Neuroscientists publish most detailed human brain map yet

July 21, 2016

In a new paper published in Nature, neuroscientists have set out the most comprehensive brain atlas to date.

Over the centuries, countless attempts have been made to classify the regions of the brain, however, this research is the most advanced to date, BBC News has reported. 

Specifically, the authors of the paper have demarcated 180 compartments of the cortex, 97 of which have been identified for the first time.

Image by David Shattuck, PhD. and Paul M. Thompson, PhD. http://www.humanconnectomeproject.org/gallery/

Behind this paper is the Human Connectome Project, a US-led collaboration which aims to demystify both the wiring of the brain and how this affects our behaviour. 

According to Dr Emma Robinson, co-author of the paper and a member of the Oxford University team behind the software used to analyse the project’s massive amount of data, “This is the culmination of the entire HCP project that we’ve been working towards,”

“This paper is really a mammoth effort by Matthew Glasser and David Van Essen (of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri) – manually labelling brain regions, but also pulling together all the streams that we’ve been working on, trying to collect incredibly high quality images and state of the art imaging processing techniques.”

 In order to procure this data, the HCP team initially held long scanning sessions of the brains of 210 individuals.

One part of the research consisted of observing the physical properties of the brain. For example, variations in the folds and thickness of the cortex; and within the cortex, the amount of myelin, a substance which enfolds nerve fibres, that could be detected throughout.

The researchers also examined brain activity, looking specifically at which parts of the brain were triggered by particular activities, and the degree to which activity levels in different parts of the brain correlated and coordinated with one another. 

The 180 areas of the brain were distinguished using automatic computational tools, which the HCP team then tested and confirmed through 210 fresh brain scans. 

Prof Tim Behrens, who is involved in the HCP but who did not have a hand in the paper said, “Every one of those 180 areas in this paper is described in detail – its relation to the previous literature, its functional properties, its anatomical properties… Nobody will do as good a job as this for a long time.”

“It will now be the parcellation that is used by all of neuroscience, I would think.”

Prof Simon Eickhoff of the University of Dusseldorf in Germany, who was not involved in the research,meanwhile described the research as “a really big step forward”.

At the same time, he sought to put the paper in context. 

“If you look at the classical brain maps, even from the 19th century – they were whole-brain maps; they had a label for every spot on the cortex. Any part of the brain has already been looked at.

“[This work] certainly defines something clearly, where knowledge has been imprecise and maybe contradictory. But ‘new’ is a tricky term.”

Nevertheless, Prof Behrens proposed that this new map “conceptually changes things.”

“Brain areas are not coarsely divided with, say, 50 pieces that we need to figure out what they’re doing.”

“As you get more and better data, you can subdivide it further and further – and we should be thinking about the brain in this much more granular way.”

Sources: BBC News and humanconnectomeproject.org

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Mind controlled prosthetics aim to make wheelchairs obsolete

May 14, 2013

“We want to galvanize people’s imaginations,” said Miguel Nicolelis, the Brazilian neuroscientist at Duke University who is leading the Walk Again Project’s efforts to create a robotic suit that could one day ‘make wheelchairs obsolete’.

Mind-controlled leg armor may sound like science fiction. But after decades of testing on rats and monkeys, neuro prosthetics are finally beginning to show promise for people. Devices plugged directly into the brain seem capable of restoring some self-reliance to stroke victims, car crash survivors, injured soldiers and others hampered by incapacitated or missing limbs.

Nicolelis is a pioneer in the field. In the 1990s, he helped build the first mind-controlled arm. Rats learned they could manipulate the device to get a drink of water simply by thinking about doing so.

Researchers studied the signals as the rats pushed a lever to guide the arm that gave them water, and they saw groups of neurons firing at different rates as the rats moved the lever in different directions. An algorithm was developed to decipher the patterns, discern the animal’s intention at any given moment and send commands from the brain directly to the arm instead of to the lever. Eventually, rats could move the arm without pushing the lever at all.

Using similar brain-machine interfaces, Nicolelis and his team learned to translate the neural signals in primate brains. In 2000, they reported that an owl monkey connected to the Internet had controlled an arm located 1,000 km away. Eight years later, the team described a rhesus monkey that was able to dictate the pace of a robot jogging on a treadmill half a world away in Japan.

Small groups of neurons, it seemed, were surprisingly capable of communicating with digital devices. Individual cells learn to communicate with computer algorithms more effectively over time by changing their firing patterns, as revealed in a study of a mouse’s brain published last year in Nature. “You can count on this plasticity when designing a prosthetic,” said Jose Carmena, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Berkeley. “You can count on the brain to learn.”

Capitalizing on that adaptability, several human quadriplegics have received implanted brain chips in FDA-approved clinical trials. In a widely publicized demonstration of that system, a 58-year-old woman paralyzed by a stroke sipped a cup of coffee last year using a five-fingered robotic arm, not attached to her body. Despite the slickness of the presentation, however, the woman actually had little control over the aesthetically pleasing arm. Her thoughts triggered preset choreography. “What she was controlling was really simplistic, really rudimentary,” said Andrew Schwartz, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh.

His team’s robotic arm offers much more freedom, as well as greater agility and speed. Funded in part by the U.S. military and built at the university, the freestanding mechanical limb sports a wrist that bends and rotates.  Jan Scheuermann, a 53-year-old with a rare degenerative disorder, named the arm “Hector” and learned in a single day to move it around like a claw in an arcade game. After 13 weeks of training, she mastered the fine control needed to grasp objects and stack cones. Fulfilling a long-standing goal, she fed herself a chocolate bar — and followed it with some string cheese and a red pepper.

To achieve this dexterity, Schwartz’s team had implanted two chips in Scheuermann’s brain instead of the usual one. The duo monitored about 200 neurons at once, more than ever before. More neurons communicate more information, helping to clarify the brain’s desires.

But even hundreds of cells may not be enough to allow someone to control two mechanical limbs at once — a device that scientists hope to showcase at the upcoming World Cup. “You really need to reach thousands of neurons,” said Nicolelis. That is why his team is developing a new kind of electrode that branches like a tree, covering a larger volume of the brain. Made of a flexible plastic that conducts electricity, the electrode can monitor nearly 2,000 brain cells in a mouse.

Nicolelis’s dream is for the very first kick of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Sao Paulo next June to be delivered by a Brazilian teenager who is paralyzed from the waist down. If all goes according to plan, the teenager will walk onto the field, cock back a foot and swing at the soccer ball using a mechanical exoskeleton controlled by the teen’s brain.

Motorized metal braces will support and bend the kicker’s legs. The braces will be stabilized by gyroscopes and powered by a battery carried by the kicker in a backpack. German-made sensors will relay a feeling of pressure when each foot touches the ground. And months of training on a virtual-reality simulator will have prepared the teenager to do all this using a device that translates his or her thoughts into actions.

The blueprints for next summer’s soccer exoskeleton also include sensors that will provide an artificial skin for its human wearer. With the world watching, Nicolelis hopes not only that his bionic teenager will be able to feel the ball but also that disabled people everywhere will feel a sense of hope.

Source: The Washington Post

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Japanese scientists work out how to ‘read’ dreams.

April 8, 2013

Scientists in Kyoto have discovered a way to recognise the visual images present in the unconscious mind during the early stages of sleep with 60% accuracy. Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines, the researchers at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in western Japan, monitored the brain maps of three volunteers who were asked to fall asleep inside the scanners.

The scientists woke up the dreamers when the brain was at its most active (around every six minutes), and asked them to describe the images they had ‘seen’ during these first moments of sleep. Repeating this more than 200 times for each participant, the verbal reports were grouped into generic categories. Scientists then scanned the brains of the participants while awake, asking them to look at similar images on a computer screen. Consolidating the data from these two stages, the scientists created a computer program which was able to link the images reported by the dreamers to the maps recorded by the MRI scanner, finding correlations between the respective patterns of brain activity.

Using this, researchers could then identify the images which were or were not present in the volunteers’ unconscious minds during sleep. The results published on Thursday in the journal Science, suggested a 60% success rate, with some factors such as the presence of a male or female within the dream, over 70% accurate. This was enough to convince the scientists that they had made significant headway towards ‘reading’ dreams.

Research into dreams is an important step towards comprehending other core brain functions, such as how we learn and consolidate memories. Nonetheless, there is still a lot more research work to be completed.

With the scientists in Kyoto choosing to focus their experiment on the early stages of sleep, the depths of the more intensive R.E.M (rapid-eye movement) stage, which only begins about 90 minutes into sleep, are yet to be plumbed.  Indeed, it is this stage which may prove to be the most fascinating as it is during this time that we experience strong emotions and strange logic so peculiar to dreams.

Nevertheless, cognitive psychologist Frank Tong believes the work contributes towards an understanding of how the brain functions during different states of sleep, such as that experienced by coma patients. The Japanese research also successfully demonstrated that brain activity during dreaming is very similar to activity during wakefulness.

While the benefits of the exciting research are undeniable, a universal ‘dream-reader’ remains in the realm of science-fiction. “You would never be able to build a general classifier that could read anybody’s dreams,” Dr Mark Stokes, a cognitive neuroscientist from the University of Oxford, told the BBC. “They will all be idiosyncratic to the individual, so the brain activity will never be general across subjects” or indeed, he added, “You would never be able to build something that could read other peoples thoughts without them knowing about it.” What the future holds, however, can anyone ever know for certain?

Sources include: BBC News, South China Morning Post, Los Angeles Times

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The Mad Scientists’ Club

September 25, 2012

Can people swim faster in water or syrup? What goes on in a locust’s brain when it’s watching Star Wars? Does wearing socks on the outside of your shoes make you less liable to slip on ice? And what, exactly, is the optimal way to dunk a biscuit?

Despite what you may be thinking, these are not the ramblings of children or intoxicated adults. These are all questions which have been posed – and answered – by leading world scientists. That’s right, this week saw the announcement of the ultimate ‘Mad Scientist’ award winners, or Ig Nobel prizes, a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the fun side of science.

Though much of the research sounds completely nutty, (just why does uncooked spaghetti break into several pieces when it is bent? Do cows with names give more milk than cows that are nameless?) much of the Ig prizes celebrate research that tackles real-world problems, and often gets published in higly-esteemed scholarly journals. Last year’s winners included John Perry’s ‘Theory of Structured Procrastination’ (Ig Nobel for Literature) and a team of Japanese scientists claimed the Chemistry prize for the ‘Wasabi Alarm’, by determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi required in order to awaken sleeping people in the event of an emergency.

And this year’s set of winners proved to suitably wacky. The winners of the Fluid Dynamics prize explained why our coffee sloshes out of the cup when walking (a combination of a person’s walking speed, their mental focus and, surprisingly enough, noise), and the Neuroscience Ig went to a team of Californian scientists who proved that using complicated instruments and simple statistics, meaningful brain activity can be seen anywhere — even in a dead salmon.

 

One of the stand-out highlights of the night was a demonstration of the ‘SpeechJammer,’ which won the Ig for Acoustics. This handy little device is useful in silencing a chatterbox, disrupting a person’s speech by making them hear their own spoken words at a very slight delay.

The developers of this contraption are Japanese researchers Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada from the Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, who hope the SpeechJammer will be useful in addressing the extremely important issue of overly talkative people (we all know them!)

The Japanese scientists explained during their acceptance speech that the system is based on the concept of delayed audio feedback, whereby the human brain becomes psychologically ‘jammed’ when it hears its own, artificially delayed voice. The SpeechJammer recreates this psychological phenomenon by playing the speaker’s voice back to them with a delay of a few hundred milliseconds. Kurihara suggested that the contraption, when used positively and productively, could be used in politics or business, in order to deter people hogging the limelight and allow everyone to have their turn to speak in the boardroom. “One scenario is that you can use this in a meeting room where chairs have buttons to stop excessive speaking,” said Kurihara, adding the device could make such meetings more “fair.”

Have a look at the full list of winners here!

Sources include: Japan Times, BBC, Huffington Post

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