Brain Scans Can See What You See

Mind-reading has always been a fantastical feat, possible only in fictional realms such as Marvel Comics (X-Men‘s psychics Professor X and Jean Grey), Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, or Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. However, technology is advancing rapidly, and since the advent of brain scanning techniques such as fMRI–which, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, stands for “functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging” and works by showing blood flow to different areas of the brain–humans have come progressively closer to creating technology that can peer inside their own minds.

Until recently, the most researchers have been able decode is stationary objects–such as when subjects viewed an image of a tree. This is due to the fact that fMRI detects blood flow, which moves slowly compared to the fast-paced neural activity that happens when a subject views moving images.

However, in a study recently published in Current Biology,1 researchers at the University of California demonstrated that by using a complex computer program that filled the gaps in data to approximate fast-paced neural activity, they were able to recreate elements of moving visual scenes from fMRI data. Continue reading

A Gut-Full of Probiotics for Your Neurological Well-Being

Probiotics, often referred to as ‘good bacteria’, are known to promote a healthy gut, but can they promote a healthy mind? Exploring the new world of neurological probiotics, researchers in BioEssays present new ideas on how neurochemicals delivered directly to the gut, via probiotic intestinal microbiota, exert their beneficial effects in maintaining gastrointestinal health and even psychological well-being.

The research, led by Professor Mark Lyte from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center,1 proposes that through a unifying process of microbial endocrinology, neurochemical-producing probiotics could act as a delivery mechanism for neuroactive compounds that could improve a host’s gastrointestinal and psychological health.

“This paper proposes a new field of microbial endocrinology, where microbiology meets neuroscience,” said Lyte. “There is already evidence to suggest that the connection between gut microbes and the nervous system represents a viable route for influencing neurological function. A recent study in mice, for example, showed that the presence of neurochemicals such a serotonin in the bloodstream was due to direct uptake from the gut.” Continue reading

Erasing Memories

Memory erasing is a hot topic in Hollywood. From the 1997 sci-fi flick Men in Black to the 2004 romantic comedy Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, characters are constantly trying to erase painful or dangerous memories from their minds. While neuroscientists are currently aiming their memory-erasing efforts at clinical conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder, they are making progress that may one day allow you to erase any memory you desire.

Memory formation essentially works like this:

  • Sensory information (wind on your face, the smell of coffee, a Picasso painting) is encoded as electrical pulses called action potentials.
  • Action potentials cause glutamate, an important neurotransmitter, to exit one nerve cell (neuron), cross a small channel of space called a synapse, and bind to receptors on the next neuron, which chemically activates the next cell to transmit the impulse and glutamate-release along the chain of neurons. Read more here! ⇒
  • Ultimately, this signal reaches the areas of the brain responsible for encoding memory: the amygdala, and the hippocampus.
  • When the amygdala and the hippocampus are simultaneously activated by glutamate and an electrical pulse, that particular “community” of neurons is changed to become more sensitive to each other. In this way, a memory is formed.

Because memory is created by experience, we are sometimes stuck remembering experiences we’d rather forget. This is especially true for PTSD patients, whose traumatic experience causes significant neurological patterns to take root and, often times, disrupt their lives. To try and help these individuals, some scientists have begun to investigate ways to actually erase memories from our brains.

During his research on memory formation, Joe Tsien of the Medical College of Georgia found that the enzyme CaMKII plays a significant role in memory consolidation. However, in experiments with mice, Tsien found that if he increased CaMKII above a normal limit while the mouse was remembering an experience, the connections between the neurons suddenly weakened and the memory would vanish. This effect happens within a few minutes, and it is permanent and selective: the memory being recalled is erased, while all other memories are left intact. 1

Meanwhile, researchers at UCLA targeted the enzyme kinase M in their memory research. Using Aplysia—a type of marine slug, they first gave the slug a memory: a shock to its tail. For as long as a week after the initial shock, the slug would still retract its tail for a full 30 seconds when touched on the same spot, proving that it had formed a memory. Next, the researchers injected the slug with zeta inhibitory peptide, which blocked the activity of kinase M. When the slugs were prodded again twenty-four hours later, they flinched for only a moment before relaxing—the same reaction they showed when they were poked before the shock. 2 State University of New York professor Todd Sacktor has demonstrated similar results with rats. 3

The bottom line is that scientists are moving step-by-step toward being able to target memories in the brain and erase them. The closer we get to achieving this goal, however, the more closely we will have to examine the ethical implications, lest we end up with scenarios like those in Paycheck (2003) or Total Recall (1990)….

Resources from Wiley on This Topic
Rebuilding Shattered Lives: Treating Complex PTSD and Dissociative Disorders, 2nd Edition

by James A. Chu

Handbook of Neural Engineering

by Metin Akay

Enzyme Technologies: Metagenomics, Evolution, Biocatalysis and Biosynthesis

by Wu-Kuang Yeh, Hsiu-Chiung Yang, James R. McCarthy

1. Wang, H., Feng, R., Wang, L., Li, F., Cao, X., & Tsien, J. (2008). CaMKII Activation State Underlies Synaptic Labile Phase of LTP and Short-Term Memory Formation Current Biology, 18 (20), 1546-1554 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2008.08.064
2. Cai D, Pearce K, Chen S, & Glanzman DL (2011). Protein kinase m maintains long-term sensitization and long-term facilitation in aplysia. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31 (17), 6421-31 PMID: 21525283
3. Shema, R., Sacktor, T., & Dudai, Y. (2007). Rapid Erasure of Long-Term Memory Associations in the Cortex by an Inhibitor of PKM Science, 317 (5840), 951-953 DOI: 10.1126/science.1144334