The brain supremacy’s on its way with big neuroscience

February 27, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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The Brain Supremacy book coverLike the Big Genetics of the Human Genome Project before it, Big Neuroscience has gone mainstream. In his recent State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama mentioned brain research, and it’s thought that his next budget will seek $3 billion funding for the Brain Activity Map Project, an ambitious attempt to use nanotechnology and genetics to investigate brain function. The way in which the excitement of many connected neurons gives rise to coordinated patterns of brain activity is not well understood, and the project hopes to start small and work up, one step at a time, to the human condition.

$3 billion! That should ease the physics envy somewhat.

The brain supremacy is on its way. Brain research has been moving up the science hierarchy for a while. The European Union has announced a large dollop of funding for another Big Neuro project, this time to build a computer model of a brain. While the President was setting his neurohare loose, ably assisted by the New York Times, the BBC confusingly chose to highlight another big brain mapping project, the Human Connectome Project. Big Neuro, big news.

Just to clarify, the Human Connectome Project has been going for a while, and its aim is to study the physical connections between brain areas (their structural connectivity). The new Brain Activity Map Project aims to study how brain areas interact (functional connectivity). Since you can in principle have a link between two neurons that is not used, or one that is created or that dies off, structural and functional connectivity aren’t the same.

Also, re terminology: the ‘connectome’ is the set of all the links between neurons in an organism, and was first used to refer to physical links. So you can have a connectome (i.e. a structural connectome, the wiring), and you can have a functional connectome, a list of which bits communicate.

Oh, and the Brain Activity Mapping Project ought to be abbreviated to BAMP, by analogy with the Human Genome Project (HGP) and the Human Connectome Project (HCP). But everyone’s calling it BAM, thereby proving that even scientists are susceptible to the irrational urge to prioritise sound over sense. Or maybe it’s all those happy memories of comic-book superheroes …

Human brains have around 86 billion neurons, roughly the same numbers of glia, and more neurotransmitters, hormones and receptors than you could shake a stick at. Human brains, therefore, are not where the new project will start. Instead, it will spend an immense amount of taxpayer cash on animal research. The brains to be mapped will be those of worms, flies, small mammals, possibly primates. Like I said, one step at a time.

Nonetheless, if you spot a neuroscientist with an unaccustomed swagger, chances are those 3 billion dollars will be why.

For more comment from the online community, try the following:

Nucleus Ambiguous

Knight Science Journalism

Mo Costandi on ‘connectome-ism’

Mind Hacks


Talking about the brain very simply. Very, very simply.

January 23, 2013 at 11:35 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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I’ve just come across, as perhaps you already have, the Up-Goer Five Text Editor.

It tests what you type in the box (in English) against a list of the most commonly-used words. The ‘ten hundred’ most common — presumably described that way because ‘thousand’ isn’t a common enough word.

Now, I’m not altogether in favour of this. What’s the point of having all those gorgeous words to play with if you don’t use them and, by using them, encourage other people to use them too? The connection between language and thought is, shall we say, contested — philosophers have been arguing over it for ages and show no signs of desisting any time soon — but I’m tempted by George Orwell’s 1984 view here: simplify and restrict language, and you risk restricting the minds that express themselves through it.

On the other hand, I am in favour of clarity, and using language carefully. And it’s a fun challenge.

So here’s my off-the-cuff attempt to explain why neuroscience is hard.


The brain is a very hard thing to understand. It’s full of very many bits and pieces, such as cells and the things inside them, which talk to each other in very many ways. That makes for a problem: how do we get a grip on all those conversations inside the cells and between cells? Understanding has to be done bit by bit, and there are lots and lots of bits. Too many for any one person to get their head around. Together, those bits make up us. They allow us to think, feel, act, believe and be the amazing humans we are.


If you’d like to try it yourself, the link is here.



You’re breaking up … anaesthesia and the brain

November 6, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Lewis, L. D., V. S. Weiner, et al. (2012). “Rapid fragmentation of neuronal networks at the onset of propofol-induced unconsciousness.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A fascinating paper in the journal PNAS, this. OK, it’s in patients (pretty much has to be, given they’re using intracranial electrodes), and only three of them, but it offers tantalising ground for speculation, which is always fun. And it shows how influential the notion of brain oscillations is becoming. ‘Tweren’t always thus.

Behaviour: epilepsy patients were tested during loss of consciousness by being given the anaesthetic propofol and asked to press a button when they heard a (frequent) tone. Two consecutive non-responses were taken to mean that the anaesthetic had successfully knocked them out. Propofol boosts GABAergic activity.

Brain recordings: these were taken of the intracranial electrocorticogram (i.e. global electrical activity, if one can call the brain a globe), single neurons, and the intermediate level of the local field potential (LFP), all in the same region, temporal cortex. Nice.

Findings: what the authors found, in their own words, was ‘a functional isolation of cortical regions while significant connectivity is preserved within local networks’, slow oscillations in the local field potential, and ‘short periods of normal spike dynamics still can occur during unconsciousness’. Initially neuronal spiking is suppressed, but though cells’ activity may recover to pre-anaesthetic levels, the patterns are different — short bursts, interspersed with silence, the activity coupled to the slow oscillations. And the patient remains unconscious.

Conclusions: so to put it crudely, consciousness doesn’t seem to depend on the number of spikes, so much as on the long-range connections between active areas. The local slow oscillations, which look a bit like the slow waves of slow-wave sleep (but more fragmented and with faster onset), appear to have different phases in different areas, suggesting that coupling between areas is interrupted. Apologies if this is starting to sound like a bad neuro take-off of Fifty Shades of Grey, but in consciousness, it seems, coupling’s what it’s all about.

Having said which, as the authors point out, they don’t yet know ‘whether the slow oscillation is sufficient to produce unconsciousness’. And this kind of functional breaking up may not be the only way in which we humans can be rendered temporarily insensate. MRN, of course (more research needed).

Still, it’s interesting to think about implications: for attempts to create artificial conscious entities, for what may be going on in Alzheimer’s, and for the science of dreams, to name but three. All those patients’ reports of strange sensations and half-remembered awareness while supposedly unconscious seem less neurotic now. Fascinating stuff!


What is the brain supremacy?

November 5, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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The brain supremacy is a great, rapidly-The Brain Supremacy book coverdeveloping change in science, in which the traditional dominance of the physical sciences will be challenged, and then usurped, by the growth of the biological, and especially the brain sciences.

When that happens, our culture, including the culture of science, will have to change, because both are built on outdated assumptions. As a bonus, the change could take scientific hubris down a peg or two, as we realise just how much harder brains are to study than anything we’ve tackled so far. That’s no harm either! Humility’s an unfashionable virtue in this self-promoting age, and it’s a lot harder to slip from confidence to arrogance when you’re trying to analyse a living brain.

Three great flows in the river of science are converging. Expect a white-water ride, as the power of physics-derived brain research methods and the force of the genetics revolution meet the youthful energy of a science emerging from childhood into a fully-fledged research field. When I started out, neuroscience was a branch of physiology. No longer.

The brain supremacy can’t come soon enough for me, for three reasons. Firstly, because time’s getting on in this particular life-path! Secondly, because it’s going to be amazing to watch. Neurotech is already phenomenal; as the brain supremacy takes shape its power will reach awe-inspiring capacities. How about dream recording, selective memory erasure, mindreading? How about the facility to share dreams, or download artificial experiences? How about the ability to reprogramme your beliefs and desires? It’s going to be a fascinating journey, seeing  even a few of these promises come to pass.

Finally, thirdly, there’s my great hope: that the brain supremacy could make us all more human. Minds need more careful handling than rocks or proteins; the ethical constraints are tighter. The potential for misuse of the new technologies — which is admittedly nightmarish — will, I hope, make us more careful of each other. Every human brain is gloriously unique.  The more we recognise that, the harder it may become to commit the atrocities which ruin and destroy them …

… and the easier it will get to work towards cures for hurt neurons. Think what we could do if we gained the gift of precision brain control. Might fanaticism, violence and psychopathy become curable disorders? Might the hideous damage inflicted by childhood abuse, or the diseases of old age, be reversible at last? Those are goals worth chasing.

I’m so lucky to be alive to see this time when, more than ever before, we hold the hope of a better future in our hands.

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