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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December 2006
  • The Israeli physician Moshe Szyf has found evidence that experience affects the way genes are expressed. Every cell in the body contains the same genetic information (the same genes), but the same genetic information is expressed in different ways in different cells (so that, for example, some cells become skin cells and some cells become eye cells). The program that controls the expression of the genome is the epigenome. Its functioning is still largely unknown. Szyf has found that early experience of the child affects the future psychological life of the child not only because it is stored in memory but also because it determines how some genes will be expressed. Szyf has observed physical differences in the hippocampus of rats that account for differences in behavior, and he argues that those differences were caused by the way their mothers raised them. Rats who were raised in similar ways by their mothers tend to have the same kind of hippocampus. He credits this development to the expression of some genes as opposed to others. Maternal care seems to affect the chemistry within the cell that determines if and when those genes are expressed. The effects are visible during the first week of life after birth.
November 2006
  • Mayank Mehta at Brown University has discovered that the neocortex controls the creation of long-term memories. Memories are consolidated every night. As we sleep, our brain transfers memories of the day's events from the hippocampus, which is part of the evolutionarily older part of the brain (and shared with many other species), to the neocortex, which is the newer part of the brain and is almost exclusive to humans. This unconscious process creates long-term memory. It now appears that this process is controlled by the neocortex, because the neurons of the two regions are synchronized in an asymmetric way: a rhythmic pattern of the excitatory cells in the neocortex corresponds to a rhythmic pattern of the inhibitory neurons in the hippocampus. Therefore the neocortex appears to be dominant. In general, this is another example of how different regions of the brain communicate: by synchronized firing of neurons (as opposed to a linear transmission of information from neuron to neuron to neuron).
  • Eleanor Maguire at the University College London has discovered how the hippocampus generates a sequence of neural events in response to a single perception. A possible interpretation of this sequence of events is that the hippocampus automatically generates a "script" of what it expects to perceive next. If the sequence of events is not realized, the hippocampus generates a pattern of activity in the rest of the brain. If the sequence of events is realized, the hippocampus continues its normal routine. This seems to indicate that the reasoning of the hippocampus is expectation-driven. The hippocampus compares what it knows with what is happening. If nothing new is revealed, the hippocampus continues its normal chores. If the two do not match, then it means that this is a new, unknown situation and the hippocampus has to alert the rest of the brain that some additional processing is required.
October 2006
  • Michael Ullman of Georgetown University Medical Center has discovered that girls and boys learn language in very different ways. They tend to use different parts of the brain. While they both, at the end, learn to speak the same language, the process by which they learn is significantly different. Girls tend to learn by memorizing words and their relationships. Boys tend to learn the rules of language. These skills belong to different areas of the brain. This finding has at least two consequences. First of all, it proves one more time that the brains of males and females are different and work in different ways, a fact that is often downplayed in the name of political correctedness. Second, it proves that there can be multiple ways to achieve "intelligence" (at least two, but possibly even more). Both ideas can apply to any cognitive task.
September 2006
  • The Italian neurologist Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered ("Action Recognition in the Premotor Cortex", 1996) that the brain of primates uses "mirror" neurons to represent what others are doing. De facto, my brain contains a representation of what someone else is doing, and that representation helps me "understand" what the other person is doing, for example her intention and her emotions. We effortlessly understand the intention and emotion of others not because we carry out complex reasoning procedures about their actions but because their intentions and emotions are physically reproduced inside our own brain. In fact, a brain only needs to see the beginning of an action by another person in order to guess the intention of it: based on the context, the mirror neurons instantly reproduce the brain state of the other person and therefore help to understand what the other person is trying to do and what will happen next. These mirror neurons are widespread in the cortex of primates (not only of humans). These mirror neurons fire both when the action is performed and when the action is observed in other individuals. The Indian neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran ("Mirror Neurons and Imitation Learning", 2000) subsequently speculated that mirror neurons may be crucial in learning and understanding language.
  • The USA computer scientist David Haussler at UC Santa Cruz discovered two patches of DNA that are identical throughout the genomes of the vertebrate world but wildly different in the human genome (the "Human Accelerated Region 1" and 2). HAR1 helps detemine the structure of the brain in the infant. HAR2 does something similar for the hand. Since the brain and the hand are two of the organs that more sharply differentiate humans from other animals, there is consensus that Haussler may be studying human nature itself.
August 2006
  • It has always been a tenet of neuroscience that the neural organization of the brain must change in response to experience. The theory has finally been confirmed visually by Kuan Hong Wang and Susumu Tonegawa at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory: for the first time scientists have been able to watch neurons (at a single-cell resolution) within the brain of a living being as they change in response to experience. They were able to do so for a prolonged period of time, focusing on the role of the protein called "Arc", which is believed to consolidate long-term memories by strengthening synapses. They now speculate that the same protein may help train the brain to recognize images (the more an animal is exposed to shapes, borders and shades of light, the better it gets at recognizing them). Synapses are continuously modified to reflect the brain's experience ("learning"). Such Changes in synaptic strength require rapid protein synthesis, whose chemistry is not well known because it has never been closely monitored.
  • Marcus Kaiser at Newcastle University in Britain has found out that long nerve fibres represent a crucial part of the nervous system. The traditional model of the brain implies that messages are sent through the brain via many connections to many neurons, but Kaiser claims that long connections can substantially reduce the "journey" of a message and, at the same time, increase its accuracy (just like an express non-stop train increases the speed and the reliability of a journey compared with the same journey done in stages on local trains).
  • Henry Markram and Jean-Vincent Le Be' at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale of Lausanne (Switzerland) have verified that the connections between neurons are routinely changed within a few hours. The plasticity of the brain exceeds even the most optimistic predictions.
July 2006
  • The British neurologist Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University is studying the difference between male and female brains. Men and women are programmed by their genes to behave in different ways, and that difference shows up in the organization of the brain. But the "standard" brain is not the male one, it is the female one: until the second month of gestation the brain of every foetus is "female". It is only later (and particularly after birth) that the male brain begins to dramatically diverge from the female one. Within a year of birth boys and girls already demonstrate wildly different preferences for toys. The brains of adult men end up being about 9% larger than those of adult women, although the number of neurons seems to be identical (i.e., female brains are more "dense"). The main organizational difference that has emerged so far is that men can use only one hemisphere to solve some problems whereas women always employ both hemispheres. Female brains seem programmed to understand emotions (empathising) whereas male brains seem programmed to build systems (systemising).
  • Andrea Berger and Gabriel Tzur at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel used brain-monitoring technology developed at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders are studying the emergence of language areas in non-human primates. The areas of the human brain that are involved in language processing are mainly Broca's area and Wernicke's area, that work in tandem. Measuring neural activity in the brain areas of monkees that are their equivalent of Broca's area and Wenicke's area, the researchers have been able to figure out that monkees exhibit the same pre-linguistic activity, even though they do not express it linguistically. The theory now is that there exists a larger area of the primate brain that is in charge of social interaction, and that human language is merely a human specialization of a region of that area.
June 2006
  • James Roney of the University of California at Santa Barbara has proven that women can tell if a man is fond of children just by looking at him.
  • Daniel Hulme at the London's Global University provides a good overview of the state of the art in Artificial Life.
  • Shahar Arzy of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale of Lausanne (Switzerland) studies how we feel that we live inside our body. This feeling is created by the interaction between two brain areas: the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), that creates the concept of the self, and the extrastriate body area (EBA), that recognizes human bodies and body parts.
May 2006
  • Japanese neuroscientist Yukiyasu Kamitani of the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute (ATR) has developed a technique to "decode the perceptual and subjective contents of the human brain" to guide a robot. This technique has allowed ATR to build a "Brain Machine Interface" that allows a robot to obey the commands of a human brain. The computer decodes the brain activity, understands the movement that the brain wants to obtain, and directs the robot to perform that movement.
  • Bryan Raudenbush claims that chocolate boosts cognitive activities. Tests seem to prove that cognitive performance including memory, attention span, reaction time, and problem solving increases after eating chocolate (that is known to contain stimulants such as theobromine, phenethylamine, and caffeine).
April 2006
  • Japanese scientist Hiroshi Ishiguro is developing anthropomorphic robots modeled on real people. His robots look like clones of real people: not only their faces and their bodies have been replicated, but the robot even tries to copy the movements of the real person. It will eventually be possible for a human being to observe its robotic clone, i.e. for you to see yourself as the others see you. "Repliee Q2" is the latest release.
  • British psychologists Klaus Zuberbuhler and Kate Arnold are studying the language of some African monkees that apparently are able to combine sounds to produce different meanings, a key feature of human language.
March 2006
  • American neurologist Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the National Institute of Mental Health has presented a theory to explain why some individuals are more likely than others to develop a violent personality. There are different versions of the gene "monoamine oxidase", responsible for making the enzyme that breaks down serotonin, which in turn is one of the neurotransmitters that carries signals from neuron to neuron. One particular version is less effective than the others and therefore causes more serotonin to accumulate in the brain as it develops. These brains (and therefore these individuals) seem to be less capable of inhibiting impulsive reactions. In other words, this particular version of the gene seems to lead to the development of a brain that is somehow deficient in the part that handles emotions.
  • Experiments with neural-controlled devices have been performed for several years, but the Fraunhofer Institute in Berlin has demonstrated one that seems to be more than a novelty. The Berlin Brain-Computer Interface (BBCI) allows a user to mentally control the movement of a cursor on the screen of a computer. Instead of the mouse, the user is equipped with an electronic hat that picks up electrical activity inside the brain (the same principle of the electroencephalogram). The user moves the cursor by focusing on the desired movement. The device is smart enough to learn what commands correspond to the neural patterns.
February 2006
  • Leonard Susskind's book "The Cosmic Landscape" has made popular the term "landscape" to mean the multiple universes, each with its own different physical laws, that are compatible with string theory. String theory basically amplified the uncertainty of Quantum Mechanics. String Theory does not prescribe exactly how the universe should be, but leaves plenty of room for different kinds of universes to exist. Susskind is one of the physicists who take it seriously and believe that there "are" indeed multiple universes. Now an increasing number of physicists side with him (see this overview), despite the fact that other physicists think this is not science but religion (see this blog).
January 2006
  • Researchers at the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience of Emory University (USA) have been studying the molecular (if not genetic) bases for complex behavior (Click here for their original paper). They noticed that prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) tend to be monogamous and build societies, whereas the closely related meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) tend to be polygamous and live alone. Scott Edwards and David Self of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (USA). It turns out that the chemical processes in the brains of these two species exhibit a key difference: dopamine fosters bond formation in prairie voles. (Dopamine is the same chemical responsible for drug addiction). It also turns out that this chemical idiosyncrasy is due to the expression of a single gene. Thus indirectly this study has proven that a single gene can have a profound influence on complex social behaviour. (Monogamy is rare among mammalian species).

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