Chapter 2. Cells and Structures: The Anatomy of the Nervous System

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By Neuroskeptic Today, we are thinking – and talking – about the brain more than ever before. It is widely said that neuroscience has much to teach psychiatry, cognitive science, economics, and others. Practical applications of brain science are proposed in the fields of politics, law enforcement and education. The brain is everywhere. This “Neuro Turn” has, however, not always been accompanied by a critical attitude. We ought to be skeptical of any claims regarding the brain because it remains a mystery – we fundamentally do not understand how it works. Yet much neuro-discourse seems to make the assumption that the brain is almost a solved problem already. For example, media stories about neuroscience commonly contain simplistic misunderstandings – such as the tendency to over-interpret neural activation patterns as practical guides to human behavior. For instance, recently we have heard claims that because fMRI finds differences in the brain activity of some violent offenders, this means that their criminal tendencies are innate and unchangeable – with clear implications for rehabilitation. Neuroscientists are well aware of the faults in lay discourse about the brain – and are increasingly challenging them e.g. on social media. Unfortunately, the same misunderstandings also exist within neuroscience itself. For example, I argue, much of cognitive neuroscience is actually based on (or, only makes sense given the assumption that) the popular misunderstanding that brain activity has a psychological ‘meaning’. In fact, we just do not know what a given difference in brain activity means, in the vast majority of cases. Thus, many research studies based on finding differences in fMRI activity maps across groups or across conditions, are not really helping us to understand the brain at all – but only providing us with a canvas to project our misunderstandings onto it.

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 20082 - Posted: 09.17.2014

by Helen Thomson DON'T mind the gap. A woman has reached the age of 24 without anyone realising she was missing a large part of her brain. The case highlights just how adaptable the organ is. The discovery was made when the woman was admitted to the Chinese PLA General Hospital of Jinan Military Area Command in Shandong Province complaining of dizziness and nausea. She told doctors she'd had problems walking steadily for most of her life, and her mother reported that she hadn't walked until she was 7 and that her speech only became intelligible at the age of 6. Doctors did a CAT scan and immediately identified the source of the problem – her entire cerebellum was missing (see scan, below left). The space where it should be was empty of tissue. Instead it was filled with cerebrospinal fluid, which cushions the brain and provides defence against disease. The cerebellum – sometimes known as the "little brain" – is located underneath the two hemispheres. It looks different from the rest of the brain because it consists of much smaller and more compact folds of tissue. It represents about 10 per cent of the brain's total volume but contains 50 per cent of its neurons. Although it is not unheard of to have part of your brain missing, either congenitally or from surgery, the woman joins an elite club of just nine people who are known to have lived without their entire cerebellum. A detailed description of how the disorder affects a living adult is almost non-existent, say doctors from the Chinese hospital, because most people with the condition die at a young age and the problem is only discovered on autopsy (Brain, © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Brain imaging; Aggression
Link ID: 20068 - Posted: 09.12.2014

By Glendon Mellow University and scientific research center programs are increasingly finding it useful to employ artists and illustrators to help them see things in a new way. Few works of art from the Renaissance have been studied and pored over as meticulously as Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Yet, the Master may still have some surprises hidden for an illustrator-scientist. Biomedical Illustrator Ian Suk (BSc, BMC) and Neurological Surgeon Rafael Tamargo (MD, FACS), both of Johns Hopkins proposed in a 2010 article in the journal Neurosurgery, that the panel above, Dividing Light from the Darkness by Michelangelo actually depicts the brain stem of God. Using a series of comparisons of the unusual shadows and contours on God’s neck to photos of actual brain stems, the evidence seems completely overwhelming that Michelangelo used his own limited anatomical studies to depict the brain stem. It’s unlikely even the educated members of Michelangelo’s audience would recognize it. I encourage you to look over the paper here, and enlarge the images in the slideshow: Suk and Tamargo are utterly convincing. Unlike R. Douglas Fields in this previous blog post from 2010 on Scientific American, I don’t think there’s room to believe this is a case of pareidolia. I imagine the thrill of feeling Michelangelo communicating directly with the authors across the centuries was immense. © 2014 Scientific American,

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 20067 - Posted: 09.12.2014

People who are obese may be more susceptible to environmental food cues than their lean counterparts due to differences in brain chemistry that make eating more habitual and less rewarding, according to a National Institutes of Health study published in Molecular Psychiatry External Web Site Policy. Researchers at the NIH Clinical Center found that, when examining 43 men and women with varying amounts of body fat, obese participants tended to have greater dopamine activity in the habit-forming region of the brain than lean counterparts, and less activity in the region controlling reward. Those differences could potentially make the obese people more drawn to overeat in response to food triggers and simultaneously making food less rewarding to them. A chemical messenger in the brain, dopamine influences reward, motivation and habit formation. “While we cannot say whether obesity is a cause or an effect of these patterns of dopamine activity, eating based on unconscious habits rather than conscious choices could make it harder to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, especially when appetizing food cues are practically everywhere,” said Kevin D. Hall, Ph.D., lead author and a senior investigator at National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of NIH. “This means that triggers such as the smell of popcorn at a movie theater or a commercial for a favorite food may have a stronger pull for an obese person — and a stronger reaction from their brain chemistry — than for a lean person exposed to the same trigger.” Study participants followed the same eating, sleeping and activity schedule. Tendency to overeat in response to triggers in the environment was determined from a detailed questionnaire. Positron emission tomography (PET) scans evaluated the sites in the brain where dopamine was able to act.

Keyword: Obesity; Aggression
Link ID: 20054 - Posted: 09.10.2014

By Tanya Lewis, In an experiment that sounds more like science fiction than reality, two humans were able to send greetings to each other using only a digital connection linking their brains. Using noninvasive means, researchers made brain recordings of a person in India thinking the words "hola" and "ciao," and then decoded and emailed the messages to France, where a machine converted the words into brain stimulation in another person, who perceived the signals as flashes of light. From the sequence of flashes, the French recipient was able to successfully interpret the greetings, according to a new study published today (Sept. 5) in the journal PLOS ONE. The researchers wanted to know if it is possible for two people to communicate by reading out the brain activity of one person and injecting that activity into a second person. "Could we develop an experiment that would bypass the talking or typing part of [the] Internet and establish direct brain-to-brain communication between subjects located far away from each other, in India and France?" co-author Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone said in a statement. Pascual-Leone is a neurologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and a professor at Harvard Medical School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. To answer that question, Pascual-Leone and his colleagues at Starlab Barcelona, in Spain, and Axilum Robotics, in Strasbourg, France, turned to several widely used brain technologies. Electroencephalogram, or EEG, recordings are taken by placing a cap of electrodes on a person's scalp, and recording the electrical activity of large regions of the brain's cortex. Previous studies have recorded EEG from a person thinking about an action, such as moving his or her arm, while a computer translates the signal into an output used to move a robotic exoskeleton or drive a wheelchair.

Keyword: Brain imaging; Aggression
Link ID: 20038 - Posted: 09.06.2014

Yves Frégnac & Gilles Laurent Launched in October 2013, the Human Brain Project (HBP) was sold by charismatic neurobiologist Henry Markram as a bold new path towards understanding the brain, treating neurological diseases and building information technology. It is one of two 'flagship' proposals funded by the European Commission's Future and Emerging Technologies programme (see Selected after a multiyear competition, the project seemed like an exciting opportunity to bring together neuroscience and IT to generate practical applications for health and medicine (see Contrary to public assumptions that the HBP would generate knowledge about how the brain works, the project is turning into an expensive database-management project with a hunt for new computing architectures. In recent months, the HBP executive board revealed plans to drastically reduce its experimental and cognitive neuroscience arm, provoking wrath in the European neuroscience community. The crisis culminated with an open letter from neuroscientists (including one of us, G.L.) to the European Commission on 7 July 2014 (see, which has now gathered more than 750 signatures. Many signatories are scientists in experimental and theoretical fields, and the list includes former HBP participants. The letter incorporates a pledge of non-participation in a planned call for 'partnering projects' that must raise about half of the HBP's total funding. This pledge could seriously lower the quality of the project's final output and leave the planned databases empty. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 20033 - Posted: 09.04.2014

By PAM BELLUCK As a baby’s brain develops, there is an explosion of synapses, the connections that allow neurons to send and receive signals. But during childhood and adolescence, the brain needs to start pruning those synapses, limiting their number so different brain areas can develop specific functions and are not overloaded with stimuli. Now a new study suggests that in children with autism, something in the process goes awry, leaving an oversupply of synapses in at least some parts of the brain. The finding provides clues to how autism develops from childhood on, and may help explain some symptoms like oversensitivity to noise or social experiences, as well as why many people with autism also have epileptic seizures. It could also help scientists in the search for treatments, if they can develop safe therapies to fix the system the brain uses to clear extra synapses. The study, published Thursday in the journal Neuron, involved tissue from the brains of children and adolescents who had died from ages 2 to 20. About half had autism; the others did not. The researchers, from Columbia University Medical Center, looked closely at an area of the brain’s temporal lobe involved in social behavior and communication. Analyzing tissue from 20 of the brains, they counted spines — the tiny neuron protrusions that receive signals via synapses — and found more spines in children with autism. The scientists found that at younger ages, the number of spines did not differ tremendously between the two groups of children, but adolescents with autism had significantly more than those without autism. Typical 19-year-olds had 41 percent fewer synapses than toddlers, but those in their late teenage years with autism had only 16 percent fewer than young children with autism. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Autism; Aggression
Link ID: 19988 - Posted: 08.22.2014

Vaughan Bell For thousands of years, direct studies of the human brain required the dead. The main method of study was dissection, which needed, rather inconveniently for the owner, physical access to their brain. Despite occasional unfortunate cases where the living brain was exposed on the battlefield or the surgeon's table, corpses and preserved brains were the source of most of our knowledge. When brain scanning technologies were invented in the 20th century they allowed the structure and function of the brain to be shown in living humans for the first time. This was as important for neuroscientists as the invention of the telescope and the cadaver slowly faded into the background of brain research. But recently, scrutiny of the post-mortem brain has seen something of a revival, a resurrection you might say, as modern researchers have become increasingly interested in applying their new scanning technologies to the brains of the deceased. Forensic pathologists have the job of working out the cause and manner of death to present as legal evidence and have been partly responsible for this curious full circle. One of their main jobs is the autopsy, where the pathologist examines the body, inside and out, to assess its condition at the point of death. Although the traditional autopsy has many advantages, not least the microscopic examination of body tissue, there are drawbacks. One is that within some religions cutting up the dead body is seen as an infringement of human dignity and may delay burial beyond the customary period. The other is that an autopsy is a one-shot deal. If someone disagrees with the way it has been carried out or its interpretation, it is usually too late to do anything except re-examine photos or, on the rare occasions when they may have been kept, tissue samples. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 19970 - Posted: 08.18.2014

by Bethany Brookshire The clearish lump looks like some bizarre, translucent gummy candy that might have once been piña colada flavored. But this is something you definitely don’t want to eat. That see-through blob was once a mouse. In the Aug. 14 Cell, scientists at Caltech detail the difficult series of methods required to make small animals such as mice and rats completely translucent. Scientists have been trying to clear tissue for better observation since the 1800s, and, as with all science, the new techniques build on many previous experiments done in a variety of labs. The techniques make it possible to capture images both beautiful and gross. And the procedure will teach scientists more about anatomy than ever before. If you want to render an animal transparent, you first have to overcome a solid problem: lipids. This group includes molecules essential to life, such as fats, cholesterols, waxes and steroids. Lipids form the membranes that surround our cells, the hormones that make us grow and reproduce and much, much more. But lipids have a problem. You can’t see through them. So to render an organism transparent, you need to remove the lipids. Bin Yang and colleagues in Viviana Gradinaru’s lab at Caltech used detergents to dissolve the lipids. The technique is based on CLARITY, a method that Gradinaru helped to develop in Karl Deisseroth’s lab at Stanford. Scientists there rendered a mouse brain transparent using CLARITY. Gradinaru explains that for a clear organ, dissolving lipids alone alone isn’t enough. “Without lipids the tissue would just collapse, so we need to maintain the structure of the tissue,” she says. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 19963 - Posted: 08.16.2014

By Jen Christiansen I threw down a bit of a challenge last month at the Association of Medical Illustrators Conference in Minnesota. But first, I had to—somewhat unexpectedly—accept some challenges presented by others. And face the reality that some of us simply do not have the constitution of an anatomist. I love classic anatomical illustrations such as the vintage works of Andreas Vesalius and the more modern stylings of Frank Netter. And on that front, this conference definitely delivered. Talks by Daniel Garrison and Francine Netter were drool-worthy, and I snapped photos of quickly advancing slides presented by W. Bruce Fye on the history of the illustrated heart, so I could reverse-image search them later and spend more time checking out the details and context. Videos of Robert Beverly Hale’s Art Students League lectures on anatomy charmed me (as presented by Glen Hintz), as well as new videos of clean architectural microstructures like the inner ear, presented by Robert Acland. I had to make myself walk quickly by one vendor table to avoid blowing my book budget for the year (and then some) on an impulse buy of Vesalius’ 1543 De Humani Corporis Fabrica, newly translated to English. But I averted my gaze when surgeons presented on the topic of facial transplantation and skull reconstruction. Shoot, I couldn’t even look at the screen through the entirety of a fascinating talk by Elizabeth Weissbrod and Valerie Henry on creating and using virtual and prosthetic simulations for military emergency response training. I avoided the hands-on human cadaveric dissection workshop sessions, telling myself and others that my travel schedule would simply not allow me to get to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., early enough to participate or observe. © 2014 Scientific American

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 19957 - Posted: 08.14.2014

By Gary Stix A gamma wave is a rapid, electrical oscillation in the brain. A scan of the academic literature shows that gamma waves may be involved with learning memory and attention—and, when perturbed, may play a part in schizophrenia, epilepsy Alzheimer’s, autism and ADHD. Quite a list and one of the reasons that these brainwaves, cycling at 25 to 80 times per second, persist as an object of fascination to neuroscientists. Despite lingering interest, much remains elusive when trying to figure out how gamma waves are produced by specific molecules within neurons—and what the oscillations do to facilitate communication along the brains’ trillions and trillions of connections. A group of researchers at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California has looked beyond the preeminent brain cell—the neuron— to achieve new insights about gamma waves. At one time, neuroscience textbooks depicted astrocytes as a kind of pit crew for neurons, providing metabolic support and other functions for the brain’s rapid-firing information-processing components. In recent years, that picture has changed as new studies have found that astrocytes, like neurons, also have an alternate identity as information processors. This research demonstrates astrocytes’ ability to spritz chemicals known as neurotransmitters that communicate with other brain cells. Given that both neurons and astrocytes perform some of the same functions, it has been difficult to tease out what specifically astrocytes are up to. Hard evidence for what these nominal cellular support players might contribute in forming memories or focusing attention has been lacking. © 2014 Scientific American

Keyword: Attention; Aggression
Link ID: 19939 - Posted: 08.12.2014

By Smitha Mundasad Health reporter, BBC News Human brains grow most rapidly just after birth and reach half their adult size within three months, according to a study in JAMA Neurology. Using advanced scanning techniques, researchers found male brains grew more quickly than those of female infants. Areas involved in movement developed at the fastest pace. Those associated with memory grew more slowly. Scientists say collating this data may help them identify early signs of developmental disorders such as autism. For centuries doctors have estimated brain growth using measuring tape to chart a baby's head circumference over time. Any changes to normal growth patterns are monitored closely as they can suggest problems with development. But as head shapes vary, these tape measurements are not always accurate. Led by scientists at the University of California, researchers scanned the brains of 87 healthy babies from birth to three months. They saw the most rapid changes immediately after birth - newborn brains grew at an average rate of 1% a day. This slowed to 0.4% per day at the end of the 90-day period. Researchers say recording the normal growth trajectory of individual parts of the brain might help them better understand how early disorders arise. They found the cerebellum, an area of the brain involved in the control of movement, had the highest rate of growth - doubling in size over the 90-day period. BBC © 2014

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Aggression
Link ID: 19938 - Posted: 08.12.2014

By GREGORY HICKOK IN the early 19th century, a French neurophysiologist named Pierre Flourens conducted a series of innovative experiments. He successively removed larger and larger portions of brain tissue from a range of animals, including pigeons, chickens and frogs, and observed how their behavior was affected. His findings were clear and reasonably consistent. “One can remove,” he wrote in 1824, “from the front, or the back, or the top or the side, a certain portion of the cerebral lobes, without destroying their function.” For mental faculties to work properly, it seemed, just a “small part of the lobe” sufficed. Thus the foundation was laid for a popular myth: that we use only a small portion — 10 percent is the figure most often cited — of our brain. An early incarnation of the idea can be found in the work of another 19th-century scientist, Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard, who in 1876 wrote of the powers of the human brain that “very few people develop very much, and perhaps nobody quite fully.” But Flourens was wrong, in part because his methods for assessing mental capacity were crude and his animal subjects were poor models for human brain function. Today the neuroscience community uniformly rejects the notion, as it has for decades, that our brain’s potential is largely untapped. The myth persists, however. The newly released movie “Lucy,” about a woman who acquires superhuman abilities by tapping the full potential of her brain, is only the latest and most prominent expression of this idea. Myths about the brain typically arise in this fashion: An intriguing experimental result generates a plausible if speculative interpretation (a small part of the lobe seems sufficient) that is later overextended or distorted (we use only 10 percent of our brain). The caricature ultimately infiltrates pop culture and takes on a life of its own, quite independent from the facts that spawned it. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Brain imaging; Aggression
Link ID: 19911 - Posted: 08.02.2014

By Emily Underwood Scientists don’t need superpowers to see through solid objects. For organs such as the brain, they have CLARITY, a technique for rendering tissue transparent by perfusing it with gel, then washing out the fatty molecules that make tissues opaque. Now, researchers have sped up the process, clearing whole rodent bodies within 2 weeks to create the transparent mice pictured above. Previously, it took that amount of time to clear a single mouse brain by soaking it in a bath of clearing chemicals. To accelerate the process, scientists delivered the gel and clearing agents directly into the bloodstreams of dead mice, clearing their kidneys, hearts, lungs, and intestines within days and their entire brains and bodies within weeks. Of what use is a see-through mouse corpse once completed? In a paper published online today in Cell, researchers say their new technique will allow them to map anatomical connections between the brain and body in unprecedented detail. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 19908 - Posted: 08.02.2014

by Douglas Heaven Hijacking how neurons of nematode worms are wired is the first step in an approach that could revolutionise our understanding of brains and consciousness CALL it the first brain hack. The humble nematode worm has had its neural connections hot-wired, changing the way it responds to salt and smells. As well as offering a way to create souped-up organisms, changing neural connectivity could one day allow us to treat brain damage in people by rerouting signals around damaged neurons. What's more, it offers a different approach to probing brain mysteries such as how consciousness arises from wiring patterns – much like exploring the function of an electronic circuit by plugging and unplugging cables. In our attempts to understand the brain, a lot of attention is given to neurons. A technique known as optogenetics, for example, lets researchers study the function of individual neurons by genetically altering them so they can be turned on and off by a light switch. But looking at the brain's connections is as important as watching the activity of neurons. Higher cognitive functions, such as an awareness of our place in the world, do not spring from a specific area, says Fani Deligianni at University College London. Deligianni and her colleagues are developing imaging techniques to map the brain's connections, as are other groups around the world (see "Start with a worm..."). "From this we can begin to answer some of the big questions about the workings of the brain and consciousness which seem to depend on connectivity," she says. Tracing how the brain is wired is a great first step but to find out how this linking pattern produces a particular behaviour we need to be able to see how changing these links affects brain function. This is what a team led by William Schafer at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, is attempting. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Brain imaging; Aggression
Link ID: 19877 - Posted: 07.24.2014

by Richard Frackowiak "A GRASS roots effort is under way to stop the project... 'Mediocre science, terrible science policy,' begins the spirited letter..." The year was 1990 and the journal Science was reporting on what it called a "backlash" against the Human Genome Project. Given the furore this past week you could be forgiven for thinking these words were written about another big science initiative: the Human Brain Project (HBP). Less than a year into its planned 10-year lifetime, the project was publicly criticised in an open letter posted online on 7 July, signed by more than 150 scientists. At the time of writing a further 400 individuals have added their names. The Human Genome Project weathered its criticisms and reached its goal in 2003, birthing the entire field of genomics and opening new medical, scientific and commercial avenues along the way. The Human Brain Project will similarly overcome its own teething troubles and catalyse a methodological paradigm shift towards unified brain research that weaves together neuroscience, computing and medicine. The goal of the HBP is a comprehensive understanding of brain structure and function through the development and use of computing tools. This is popularly deemed a "simulation of the whole human brain" but we prefer the analogy "CERN for the brain" (after Europe's premier particle physics lab): a large facility for diverse experiments and sharing of knowledge with a common goal of unlocking the most complex structure in the known universe. This brings me to two of the criticisms in the open letter: the apparent lack of experimental neuroscience and data generation in the HBP, and the emphasis on information and communications technologies (ICT) in what is billed as a neuroscience project. I will address a third criticism regarding funding later on. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 19842 - Posted: 07.17.2014

By Jonathan Webb Science reporter, BBC News After leaders of the billion-euro Human Brain Project hit back at critics, six top neuroscientists have expressed "dismay" at their public response. Last week an open message, signed by over 600 researchers, said the HBP was "not on course", demanding a review. An official reply said HBP members were "saddened" by the protest but Prof Henry Markram, the project's chair, has labelled it a personal crusade. In a letter to Nature, the six authors call for a more "open-minded attitude". They did not sign the original protest letter, but are disappointed by the publicly reported stance of the HBP leadership. "Instead of acknowledging that there is a problem and genuinely seeking to address scientists' concerns, the project leaders seem to be of the opinion that the letter's 580 signatories [now over 600] are misguided," wrote Prof Richard Morris, an eminent neuroscientist from the University of Edinburgh, and five colleagues. The six correspondents describe themselves as "neuroscientists in Europe who care about the success of research projects large and small in our field". Prof Richard Frackowiak, a co-executive director of the HBP, told the BBC he "strongly objects" to the idea that the project leaders were dismissive. "We've taken this extremely seriously," he said. The HBP is one of two flagship technology projects (the other being graphene research) announced in January 2013 by the European Commission (EC). BBC © 2014

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 19841 - Posted: 07.17.2014

Posted by alison abbott Cautious efforts to restore unity to the billion-euro Human Brain Project have begun. Both the European Commission and the project’s leaders have now responded to a scorching open letter in which angry neuroscientists condemn the flagship project, and pledge to boycott it. Signed by 156 top neuroscientists, including many research institute directors in Europe, the letter was sent on 7 July to the European Commission, which is funding the project’s first phase. It expresses concern about both the scientific approach in the neuroscience arm of the project, which aims to simulate brain function in supercomputers, and the general project management. The letter makes a series of demands for changes that it claims are needed to make the management and governance of the Human Brain Project more transparent and representative of the scientific views of the whole community. Since it was sent, a further 408 neuroscientists have added their signatures. On 10 July, the European Commission sent a bland statement to Nature, stating that “it is too early to draw conclusions on the success or failure of the project”, given that it has only been running for nine months. The Commission’s response also says that a “divergence of views” is not unusual in large-scale projects, particularly at their beginnings and that the Commission will “continue to engage with all partners in this ambitious project”. © 2014 Macmillan Publishers Limited

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 19821 - Posted: 07.14.2014

By GARY MARCUS ARE we ever going to figure out how the brain works? After decades of research, diseases like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s still resist treatment. Despite countless investigations into serotonin and other neurotransmitters, there is still no method to cure clinical depression. And for all the excitement about brain-imaging techniques, the limitations of fMRI studies are, as evidenced by popular books like “Brainwashed” and “Neuromania,” by now well known. In spite of the many remarkable advances in neuroscience, you might get the sinking feeling that we are not always going about brain science in the best possible way. This feeling was given prominent public expression on Monday, when hundreds of neuroscientists from all over the world issued an indignant open letter to the European Commission, which is funding the Human Brain Project, an approximately $1.6 billion effort that aims to build a complete computer simulation of the human brain. The letter charges that the project is “overly narrow” in approach and not “well conceived.” While no neuroscientist doubts that a faithful-to-life brain simulation would ultimately be tremendously useful, some have called the project “radically premature.” The controversy serves as a reminder that we scientists are not only far from a comprehensive explanation of how the brain works; we’re also not even in agreement about the best way to study it, or what questions we should be asking. The European Commission, like the Obama administration, which is promoting a large-scale research enterprise called the Brain Initiative, is investing heavily in neuroscience, and rightly so. (A set of new tools such as optogenetics, which allows neuroscientists to control the activity of individual neurons, gives considerable reason for optimism.) But neither project has grappled sufficiently with a critical question that is too often ignored in the field: What would a good theory of the brain actually look like? Different kinds of sciences call for different kinds of theories. Physicists, for example, are searching for a “grand unified theory” that integrates gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces into a neat package of equations. Whether or not they will get there, they have made considerable progress, in part because they know what they are looking for. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 19818 - Posted: 07.12.2014

By JOSHUA A. KRISCH The Human Brain Project is Europe’s flagship contribution to neuroscience. Established last year and funded by the European Commission, the project was meant to rally scientists and computer engineers around developing better tools to study how the brain works. But its most ambitious goal — a computer simulation of the entire brain — came under attack on Monday when hundreds of neuroscientists from around the world sent an open letter to the commission condemning what they see as an absence of feasibility and transparency. The letter said that the project’s “overly narrow approach” threatened to set Europe back in terms of its scientific progress and its investment, about $130 million a year over the next 10 years. “It’s like a moonshot, but before we knew how to build an airplane,” said Zachary Mainen, a neuroscientist at the Champalimaud Center for the Unknown, in Lisbon, and an author of the letter. “We can’t simulate the 302 neurons in a nematode brain. It’s a bit premature to simulate the 100 billion neurons in a human brain.” The letter expressed concern over the recent dissolution of the project’s Cognitive Architectures branch, which would have explored the larger behavioral implications of the research. “It’s the departure of the entire cognitive neuroscience aspect of the H.B.P.,” Dr. Mainen said. “It’s not clear why they would throw that out.” Henry Markram, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the director of the Human Brain Project, said he considered the letter “a big wake-up call.” © 2014 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 19807 - Posted: 07.09.2014