The Beautiful Brain explores the latest findings from the ever-growing field of neuroscience through monthly long-form essays, reviews, galleries, short-form blog posts and more, with particular attention to the dialogue between the arts and sciences.
No two neurons are the same. Even neurons of the same type (i.e. purkinje cells) behave differently. This fact is often overlooked as an important functional feature of the brain, and instead chalked up to biological impreciseness. In their recent Nature article, Krishnan Padmanabhan and Nathaniel Urban think there’s an important reason behind all the diversity. They studied the “intrinsic differences” in the molecular signatures and firing behaviors of mitral cells in the mouse olfactory bulb, and by differentially stimulating different cells concluded that:
Although a number of mechanisms have been proposed to account for the origin and extent of these intrinsic differences, we found that differences in intrinsic biophysical heterogeneity can be important [for] neural coding.
In other words, the intrinsic differences between neurons are not biological mistakes – they are adaptive functions for the complex neural coding of stimulus information.
100 billion neurons, and each one is functionally different? I’m having trouble coding that one…
A review published last week by two Swiss neuroscientists in Nature Neuroscienceargues that psychedelic drugs, like psilocybin (“mushrooms”) and LSD, have serious therapeutic applications:
“Recent behavioural and neuroimaging data show that psychedelics modulate neural circuits that have been implicated in mood and affective disorders, and can reduce the clinical symptoms of these disorders (Vollenweider & Kometer, 2010).”
Psychedelics have strong effects on the brain’s glutamatergic and serotonergic pathways, which malfunction in patients with clinical depression and anxiety. Many lines of evidence show that psychedelics can alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety using relatively small doses. There are obvious political hurdles to be mounted for any of these drugs to make there way into more research labs, and potentially into pharmacies, but the recent relative success of medical marijuana campaigns may have laid important tracks for thorough research on the positive effects of “taboo” drugs.
The official proposal reads: “Like the statues of Easter Island, it is envisioned that these one hundred and fifty foot tall, modern caryatids will take on a quiet authority, belonging to their landscape yet serving the people, silently transporting electricity across all terrain, day and night, sunshine or snow.”
For more images and information check out this article at Wired.
A new study from the University of Illinois shows that gene expression in a bee’s brain changes when the bee perceives long and short distances. The researchers used an ingenious little trick - If the bee’s environment is “busy” (patterned walls with lots of disordered images) rather than “sparse” (walls with a more plain pattern), it perceives its traveling distance as longer. This perception is measured by looking at the bee’s “dance,” the behavior it uses to communicate the location of food sources. The dances are different in both experimental situations, even though both distances are the same. Furthermore, gene expression in brain areas involved in vision and memory differs between the two environments, implying that there are genetic factors responsive to distance (and apparently prone to error). This work furthers the idea the genome isn’t merely a static set of instructions for organisms – it’s dynamic and responsive.
The Chomskian approach of the “universal grammar” of language has been applied to many human phenomenon, including morality and music. For instance, it has been well established by both laboratory psychologists and anthropologists that the five-note pentatonic scale is a human universal, and can be found in musics from every corner of the globe (some recent research even asserts that when babies and their mothers communicate, they often use the pentatonic scale). In 1973, Leonard Bernstein gave a six-part lecture at Harvard University, and in this clip (6:10), he explains how children around the world tease one another (‘nanana’) using three specific harmonic intervals — intervals that are part of that pentatonic scale. If you have the time (6 hours, that is), make sure to check out the rest of his lectures on “Musical Phonology,” all of which are on youtube.
Today’s New York* Times Science section profiles the work of N.Y.*U. developmental psychologist Karen Adolph, doctoral candidate John Franchak, and their colleagues. Using high-tech eye-tracking technology designed by the New York* company Positive Science, the researchers studied how children 5 months and older navigate obstacle courses. The results show that infants are surprisingly adept within even a novel and complicated environment. Mr. Franchak:
“Adults only fixate on obstacles about a third of the time, and 4- to 8-year-old children fixate on obstacles about 60 percent of the time, but it’s remarkable that infants can even navigate without looking.”
At these early stages, it appears that brain needs even less information than once thought. Here is the Times piece.
*(“IN NEW YORK, CONCRETE JUNGLES WHERE DREAMS ARE MADE OF, THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN’T DO” . . .)