Neuroscientists at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have tracked nerve cells firing in the brains of rats as they plan where to go next, and obtained new insights on how the brain reconstructs memories. The study suggests that memories are more like separate but connected “snapshots” in the brain than uninterrupted video reels.
The researchers studied how rats reconstruct spatial memories by using electrode implants to monitor the activity of “place cells” – specialized nerve cells in the brain that remember specific places and fire when the animal encounters those places.
The results, published in Science with the title “Autoassociative dynamics in the generation of sequences of hippocampal place cells,” support theoretical notions of neural network function and reveal a fundamental discretization in the retrieval of memory in the hippocampus.
Street View in the Brain
“[The] hippocampal neurons express sequenced reactivations, which we show are composed of discrete attractors,” note the scientists. “Each attractor corresponds to a single location, the representation of which sharpens over the course of several milliseconds, as the reactivation focuses at that location. Subsequently, the reactivation transitions rapidly to a spatially discontiguous location.”
“My own introspective experience of memory tends to be one of discrete snapshots strung together, as opposed to a continuous video recording,” says neuroscience professor David Foster. “Our data from rats suggest that our memories are actually organized that way, with one network of neurons responsible for the snapshots and another responsible for the string that connects them.”
It appears that, when rats want to go from one place to another, they use a mental map with only a few sparse memory points between origin and destination.
“The trajectories that the rats reconstructed weren’t smooth,” said Foster. “We were able to see that neural activity ‘hovers’ in one place for about 20 milliseconds before ‘jumping’ to another place, where it hovers again before moving on to the next point.”
We think that there is a whole network of cells dedicated to this process of fine-tuning and jumping. Without it, memory retrieval would be even messier than it is.
Each of the five panels in the image shows a memory snapshot created by hundreds of place cells.
According to these results, the process of memory retrieval seems similar to Google Street View, sort of. On a good computer with a fast Internet connection, Street View gives the impression of a smooth walk, but it consists of discrete snapshots and software that does the rest.
Understanding how the brain encodes and recalls memories is very important because it would permit “repairing” memory problems in humans and also devising efficient memory management methods for bio-inspired computer systems.
Images from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Shutterstock.
Elon Musk Hints at Advances in ‘Neural Lace’ Brain Hacking Tech
Visionary and sometimes controversial entrepreneur Elon Musk hinted at advances in next-generation brain hacking. Recent research results promise future “neural lace” technology that could enhance our brains and connect them to the cloud.
The Possibilities and the Future of Brain Hacking
For all of man’s scientific and technological advances, the human brain largely remains a mystery. A new Vimeo video, “Master/Mind,” examines the state of research on the human mind and the questions that scientists, ethicists, futurists and others are asking in light of what we’re learning about the mind. The video, a Vimeo Staff Pick, consists of a series of comments from scientists, technologist, futurists and ethicists.
Automation, robotics and artificial intelligence are developing so rapidly that many people are wondering if some day, man will no longer harness science but rather be controlled by it. As this question weighs heavily on peoples’ mind, there has been a focus on understanding the human brain.
The central issue the video explores is: New technologies are beginning to unlock the brain’s true potential, but at what cost to our humanity?
“We can identify galaxies light years away, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears,” President Obama states at the outset of the video’s journey.
The video shows a recent news report that scientists are seeing neurons change in real-time as events are “recorded” in the brain.
An Organ Of Surreal Complexity
“This is an organ of surreal complexity, and we are just beginning to understand how to even study it,” says Thomas R. Insel, M.D., director of the National Institute of Mental Health.
Sebastian Seung, Ph.D., Princeton Neuroscience Institute professor of computer science, says scientists have speculated that human memories, “the information that makes you, you,” are stored in the connections between the brain’s neurons.
The video examines various approaches to the study of the brain, from the universities to self-taught technology geeks.
The brain consists of 86 billion neurons and the neurons are connected via synapses and other matter. It’s a vast network of connections.
Scientists think synapses record what happens when someone learns something. The video shows what appear to be synapse images.
EEG Detects Brain’s Electrical Activity
Joel Murphy, co-founder of a technology consultancy called OpenBCI, sought to create a low-cost, open source electroencephalography (EEG) system that detects electrical activity in the brain. His partner, Conor Russomanno, found a “how to hack EEG’s” tutorial and was able to do it in one day. “I think everybody is interested in the brain these days,” Russomanno says. Technologies are emerging allowing us to tap in and “figure out what’s going on in there.”
The video examines the laboratory research using electrodes that attach to the human body and allow scientists to monitor fluctuations in electrical activity. Scientists are trying to understand the meaning of these frequencies and relate them to things that people perceive or experience in their everyday lives.
“I think brain computer interfaces are going to be instrumental in human evolution,” Russomanno says.
“Conceivably you could image your brain every two weeks and you would never lose more than two weeks of your experience,” says Russell Hanson, Ph.D., founder of a firm called Brain Backups.
Science Versus Ethics
The video also explores the tension between ethics and science.
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., director of New York University (NYU) division of medical ethics, says myths throughout history are cautionary about going too far with human knowledge. But in modern times, people have been wondering about controlling new power, be it medical or physics. If we talk about modifying the brain, people worry about losing their identities, Caplan says.
In recent years, science has considered how technology can enhance human capability, such as wearable technology.
Futurist and inventor Raymond Kurzweil says thinking will be a hybrid, biological and non-biological.
Nick Bostrom, Ph.D., author and philosopher, says machine intelligence is the last invention that will need to be made. Machines will eventually be better at inventing than humans. “Once there is super intelligence, the fate of humanity may depend on what this super-intelligence does,” he says.
“Once they go in there (the brain) and tinker, what they are eventually going to do is very crude control and mostly destruction,” says Peter Breggin, M.D., a psychiatrist. “It’s the seat of our humanity, and that’s what they’re tampering with.”
What Makes Us Human?
A narrator notes near the end of the video that man does not have the ability to do what he is doing if it wasn’t intended in the first place. From the beginning of time, man has worked to control the environment.
“We develop technology to improve the human experience,” Russomanno says. “Whatever we turn into or whatever we become, we need to make sure that we’re still human.”
“It seems to me the brain alterations are closer to changing who we are, so we have to be careful about what we want to be,” Caplan of NYU says.
“What is it about the human brain that could potentially never be replicated artificially?” asks Lydia Fazzio, M.D., founder of biohackers NYC. “To be human is to incorporate a bit of the erratic, of the unpredictable, and that is what I hope continues.”
Image from Shutterstock.
Researchers Link Human Brains for Questions and Answers Game
University of Washington researchers used a direct brain-to-brain connection to enable pairs of participants to play a question-and-answer game by transmitting signals from one brain to the other over the Internet. The experiment is thought to be the first to show that two brains can be directly linked to allow one person to guess what’s on another person’s mind.
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