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- In what could be one of the most important events of the new century, the Blue Brain Project was launched by Lausanne's Brain Mind Institute (Switzerland) and IBM in may 2005, under the direction of Henry Markram, with the objective to create software replicas of the neocortical column and, ultimately, the whole brain. These replicas could then be used for real-time simulations, shedding light on both neural diseases and "normal" mental life. The neocortical column is particularly interesting because it is relatively small among the brain regions that act as a functional whole. It also represents a key difference between reptilian and mammalian brains. Its size is minuscule (about 0.5mm wide and 2-4mm high) but, needless to say, immensely complex. It will take the power of the eighth most powerful computer in the world to build the model.
- Scientific American of December 2005 has an article on Kim Peek, a "savant" in the age of cognitive science. Reports of savants in history abound, but for the first time a savant is alive in an age in which scientists know enough of the brain's structure to try to explain where those skills come from. Peek, among many other marvels, has memorized 9,000 books: he is becoming a living library. Like all savants that we have knowledge of, he is severely limited in his cognitive abilities (for example, he needs help to get dressed). Neuroscientists have already determined that his brain lacks a corpus callosum, and pretty much any other structure that connects the two hemispheres. We know that "brain damage" has the side effect of enhancing some cognitive abilities (e.g., blind people hear "better" than non-blind people), but one has to wonder which is the damaged brain: Peek's brain can do things that "normal" humans cannot do. Could it be that at some point in evolution all humans had his skills, and later most humans lost those skills because their brain got damaged or because their brain evolved in a way that limited the original functions?
- Rodrigo Quian Quiroga is investigating a new theory about how the brain recognizes faces. Traditionally, it has been thought that large sections of the brain work together to create some kind of map of the face. Quiroga is testing a theory that there is a single neuron in the brain for recognizing each face. If this theory is right, some neurons should fire only when a certain face is recognized. Preliminary tests seem to prove that this is indeed the case.
- Experiments by Gunter Loffler, Frances Wilkinson and others on how the brain representats faces seem to prove that
the brain recognizes a specific person's face based on geometric "distance" from the prototypical face.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging identify a region of the cortez,
the "fusiform face area", that is specialized for face processing.
Basically, this region "knows" what a face is (eyes, mouth, nose, etc and their
spatial relationship) and determines how close your face is to that prototype.
- Norwegian scientist Torkel Hafting Fyhn and others have shown that the complex task of navigating the environment is managed by the brain mainly in the entorhinal cortex. This region seem to contain information about the geometry of the environment, because neurons are triggered in a coordinated pattern when the individual's position coincides with the vertices of a grid of triangles.
- Observations have shown that breeding offspring is a costly job that usually takes a toll on the mother's longevity. Swedish evolutionary biologists (including Alexei Maklakov) has found that there is at least one notable exception: somehow late sex helps some female insects (Acanthoscelides obtectus) live longer. It looks like something in the semen of the males helps women live longer if they have to bear offspring later in life. A male's semen is a complex of proteins and peptides, which is now being studied to see what effect it may have on the biological clock of a female (not only on her reproductive organs).
- USA scientists at several universities have mapped the genome of the chimpanzee (3 billion bits of genetic code). The chimpanzee is humankind's closest relative. As expected, the genome of the chimpanzee is almost 99% identical to the human genome. The chimpanzee and the first hominid arose from a common ancestor about 6 million years ago. There took place 40 million molecular changes that ended up differentiating humans from chimpanzees, although probably only a fraction of these are responsible for the most visible differences between the two species.
- Tony Plant at Pittsburgh's Univeristy and Mark Carlton at Cambridge University are investigating how puberty is regulated by a biological clock in the hypothalamus. At some point, the KiSS-1 gene sends out a signal that triggers another gene, GPR54, which triggers a brain hormone, the gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which causes the secretion of pituitary hormones, which stimulate ovarian and testicular functions. All of this apparatus is already present in the child (actually, even in the foetus), but it is set in motion only when the biological clock "wakes up" the KISS-1 gene.
- Margaret Titus has shown that myosins (a family of protein motors, that take care of chores such as organelle transport, cellular migration, etc) can shed light on the evolution of multi-cellular organisms, as myosins seem to have diversified during eukaryotic evolution by the addition or subtraction of protein domains.
- It had been known for a while that male damselflies have a homosexual tendency not quite common among other species. This is commonly explained as due to the fact that the females frequently behave like males, as if testing how smart the males are in recognizing the real females (see for example this article). Now entomologist have discovered an all-female population of damselflies in the Azores archipelago of Portugal, which adds to the discovery of all-female populations of Fijian damselflies, for which males have never been discovered (see for example this article). If either is confirmed, this would be another case of parthenogenesis (reproduction without any need for fertilization), which is known to occur among insects such as aphids and ants (but the unfertilized egg of an ant yield males only). Species that are capable of parthenogenesis are also the only species capable of self-cloning (the children are sometimes genetically identical to the mother).
- Debra Niehoff's "The Language of Life: How Cells Communicate in Health and Disease" is an excellent book to get an introductory description of how cells communicate. More importantly, it draws an important parallel with "language". Two cells that exchange chemicals are doing just that: "talking" to each other, using chemicals instead of words. Those chemicals are bound in molecular structures just like the words of human language are bound in grammatical structures. Even before social behavior was invented, there was a fundamental language of life. Living cells communicate all the time, even in the most primitive organisms: cell communication is the very essence of being alive. The "higher" forms of communication that do not involve chemical exchange still cause some chemical reaction. A bee that "dances" in front of other bees or a human brain that learns something from another human brain have undergone chemical change, that has triggered changes in their cognitive state. From this point of view, there are at least three main levels of communication: a cellular level, in which living cells transmit information via chemical agents, a bodily level, in which living beings transmit information via "gestures", and a verbal level, in which living beings transmit information via words. Each level might simply be an evolution of the previous one.
- Peter Tyack of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Angela Stoeger-Horwath of the University of Vienna (Austria) and others have discovered that elephants are capable of imitating the vocals of other elephants. This follows similar discoveries about dolphins, most birds, primates, and even bats, and thus leads to suspect that vocal imitation plays a larger role in life. These scientists speculate that vocal imitation might be a way to identify members of the same group, in the same way that a dialect identifies humans of the same group (the moment you open your mouth, people know which region you are from).
- TRP (Transient Receptor Potential) channels are used by the sensory systems to detect heat, cold, taste, pain and so forth. (See for example this article). New studies reveal that they also determine how axons of nerve cells grow.
- Johan Holmberg of the Nobel Institute in Sweden (See the paper) has discovered that ephrins (already known to be important regulators of cell migration and synapse formation) are also controlling the proliferation of neurons in the adult brain. Removing ephrin, increases the number of neurons that are created. This discovery could lead to artificial means to stimulate neural growth in the adult brain.
- Jeff Hawkins of the Redwood Neuroscience Institute, who in 1992 co-founded Palm Computing, has started a software company, Numenta, based on the theories of his book "On Intelligence: How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines".
- Time Magazine of March 7 has an article on whether the female brain is "inferior" to the male brain as far as the sciences go. The debate was started many years ago when it was confirmed that the male brain is about 10% larger than the female brain. Later studies revealed that the female brain "matures" faster than the male brain. More studies showed that some parts of the brain mature faster in boys. So the verdict is still out, and might well be the other way around. The article correctly points to the fact that the USA is one of the few western countries in which any gap is discernible between male and female success in math: in most European countries (including the University where I graduated) women tend to perform slightly better in math than men. The size of the brain is probably far less important than social factors in shaping who does what better. See also this page by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. About the brain growth, see this interview with Jay Giedd.
- Tatsuya Hirano of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has published results of his studies on what process helps repair damaged DNA: its complementary copy serves as a template.
- Michael Hengartner at the Institute of Molecular Biology (Switzerland) has discovered that the nematode worm, often studied for blues on programmed cell death (the process that, ultimately, kills us), exhibits a fragmentation of mitochondria that is similar to the death process in mammals.
- Cholinergic neurotransmitters represent one of the fundamental chemical "systems" of the brain. By studying the transport of choline to the neurons (through what is called "the high-affinity choline uptake transporter" or CHT) Martin Sarter at the University of Michigan cholinergic activity in the cortex and hippocampus is crucial for conscious processes. (Abstract).
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