This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

28Sep/10

The crazy story of Einstein’s crazy brain

I just ran across this old article from NPR News covering a harrowing tale of treachery, thievery, and brain-researchery: the quest to study Einstein's brain after he passed away in Princeton, NJ.

I don't want to ruin the story, but apparently one Thomas Harvey, the man who surgically removed Einstein's skull posthumously, decided that he'd like to do a bit more with the genius' brain than donate it to a gravesite somewhere - he made off with it!

Harvey insisted that such a brain needed to be studied and examined using the most cutting-edge scientific techniques and minds.  In order to ensure this, he made his way across the country, secretly concealing the great thinker's brain, and sending bits and pieces to researchers who caught wind of his efforts.

Ultimately, they weren't able to say exactly why Einstein was able to do such remarkable things with his brain, but it did give us an important insight into the role of Glia, a second type of cell found in the human brain (as opposed to neurons).

Anyways, you can read the rest.  It's a really interesting story...you never know what us scientists will do in the name of research and enlightenment!

via NPR News

25Sep/10

Cool Infographic on the E-M Spectrum

Well I wasn't sure exactly what to call this, so I made it as straightforward as possible...I can't think of the number of times I've argued with friends about why microwaves don't make it outside of the box and fry you.  Now you know!

23Sep/10

Yaakov Stern on sleep deprivation

Here's a really interesting video on sleep deprivation as explained by Yaakov Stern, a neuropsychologist at Columbia University in New York City.

Dr. Stern is interested in investigating the interconnected nature of the brain, explaining activity and behavior by looking at how different regions of the brain communicate with one another and send information.

Everybody knows that sleep deprivation can often lead to an inability to perform daily tasks, especially mentally-demanding ones, but what kinds of processes in the brain might account for this difference in behavior?

Dr. Stern investigated this question by looking at the activity within different networks in the brain.  He recorded brain activity in a group of participants, then recorded again after they had been sleep deprived.  Interestingly, there were a few circuits that showed significantly decreased activity after sleep deprivation, and this activity correlated strongly with a decrease in performance.  Such a finding suggests that these networks might be the underpinnings of the effects that sleep deprivation has on brain and behavior.

However, he didn't stop there.  In order to answer this question more thoroughly, Dr. Stern applied a technique called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to artificially stimulate these areas of the brain in sleep-deprived individuals.  Amazingly, he found that applying stimulation to the areas most affected by sleep deprivation caused a significant increase in behavioral performance on cognitive tasks, relative to those who got no stimulation.  Furthermore, the subjects that showed the sharpest reduction in activity after sleep deprivation benefited the most from this TMS treatment.  Such a finding is a rare correlation between behavior and neural activity, and it suggests a promising future for research into these neural networks.

There are a number of questions that one might ask surrounding this issue - whether other kinds of activities (such as drug use or hunger) affect these areas as well, whether we can pharmacologically increase the activity in these areas of the brain, or whether we can enact long-term changes in some other manner.  However, before embarking on these scientific inquiries, I think it best that we make sure to get a good night's sleep.

20Sep/10

Can’t we all just get along?

The idea of "nature vs. nurture" is one of the oldest arguments within modern scientific literature.  The debate is filled with people who vehemently defend either side - usually citing one or two particular studies as evidence that their platform is right and everybody else is wrong, and declaring wide-reaching ramifications for their newfound evidence.

However, some people are beginning to believe that such an argument (and maybe even the distinction between nature and nurture) is an unproductive and misguided one.

A recent post coming from MIT professor Evelyn Fox Keller suggests that defining the interaction between genes vs. the environment as "nature" vs. "nurture" is already missing the point.  She offers an interesting analogy, suggesting that we wouldn't ask whether or not the sound from a drum was dependent on "the drum" or "the drummer," it is obviously necessary that both are involved.

Perhaps that's what we've been finding all along, as study after study comes out suggesting that, while our genes do ultimately affect our behaviors via the creation of particular proteins, our behavior and the external world can have an equally important impact on which genes are expressed (a concept known as "epigenetics").  What results is an intricate system of interconnected genes and pieces of experience in the real world, and to be frank we don't know much about it.  Perhaps, as Dr. Keller suggests, this might be due to our insistence on making the issue black and white, trying to declare a "winner" in the battle of Nature vs. Nurture.

However, while it may be easier to think about Nature or Nurture as the end-all-be-all of what defines a person, it is ultimately missing the bigger picture, missing the forest for the trees.  I'd like to think that it doesn't matter how we approach the problem right now, eventually the data will help make this distinction (or lack thereof) easier to understand and package into arguments.  However, in order for us to do the most with what we've got right now, perhaps a paradigm shift is a necessary step towards studying the interaction between nature and nurture, rather than pitting them against one another.

via NewScientist

17Sep/10

A rare glimpse of the past

I know this website has turned out to largely be about science and the brain and all that cool stuff, so I thought I'd change things up a bit with a fascinating video that I found on YouTube.

Now that I'm living in the Bay Area, I thought it would be proper to pay homage to the great city that made it what it is.  Here's a video of San Francisco's F-Train, circa 1905.  Of importance here is that this was just before the big earthquake destroyed a good portion of the city.

And what could possibly make this better?  The song - La Femme D'argent - is by Air...one of my favorite groups of all time!

So, for your viewing pleasure - a beautiful, interesting, and awesome perspective on life in one of America's greatest cities.