“2014’s Nobel Prize Co-Winner” – Podcast 13: Edvard Moser

Have you ever wondered what language your brain speaks when it talks to itself? I don’t mean your inner monologue – I mean the coded messages that your brain uses to collect, analyze, and make predictions about your environment. What would it feel like to decode even a small fraction of the signals flashing back and forth deep inside the brain – and know exactly what they encode?

On Episode 13 of The Connectome Podcast, Ben is joined by Edvard Moser, who won the 2014 neuroscience Nobel prize for doing exactly that. Along with his wife May-Britt and his teacher John O’Keefe, Edvard co-discovered a system of neurons known as entorhinal grid cells, which actually encode memories of the physical environment on a tiled hexagonal grid, almost like a game board.

Edvard joins us today to talk about why neuroscience is necessary for answering psychological questions, how that realization led him to study the brain’s spatial memory system, and how that project led him to the startling discoveries that earned him one of the quickest Nobel prizes in recent history.

Click here to download the mp3.

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

(Produced by Tim Udall)


The Best Free Online Neuroscience Courses

I have a confession to make: I never formally studied neuroscience. Actually, I freely admit this fact to anyone who asks – and the most frequent follow-up question I get is, “Then how did you teach yourself enough about neuroscience to write about it professionally?”

The answer is that I took what’s known as the “brute-force” approach: I searched Google Scholar for every paper containing the keywords I was interested in. I saved and printed every paper that looked worth reading. I sat on my couch with a foot-high stack of papers beside me, and I read every single one. When I came to a word I didn’t know, I looked it up. I kept doing this every night until I fell asleep. And when I came home from the office the next day, I did the same thing all over again. Rinse-and-repeat for a year or more, and you’ll end up with a working knowledge of just about any subject that fascinates you.

But these days, there’s a much easier way to go about it.

In just the past few years, massive open online courses (MOOCs) have grown by leaps and bounds. (For those who aren’t familiar with the term, these courses are called “massive” because thousands of people all over the world take them at the same time; “open” because anyone with an internet connection can take them; and “online” because they’re available on the web.)studying

The first generation of MOOCs were, to be frank, pretty lame. They usually consisted of lecture notes without any videos of the lectures, quizzes and tests that you had to grade yourself, and readings lists of books that weren’t available in a digital format. If you bought the books, studied the lecture notes, and graded your own tests, you might emerge with the same knowledge you’d have gotten from the real course. But hardly anyone wanted to attempt this.

Today’s MOOCs, on the other hand, are a whole different breed. Websites like Coursera have contracted real professors to administer the courses, provide lecture videos, oversee grading of quizzes and tests, and ensure that students actually get something comparable to a university course. MOOCs like these still have a long way to go (there’s still a relative lack of upper-level courses, for one thing), but if you’ve never taken a MOOC before – or if you were disappointed with the first generation of MOOCs – now’s the time to give it a shot.

And the best part is, all these courses are free.


Harvard University: Fundamentals of Neuroscience

Looking for a neuroscience “boot camp” course? This is it. Harvard’s high-powered neuroscience MOOC is designed to give you an Ivy-League introduction to all the major areas of neuroscience – complete with lecture videos, quizzes, and other interactive assignments – all for the very reasonable price of free. It’s divided into a series of sections, each covering specific topics – from the biology of neurons all the way up to neuropsychology and connectomics. Each lesson is divided into specific sub-sections, and every sub-section is backed up with videos, case studies, hands-on projects, and a wide variety of other activities designed to keep you engaged and learning. The entire track will take you a few months to complete (because these courses all operate on set schedules), but by the time you’re done, you’ll have plenty of background knowledge to launch a career in neuroscience journalism, or to sign up for some more advanced classes and start working your way toward a career in neuroscience research.


University of Chicago: Understanding the Brain

vO4-w7Xj6v0Subtitled, “The Neurobiology of Everyday Life,” this 10-week course is focused on giving you a relatively quick introduction to topics like perception, action, neurobiology and cognition. Through video lectures and online quizzes, you’ll learn about how neurons work and communicate, and how our brains help us see, hear, and stay on-balance. The class finishes with an introduction to some of the latest theories on how our brains are able to think, and what exactly “thinking” might mean in neurological terms. Meanwhile, you’ll be learning the terminology and concepts used in neuroscience work, so you’ll be able to talk about neuroscientific topics that interest you – and do your own Google research on those topics – a lot more precisely. This course’s length means there isn’t enough time to get really in-depth about any of the topics it covers, but it’ll give you some great jumping-off points and reading recommendations to continue your self-driven education – or even to get some ideas about which university classes to sign up for.


Duke University: Perception, Action and the Brain

450x250_300If you’re looking to dive into the neuroscience of perception and behavior, this “specialization pathway” will take you beyond the basics and into the technical details. It’s actually a short series of free courses – a new concept that Coursera is trying out, aiming to address the common criticism that many MOOCs are only basic-level, and don’t offer more advanced specialty topics. But whether you want to get in-depth or just get an introduction to these areas, you can take whichever course (or courses) in the series interest you. If you’re just looking for a run-down of the fundamentals, sign up for the Foundational Neuroscience course. If you’re hungry for more, then continue with the courses on The Brain and Space and Visual Perception – and round out your studies by collaborating with other students on a big Final Project. Along the way, you’ll learn how the brain generates visual representations, how it creates our sense of spatial location, and how to apply your newfound knowledge in academic and real-world settings.


University of Washington: Computational Neuroscience

large-iconThis free class is not for the faint of heart. It’s heavy on the math and programming, and the lectures can be pretty dry. But if you feel up to doing some differential calculus and learning MatLab, this class will put you right on the front lines of neural network analysis, and teach you the hands-on skills you’ll need to conduct your own original neuroscientific data analysis research. The class is co-taught by Rajesh Rao, one of the neuroscientists who recently made headlines as the co-inventor of a brain-to-brain interface that transmits human muscle movement impulses over a wi-fi connection. Like I said, Rao and his co-teachers won’t pull any punches – you’ll be working with some fairly advanced calculus and programming concepts at a rapid pace, and your teachers and classmates are going to assume that you’re already familiar with a lot of the basics. But if you think you’re ready to take your neuro knowledge to the next level and find out how research gets done in an actual computational neuroscience lab, this class is a great way to test your mettle.


And there you have it: The Connectome’s picks for the most helpful open neuroscience courses available online. What did we miss? Jump into the comments and let us know – we’ll probably be happy to add your suggestion to the list.


“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:

If the SoundCloud link doesn’t play, you can download the original mp3.

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:

If the SoundCloud link doesn’t play, you can download the original mp3.

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)

Powered by WordPress | Designed by: free Drupal themes | Thanks to hostgator coupon and cheap hosting
Social links powered by Ecreative Internet Marketing