Progress in BRAIN Initiative Research

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President Barack Obama fist-bumps the robotic arm of Nathan Copeland during a tour at the White House Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh, Oct. 13, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In the less than three years since the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative was announced, researchers have made measurable progress towards creating new tools and sharpening existing ones to study the brain. Though its goals are long-term, in a few cases this progress already has shown promise in helping people.

These tools “allow us to do things that, in the past, were unimaginable,” said Nora Volkow of the National Institute of Drug Abuse during the third annual BRAIN Initiative investigators meeting, held in Bethesda, Md., this week. For example, imaging tech such as fMRI and PET have enabled us to make maps of brain activity and create a brain atlas of the concentration of serotonin transporters and receptors. But to reach goals as ambitious as characterizing the many types of neurons and other cells in the brain—or even to get a good count of how many types there are—we need to improve both the speed and the resolution of our tools.

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The Ethics of Emerging Technologies

Large crowd for the event, which was open to the public.

Large crowd for the event, which was open to the public.

At last night’s International Neuroethics Society public program, we heard from eight speakers on the ethics of emerging technologies, addressing the potential benefits and risks they raise when applied to health care.

Kate Darling, a specialist in human-robot interaction at MIT, talked about her experience with robots and her hopes and concerns for mainstream integration. She opened her presentation with a personal story from 2007, when she became the owner of a baby dinosaur robot, the size of a small cat, that responded to touch. She would often show it off to friends, demonstrating how it cried when she held it upside down. After a while, though, Darling began to notice that it upset her to hear it cry.

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The Ethics of Genetic Technologies

On Thursday, Dana Alliance member Steven E. Hyman helped the International Neuroethics Society (INS) kick off its annual meeting in San Diego. INS President and fellow Dana Alliance member Judy Illes welcomed attendees and introduced Hyman, who opened the program with his presentation titled, “Emerging Genetics of Human Cognition and Behavior: New Challenges for Ethics and Policy.”

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Steven Hyman, M.D.

“Scientists always knew that genetics would help us,” he began, “but the trouble was that it is fiendishly complex, and the technology was, at the time, unavailable…I truly didn’t expect to live long enough to see [it] develop.”

With the commencement of the Human Genome Project, technologies were suddenly available that allowed scientists to yield information crucial to the sequencing and mapping of all genes. In that same decade, he commented, the BRAIN Initiative and stem cell technologies were also developed, adding another feat to neuroscience research. With this, Hyman said, it suddenly became possible to fundamentally try to understand schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other nervous system diseases, such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and so on.

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A Bayesian Approach to the Brain

The July Report on Progress, by Florent Meyniel, Ph.D., explores the Bayesian concept of the brain, a mathematical theory to neuroscience.

According to the article, Bayesian concepts are appealing to many researchers in fundamental and applied research, including neuroscience. Bayesian tools, part of probability theory, are useful whenever quantitative analysis is needed, such as in statistics, data mining, or forecasting. However, Bayesian concepts have much further reaching implications in neuroscience. They are essential to the way we think about the brain.

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Growing Concern over Internet Addiction Disorder

I didn’t realize how serious Internet addiction was until I read a recent article on The Huffington Post and learned that people can die from it. I know people who are obsessed with certain websites and Internet games that can take up most of their day. Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Science have gone beyond anecdotes and found brain differences in those with an Internet addiction.

The research was conducted on people under the age of 21, half of whom were identified as having Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD). Researchers said that the part of the brain affected by the Internet is linked to emotional processing, executive thinking skills, and cognitive functioning. The brain changes of those with IAD were similar to what to expect from an alcoholic. According to the article, researchers are deciding if Internet and video game addiction should be classified as a mental disorder.

I’ve seen people who check their Facebook page every few minutes or rush home to play the “Call of Duty” videogame. Sadly, they are over 30 years old. I can understand why researchers would consider it a mental disorder because these people are certainly displaying addictive behavior.

The article mentions two deaths that were at least partly attributed to Internet addiction. In 2007, when IAD’s bid for inclusion in the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was rejected, it was understandable, but today the idea of such a thing seems very real.

–Blayne Jeffries

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