Sunday, December 31, 2006

Painting post - last one for this year - and a happy new year on that note:

This did not come out as well as I wished it would, but this oil titled 'Hazy Shades of Winter' is 48 inches by 36 inches. I finished it in about four days and maybe that explains why parts of it are a bit sloppy (I was not the happiest with this one)... You tell me....

Friday, December 29, 2006

When opposites become apposite...

In my view, science is the ultimate unifier - looking relentlessly for universal truths that explain phenomena with simple clarifying concepts. Art on the other hand is in the other extreme - the epitome of self expression, uniqueness and individuality. It is indeed refreshing when the both come together. OK, what am I talking about now…

These two worlds came together in a refreshing fusion this week at Princeton University.

Art of Science asked the Princeton University community to submit images including videos and audio produced in the course of research or incorporating tools and concepts from science. Here are the results.
Quite amazing, I must say!!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Sobering column that appears everyday in the New York Times (for the last four years) this was from today's Times:

You know after a while a lot of this becomes just statistic. I usually scan the names, remember the dead people (soldiers and the uncounted civilians) and move on - but this time I was struck by the fact that all people listed dead above were in their 20's.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The teen brain - a work in progress and driving implications :

An overwhelming amount of research is slowly bringing to light the fact that the teen brain is very much a work in progress and a lot of the 'neuronal sculpting and pruning' that takes place as the child matures through the teen years is incomplete at least until the age of 21 to 22... I remember as a teen (about 20 years back), I used to sneak into a lower shelf in my family cupboard and 'help myself' to money kept there to to buy cool jeans. For some reason my father did not confront me, but one day the goose that laid the golden eggs stopped replenishing itself and I often wondered if my father 'noticed'. I also remember sneaking out on my father’s motorcycle a couple of times without his knowledge and without any sort of a valid license to drive. I was 15 then. Looking back in retrospect, it seems stupid and unreasonable to assume that my father would not 'notice'. Research can now conclusively tell us that the teen brain is undergoing a huge amount of structural changes. In fact the following have been conclusively proved:

1. The first areas to mature (e.g., extreme front and back of the brain) are those with the most basic functions, such as processing the senses and movement.
2. Areas involved in spatial orientation and language (parietal lobes) follow.
3. Areas with more advanced functions -- integrating information from the senses, reasoning and other "executive" functions (prefrontal cortex) - mature last.

The actions outlined in 3 above takes place post puberty and extends over 8-10 years (until they are 21 or 22)... In fact actions that are directed by the pre-frontal cortex involve critical integrative functions like organize plans, generate ideas, set priorities, form strategies, control impulses, and allocate attention. In retrospect all of this was what I lacked when I helped myself to get the jeans and drove outside on my motorcycle in unbridled frivolity.

In fact a couple of months back, there was the case of a teen who texted her suicide notes as she drove her Mercedes into a oncoming Daewoo. The mother of three in the Daewoo died as a result while the teen survived. Highly irrational behavior like this can be rationalized a bit more when we understand that Louise Egan Brunstad's (later charged with murder as an adult) neuronal connections were not sculpted or pruned enough for her to think or plan or strategize her next course of actions in light of her current conditions. Of course, this opens up a bunch of ethical arguments again - do not blame the child, blame the brain - but nonetheless brings to light the fact that we need to pay closer attention to teen brains in formative modes and maybe legislate that actions that require a surprisingly large amount of planning and thinking - like driving for example should maybe be the purview of 21 year olds instead of 16-18 year old...

Of course, some of this might be a little extreme, but Louise’s case above and a bunch of other similar cases may have a case in point.

Related papers of interest:

The Adolescent Brain: A Work in Progress - A good article on changes going on in the teen brain with a focus on preventing teen pregnancy

What’s Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life By Lise Eliot, Ph.D.

What Makes Teens Tick? - Article in TIME on the teen brain...

Cruel and Unusual Punishment: The Juvenile Death Penalty Adolescence, Brain Development and Legal Culpability - A good flyer put out by the American Bar Association that talks about law and the teen brain and the ramifications

Neuronal Regulation: A Mechanism For Synaptic Pruning During Brain Maturation by Gal Chechik and Isaac Meilijson
- a little mathematical, but a good read nevertheless

Are Teens Driving Safer? By Pilar S. Marin and Brett V. Brown, Ph.D, Child Trends

The First Three Years of Life and the Early Adolescent: Influences of Biology and Behavior - Implications for Child Rearing by Donald E. Greydanus, MD; Helen D. Pratt, PhD; Dilip R. Patel, MD - A CME review article

Teen driving - should states impose tougher restrictions?

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Brains filling in or blanking out?

What you see is not reality in this really impressive optical illusion...

"If your eyes follow the movement of the rotating pink dot, you will only see one color, pink. If you stare at the black + in the center, the moving dot turns to green. Now, concentrate on the black + in the center of the picture. After a short period of time, all the pink dots will slowly disappear, and you will only see a green dot rotating if you're lucky! It's amazing how our brain works. There really is no green dot, and the pink ones really don't disappear. This should be proof enough, we don't always see what we think we see."

The following site gives a lot more optical illusions that fool our brains if you are really into this kind of stuff...

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

An aside on ethical dilemmas in brain research:

As research deepens our understanding of the human brain, it is becoming clearer that the distinctions between abnormal and normal brains and concomitant functions are getting more and more blurred. In many cases we are slowly proving that abnormal behavior manifested is due to either inbuilt genetic makeup or genetic changes forced due to conditioning of the human brain in particular environmental settings.

Distinctions between mental or psychiatric diseases and neurological disorders are lost as science progresses towards a more exact understanding of neurological phenomena and unifying explanations that seem to reduce the stigmas associated with psychiatric diseases. On the one hand it empowers the patient in the sense that patients seem to have a better understating of exactly why they are behaving in a certain fashion (abnormal to many but seemingly normal to the patient and the neurologist) down to the molecular detail. This gives the patient a new sense of confidence and in some cases causes reversal of the stated condition (a case of knowing the ailment modifying the behavior of the individual).

On the flip side, we now run the risk of having criminally violent individuals armed with new knowledge of what goes on inside their heads down to the molecular level portraying themselves as mere puppets of the neural machinery that they are endowed with and shaped by the environment. The extreme case of a newly-wed filing a £3.5 million compensation claim against employers, stating that his marriage was ruined because his sex drive spiraled out of control after he injured his head at work is a case in point.
As pointed out in numerous papers at the end of this post, research is revealing patterns of neural activity and gene lines that may be responsible for criminally violent behavior. How do we deal with individuals like this - blame ostracize the individual who committed the crime or blame the environment that the individual was placed in that modified his neural genetic machinery to make the person behave in a 'abnormal (read criminally violent)' fashion..? What about the future when neurologists can predict the predisposition of certain individuals to 'abnormal' behavior based on certain ‘environmental markers’ that could change their neural machinery in socially inappropriate ways? When would society decide to intervene and make changes in an individual’s life based on 'prescient' information about the nature of ones evolving neural machinery..
This is but of a host of minefields that will undoubtedly be uncovered as humankind goes deeper into unraveling the mysteries of what lies within our heads...

Monday, December 18, 2006

Painting post:

OK, I managed to finish this one over the weekend, took about three weeks to complete, but I think it was well worth the effort. Again, this canvas is one of my standard sizes (48 inches by 36 inches) and the technique consists of juxtaposing solid oil tones against opposing contrasting hues. I am satisfied with what I achieved this time around although I am still refining the technique.
The painting is titled 'Buy Me Bring Me Take Me'.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Congenital AVMs and the United States Senate:

Majority control of the United States Senate lies a bit in balance with one of the senators of the leading party in hospital after suffering a brain hemorrhage. I thought this might be a good time to focus on the nature of the condition that led to the hemorrhaging in the senator’s brain. The senator suffered from what is called a "congenital arteriovenous malformation". Even if the name sounds a little foreboding, this is relatively simple to understand.

Normally, arteries carry blood containing oxygen from the heart to the brain, and veins carry blood with less oxygen away from the brain and back to the heart. When an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) occurs, a tangle of blood vessels in the brain or on its surface bypasses normal brain tissue and directly diverts blood from the arteries to the veins. It is estimated that about one in 200–500 people may have an AVM and more common in males than women. Brain AVMs are usually congenital but not hereditary (meaning you may be born with one but will not pass it onto your children)...

As a brain AVM contains abnormal (“weakened”) blood vessels, they sometimes dilate over time and may eventually burst from the high pressure of blood flow from the arteries causing bleeding into the brain. The bursting may be precipitated by several factors that include exercise, stress or sometimes something as common as a sudden stop while riding in a car…

Most AVMs are detected on either a computed tomography (CT) brain scan or with a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scan. These AVMs can be surgically removed if bleeding occurs. The other ways of treating this would be to 'scar' part of the blood vessel supplying the AVM (using a technique called stereotactic radiosurgery) and allowing the AVM to 'clot off'. There are other advanced ways of treating this inclusing the usage of catheters inside the blood vessels and deploying certain specialized materials to block off the blood flowing into the AVM. Not too sure which one of this was performed on the senator..

It is interesting to note that the senator showed signs of speech slurring and had to be taken to the hospital following that. This would indicate that the AVM was somewhere in the left anterior parietotemporal lobe (just my layman theory) ;-)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Off topic but interesting: Stoneth

If there is one person on a photo blog that I follow closely, it is stoneth on flickr. He compiles images and stories about poverty in the US, bittersweet most of the time...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Possible early detection for Alzheimer’s??

Researchers at New York’s Weill Cornell Medical College found discovered certain biomarkers (a substance whose detection in our bodies indicates a particular disease state (for example, the presence of an antibody may indicate an infection)) that might seem to herald a new early test for Alzheimer’s (much before the actual onset of this devastating disease).

Researchers at Cornell seem to have found out a set of 23 proteins in the cerebrospinal fluid that seem to be an indicator for the onset of Alzheimer’s.

"Scientists believe that Alzheimer’s begins its insidious brain attack years, even decades, before forgetfulness appears — and if so, there should be evidence of those changes in the spinal fluid"

"Using a technology called proteomics, they simultaneously examined 2,000 proteins found in the spinal fluid of 34 people who died with autopsy-proven Alzheimer’s, comparing it to the spinal fluid of 34 non-demented people.
What emerged were 23 proteins, many that by themselves had never been linked to Alzheimer’s but that together formed a fingerprint of the disease."

All the patient will be required to undergo will be a spinal tap and they could be diagnosed as to whether they are at the risk of contracting Alzheimer’s later in life.
Of course a lot of this research will need to be conclusively proven, but I think that this is a quite a start for us and has a lot of potential...

"There is no single, comprehensive diagnostic test for Alzheimer's disease. Instead, doctors rule out other conditions through a process of elimination. They usually conduct physical, psychological and neurological exams and take a thorough medical history. Diagnosis is about 90 percent accurate, but the only way to confirm it is through autopsy."

"There is no medical treatment currently available to cure or stop the progression of Alzheimer's disease. There are currently five FDA-approved Alzheimer's drugs – Namenda, Cognex, Aricept, Exelon and Reminyl -- that may temporarily relieve some symptoms of the disease. Several other drugs are in development."

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Top 5 strategic areas for research in neuroscience:

As I read more topics and books on neuroscience, the more I realize that we have only scratched the surface in understanding what really goes on in our heads. This led me to look at various sources across the web in compiling a list of five principle strategic areas that we need to focus to understand at a deeper level the activities of the ‘wet web’ that is within our heads. With this in mind, I am proposing the following five broad areas of research that universities and governments across the world will need to invest time, brains and money for achieving a better understanding in neuroscience.

1. Experience and environment driven modification of genes in the neural realm
Research and investments into genetic modifications due to neural activity in response to life events, environment, culture, beliefs, preferences and intentions across demographic groups such as family, community, society and nations. The impact of religion, ethnicity and race would be an additional orthogonal factor to the effects of the above and will need to be studied as well. This initiative will need to be funded and coordinated across multiple universities across the world.

2. Functional understanding of neural substrates spatially
Investments and research into understanding the functional aspects of different parts or 'spaces' in the human brain. Being able to zoom in or out to understand, display and explain activity in response to intrinsic and extrinsic stimulation at different levels - the synapse, the neuron, the cortical column, ensembles of cortical columns, circuits of cortical ensembles and so on until we are able to functionally explain activities across the whole brain in response to stimulus. This kind of a coordinated multi-level integration and formulation needs to be directed across various universities and hospitals. Investments in imaging technologies are crucial and the only way this will go forward.

3. Functional understanding of neural substrates temporally
Research and investments into collecting neural modifications over time. Coordinated research into clarifying changes that happen at microscopic levels like individual synapses to macroscopic levels like modifications in coordinated neural circuits that can be 'snapshotted' temporally over the lifetime of study subjects. This will yield valuable information among others on ageing, development, neurogenesis, neural substrate atrophy and temporal modification of neural activity due to disease onset/progression. This is time consuming expensive research that could span the average lifetime of a human and should be started as soon as possible

4. Databasing the brain across multiple realms - neuroinformatics
None of the above comes to fruition without extensive investments and programs in neuroinformatics. In fact there is little hope of making progress in the spatial and temporal domains described above unless we build up data warehouses that can be tapped across high speed networks by researchers across the world. This will require new university initiatives or retooling of existing informatics programs and network protocols to equip and position ourselves into providing for tomorrow’s neuroinformatics data explosion. Tools that help correlate, slice and integrate information across various data stores and common protocols and those that marry disparate data formats will also have to be studied and implemented.

5. Neurobiological basis to understanding the mind and neuroethics
Formulating a unified theory to defining the mind through the integration of various neurobiological research areas. Extensive research needs to focus on the various ‘neurobiologies’ – among others, I may quote here are the neurobiology of the senses, feeling, abstract thought, rationality, emotions and thinking culminating in a unified neurobiological understanding of consciousness. This can be achieved only by integrating results from all of the above strategies into a coherent whole that will allow us to better define our mind and self. Congruent with this research will be investments made into understanding and defining neuroethics and clearly defining boundaries for the mind and brain and legislating the definitions of brain death and mental illness in a more substantive way.

1. Antonio Rosa Damasio MD, PhD
- Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain

2. Antonio M. Battro MD
- Half a brain is enough

3. Huda Akil PhD
- Mind Brain and Neuroscience

4. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran MD, PhD
- The perception of phantom limbs: The D. O. Hebb lecture. Brain, 121, 1603-1630.

5. James L. McClelland
- Retrieving general and specific information from stored knowledge of specifics: Proceedings of the Third Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, 170-172.

6. Alexander Romanovich Luria
- The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About A Vast Memory

7. Patricia S. Churchland and Terrence J. Sejnowski
- A Critique of Pure Vision

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Painting Post

This is my latest oil done about 3 weeks back titled "The Veil - A Mea Culpa". Although this is not intended to be a commentary on recent issues surrounding the veil (also called head scarf amongst other things) around the world, that surely will add to the backdrop when looking at the painting.

As always, I have painted a face - following my belief that the human face frames and communicates the essence of all emotions, concealed or otherwise. The size of the painting is 36 inches wide and 48 inches tall.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Brain computer interfaces: New hope for paralyzed individuals with mostly intact brain functions:

25-year-old Matthew Nagle changed the channels on his TV, adjusted the volume and read an e-mail. These feats may not sound impressive, but they earned him a spot on the cover of the July 13, 2006 issue of the journal Nature (and caused a media uproar) because Nagle is a quadriplegic, paralyzed in 2001 by a knife wound that severed his spinal cord. Thanks to a system called BrainGate, Nagle was able to manipulate the TV controls, as well as a prosthetic hand, using his thoughts alone.

This company called Braingate (developed by John Donoghue, head of the Brain Science Program at Brown University, through a company he co-founded: Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems) is piloting a device called Neural Interface System which consists of attaching tiny electrodes to parts of the motor strip in the brain which decodes the ensuing electrical activity into purported actions that the device wearer 'wants' to do. A dumbed down way of saying this would be that the device actually reads your thoughts.
What it is really doing is that the computer connected to the device decodes the 'motor intentions' of the individual. The electrical activity can then be used by the computer to move or align objects in the immediate periphery of the individual. Of course these objects will need to have some kind of a connection to the computer and the computer will need to go through several learning sessions to correlate certain patterns of neural electrical activity into planned goals on behalf of the individual.

"The system is designed to restore functionality for a limited, immobile group of severely motor-impaired individuals. It is expected that people using the BrainGate™ System will employ a personal computer as the gateway to a range of self-directed activities. These activities may extend beyond typical computer functions (e.g., communication) to include the control of objects in the environment such as a telephone, a television and lights."

For people living with paralysis, the technology has the potential to be life-changing.

A little more info on the implant:
The implant is a square silicon chip just four millimeters (about 1/6 of an inch) wide, studded with an array of 100 hair-thin electrodes. The chip sits on the surface of the motor cortex, while the electrodes delve midway into the two-millimeter-thick cortex to eavesdrop on neurons that normally signal muscles to move. A bundle of gold wires sends those signals out through a connector affixed to the top of the skull, and to an amplifier; they then travel by fiber-optic cable to a set of computers. During training sessions for BrainGate, the computer software learns to associate patterns of neural activity with the intent to move a hand in a particular direction; it can use those intentions to pilot a computer cursor or, if all goes as planned, a motorized wheelchair.

Think of a future where severely paralyzed people will be surrounded by intelligent robots that will feed them, clean them and cook for them exactly the way they wanted it - all through reading the thoughts of the individual.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Today is World AIDS day.