Limitless movie poster (credit: Virgin Produced) Is it possible to rapidly increase (or decrease) the amount of information the brain can store?
Is it possible to rapidly increase (or decrease) the amount of information the brain can store?
A new international study led by the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) suggests is may be. Their research has identified a molecule that improves brain function and memory recall is improved. Published in the latest issue of Cell Reports, the study has implications for neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases, such as autism spectral disorders and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Our findings show that the brain has a key protein called FXR1P (Fragile X Related Protein 1) that limits the production of molecules necessary for memory formation,” says RI-MUHC neuroscientist Keith Murai, the study’s senior author and Associate Professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University. “When this brake-protein is suppressed, the brain is able to store more information.”
Murai and his colleagues used a mouse model to study how changes in brain cell connections produce new memories. When FXR1P was selectively removed from certain parts of the brain, new molecules were produced. They strengthened connections between brain cells, which correlated with improved memory and recall in the mice.
Brain-disease link“The role of FXR1P was a surprising result,” says Murai. “Previous to our work, no-one had identified a role for this regulator in the brain. Our findings have provided fundamental knowledge about how the brain processes information. We’ve identified a new pathway that directly regulates how information is handled and this could have relevance for understanding and treating brain diseases.
“If we can identify compounds that control the braking potential of FXR1P, we may be able to alter the amount of brain activity or plasticity. For example, in autism, one may want to decrease certain brain activity and in Alzheimer’s disease, we may want to enhance the activity. By manipulating FXR1P, we may eventually be able to adjust memory formation and retrieval, thus improving the quality of life of people suffering from brain diseases.”
The study is described in an open-access paper in Cell Reports. Funding was provided by he Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and U.S. National Institutes of Health.
Science, like any other field that attracts investment, is prone to bubbles. Overly optimistic investments in scientific fields, research methods and technologies generate episodes comparable to those experienced by financial markets prior to crashing.
Assessing the toxic intellectual debt that builds up when too much liquidity is concentrated on too few assets is an important task if research funders want to avoid going short on overvalued research.
The cause of the meltdown of the financial market is obvious: leveraged trading in financial instruments that bear no relation to the things they are supposed to be secured against. Science, too, is a market in which the value of research is ultimately secured against objects in the world. If the world is not as it appears in a research paper, does the research have value?
A paper that claims that smoking causes cancer or that terrorism is caused by poverty is valuable only if it turns out to be a good explanation of cancer or terrorism. As recently noted by Philip Gerrans at the University of Adelaide, “[It] is why an original and true explanation is the gold standard of academic markets.”
Natural selection isn’t nearly enough to explain how life created so many innovations so fast. Fortunately for us, writes SFI External Professor Andreas Wagner in a new book, Nature had something else up her sleeve: robustness.
Even in organisms with relatively few genes, the number of possible combinations of those genes is unimaginably enormous — many, many orders of magnitude greater than the number of hydrogen atoms in the Universe. Even 3.7 billions years isn’t enough to search all those possibilities at random and find all the forms of life we have today.
In Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution's Greatest Puzzle (Current Hardcover , October 2, 2014), Wagner shows how robustness, long a subject of interest at SFI, helped solve the problem. Metabolic systems, protein interactions, and gene regulation networks share a particular kind of robustness: even drastic changes to the underlying structure leaves their operations unchanged. For example, the complex of chemical reactions that metabolize glucose in E. coli can overlap by as little as 20 percent and still function perfectly well.
Read a review of Wagner's book by Mark Pagel in Nature (October 1, 2014)
In the September Scientific American, devoted to human evolution, paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall discusses how a capacity for toolmaking and other cultural developments worked in conjunction with luck to foster the success of Homo sapiens. Luck came in the form of the climate shifts that served to accelerate the rate of evolution and the adaptation of beneficial traits among certain of our archaic forebears.
In the video here Tattersall describes how his field has changed since he first entered it nearly 50 years ago. Students of human evolution long believed that the story of our species origins was linear, “from primitiveness to perfection.” Scientists now know that the evolutionary path from apes to modern man was far more convoluted, populated with many rival hominins (the group including modern humans and their extinct relations) whose survival was periodically challenged by unpredictable climate shifts.
He also speaks of what makes Homo sapiens special. That our species is the only surviving hominin in the world is testament, he says, to how exceptional we are. We are unique in that we use symbols to represent the world, moving them around and recombining them to create “alternatives to existing reality.” This cognitive faculty also means we are able to ponder where we came from. The study of human evolution, Tattersall notes, holds “a special fascination for human beings, who, of course, are a very egotistical species.”
It may be possible to train the brain to prefer healthy low-calorie foods over unhealthy higher-calorie foods, according to new research.
It may be possible to train the brain to prefer healthy low-calorie foods over unhealthy higher-calorie foods, according to new research by scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (USDA HNRCA) at Tufts University and at Massachusetts General Hospital. Published online today in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, a brain scan study in adult men and women suggests that it is possible to reverse the addictive power of unhealthy food while also increasing preference for healthy foods.
"We don't start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta," said senior and co-corresponding author Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the USDA HNRCA, who is also a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine. "This conditioning happens over time in response to eating -- repeatedly! -- what is out there in the toxic food environment."
Scientists have suspected that, once unhealthy food addiction circuits are established, they may be hard or impossible to reverse, subjecting people who have gained weight to a lifetime of unhealthy food cravings and temptation. To find out whether the brain can be re-trained to support healthy food choices, Roberts and colleagues studied the reward system in thirteen overweight and obese men and women, eight of whom were participants in a new weight loss program designed by Tufts University researchers and five who were in a control group and were not enrolled in the program.
Both groups underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans at the beginning and end of a six-month period. Among those who participated in the weight loss program, the brain scans revealed changes in areas of the brain reward center associated with learning and addiction. After six months, this area had increased sensitivity to healthy, lower-calorie foods, indicating an increased reward and enjoyment of healthier food cues. The area also showed decreased sensitivity to the unhealthy higher-calorie foods.
Everyone has knick-knacks of sentimental value around their home, but what if your emotions could actually be shaped into household things?
A project recently unveiled at the Sao Paulo Design Weekend turns feelings of love into physical objects using 3D printing and biometric sensors. “Each product is unique and contains the most intimate emotions of the participants’ love stories,” explains designer Guto Requena.
Terrence Sejnowski, Professor and Laboratory Head of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory (credit: Salk Institute for Biological Studies) In a study
In a study published July 28 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Salk Institute for Biological Sciences researchers have found that brain cells called astrocytes — not neurons — can control the brain’s gamma waves.
They also found that astrocytes — a type of glial cell traditionally thought to provide more of a support role in the brain — and the gamma oscillations they help shape are critical for some forms of memory, such as object recognition.
(When you’re expecting something or when something captures your interest, unique high-frequency electrical rhythms called gamma waves sweep through your brain. Gamma waves have been associated with higher-level brain function, and disturbances in the patterns have been tied to schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, epilepsy and other disorders.)
Evidence linking gamma waves with attention and memory, influenced by astrocytes
“This is what could be called a smoking gun,” says co-author Terrence Sejnowski, head of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. “There are hundreds of papers linking gamma oscillations with attention and memory, but they are all correlational. This is the first time we have been able to do a causal experiment, where we selectively block gamma oscillations and show that it has a highly specific impact on how the brain interacts with the world.”
A collaboration among the labs of Salk professors Sejnowski, Inder Verma, and Stephen Heinemann found that activity in the form of calcium signaling in astrocytes immediately preceded gamma oscillations in the brains of mice. This suggested that astrocytes, which use many of the same chemical signals as neurons, could be influencing these oscillations.
Relief agencies go back to the future with $100,000 vehicles designed to carry vaccines and stretchers in conflict zones
Flying cars are being targeted at humanitarian organisations for use in a variety of missions, from delivering vaccines to transporting medics and patients.
Pégase, a flying car made by the French company Vaylon, is expected to be on the market next year, while a US-designed vehicle, the Maverick, is already on sale – both at about $100,000 (£60,000).
The cars are lightweight vehicles with a propeller at the back and an extendable parachute, rather than wings, which allow them to take off.
"The vehicle is a breakthrough technology," said Vaylon's co-founder, Jérémy Foiche, who is aiming for three main uses for the car: military, humanitarian and leisure. "We are interested in working with the humanitarian sector to determine exactly how it could be used in the field," he added.
Both cars can carry two people and an additional load of about 300kg, with a flying range of almost 200km on a single tank of fuel. They can fly up to 3-5km high and need less than 100m to take off and land.
Kurt Andersen wonders: If the Singularity is near, will it bring about global techno-Nirvana or civilizational ruin?
Artificial intelligence is suddenly everywhere. It’s still what the experts call “soft A.I.,” but it is proliferating like mad. We’re now accustomed to having conversations with computers: to refill a prescription, make a cable-TV-service appointment, cancel an airline reservation—or, when driving, to silently obey the instructions of the voice from the G.P.S.
But until the other morning I’d never initiated an elective conversation with a talking computer. I asked the artificial-intelligence app on my iPhone how old I am. First, Siri spelled my name right, something human beings generally fail to do. Then she said, “This might answer your question,” and displayed my correct age in years, months, and days. She knows more about me than I do. When I asked, “What is the Singularity?,” Siri inquired whether I wanted a Web search (“That’s what I figured,” she replied) and offered up this definition: “A technological singularity is a predicted point in the development of a civilization at which technological progress accelerates beyond the ability of present-day humans to fully comprehend or predict.”
Siri appeared on my phone three years ago, a few months after the IBM supercomputer Watson beat a pair of Jeopardy! champions. Since then, Watson has been speeded up 24-fold and fed millions of pages of medical data, thus turning the celebrity machine into a practicing cancer diagnostician. Autonomous machines now make half the trades on Wall Street, meaning, for instance, that a firm will often own a given stock for less than a second—thus the phrase “high-frequency trading,” the subject of Flash Boys, Michael Lewis’s book earlier this year. (Trading by machines is one reason why a hoax A.P. tweet last year about a White House bombing made the Dow Jones Industrial Average suddenly drop 146 points.) Google’s test fleet of a couple dozen robotic Lexuses and Priuses, after driving more than 700,000 miles on regular streets and highways, have been at fault in not a single accident. Meanwhile, bionic and biological breakthroughs are radically commingling humans and machines. Last year, a team of biomedical engineers demonstrated a system that enabled people wearing electrode-embedded caps to fly a tiny drone helicopter with their minds.
Machines performing unimaginably complicated calculations unimaginably fast—that’s what computers have always done. Computers were called “electronic brains” from the beginning. But the great open question is whether a computer really will be able to do all that your brain can do, and more. Two decades from now, will artificial intelligence—A.I.—go from soft to hard, equaling and then quickly surpassing the human kind? And if the Singularity is near, will it bring about global techno-Nirvana or civilizational ruin?
Analogue” and “digital” are the two polar opposites of our modern world. The word “analogue” has become our catch-all term for what we see as slow, one-way and limited in functional possibilities; while “digital” is our synonym for the dynamic, interactive and fluid.
Analogue is old; digital new. Paper has always been the epitome of the analogue: a physical medium which can receive, present and preserve information but otherwise remains static and fixed.
It’s our entrenched understanding of these polarities that are to blame for the well-worn idea that the physical book is dying. This is simply not the case – “analogue” technologies such as ink and paper are now being developed in ways that can and in all likelihood will revolutionise the material, printed book.
Conductive inks such as those produced by the British firm Bare Conductive mean that pen and ink can be used to make circuits – and a piece of paper could feasibly become a circuit board, much like that in a computer but infinitely more flexible and versatile.
Investor Peter Thiel has inspiring advice for wanna-be entrepreneurs, but he is unrealistic about where technology really comes from.
Is the technology investor Peter Thiel brilliant, or is he just strange? He is nothing if not industrious. Since he cofounded PayPal, in 1998, Thiel has had a hand in some of the most important and unexpected tech companies of our era. His success has made him an oracular presence in Silicon Valley.
Thiel’s contrarianism is notorious, and he appears to delight in saying or doing the unexpected, even at the risk of ridicule. Each year, his nonprofit gives a handful of college students $100,000 to drop out of school and pursue a risky startup. He has declared himself to be not only against taxes but against “the ideology of the inevitability of death.” And when the Seasteading Institute—a utopian group intent on building floating cities so as to escape the intrusions of government—sought funding a few years ago, Thiel ponied up half a million dollars.
If one wanted to emulate Peter Thiel’s success, would one have to do more than just the opposite of everyone else? His new book—a polished version of some lectures he gave at Stanford for aspiring entrepreneurs in 2012—suggests that there is such a creed as Thielism. His theories on what makes a good technology company and how such companies can improve society are by turns brazen, thoughtful, and precise; the challenge lies in separating the truth from the truthiness. Thiel insightfully diagnoses the failings of today’s technology (see Q&A), but the cures he suggests are questionable.
According to Thiel, most startups funded by his fellow Silicon Valley investors shouldn’t exist. All prospective entrepreneurs, he suggests, should ask themselves a simple and essential question: “What valuable company is nobody building?” If they don’t have an answer, they should do something else.
Squid and other cephalopods control their skin displays by contracting color-filled cells. A team of engineers attempted the same using elastomer and electrical pulses.
Displays are becoming flatter and flexible, so why not stretchable as well? A study published today in Nature Communications describes a paper-thin, elastic film that lights up when stimulated by an electric pulse. It’s a technology that could some day be used to make fold-up light sources, on-demand camouflage, or possibly even the Tron jumpsuit you’ve always wanted.
The engineers of the film were inspired by the skin of octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish, which can change color using tiny, ring-shaped structures called chromatophores. Each chromatophore is pigment-filled and ringed with tiny muscles. By contracting or expanding the chromatophores in different patterns, the cephalopods can create dazzling displays, or camouflage themselves from sight.
The new soft, stretchable elastomer is chemically combined with artificial, fluorescent-color versions of chromatophores, called mechanophores. Electrical pulses activate the mechanophores and create flourescant patterns. Different pulse strengths change the colors, and once the pulse is shut off the pattern instantly clears.
“Algorithm” is a word that one hears used much more frequently than in the past. One of the reasons is that scientists have learned that computers can learn on their own if given a few simple instructions. That’s really all that algorithms are mathematical instructions. Wikipedia states that an algorithm “is a step-by-step procedure for…
We’re getting more stupid. That’s one point made in a recent article in the New Scientist, reporting on a gradual decline in IQs in developed countries such as the UK, Australia and the Netherlands. Such research feeds into a long-held fascination with testing human intelligence. Yet such debates are too focused on IQ as a life-long trait that can’t be changed. Other research is beginning to show the opposite.
The concept of testing intelligence was first successfuly devised by French psychologists in the early 1900s to help describe differences in how well and quickly children learn at school. But it is now frequently used to explain that difference – that we all have a fixed and inherent level of intelligence that limits how fast we can learn.
Defined loosely, intelligence refers to our ability to learn quickly and adapt to new situations. IQ tests measure our vocabulary, our ability to problem-solve, reason logically and so on.
But what many people fail to understand is that if IQ tests measured only our skills at these particular tasks, no one would be interested in our score. The score is interesting only because it is thought to be fixed for life.
Who is getting smarter?
Standardised IQ tests used by clinical psychologists for diagnostic purposes, such as the Weschler scale, are designed in such a way that it is not easy to prepare for them. The contents are kept surprisingly secret and they are changed regularly. The score given for an individual is a relative one, adjusted based on the performance of people of the same age.
But even as we become better educated and more skillful at the types of tasks measured on IQ tests (a phenomenon known as the “Flynn effect”, after James Fylnn who first noted it) our IQs stay pretty much the same. This is because the IQ scoring system takes into account the amount of improvement expected over time, and then discounts it. This type of score is called a “standardised score” – it hides your true score and merely represents your standing in relation to your peers who have also been getting smarter at about the same rate.
This apparent stability in IQ scores makes intelligence look relatively constant, whereas in fact we are all becoming more intelligent across and within our lifetimes. The IQ test and the IQ scoring system are constantly adjusted to ensure that the average IQ remains at 100, despite a well-noted increase in intellectual ability worldwide.
Robots have already taken over the world. It may not seem so because it hasn’t happened in the way science fiction author Isaac Asmiov imagined it in his book I, Robot. City streets are not crowded by humanoid robots walking around just yet, but robots have been doing a lot of mundane work behind closed doors, which humans would rather avoid.
Their visibility is going to change swiftly though. Driverless cars are projected to appear on roads, and make moving from one point to another less cumbersome. Even though they won’t be controlled by humanoid robots, the software that will run them raises many ethical challenges.
For instance, should your robot car kill you to save the life of another in an unavoidable crash?
An artificial leaf converts water and light to oxygen, and that's good news for road-tripping to places beyond Earth.
One of the persistent challenges of manned space exploration is that pesky lack of oxygen throughout much of the universe. Here on Earth, trees and other plant life do us a real solid by taking in our bad breath and changing it back to clean, sweet O2.
So what if we could take those biological oxygen factories into space with us, but without all the land, sun, water, soil, and gravity that forests tend to require? This is the point where NASA and Elon Musk should probably start paying attention.
Royal College of Art graduate Julian Melchiorri has created the first man-made, biologically functional leaf that takes in carbon dioxide, water, and light and releases oxygen. The leaf consists of chloroplasts -- the part of a plant cell where photosynthesis happens -- suspended in body made of silk protein.
"This material has an amazing property of stabilizing (the chloroplast) organelles," Melchiorri says in the video below. "As an outcome I have the first photosynthetic material that is living and breathing as a leaf does."
In addition to its potential value to space travel, Melchiorri also imagines the technology literally providing a breath of fresh air to indoor and outdoor spaces here on Earth. The facades of buildings and lampshades could be made to exhale fresh air with just a thin coating of the leaf material.
But perhaps best of all, a man-made breathing leaf could be the key to not just space travel but space colonization. No need to figure out how to till that dry, red Martian dirt to get some nice leafy trees to grow; we could just slap them on the inside of the colony's dome and puff away.
Researchers at Aalborg University, MIT and Caltech have developed a new mathematically-based technique that can boost internet data speeds by up to 10 times, by making the nodes of a network much smarter and more adaptable. The advance also vastly improves the security of data transmissions, and could find its way into 5G mobile networks, satellite communications and the Internet of Things.
Instead of using pure mathematics to prevent things like the same person spending the same money twice, Document Coin will rely on personal reputation to keep all transactions in order.
Bitcoin turned money into something completely virtual. Using a worldwide network of machines and the power of pure mathematics, it put currency in the hands of computer programmers, free from the rules and regulations of big government and big banks. But J. Chris Anderson wants to do something even more radical.
Anderson is starting a new digital currency project tentatively dubbed Document Coin. It’s a bit of an odd duck, but it’s intriguing, and Anderson is worth listening to. He’s the co-founder and chief software architect of Couchbase, a kind of new-age database with some serious cred among Silicon Valley developers.
Instead of using pure mathematics to prevent things like the same person spending the same money twice, Document Coin will rely on personal reputation to keep all transactions in order. And each unit of currency created using Document Coin could have different values in different situations. If you use a coin in one place, it might be worth more then if you use it in another. The goal, Anderson says, is to get people to completely rethink the entire idea of money.
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