Although I’ve been a longtime fan of Ramachandran’s excellent book Phantoms in the Brain, this TED talk is like a compressed summary of the highlight’s of his research. He’s a great speaker and he covers in 20 minutes my two favorite examples in the book (Capgras delusion and mirror treatment for phantom limb syndrome). Perhaps the best part of the talk is that, after listening to it, I was convinced more than ever before of the statistical nature of sensory perception (ie. the brain attempts to find the most likely explanation for sensory observations) and the integrative nature of central processing of multiple modalities.
Atul Gawande also recently wrote a New Yorker article about treating phantom itch with Ramachandran’s mirror box. I found this part of Gawande’s article on statistical inference in perception most interesting:
You can get a sense of this from brain-anatomy studies. If visual sensations were primarily received rather than constructed by the brain, you’d expect that most of the fibres going to the brain’s primary visual cortex would come from the retina. Instead, scientists have found that only twenty per cent do; eighty per cent come downward from regions of the brain governing functions like memory. Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals. When Oaklander theorized that M.’s itch was endogenous, rather than generated by peripheral nerve signals, she was onto something important.
I’m not familiar with this field but I wonder if anyone has tried to quantify what percent of our conscious experience that we normally believe to be 100% due to sensory input is actually recall from memory/inference based on past observation. Also, can this percentage adaptively change? Perhaps there are situations where the brain chooses to rely more heavily on memory and other cases where it relies more on primary sensory input.
The Circadian Clock in the Retina Controls Rod-Cone Coupling (Christophe Ribelayga, Yu Cao, and Stuart C. Mangel)
An amazing paper from Neuron demonstrating adaptive (circadian clock-governed) binning in the retina, based on dopamine modulation of gap junction (electrical) synapses between retinal photodetectors. During the day, abundant dopamine release weakens gap junctions coupling rods and cones together so that visual acuity is high. When light is scarce (at night), there is less dopamine and the electrical coupling between rods and cones is increased. This is analogous to on-chip binning in CCD (digital) cameras. Binning increases signal (in light-limited systems, eg. seeing at night) by increasing optical input area and by reducing single element noise (ie. noise at different photoreceptors should be independent) at the cost of resolution. So, the retina activates photoreceptor binning at night to boost low-light signals and deactivates it during the day to increase resolution. The dopamine comes from cells in the interplexiform layer, whose dopamine release is itself governed by melatonin projections.
Not being a hunter, I’m not sure how much I support this, but I must admit this is at least a very interesting application of psychophysics data. Using deer as subjects in a standard battery of visual psychophysics tests, researchers have engineered a new material/pattern (“Gore Optifade”) that is superior to standard camo for evading detection by deer. Looks like deer are red-green colorblind but have higher acuity in the blue end of spectrum than humans.
Once they had assessed the deer’s visual strengths and weaknesses, Dr. Neitz and Dr. O’Neill worked out colors, textures and shapes with Guy Cramer of HyperStealth Biotechnology, a company that designs military camouflage. Mr. Cramer’s computer algorithms create fractal patterns that exploit a couple of ancient tricks used by animal predators.
The first and most obvious trick is to fade into the background, as a leopard’s spots enable it to do while it’s patiently waiting to ambush a prey. The spots aren’t shaped like leaves or branches, but they form an overall “micropattern” matching the colors and overall texture of the woodland background.
That trick, though, won’t work for a predator on the move, which is why a tiger doesn’t have spots. It has a “macropattern” of stripes that break up the shape of its body as it’s stalking or running.
There is a nice demonstration image with the article showing the same scene viewed with human vs. deer vision.
Echolocating kid, who had both his retinas surgically removed at an early age:
This dramatic example of human neural plasticity is amazing! Someone should go study this kid and his parents and find out more about how he developed his echolocation strategy. Are there other examples of this occurring in the medical literature? I’ve heard that blind people have very good hearing (and other senses) but this seems like a little more than “good hearing.” Also, thanks to Ben Huh for pointing me to this!
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a popular technology for stimulating human cortical neurons, due to its safety, noninvasiveness, and efficacy. A TMS device is just a little coil of wire, through which 10,000 Amps of current is cranked during a period of only a few hundred microseconds; the resultant rapidly-changing magnetic field induces eddy currents in the brain. Depending on the protocol used, TMS can drive/inhibit a region of cortex corresponding to roughly a cubic centimeter or two, and is being explored for the treatment of depression, the reduction of auditory hallucinations during schizophrenia, and the alleviation of tinnitus and migraines. Thousands of papers on medicine and psychology have been written using this tool.
Yet the device itself is expensive and rare — they can run from $20,000 to $50,000 or even more, despite the fact that they are, in essence, a coil, a switch, a bank of capacitors, and a power supply. Much of the art lies in making the devices safe and fail-proof. Is it possible to hack/engineer a system that is safe, fault-tolerant, efficacious, and inexpensive? And furthermore, can we facilitate a community that will devise such devices, and share information about protocols and approaches to brain hacking?
This past August at Foo Camp, a hackers’ conference in Northern California, a group of people got together and set out to do just that. We are designing a safe, noninvasive, modular, and “open source” brain stimulator that will open up the field of circuit modulation to a wider audience. Members of the group include therapists and mental health professionals, engineers, programmers, and others interested in either the development of such devices, or the sharing of information on this front. Key to the design is safety — we want to make sure that the devices we create are as safe as devices on the market. Also, all the information is released under the Creative Commons “Attribution and Sharealike” license. This is a new model for “open source” medical device development — which may move it beyond the domain of simply creating “cool toys,” and to creating real devices.
You can find out more information, or contribute to the project, or learn from the project, at
Today MIT’s Technology Review magazine released its annual list of innovators under the age of 35 who were nominated for recognition. Interestingly, almost a full quarter are doing work relating to or impacting the field of neuroengineering — including ways to tag synapses with quantum dots, activate neurons remotely, improve machine vision, classify whole-brain states for prosthetic purposes, and make nanowire arrays.