Super Brain Network

Although it may seem directly taken from a science fiction movie, scientists at Duke University have actually managed to connect the brains of several organisms so that without any real communication they have been able to work together to carry out tasks.

In a series of experiments, researchers opened the skull of both monkeys and rats and using electrodes and wires, linked members of the same species together so that, even if they could not share complex thoughts or emotions, they could synchronise their neural activity.

When doing some experiments on rats, the connection was investigated by having one of the animals undergo an electrical stimulus, so its brain activity increased. The other rats, despite not being stimulated directly, automatically changed their neural activity to match that of the first rat, so it looked like they too had received the stimulus, and felt its effects.

But not only does this connection make them more ‘empathic’, it also makes them more intelligent. When scientists sent temperature and atmospheric pressure information into their brains, coded by electrical impulses, the rats could put all the information they had received together and solve problems regarding the chance of rainfall. They could do this by themselves, without any linking, but the brain network helped them obtain better scores.


Linking brains is no longer a science fiction movie plot

With monkeys, three of them were connected through the motor region of their brains, after being trained individually to control a virtual arm with thoughts alone. Once they were connected, each was able to control only certain aspects of the arm’s movement, like only being able to move the arm horizontally and vertically, and even those abilities it had to share with another monkey, so that each had an equal contribution to the movement in that direction. However, as messy as this sounds, they synchronised and managed to work with each together, combining their skills to control the arm and grab an imaginary ball displayed on the computer.

The applications for this are not to make a huge human population brain network, where we can share our thoughts and emotions, as not only are they too complex for it to be possible to share them this way, but it would also be unethical and have privacy issues. However, it can be used in people who have had some damage to their brain. For example, someone who has suffered from a stroke and can no longer talk normally can be connected to a healthy person, so said area synchronises with the healthy area and accelerates the healing process.

The Moon Is Keeping You Awake

You may have heard people justify a bad night of sleep because ‘it was a full moon’, and immediately dismissed it as a myth. Well, think again.

The moon affecting our sleep is not as weird and irrational as it sounds. In fact, it’s not even unheard of in the animal kingdom, as this is known to happen in many other organisms, from small worms to large marine animals, and can not only affect their sleep, but also their reproductive cycles. It even has its own name: the circalunar rhythm.


Now you know who to blame for a lack of rest

But to see if it could happen in humans too, a group of researchers from University of Basel, Switzerland, followed a group of patients who, like normal human beings, fell asleep every night, and every time gave the scientists their opinion on how well it went. Most agreed that on the day of or close to full moon, the sleep quality was lower and they felt less rested. But this could be a subjective or biased opinion by the patients. So the scientists backed this up with the most undeniable proof of all: science.

They measured the hormone levels, brain activity and any eye movements before, during and after falling asleep. In case you’re confused about why bother measuring eye movement; it is because during REM phase, where we actually ‘rest’, our eyes subconsciously move around (in fact, REM phase stands for Rapid Eye Movement phase). After conducting this research at different times of the month, and therefore at different stages in the moon cycle, what they found only supported what the people had said themselves: there was a decrease, of up to 30%, in the people’s brain patterns during sleep. Not only was the quality worse, but it was also shorter, as they took 5 more minutes to become unconscious and in total were deprived of almost 20 minutes of blissful sleep.

This could’ve all been due to a decrease in the levels of melatonin, a very interesting hormone which can be found in animals that somewhat ‘predicts’ when it is going to get dark and prepares us for sleep, so a lack of it could lead to us not sleeping as deeply.

But researchers don’t know how the moon can even affect the amount of this hormone in our body and can end up causing the other symptoms. It’s not the presence of moonlight, as this was eliminated by keeping the test subjects in closed rooms. So this leaves the two most plausible ideas being either that the moon’s gravity somehow manages to affects us even though it is extremely weak at such a large distance, or that humans have a physiological clock inside of them which keeps track of the moon cycles. Although this may sound just bizarre, it already exists; but instead of with the moon, it uses the Sun. You may have heard of it: it’s called the circadian rhythm and it has a great effect on us as thanks to it, our body knows how to behave at the different times of the day.

The test was only done on 33 people, quite a small sample regardless of how standardised the whole procedure was. So in future investigations, larger groups of people should be investigated to not only support these scientists’ hypothesis, but maybe to even find out the mechanism by which the moon manages to ruin a good night’s sleep.

The 6th Sense

We are used to people talking about the 5 senses: sound, sight, touch, smell and taste. But scientists are now working on improving these, and even creating a new sense that would enable us to experience the world in a much more heightened way.

For now, it’s all based on an experiment to help blind mice. Since this type of mice isn’t able to see, their sense of direction is severely handicapped. But in the University of Tokyo, a team used a compass like those found in smart phones, albeit a more complex version, and inserted it into the visual cortex of blind mice. It had two electrodes attached, each connected to a hemisphere of the brain. They fired up, sending electric impulses to the brain, whenever the mice’s head turned a certain amount of degrees away from the north direction. Depending on how many degrees, it would change the intensity of the signal on each hemisphere, so for example, when the mouse faced south, the neuroprosthesis would only send an impulse to the left hemisphere. After a week, the mouse managed to interpret these signals correctly and was able to orient itself using this compass, instead of the usual vision.

mouse compass

These mice have a compass in their brain, which helps them overcome their blindness

This was demonstrated by putting the mice in a labyrinth with a prize in the middle, and comparing normal mice, blind mice, and blind mice with the compass. After about 60 rounds of labyrinth trials, the normal mice and those with the compass behaved practically the same, finding the prize in a small amount of time, whereas the blind mice took longer. It seemed like the mice were able to create a map of the labyrinth in their heads, so no matter where they were placed within the maze, they managed to find their way around. Although this did not actually cure the blindness, it enabled them to find their sense of direction and be more independent.

What’s especially interesting is not only that the rats were actually able to ‘see’, but that they could detect this foreign type of stimuli and understand and interpret it correctly. Even though they spent their lives without a compass in their head, as soon as it started working they were able to use it to their advantage, showing the great adaptability of these organisms. This could be extrapolated to use in human beings, and gives hope for a cure/alternative to blindness. Other scientists go further and suggest that it could open a path towards new types of senses, using stimuli like UV or infra red light that, together with receptors like this compass, we could use to see the world in much more complex ways, adding more senses to the pre-existent ones.

Prophetic Neurones

Being able to tell the future is a superpower that we have all wanted at some point or another in our life. And although it seems like science-fiction material, we actually do have this ability. Granted, it is not as accurate or far-reaching as we would like, but it is still quite impressive and useful at a smaller scale.

In our everyday lives, we often encounter situations where we need to predict what other people are going to do. These can range from normal conversations to arguments, or even playing games. It is precisely this last scenario which can be used to investigate how exactly we are able to foretell other people’s actions.

The game in particular is called Prisoner’s Dilemma, and the experiment consists of having monkeys play this game and examine any patterns in their actions. In this game, two people face each other with two options: either cooperate or refuse to work together. Every different combination of choices yields different results. For example, if one declines and the other cooperates, the one that declines gets a great reward, whereas the other doesn’t. If both cooperate, they both get a smaller reward. If both refuse to work together, they get the smallest prize. So to win the most in this game you have to be good at predicting what your opponent will do and acting accordingly.

A team at Harvard Medical School made monkeys play this game hundreds of times, but did it so that each time the monkeys could see what their companion had chosen. This way, they could base their decision for the next turn on what the opponent had done and predict how they could get the greatest reward.

anterior cingulate

Highlighted in yelllow is the anterior cingulate, where these ‘clairvoyant’ neurones are found

At the same time, their brains were monitored. Specifically, an area called the anterior cingulate, which has been shown to be involved in the decision making process. The results showed that some neurones in this area acted according to a pattern, depending on the decisions the monkeys took. But to make the results more reliable and make sure these cells were responsible, they used some exterior electrical impulses to inhibit them and prevent them from working correctly. By doing this, the monkeys became more selfish and refused to cooperate more often, even though tactically it made no sense, as it would result in a lower prize. Since confusing these neurones caused the monkeys to make different choices, especially involving disconnection from their partner and a lack of prediction of their movements, it is safe to say that the specific group of cells in the anterior cingulate have an effect on foretelling the future.

Although this theory has only been tested in monkeys, the process in humans is thought to work in a similar way, and studying it can help study social interactions between humans, in light of diseases such as autism.

The Infamous Dress

At the expense of becoming another sheep in the herd of humanity’s trends, today’s article is going to be about the dress that has invaded the Internet. For those of you who don’t know, ‘the dress’ is a picture of a dress taken at a wedding and published on Tumblr, where it proceeded to reach international fame due to an odd fact: different people see the dress being different colours. It may sound like a weird online hoax, but it’s just an optical illusion that causes some people to see the dress and white and gold, whereas others see it as blue and black. Recently, there have been many theories suggested to explain why this phenomenon happens (for example, because of bad eyesight), but it actually has nothing to do with our eyes, but rather, with our brains. If you’re curious, the actual dress is blue and black, but that doesn’t mean that those who see it in other colours have worse eyesight or worse brains, as you will see.

Think about it like this. When you see an object in the shade, you automatically assume it is of a lighter colour than it actually looks like because you know shade makes things look darker. Therefore, your brain unconsciously tries to compensate for by processing the image your eyes are supplying and making it lighter.

But shade is not the only way images can be distorted. It also happens at normal daylight. If you are observing a piece of paper right underneath the sun, you will be viewing it thanks to a yellowish light. Your brain is smart enough to detect the light has a slight colour of its own and will therefore modify the image and subtract some yellow from it. If, on the other hand, you are seeing the piece of paper with the sun blocked but still receiving light from the sky, the light will be slightly blue, so your brain will take that bluish undertone away.

With this image, it’s the exact same scenario. The dress can appear to be in the shade to some people, and exposed to sunlight to others. Depending on how you unconsciously interpret it, you will see the dress a specific way. Those who think the dress is in the shade will unconsciously think it is darker than it should be, so their brains modify the image and make it lighter. This results in light colours like white and yellow-gold to appear. Those who don’t see the dress in partial darkness keep the colours mostly the same and don’t process the image, making it blue and black.

Interestingly enough, some people see it one way sometimes, the other way other times, and even a mixture of the two! This is just caused by our brains varying the amount of modification they do to the image, and may also have to do with the quality of the screen the picture is being viewed through.

But despite all of this, if you ask me, the dress is obviously white and gold.


What colour do you see this dress?


Nobel Prizes 2014: Part 1

Probably the most prestigious scientific award, the Nobel Prize is, for many, the intellectual event of the year, where the world’s greatest scientists are rewarded for their hard work and brilliance. As of yet, only two results have been announced, those for physics and physiology, and the rest will be unveiled as the week progresses.

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine went to… John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser for discovering the ‘GPS’ system in brains.  

human gps

Not a literal GPS in our head, but a group of cells that enable us to travel

It all started 40 years ago, when O’Keefe was investigating rats’ brains and their response to certain stimuli to understand their behaviour. In one experiment, he found that in a group of nerve cells in the brain, some became active when the rat physically moved to one area of the room, whilst other cells became active in other areas of the room. The conclusion he reached was that this group of cells was making a mental map of the rat’s environment to help it locate itself and move around. The ‘place cells’, as he called them, were a revolution in the field, but it took O’Keene 40 years and two collaborators to win the famous Prize.

The other recipients of the award are the Mosers, a married couple who, working in O’Keene’s lab, examined in more depth the mechanism and using modern technology, discovered that a close group of cells in the entorhinal cortex also helped in movement. What they found was that these new cells could be active in many positions of the room, not just one specific location. ‘Grid cells’ is their name and they do exactly what their name would suggest: they create a grid of their surroundings.

Both the place cells and the grid cells are used in human brains too, and their work is essential for us to be able to travel, even from one room to another, without getting lost.

The Nobel Prize for Physics went to… Shuji Nakamura, Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano for the invention of blue LEDs.

At first sight, it looks like they gave these men a Nobel Prize for inventing a bulb, but it is much more complex than that. First of all, let’s explain what an LED is and how it works. An LED stands for Light-Emitting Diode and it is used to produce light. It works by having thin sheets of material over each other, some of which contain a lot of electrons whereas other don’t and so have positive ‘holes’. When an electron collides with this hole, it emits a photon; a particle of light.

blue led

Making blue light is much harder than it may seem!

Red and green LEDs have been around for a long time, but only blue light could be transform into white light. The problem is that blue light has a higher energy and therefore very few materials can emit this wavelength. So when Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura discovered gallium nitride, it was a real miracle. This material is special because apart from having electron-rich areas, it can also produce a layer of itself which lacks electrons, so that together, they can react and produce blue light.

This apparently simple mechanism has had unimaginable consequences, which is the main reason why the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award them the prize. Blue LEDs gave us the opportunity to make white light by coating the bulb with a substance called phosphor. Thanks to this combination, we now use blue LEDs everywhere, from our TV screens to the lightning in the streets. The advantage it has over the normal, incandescent bulbs is that it can last 100 times longer, and is extremely more efficient. In fact, it is said that if all light bulbs were switched to these energy saving ones we could half the electricity usage by lightning in the whole world.


We are constantly making new memories, at the same rate as we live them. But most of these will be lost, since they contain information we don’t really care about, like a boring bus trip or walking down the street. But some memories are more important and so remain in our mind, like those of family and friends, and it is a really heartbreaking when due to illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease they disappear.


The hippocampus controls memory formation

This new invention is therefore something to hope for. Scientists from Northwestern Univeristy, Chicago, discovered that when they applied a magnetic field on a patient’s brain their memory performance would be boosted. This was investigated in a trial, where two sets of patients were given either this treatment, called TMS for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or a placebo. After, they were provided with images of people’s faces, and when a picture was shown, some words were read aloud. Once this was done, the patients were given a couple of minutes, and then tested to see if they could relate the images to the words they had heard. Those that had been given TMS scored better in the test than those without it.

But how does TMS actually work? Well, it has been known for quite a while that the nervous system works by a series of impulses of electricity. The brain is no different, so if you want to stimulate the brain, you want to apply an electric current to it. This can be done with drugs or surgery, but what makes TMS special is that it is non-invasive, so it doesn’t enter the patient’s body, making the whole procedure easier and somewhat safer. The magnetic field that flows through the brain creates an electric field, which stimulates the brain. If this is done in the right area, it can enhance certain abilities.

To improve memory, the immediate assumption would be to treat the hippocampus with TMS, since this is the area were most of the brain’s work on memory happens. But the hippocampus is too deep in our brains, so the magnetic radiation wouldn’t reach it well enough. Therefore, the researchers decided to work on a more superficial part of the brain that indirectly stimulates the hippocampus. The new electric current flowing through the brain caused memories to last longer, specifically the associative memories (those that link something to something else). However, the effects seemed to last for 24 hours only.

Still, with enough research, TMS could develop into an efficient treatment for memory-loss diseases, but care has to be taken since the brain is very delicate and even the slightest of changes can cause a chain reaction.