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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December 2018
  • Luis Populin's team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that methylphenidate causes an increase in the neurotransmitter dopamine which enhances cell-to-cell transmission of information. (paper)
  • Ryan Darby of Vanderbilt University and Michael Fox of Harvard examined brain-damaged patients and realized that different brain regions are responsible for the main processes that characterize free will: the desire to act (volition) and the sense of being responsible for that action (agency). The former seems to be localized in a region connected to the anterior cingulate, whereas the latter seems to arise from a region connected to the precuneus (paper).

November 2018
  • The neuroscientist Jacob Bellmund of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, the neuroscientist Edvard Moser of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and the philosopher Peter Gaerdenfors of Lund University in Sweden proposed that the brain represents concepts in cognitive spaces which are similar to the way the brain represents spatial information. The same configuration of the hippocampus (the "grid cells") are used by the brain to represent physical objects in space as well as mental concepts in their relationships (paper)
  • Clay Dickson's team at the University of Alberta found that high levels of oxygen during sleep enhance slow-wave forebrain states, i.e. restorative sleep (paper)
  • A team at New York University including mathematicians Lai-Sang Young and Logan Chariker and neuroscientist Robert Shapley have published a mathematical model that could explain how vision happens. The eye receives light from the outside world and sends the information to the retina, which is connected to the visual cortex. The problem is that very little information flows from the retina to the visual cortex. The retina seems more interested in reducing information than in faithfully conveying what the eye "sees". Their mathematical model shows that feedback loops could explain the way the visual cortex recreates the visual scene from the scant information received from the retina ( 2016 paper and 2018 paper)

October 2018
  • Susumu Tonegawa's team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology had already discovered that some "engrams" remain "silent", i.e. that some memories exist but cannot recalled. Using cellular protein PAK1, they have been able to reawaken silent engrams in mice. This could lead to a drug that awakens silent memories in both amnesiacs and normal people: we all have thousands, perhaps millions, of "silent" memories. (paper).
  • Katrin Preller of the University of Zurich and John Murray at Yale found that LSD triggers the production of a receptor for the neurotransmitter serotonin which causes reduced activity in the brain regions related to cognition and increased activity in brain regions associated with sensory inputs (paper)

September 2018
August 2018
  • It has been known that the human gut contains more than 100 million nerve cells, i.e. that it is a mini-brain. Now Ivan de Araujo at Mount Sinai has discovered that these neurons can communicate directly with the neurons in the brain via hormones into the bloodstream (paper).

July 2018
  • Kaoru Inokuchi's team at the University of Toyama discovered the way the hippocampus keeps adding new memories even if its capacity seems to be limited. The hippocampus is the main brain organ responsible for long-term memories. Every day we can add new memories to it, and some other memories are depressed. They showed that neurogenesis (the ability to grow new neurons) plays a key role in this process. Good news for those who exercise regularly: exercise promotes neurogenesis. Therefore there could be a simple explanation for why older people have trouble remembering: neurogenesis is greatly reduced becauses their physical activity is greatly reduced. (Paper)
  • Alex Irpan on the drawbacks of reinforcement learning
  • Himanshu Sahni on the drawbacks of reinforcement learning

June 2018
  • A good summary of alcohol addiction in women (BBC News)
  • Andrew Zalesky's team at the University of Melbourne is studying the mechanism of neural communication and has published a model of how signals in the brain navigate to their destination. The traditional models of neural communication assume the existence of a brain map. This study argues for a simpler model in which a signal travels from one region to the next connected region that minimizes the distance to the destination (paper).

May 2018
  • Shotaro Yoshida's team at the University of Tokyo has engineered a neural network - not the artificial one, but the real brain stuff (paper).
  • David Glanzman's team at UCLA, the team that in 2014 had shown that lost memories can be restored, has transferred a memory from one marine snail to another by simply injecting RNA from one to another: the receiving snail behaved as if it had experienced the memory of the donating snail. (paper)
  • David Anderson's lab at Caltech has discovered (in mice) that social isolation causes the brain to increase a chemical in the brain called Tac2/NkB in the amygdala and hypothalamus, regions that are involved in emotional and social behavior, a fact which would explain how social isolation causes depression and post-traumatic stress disorders. (paper)

April 2018
March 2018
  • Julie Sedivy writes about the difference between written and spoken language. Written language fostered complex syntax that we rarely use in spoken language. (Nautilus article)

February 2018
  • A research by Ruhr-Universitat Bochum shows that the brains of people with higher IQ tend to have fewer, not more, neural connections (paper)

January 2018
  • Michael Ullman's team at Georgetown University has found strong evidence suggesting that language is learned in brain systems that serve other purposes besides language acquisition (paper). Traditionally, it was thought that humans learned language from brain circuits designed specifically for language learning and that these circuits were unique to humans. New evidence suggests that language is learned in general-purpose brain systems that account for other tasks, such as memorizing a list or driving a car. Language learning was studied in the brain systems related to declarative and procedural memory. Declarative memory was responsible for language memorization, while procedural memory was responsible for grammar abilities. These brain systems can also be found in other animals, suggesting that the existence of these systems predates the existence of humans. It is still unknown how these systems evolved to support a system as complex as human language, but these findings hold promising research, educational, and clinical implications. (Contributed by Cristina Eckhardt)
  • Ed Tyantov's summary of deep learning achievements of 2017
  • Ryan Shrott's summary of deep learning
  • Katherine Rowland ( this article in Aeon ) discusses how women carry three different cell populations in their bodies- their own, their mother's, and their child's. These foreign cells are called `microchimeric cells' and have shown to improve the outcome of future pregnancies for women, extend longevity, and improve disease status. Traditionally, Western societies have viewed the individual as a solitary organism that functions solely to ensure their own survival. Katherine points out that even on a genetic level, humans are interconnected with one another. It is possible that the evolutionary motives guiding humans are rooted in a collective good rather than focused on individual survival. (Contributed by Cristina Eckhardt)
  • Sharon Glotzer, a computational physicist at the University of Michigan, has found that entropy can be a guiding force in the emergence and organization of matter. The traditional view equated entropy with increasing disorder. Glotzer's research has found that entropy plays a primary role in the self-assembly of particles into complex structures. Glotzer isolated tetrahedra, a simple three-dimensional building block, to all forces other than entropy. Upon isolation, the tetrahedra began to self-organize into quasicrystal, a highly organized and complex spatial pattern. This self-assembly was guided by a set of design rules, which are common themes guiding how entropy manifests itself in the organization of matter. Using what she describes as "digital alchemy", Glotzer and her team have been able to reverse-engineer structures into their preliminary components through simulations using the design rules and self-organizing pattern of entropy. (Contributed by Cristina Eckhardt)

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