live social interaction. The take home from the article is less exciting than the symbolic meaning of the article itself. The findings were that areas such as the superior temporal gyrus and the anterior cingulate cortex were uniquely activated when subjects were engaged in live social dynamics as opposed to watching a recorded video of comparable event content. Surely this specific set of findings will ultimately be meaningful in the larger constellation of social fMRI data yet to come. But the thing that gets me ultra-charged is the fact that we are making real headway toward expanding the tent of the physical sciences to include the social sciences. I see this doing wonders for the future education of individuals in strategies for maintaining personal states of positive affect, emotion, and social engagement, in addition to promoting (in the long run) human flourishing by fine-tuning our understanding of developmental needs at progressive stages of human life.

The Selfish Society

  • Not much to say about this one since I haven’t read the book yet, other than to comment that this is the type of book that makes me optimistic about the direction that neuroscience is helping to guide our society. I love the subtitle: How We All Forgot to Love One Another and Made Money Instead. The review promises a wealth of data from neuroscience to back up the soft and fuzzy claims on psychology and child development. Consider this one added to my summer reading list.
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