What does it really mean to be "smart?"

CNN News ran a segment last month on the meaning and impact of intelligence on a person’s life, as measured through a test such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale which gives an “IQ.” Dr. John Gabrieli of MIT displays brain scans that  show functional differences between brains of low IQ and high IQ subjects while completing intelligence tests in an MRI scanner. The higher IQ brain shows less activity than the lower IQ brain during the same task, indicating that smarter brains are more efficient.

The findings on IQ mentioned in the report are remarkable. The standing debate on the importance of IQ is also on display here. Researchers have found that 25% of what makes one successful can be attributed to IQ -but Dr. Gabrieli points to findings that increases in IQ are linked to “a better paying job, a healthy future, more stability in your family life.” This makes the prospect of “training intelligence” to increase IQ scores all the more alluring and relevant. A demonstration of a computer working memory task that is used to “train intelligence” is featured in the segment.

Watch the segment here:


Read more about the working memory task featured in the segment:


-A Neurodudes Reader

IBM Cat Brain Simulation Scuffle: Symbolic?

You’ve probably read by now about the announcement by IBM’s Cognitive Computing group that they had created a “computer system that simulates and emulates the brain’s abilities for sensation, perception, action, interaction and cognition” at the “scale of a cat cortex”.    For their work, the IBM team led by Dharmendra Modha was awarded the ACM Gordon Bell prize, which recognizes “outstanding achievement in high-performance computing”.

A few days later, Henry Markram, leader of the Blue Brain Project at EPFL, sent off an e-mail to IBM CTO Bernard Meyerson harshly criticizing the IBM press release, and cc’ed several reporters. This brought a spate of shock media into the usually placid arena of computational neuroscience reporting, with headlines such as “IBM’s cat-brain sim a ‘scam,’ says Swiss boffin: Neuroscientist hairs on end”, and “Meow! IBM cat brain simulation dissed as ‘hoax’ by rival scientist”.  One reporter chose to highlight the rivalry as cat versus rat, using the different animal model choice of the two researchers as a theme.  Since then, additional criticisms from Markram have appeared online.

Find out more after the jump.

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SfN party update

Neurodudes is out at SfN this year (well 2/3rds of us, at least!) Being from MIT, as I run into old friends on the poster floor, it seems like this year I’m getting asked more about “When and where are the MIT parties?” (which we are known to be epic) than, say, “How’s it going?” or “When is your poster?” You should be ashamed of yourselves! (And, really, don’t you want to hear about our cool images of growing axons? Come by poster B9 on Monday afternoon to see some neat stochastic modeling techniques applied to this data to find some general principles of how axons elongate.)

Then again, what is SfN without some great partying? A zoo of posters and tired feet!

Sadly, I believe the MIT Picower party has gone the way of Bernie Madoff. In fact, that’s literally the case. Happily, there are some alternatives. Almost all of them are happening on Sunday night. These include the Neuron party, a UChicago party at a local rock club, and the “unofficial” MIT party (a house party thrown by the 2nd year class). Since I’m not directly involved in any of these efforts, I’ll abstain from posting details here. But those of you who know me can check out my Facebook for details on two of them or, if you haven’t joined the social network craze, just drop me a line. Tomorrow night should be fun! And since my poster is on Monday after most of the partying is over, at least I’ll know that those of you who stop by are there for the science and not to extract party details…

Frontiers in Neuroscience Journal

The journal, Frontiers in Neuroscience, edited by Idan Segev, has made it Volume 3, issue 1.  Launching last year at the Society for Neuroscience conference, its probably the newest Neuroscience-related journal.

I’m a fan of it because it is an open-access journal featuring a “tiered system” and more.  From their website:

The Frontiers Journal Series is not just another journal. It is a new approach to scientific publishing. As service to scientists, it is driven by researchers for researchers but it also serves the interests of the general public. Frontiers disseminates research in a tiered system that begins with original articles submitted to Specialty Journals. It evaluates research truly democratically and objectively based on the reading activity of the scientific communities and the public. And it drives the most outstanding and relevant research up to the next tier journals, the Field Journals.

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IARPA and trust detection

Neurodudes reader Jason M. sent me some information about a funding agency, IARPA, or Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, that is funding neuroscience-related research. I had never heard of IARPA before but it has existed since 2006 as something of an intelligence-focused DARPA. There upcoming funding deadline (Aug 21) is for projects on detecting trust signals between humans.

Just last night, I watched the tense but amazing film The Hurt Locker (don’t let the name disuade you, see the phenomenal Metacritic rating), which is about a bomb disposal squad during the recent Iraq War. There is one particularly stirring scene with a suicide bomber who claims that he was forced to wear a vest with explosives and doesn’t want to go through with it. The difficulty in the limited time before the bomb explosion revolves around whether to actually trust the man and the challenge of trusting someone when neither party speaks the other’s language. You can certainly at least understand (putting aside the ethics of war itself) why governments are interested in detecting nonverbal trust cues.

Details about the IARPA call for proposals are after the jump. Continue reading

How to prepare for a PhD in neuroscience

UPDATED 7/26/2009: Click more (or scroll to the end of the post) to see what the student ended up choosing as a major.

Yesterday, I received this email from a freshman preparing for a future in neuroscience:

Dear Neville

My name is […]. I’m a freshman in Biomedical Engineering at the [university in] Mexico City.

After graduation, I am very interested in pursuing the Brain and Cognitive Sciences graduate program. Given your experience, I would like to ask you for some advice.

Over the last few months, I have been thinking about pursuing a major in Electrical Engineering instead. My goal would be to have more engineering tools for my further studies in Neuroscience. Based on your courses, which focus do you think would be more useful to have as an undergraduate? Are there any courses which you would recommend I take to build a stronger background?

I greatly appreciate any guidance you could provide.

Although there are other places to find advice on preparing for a PhD (for instance, economist N. Greg Mankiw has a few advice posts including this one on preparatory math classes), I figured that my take might be unique enough to share it with others. Neuroscience, like other fields, is becoming ever more interdisciplinary and being “a biologist that studies the brain” is just not enough anymore.

Here’s what I wrote back:

I think you’re on a good path for applying to BCS. I think it’s better to major in EE or BE rather than neuroscience or psychology to prepare for a BCS PhD. It’s easy to pick up the neuroscience in graduate school and harder to develop basic hard science and quantitative skills later on. Between BE and EE, I think you will have to decide. Either one should potentially give you a good background. Think about which one is more exciting to you and which program has better instructors.

Here are key quantitative areas I’d recommend:

  • Linear algebra,
  • probability theory/stats,
  • differential equations,
  • signal processing (Fourier transform and linear systems analysis)

A good command of these topics will serve you well in graduate school and far beyond. These topics are probably more closely aligned with an EE background, but, again, I think BE could be a great major if you make sure to add these kinds of rigorous engineering/applied math courses. Additional helpful quantitative topics would be electricity and magnetism and basic stat mech. (The nervous system is, in part, electrical and neuroscience makes extensive use of diffusion equations.)

More broadly, a neuroscientist is a type of biologist. With the age of genetics and genomics upon us, I think it is great to know some biochemistry, genetics, and organic chemistry (roughly in that order of importance). And, after all of that, if your schedule allows, take some courses that are specific to neuroscience, ethology, or cognitive science. I found it very beneficial to take a medical school neuroanatomy course before graduate school, which was really my only neuroscience course pre-MIT. A first course that emphasizes such raw memorization will get you up to speed with the field and its specialized lingo quite well.

And, since you speak Spanish, I recommend this wonderful book by the most pre-eminent neuroscientist (Santiago Ramon y Cajal)… it’s full of great advice about doing science well: Los tónicos de la voluntad (Reglas y consejos sobre investigación científica) (In English, there is a recent translation: Advice for a Young Investigator.)

Feel free to add your own sound advice in the comments below.
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