Mind Over Matter

In recent years, developments in brain computer interface technology have been turning science fiction into science fact. Some unbelievable achievements have been made, including giving locked-in syndrome suffers a means to communicate, allowing amputees to feel their prosthetic limbs and restoring sight to the blind. And in 2013, Harvard researchers made a rat’s tail wiggle with only the power of their minds! The brain computer interface is revolutionising medicine, technology and even gaming. But some of the current research may make people feel a little uneasy….

The brain computer interface (BCI) is a system that allows a computer to read human brain activity and interpret the signal, as well as inputting new signals back into the brain. Essentially, the BCI allows computers to read your mind. Well, sort of. The Brain-computer interface has had an incredible impact on the quality of life for suffers of paralysis, Amyotrophic lateral schlerosis (ALS), myopathy, spino-cerebellar ataxia (SCA), cerebal palsy, and is even now being adapted to help autistic children train their minds and improve concentration. BCI can allow patients with limited mobility to control motorised wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs, and communicate with the world. It has also been used to identify signs of life in patients with no means to communicate. More recently, it has been applied to a far wider range of uses, including video games and fashion.

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How the Moon Affects Us

The idea that the phases of the moon are linked to the human psyche is one of the oldest and most pervasive examples of folk lore and mythology. It is woven into the fabric of our classic literature, poetry and music. Even today, a surprising number of people believe that our deepest emotions and mental states are influenced by the lunar cycle, and there are plenty of police officers, doctors, nurses and prison guards who would swear blind they’ve seen evidence of it in their everyday lives. But is the lunar effect real? How and why does it work? Humans have spent thousands of years discussing the lunar effect in stories and legends, and the last 40 years documenting it in the academic literature. So what’s the verdict? How does the moon affect us?

In it’s simplest form, the Werewolf exemplifies our most primitive understanding of a link between human behaviour and emotion and the moon. It captures our idea that during the full moon, man becomes wild, violent and instinctive, a reversion to a more basal, less civilised version of ourselves. This is probably the most pervasive aspect of the myth, that the moon controls human aggression, impulsivity, violence and mood. But the lunar effect has also been proposed for a range of scenarios so broad it will make your mind boggle. A quick google search will tell you that the moon controls our fertility and reproduction, influences violent crime, suicide and even traffic accidents, affects seizures, blood loss, sleep quality and even our political leanings. All of this begs the question, how and why might such a mechanism exist?

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Parasitic Fish Reveal Insights into Brain Evolution

What can this squiggling, toothed eel-like creature possible tell us about our own brains? Well, the lamprey, although ugly, occupies a pivotal place in the evolutionary tree. Research on captive lampreys can tell us about the earliest evolution of the vertebrate brain and yield insights that may help to cure and treat neurological disease. A new study published in Nature last month suggests that the human pattern of development in an important region of our brains may have evolved much earlier than we thought, in a creature that looks much like a modern-day lamprey. So perhaps lampreys can tell us more about our brains than you might have thought!

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Turning Blood into Brains

When you think crayfish, you probably think of food rather than groundbreaking medical research, but a paper published last month in Developmental Cell reports an incredible neurological feature of the humble lobster. Stem cells, blueprint cells that produce new cells, are vital for repairing wear-and-tear. Research from the US revealed a remarkable talent in Crayfish – they can grow new brain stem cells from their blood.

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Rat Regrets

We like to think that our more complex emotions are uniquely human, although researchers continually thwarting that belief with science. This week, another of our emotions came under threat – regret. Nobody has ever demonstrated regret in another non-human animal. Until now. A study released this month in Nature claims to have found evidence that rats are capable of feeling regret, a complex emotion distinct from mere disappointment.

Disappointment is when we recognise that we didn’t get as much as we expected, whereas to regret is to recognise that our actions are the reason behind this – that an alternative action, a different decision, would have produced a better outcome. In this study, researchers forced rats to choose between waiting for a particular reward, or moving onto the next reward that may come with an even longer wait. This is exactly the type of situation we might expect rats to feel regretful about, but are they smart enough to feel such a complex emotion?

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What Makes Us Human Part II
Intelligence and Language

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Homo sapiens is our exceptionally large brain, and enhanced cognitive capabilities. In fact, large brains, measured by the encephalisation quotient (EQ), are a characteristic of primates in general, and brain size and complexity has been increasing in the primate lineage for nearly 70 million years. However, this trend is particularly noticeable in the human lineage, and the last 3 million years of hominid evolution have seen the most pronounced increases in encephalisation, with a tripling in brain size. Such a rapid increase in size is extraordinary, especially for an organ so complex. Some areas of the brain have expanded disproportionately, such as the cerebral cortex, which has increased in size by 3 orders of magnitude since our divergence from Chimpanzees. The cerebral cortex accounts for around 85% of total brain volume in humans, and is responsible for complex mental functions.

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How to Read a Mind

Mind reading no longer exclusively belongs to the domain of science fiction writers and mediums. Over the last 50 years, researchers around the world have been working on a system known as the brain-computer interface (BCI) which allows direct communication between the brain and an external device such a computer or a robotic limb. The main goal of this research is to develop technology capable of restoring sensory function to the blind or deaf, and restoring movement to patients suffering from paralysis. Major strides have been made in this endeavour over the last decade, and BCI technology is now even being adapted to commercial purposes such as gaming.

BCI technology is possible because of the way in which the brain transmits messages within itself and to other areas of the body. The brain is composed of around 100 billion cells called neurons. Messages are sent from neuron to neuron as an electrical impulse, created by ion imbalances in neuronal membranes. Neurons are insulated by a coating known as the myelin sheath, which prevents most, but not all, of these electrical impulses from escaping. The tiny portion of the electricity which escapes from the myelin sheath can be detected and this signal can be interpreted by computers. A second feature of the brain is also key to the success of BCI: neural plasticity – the ability of the brain to adapt to new situations. Patients suffering with brain damage illustrate neural plasticity; in many cases patients are able to, over time, adapt other areas of their brain to perform the tasks of damaged regions. Neural plasticity also enables the brain to adapt to interpret new input, such as that provided by the brain-computer interface.

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Do Insects Sleep?

In my recent article in Experimentation magazine, I made the rather bold claim that all animals sleep in some way or another. This is certainly true for all mammals and probably all vertebrates, but do insects experience sleep, and how similar is their experience to ours?

In order to determine whether insects can be said to sleep, we first have to define exactly what we mean by sleep. Traditionally, sleep is defined as a “rapidly reversible state of immobility and greatly reduced sensory responsiveness” (Seigel, 2008). It is distinct from simply resting, where we are still conscious. It is also distinct from more permanent states of rest such as hibernation. Sleep in humans, and in mammals in general, is defined by specific patterns of electrical activity in the brain, but can the same patterns be found in insects?

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The Science of Sleep

Sleep is one of the most important aspects of our lives. Along with food, water and sex it is one of our most fundamental needs. Most people spend about 30% of their life sleeping; in a lifetime most people can expect to lose over 200,000 hours to sleep. This astonishing figure equates to around 9800 days or 27 years! What a waste! Imagine what we could achieve if we didn’t have to sleep.

It’s not just us, though. The need for sleep is as pervasive in the animal kingdom as hunger. All animals sleep, in some way or another. So why do we do it, how is it controlled, and how can the physiological controls of sleeping help us to understand other aspects of our existence?

A great deal is now understood about the biological control mechanisms underpinning the sleep-wake cycle. This cycle is circadian, meaning that it repeats approximately once every day, and the regulation of sleep is strongly influenced by daily variation in light intensity. However, there is also internal control of sleep; if kept in total darkness, animals will still experience a sleep cycle. Universal across the animal kingdom, the centre of communication between external and internal influences is the pineal gland, located at the top of the brainstem, close to the surface of the skull. In many non-human animals, the skull is sufficiently thin that the pineal gland is able to detect some light passing through, and hormones that control the sleep cycle are stimulated directly by the presence or absence of light. However, in humans the skull is far too thick for this system to work. Instead, light levels are assessed directly by the eyes, and information from the eyes is passed on to the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) which relays the information back to the pineal gland. Information about external conditions is combined with our internal clock to determine whether we should feel tired or awake.

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