THYMOS
A newsletter of research on Consciousness, Mind and Life

by piero scaruffi

Researchers are welcome to submit news and articles about breakthroughs and events in the areas of cognitive science, artificial intelligence, neurobiology, artificial life, linguistics, neural networks, connectionism, cognitive psychology, mind, philosophy, psychology, consciousness. Email the editor at this Email address. Readers who would like to receive periodic news and updates on cognitive science, philosophy of mind, neurobiology, artificial intelligence, etc, are invited to register to my mailing list.

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November 2008
  • Traditionally, biology has assumed that a chunk of DNA forms a gene when it contains the instructions to produce a specific protein. However, there are now so many exceptions to that rule to beg for a different theory. The current headcount is that protein-making genes constitute only 1.2% of the human genome (and some of them make more than one protein). The rest of the genome has a function but clearly there are units that do not comply with the traditional definition of "gene". "Encode" is a project aimed at deciphering the remaining 98.8% of the human genome.
October 2008
  • Carol Ann Paul of Wellesley College has found out that the brain of people who habitually drink alcohol (even in moderate amounts) tend to have a smaller brain than people who never drink. Her study showed a direct relationship: the more alcohol consumed, the smaller the brain volume. The effect was much stronger on women than on men. A shrinking of the brain is often associated with dementia.
  • The brain's representation for three-dimensional objects has been analyzed by Charles Connor at the John Hopkins University's Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute and it turns out to be a three-dimensional code: paper.
September 2008
  • Why people enjoy storytelling (Scientific American)
  • A team led by Itzhak Fried of UCLA has observed brain activity that shows how events are recalled: by re-living them. When a person recalls an event, the same neural circuitry is activated, as if the person was living that event. This confirms a widely held theory that the brain "remembers" an event by recreating the same pattern of activity that was dominant when the event was first perceived.
July 2008
  • British neuroscientist Seth Grant at the Sanger Institute argues that synapses (the interconnections between neurons) have a meaningful structure and have in fact evolved over millions of years into more and more sophisticated vehicles. The protein content of a human synapse is much more complex than the protein content of an insect synapse. This enables human synapses to carry out complex tasks of pattern recognition. Therefore it's not only the size of the brain and the number of connections that matter for intelligence, but also the quality of the connections. It is estimated that the human brain has about 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses. The synapses of vertebrates use about 1,000 different proteins, assembled into 13 molecular machines, each built out of dozens of different proteins. Synapses are different for different regions of the brain, as each region of the brain makes use of a different combination of the 1,000 proteins to mold its synapses, as if each region evolved its own synapses.
June 2008
  • British neuroscientists led by Bianca Wittmann of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College in London identified the region of the brain that is responsible for human curiosity and spirit of adventure: the ventral striatum. This region plays a role in rewarding actions (by releasing appropriate neurotransmitters and triggering a positive feedback loop) and seems to reward "novel" actitivities. This is also an evolutionarily "primitive" area of the brain that is shared with simpler brains than the human brain, a fact that would indicate an ancestral evolutionary advantage in being "adventurous", in exploring and in trying new experiences. All of these would therefore be fundamental animal attributes: life might like the unknown better than the familiar, as a matter of survival.
April 2008 March 2008
  • Kay Kendrick at U.C. Berkeley and others are trying to reconstruct visual experiences from brain activity using a form of MRI. At some point it may be possible to build a device that would "decode" the visual activity of a subject, even inferring the content of dreams and memories. The device would use MRI data on brain activity to decode information from the brain's visual cortex .
  • Researchers led by Mary Droser of the University of California Riverside discovered a species that lived 540 million years ago, Funisia Dorothea, similar to corals and sponges, capable of reproducing both sexually and asexually (budding). Since multicellular life had just evolved, this means that sexual reproduction was "invented" at the very beginning of life.

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