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.


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.


“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:

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)


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.


Sexy Neuroscience IV

Every culture and subculture has its own rituals of greeting and affection – handshakes, backslaps, fist-bumps, hugs and so on – but when it comes to erotic contact, cultural differences seem to melt away into something more primal: Touch that just feels good for its own sake.

In fact, a new study has confirmed that erogenous zones are remarkably similar and consistent among people from widely different cultures. This first “systematic survey of the magnitude of erotic sensations from various body parts” found that both men and women in Britain and in sub-Saharan Africa love be caressed on their lips, necks, ears and inner thighs; while pretty much no one is into kneecap-play (rule 34, though, folks). In short, erogenous zones seem to have a whole lot more to do with touch-sensitive nerves than they do with cultural conditioning.

And so, in the spirit of Part I, Part II and Part III of the Sexy Neuroscience series – which, incidentally, got this site banned from buying advertising on Google (yes, really) – The Connectome presents Sexy Neuroscience IV: Global Erogenous Zone Challenge!

As the journal Cortex reports, a team led by Bangor University’s Oliver Turnbull surveyed 800 people, mostly from Britain and sub-Saharan Africa. The investigators asked the participants which body parts (aside from genitalia) produced the most intense erotic sensations when others touched them. While the researchers did discover a few differences between male and female erogenous zones – for instance, men found it more arousing to be touched on the backs of their legs, and on their hands, than women did – most of the participants ranked a list of 41 body parts in similar erogenous order.

“Surprising!” say the researchers. “Why?” reply the rest of us.

I mean, most of us learn what our own bodies enjoy long before we clearly understand what sex and eroticism are. And plenty of us have defied cultural conventions when they didn’t line up with our own experiences of physical pleasure. I’d say it makes more sense that the whole concept of erogenous zones, and the culture surrounding them, both stem from common physical experiences; not the other way around.

But this study actually does reshuffle the erogenous-zone deck in one surprising way: It revises the sensory homunculus yet again. As I explained back in Part II, the sensory homunculus is a concept developed in the 1950s – by a bunch of men, which turns out to be a very significant part of the story.

The core concept is pretty simple: As you can see in this picture, touch sensations in various parts of our bodies are mapped onto a series of adjacent but differently sized brain areas; the larger the area, the more touch-sensitive a body part is. So far, so good. Except that until a few years ago, hardly anyone bothered to mention that this entire model was based solely on male brains. The cervical walls, the labia and the clitoris weren’t on it at all. And it took until 2011 for someone to come along and fix this.

So it makes sense that this latest erogenous-zone study has cleared up yet another longstanding myth about the sensory homunculus: That the bottoms of the feet are erogenous zones. Previous researchers had claimed this was true because a) lots of people think feet are sexy, and b) the sensory brain areas devoted to the bottoms of our feet lie right alongside the areas devoted to genitalia.

And although there’s no doubt that feet can be sexy – both visually and to the touch – and that they’re highly touch-sensitive and often ticklish, three fourths of the people surveyed in Britain and sub-Saharan Africa gave feet an erogenous touch rating of zero, right alongside kneecaps.

Turnbull and his team suspect that those previous researchers may have confused fetishistic touch with erogenous touch – two related but distinct phenomena. Those two feelings can – and often do – feed off one another; but there’s nothing to suggest that a caress on the foot feels inherently erotic in the same way that, say, a nip on the earlobe or a breath on the neck does. If anything, feet seem to serve as a clear example of culturally (and/or experientially) conditioned eroticism.

So where does this leave us as far as sensory homunculi and erogenous zones? Well, results like this reinforce the importance of communicating with your partner(s) instead of just following sexual ideas you’ve picked up from others. Erogenous zones may be strikingly similar across genders and cultures, but no two of us are exactly alike: Some find erotic what others find ticklish or painful – and some find tickling and pain erotic. The only way to find out is to ask. Who knows – you might even find someone who enjoys kneecap foreplay.


“Learning How Brains Learn” — Podcast 9: Jeff Hawkins

On Episode 9 of the Connectome podcast, I’m joined by Jeff Hawkins, a computer engineer and neuroscience geek who’s obsessed with understanding how the brain learns.

Jeff is the inventor of the Palm Pilot and the founder of Palm Computing – as well as another computing company called Handspring – but in addition to his computer skills, he’s also been fascinated by neuroscience since the late 70s. Today, his company Numenta designs a range of software known as Grok, which learns and thinks like a living brain.

Jeff’s superb book On Intelligence lays out his theory in detail, and he also runs over the basics in this podcast. If you’re interested in digging further, here’s a link to Numenta’s technical documentation of how their software works, and here’s a page with lots of videos of Jeff’s other media appearances.

As you’ll hear on this podcast, though, Jeff’s curiosity extends far beyond software engineering, and explores subjects from space exploration to computing’s future to the nature of intelligence itself. Listen in, and you may find that your own curiosity gets sparked, too.

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)


A Secret Society of Cells Runs Your Brain

In this article for Scientific American, I talk about a new study that discovered some surprising things about a class of brain cells that’ve long been assumed to sit silently. Oligodendrocytes aren’t neurons – they’re support cells; and for a long time, their exact behavior was a mystery. Now, researchers are discovering that they take a much more active role in brain function than anyone expected.

Bergles was intrigued by the persistent cycling of these progenitors, so he and his team determined to study the behavior of individual oligodendrocyte progenitors in living brains. The researchers set to work engineering mice in which just these cells make a green fluorescent protein, aiming to track their behavior on shorter timescales than ever before. What they discovered surprised them as much as anyone.

Read more of my article at Scientific American.

Oliver Sacks

“Hallucination & Imagination” — Podcast 8: Oliver Sacks

On Episode 8 of the Connectome podcast, I talk with Oliver Sacks, renowned neuroscientist and author of such books as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia and Hallucinations. In particular, Sacks joins us to talk about some patients of his who’ve been hallucinating strange varieties of musical notation.

But musical hallucinations are only the beginning – Sacks also shares his insights on dreams, hallucinogenic drugs, selfhood, and plenty of other phenomena that make subjective experience so mysterious. Whether you’re new to Dr. Sacks’ work or a lifelong fan of his writing, this interview raises some consciousness-related questions that you may never have considered before.

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)


What’s Individuality, and Where Does It Come From?

In this article for Scientific American, I dig into one of mankind’s oldest and deepest questions: What’s that special something that makes you different from me? Where does it come from, an how early can we find it? A new German study may have found some surprising answers to these age-old mysteries.

Three months later, the researchers reexamined the mice, and found not only that their brains had grown more and more individually distinct over time, but that the brains of the mice with the highest roaming entropy had grown and changed the most of all. Specifically, these mice sprouted far more new nerve cells in their hippocampus – a brain region crucial for forming and retrieving memories in mice and in humans – than less adventurous mice did.

Read more of my article at Scientific American.

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