By Misbah Noorani '17
Here at Brown, “consciousness” is an oft-touted concept. It's ontologized by philosophers, attempted by artificial intelligence researchers, black-boxed by cognitive scientists, and reduced to its neural correlates by neuroscientists. Step into the physics department, though, and you won’t hear a whisper of the Hard Problem; at least, not in the bubble of academia. Now try typing “consciousness” into your Google or YouTube search bar, and it’s a different story entirely.
by Abbey Perreault '16
Remember the movie Inception? Well, ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve been waiting for has finally arrived: inception is real…except this time, the protagonists are a little less hunky. Last year at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT, a group of researchers successfully used a technique called optogenetics to plant false thoughts in the minds of rats. (And, believe it or not, it was all accomplished without any dream-infiltrating espionage courtesy of Leonardo DiCaprio!)
by Jennifer Maccani, PhD
If you’re a fan of classical music, you’ve likely spent a rhapsodic hour daydreaming to the lilting melodies of Beethoven’s sixth symphony, the “Pastoral,” so-named because the music is said to evoke images in the mind’s eye of rolling fields, fluttering streams, and tinkling birdsong. Yet, for roughly 0.05-1% of the population (1), Beethoven’s masterpieces can evoke far different—and far more vivid—imagery. For these people, music and/or other sensory stimuli trigger immediate perceptions that feel as real as the music itself, often in the form of color and shape (2, 3). These people were born with what some might consider a real-life superpower, a condition called synesthesia.
The most common type is grapheme-color synesthesia, in which letters or numbers elicit colors in the mind’s eye. For synesthetes, these colors are an essential part of the letters or numbers themselves, almost a part of their essence or identity (4). However, over 60 types of synesthesia have been identified in the population; in fact, there may be 150 or more distinct types (5). Music can evoke spatial sensations, shapes or colors (6-8); words can taste sour or sweet (9); voices can look like grey smoke or dry, cracked soil (9, 10); or the sound of a car horn can smell like strawberries (11). Even the personalities of one’s family and friends can have their own distinct colors (12). Individuals may have only one type, or several, and some of them—such as voice-color and personality-color synesthesia—are rarer than others.
by Jennifer Maccani, PhD
This article is part of the "Emerging Biotechnology" series.
Is telepathic communication possible?
As outlandish as it might sound, this question drove Hans Berger to investigate the electrochemical basis of brain activity—a line of research that eventually led to the invention of the electroencephalogram, or EEG, which measures the brain’s electrical impulses via electrodes attached to a person’s scalp (1).
We can find clues as to what led Berger down this path by studying his early life. Berger was born in 1873 in Coburg, Germany. His diaries reveal that he was an introspective and solitary young man. After a short stint at the University of Berlin, Berger turned away from early leanings toward a career in astronomy and enlisted for military service in Würzburg, where a near-death experience radically altered his aspirations. One morning in 1892, Berger’s horse became spooked during an exercise with his artillery unit. Berger was thrown to the ground and into the path of an oncoming artillery cannon’s wheel. Although the cannon stopped just short of crushing him, Berger was thoroughly rattled.
When his family sent him a telegram that evening inquiring about his wellbeing, they revealed that his sister had that very morning feared that something had happened to her brother. Berger became convinced that “it was a case of spontaneous telepathy in which at a time of mortal danger I transmitted my thoughts” (2). It may have been this very experience that led him, upon the completion of his military service, to attend Jena University in Jena, Germany and pursue his research on the electrical activity of the brain (2-4).
by Georgia Bancheri '15
Ladies and gents, have you ever wondered what drinking does to the brain, besides make you look like one class act of a gent (picture provided for those who’d like to emulate such)? I mean, I’m sure that’s what you’re all talking about come Saturday night when you’ve got a sex on the beach in your hand and you’re mmms mmmsing on the dance floor. (Gents, I know that’s your preferred drink. Don’t be ashamed.) Well, copious drinking can cause a neurological disease called Korsakoff’s Syndrome. I’m talking ‘bout more than your average beer-bellied frat boy drinking. (Frat boys, if you’re reading, don’t fret too much…) Anyhoo, the main symptom of Korsakoff’s is confabulation--in lay-man’s terms, flat-out lying--but, get this, the person whole-heartedly believes their lies.
A Review of Advice For A Young Investigator by Santiago Ramón y Cajal (Translated by Neely Swanson & Larry W. Swanson)
by Matthew Lee '15
Find this book in the Sci Li!
Or read the full text online!
Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Bradford Books, The MIT Press (1999)
In 1906, two rival neuroscientists shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine: Camillo Golgi and Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Golgi firmly believed in the reticular theory, that the brain consisted of a single network. In contrast, Cajal contended that the brain actually consisted of discrete cells. As it turns out, Cajal was right.
Cajal (1852-1934), who hailed from Spain, spent years at a microscope and painstakingly drew neurons. After all, it would be quite some time before we would be able to take pictures of cells. His descriptions and depictions of the nervous system are so detailed that they serve as a foundation for modern neuroanatomy.
Well into his career but a decade before winning the Nobel Prize, Cajal wrote Advice for a Young Investigator, a short guide rife with humor, anecdotes, and timeless wisdom for students aspiring to become great scientists. The book was so popular three more editions were published over the next twenty years. In 1999, Neely Swanson and Dr. Larry W. Swanson released a translation that preserves Cajal’s straightforward, yet eloquent, prose.
by Hallee Foster '15
Three-letter acronyms abound in our society – NRA, NBA, CDC – and often name agencies that seldom interact. However, an unlikely friendship has recently formed between two three-letter permutations that seem to occupy opposite sides of the spectrum: NFL and NIH. In 2012, the NFL – yes, the National Football League – donated a whopping $30 million to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health to fund research on traumatic brain injury – a subject that hits close to home for the NFL and its players.
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a serious public health problem with an ever-widening scope of severity. It is currently the number one cause of death amongst young adults  and is a particular menace to young athletes. Perhaps even more frightening than its prevalence is its nebulosity. We have no rapid, reliable diagnostic methods for concussions and know little about the long-term consequences of repetitive insult to the head other than the high risk of developing progressive brain degeneration, chronic traumatic encephalography (CTE). Brains afflicted by CTE show demonstrable physical damage, including excess protein build up and tangled cells. CTE produces symptoms analogous to those of Alzheimer’s – irritability, confusion, depression, mood swings, memory loss, and cognitive difficulties. Preliminary tests have revealed that several former high-profile athletes, including Hall of Fame running back, Tony Dorsett, may be living with CTE. Fifty-four former-NFL players have donated their brains for scientific analysis post-mortem to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University. Fifty-two of said brains show marked signs of brain damage from repeated concussions .
by Noah Schlottman '16
It is something that has, most likely, perplexed humanity for thousands of years (1). It is something that has probably confused recreational users, the shamans who were its prescribers, and maybe even Shakespeare (2). Certainly there are Brown students who have pondered time and again, perhaps at various times throughout this university’s 250 years: Why does marijuana give you the munchies?
Though we haven’t figured out the full answer yet, a group of researchers at the University of Bordeaux conducted a study that gives us some insight into why, indeed, marijuana makes people hungry (3).
Tetrahydrocannabinol (commonly known as THC) is the “active ingredient” in cannabis. It mimics the activity of chemicals called cannabinoids that are naturally produced by our brains. These chemicals fit into receptors in the endocannabinoid system, which is involved in controlling mood, memory, pain, and—most importantly in this case—appetite. An ingenious experimental design allowed them to focus on certain cannabinoid receptors in mice’s olfactory bulbs, a part of the brain involved in odor perception.
A Review of The Mystery Of The Mind By Wilder Penfield
by Matthew Lee '15
Find this book in the Sci Li!
Paperback: 152 pages
Publisher: Princeton University (March 1978)
Anyone who has taken Neuro 1 will recognize the somatosensory homunculus, the funny looking guy with giant hands, puffy lips, and an emaciated body. The homunculus is based on a map of the primary somatosensory cortex (S1), and the size of each body part corresponds to the amount of brain that responds to a touch of that body part. Our brains devote the most processing power to understanding what our hands touch, so the homunculus’ hands are disproportionately large.
Dr. Wilder Penfield (1891-1976), an eminent Canadian neurosurgeon, provided the scientific evidence that evolved into the homunculus. He mapped out which parts of the brain are associated with which body parts by sticking an electrode into a patient’s brain, zapping it, and then asking the patient which part of their body had responded.
Penfield also used electrical stimulation to investigate the relationship between the mind and the brain: does the mind arise from the brain, or are they separate entities? In The Mystery of the Mind, he considers the evidence he has collected from patients with epilepsy, who so graciously allowed him to poke and zap their brains.