Tag Archives: brain

Amazing New Brain Map of Every Synapse Points to the Roots of Thinking

Dave Wolf is on a roll this month with posting cool neuroscience articles! This study, from a team at the University of Edinburgh, is a real tour de force that takes advantage of modern technology in neuroscience. I can imagine that some day that we will be able to map the human synaptome, non-invasively, and in real time. Then we would finally have the tools to address more fruitfully questions such as the nature/nurture debate, how mindfulness changes the brain, even the nature of consciousness and transcendent experiences. Check out author Shelly Fan’s other work too!

author david wolf

By Shelly Fan – Aug 14, 2018*

Imagine a map of every single star in an entire galaxy. A map so detailed that it lays out what each star looks like, what they’re made of, and how each star is connected to another through the grand physical laws of the cosmos.

While we don’t yet have such an astronomical map of the heavens, thanks to a momentous study published last week in Neuron, there is now one for the brain.

If every neuron were a galaxy, then synapses—small structures dotted along the serpentine extensions of neurons—are its stars. In a technical tour-de-force, a team from the University of Edinburgh in the UK constructed the first detailed map of every single synapse in the mouse brain.

Using genetically modified mice, the team literally made each synapse light up under fluorescent light throughout the brain like the starry night. And similar to…

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Brain discovery could block aging’s terrible toll on the mind

My first instinct on reading this is that the findings are a bit over-hyped. A cure for Alzheimer’s? Really? Of course everyone and their brother wants to prevent brain aging and disease and everyone and their brother has something to sell you to do that–computer programs, supplements, oils, or the next Silicon Valley biotech startup IPO. But as a neuroscientist, I think that even if it is over-hyped and not a panacea it is still very worth pursuing medically. It’s a fresh approach and is likely to be an important missing piece of the puzzle. The brain is a hard organ to study, and neuroscience research has progressed slowly–and not for want of trying!

author david wolf

Faulty brain plumbing to blame in Alzheimer’s, age-related memory loss — and can be fixed

NOTE: this article not written by David T. Wolf, but selected by him from Science Digest

Date:July 26, 2018

Source:University of Virginia Health System

Summary:  Aging vessels connecting the brain and the immune system play critical roles in both Alzheimer’s disease and the decline in cognitive ability that comes with time, new research reveals. By improving the function of the lymphatic vessels, scientists have dramatically enhanced aged mice’s ability to learn and improved their memories. The work may provide doctors an entirely new path to treat or prevent Alzheimer’s disease, age-related memory loss and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Obstructing lymphatic vessels (in green) in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease significantly increased the accumulation of harmful plaques in the brain. “What was really interesting is that with the worsening pathology, it actually looks very similar to…

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Memories of Memorizing

When I said I had decided to perform the Telemann viola concerto from memory I was met with some skepticism.

2ndmovementaskew.jpg“You don’t *have* to, you know.”

“I don’t think I could do that.”

“A lot of soloists nowadays are using the sheet music.”

“I’d want the sheet music there just as a security blanket.”

There’s a lot of overlap between shared experience and advice. It’s a general human tendency to believe that the lessons of one’s own experience are relevant for others too. But, as I’ve learned (from—ha—experience), it’s better to let the recipient decide how and why that is true. This blog is intended in that spirit.

In my case, I need to memorize.

In my day job, I am a neuroscientist. I worked for several years in biotech, then in academia as a project manager, and now in STEM education and outreach. I could go on, comparing different aspects of scientific and musical careers, but for now, this concerto performance is taking me back to my PhD thesis defense. At Stanford where I was a student, as at other major research universities, PhD candidates have to write a thesis, present their work in a departmental seminar, and then answer questions from their committee, which comprises several professors in the student’s field of research.

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Cultured neurons, from a figure in my PhD thesis

My thesis committee members were intelligent and kind, and my thesis consisted largely of putting together three already-published papers and two manuscripts in preparation. I didn’t expect to fail based on my scientific work. But I did have these nagging thoughts that I could fail based on my presentation of that work. I had a history of performance anxiety and self-sabotage. There were the points lost from school reports because I read them verbatim from note cards. And the speech I gave for my failed run for student council. An All-State audition in which Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5 reduced me to tears wasn’t any better. And then came the worst one of all: the disastrous audition for the University Orchestra my freshman year in college that started me down the road to quitting the violin.

But there was a glimmer of hope in grad school, and it lay in the results of memorization. A few years before my thesis defense, I gave my first talk at a major scientific meeting, the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Phoenix AZ. My 10-minute talk was scheduled, along with two others from my lab, in a session starting at 9 am on Monday morning. The night before, I paced an empty hotel conference room, memorizing my talk word for word. One of my lab-mates had suggested I do this. She was older than I, a postdoc and a rising star in the field, known for giving good talks. And she let me in on a secret: she still got nervous. Like, really, really nervous. But these talks were only 10 minutes, short enough to memorize, and that helped her. It might help me too.

CajalHippocampus
Cajal’s drawing of the hippocampus, a brain structure important for memory. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=612536

I had about 10 slides and so first I memorized the order of the slides, then I chose a visual cue on each that would remind me of the slide to come. When I changed to the next slide I oriented the audience to what they were seeing and then gave the slide’s important message. Then it was time for the transition to the next one. This mental map of order of slides/visual cues/transitions/important message was something for me to hang onto and think about, even as the storms of anxiety raged.

The next morning busses from the hotels were crowded and we almost didn’t make it to the convention center in time. With over 25,000 neuroscientists in attendance from all over the world, this conference is so big that only a few convention centers in the country can handle it, and this particular meeting took place before the Society figured out that Phoenix wasn’t one of them.

The logistics were in disarray; attendees were packed into the ballroom like sardines without enough chairs and the podium lights weren’t working properly. My mentor was first from our lab to give her talk. I watched as the podium light went on and off randomly but she continued to speak calmly. The projector functioned, but there was no pointer available, laser or otherwise, and as she stepped back to the screen to point at something on one of her slides, she disappeared entirely. In the dark, she had missed the edge of the podium and fallen off. The audience gasped. She re-emerged, uninjured, climbed back up and finished her talk. Her voice shook but she got it under control. The podium lights came back on sometime near the end. The timing bell rang, people asked questions.

And then I was next. I took the stage wondering what fresh hell awaited.

My own talk went off without incident. The lights, and the laser pointer, and everything else were up and running by then thanks to the hardworking convention staff. I was hyper-aware of where the edge of the podium was. I knew my talk well. I’d just witnessed one of the worst things that could possibly happen during a talk, and I knew it was survivable. My friend’s preparation, the fact that she knew her talk backwards and forwards, had made the difference.

Several years later, when I was giving my thesis seminar, I had this experience to think back to. My seminar was about 5 times longer than the little 10-minute meeting talk, but I still approached it the same way: slides/visual cues/transitions/important messages. I just had more slides. I ran through them mentally, over and over again. The order was comforting; it was the stick I gave the trunk of my elephant brain to hold onto.

I passed.

Concertos don’t use slides or projectors to deliver their message, which is different from a scientific talk. But certain principles still hold true. First of all, having note cards, prompts, or the sheet music “just in case” isn’t going to work for me. If I know it’s available I’ll lean on it. I’ll steal a look and then start reading it verbatim. Instead I need to be prepared to look inward, not outward, even–or perhaps especially–for that cue to keep going when I stumble.

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Elephants and their trunks. Photo by Antoine Plüss on Unsplash

Of central importance is something that Meditation Instructor Eknath Easwaran called the stick for the elephant trunk.

The human mind is rather like the trunk of an elephant. It never rests. It goes here, there, ceaselessly moving through sensations, images, thoughts, hopes, regrets, impulses. Occasionally it does solve a problem or make necessary plans, but most of the time it wanders at large, simply because we do not know how to keep it quiet or profitably engaged.

Easwaran goes on to recommend the mantram, a spiritual formula in the form of a word or short phrase, to steady the mind. This is a subject of study for a lifetime. And I am not naturally a great meditator; sometimes when I try, it puts me to sleep. Furthermore, I find words themselves to be an awkward fit for a steadying mental substrate.

My mind gravitates more towards deeper non-verbal sensory experiences: pictures, kinesthetic feelings, and music. It is those sensations that I string together as another kind of mantra. Not power point slides this time, but bridges, ladders, and lattices. Finger patterns, and arpeggios climbing to the sky before sliding back down the other side of the bow. The deep purple of the C, the forest green of the G, as I put bow to string.

Brain Coral. Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash
Brain Coral. Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash

Book Review: Mindclone by David T Wolf

Mindclone: When You're a Brain Without a Body, Can You Still Be Called Human?Mindclone: When You’re a Brain Without a Body, Can You Still Be Called Human? by David T. Wolf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mindclone is possibly the best independently published SF novel that I have ever read. The author’s meticulous research into the field of Artificial Intelligence and his witty, accessible writing style made it a page turner that I was sorry to see end.

Continue reading Book Review: Mindclone by David T Wolf

Image of the Week: Lighting up brain cancer

In honor of Brain Awareness Week, I am reblogging this article from the Wellcome Trust blog about ‘tumour paint,’ an experimental drug that literally lights up brain cancer, making it easier for surgeons to cut out more of a tumor while leaving normal tissue undamaged. You can read more about this linked story ‘Light at the end of the scalpel’.

Wellcome Trust Blog

Brain-animation-gif Peta Bell and Grzegorz Krzeszowiec

This week’s image comes from Mosaic, the Wellcome Trust’s online magazine dedicated to exploring the science of life, which this week celebrates two years since its launch.

Launched in 2014, Mosaic publishes a compelling in-depth story every week about the people, ideas and trends that drive biology and medicine and affect our lives, health and society. It’s also open access: all Mosaic’s articles can be reproduced and distributed for free under a Creative Commons licence, and they appear frequently in media all over the world.

To mark their second birthday, Mosaic has teamed up with popular London literary event 5×15 to present Reports from the Future of Medicine, an evening of stories, inspiration and entertainment. The event will take place on Wednesday 16 May 2016 at 7pm at Conway Hall in London.

Join Mosaic and hear from five of their writers on…

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What Fascinates Me?

Just for fun, I’m going to try to answer the question posed by the Impromptu Promptlings Sandbox Writing Challenge 11: What Fascinates You?

I am fascinated by hidden patterns and connections in things. I’m fascinated by the brain. I’m fascinated by tests that divide people up into interesting categories, like the Myers-Briggs test, or Gretchen Rubin’s 4 tendencies, even if there is no scientific basis for the results of these classifications. I’m fascinated by self-knowledge. I would like to have my genome sequenced.

I’m fascinated by theories of the origin of consciousness. I met Julian Jaynes and took a course from him in college, but I still don’t know what to make of his theory of the breakdown of the bicameral mind. I’m fascinated by the neuroscience of mindfulness.

I’m fascinated by the “Problem of Evil” and the literature of theodicy. Whenever I have what I think is an original thought on the subject, I always find that there is someone else who has written about it, in great detail, first.