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!

Plasticity: The Final Four

I am NOT referring to the NCCA’s final four games of the men’s college basketball championships, the opening rounds of which begin in March and are often referred to as March Madness! I AM referring to the final four chapters of Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself. These chapters are jam packed with science and philosophy.

An entire chapter is devoted to imagination and its role in shaping our brains. Perhaps you are familiar with the act of visualization as a means for improving in sports. Feel free to check your knowledge of this built-in brain tool with ChannelOne’s Head Game or read this New York Times article, FITNESS; Visualization: Does It Provide an Edge? As Doidge has written, it turns out “Brain scans show that in action and imagination many of the same parts of the brain are activated. That is why visualizing can improve performance.”

The topic of memory takes up another chapter, which is infused with references to Freud. Written clearly, it provides an excellent discussion of his theories, in particular transference and dreams, which equate to a “plastic view of memory.”

Rejuvenation is a word that always conjures up a positive image. Just take in this definition of “the phenomenon of vitality and freshness being restored” and how can you go wrong! Renew, refresh, repair… A stem cell is a cell that can make exact copies of itself. The brain has neuronal stem cells, so called because they can specialize as either neurons or glial cells. Doidge describes seeing these cells through a highly detailed microscope, and what he has to say about them is refreshing: “…stem cells don’t have to specialize but can continue to divide, producing exact replicas of themselves, and they can go on doing this endlessly without any signs of aging. … This rejuvenating process is called neurogenesis,” and it goes on until the day that we die.” The simple-sounding keys to promoting neurogenesis include novelty, physical exercise, and learning (something new). Heck, that gives license to do all sorts of interesting things as we age, possibly making the latter portion of aging more fun than the first portion ;-)

Doidge’s last chapter introduces Betty Edwards and her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. This is near and dear because in the summer of 2005 I took the one week Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain workshop taught by her son, Brain Bommeisler, in New York City. I am rather proud of my accomplishments, and invite you to see for yourself that it is possible to (re)learn to draw, which translates to learning something new later in life, which translates to brain plasticity.

Given how many entries I have posted about Doidge’s book, it will not surprise you to know that I found the content stimulating, refreshing, and exciting. The possibilities for what there is yet to learn about our brains, and the ways in which we will uncover that information, are indeed exhilarating.

Plasticity and the Brain: Merzenich and Taub

Michael Merzenich blogs at On the Brain, where he never seems to mince words as he gets right down to the subject at hand. PositScience: The Science with Dr. Merzenich is a 9 minute video during which Merzenich talks about the development of the brain, brain change, and plasticity.

His current company, PositScience, is focused on how to maintain plasticity and encourage brain change and growth for aging adults, with the goal of improving memory. If you are interested, there are a number of YouTube videos about this, including interviews with neuroscientists and users of the PositScience program.

[October 11, 2008 update – in going through my files I found a May, 6, 2007 NY Times article about Merezenich and his company, entitled Muscular Metaphor, which provides background on the company.]

Merezenich is another one of the neuroscientists featured in Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself, and may best be known for his work on developing the cochlear implant.

What interests me most, though, are the findings of his research.

‘You cannot have plasticity in isolation … it’s an absolute impossibility.’ His experiments have shown that if one brain system changes, those systems connected to it change as well. The same ‘plastic rules’ – use it or lose it, or neurons that fire together wire together – apply throughout. Different areas of the brain wouldn’t be able to function together if that weren’t the case.

Within the same chapter, Doidge explains the brain chemistry that takes place during learning and unlearning, both of which take place as a function of plasticity. As you learn something, the neurons involved in the learning fire together and thus wire together. This is facilitated in cells by LTP (long-term potentiation), which is the chemical process of strengthening the synaptic connections. When the brain is poised for unlearning, the opposite takes place due to LTD (long-term depression), where the synaptic connections are weakened and disconnected.

Another neuroscientist who brightens the pages of Doidge’s book is Edward Taub. His research and innovation in stroke treatment pioneered CI (constraint induced) therapy, which exploits the brain’s plasticity. You can listen to Taub explain his work in an interview on The Brain Science Podcast, where there are also a number of links and references posted.

Taub’s research supported Merzenich’s findings that “when a brain map is not used, the brain can reorganize itself so that another mental function takes over that processing space.” In addition, with specific application to stroke patients and anyone who had some form of brain damage, “Not only could the brain respond to damage by having single neurons grow new branches within their own small sectors, but, the experiment showed, reorganization could occur across very large sectors.”


Plasticity and Education: Barbara Arrowsmith

[UPDATE: CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) broadcast Fixing My Brain, an interview with Barbara Arrowsmith, June 16, 2009. I found out about this piece thanks to a post by Jason Atwood at playthink, which took me back to a post I wrote for SharpBrains reviewing Doidge's book. A comment on that post included the link to the CBC piece. I love a good trail!]

Barbara Arrowsmith is another one of the amazing people who populate Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself. Barbara was born with an asymmetrical brain, which means that one side of her brain functioned astonishingly well and the other side functioned retardedly. Even more amazing, though, is her perseverance, which led her to bust her chops and pursue college and graduate school, earning a degree in Education.

Arrowsmith’s keen interest in learning is based upon her own experience which, along with research that crossed her desk while a student, led her to develop methods for teaching students with learning disabilities. And this led to the creation, in 1980, of the Arrowsmith School located in Toronto, Canada. Barbara knew that it was possible to retrain the brain, for that is precisely what she had done for herself as she willed herself through school.

Here is a description of the Arrowsmith methodology from the school’s site:

The Arrowsmith Program is a program of intensive and graduated cognitive exercises that are designed to strengthen the underlying weak cognitive capacities that are the source of the learning disabilities. Each student’s program is based on a careful assessment to identify the specific learning difficulties.

I am a big fan of Mel Levine, a pediatrician, author, speaker, and founder of All Kinds of Minds. In my 26 years of teaching I have heard Levine speak three times, and later this week will be hearing him speak for a fourth time. In 2002 he published the book A Mind at a Time, which crystallized the work being done by All Kinds of Minds. Also in 2002, PBS (Public Broadcasting System) partnered with All Kinds of Minds to create the broadcast Misunderstood Minds, which focused on learning issues related to attention, reading, writing and mathematics.

When reading Doidge’s chapter about Barbara Arrowsmith, I couldn’t help but wonder what Mel Levine would make of her approach. Arrowsmith’s system seems to be a head-on assault of an individual’s learning difficulties by using intensive practice to retrain those parts of the brain that cause the difficulty. Levine, on the other hand, attacks learning difficulties by utilizing the individual’s strengths to tackle specific difficulties. It is not an issue of “fixing” the problem, but rather of finding ways around the problem. Arrowsmith and Levine have the same goal, to make it possible for the individual to learn, but different methods for getting there.