Thursday, September 25, 2008

Platform 9 and 3/4!

Nature Physics published a news article this week on the fascinating subject of metamaterials. These materials are novel in that the have a negative refractive index or the bend light the "wrong" way. Two groups of researchers speculate on how these materials could be used to make hidden doorways not unlike the magical platform 9 3/4 from the Harry Potter story. While it will still be some time before we have a real chance at creating a hidden doorway large enough for a person to walk through the possibility is enthralling.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Spine turnover and Cortical remapping

In the current issue of Nature Neuroscience, a paper by T. Heck et al, described the dynamics of  dendritic spine turnover and the role this plays the in the restructuring of interneuronal connections following  injury and altered sensory input. In the experiment, retinal lesions made to mice led to deafferented zones in the lesion projection site of  the visual cortex. These zones were observed to undergo increased spine turnover using two-photon microscopy. The rate of turnover, about 3.5x increase, which thought to be related the functional reorganization to stimulation of  retinal areas surrounding the lesion site. To test this idea complete retinal lesion were made to both eyes to eliminate all retinal input. In this condition, there was no significant increase in turnover rate of the visual cortex compared to control animals. 
Furthermore, in animals with with a single lesion, it was found that the turnover rate led to a replacement of ~90% of spines in the affected cortical regions. Also, these spines were  more likely to be stabilized for the duration of the experiment, lending additional support for their role in functional reorganization. 
These data suggest that spine turnover plays an important role in functional reorganization of cortex due to sensory stimulation.

Link to Nature Neuroscience  article

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Open Source and Prosthetics

The open source model primarily used in the software community has now made it way into biomedical engineering via the field of prosthetics. With the advancement of emergency medicine, many less lives are lost during combat than in the past. However, the downside to this is that soldiers who would have died, now survive with grievous and dehabilitating injuries.
To make the picture even bleaker, the total number of persons in the American population who need prosthetics is small and  so is the profit margin.  This has led to minimal R&D in the field and those who need these devices must make do , or tinker on their own.
In reality, many garage inspired prosthetics advances have occurred but taking them beyond that point has proved troublesome due to complicated laws, along with industry practices.

In hopes of solving this dilemma and bringing greater functionality to prosthetics the Open Prosthetics Project (OPP)was born. This project was founded by a group of friends who owned their own R&D firm "Tackle Design". The beginnings of the project began when one of the members who was deployed in Iraq was the victim of an IED and lost most of his right arm. 
When he received is prosthetic he was unimpressed, to say the least. His "myoelectric" arm was state of the art and more aesthetic pleasingly than the traditional hook, but ultimately not very useful. The hook while crude in appearance and function offers much more in the way of usefulness than the newer myoelectric devices which are barely strong enough to open a door.

They group realized that the only way the could make a change in the world was prosthetics would be to make their designs public and speed up the process of development. With that thought the OPP was brought to life. It's "hope is to use this and our complementary sites to create a core group of lead users and to speed up and amplify the impact of there innovations in the industry."

Link to Wired article

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The makings of the universe

Yesterday CERN, the European Council for Nuclear research, announced the commencement of the world's largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider. This new testament to the marvels of human engineering will begin  anew on the quest to discover  the elusive Higgs boson  particle, which is though to bestow mass on all other particles. The conditions  created by this newest of atom smashers are suppose to replicate those present just a trillionth of a second after time zero or the Big Bang. Although everyone is all a buzz about the turning on of the Hadron it will still be some time until any analyzable data is generated. Still the hopes are high and many in the field believe that this machine will reveal the answers to fundamental questions about how the universe was formed.

Not to be completely overshadowed, the Fermilab, formerly the title holder of world's largest atom smasher, has recently postulated that there may be a fourth type of neutrino, which travels interdimensionally. String theory has proposed that our reality is a 4-dimensional "brane" inside a 10 dimensional "hulk", and the physicists at Fermilab believe this new category of neutrino is able to travel from the bran through the bulk and back again. This new particle would account for an otherwise odd observation of a high number of neutrinos at lower enegry levels. ( low for physicists being 475 million electron volts).

 NYTimes article about Hadron

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Wilder Penfield

A premier, pioneer of neurosurgery, also the characterized the oligodendrocyte with Cajal and Co.

Check out Mo's wonderful biography @ Neurophilosphy

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sharing is Caring

In a recent study, Fehr et al described the sharing attitudes of children ages 7-8. This experiment made use of a paradigm similar to the one used by neuroeconomics to study decision making and fairness in adults. The experimenters presented the children with candy and a picture of another child. The child was told to divide the candy between themselves and the pictured child.  Largely all of the children chose to distribute the sweets equally. In comparison, children 3-4 are very much self-centered when it comes to food and will not share food at all. However, children at this age do show some signs of altruism, such as instrumental helping. In others words opening a door or helping to carry a heavy object.
Also, of noted interest, the authors mention that chimpanzees display no "other regarding preferences". Thus, it seems a closest evolutionary cousins have not developed an extensive notion of sharing.

In neuroeconomics, a typical paradigm involving the allocation of resources is used to study decision making.  The experiment goes you and another individual are to split a sum of money. One individual is told to decide which percentage of x$ you get and he gets. You then get to accept the offer or decide that neither of you receives anything. The results of this study were  if people felt they were being cheated they would forgo any sort of payment to spite the other particpant. Logically this is not in their best interest. Regardless of what is offered you might as well accept and be better off than you were before. This studies were done in fMRI and scans showed that "unfair" offers elicited heightened activity in the anterior insula, as well as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.Activity of the insula, known for its involvement in emotion suggests that decisions, are not purely cognitive in origin. This experiments illustrates the notion that people are not rational maximizers, and sometimes "reason doesn't matter".

A compassionate reminder ...

A new book Head Cases, reviewed in Nature Neuroscience, addresses the personal impact of traumatic brain injury (TBI). The overall purpose is to bring to light the reality of the overwhelming obstacles faced by sufferers of TBI. This is a noble effort given that many researchers are susceptible to getting caught up in the minutia of their work and lose sight of the grander picture. Especially those of us just starting who are often torn between altruism and career ambitions. However, according to Masud Husain, neurobiologist at UCL and Nature reviewer, the book deals to far in philosophical issues and musing that are not well integrated. Additionally, the author takes grievances with neurosurgeons and scientists,  in a form of ranting that is misplaced. All in all, it seems the book aim is well meant, but took a few too many tangents that detracted from its goal. Nonetheless, it succeeds in that by its mere existence we, neuroscientists, are reminded to look up from our laboratory bench and remember why we are there. 

Link to Nature Neuroscience review

And more about energy advancement ...

In the NY Times today, a piece was written about the problem of energy transmission over the national grid. Although technological barriers to energy generation via alternative technologies (the focus of the article is wind turbines) have been decreasing over the past few years, the ability to transmit this energy is at a standstill. As one example, the articles tells of a wind farm in NY that at times is forced to shut down because the transmission lines are too congested. 
The problem with the grid is that it is  composed of small interconnected networks, without any highways essentially. The problem with developing this infrastructure is that the grid is owned by too many people, and individual sector have been left to the governance of the states. Thus any national projects meet lots of resistance from people who do not see it to be in the financial interest to change.

Read more about this frustrating dilemma at NY Times

Monday, August 25, 2008

Systems Biology

In a recent perspective in Science, Bryan Roth reviews a book assessing the promise of studying neuronal signal transduction pathways.  The article outlines two chapters to give a deeper sense of the overall tone and purpose of this venture.  The authors' aim is to look at multiple discrete molecular entities and how their alterations leads to pathological conditions. By discovering what has gone awry, one can then begin to develop experimental therapies to rectify these alterations. This book seems to be an product of the emerging field of systems biology. This new multidisciplinary approach  starts at the level of a pathological condition, tries to understand the affected system and then move on down to discovering the molecular mechanisms at play. A slew of  biologists, computer scientists, mathematicians, engineers and clinicians are becoming involved in this collaborative field to make sense of the enormous pile of data being generated by the new omic research paradigms; genomics proteomics, metabolomics, etc. This trend towards colloborative multdiscpilanry fields seems to be the most promising method of further our understanding of diseases and developing new   and increasingly effective treatments.

Link to Science article

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Harvey Cushing performs 2000th tumor removal

Harvey Cushing is regarded as the founder of neurosurgery and the greatest practioner of the art in the 20th century

Link to video on You Tube

Thanks Mo

Friday, August 22, 2008

"University College London will play host to £140-million institute"

Nature reports about another interdisciplinary institute aiming to answer fundamentals questions about the makeup of the brain.

UCLUCL: the nerve centre of neuroscience

"An ambitious 'Janelia Farm-style' neuroscience institute to lead international efforts in understanding the brain and behaviour at the level of basic neural circuits is being planned for London."

Obviously, the hottest topic in neuroscience is understanding how the complex networks of proteins making up the synapse relates to the functions of individual systems on through to whole brain interactions governing behavior.

UCL, already a leader in the world of neuroscience is now searching to bring together the best of the established and upcoming science world. This collaborative effort hopes to leapfrog neuroscience from its present state of basic knowledge into a field full of practical applications.
This trend to make neuroscience applied, so to speak, has been termed "translational".
This movement hopes to create a new breed of scientists who "bridges the gap from bench to bedside". Although, the efforts of this movement have yet to been felt the mere fact it exists bid well for future therapies.

Thanks to Noah

Link to Nature article

First Wi-fi, now wireless power

According to Intel, you may be able in the next few years to forgo wires all together.

Intel on Thursday showed off a wireless electric power system that analysts say could revolutionize modern life by freeing devices from transformers and wall outlets. ...
Electricity was sent wirelessly to a lamp on stage, lighting a 60 watt bulb that uses more power than a typical laptop computer.
Most importantly, the electricity was transmitted without zapping anything or anyone that got between the sending and receiving units.
"The trick with wireless power is not can you do it; it's can you do it safely and efficiently," Intel researcher Josh Smith said in an online video explaining the breakthrough.
"It turns out the human body is not affected by magnetic fields; it is affected by elective fields. So what we are doing is transmitting energy using the magnetic field not the electric field."

However, this last line concerns me a little, "the human body is not affected by magnetic fields." This is not true. If this were the case, our fancy imaging machines (MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging) would be of little use. It may be that magnetic fields have not detrimental affect on the human body, but we never generated tons of man-made magnetic fields and sent it traveling amongst our city. This technology appears fantastic but like ever new venture we make into life altering technology our excitement needs to be tamed by caution.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Incessant chatter of the Mind

William James on consciousness and memory:

The stream of thought flows on; but most of its segments fall into the bottomless abyss of oblivion. Of some, no memory survives the instant of their passage. Of others, it is confined to a few moments, hours or days. Others, again, leave vestiges which are indestructible, and by means of which they may be recalled as long as life endures.

A few articulate words from one of America's (and NY's own) first psychologists about how most of our conscious mental experience is fleeting and inconsequential.

James was a prominent in developing many important psychological principals, for instance pragmatism. As well, James, along with is contemporary Carl Lange, developed the perspective that emotions are minds interpretation of physiological conditions arising from external stimulus. The famous example is that you see a bear, sweat, run and then become afraid.

James also made important contributions to philosophy of religion, and was actively involved in exploring mystical experiences

via Mo

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


I would just like to thank all visitors to the site for checking out this blog.

Since I am rather new to the art of blogging it may be a while before my first in depth article appears, but please keep checking back from time to time.

My first piece will concern itself with, aptly I think, whether the brain is actually both plastic, and elastic. In other words, is it the case that the brain undergoes only permanent changes (plastic) or is this more of a special case and more often than the not the brain undergoes a change temporarily only to revert back to its original form (elastic) if the change was unnecessary.

While I work on that, may I suggest a few of my favorite Neuroblogs for your enjoyment:

Neurophilosphy - Mo's post are always very succinct, informative, and up-to-date. His posts range the gamut from the synapse, fMRI, to interviews and blogging about current conferences.
He does not know it, but his blog was my first introduction to neuroblogging and I am indebted to him for spurning my interest.

The Frontal Cortex
- Jonah Lehrer - a fantastic writer, is editor-at large of Seed Magazine.

The Neurocritic - always providing edgy critques for the cynic in all of us.

Neuronism - another upstart neuroblog. I am not too familair with it, but I dig Cian's most recent post on dendritic plasticity