Category Archives: neuroscience

The Worst Fantasy of all will get me KILLED

Today’s Daily Prompt: How would your life be different if you were incapable of feeling fear? Would your life be better or worse than it is now?

Why give up the ability to feel fear? Fear is a very real response to situations that are potentially dangerous to us- like a bear or a shark trying to attack us. It activate our ‘fight or flight’ response (pictured above). If we lose the ability to feel fear, we would not be able to calculate the dangers in front of us, and we would die very early.

 

Manchester Science Festival 2013 photo gallery

BRAINS: Mind as Matter:

Gigantic Graphene model:

Ice Lab:

Eye & I:

 

Brian Bits:

PIg’s brain Dissection:

Brain Bits: Research, Demonstrations and Dissection

In another one of my exploits at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Insdustry last week, I stumbled upon the ‘Brain Bits’ event. This is another great event brought about by the fabulous organisers of this year’s Science Festival, which drew to a close yesterday. In ‘Brain Bits’, various researchers set up stalls at the top floor of the museum to talk about their research and/ or products to the public. As seen on the pictures below, these people talked about topics such as Alzheimer’s disease, vision, motor skills and coordination, seizures, and more. They explained, based on current research findings, which mostly were their own, how diseases spread, develop and can be slowed down. One group of researchers actually invited the public to take part in their experiment which looked at motor skills in flies (the actual names of which escapes me!). Some also presented fascinating equipments used in brain surgery.

As a psychology graduate and a neuroscience enthusiast, I have been impressed at how these researchers and volunteeers have been able to explain their topics in ways that were accessible to everyone. As it was a free public event, the audience were of mixed ages, gender and educational background. To be able to get most of them engaged and excited is not an easy feat, but the presenters managed just fine. Here are some pictures:

Equipment to aid brain surgeons during surgery that uses MRI and CT Scan techniques:

IMG_0920

IMG_0919

IMG_0921Demonstration of how to drill holes in the skull (using a model, of course!):

IMG_0937Explaining the similarities and differences of brains across species:

IMG_0926
IMG_0924

IMG_0923

IMG_0922(From the left) Brains of a pig a rat and a mouse:

IMG_0925

Evidence of my participation in an experiment investigating motor skills :
IMG_0929
Researcher entering my data:
IMG_0930
Here are the other presentations and interactive activities:
For me, the most exciting part of the afternoon was when I got the chance to dissect an actual pig’s brain. Guided by Professor Stuart Allan of the University of Manchester, fellow attendees and I sliced and examined pigs’ brains in the laboratory. While we were doing so, Stuart explained to us the significance of each part of the brain was. What was also amazing is that pigs’ brains are structurally mostly the same as ours. Both human and pigs’ brains have two hemispheres (left and right), corpus callosums (the part that connects both hemispheres), brain stem and cerebellum. They differ, amongst other things, is the size of the frontal cortex (with ours being signifficantly bigger). Stuart also welcomed questions from the participants, who asked him interesting questions such as ‘whether there is a sense for gravity?’ The whole experience was educational, fascinating, unique and fun. Not only did it shed a better light in understanding the brain, but by bringing the science out to the public, it offered more chances of inspiring people (both young and old) to get into science.

Computer-Generated Consciousness: Holy Grail or Holy Fail?

B&C

As a part of this year’s Manchester Science Festival, The Museum of Science and Industry recently hosted a debate entitled ‘Brains and Computers’. This free event featured a discussion on whether brains are similar to computers, between Raymond Tallis, a philosopher, novelist, and a former physician whose research publications mostly focused on neuroscience and old age, and Professor Steve Furber, a distinguished academic whose work include designing the BBC Microcomputer and the ARM 32-bit RISC microprocessor. The debate was introduced and ‘chaired’ by the coolest scientist on the planet, rock guitar-wielding physicist, Dr. Mark Lewney. As a psychology graduate, neuroscience enthusiast and a guitarist, I did not hesitate to book a ticket. I ignored the horrendous weather (typical here in Manchester), and the possibility that I would be crazy tired the next morning (as the event was quite late for someone like me).

The main crux of the discussion was whether it is possible for anyone to produce an accurate computerised representation of the brain, and perhaps more importantly, consciousness. Dr. Lewney first asked Raymond Tallis to comment. Dr. Tallis was quick to answer with a resounding ‘no’. To him, it is highly unlikely for anyone to produce such a computer-simulation of consciousness. To him, consciousness is far too complex to be deduced to mere computations and algorithms. He argued that no computer in the world appears to be conscious. One might propose that certain technological equipments are able to reproduce human-like actions, such as a pocket calculator which can ‘perform’ complex calculations just like, or at times even better than, a human being. However, Dr. Tallis insisted that the calculator is merely a tool which humans use to aid us in our daily calculations. In his words, “it is still you who does the calculations, but on a pocket calculator”. Tallis extended his argument in pointing out that consciousness involves a multitude of things including people’s awareness of their  surroundings, their cultural background, feelings and philosophical beliefs, to which computers (at the moment) simply have no match to humans. He also stated that even if an entity would be invented that looks like him, behaves like him and acts like him, but have no idea what it is like to be him, then that entity, whatever that might be, is still not conscious.

After Raymond Tallis’ summation of his arguments, Dr. Lewney turned to Professor Furber and asked for his opinions. It may be important to point out that Prof. Furber and his team are attempting to simulate large-scale brain functions using millions of mobile phone processors, as a part of his spiNNaker project (Spiking Neural Network Architecture). One of the SpiNNaker Project’s objective is to “provide a platform for high-performance massively parallel processing appropriate for the simulation of large-scale neural networks in real-time, as a research tool for neuroscientists…” (SpiNNaker Website). Prof. Furber admitted that creating a simulation of the brain is an incredibly challenging feat as the brain has billions of neurons. Replicating a human brain would involve hundreds/thousands of microprocessors and may require output from a power plant. If successful, this project may aid neuroscientists to find out how the brain works, and how to fix those that are ‘broken’.

Prof. Furber explained that experiments have been conducted wherein circuit boards that simulate parts of the brain were attached to robots with specially designed eyes (those that resemble human eyes) in order to look at vision and visual processing. When asked whether robots and/or computer programmes can simulate learning through rewards and punishment, Prof. Furber pointed out that it is possible to put a ‘bump’ with a sensor in front of a robot. Sensors on the bump will beep if the robot knocks something in front of it, and afterwards would be able to ‘learn’ not to do it again. He also explained that computer programmes nowadays are becoming so complex that even their own programmers do not know how they will behave- similar to a ‘conscious’ individual who is unpredictable.

Both of Prof. Fuber’s and Dr. Tallis’ arguments are persuasive, interesting and based on empirical evidence. However, althroughout the debate, I sat there wondering why they have not (at least attempted to) define consciousness. Granted that Dr. Tallis admitted that as of yet, nobody knows where consciousness lies. As a result of this lack of a consensus on a definition, there is no existing measure of consciousness. So, how would anyone know whether a robot, or indeed a human-being, plant or non-human animal, is conscious if we don’t know what it is or how to measure it? Nevertheless, the debate was still thought-provoking. Regardless of whether the SpiNNaker Project would produce a simulation of a conscious brain or not, as long as it can simulate the workings of an ideal human brain, it can still be a valuable tool.

I would personally like to thank the organisers and volunteers of the Manchester Science Festival for putting together such an amazing event!

Click HERE to see the full listings of events in this year’s Manchester Science Festival.

MOSI Welcomes You to Look Inside the Brain

What does the brain actually look like?

Do we know what each part of the brain does? If so, how?

How do brain surgeries work?

image-43

This week I have been fortunate enough to be one of the bloggers invited to a ‘personalised tour’ of the Brains: Mind As Matter exhibition at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry. Curator Marius Kwint, neuroscientist Prof. Stuart Allan and artist Daksha Patel guided us through this amazing exhibition which tells the story of how our knowledge of the brain developed over time and what we have done to the brain. The exhibition begins by showing the audience how brains (and in turn people), were classified according to the size of their heads- an extremely prejudistic and not to mention, flawed approach. Then it shows how people from Descartes to Cajal to Jeff Lichtman have attempted to represent the anatomy of the brain. Lastly, it tell us about the different surgical procedure such as trephination (drilling holes in people’s skulls), most of which are accentuated by photographs of people who have undergone such procedures. Gory though as it may seem, but such vivid truth-telling is what drew me even more to take a closer look, twice if not three times at each display.

image-44image-42

galvresin

The Brains exhibition highlights the interconnection between our culture and our understanding of the brain. However, what intrigued me the most is the fact that despite the enormous amount of progress and knowledge that we have accumulated through years of research, we still know very little about that 1.5 kilograms of mass that control our lives. The exhibit left me with a rush of excitement stemming from the realisation that there is so much more to discover about the brain, and that I, personally, can take part in these discoveries.

CLICK ON THE FOLLOWING LINKS TO FIND OUT MORE:

Museum of Science and Industry

Brains: The Mind As Matter (MOSI)

Brains: The Wellcome Collection

Manchester Science Festival

How Cognitive Theories Can Help Us Understand Autism- Uta Frith