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Your mother always told you that you if you loose your brain cells to too much booze, then they won’t ever grow back.
Contrary to this popular belief, scientists have found that baby neurons in rat brains can develop and form new, functional connections within established neuron networks. To see this “neurogensis” in action, a stain was introduced into the brain that would only make dividing cells glow. Younger neurons undergoing cell division appeared a distinctive fluorescent color, while the older, non-dividing neurons remained in the dark.
Of course, it is still an assumption that this phenomena occurs in humans as well. However, it is anticipated that by gaining an understanding of how neurogenesis works, scientists can develop therapeutic methods to help reverse degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s been over 200 years since science has seen the connection between biology and technology when Luigi Galvani first stimulated a frog’s leg to contract with an electrical pulse. However, we are still stuck in a nescient stage of electrically coupling nerve cells will man-made devices.
Peter Fromherz of the Membrane and Neurophysics Department at the Max Plank Institute is guiding his lab to figure out how computer chips can be used to support neurons functioning in a living system, and even help us learn more about how the brain works.
The techniques they are developing involve manually placing large snail nerve cells (100 microns, which is quite large as far as brain cells go) on top of a patterned electrode on a silicon wafer. The electrode is surrounded by a fence of pillars that act to constrain the cell body from movement while it grows branching axons and dendrites to connect up with neighboring cells. Currently, they are focusing on establishing a contact-free method of interfacing where the nerve cell never actually comes into direct contact with the electrode and silicon surface.
Fromherz cautiously approaches the expectations of neuron device research. The brain is connected in such an enormously complicated tangle of dendrites that it is still unclear exactly how far we will succeed by interfacing the nervous system with semiconductor technology.
Fromherz also rightly stresses that any comparison between the computational methods of today’s computers with that of a neuron network is completely misguided. Our brain’s neuron networks function insanely slower than your common desktop computer. Still, your thought processes are much more powerful than your PC’s internal chugging. The computational mechanisms in biological nervous systems are not understood in any complete way, and a significant advancement will need to occur before we will be able to truly harness in the power of interconnected neurons.
Optobionics is developing an artificial retina that is being used to help partially restore vision in people with age-related degeneration or retinal diseases.
A small silicon chip with 5,000 electrodes is implanted into the back of the eye. Each electrode transforms incoming light into electrochemical pulses that stimulate existing retinal cells. The first patients are now able to see more light, although cannot yet make out visual details.
This advancement follows a cochlear implant made by Advanced Bionics, which was installed last month in Cora Jean Kleppe, 73. She can now hear her grandchildren and function better in life.
The amazing part is the brain only needs a little bit of crude information to reconstruct the sounds or sights around it. These devices are not sending detailed information, but only rudimentary electrical signals based on light impinging on an electrode or a small microphone mounted on their head. Your brain can adapt its neuron network to properly interpret the environment based on whatever information it can scrounge from these sorts of devices. Don’t be surprised if these first bionic patients experience improved responses over time.
Most philosophers and scientists today firmly believe that a little controller sitting somewhere in your head directing conscious activities does not exist, as René Descartes purported in the 17th century. Consciousness somehow arises from, as is quoted here, “highly organized brain chemistry”. This is somewhat understated, however, because your consciousness certainly is the result of a “highly organized” system, but there’s more than just chemistry.
A few major players in consciousness thinking are quoted. Their ideas for the origins of consciousness cover the gamut from “mundane” mechanisms or it’s a fundamental property of the Universe, like gravity, to the idea that consciousness is only an illusion.
Consider each carefully. You must keep in mind that your brain is a very complex system and no one yet knows the power of billions of interconnected neurons.
Your brain is composed of some 100 billion interconnected neurons. Maybe it’s not too much of a leap of faith to accept that this extremely complicated network allows you to function and interact with your environment each and every day. For example, light from your computer monitor is being input, organized, and interpreted to allow you to read these words.
However, there’s more to this picture: you also are understanding these words, which allows you to form your own impressions, biases, and conclusions. You will make a decision based on your personal interests and history whether or not to click on the links below. And, you will consider if you will ever return to this web site.
This example just touches the surface of the extended functions and capabilities of your brain above and beyond the more rudimentary tasks of maintaining your heart beat and breathing cycles. We often attribute these “extra” amazing properties, including your personal awareness of yourself (“I think therefore I am!“), to your consciousness.
But, what is your consciousness? Where is it located in your brain, if anywhere? How does is come to be? Does a separate consciousness even exist outside the context of your brain’s neuron networks?
These very difficult questions have been debated since, well, since man become conscious!
Although it’s not a first for today’s scientists, Johnjoe McFadden is presenting another hypothesis for a physical correlate of consciousness. His idea centers on how electromagnetic fields resulting from synchronous electrical activity between neurons somehow feeds back to the neurons to enhance or alter their communication.
I am currently reviewing McFadden’s paper and will report back once I’ve finished. After my initial skim I did not see any equations, graphs, or illustrative examples of computational or experimental work. This greatly concerns me as to how far McFadden’s “theory” (as he claims) has moved beyond more than just a thought he came up with while singing in the shower.
[Read the paper describing the idea (PDF). Johnjoe McFadden Journal of Consciousness Studies 9, p. 23-50 (2002)]
This group at Brown University is trying to develop an implantable electrode array that will transmit your thoughts into a corresponding action via a connected computer, robot, or electrodes elsewhere in your body.
Currently, they are working to provide patients with debilitating diseases, like locked-in syndrome, with more physical control in their lives. These research efforts will prove to be critical stepping stones for making neuron devices commonplace prosthetics and cosmetics in our culture.
The research group is also trying to finance a company, called Cyberkinetics, Inc., to help bring these new technologies into the marketplace.
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