NYTimes article on light-triggered stimulation

“It sounds like a science-fiction version of stupid pet tricks: by toggling a light switch, neuroscientists can set fruit flies a-leaping and mice a-twirling and stop worms in their squiggling tracks. But such feats, unveiled in the past two years, are proof that a new generation of genetic and optical technology can give researchers unprecedented power to turn on and off targeted sets of cells in the brain, and to do so by remote control…”

Reviews the use of photosensitive proteins in neuroscience and even gives a shout-out to Ed Boyden, of Stanford and MIT fame…

— Davie (who had the same advisor as Ed for about a day and is therefore 0.01% more famous by association)

Why Americans resist neuroscience more

Science has a special online feature this week on behavioral science. One of the articles is a review by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg (a fellow SymSys alum!) presents some interesting evidence about how dualistic ideas about mind/brain are present from an early age. They state:

Another consequence of people’s common-sense psychology is dualism, the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain (5). This belief comes naturally to children. Preschool children will claim that the brain is responsible for some aspects of mental life, typically those involving deliberative mental work, such as solving math problems. But preschoolers will also claim that the brain is not involved in a host of other activities, such as pretending to be a kangaroo, loving one’s brother, or brushing one’s teeth (5, 17). Similarly, when told about a brain transplant from a boy to a pig, they believed that you would get a very smart pig, but one with pig beliefs and pig desires (18). For young children, then, much of mental life is not linked to the brain.

And,

For one thing, debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses, stem cells, and nonhuman animals are sometimes framed in terms of whether or not these entities possess immaterial souls (20, 21). What’s more, certain proposals about the role of evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging in criminal trials assume a strong form of dualism (22). It has been argued, for instance, that if one could show that a person’s brain is involved in an act, then the person himself or herself is not responsible, an excuse dubbed “my brain made me do it” (23).

The authors conclude that adult resistance to science is strongest in fields where scientific claims are contested by the society (that is, contested by non-science alternatives rather than by scientific uncertainty). They claim that this accounts for the difference in the United States (versus other countries with less vociferous advocacy of non-science) in the resistance to the central tenets of evolutionary biology and neuroscience.

I think this says something important about science education, namely that it should start earlier in life. And there’s no reason that neuroscience should be left as a “college-level” subject. I think modern neuroscience has progressed to the point where we can confidently teach some basics at a high-school or earlier stage. Judging from my own experiences, I think the desire to learn about neuroscience is certainly there in younger children.

Special Computational Neuroscience Issue of Science

The October 6th issue of Science is a special issue devoted to computational neuroscience. From the introduction to the special issue:

Computational neuroscience is now a mature field of research. In areas ranging from molecules to the highest brain functions, scientists use mathematical models and computer simulations to study and predict the behavior of the nervous system. Simulations are essential because the present experimental systems are too complex to allow collection of all the data. Modeling has become so powerful these days that there is no longer a one-way flow of scientific information. There is considerable intellectual exchange between modelers and experimentalists. The results produced in the simulation lab often lead to testable predictions and thus challenge other researchers to design new experiments or reanalyze their data as they try to confirm or falsify the hypotheses put forward. For this issue of Science, we invited leading computational neuroscientists, each of whom works at a different organizational level, to review the latest attempts of mathematical and computational modeling and to give us an outlook on what the future might hold in store.

Of particular interest is a review article by Randall O’Reilly on biologically based computational models. He focuses on models of the pre-frontal cortex.

Multidisciplinary Working Memory Studies Featured

A forthcoming issue of the journal Neuroscience is devoted to an examination of multidisciplinary approaches to the study of working memory within the field of Cognitive Neuroscience. Although the issue will not be released until late April, a detailed press release is available from the University of Washington at St. Louis.

From the article:

“Multidisciplinary research within cognitive neuroscience has established itself as a promising approach to answering the question of how the mind emerges from the working of the brain” […] “One of the fields that has gained substantially by successfully combining the theoretical frameworks, methodologies, empirical results and insights of the varied disciplines within cognitive neuroscience, is the study of working memory”

It goes on to describe a “pyramid approach” to multidisciplinary work in this area, which chiefly involves the merging of cognitive psychology, computational science, neuroscience, and cognitive neuropsychiatry.