The Skinny on Epilepsy

Although a common brain disorder that affects almost four million people nationwide, many people know little about epilepsy. Stephanie Rogers, a doctoral candidate at New York University (NYU), attempted to demystify the disorder with a thorough overview of “The Science of Epilepsy: What Is It and How Can We Understand It?” at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute during Brain Awareness Week.

Rogers explained epilepsy with a metaphor: Imagine neurons in the brain are people in a public space. Some of the people (neurons in a certain network) are having a conversation and talking directly to one another while others are overheard by the other people (neurons) in the room. During a seizure, all the people become distracted and stop their normal conversation and, in unison, chant a certain message—like fans at a sports game. Seizures activity is neurons joining together in a chant in the brain, and epilepsy is a neurological disorder caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain.

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The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence and Data Science

It may be more than coincidence that the NYU Center for Data Science (CDS) chose to hold its Fifth Anniversary Celebration during Brain Awareness Week. The event, held in a well-appointed room at Vanderbilt Hall in New York City, opened with speeches by New York University’s new Vice Provost of Research Staci Grossman Bloom and new CDS Director Julia Kempe that focused on the importance of data science as a vital multi-disciplinary field and the enormous growth of the center in just five years.

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From left: Julia Kempe, Arthur Spirling, Yann LeCun, Daniel Sodickson, Julia Stoyanovich, and Brenden Lake. Photo courtesy of NYU CDS

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Four Stars: Who Are Movie Reviews For?

Watching a recommended movie is risky business. If the stars don’t align in your favor, you might find yourself nurturing a distrust of your source, forever altering conversations with friends and colleagues. Even when Oscar season rolls around, which should reliably provide lists of “good” movies, you might question if everyone sat through the same movie after scanning a few social media feeds. Does data science offer us evidence of something we might be missing?

PascalWallisch1-PhotoCredit(Yadin Goldman)

Pascal Wallisch, Ph.D.. Photo credit: Yadin Goldman

“There is a tremendous diversity in appraisal for any given movie,” said Pascal Wallisch, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor at NYU. “It’s actually quite striking.” Wallisch, seeking to measure the reliability of movie critics, gathered ratings from critics, aggregator sites (think Rotten Tomatoes and The Internet Movie Database (IMDB)) and a multi-year study with 3,000-participants. After determining the correlations of reviews from a pool of over 200 movies, he admits to being astonished—there was not a single film with any hint of a “moderate degree of agreement.”

“The Science of Movies,” presented by Wallisch and organized by Think&Drink NYC’s Gil Avidor, is a stimulating yet relaxed evening talk, suitably tailored to seekers of intelligent nightlife. Wallisch, whose research interests hone in on the intersection of psychology and neuroscience, extolled the virtues of finding your “movie twin,” bemoaned the scarcity of originality (ahem, creativity) in present-day Hollywood, and explained what happens to a brain exposed to a healthy dose of M. Night Shyamalan. Continue reading

Transforming Ourselves: NYAS Panel Examines Human Enhancement

Guest post by science writer Carl Sherman

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Image: Shutterstock

This was the premise of a public symposium at New York Academy of Sciences, presented by the Aspen Brain Institute, the Hastings Center, and the Academy.

While the prospect demands sound scientific policy, its associated moral, social, and political issues require a broader base of expertise. The symposium accordingly brought together a genetics researcher, a futurist and author, and experts on bioethics and artificial intelligence to explore the promise and perils of human enhancement.

“All the technologies we need to fundamentally transform our species already exist,” said futurist and sci-fi novelist Jamie Metzl. “With the mapping of the genome, we could read the code of life; with gene editing technology, we can write it.”

Genomic advances are making reproductive technology transformative, he said. With preimplantation embryo screening, parents can select, among a dozen IVF embryos, one free of certain genetic diseases and with preferred eye color and gender. As personal genotyping spreads, accumulating data will clarify genetic patterns underlying personality, intelligence, physical prowess, appearance, and other traits to give parents a broader spectrum of options.

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Facial Cues and the Brain

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As human beings, we can tend to be a little judgmental–sometimes without even realizing it. When we first meet someone, our brains are busy processing facial features, body language, personality traits, etc., within milliseconds of just saying “hello.” So what characteristics make us assume certain things about people we just meet, and can these unconscious first impressions really change the way we perceive someone?

Expanding on this topic, neuroscientist Jon Freeman, Ph.D., spoke to a room crowded with eager listeners as the featured guest in the latest event from the Secret Science Club. As director of the Social Cognitive & Neural Sciences lab at New York University, Freeman devotes all of his research to understanding “split-second social perception”—that is, how our brains use subtle facial cues, personality traits, and emotion to instantly categorize others into social groups. With the help of brain imaging technology (fMRI), electrophysiology (EEG and ERP), and real-time behavioral techniques, Freeman is able to study activity within the brain in hopes of learning more about the phenomena of snap judgments.

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