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Neuroanatomy

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Original author: 
John Timmer

Arthur Toga, University of California, Los Angeles

In 1992, at the age of 70, a US citizen suffered a severe case of viral encephalitis, a swelling of the brain caused by infection. After he recovered two years later, he appeared completely average based on an IQ test (indeed, he scored 103). Yet in other ways, he was completely different. Several decades of his past life were wiped completely from his brain. His only accessible memories came from his 30s, and from the point of his illness to his death, he would never form another memory that he was aware of.

But this severe case of what appears to be total amnesia doesn't mean he had no memory as we commonly understand it. The patient, called E.P., was studied intensely using a battery of tests for more than a decade, with researchers giving him tests during hundreds of sessions. After his death, his brain was given for further study. With the analysis of the brain complete, the people who studied him have taken the opportunity to publish a review of all his complex memory problems.

Aside from memory, there were only a few obvious problems with E.P. Most of his senses were normal except smell, which was wiped out (a condition called anosmia). His vision was perfectly fine, but he had two specific problems interpreting what he saw. One was a limited ability to discriminate between faces, and the other was difficulty in determining whether a line drawing represented an object that's physically impossible (think M. C. Escher drawings).

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TEDxUF - Michael Okun and Kelly Foote - We Control Your Brain

The human brain is a supercomputer with networks that control the various functions that make us who we are, and allow us to do what we do. When brain circuits malfunction, debilitating motor and behavioral symptoms may emerge. Direct electrical modulation of malfunctioning brain circuits has tremendous potential to alleviate human suffering in dramatic and sometimes surprising ways.
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An anonymous reader writes with this news out of the University of Illinois:
"Scientists report that they have mapped the physical architecture of intelligence in the brain. Theirs is one of the largest and most comprehensive analyses so far of the brain structures vital to general intelligence and to specific aspects of intellectual functioning, such as verbal comprehension and working memory. Their study, published in Brain: A Journal of Neurology (abstract), is unique in that it enlisted an extraordinary pool of volunteer participants: 182 Vietnam veterans with highly localized brain damage from penetrating head injuries. ... The researchers took CT scans of the participants’ brains and administered an extensive battery of cognitive tests. They pooled the CT data to produce a collective map of the cortex, which they divided into more than 3,000 three-dimensional units called voxels. By analyzing multiple patients with damage to a particular voxel or cluster of voxels and comparing their cognitive abilities with those of patients in whom the same structures were intact, the researchers were able to identify brain regions essential to specific cognitive functions, and those structures that contribute significantly to intelligence."


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Robert sez, "The gamified EyeWire project, now in open beta, is about using human computation to help trace the neurons in a retina. Tracing the neurons will help nail down the computation that goes on inside the retina leading up to the optic nerve, and lead to better methods of brain mapping. Come and help explore the eye's jungle!"

Game 1: Reconstructing Neurons
The first step of the challenge is to reconstruct the tree-like shapes of retinal neurons by tracing their branches through the images. You will accomplish this by playing a simple game: helping the computer color a neuron as if the images were a three-dimensional coloring book. The collective efforts of you and other players will result in three-dimensional reconstructions of neurons like this. Playing the game does not require any specialized knowledge of neuroscience — just sharp eyes and practice. If you like, you can stop reading this page, and proceed to detailed instructions for the game here or simply start playing. On the other hand, if you’d like to know more about the scientific plan, read on.

Game 2: Identifying Synapses
Reconstructing neurons involves tracing their branches, which are like the “wires” of the retina. This by itself is not enough for finding connectomes; we also need to identify synapses. This kind of image analysis will be accomplished through another game that will be introduced on this website in the near future. The identification of synapses will involve subtleties, due to limitations of the dataset, as will be discussed in detail later on.

Rules of Connection
Playing either of the above games will produce information that will be valuable for understanding how the retina functions. How exactly will the information be used? To answer this question, we should confront the issue of variability. We expect that every retina will be wired somewhat differently. In that case, would mapping the connections in one retina tell us anything that is applicable to other retinas? We expect that retinal connectomes will obey invariant rules of connection, and it is these rules that really interest researchers. Many of the rules are expected to depend on neuronal cell types, i.e., of the form “Cell type A receives synapses from cell type B.” Some such rules are already known, but the vast majority remain undiscovered.

EyeWire – Help Map the Retinal Connectome

(Thanks, Robert!)

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The red tendrils represent Cthulhu's dreams

Commissioned to accompany the Brains: The Mind as Matter exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, Axon looks a little like flOw, except it’s much more hectic, with short games and high scores.

The game challenges players to grow their neuron as long as possible; climbing through brain tissue, out-competing rival neurons and creating as many connections to distant regions of the brain as they can.

This involves clicking on nodes in an effort to climb higher and higher. A speedy mouse finger is essential as a rapidly shrinking sphere marks the areas that are accessible and once no unclaimed nodes are within it, it’s gameover. Brain freeze. Play it here and read more (silly) below and (clever) here.

(more…)

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MrSeb writes "There are around 100 billion neurons in a human brain, forming up to 100 trillion synaptic interconnections. Neuroscientists believe that these synapses are the key to almost every one of your unique, identifiable features: Memories, mental disorders, and even your personality are encoded in the wiring of your brain. Understandably, neuroscientists really want to investigate these neurons and synapses to work out how they play such a vital role in our human makeup. Unfortunately, these 100 trillion connections are crammed into a two-pound bag of soggy flesh, making analysis rather hard. Starting small and working its way up, MIT today launched Eyewire, a crowdsourced 'game' that tasks users with wiring up the neurons in a mouse's retina. A future stage of the game will get users to find the synapses, too."


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How do you remember where you parked your car? How do you know if you're moving in the right direction? Neuroscientist Neil Burgess studies the neural mechanisms that map the space around us, and how they link to memory and imagination.

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Game/Mental State is an article series that looks at how and why mental states can be interpreted from game states. In other words, we're looking into our minds by looking into the game.

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