30 January 2017

Big Brain, Big Data

As big brain-mapping initiatives go, Taiwan's might seem small. Scientists there are studying the humble fruit fly, reverse-engineering its brain from images of single neurons. Their efforts have produced 3D maps of brain circuitry in stunning detail. Researchers need only a computer mouse and web browser to home in on individual cells and zoom back out to intertwined networks of nerve bundles. The wiring diagrams look like colorful threads on a tapestry, and they're clear enough to show which cell clusters control specific behaviors. By stimulating a specific neural circuit, researchers can cue a fly to flap its left wing or swing its head from side to side.

But even for such a small creature, it has taken the team a full decade to image 60,000 neurons, at a rate of 1 gigabyte per cell, and that's not even half of the nerve cells in the Drosophila brain. Using the same protocol to image the 86 billion neurons in the human brain would take an estimated 17 million years, Chiang reported at the meeting. Other technologies are more tractable. So it goes in the world of neurobiology, where big data is truly, epically big. Despite advances in computing infrastructure and data transmission, neuroscientists continue to grapple with their version of the 'big data' revolution that swept the genomics field decades ago.

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27 January 2017

Visual Computing Trends 2017

On the 26th January 2017 I attended the Visual Computing Trends Symposium 2017, which took place at VRVis in Vienna, Austria. The symposium provided an overview of future developments in Visual Computing by top-level invited experts.

The topics were: “The Future of Big Data Visualization”, “The Future of Social Robots: Will they become our Companions of Tomorrow?”, “The Future of Computational Reality” and “"Is Simulation (still) the Future of Rendering, or will it be Capture and Learning?"”.

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24 January 2017

Nicotine Normalizes Brain Activity Deficits That Are Key to Schizophrenia

A steady stream of nicotine normalizes genetically-induced impairments in brain activity associated with schizophrenia, according to new research involving the University of Colorado Boulder. The finding sheds light on what causes the disease and why those who have it tend to smoke heavily. Researchers envision their work could lead to new non-addictive, nicotine-based treatments for some of the 51 million people worldwide who suffer from the disease. The study found that when mice with schizophrenic characteristics were given nicotine daily, their sluggish brain activity increased within two days. Within one week it had normalized. The international team of scientists set out to explore the underlying causes of 'hypofrontality' (a reduction of neuronal firing in the prefrontal cortex of the brain). Hypofrontality is believed to be the root cause of many of the signature cognitive problems experienced by schizophrenics, including trouble paying attention, remembering things, making decisions and understanding verbal explanations. Previous genome-wide association studies have suggested that people with a variation in a gene called CHRNA5 are more likely to have schizophrenia, but the mechanism for that association has remained unclear. People with that variant are also more likely to smoke.

Eighty to 90 percent of people with schizophrenia smoke and most are very heavy smokers, a fact that has long led researchers to suspect they are self-medicating. For the study, the researchers set out to answer several questions: Does a variant in the CHRNA5 gene lead to hypofrontality. If so, how? And does nicotine somehow interrupt this effect? Eighty to 90 percent of people with schizophrenia smoke and most are very heavy smokers, a fact that has long led researchers to suspect they are self-medicating. To do so, the research team first took mice with the CHRNA5 gene variant and used state-of-the-art brain imaging technologies to see if they had hypofrontality. Then researchers, conducted behavioral tests to see if the mice shared key characteristics of schizophrenics, like being unable to suppress a startle response and being averse to social interaction. The results validated that the gene variant likely plays a role in schizophrenia by causing hypofrontality. Nicotine appeared to reverse this in the mice, normalizing brain activity by acting on nicotinic receptors in regions of the brain key to healthy cognitive function. Because hypofrontality is also associated with addiction and other psychiatric conditions, the research could ultimately have broad applications for drug development in the mental health field.

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21 January 2017

Video Games Help Men to Cope with Stress

A new study conducted by University College London reveals that video games are one of the most popular ways for men to cope with stress. The hobby has been maligned in the mainstream media with undue and unwarranted coverage of 'GamerGate', with much of the gaming media themselves promoting the narrative that the players themselves are holding back the medium with allegations of misogyny and sexism. But this new study aims to demonstrate how men and women show significant differences in therapy, coping behavior and help-seeking. It notes that men in general are less inclined than women to seek help for their psychological needs.

It indicates that a significant percentage of male participants (29%) listed video games as a main coping strategy, with women trailing behind slightly at 18%. In contrast, more than half (52%) of female participants listed prescription pills to deal with hard times, with only 27% of men listing it as a coping method. Both genders rate “talking with friends” as their primary way to cope. The research serves as a strong rebuke to those who claim that video games carry no social purpose, especially for men and a significant percentage of women, many of whom play online video games for both social interaction and relaxation.

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17 January 2017

A Wolverine-Inspired Material

Scientists, including several from the University of California, Riverside, have developed a transparent, self-healing, highly stretchable conductive material that can be electrically activated to power artificial muscles and could be used to improve batteries, electronic devices, and robots. The findings, which represent the first time scientists have created an ionic conductor, meaning materials that ions can flow through, that is transparent, mechanically stretchable, and self-healing. The material has potential applications in a wide range of fields. It could give robots the ability to self-heal after mechanical failure; extend the lifetime of lithium ion batteries used in electronics and electric cars; and improve biosensors used in the medical field and environmental monitoring.

This project brings together the research areas of self-healing materials and ionic conductors. self-healing materials repair damage caused by wear and extend the lifetime, and lower the cost, of materials and devices. Researchers developed an interest in self-healing materials because of his lifelong love of Wolverine, the comic book character who has the ability to self-heal. Ionic conductors are a class of materials with key roles in energy storage, solar energy conversion, sensors, and electronic devices. Ionic conductors can be used to power artificial muscles and to create transparent loudspeakers -- devices that feature several of the key properties of the new material but none of these devices additionally had the ability to self-heal from mechanical damage.

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15 January 2017

Glia and Not Neurons Most Affected By Brain Aging

The difference between an old brain and a young brain isn’t so much the number of neurons but the presence and function of supporting cells called glia. Researchers who examined postmortem brain samples from 480 individuals ranging in age from 16 to 106 found that the state of someone’s glia is so consistent through the years that it can be used to predict someone’s age. The work lays the foundation to better understand glia’s role in late-in-life brain disease.

The investigators next took a preliminary look at whether these changes in gene expression could relate to changes in brain cell populations. Based on a comparison of tissue samples from 3 young and 3 old brains, they found that the number of oligodendrocytes decreases with age in the frontal cortex. They further established that this likely corresponds with decreased expression of oligodendrocyte specific genes. Other types of cells had more complicated patterns of change.

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09 January 2017

Why Psychology Lost Its Soul: Everything Comes from the Brain

Psychology is the study of behaviour. To carry out their work of modifying behaviour, such as in treating addiction, phobia, anxiety and depression, psychologists do not need to assume people have souls. For the psychologists, it is not so much that souls do not exist, it is that there is no need for them. It is said psychology lost its soul in the 1930s. By this time, the discipline fully became a science, relying on experimentation and control rather than introspection. Some of the most notable proponents have been philosophers, such as Plato (424-348 BCE) and René Descartes in the 17th century. Plato believed we do not learn new things but recall things we knew before birth. For this to be so, he concluded, we must have a soul. In the 1960s, Nobel laureate Roger Sperry showed that the mind and our consciousness are divisible, therefore disproving that aspect of Descartes’ theory. Sperry studied patients whose corpus callosum, the superhighway connecting the right and left hemispheres, had been severed by surgery aiming to control the spread of epileptic seizures.

The surgery blocked or reduced the transfer of perceptual, sensory, motor and cognitive information between the two hemispheres. Sperry showed each hemisphere could be trained to perform a task, but this experience was not available to the untrained hemisphere. That is, each hemisphere could process information outside the awareness of the other. In essence, this meant the operation produced a double consciousness. Rather than endowing rats with souls, psychologists stripped humans of theirs. In 1949, psychologist D.O. Hebb claimed the mind is the integration of the activity of the brain. Many neurophilosophers have come to the same conclusion as the psychologists, with Patricia Churchland more recently claiming there is no ghost in the machine. If the soul is where emotion and motivation reside, where mental activity occurs, sensations are perceived, memories are stored, reasoning takes place and decisions are taken, then there is no need to hypothesise its existence. There is an organ that already performs these functions: the brain.

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05 January 2017

Mimicking Biological Movements with Soft Robots

Designing a soft robot that can bend like a finger or knee may seem simple but the motion is actually incredibly complex. The design is so complicated because one actuator type is not enough to produce complex motions. The method developed by the team uses mathematical modeling of fluid-powered, fiber-reinforced actuators to optimize the design of an actuator to perform a certain motion.

The team used this model to design a soft robot that bends like an index finger and twists like a thumb when powered by a single pressure source. The new methodology will be included in the Soft Robotic Toolkit, an online, open-source resource developed at SEAS to assist researchers, educators and budding innovators to design, fabrication, model, characterize and control their own soft robots.

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