Monday, October 10, 2011

Brain Games

Brains be playin'.We don't know what we think we know, see how we think we think, or even think how we think we think. Though many people don't believe this, or don't believe that it applies to them, it is a core tenet of most forms of psychology going back to Freud, who for all his myriad other problems, is most famous for describing how people have irrational, non-conscious motivations. Don't believe me? Well, imagine that Neil Patrick Harris is the one who just said “Don't believe me?” and then launched a cute experiment on the screen, and you have a good idea of what Brain Games is about.
Brain Games probably fits into the category of “edutainment” - it's half educational documentary, half interactive fun. In the documentary sections of it, psychologists and the narrator get into the way the brain behaves. The physical aspect is represented by an animated brain, with the relevant sections labeled, and while this may be fairly useful for getting a decent idea of the proper terminology and placement of the parts of the brain, it rarely moves beyond that into why the brain behaves that way, other than occasional general concepts like how the brain has difficulty when different components are called upon to process different things at the same time. This is filled in by a collection of scientists who do get into more detail in terms of what these things mean for everyone who has to deal with them.
While that is occasionally fairly dry, it's supplemented by a set of games and demonstrations that consistently keep the viewer interacting with the program in a fashion that's usually fun, although sometimes a little bit too forced. The first episode opens with a simple card trick designed to test your attention – pick a card from six face cards, memorize it, and the show pulls that card from the five. It works initially, but then notes that it actually switched out every single card from the initial batch. And sometimes it's a bit of fun that can't translate to the viewer directly, like when a hypnotist seems to convince a woman that the number (and word) “four” doesn't actually exist.
The parts that can only show up on-screen are the weakest sections of Brain Games, because they demonstrate the core tension in the show: it's dedicated to proving its viewers' rational assumptions wrong. As long as it keeps doing that, even for a few seconds, it can keep its apparently irrational conclusions coming, forcing astonished laughter from its confused subjects. If it gets outside of that realm, and lets skepticism in, then it doesn't work. If you're anything like me, you'll see the hypnotist and say “Maybe that works on her, and maybe it doesn't, but no way that works on me.” But in illusion after illusion, those tricks do work. It's not 100% of the time – I was especially interested in how quickly I, personally, “heard through” the aural tricks after the majority of the visual tricks worked on me.
And when those illusions are both working and entertaining, the show works really well. I watched two episodes, “Pay Attention!” and “Watch This!” The former was much more entertaining due to its use of Las Vegas entertainers, including a sleight-of-hand magician who robbed people blind while charming them, and the famous dance crew Jabbawockeez, putting on a performance with an obvious/hidden illusion in the middle.
“Watch This!” is slightly drier, but still reasonably interesting. It picks up a lot in the middle when it starts discussing “mirror neurons”, a theory that explains the effect of why sympathize with/project themselves into people or things in ways that don't make much sense. The heart of this is a psychological experiment built around a rubber hand, were people become (easily) convinced that the hand is their own and can feel pain.
The continued set of experiments on the subject hammer home the point: we project ourselves into all kinds of different things. I was reminded of a conversation I once had about video games that I'd played long enough they affected our perceptions. I started by saying that, after playing Dynasty Warriors long enough, I started looking for health bars above people I saw in the fog. Someone replied by saying that after playing fighting games for a while, they were startled by someone in a post office and immediately prepared to do a snap-kick. Another countered by saying that that was impossible, surely the only reaction would be for the muscle memory to have them press the buttons, right? And while the rebuttal was wasn't how I perceived games. And everyone who leans along with car chases in movies and games and television would have to agree – something more is going on. The “mirror neuron” theory doesn't exactly explain why this is, but it does get into the details of how it is, and it's quite compelling.
Yet even if the science doesn't convince with specificity and detail, the games/experiments combine with the narration to demonstrate that our perception is based on shortcuts and filling in the blanks. That may work for us most of the time, but it's also something that can fail or even be exploited. Brain Games does well to show that everyone struggles with perception and reality, and that everyone does, in fact, include you. Sorry.
Stray Observations:
  • Neil Patrick Harris is a perfectly fine narrator, but with all the discussion of illusions, I can't help but wish it were Will Arnett.

A Virtual Arm That Talks With The Brain

Scientists have created a virtual arm that monkeys can move with their thoughts—and the arm can send information back to the brain about the textures of what it touches. Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis talks about how this may lead to a full-body suit that helps paralyzed people move and walk again.

IRA FLATOW, host: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
Picking up a wineglass may seem like a simple task, but there's a lot of nervous processing going on between your fingers and your brain, you know. How do you know how gently to hold it so you don't crush the glass in your hand, or how tightly so it doesn't slip to the floor? Your fingers send signals of touch back to your brain so you can feel the glass, and the brain responds, and there's a lot of interesting coordination going on there. But what if you had a prosthetic hand that cannot feel? Life gets a little tougher. Scientists are working to solve this problem using mind control, and what they're working on, in this case, is a virtual arm for monkeys.
Miguel Nicolelis is a neuroscientist at Duke University in North Carolina and director of the Center for Neuroengineering there. He's also a co-author on a study published this week in the journal Nature about the new virtual limb he and his colleagues created. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Nicolelis.
Dr. MIGUEL NICOLELIS: Oh, thank you for having me. It's a great pleasure.
FLATOW: Tell us - you're welcome. Tell us about what you had these monkeys do.
NICOLELIS: Well, basically, we trained these animals to use their own brain activity to control an avatar arm and hand that could explore objects, virtual objects that we created for them. And to select a correct object that, you know, conduced them to receive a juice reward, they have to basically explore the texture of these objects by using this virtual hand, these virtual fingers and - because we were basically sending, every time they touch an object, an electrical message back directly to their brains that describe this texture. So they basically could do this entire tactile discrimination task just by using their brains, no interference of their bodies whatsoever. And they actually learned to do that.
FLATOW: So they used mind control to control something, a pointer on a computer that would touch the objects?
NICOLELIS: Well, it was a real virtual arm, you know...
FLATOW: It was a real arm.
NICOLELIS: a monkey arm.
FLATOW: Right.
NICOLELIS: And, basically, we learned later that the monkeys very likely assumed that that was their own arm, because when we touched this virtual arm with, you know, virtual probes, the tactile part of their brain - brains responded to the touch, as if we had touched their own body. So it seems like they were assuming or assimilating the virtual arm as part of their own body. So they were able to use their brain activity to move it, and the signals that we send back to their brains to interpret what they have encountered in that virtual space.
FLATOW: And how much of a fine motor coordination could you get there, or was this just a proof of concept?
NICOLELIS: Well, it was pretty good. It was, you know, an evolution from what we have done when we started this field about 12 years ago. Now they could do, you know, moving in 2-D, and now we are working on 3-D. And they can actually explore the objects and touch them and press the correct object, assuming that they detected the correct texture. And every time they did that, they got a drop of fruit juice that they pretty much enjoy.
FLATOW: And so they had to be trained how to do this.
NICOLELIS: Yes, they had to be trained. But they - what we - made us really shocked was that in four to nine sessions, four to nine days, they actually learned the whole thing, to interpret these signals and to associate them with particular objects.
FLATOW: Hmm. And the wires that go from the brain to the virtual arm, do you need to hook these up to a specific part of the brain to get the right signals?
NICOLELIS: Well, not exactly as specific. You know, we used to think that each part of the brain does just one function, but we are discovering through, you know, a decade of this type of research, that messages, like motor messages, are distributed across multiple areas of the cortex of these animals. So in this case, we sampled one of these areas, the motor cortex, to basically generate the motor commands that we needed to move the avatar arm, and we delivered the tactile feedback message to the somatosensory cortex, one of the areas that is involved in processing normal touch.
And - but what we are really surprised is that we basically established this brain-machine-brain interface without any interference from the animal's body. And in a few sessions, the animal just basically took that for granted and performed the task just fine.
FLATOW: Wow. So they quickly picked this up.
NICOLELIS: They quickly picked it up, yes.
FLATOW: Can you explain why that might be?
NICOLELIS: Well, there's - one of the theories that we have is that as we use - as primates, as we use tools to basically increase our reach in the world, we propose that the brain actually incorporate these tools as an extension of the body representations that the brain has. So every brain of a primate creates a body image, this sense that we inhabit a particular body.
But, you know, we think that this is a flexible model, a flexible representation that can include or assimilate even the tools that we use in our daily routines. So our cars, our baseball bats, our soccer balls, everything that we use as a tool becomes part of us for the brain. So we think that part of this - the results that we got in this study support that vision, that that avatar arm was assimilated by the brain as if it were an extension of the animal's own body.
FLATOW: Of course, everyone hearing your report and listening to us now is going to say: Do you think people could learn to use a virtual arm like this?
NICOLELIS: Oh, absolutely. In fact, we want to go even further. We are hoping that this research can lead to people that suffer severe lesions of the spinal cord and - that make the patients severely paralyzed from the level of that lesion down, that they - one, they will be able to use this brain machine, brain interface to control a whole-body robotic vest, an exoskeleton that will restore full-body mobility to these patients, and also restore the ability to sense what they encounter as they move around in the world.
FLATOW: And what kind of prosthetics can you make, then, for them? Would they be incorporating the touch and the feel and the movement in - all into one?
NICOLELIS: Yes. We're already, actually, building a prototype of this exoskeleton, this vest. Our colleagues at University - Technical University of Munich, led by my good friend Gordon Cheng, is already building a prototype of this exoskeleton that we hope to test in clinical trials very soon.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is that the walk-around - walking-in project?
NICOLELIS: Yes. That's part of this international consortium between Duke, the Technical University of Munich, the Polytechnic School in Lausanne and the Natal Institute of Neuroscience in Brazil, where we hope to basically put all this technology together to create a whole-body prosthetic device that may allow quadriplegic and paraplegic patients to regain mobility and the sense of touch as they interact with a brain machine, brain interface.
FLATOW: And so what - how many neurons do you need to measure for a full bodysuit?
NICOLELIS: Yeah, that's a very question. We are crossing, at this moment, the barrier of a thousand neurons, recorded simultaneously. So we are going very close to recorded activity, the electrical signals produced by 1,000 neurons. We expect that between 1,000 and 10,000 neurons will allow us to start controlling fundamental movements of this exoskeleton. So that's our goal for the next three years, to reach about 10,000 neurons simultaneously.
FLATOW: And it's possible. I imagine you're confident. Yeah.
NICOLELIS: Yeah. We have a new family of sensors that we are developing, 3-D sensors to record brain electrical activity. We hope to reach this level in the next few years.
FLATOW: If these, you know, I've heard, you know noise of neurons firing, you know, they sound like static electricity.
FLATOW: How do you make sense of all of that?
NICOLELIS: Well, there are messages embedded in the noise. In fact, my - one of my sons say that when he listened to these brain storms that we recorded from hundreds of neurons, that it sounds like popcorn in a microwave while you listen to an AM station that is not well-tuned.
NICOLELIS: But there is a message in there, and we can actually extract these motor commands very quickly using, actually, very simple mathematical models that run at the same time scale that our brains actually produce movements out of these electrical storms.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's get some phone calls in. Rick in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Hi, Rick.
RICK: Hi. How are you today?
FLATOW: Hi, there.
RICK: Yeah. Listen, in 1973, while I was still in the Army, I was a part of a research program that the Army was doing on single-motor coordination skill. And they would actually inject a barbed wire into certain muscles of the body, and with the use of a computer, we were required to move that single muscle and isolate it with just using our brain. And we went through this for about a six-month period, and everybody was getting pretty well. And my comment is I'm really surprised, with the effort that was put forth back then, that we haven't been able to, if you will, finalize or make this thing just - I'm surprised it hasn't accelerated any greater than it is now.
FLATOW: At 40 years later almost, why haven't we gotten anywhere further? Miguel?
NICOLELIS: Well, that's interesting that you mentioned that, because one of the first things I did in grad school was - my thesis adviser actually made me do the same test, and I was amazed myself that I could control a single muscle and to do this kind of experiments. Well, the technology to record large-scale brain activity the way we do now only started to be developed really in the mid-'80s. And we only reached, you know, 100 neurons recorded simultaneously at the late '90s.
And so from the late '90s to now, we discovered that we could link brains to machines using, you know, computer devices that are, you know, available now cheap, and we could actually perform the kind of experiments that we reported this week. So it took a while to be able to actually get the kind of brain-drive signal that you need to run this type of experiments. It's much more difficult to do that than to record the electrical signals from muscles. So that was one of the major reasons that it took so long for us to get to this point.
FLATOW: It's one thing to probe a monkey's brain with wires. How do you expect to do that with people, where you can't do that?
NICOLELIS: Well, no. You can. In fact, you do already. There are several patients - there are thousands of patients, tens of thousands of patients that carry either a stimulator in the brain or in the periphery, in the inner ear, to restore neurological functions or to control diseases like Parkinson's disease. Basically, these electrodes, these sensors will be tested, you know, in patients. It's - the benefit that you get is pretty high compared to, you know, what the patient is suffering right now in terms of a lesion or a handicap.
So we think that the technology is safe, and at this level, we will be able to provide to patients a relief and a benefit that, you know, justifies a chronic implant on the surface of the brain.
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.
Talking with Miguel Nicolelis about his experiments. Now, a lot of people are tweeting and asking whether you cut the limbs of these monkeys off or not. You didn't do that.
NICOLELIS: No. No. No, no. You don't need to do anything to the monkeys. The monkeys are actually pretty happy. And now that we have a wireless interface to broadcast these signals, these brain-drive signals, the brain - the monkeys really can be freely moving and actually enjoy playing with the video games. They actually have a lot of pleasure playing these games.
FLATOW: So even though you don't know what it feels like to them to get this stimulation back, they must like it.
NICOLELIS: Oh, they certainly like it. And besides, every time they got the correct object selected and they reach a very high level proficiency after a few weeks of training, they get a drop of fruit juice. And any monkey will do anything for you for that fruit juice.
FLATOW: I think you'd have to up the ante for people.
NICOLELIS: Yes, yes. We have to change the reward a little bit.
FLATOW: Let's go to the phones again. Harvey in Oakland. Hi, Harvey. Harvey, are you there? No. He's not. I guess one of the things he was going to ask is about possible military uses of these, and people are wondering all the time if you have - if you can control a robot by thinking about it, could you make, for example, a bomb-sniffing robot so that the humans don't have to go on there, and to control it with your own brainwaves?
NICOLELIS: Yeah. Well, I have no military application in my research. You know, we are all involved into rehabilitation medicine. But several scientists in the U.S. have proposed ideas, for instance, to have robots do exactly what he said, to go into environments that are too dangerous for people to go, like, for instance, as we had recently, the nuclear accidents in Japan. The idea would be that would send robots to do the job of fixing the place, and no need to send humans, because the risk was so severe, so dangerous.
So there are some ideas about that, but they are far from, you know, doing anything concrete because, of course, to get the best level of motor control, the ones that we get in our experiments, you have to implant a microchip in these sensors, a few millimeters inside the brain. And that will never be justified for an application like that in a regular person that doesn't have a severe disability.
FLATOW: Let's go to Maggie in Stanford, Connecticut. Hi, Maggie.
MAGGIE: Hi. I was wondering if or how you plan on incorporating proprioception into this robotic arm, so where it is in space.
FLATOW: Yeah, three-dimensional.
NICOLELIS: Yes. Well, we want to test this, the same technique that we use here, microstimulation. Electrical microstimulation of the cortex can be used to other sensory channels to restore other sensory mobilities like temperature or proprioception. That's part of the studies that we are starting to carry out at Duke right now. So this was the proof of concept that we could close this loop and could get these animals to feel something or to interpret these signals that are related to texture, to fine touch.
But now, you know, the door is open to test other possibilities. And, in fact, we are even testing in rodents, in rats, other modalities that are not even related to the regular modalities that we all share. So we are trying to see if with this, our rats can sense physical parameters like infrared light, for instance, that rats normally don't perceive. So it opens a lot of new venues for this type of research.
FLATOW: Thanks, Maggie.
MAGGIE: Thanks.
FLATOW: That's about all the time we have. I want to thank you very much for taking time, because, as you say, there are a lot of things in the future where you might apply this to that we haven't even thought about it.
NICOLELIS: Well, I appreciate. Thank you very much for the invitation.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Miguel Nicolelis is a neuroscientist at Duke University in North Carolina and director of the Center for Neuroengineering there.

Brain doctor to start treating patients again

A BRAIN specialist is to be re-instated by his hospital after being suspended from treating patients for nearly a year.
The restrictions on radiologist Dr Changez Jadun were brought in after some of his work was branded 'negligent.' Fears over the safety of his work were raised by both a national expert and then three of his fellow consultants.
His colleagues raised the alarm late last year when they made formal complaints about Dr Jadun's treatment of four patients at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire (UHNS). Three of the patients died.
Now, after a string of new reviews into dozens of patients he operated on, he is to be allowed back to work full-time.
The investigations resulted in a change the hospital's procedures after criticism was levelled at the way its medical leadership kept trust directors in the dark about the issue for two years.
And the hospital found a breakdown in relationships between individuals and staff groups in Dr Jadun's department was putting patients at risk.
Throughout the row the consultant has been allowed to carry on reading MRI and CT scans on people's brains and spines as well as suggesting courses of treatment.
He was first banned from performing procedures on patients last November and then stopped from even carrying out the investigations after details of the inquiries were published in The Sentinel in May.
UHNS chief executive Julia Bridgewater, pictured below, has confirmed he would be returning to his full duties at a date yet to be fixed.
She said: "As these most comprehensive investigations have found no fitness to practice issues surrounding Dr Jadun we will be negotiating a time-table for his return to work.
"He will firstly need to have some re-skilling because of the time he has been away from full clinical duties."
His comeback is expected after next month when all the recommendations from the reviews will be considered by the hospital board.
The probe looking most closely at his work was carried out by Dr Andrew Molyneux, from Oxford, who is one of the country's top specialists in the same field.
He found one case showed an "unacceptable lapse" resulting in a worse outcome. That resulted in Mrs Bridgewater issuing a belated apology to the patient's family.
But Dr Molyneux's overall conclusion was that the service was good with no issues regarding technical performance found.
He highlighted the poor relationships in the department however and said report forms filed by colleagues did not reflect the complexities and difficulties of the cases.
One had been "inappropriate" while another contained "misleading" statements.
Concerns had also been raised about the safety of more than 400 patients' MRI and CT scans Dr Jadun analysed over a single Bank Holiday weekend last August. Other experts have now re-read the scans and "no clinically significant discrepancies or errors" were found.
Healthwatch pressure group leader Ian Syme, who gave evidence to one of the inquiries, said: "Dr Molyneux is one of Britain's leading authorities in this field and in view of how comprehensive his scrutiny has been, I am convinced there has been no cover up here.
"In that case and as no problems have been found over Dr Jadun's practice, it is only right that he is allowed to return.
"These reviews have served to shine a light on a sub-set of hospital staff and shown how much backbiting there is among them so they were needed to make sure those failings are now dealt with.
"They should also ensure that major issues are never kept from the board again and that whistle-blowing must be encouraged."

Patient undergoes brain surgery while awake

WTVJ - Ray Beccaria had brain surgery at University of Miami Hospital 13 days ago. While surgeons were removing his brain tumor, he was alert and talking.
"I could feel everything that was going on. There was no pain, but I could see. I could feel them working on me and tools and things," he said.
Becerria, 64, was deeply asleep for the very start and end of the surgery.
"The tumor involved the left temporal lobe on the left side which in the vast majority of patients does control language," said UM neurosurgeon Dr. Ricardo Komotar.
Difficulty speaking was Becarria's first warning sign that something was wrong.
"I just couldn't get my thought process going. A week later it got bad real bad. I got to the point I couldn't read. I'm at work, I'm looking at the computer and I'm 'what is this?'" he said.
Dr. Bruno Gallo was the neurologist interacting with the patient during the surgery.
It's part of the mapping technique used to remove the tumor while sparing brain function.
"There are specific things I'm looking for in case he starts to slur his words versus not being able to speak," Gallo said.
If the surgeon touches a part of the brain and that causes a language problem, Komotar added "we know to stop and move to another area."
They were able to completely remove the tumor, which was a glioblastoma. Becerria also needs chemotherapy and radiation.
"Everyday I'm getting, I feel progress every day. I feel better I can speak better," he said.
But he still has some trouble reading.
Becarria will be getting treatment where he works, at UM Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.
He is a health information specialist, working on his Bachelor's degree.
His December graduation has been postponed.

'The Brainiacs' Suburban Brain-Tumor Support Group Marks 20 Years in Geneva

LivingWell invites any brain tumor patient and their family to join and learn more about the disease while receiving nurturing support from fellow patients.
Although general support groups for cancer patients now exist in many communities and hospitals, there are only two or three dedicated exclusively to brain tumor patients in the entire Chicagoland area. One of them, "The Brainiacs," who meet at the Living Well Cancer Resource Center in Geneva, is celebrating its 20th year this October by inviting any brain-tumor patient and their family to join and learn more about the disease while receiving nurturing support from fellow patients and experts in the field of brain tumors.
"Many people with brain tumors and their family members feel helpless and confused because the disease is unknown to them,” said Steve Hazard, co-facilitator of the Brainiacs. "To make matters worse, brain tumors can produce profound neurological deficits that make them unlike any other cancer.  But when treating a brain tumor, knowledge is power so attending a support group where you can talk with others who suffer from the exact same disease can be a tremendous benefit."
Members of the group echo Hazard's comments saying a support group dedicated exclusively to brain-tumor patients offers a much more comforting and nurturing environment than a general cancer support  group.
"There is no doubt that being able to talk with people who have the same problem is the best non-medical medicine," said Gary Mack, whose wife Rena succumbed to a brain tumor last year. "The information we received was invaluable, and the support even better. They just understood. They got it because they know brain tumors are different."
Recent statistics show that more than 10,000 people die each year from malignant brain tumors in the U.S. and the number is growing. But, because it is small compared to other cancers, research dollars have been scarce.
The Brain Tumor support group which meets at the Living Well Cancer Center in Geneva, has hosted numerous guest speakers and lecturers over the years including, neurosurgeons, radiation oncologists, proton beam therapy physicians, chemotherapy experts and many other brain related medical and scientific authorities.
Hazard credited his co-facilitator, Deb Brunelle, RN with launching the "Brainiacs" two decades ago and with keeping the group strong. "Deb has been a tireless worker who has a heart for the difficulties that brain-tumor patients face," Hazard said. "It has been through her hard work that we have learned much about this dreadful disease and we are grateful to her for that."
The Living Well Cancer resource Center is located at 1803 W. State Street, Geneva Il, 60134 (630-262-1111). The Brain Tumor Support Group meets there the first and third Wednesday of each month from 7:30 to 9 p.m. The Oct. 5 meeting will be a dinner and reception hosted at Oscar Swan restaurant directly across from the Living Well Center.  Any brain tumor patient and their family members and caregivers are invited to attend meetings.

Brain 'rejects negative thoughts'

"Don't worry, everything will be fine," says the brain
One reason optimists retain a positive outlook even in the face of evidence to the contrary has been discovered, say researchers.
A study, published in Nature Neuroscience, suggests the brain is very good at processing good news about the future.
However, in some people, anything negative is practically ignored - with them retaining a positive world view.
The authors said optimism did have important health benefits.
Scientists at University College London said about 80% of people were optimists, even if they would not label themselves as such.
They rated 14 people for their level of optimism and tested them in a brain scanner.
Each was asked how likely 80 different "bad events" - including a divorce or having cancer - were to happen.
They were then told how likely this was in reality. At the end of the session, the participants were asked to rate the probabilities again.
There was a marked difference in the updated scores of optimists depending on whether the reality was good or bad news.
Dr Tali Sharot, lead researcher, gave the example of the risk of cancer being set at 30%.
If the patient thought their risk was 40%, then at the end of the experiment they downgraded their own risk to about 31%, she said.
However, if the patient originally thought their risk was 10%, they only marginally increased their risk - they "leaned a little bit, but not a lot".
Pick and choose When the news was positive, all people had more activity in the brain's frontal lobes, which are associated with processing errors. With negative information, the most optimistic people had the least activity in the frontal lobes, while the least optimistic had the most.
It suggests the brain is picking and choosing which evidence to listen to.
Dr Sharot said: "Smoking kills messages don't work as people think their chances of cancer are low. The divorce rate is 50%, but people don't think it's the same for them. There is a very fundamental bias in the brain."
Dr Chris Chambers, neuroscientist from the University of Cardiff, said: "It's very cool, a very elegant piece of work and fascinating.
"For me, this work highlights something that is becoming increasingly apparent in neuroscience, that a major part of brain function in decision-making is the testing of predictions against reality - in essence all people are 'scientists'.
"And despite how sophisticated these neural networks are, it is illuminating to see how the brain sometimes comes up with wrong and overly optimistic answers despite the evidence."
Optimism seem to be good for your health. A study on nearly 100,000 women showed a lower risk of heart disease and lower death rate in optimists.
But as Dr Sharot points out: "The negative aspect is that we underestimate risks."

Brain linked to robotic hand; success hailed

Assistant professor Jennifer Collinger,left, watches as quadriplegic research subject Tim Hemmes operates the mechanical prosthetic arm in a testing session at UPMC.

When it happened, emotions flashed like lightning.
The nearby robotic hand that Tim Hemmes was controlling with his mind touched his girlfriend Katie Schaffer's outstretched hand.
One small touch for Mr. Hemmes; one giant reach for people with disabilities.
Tears of joy flowing in an Oakland laboratory that day continued later when Mr. Hemmes toasted his and University of Pittsburgh researchers' success at a local restaurant with two daiquiris.
A simple act for most people proved to be a major advance in two decades of research that has proven to be the stuff of science fiction.
Mr. Hemmes' success in putting the robotic hand in the waiting hand of Ms. Schaffer, 27, of Philadelphia, represented the first time a person with quadriplegia has used his mind to control a robotic arm so masterfully.
The 30-year-old man from Connoquenessing Township, Butler County, hadn't moved his arms, hands or legs since a motorcycle accident seven years earlier. But Mr. Hemmes had practiced six hours a day, six days a week for nearly a month to move the arm with his mind.
That successful act increases hope for people with paralysis or loss of limbs that they can feed and dress themselves and open doors, among other tasks, with a mind-controlled robotic arm. It's also improved the prospects of wiring around spinal cord injuries to allow motionless arms and legs to function once again.
"I think the potential here is incredible," said Dr. Michael Boninger, director of UPMC's Rehabilitation Institute and a principal investigator in the project. "This is a breakthrough for us."
Mr. Hemmes? They say he's a rock star.
Reading brain signals
In a project led by Andrew Schwartz, Ph.D., a University of Pittsburgh professor of neurobiology, researchers taught a monkey how to use a robotic arm mentally to feed itself marshmallows. Electrodes had been shallowly implanted in its brain to read signals from neurons known to control arm motion.
Electrocorticography or ECoG -- in which an electronic grid is surgically placed against the brain without penetration -- less intrusively captures brain signals.
ECoG has been used to locate sites of seizures and do other experiments in patients with epilepsy. Those experiments were prelude to seeking a candidate with quadriplegia to test ECoG's capability to control a robotic arm developed by Johns Hopkins University.
The still unanswered question was whether the brains of people with long-term paralysis still produced signals to move their limbs.
ECoG picks up an array of brain signals, almost like a secret code or new language, that a computer algorithm can interpret and then move a robotic arm based on the person's intentions. It's a simple explanation for complex science.
Mr. Hemmes' name cropped up so many times as a potential candidate that the team called him to gauge his interest.
He said no.
He already was involved in a research in Cleveland and feared this project would interfere. But knowing they had the ideal candidate, they called back. This time he agreed, as long as it would not limit his participation in future phases of research.
Mr. Hemmes became quadriplegic July 11, 2004, apparently after a deer darted onto the roadway, causing him to swerve his motorcycle onto gravel where his shoulder hit a mailbox, sending him flying headfirst into a guardrail. The top of his helmet became impaled on a guardrail I-beam, rendering his head motionless while his body continued flying, snapping his neck at the fourth cervical vertebra.
A passer-by found him with blue lips and no signs of breathing. Mr. Hemmes was flown by rescue helicopter to UPMC Mercy and diagnosed with quadriplegia -- a condition in which he had lost use of his limbs and his body below the neck or shoulders. He had to learn how to breathe on his own. His doctor told him it was worst accident he'd ever seen in which the person survived.
But after the process of adapting psychologically to quadriplegia, Mr. Hemmes chose to pursue a full life, especially after he got a device to operate a computer and another to operate a wheelchair with head motions.
Since January, he has operated the website -- -- to rescue homeless pit bulls and find them new owners.
The former hockey player's competitive spirit and willingness to face risk were key attributes. Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, the UPMC neurosurgeon who would install the ECoG in Mr. Hemmes' brain, said he had strong motivation and a vision that paralysis could be cured.
Ever since his accident, Mr. Hemmes said, he's had the goal of hugging his daughter Jaylei, now 8. This could be the first step.
"It's an honor that they picked me, and I feel humbled," Mr. Hemmes said.
Mental gymnastics
Mr. Hemmes underwent several hours of surgery to install the ECoG at a precise location against the brain. Wires running under the skin down to a port near his collarbone -- where wires can connect to the robotic arm -- caused him a stiff neck for a few days.
Two days after surgery, he began exhaustive training on mentally maneuvering a computer cursor in various directions to reach and make targets disappear. Next he learned to move the cursor diagonally before working for hours to capture targets on a three-dimensional computer.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowed the trial to last only 28 days, when the ECoG is removed. The project, initially funded by UPMC, has received more than $6 million in funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA.
Initially Mr. Hemmes tried thinking about flexing his arm to move the cursor. But he had better success visually grabbing the ball-shaped cursor to throw it toward a target on the screen. The "mental eye-grabbing" worked best when he was relaxed.
Soon he was capturing 15 of 16 targets and sometimes all 16 during timed sessions. The next challenge was moving the robotic arm with his mind.
The same mental processes worked, but the arm moved more slowly and in real space. But time was ticking away as the experiment approached its final days last month. With Mr. Hemmes finally moving the arm in all directions, Wei Wang -- assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Pitt's School of Medicine who also has worked on the signalling system -- stood in front of him and raised his hand.
The robotic arm that Mr. Hemmes was controlling moved with fits and starts but in time reached Dr. Wang's upheld hand. Mr. Hemmes gave him a high five.
The big moment arrived.
Katie Schaffer stood before her boyfriend with her hand extended. "Baby," she said encouraging him, "touch my hand."
It took several minutes, but he raised the robotic hand and pushed it toward Ms. Schaffer until its palm finally touched hers. Tears flowed.
"It's the first time I've reached out to anybody in over seven years," Mr. Hemmes said. "I wanted to touch Katie. I never got to do that before."
"I have tattoos, and I'm a big, strong guy," he said in retrospect. "So if I'm going to cry, I'm going to bawl my eyes out. It was pure emotion."
Curing paralysis
Mr. Hemmes said his accomplishments represent a first step toward "a cure for paralysis." The research team is cautious about such statements without denying the possibility. They prefer identifying the goal of restoring function in people with disabilities.
"This was way beyond what we expected," Dr. Tyler-Kabara said. "We really hit a home run, and I'm thrilled."
The next phase will include up to six people tested in another 30-day trial with ECoG. A year-long trial will test the electrode array that shallowly penetrates the brain. Goals during these phases include expanding the degrees of arm motions to allow people to "pick up a grape or grasp and turn a door knob," Dr. Tyler-Kabara said.
Anyone interested in participating should call 1-800-533-8762.
Mr. Hemmes says he will participate in future research.
"This is something big, but I'm not done yet," he said. "I want to hug my daughter."

David Templeton: or 412-263-1578.

Sleep-deprived teenagers ‘may be at risk of brain damage

The HinduShort-term sleep restriction prevents the balanced growth and depletion of brain synapses, which are the connections between nerve cells where communication occurs.
Short-term sleep restriction prevents the balanced growth and depletion of brain synapses, which are the connections between nerve cells where communication occurs. Photo: Mahesh Harilal
Parents, please note - make sure that your teenage children get adequate sleep daily, for a new study has claimed sleep deficiency could affect their brains later in life.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have carried out the study and found that sleep-deprived teenagers are at risk of long-term damage to wiring of their brains, the ’Daily Mail’ reported.
They found that short-term sleep restriction prevents the balanced growth and depletion of brain synapses, which are the connections between nerve cells where communication occurs.
“One possible implication of our study is that if you lose too much sleep during adolescence, especially chronically, there may be lasting consequences in terms of the wiring of the brain,” said lead researcher Dr Chiara Cirelli.
Mental illnesses such as schizophrenia tend to start during adolescence but the exact reasons remain unclear, say the researchers.
“Adolescence is a sensitive period of development during which the brain changes dramatically. There is a massive remodelling of nerve circuits, with many new synapses formed and then eliminated,” she said.
For their study, the researchers analysed the brains of mice. They wanted to see how alterations to the sleep-wake cycle affected the anatomy of the developing adolescent brain in the animals.
Using a two-photon microscope, the researchers indirectly followed the growth and retraction of synapses by counting dendritic spines, the elongated structures that contain synapses and thus allow brain cells to receive impulses from other brain cells.
They compared adolescent mice that for eight to 10 hours were spontaneously awake, allowed to sleep or forced to stay awake. The live images showed that being asleep or awake made a difference in the dynamic adolescent mouse brain - the overall density of dendritic spines fell during sleep and rose during spontaneous or forced wakefulness.
“These results using acute manipulations of just eight to 10 hours show that the time spent asleep or awake affects how many synapses are being formed or removed in the adolescent brain,” Prof Cirelli said.
She added: “The important next question is what happens with chronic sleep restriction, a condition that many adolescents are often experiencing. It could be that the changes are benign, temporary and reversible or there could be lasting consequences for brain maturation and functioning.”

Better brain development is top most expectation by Indian Parents

The World Health Organization is getting involved as well – by making recommendations to its Member States to limit children’s exposure to the marketing of less healthy food options.

The top benefits globally parents want their children to receive from eating healthy foods relate to heart health, reduced risk of disease, brain development and immunity. This is the latest finding from a worldwide study conducted by leading global market research company, Ipsos.
Parents from 24 countries surveyed were given a list of benefits their children may receive from eating healthy foods and asked to rank which benefits were most important. On a global basis, healthy heart (23%) was ranked highest in importance, followed closely by reduced risk of disease later in life, better brain development and better immunity(18% each). Meanwhile Indian parents want better brain development (24%), followed by better Immunity (20%), healthy heart and reduced risk of disease later in life (both 13%) from healthy foods for kids.
Differences in priorities were found to exist across countries. Parents from China, Hungary, Japan, Poland Saudi Arabia and South Korea rank “Better Immunity” as being important. In another example, a healthy heart was most important to parents in Spain, Turkey, Belgium, Russia, and Great Britain. Reduced risk of disease was most important to parents in France, Italy, Sweden and Germany.
According to Sonia Pall, CEO, Ipsos in India, “It is not surprising that parents in different countries have different motivations for feeding their children healthy foods. They are influenced by their unique value systems, the availability of different foods and medicines in their countries, and the messages they receive from their local media and governments. Interestingly, governments not only influence consumers, but also exert an increasing influence on food manufacturers.”  

Parents See More Support from Government Clearly, parents want their children to eat healthy foods and have specific expectations about the benefits their children will receive – from heart and brain health to disease prevention and immunity. Increasingly, parents are finding more support from their local governments as new regulations may force sweeping changes about how packaged foods are marketed to children. Legislation already exists in several countries that restrict food advertising to children, including Sweden, Norway, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Korea and France. Most recently, the U.S. is proposing that foods advertised to children must meet certain criteria in terms of the healthy ingredients they contain. The World Health Organization is getting involved as well – by making recommendations to its Member States to limit children’s exposure to the marketing of less healthy food options.
“Manufacturers are feeling the pressure from all angles to market healthier food to children,” continues Sonia. “Parents are demanding nutritious and functional foods to serve their children while new regulations are restricting marketing efforts for less healthy food options. At the same time, manufacturers need to appeal to children by offering great-tasting food with ‘kid appeal’, as children still influence food purchases in many countries.”
Sonia concludes, “It is a whole new world for marketers – but we are already seeing them step up to the challenge. Today, we see healthy options for kids in a wide range of categories, including beverages (juice boxes fortified with calcium), dairy (milk with DHA Omega-3), cereal (gluten-free options), and snacks (fruit chews containing Vitamin C). As for tomorrow, we can expect innovations in kids’ foods that go beyond health basics, such as vitality boosting snacks, beverages to replace snack occasions, and hunger-suppression products – and we can expect new marketing strategies that will be just as exciting.”
These are the findings from a study conducted by Ipsos Marketing, Consumer Goods via the Ipsos Global advisor Monthly Syndicate, an online survey of citizens around the world. Interviews were carried out between February 2nd and June 13th 2011. For this survey an international sample of 18,680 adults aged 16-64 were interviewed in a total of 24 countries. Among the total sample, we identified 6,654 parents with children under the age of 18. The countries included Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Great Britain, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the United States of America.

Debunking top 10 brain myths

Debunking top 10 brain myths
With billions of neurons and nerve pathways, the brain is one of the most complex organs in the human body.
Even after years of research and probing, neurologists and scientists are still unable to fully fathom its capacities and extent of reasoning and emotions. Today, as we celebrate World Mental Health Day, let's take a look at some of the most common myths associated with the human brain and its functions.

We use only 10% of our brains: This myth is probably one of the most well-known and publicized myths of all times. This saying can be linked to popular American psychologist, William James during the 1900s. Although it sounds compelling, it is completely untrue. Neuro-imaging techniques have clearly indicated that for completing a particular task, different portions of the brain have to work in coordination. Until and unless we suffer from brain damage, no particular sector of the brain can become completely non-functioning.

Autism patients have inbuilt talents: This is another popular myth that has resulted from modern television and cinema promotion. Although, such patients may have splendid physical skills, they do not have any form of advanced functional skills.

Schizophrenia means split personality: This mental disorder is characterized by concentration problems, hallucinations, social isolation and rigid posture. However, there are many who confuse this condition with multiple personality disorder. Split personality can also occur at times after extreme trauma.

The brain never changes: As per research, the brain has the remarkable ability to recover from injury and reconfigure itself. Even in cases as traumatic as stroke, brain axons can regenerate and heal. Hence, the notion that brain never changes is a myth as it can adapt to different situations and change or regenerate as per the requirement.

Alcohol kills brain cells: Although it is true that overuse of alcohol may affect brain systems, there is no way that these substances can lead to killing of brain cells or neurons. Even in severe alcoholics, the neurons are never killed. It is only the connecting dendrites that may be affected. However, the rare condition Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is characterized by loss of neurons in some parts. But, this is not a direct effect of drinking but rather, a secondary effect due to deficiency of Vitamin B which may occur during excessive consumption of alcohol.

All form of brain damage is permanent: Wrong. The extent and location of brain damage determines whether the effects are reversible or irreversible. While a mild injury can be easily controlled, severe damage may be irreversible and permanent. It doesn't necessarily imply that all brain injury will lead to vegetative states in humans.

Humans have the biggest brain: It is a generalized notion that among all species of animals, humans have the biggest and most advanced brain. A comparative study shows that while an average adult human brain weighs about 3 pounds, a sperm whale's brain is around 17 pounds. Many scientists point out that it is not the brain size but a comparison of the brain size to the body weight that matters. For humans, this ratio is around 1:50 while for other animals, it is around 1:180 or 1:220. Moreover, the portion of brain involved in higher cognitive function also matters. Of all mammals, humans have the largest cerebral cortex which is involved in higher functions like memory and language.

Brain is a uniform mass of tissues: Except for health care professionals, most people believe that the brain is a uniform mass of tissue throughout. This is again a misconception as the entire brain is formed of innumerous specialized cells called glia or neurons. These cells are further organized under specific functional regions of the brain.

Listening to Mozart tunes makes us smarter: Have you ever heard of the "Mozart Effect"? First described by French researcher Alfred Tomatis, this effect was later publicized by a musician Don Campbell. According to the theory, listening to the music can promote healing and development of the brain. The idea became very popular and people began using Mozart CDs to improve the cognitive functioning of their children. But, in reality, can the classical tunes of Mozart create as much excitement inside a human brain as it does in a concert hall? Definitely not! There have been no significant research findings till date to validate this theory and critics have widely rebuked the notion stating it to be nothing but a myth.

Humans have only five senses: There is no doubt that taste, smell, sight, hearing and touch are some of the biggest senses in human beings but they are not the only ones. Humans also have other senses like the sense of balance, sense of position and sense of pain.

Walk Raises Awareness for Traumatic Brain Injury

Early one morning about seven years ago, Jane Concato rose out of bed in her Westwood home and headed downstairs. One false step during her descent changed her life forever.
“I fell down the steps,” said Concato, whose husband, Joe, heard the fall and came running to see what had happened.
Joe found his wife unconscious, squeezed up against the front door.
“He called 911 and then it just all began,” Jane said. “My life with a brain injury.”
Concato’s fall fractured her skull, bruising both her right and left temporal lobes. She remained in a coma at Hackensack Hospital for three excruciating weeks.
The doctors there prepared Concato’s husband for the worst.
“Joe would tell me that when I was in Hackensack Hospital, the neuropsychologist would say, ‘This might be it. She’ll survive, but she might never walk, she might never speak.’”
After coming out of her coma, Concato endured more than six months of cognitive remediation at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in East Orange.
Her major cognitive deficits involved speech – both speaking and processing the speech of others – and problem solving. She also was suffering from depression, a common problem for individuals diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury because of the sudden and profound life change it brings about.
“One minute you’re,” Concato paused. “You’re just so different.”
Like many people, Concato didn’t know much about traumatic brain injury, or TBI, before her fall.
In the last seven years, awareness of the condition has grown -- due in large part to the highly publicized TBI epidemic among returning war veterans and football players – even still, few know that the annual incidence of TBI is higher than that of breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury and HIV/AIDS combined.
According to the Brain Injury Association of New Jersey, a TBI advocacy group, 12,000 to 15,000 of the 1.4 million people who suffer traumatic brain injuries annually are from New Jersey. BIANJ estimates that 175,000 New Jersey residents currently live with disabilities that resulted from traumatic brain injuries.
The Walk for Thought, a TBI charity walk held last Saturday at Saddle River County Park, is one way the BIANJ and co-sponsor Rehabilitation Specialists of Fair Lawn, are trying to educate the public about brain injury and raise funds to support those affected by it.
Much of BIANJ’s brain injury work focuses on education and prevention, which its website calls, “the only cure for brain injury.”
“There will always be accidents,” BIANJ president and CEO Barbara Geiger-Parker said, “but we do know good ways to prevent injury.”
In terms of car safety, Geiger-Parker cited wearing a seatbelt, making sure children are secured in safety seats and not drinking and driving.
Signs with brain injury prevention tips like these were scattered along the one-mile walk’s path.
Mayor Lisa Swain, who participated in last weekend’s walk, said the experience made her reflect on her own close call with a potentially serious head injury.
“I once had a bad bike crash,” Swain said, when discussing the Walk at Tuesday’s council work session. “If it hadn’t been for me wearing my bike helmet, I might have been walking on that walk in a different way. We’re fortunate that we have a lot of wonderful organizations in Fair Lawn that support people who are disabled in one way or another.”
Fair Lawn-based Rehabilitation Specialists have sponsored and coordinated the one-mile walk through the park’s Dunkerhook section with the help of its own staff members, patient's families and volunteers for the past six years.
“It started off as a dream,” said Virgilio Caraballo, president of Rehabilitation Specialists, “and now, six years in, we’ve got teams, we’ve got the folks that we know every year that donate our bagels and our Entenmann’s, and it’s become this machine that now, I don’t want to say it too loudly, but it runs really smoothly.”
In addition to the walk, breakfast and lunch are provided to participants, and kids have a smorgasbord of activities to choose from, including pumpkin decorating, bracelet making, sand art, face painting and hula hooping, to name a few.
This year’s walk, which attracted TBI victims, their families and friends, and any walk-ups who stumbled upon the festivities, totaled more than 150 participants, including regulars Jane and Joe Concato, who’ve been doing it for the past five years.
Almost seven years sincer her fall, it’s hard to tell Jane once suffered a serious brain injury.
Her speech and comprehension have returned, but she said she still trips sometimes when she gets tired, and has fallen on occasion. She controls her focal seizures with medication and has at times experienced vertigo. Fatigue prevents her from returning to her former job as a dental hygienist.
But she considers herself blessed to have recovered as much as she has.
Today, Concato and her husband are facilitators of the Brain Injury Support Group of Bergen County, an affiliated BIANJ support group with about 80 members. In her spare time, Concato makes regular visits, with her therapy dog Lucy, to patients undergoing rehabilitation for brain injuries at the Kessler Institute in West Orange.
“Sometimes I’m busier now than I was before my brain injury,” she said. “It’s just different, but it’s good… Our whole life has changed and it all centers around brain injury. In a positive way.”

Alberta doctor aims to treat childhood depression with magnetic stimulation

Frank MacMaster sits alongside his computer screen showing a traditional MRI, right, and a Diffusion Tensor Image, left, in his Alberta Children's Hospital office in the Behavioral Research unit. 

Ted Rhodes / Postmedia News
CALGARY — Dr. Frank MacMaster wants people to rethink mental illness in children.
“The knee-jerk reactions are, ‘They must be terrible parents, or ‘The kid’s just faking, stop it.’ How do you tell a kid with obsessive compulsive disorder to just stop it? Or, worse, ‘Don’t tell anyone, keep it a secret,’” says MacMaster, a pediatric neurobiologist and researcher recruited from Detroit a year ago to work at Alberta Children’s Hospital.

He points to a 2008 poll that found 46% of Canadians think people use the term mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour.
“That’s horrifying. If people were picking on kids with cancer or epilepsy, the outcry would be colossal. It would be a national emergency.”
MacMaster will be using a state-of-the-art MRI scanner in his research to observe brain structure, chemistry and function in children and youth. In the past, scientists could only see inside the brain during surgery or, worse, after death.
His mission is to look at the biological underpinnings of mental-health problems when they start in kids and teens, to try to understand what’s going wrong and to develop better ways of treating them.
His big research project is looking into using transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, for kids and youth with depression — a first. He’s investigating if there’s a way to use TMS to stimulate or “coach” the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for executive function, to take charge more than it typically does in depression.
About 2% of children have depression, but that figure rises to 10% in adolescents. It’s thought puberty, with its hormonal and physiological and cognitive changes, is the trigger.
TMS is being used as a treatment in adults in the U.S and has been seen to work best in young adults “where the prefrontal cortex is still more plastic and can change,” he says. “But nobody’s really done it on kids.”
For years, psychiatric medications were developed for adults and then used in children and teens, without a lot of evidence about their effects on the developing brain, he says. Given that only 30% to 45% of teens respond to drugs and it takes up 20 years to bring new ones to market, “we need new ideas for treatment, and fast.”
His other project, still in its infancy, is looking into using aerobic exercise as an intervention for depression in teens.
“There’s a lot of great data out there that exercise is a great way for reducing depression symptoms. From a neurobiology point of view, effective aerobic exercise actually helps encourage growth of the hippocampus — a part of the brain that in depression really takes a beating from the disorder,” he explains.
The side-effect of exercise, he says, is general good health.
“The message I’m trying to give people is that your brain is just another body part. If you broke your leg, you’re going to have trouble with your hockey or golf game. If you have a problem with your brain, you’re going to have problems with behaviour. It really is that simple,” says MacMaster.
“The brain’s not immune to trouble. It can have problems, just like a kidney or a liver. People need to move beyond that out-dated assumption, that it is character or weakness.”