Global State of Mind
Brain Awareness Week (BAW) is an international campaign, held from 11th – 17th March 2013, with the aim of increasing public awareness and promoting brain research. Events held around the world include open-days at neuroscience labs, exhibitions, lectures, and workshops, to name but a few. BAW was founded and organized by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a non-profit philanthropic group consisting of more than 335 prominent neuroscientists, including 10 Noble laureates. The initiative is committed to outreach education, the provision of information to the public, and emphasizing the importance of neurological research.
Great Minds Think Alike
Virginia Tech said it best when they described our grey matter as a “portable supercomputer that requires only the wattage of the dim light bulb to run and yet can decode ancient languages, invent fictional worlds, and distinguish friend from foe”. Remarkable, when you think about it. “Each brain has evolved the exquisite adaptive capacity to extract, decipher, and act upon information in the world that is essential to survival.”
Recent news in the world of the brain includes:
• A study published last Thursday describes how scientists inserted some human glial brain cells into the brains of newborn mice. When the mice grew up, they proved to be much faster learners. The human cells integrated with the mouse’s neurons, whilst maintaining their human characteristics. These hybrid mice figured out the classic maze test much quicker than their peers, and made fewer errors – indeed, they worked out the correct route on the second try, when it takes normal mice at least four or five attempts. Furthermore, the hybrid mice had a heightened perception of fear and were much quicker at recognizing things that scared them.
• Researchers at Brown University have built the first implantable brain interface for controlling computers wirelessly. The device has been implanted into the brains of three pigs and three monkeys. Because brain fluids are corrosive, the device has to be tested on animals and proved safe before human trials may begin. The specialized implant is designed to capture and transmit brain signals, and it is hoped that the technology can eventually be used to aid people with movement disabilities.
• The poor rodents can’t seem to catch a break. Scientists at Yale were able to reverse the aging process of mice’s brains by isolating a particular gene and blocking it. It is hoped that this research will ultimately lead to a development that will allow adult stroke patients to recover faster. Mice without this particular gene were also able to learn different tasks at a much quicker rate than their peers.
• Finally, the brains of two rats were linked together via the internet. Electrodes, or brain-to-brain interfaces, were implanted in each of their brains, allowing neural information to be transmitted from North Carolina to Brazil. In one of the experiments, the “encoder” rat pressed a lever and received a reward. The information was then transmitted to the “decoder” rat, which was able to press the correct lever 70% of the time and receive its own prize. Remarkably, when the receiving rat got the task wrong, the first rat did not receive its own reward and thus altered its behavior in order to make the task easier for its partner.
William F. Allman once said “The brain is a monstrous, beautiful mess. Its billions of nerve cells – called neurons – lie in a tangled web that displays cognitive powers far exceeding any of the silicon machines we have built to mimic it”. Brains are fascinating organs. Treasure yours. Happy Brain Awareness Week!