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.

Human Cells’ Time Travel

Last week, I wrote about cells in mice turning pluripotent, meaning having the ability to turn into any cell from our body, by just dipping them in an acidic solution. The conclusion was that if converting normal, specialised cells and converting them into pluripotent cells was possible in humans, it would mean hope for studies in regenerative science and cancer research.

Well, scientists at Harvard Medical School did not waste their time and have already accomplished this feat. Using human cells this time, instead of mice cells, the team applied different environments to the cells, until they finally managed to make them behave like the mice STAP cells (Stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) they had previously created.

embryo 8

Embryo cell, with 8 totipotent cells

However, these new cells did show some differences to the original, and it’s because different solutions were used, since mice and human cells are not identical and the same solutions wouldn’t have worked. Which solutions were used still remains a secret, and it could be for the best, to prevent uncontrolled use of human pluripotent cells is not advisable.

Another drawback is the fact that these human STAP cells have not shown totipotency (the ability to form a placenta and therefore create an organism). But this could not be as bad as it looks at first sight. The use of totipotent cells at the moment is very strict and regulated, but the study of pluripotent cells not as much. So although work with human totipotent cells couldn’t be done, pluripotent cells are still very useful and worth having a look at.

Of course work still needs to be done, but we are one step closer to being able to study stem cells and the opportunities they provide. It is still a very admirable achievement from scientists at Harvard to have found this only a week after the results with mice were published.