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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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)

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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!

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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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Brains of Autistic Children Are Surprisingly Hyper-Connected

In this article for Discover Magazine, I explore a new study that’s found a new difference in the brains of autistic children: Different brain regions aren’t actually under-connected, as some researchers have believed – they’re actually hyper-connected, exchanging information much more than they would in a non-autistic brain. What does this mean? Could it point toward potential treatments for autism?

The studies, one at San Diego State University and another at Stanford University, consisted of fMRI scanning of children and teens with autism and a non-affected control group, all of whom were directed to think about nothing in particular. The results were surprising: In the San Diego study, brains of adolescents with severe autism showed strikingly greater resting connectedness than brains of adolescents with mild autism, which were in turn more connected than unaffected adolescents. And the same held true for younger children in the Stanford study: autistic children’s brains displayed much greater functional connectivity than the brains of their non-autistic counterparts did.

Read my full article at Discover Magazine.

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“Crowdsourcing a Neuroscience Revolution” — Podcast 10: Sebastian Seung

On Episode 10 of The Connectome Podcast, I chat with Sebastian Seung, a neuroscience researcher whose latest work — in cooperation with teams at MIT, at Germany’s Max Planck Institute and at other cutting-edge institutions — is proving that an improbable-sounding dream isn’t so improbable after all: We may be able to map the structure and function of every neural connection in an entire mammalian nervous system, from the cellular level up… and it may happen within our lifetimes.

Seung’s bestselling book Connectome offers an exciting tour through this fast-growing field of connectomics — and in fact, it was his TEDTalk, “I Am My Connectome,” that sparked the creation of this very website, almost three years ago. His lab also created the free crowdsource game EyeWire, which lets anyone with a computer and an internet connection help his research team map the cellular structure of the brain.

But he’s on the show today to talk about the latest project he and his co-researchers have published: A structural map of all 950+ neurons in a patch of retina. Not only does this project represent a leap upward in complexity of neural mapping — it also required innovative new techniques for crunching massive amounts of data; and the result is a proof-of-concept for a revolution in the way we approach our study of the brain.

You can read more here, in my article for Scientific American: “The Neuroscience Revolution Will Be Crowdsourced.”

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)

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The Neuroscience Revolution Will Be Crowdsourced

In this article for Scientific American, I dig into one of my very favorite scientific projects: The Human Connectome Project at MIT. What’s the deal with all this excitement? What exactly are these researchers trying to accomplish? And how close are they to accomplishing it? The answers to all these questions may surprise you.

Once humans have drawn in these neuronal skeletons, an automated computer algorithm builds out a 3D model of each neuron’s three-dimensional shape. “If people had to color in the full three-dimensional shape of a neuron, instead of just drawing the skeleton, each neuron would take ten to 100 times longer, and the cost of our study could’ve been has high as $10 million,” Seung says. But using this new technique, the international team was able to complete the project at a much lower budget, in a matter of mere months.

Read more of my article at Scientific American.

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