“Using Light to Talk With Neurons” – Podcast 12: Michael Hausser

On Episode 12 of The Connectome Podcast, Ben talks with Michael Hausser, a researcher who reads and writes information to and from brain cells with laser signals. This area of neuroscience – known as optogenetics – is one of the fastest-moving fields in science today, and Hausser and his team are on the cutting edge of it.

They’ve just designed a new system that can read output from networks of neurons, select specific neurons to target in response to that output, shoot laser signals at the selected neurons, listen for a response from them, change targets again, and repeat – holding active dialogues with neural networks in the brains of living, awake animals.

Michael’s on the show today to talk about this new project, about the science of optogenetics and how it relates to connectomics, and about what the near future holds for computerized interaction with living animals’ brains.

Click here to play or download:

Enjoy, and feel free to email us questions and suggestions for next time!

(Produced by Tim Udall)


The Top 5 Neuroscience Breakthroughs of 2014

The year-end roundup has become an annual tradition here at The Connectome. In 2012 and 2013, we broke down the top five most fascinating, transformative, implication-riddled neuroscience discoveries of the year.

And now we’re back to do the same for 2014.

This year has seen a lot of steps forward in many of the areas we predicted – including optogenetics, connectomics, and brain-to-brain interfaces. It’s also brought some discoveries that seemed to come utterly out of the blue, and that may change the way we look at some of neuroscience’s most central questions.

So here – in countdown order – are this year’s five most thrilling neuroscience discoveries!


5. Brain-to-Brain Transmission of Words

10622948_760369797354667_7214641644500090409_nLast year’s #1 breakthrough spot went to Rao and Stocco’s wireless brain-to-brain interface – and this year has already seen some significant steps forward in that technology. Whereas that first system could transmit simple movement impulses from one person’s brain to another, a new system designed this year can send short verbal messages directly from one person’s brain to another. That new system, designed by an interdisciplinary team from Spain, France, and the U.S., successfully transmitted simple greetings like “ciao” and “hola” between the brains of volunteers in labs 5,000 miles apart – with a total error rate of just 15 percent. On the sending end, one volunteer thinks a short greeting, which the system encodes into an electronic signal and sends across the network. Then a machine on the receiving end translates the electronic signal into a series of electrical pulses, and transmits those into the brain of the person on the receiving end, who perceives the signals as a series of flashes of light in the peripheral vision area. It’s not exactly telepathy – but it’s proof that we can pass not just movement impulses, but actual encoded information, from one brain to another.


4. The Open-Source LEGO Robot Brain

connectomiconRobots controlled by digitized insect brains go back at least to 2007, when a digital moth brain was uploaded into a robot that responded to changes in light – but a project completed this year shows that anyone with some programming skill can create a robot inhabited by an invertebrate’s brain. It started when a company called OpenWorm released a free digital map of all the neural connections in the entire nervous system of a roundworm. This map – known as a connectome – was actually completed way back in 1986, but the people at OpenWorm were the first to make it available online, for free, in a database format that’s easy for programmers to use. This inspired a small group of hobbyist programmers to build a simple light-sensitive robot with an easy-to-use LEGO Mindstorms kit – only instead of programming specific behaviors into their robot, they’d feed its inputs to their digital worm brain, and send that brain’s movement responses to the robot’s motors. The result is a robot that avoids walls, runs from light, and backs up when tapped on the nose – but it wasn’t programmed to do any of those things. It does them because those are the instinctive responses of the worm’s brain. And if you’ve got about a hundred bucks and some programming experience, you can create your very own robot with a worm brain.


3. Super-Brainy Mice

10384025_807827035942276_2466334283383885790_nThis December, a team of researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center tried an experiment straight out of a sci-fi novel: They injected human brain cells into the brains of mice – and the mice got much, much smarter. Specifically, the researchers injected human glial cells – the brain’s support cells, which shape the growth and development of neurons – into baby mice. As the mice grew, the human glial cells “completely took over,” stopping only when they reached the physical limits of the mice’s brain cavities. Along the way, these glial cells guided the growth of the mice’s neurons, and sculpted them into brains that learned far more quickly and remembered far more vividly than those of normal mice. This suggests not only that it may be possible to create smarter animals simply by injecting them with human support cells – a deeply thought-provoking concept in its own right – but also that we may be able to boost the brains of our fellow humans who suffer from degenerative diseases or genetic disorders. At the end of the study, the team considered injecting human stem cells into baby monkeys, but decided against it due to ethical concerns. Unethical as it may be, it’s still hard not to wonder what might’ve happened if they’d tried it.


2. Copy-Pasted Emotions

nature13725-f1Researchers have manipulated memories in a lot of weird ways lately. They’ve erased and then reactivated  memories, and even transferred memories from one  brain to another. Most of this work has only become possible thanks to optogenetics – the science of communicating with genetically programmed neurons via tiny pulses of light. Unlike the old techniques of electrical stimulation, optogenetics gives investigators a high level of precision when it comes to detecting, predicting, and controlling exactly how specific neurons behave. But this year, a team of researchers at MIT took optogenetic precision to a new level. They taught mice to fear a certain area of their enclosure where they’d get an electric shock – and then they managed to isolate not just that memory, but solely the fear component of the memory. They then reactivated this fear when the mice went to flirt with females – and the mice fled in terror. Although this might sound like supervillain technology – and it certainly could have that implication – it may also someday enable us to “amputate” the fear from traumatic memories, while leaving the memories themselves intact.


1. The Consciousness Switch

brain-chatIn August 2014, a bizarre paper appeared in a little-known scientific journal called Epilepsy & Behavior. It didn’t get a huge amount of press, but its implications for neuroscience and psychology – and for philosophy – may be huge. In the study, researchers at George Washington University plugged some wires into a woman’s brain, and disrupted the electrical activity of a brain area known as the claustrum. Each time they zapped this area, the woman lost conscious awareness, but – here’s the kicker – she remained awake. She just stopped responding and stared blankly into space; and when the electrical stimulation stopped, she regained awareness with no memory of the lapse. Although this is just the behavior of one woman’s brain, it’s eerily reminiscent of a prediction made by Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA. In an intriguing 2005 paper with neuroscientist Cristof Koch, Crick argued that the claustrum – the same brain area these researchers stimulated – looks like an ideal candidate for  many of the functions associated with consciousness. Until this year, no one had put that theory to the test – but if these results can be confirmed, we may be well on the way to answering some of our oldest and most profound questions about ourselves.


And there you have it: The Connectome’s picks for the discoveries that changed the neuroscience world this year – or are poised to change it in the near future. Some of them didn’t get a lot of press; some came from small journals; some remain controversial; but each of them brought some genuinely new and creative concepts to the field. You might disagree, though – so speak up in the comments and tell us!


How Our Brains Process Books

In my latest article for Scientific American, I dig into some fascinating new research on reading. In this study, the researchers software that could actually predict what a person was reading about, just by seeing scans of their brain activity. What did these scans reveal about how our brains render fictional worlds? Could this research help explain how we’re able to “become” characters in the stories we read?

Dialogue was specifically correlated with the right temporoparietal junction, a key area involved in imagining others’ thoughts and goals. “Some of these regions aren’t even considered to be part of the brain’s language system,” Wehbe says. “You use them as you interact with the real world every day, and now it seems you also use them to represent the perspectives of different characters in a story.”

Read my full article at Discover Magazine.


This Is Your Brain on Magic Mushrooms

In this article for Discover Magazine, I take a trip into the weird world of psychedelic neuroscience – which is actually a major area of serious research right now. Specifically, I delve into one new fMRI study, which found that psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, changes brain connectivity in two very distinct ways. Could this have implications for psychotherapy? And what does it tell us about the nature of psychedelic experiences?

They found two main effects of the psilocybin. First, most brain connections were fleeting. New connectivity patterns tended to disperse more quickly under the influence of psilocybin than under placebo. But, intriguingly, the second effect was in the opposite direction: a few select connectivity patterns were surprisingly stable, and very different from the normal brain’s stable connections. This indicates “that the brain does not simply become a random system after psilocybin injection, but instead retains some organizational features, albeit different from the normal state,” the authors write.

Read my full article at Discover Magazine.


Researchers “Copy and Paste” Fear From One Memory to Another

In this article for Discover Magazine, I explore a new set of experiments that sound like the plot of a bizarre sci-fi movie: Researchers taught a group of mice to fear a certain section of a maze, then electronically copied the mice’s fear from that memory and pasted it onto a different memory! How the hell did they do this? What does it tell us about how we form memories?

Redondo and his team decided to take things one step further, and find out if it was possible to link the mice’s existing memories of fear and reward with completely new and different experiences. So the team used light to reactivate the mice’s fear memories again, this time while those mice interacted with a female. Sure enough, after nine days of this conditioning, the mice had become terrified of their romantic playmates — meaning the researchers had essentially “copied and pasted” the fear from the shock memory onto the mice’s memories of the female.

Read my full article at Discover Magazine.


Vampire Science: Young Blood Recharges Old Brains

In this article for Discover Magazine, I dig my teeth into a new set of experiments that seems almost supernatural: Injecting aging mice with blood from younger mice can reverse the aging process in their brains. Sounds like something straight out of a horror movie, doesn’t it? But its real, and it’s scientifically proven to work. Join me and find out how.

After the parabiont mouse pairs had spent five weeks sharing blood, the experimenters examined the genes in each mouse’s hippocampus – a brain structure crucial for learning and memory. They found that older mice which had gotten young blood displayed altered gene activity and more flexible signaling pathways in their hippocampus. Though the older animals’ brains didn’t transform all the way back into their younger selves, the flexibility of their connections was still well above the baseline of other mice their age.

Read my full article at Discover Magazine.


Brain-Wide Map of “Neural Highways” Is First of Its Kind

In this article for Scientific American, I report on a new map of neural connections among just about every area of the cerebrum. What does this map mean, exactly? Where does the data come from? What does it tell us about how the brain works? And how can we use it to help treat brain disorders? Dig in and find out the answers for yourself!

This white-matter map not only charts the geography of these neural highways – it also plots out which of them interact with the most other paths, which are most crucial for supporting key brain functions, and which ones leave the whole brain most vulnerable to long-term damage if they’re disrupted.

Read my full article at Scientific American.


“2013’s Nobel Prize Winners” — Podcast 11: James Rothman, Randy Schekman & Thomas Südhof

On Episode 11 of The Connectome Podcast, I’m joined by all three of 2013’s Nobel Prize winners in the Physiology/Medicine category — James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas Südhof!

All three of these guys contributed crucial pieces to a longstanding puzzle: How, exactly, do our brain cells communicate with each other? See, biologists had known since the 1960s that nerve cells pass chemical messages to one another inside hollow little globs of proteins called synaptic vesicles — and yet, as recently as the early 90s, no one had figured out much of anything about how this process worked.

Meanwhile, as James Rothman and Randy Schekman plugged away on their own seemingly unrelated projects — cell metabolism and yeast genetics — they were both starting to notice something intriguing: The chemical reactions they were studying looked like suspiciously good candidates for certain stages of the brain’s vesicle transmission process. And sure enough, before long, a young researcher named Thomas Südhof started to discover many of those very same chemicals in brain cells…

Click the “Play” button below, and they’ll tell you how their journey to a Nobel prize unfolded from there. And for more info on these guys and their research, check out my article in Scientific American: “The Search for a Nobel Prize-Winning Synapse Machine.”

Click here to play or download:

Enjoy, and feel free to email us questions and suggestions for next time!

(Produced by Devin O’Neill at The Armageddon Club, with lots of help from Tim Udall)


The Top 5 Neuroscience Breakthroughs of 2013

If 2012 was the year neuroscience exploded into pop culture, 2013 was the year it stepped into the halls of power.

The Obama administration’s $100-million BRAIN Initiative stirred up furious debate, as proponents cheered to see so much funding and press attention thrown at large-scale efforts to map the human brain, while opponents claimed that the whole thing might be a gigantic waste of valuable resources. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the European Union’s Human Brain Project sparked similar disputes – disputes that continue even as unexpected breakthroughs have begun to surface.

It’s also been a year of explosive growth here at The Connectome. I’ve been spending less time posting on this blog because (gratuitous brag alert!) I’m now regularly blogging for national press outlets like Scientific American, The Huffington Post, Forbes and Discover Magazine. But when I do post here, I make sure to leverage every connection in my address book to bring you guys bigger, cooler, more exciting content – like podcast interviews with researchers like Oliver Sacks, David Eagleman and Sebastian Seung. On other fronts, my TEDx talk finally made it onto YouTube, you guys have been showing love for my webseries, “DEBUNKALYPSE,” and The Connectome’s Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter feeds each broke 1,000 followers this year.

None of this could’ve happened without you guys. I owe this all to you. You’re awesome. I mean it. And lots more cool stuff is on the horizon, I promise.

But enough about how amazing The Connectome is. That’s not why you’re here.

And so, without further fanfare, here – in countdown order – are the five most thrilling neuroscience discoveries of 2013!


5. The Emergence of Individuality in Clones

Individuality-CageIf you’ve ever raised a litter of newborn puppies or kittens, you’ve seen that each baby displays its own personality right from the start. Some are feisty and adventurous, some hog all the milk, some hide close to mom, some bully their siblings mercilessly, and so on. Years of studies have found that this is even true of genetically identical animal clones – but it wasn’t until 2013 that Gerd Kempermann, a professor of genomics at the Center for Regenerative Therapies (CRTD) in Dresden, Germany, scoped out exactly how these differences in experience shape the unique development of each individual’s brain. Kempermann and his team cloned a group of genetically identical mice and set them loose in a large enclosure with lots of places to play. Within just a few months, the mouse clones that had explored the most actively had sprouted new nerve cells throughout their brains – especially in the hippocampus, a region that’s crucial for memory – while the less-adventurous clones showed less brain development. Although this research doesn’t tell us why some mouse clones were more adventurous in the first place, it’s still a clear demonstration that individual experiences sculpt individual brains, right from the earliest months of life – even if those brains are genetically identical.


4. “Two Brains in One Cortex”

LayersYour cerebral cortex – the outermost “rind” or “bark” of that cauliflowery mass that makes up most of your brain – isn’t just a single structure. All across your brain, the cortex is divided into stacked layers of neurons, many of them overlapping like the patches of a quilt. Each layer plays its own part in processing information; and since the early twentieth century, most neuroscientists have taught that these layers work as a strict hierarchy: That each layer does its part, then passes its results on to the next layer, all nice and orderly-like. But in 2013, Columbia University neuroscientist Randy Bruno showed that cortical layers 4 and 5 both receive “copies” of the same exact information, and perform their processing simultaneously. The discovery led Bruno to declare, “It’s almost as if you have two brains built into one cortex.” The exact implications of this revised cortical hierarchy aren’t quite clear yet – but it’s another humbling reminder that our understanding of brain wiring is still at a very primitive stage.


3. “Mini-Computers” Hidden in Nerve Cells

201310278553910For more than 100 years of brain research, scientists thought that dendrites – those branch-like projections that connect one neuron to others – were just passive receivers of incoming information. But in 2013, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill demonstrated that dendrites do a lot more than just passively relay signals – they also perform their own layer of active processing, hinting that the brain’s total computing power may be many times greater than anyone expected. This discovery is so new that no one’s had much time to figure out what, exactly, all this additional processing power changes about our understanding of the brain; or how we’ll have to revise our models of brain function to incorporate it. But mark my words – this is gonna turn out to be a major paradigm shifter over the next few years.


2. Crowdsourced Connectomics

ConnectomeWhen researchers first started talking seriously about human connectomics – the science of constructing cellular-level wiring diagrams for entire regions of the human brain – back in 2005, supporters of the idea were all but laughed out of the building. We had nowhere near enough computing power, opponents claimed, to even attempt to map the human brain’s 84 billion (-ish) neurons and 100 trillion (-ish) interconnections – and even if we did, we’d still need humans to double-check every synapse the computers tried to map. Even today, the science of human connectomics has loads of vocal critics. But in 2013, a collaborative effort by researchers at MIT, along with another team at Germany’s Max-Planck Institute for Medical Research, used an innovative combination of computerized rendering and human tracing to map the precise shapes and points of contact between all 950 neurons in a patch of mouse retina – and they did it in 1/100th of the time, and at a fraction of the cost, that naysayers predicted. It’s a small step in the grand scheme of connectomics, but it’s a proof-of-concept for a cheap, efficient technique that can be applied throughout an entire brain – and a hint that the dream of a complete human connectome isn’t necessarily out of reach in our own lifetimes.


1. The Human Brain-to-Brain Interface

B2B-image-1024x550Back in 2012, researchers at Harvard found that if they stuck electrodes into certain points in the brains of two rats, they could enable the first rat to control the physical movement of the second one using only the power of its thoughts. Human-to-rat interfaces soon followed – but it wasn’t until 2013 that University of Washington scientists Rajesh Rao and Andrea Stocco created the first human-to-human wireless brain-to-brain interface. Sitting on one side of campus, Rao thought, “tap the spacebar,” and at the other end of campus, Stocco’s hand tapped his spacebar involuntarily. It’s a simple interface, but the implications aren’t hard to see: Movement impulses – and someday, perhaps even thoughts and memories – can be beamed directly from one human brain to another.


And those are The Connectome’s picks for the most fascinating, transformative, implication-riddled neuroscience breakthroughs of 2013. What about you – which of this year’s discoveries do you think made the biggest waves? Which ones are poised to change the world? Which ones did I miss? Jump into the comments and tell us all what’s up!


The Search for a Nobel Prize-Winning Synapse Machine

In this article for Scientific American, I talk with all three winners of 2013’s Nobel prize in physiology or medicine, about the paths that led them to victory. Where did their scientific careers start? Did they have any idea they’d be working in this area of research, let alone discover something as profound as they did? And what, exactly, did they discover? The answers are here, and they may not be what you expect.

Winners James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas Südhof all helped assemble our current picture of the cellular machinery that enables neurotransmitter chemicals to travel from one nerve cell to the next. And as all three of these researchers agree, that process of understanding didn’t catalyze until the right lines of research, powered by the right tools, happened to converge at the right time.

Read more of my article at Scientific American.

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