21 February 2017

Emotions Are Cognitive, Not Innate

Emotions are not innately programmed into our brains, but, in fact, are cognitive states resulting from the gathering of information, researchers revealed from New York University and City University of New York. They argue that conscious experiences, regardless of their content, arise from one system in the brain. The differences between emotional and non-emotional states are the kinds of inputs that are processed by a general cortical network of cognition, a network essential for conscious experiences. As a result, the brain mechanisms that give rise to conscious emotional feelings are not fundamentally different from those that give rise to perceptual conscious experiences.

While emotions, or feelings, are the most significant events in our lives, there has been relatively little integration of theories of emotion and emerging theories of consciousness in cognitive science. Existing work posits that emotions are innately programmed in the brain’s subcortical circuits. As a result, emotions are often treated as different from cognitive states of consciousness, such as those related to the perception of external stimuli. In other words, emotions aren’t a response to what our brain takes in from our observations, but, rather, are intrinsic to our makeup. However, after taking into account existing scholarship on both cognition and emotion, researchers conclude that emotions are “higher-order states” embedded in cortical circuits.

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20 February 2017

VR Changes eCommerce

While e-commerce has revolutionised the way many goods are sold, offering customers greater level of convenience and forcing many bricks-and-mortar stores to completely change their business model, it is still far from the perfect experience. The fact is that e-commerce hasn’t been able to completely replace the physical store because there are some things that people just won’t buy online. Who would buy a brand new car, for example, or even a house online without ever having seen it in the real world? But thanks to advances in VR technology this will all change - and this future is closer than you might think. Most smartphones will have VR capabilities built in within the next couple of years, maybe even sooner, and VR headsets such as Oculus are becoming more affordable all the time.

This means forward-looking e-commerce players will be able to exploit VR to create completely new experiences, changing their relationship with customers and enabling the sale of goods never thought possible through online channels. While some retailers are beginning to experiment with in-store VR systems - with only limited success - the real potential for this technology lies outside of physical stores and in our own homes. Augmented reality systems are more suited to the inside of a store, while VR is very much something people can enjoy in their own homes and other safe spaces. And while it will be great to get a much more lifelike experience when shopping for goods online, getting a better feel for what a product looks like and its actual physical dimensions, there is so much more that VR can add to e-commerce than this.

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16 February 2017

How the Brain Maintains Useful Memories

Researchers from the University of Toronto, Canada, have discovered a reason why we often struggle to remember the smaller details of past experiences. They found that there are specific groups of neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) of a rat’s brain – the region most associated with long-term memory. These neurons develop codes to help store relevant, general information from multiple experiences while, over time, losing the more irrelevant, minor details unique to each experience. The findings provide new insight into how the brain collects and stores useful knowledge about the world that can be adapted and applied to new experiences. Memories of recent experiences are rich in incidental detail but, with time, the brain is thought to extract important information that is common across various past experiences. They predicted that groups of neurons in the mPFC build representations of this information over the period when long-term memory consolidation is known to take place, and that this information has a larger representation in the brain than the smaller details.

To test their prediction, the team studied how two different memories with overlapping associative features are coded by neuron groups in the mPFC of rat brains, and how these codes change over time. Rats were given two experiences with an interval between each: one involving a light and tone stimulus, and the other involving a physical stimulus. This gave them two memories that shared a common stimulus relationship. The scientists then tracked the neuron activity in the animals’ brains from the first day of learning to four weeks following their experiences. This experiment revealed that groups of neurons in the mPFC initially encode both the unique and shared features of the stimuli in a similar way. Further experiments also revealed that the brain can adapt the general knowledge gained from multiple experiences immediately to a new situation. Concluding, researchers showed that groups of neurons develop coding to store shared information from different experiences while, seemingly independently, losing selectivity for irrelevant details.

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12 February 2017

Archaeology Turns to Virtual Reality

A Melbourne-based VR company has secured nearly $1 million in seed funding from investors. Lithodomos (which means stonemason in Ancient Greek) develops VR content that re-creates ancient architecture, allowing people to see what archaeological sites once looked like.

Their first commercial project will be working with Spain's University of Cordoba and the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness to re-create part of the Roman settlement of Mellaria in the Guadiato Valley, in the country's north.

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08 February 2017

BCI Allows Locked-In People To Communicate

Patients suffering from complete paralysis, but with preserved awareness, cognition, and eye movements and blinking are classified as having locked-in syndrome. If eye movements are also lost, the condition is referred to as completely locked-in syndrome. In the trial, patients with completely locked-in syndrome were able to respond "yes" or "no" to spoken questions, by thinking the answers. A non-invasive brain-computer interface detected their responses by measuring changes in blood oxygen levels in the brain. The results overturn previous theories that postulate that people with completely locked-in syndrome lack the goal-directed thinking necessary to use a brain-computer interface and are, therefore, incapable of communication. Extensive investigations were carried out in four patients with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) -- a progressive motor neuron disease that leads to complete destruction of the part of the nervous system responsible for movement.

The researchers asked personal questions with known answers and open questions that needed "yes" or "no" answers including: "Your husband's name is Joachim?" and "Are you happy?." They found the questions elicited correct responses in seventy percent of the trials. Researchers found that all four patients they tested were able to answer the personal questions they asked them, using their thoughts alone. The question "Are you happy?" resulted in a consistent "yes" response from the four people, repeated over weeks of questioning. The brain-computer interface in the study used near-infrared spectroscopy combined with electroencephalography (EEG) to measure blood oxygenation and electrical activity in the brain. While other brain-computer interfaces have previously enabled some paralyzed patients to communicate, near-infrared spectroscopy is, so far, the only successful approach to restore communication to patients suffering from completely locked-in syndrome.

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07 February 2017

How the Brain Resets During Sleep

Striking electron microscope pictures from inside the brains of mice suggest what happens in our own brain every day: Our synapses – the junctions between nerve cells – grow strong and large during the stimulation of daytime, then shrink by nearly 20 percent while we sleep, creating room for more growth and learning the next day. When a synapse is repeatedly activated during waking, it grows in strength, and this growth is believed to be important for learning and memory. According to “synaptic homeostasis hypothesis” (SHY), however, this growth needs to be balanced to avoid the saturation of synapses and the obliteration of neural signaling and memories. Sleep is believed to be the best time for this process of renormalization, since when asleep we pay much less attention to the external world and are free from the here and now. When synapses get stronger and more effective they also become bigger, and conversely they shrink when they weaken. Thus, researchers reasoned that a direct test of SHY was to determine whether the size of synapses changes between sleep and wake. To do so, they used a method with extremely high spatial resolution called serial scanning 3D electron microscopy.

The research itself was a massive undertaking, with many research specialists working for four years to photograph, reconstruct, and analyze two areas of cerebral cortex in the mouse brain. They were able to reconstruct 6,920 synapses and measure their size. The team deliberately did not know whether they were analyzing the brain cells of a well-rested mouse or one that had been awake. When they finally broke the code and correlated the measurements with the amount of sleep the mice had during the six to eight hours before the image was taken, they found that a few hours of sleep led on average to an 18 percent decrease in the size of the synapses. These changes occurred in both areas of the cerebral cortex and were proportional to the size of the synapses. The scaling occurred in about 80 percent of the synapses but spared the largest ones, which may be associated with the most stable memory traces. This shows, in unequivocal ultrastructural terms, that the balance of synaptic size and strength is upset by wake and restored by sleep. It is remarkable that the vast majority of synapses in the cortex undergo such a large change in size over just a few hours of wake and sleep.

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