Amazing human neural plasticity

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!

Neurotechnology Ventures: New Course

Our brains have a lot of problems that need to be solved — now. And neurotechnology is a hot field. But what knowledge and skills do you study if you want to be a neurotechnologist? What problems are important, but also tractable within a reasonable timeframe? And, can you survive while climbing this possibly-very-high mountain?

A team of three academics at MIT and the University of Hong Kong is launching an international collaboration to create a set of novel courses to address this need. The first one, Neurotechnology Ventures, is being taught in Spring 2007 and focuses on neurotechnologies that are close to solving major human problems. The class explores the problems that neurotechnologists encounter when envisioning, planning, and building startups to bring neuroengineering innovations to the world.

Emphasizing the global nature of any modern neurotechnology, Neurotechnology Ventures will be videoconferenced between the U.S. and China, which is increasingly becoming a major neurotechnology player (including some very daring and scientifically interesting developments in fields such as human spinal cord regenerative medicine). Information will be posted online as the class evolves dynamically, to the web site HTTP:// The goal is to open up this new field to the world, and see if we can solve the major problems of the brain in an open and efficient way.


Help Please: Future of Neural Engineering: From Job perspective

Dear Members,
I am a prospective graduate student interested in taking up Neural Engineering under EE or Biomedical Engg for research. But I have a lot of concerns and need help from a person who knows about the field well.
1. I have studied VLSI, DSP, Image Processing, Wireless Communication, Control Systems and Embedded Systems as graduate and undergraduate courses and have some research interest in Neural Networks and Machine Learning(That’s how I got interested in Neural Engg and Prosthetics). Which of these subjects will be of help in Neural Engg/Prosthetics research. Which will be of most relevance. Please list them in the order of relevance(high->low).
2. What are the applications of the research ?
3. What is the research and JOB scope for this field? Are there any companies who recruit people with this specialisation? How is the job scene in academia? How many univs are doing research in this field in US? Please let me know about the career progression in academia, like how much time does it take to get full time academic position after PhD?
4. Especially, what are the applications of this research in Robotics?
5. What are the current problems and research themes in universities?
6. What imaging technologies are used in this research?

Though my queries may seem a bit ameteuristic, it is very important for me to get clarity on these doubts.
Hope my queries will be answered.
Thanking all of you in advance,

Neuroengineering and the MIT TR35 innovators

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.

A ubiquitous human parasite that shapes human culture?

In the provocative-hypothesis-of-the-week department:

Kevin Lafferty, a parasitologist, has put forth the idea that a fairly ubiquitous parasite (infecting O(10%) of Americans, and up to 2/3 of people in places like Brazil) is responsible for some of the diversity of human culures (1). The parasite uses common housecats to increase its transmission to the next host in the life cycle, and has a subtle effect on human personality, with some studies claiming that it even causes neuroticism, and even schizophrenia. (One clinical report (2) claims that “subjects with latent toxoplasmosis had higher intelligence [and] lower guilt proneness.” Hmm!)

Anyway, Lafferty noted that toxoplasmosis varies in prevalence from world region to world region, and then tries to draw correlates between these prevalences and local cultures:

“Drivers of the geographical variation in the prevalence of this parasite include the effects of climate on the persistence of infectious stages in soil, the cultural practices of food preparation and cats as pets. Some variation in culture, therefore, may ultimately be related to how climate affects the distribution of T. gondii, though the results only explain a fraction of the variation in two of the four cultural dimensions, suggesting that if T. gondii does influence human culture, it is only one among many factors.”

I wonder how one could test this hypothesis? Look for recent immigrants from one culture to another, who have lower Toxoplasmosis incidence? (Preferably finding populations that go in opposite directions, as a control.) Track culture change vs. migration vs. climate change?

Unlikely, perhaps. But nice that people are still thinking big 🙂


(1) Lafferty, K
Can the common brain parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, influence human culture?
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Picked up by the popular press here

(2) Flegr J, Havlicek J.
Changes in the personality profile of young women with latent toxoplasmosis.
Folia Parasitol (Praha). 1999;46(1):22-8.

Picower vs. McGovern

Interesting developments — although, hard to know precisely how serious any of this is. Any thoughts from students, postdocs, others in the trenches at MIT (and willing to give perspective to the outside world)?

Boston Globe, July 15

“The professors, in a letter to MIT’s president, Susan Hockfield , accuse professor Susumu Tonegawa of intimidating Alla Karpova , “a brilliant young scientist,” saying that he would not mentor, interact, or collaborate with her if she took the job and that members of his research group would not work with her.”

Boston Globe, July 19

“In a letter responding to professors who wanted MIT to investigate the senior professor’s treatment of the job recruit, Hockfield said there are “ongoing tensions among MIT’s neuroscience entities” and suggested that the current situation “threatens ongoing disruption of the collegiality of our academic enterprise.” The letter, dated Monday, was obtained by the Globe.”

Major Journal Calls for Synthesis in Neuroscience

Nature Neuroscience’s editorial board posts a call for a change (doi:10.1038/nn0406-457) in the incentive structure of neuroscience in favor of funding initiatives that foster synthesis.

A quote from the article:

“To shift the emphasis toward quality rather than quantity of scientific results, funding agencies could support specific integrative initiatives, such as large-scale meta-analyses in unresolved areas or experiments to tackle particularly contentious conflicts in the existing literature.”

It goes on:

“Simply having more time to think and interact with colleagues could foster consolidation and conceptual breakthroughs. Unfortunately for many academic researchers, such ruminating might carry the stigma of inactivity or, worse, speculation. However, science is largely a creative process, and the minds of scientists are ultimately its greatest resource. Legitimizing time for creative synthetic thought through funding might be an inexpensive way to shift the current incentive structure.”

This could be the beginning of an important change in the culture of the field.

PLoS Biology: Men, Women, and Ghosts in Science

PLoS Biology: Men, Women, and Ghosts in Science [open access article]

I don’t agree with all of the conclusions of this article but it is the #1 article on PLoS biology right now. (For example, I’m not so sure that the genetic differences in “thinking style” predisposes physics to be a field with less than 50% women.) But there are several interesting thoughts here, including a bit on autism as an extreme form of the “maleness” in the brain.

Free online high-res brain atlas

Neurodudes reader John sent us this nice link to a high-resolution online atlas with human, macaque, and mouse brains.

I haven’t explored the site very much, but the quality seems very impressive and you really can’t beat the price. It also looks like the authors are planning to expand the atlas soon and have already started building desktop tools for easy 2D and 3D navigation. Thanks, John!


Myomancy is my blog on research into ADHD, dyslexia and autism. Its aim is to take the scientific research and make it accessible for parents, sufferers and educators. My background is in computers but my interest in nueroscience comes from a lifetime of trying to understand how my dyslexic brain was different from everyone else. This interest grew into a hobby and it now threatens to become semi-professional involvement following my successful dyslexia treatment and the lauch on Myomancy.

Chris Tregenza