Category Archives: Brain 101

Brainy Henry Markram!

I have just watched this fascinating TED Talk: Henry Markram builds a brain in a supercomputer. (The link goes to a high definition version of his talk.)

Markram is the director of a project that runs on high intensity IBM computers and is called Blue Brain. (Hmm, does the Blue refer to  IBM’s also being known as Big Blue?”) Blue Brain is “a supercomputing project that can model components of the mammalian brain to precise cellular detail – and simulate their activity in 3D.” The graphics, let alone the math and science, are incredibly striking. And after listening to Markram, I couldn’t help but think of a tenth grader at my school who recently attended the Singularity Summit that took place in New York City over the weekend of October 3-4.

The Singularity represents an “event horizon” in the predictability of human technological development past which present models of the future may cease to give reliable answers, following the creation of strong AI [Artificial Intelligence] or the enhancement of human intelligence.

You can read about the Blue Brain Project, also described as “the first comprehensive attempt to reverse-engineer the mammalian brain, in order to understand brain function and dysfunction through detailed simulations.” Or check out this SEED article by Jonah Lehrer, Can A Thinking, Remembering, Decision-Making, Biologically Accurate Brain Be Built From A Supercomputer?

What reaction do you have to this possibility? To the stunningly vibrant images?

Pictures at a Dissection

Well, last weekend I dissected a preserved sheep brain. The previous week a colleage (a Science teacher with whom I co-teach the elective “Frontiers in Science”) brought me a fresh-from-the-butcher sheep brain, and we spent 20 minutes exploring it. The brain was soft and squishy. Having been partially frozen, as it melted it became almost like goop. Wish I had my camera, as it was easy to pick up or point out individual parts.

The preserved brain I dissected over the weekend was quite firm, making it easy to cut and hold, yet because it was preserved the brain seemed more like a plastic model. On May 3rd the “Frontiers in Science” class will dissect sheep brains, and the brains we will provide will be half from the butcher and half preserved brains.

My next goal is to further study individual brain parts, and for this I am hoping to borrow a microscope from school.

Imagination: Ramachandran

Phantoms in the Brain is an engaging tale of individuals who have odd and curious brain quirks, often resulting from a malfunction in their brain such as a stroke, which display in sometimes unbelievable manifestations.

Ramachandran begins with an overview of the brain’s physiology, coupled with sharing how he approaches study of the brain. He likens the work to that of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in the pursuit of solving mysteries. As a youngster, Ramachandran was intrigued by science, concocting unusual experiments with simple tools, and with “being drawn to the exception rather than to the rule in every science” he studied. He believes that “the odd behavior of these patients can help us solve the mystery of how various parts of the brain create a useful representation of the external world and generate the illusion of a “self” that endures in space and time.”

Once explained, the experiments that Ramachandran designed sounded deceptively simple and logical. What impressed me was his imaginative insight in concocting them in the first place.

Chapter Five describes patients who have discrepancies between what they visually see, and what they believe they see. Damage to some portion of the visual cortex can result in hallucinations, and depending upon the type of damage, the hallucinations can impact specific portions of the visual field, such as the lower half or the left half. As an example, there is the story of one patient who sustained damage to his eyes and optic nerves as the result of an auto accident. Greatly, though not wholly, recovered, he had visual hallucinations in just “the lower half of his field of vision, where he was completely blind. That is, he would only see imaginary objects below a center line extending form his nose outward.”

Ramachandran goes on to describe how the patient discerns between what is real and what is an hallucination. At one point, the patient says he sees a monkey sitting on Ramachandran’s lap. The patient notes that while “it looks extremely vivid and real”, “it’s unlikely there would be a professor here with a monkey sitting in his lap so I think there probably isn’t one.” The patient goes on to state that the images “often look too good to be true. The colors are vibrant, extraordinarily vivid, and the images actually look more real that real objects, if you see what I mean.” The hallucinations tend to fade fairly soon after being “seen”, and while they usually blend in with the rest of what is actually being seen, the patient knows that they are part of his visual imagination. He enjoys the surprise of what he conjures up, and is more concerned about his partial blindness.

By the end of this chapter, which has a number of other interesting and curious vision tales, Ramachandran hypothesizes that “all these bizarre visual hallucinations are simply an exaggerated version of the processes that occur in your brain and mine every time we let our imagination run free. Somewhere in the confused welter of interconnecting forward and backward pathways is the interface between vision and imagination. … what we call perception is really the end result of a dynamic interplay between sensory signals and high-level stored information about visual images from the past.”

What starts to emerge is an explanation of imagination as a combination of that which we have visually seen, processed and stored in memory, coupled with crafting something new based upon those conceptions. Interesting questions arise…

  • If we had no prior knowledge, would we be able to imagine?
  • Do we consciously conjure our imagination, or is it a subconscious process, or a little of both depending upon the situation?
  • When we are feeling stymied and need a nudge to get our imagination going, how do we do that under our own power?
  • When we totally zone out (like I do when getting in the groove of swimming laps), how is it that thoughts can just “pop” into my head?

Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran & Sandra Blakeslee

Phantoms in the Brain was listed someplace as one of the books that must be read by any serious student of neurology. Having quite enjoyed watching Ramachandran give his TED Talk, of course I had to snap up the book!

If you are like me, and found this talk entertaining, lively and informative, then you will not be disappointed in reading Phantoms in the Brain.

Phantoms can be approached from any number of angles. Read it for the science, and you will come away with a deeper understanding of how parts of our brain function. Indeed, Ramachandran’s approach reminded me of an exercise we did with Robert Greenleaf this past August. Designed to teach the concept of verbs, the exercise had us rewriting a fairy tale but we had to leave out all verbs. One way to learn what a verb is, is to have to write without using any verbs. And one way to learn about our brains is to study the oddities of the brain.

phantoms.pngRead it for the experiments and tinkering, and you will come away with an appreciation for how simple experiments can be used to find answers to complex questions. You are also sure to be impressed by the imaginative methods employed in devising these experiments.

Read it as a medical sleuth and join Sherlock Ramachandran as he attempts “to share the sense of mystery that lies at the heart of all scientific pursuits and is especially characteristic of the forays we make in trying to understand our own minds.”

Read it as a psychologist or philosopher to try and find neurological underpinnings for how we are who we are.

Read it as a novel filled with emotion, mystery, conflict, people’s lives, and pursuit of the unknown.

I appreciated it on all counts, and took note of his commentary on imagination, attention, left and right hemispheres, cognitive neuroscience, creativity, and the need for doing experiments, all of which will be covered in a future post!

By the way, no need to take just my word for it. On the amazon page for this book, there are 84 customer reviews; 67 folks give the book 5 stars, and the remaining 10 folks rate it 4 stars. The first three reviews (Matteson, Hills and Peterzell) provide an in-depth overview of the book’s content and style.

Brain Imaging from the Inside–>Out

This morning I clicked on over to Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen blog, the way I do most mornings. His post, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s amazing TED presentation, describes Dr. Taylor as a brain scientist who will move you to tears. That was all it took – the combination of a brain scientist and something emotional – for me to sit glued to my computer screen at 6:32 this Saturday morning.

I’ve watched Jill’s talk and I was moved to tears. And now, before the sun has even tickled the horizon, the birds are chirping. This Wednesday past, true as clock work, the Osprey who summer on the creek behind our house returned to their perches. And I thought of my Dad at King Street Nursing Home…how his brain is humbled by Alzheimers but his heart still smiles with song. Unable to speak many words, he tells me he wants to go home, and he can still respond to family news with “That’s wonderful.” And Frank Sinatra or any of the Columbia University fight songs can still elicit from him a hum or a phrase of song and a twinkle of recognition.

Brain Imaging from the Outside–>In

My husband sent me a link for the Charlie Rose Science Series, sponsored by Pfizer. Charlie Rose is a public television talk show host, and this series consists of twelve conversations between Charlie and numerous scientists as they explore a range of topics, beginning and ending with the brain. I watched the first part, From Freud to the mysteries of the human brain and the last part, From Potential of the Mind to Diseases of the Brain. (While all the talks are nicely organized on the Pfizer site, they played more reliably from the Rose site.) We had a snow day on February 22 (meaning school was canceled), and these video conversations, complete with a cup or two of tea, made for a delightful afternoon’s journey.

The format of both talks was similar, with Eric Kandel helping to steer the round table conversations. Kandel was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000 and is a Professor of Physiology & Cellular Biophysics atfmricharlierose.jpg Columbia University. I was especially interested in the discussion about seeing the brain in action. Thanks to improved imaging techniques, we are able to view a brain in “real time”. MRI highlights the structure and details of the brain, while a PET scan or fMRI allows the mapping of brain function. Brain functions tend to be localized to regions or combinations of regions in the brain. What brain imaging does is measure the “change in blood flow to the active part of the brain”. (As noted by Nancy Kanwisher, MIT Professor.)

According to Steven Johnson, author of Mind Wide Open, “you have to have roughly 500,000 neurons active in an area for the scan to register them”. He writes about his own fMRI in chapter six, which is what gave me the urge to want to see my own brain in action. You can see a really quick movie of a portion of a brain scan here.

Eric Kandel, whose interest is learning and memory, believes that psychotherapy is a learning experience. Therefore, he would like to see the mapping of a brain prior, during and after psychotherapy, with the goal being to see what anatomical changes may be occurring as the brain goes through the process.

For more on these imaging techniques see:
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging)
PET (positron emission tomography)

and this wonderfully informative and well-designed site fMRI 4 Newbies – A Crash Course in Brain Imaging by Jody Culham, Robarts Centre for Functional & Metabolic Mapping in London, Ontario

Image and movie: Charlie Rose site

The Up Side of Dyslexia

One of the more interesting connections regarding people with wiring differences is the positive impact of dyslexia. Dyslexic students may confound their teachers, and cause those teachers to pursue alternative teaching styles, but in the long run, those same students may turn out to be the more creative and entrepreneurial.

There have been a number of articles written, and research studies carried out, showing that “dyslexics are extraordinarily creative about maneuvering their way around problems.” This comes from a December 2007 article in the NY Times Tracing Business Acumen to Dyslexia.

For a more in-depth article about some well-known dyslexics who are highly successful, read Overcoming Dyslexia, an article published in May 2002 in Fortune magazine. The article discusses Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin line (records and airways), Charles Schwab, developer of the discount brokerage business, John Chambers, CEO of Cisco (a technology company), and David Boies, “a celebrated trial attorney, best known as the guy who beat Microsoft” and also for pushing Al Gore’s case in the 2002 battle between Gore and George W. Bush for President of the United States.

The author, Betsy Morris, provides the best description of dyslexia that I have yet to see, and one that most people can probably understand.

What exactly is dyslexia? The Everyman definition calls it a reading disorder in which people jumble letters, confusing dog with god, say, or box with pox. The exact cause is unclear; scientists believe it has to do with the way a developing brain is wired. Difficulty reading, spelling, and writing are typical symptoms. But dyslexia often comes with one or more other learning problems as well, including trouble with math, auditory processing, organizational skills, and memory. No two dyslexics are alike–each has his own set of weaknesses and strengths.

I found it interesting to learn more about the characters mentioned in Morris’s Fortune article. Richard Branson participated in a wonderfully entertaining and illuminating interview, Life at 30,000 feet, at the March 2007 TED. Here is the opening text lead in to his interview: “When Richard Branson was at school, his headmaster predicted he would wind up either a millionaire or in jail.”

Charles Schwab may be one of the wealthiest people in America, having amassed a fortune running a brokerage business, but he put his money where his heart was – in helping others with learning difficulties. In addition to partnering with Mel Levine to create All Kinds of Minds, his Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation has undertaken a number of initiatives, among them – A Parent’s Guide to Helping Kids With Learning Difficulties, and, “the first website created expressly for kids with learning difficulties…”

CISCO Systems is a billion dollar technology company and its CEO is John T. Chambers, noted “for his visionary strategy, his ability to drive an entrepreneurial culture, and his warm-hearted, straight-talking approach.” Not content to merely run the company, Chambers is also involved in international philanthropy.

Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP came into existence in 1997 when David Boies and Jonathan Schiller joined forces to create their own law firm and build on their expertise.

Going back to our first character, Richard Branson, and his TED interview, I recently watched The Future We Will Create: Inside the World of TED, a 74 minute movie about the 2007 TED conference. Since the TED talks are available online, I had already viewed many of the talks highlighted in the movie. This second time ‘round got me thinking about something else other than the content of the talks: As many of the one thousand TED attendees are entrepreneurs, how many of them have dyslexia or other learning differences? It would be an easy poll to conduct, and a fascinating topic to discuss amongst them. I’m off to send TED curator Chris Anderson an email!

p.s. R – Happy 17th Birthday on the 16th!