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Can Living In Total Darkness For 5 Days "Reset" the Visual System? 114

the_newsbeagle writes: That's what one neuroscientist is aiming to find out. He wants to put patients with a type of amblyopia, the vision problem commonly called lazy eye, into the dark for 5 days. His hypothesis: When they emerge, their brains' visual cortices will be temporarily "plastic" and changeable, and may begin to process the visual signals from their bad eyes correctly. Before he could do this study, though, he had to do a test run to figure out logistics. So he himself lived in a pitch black room for 5 days. One finding: Eating ravioli in the dark is hard.

Brain Cancer Claims Horror Maestro Wes Craven At 76 35

New submitter JamesA writes: Wes Craven, the famed writer-director of horror films known for the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream movies, died Sunday after a battle with brain cancer. He was 76. Though he's far less known as a novelist than for his various horror film jobs (writer, director, producer, actor ...), Craven also wrote a few books; I can't vouch for "Coming of Rage," but "Fountain Society" is pretty solid speculative fiction. Wikipedia notes that Craven also "designed the Halloween 2008 logo for Google, and was the second celebrity personality to take over the YouTube homepage on Halloween."

Neurologist and Author Oliver Sacks Dead at 82 30

Physician, writer and humanist Oliver Sacks has died of cancer at age 82. Sacks was famous for "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat" and other books, including his account in "Awakenings" (later made into a well-recieved film) of administering treatment which resulted in several patients emerging from their comas. The Guardian reports: When he revealed that he had terminal cancer, Sacks quoted one of his favourite philosophers, David Hume. On discovering that he was mortally ill at 65, Hume wrote: “I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company. “I am ... a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.”

The Case For Teaching Ignorance 236 writes: In the mid-1980s, a University of Arizona surgery professor, Marlys H. Witte, proposed teaching a class entitled "Introduction to Medical and Other Ignorance." Far too often, she believed, teachers fail to emphasize how much about a given topic is unknown. "Textbooks spend 8 to 10 pages on pancreatic cancer," said Witte, "without ever telling the student that we just don't know very much about it." Now Jamie Holmes writes in the NY Times that many scientific facts simply aren't solid and immutable, but are instead destined to be vigorously challenged and revised by successive generations. According to Homes, presenting ignorance as less extensive than it is, knowledge as more solid and more stable, and discovery as neater also leads students to misunderstand the interplay between answers and questions.

In 2006, a Columbia University neuroscientist named Stuart J. Firestein, began teaching a course on scientific ignorance after realizing, to his horror, that many of his students might have believed that we understand nearly everything about the brain. "This crucial element in science was being left out for the students," says Firestein."The undone part of science that gets us into the lab early and keeps us there late, the thing that "turns your crank," the very driving force of science, the exhilaration of the unknown, all this is missing from our classrooms. In short, we are failing to teach the ignorance, the most critical part of the whole operation." The time has come to "view ignorance as 'regular' rather than deviant," argue sociologists Matthias Gross and Linsey McGoey. Our students will be more curious — and more intelligently so — if, in addition to facts, they were equipped with theories of ignorance as well as theories of knowledge.

Twenty Years Later, Nintendo's Virtual Boy Is Still an Oddity 43

An anonymous reader writes: Nintendo launched its Virtual Boy gaming console twenty years ago today. Expectations were high after the company sold tends of millions of its previous devices, but the Virtual Boy only sold about 770,000 units. It was conceived at the height of the '90s VR craze, but the technology of the time just couldn't produce the kind of experience that Nintendo (or gamers) envisioned. An article from Benj Edwards provides insight into the Virtual Boy's development and its inevitable failure.

"A major problem with the idea of making VR32 wearable, according to Makino, was that Nintendo engineers were concerned about placing a chip with high radio emissions near a user's head, since the safety of EMF radiation on the brain had yet to be thoroughly studied. Its proximity also produced visual noise in the displays. 'This meant that the internal CPU had to be covered by a metal plate,' says Makino, 'which made the whole system too heavy, forcing the goggle concept to be abandoned.' Not long after, Yokoi's console evolved from a strap-on headset into a heavier device that one could prop up onto one's face using a clumsy shoulder stand. Again, Nintendo's legal department feared liability issues; the device might cause children to fall down a stairwell while playing. ... Hobbled by liability concerns, VR32 soon evolved into a bulky red viewport mounted to a bi-pod that rested on a table."

Researchers Grow Tiny Human Brain In Lab 244

schwit1 writes: A team of researchers from Ohio State University claim to have grown a human brain in their lab that approximates the brain of a five-week-old fetus. They say the tiny brain is not conscious, but it could be used to test drugs and study diseases, but scientific peers urge caution. "The brain, which is about the size of a pencil eraser, is engineered from adult human skin cells and is the most complete human brain model yet developed, [the researchers say]. ... Anand and his colleagues claim to have reproduced 99% of the brain’s diverse cell types and genes. They say their brain also contains a spinal cord, signalling circuitry and even a retina." The team's data has not yet been peer reviewed.

IBM 'TrueNorth' Neuro-Synaptic Chip Promises Huge Changes -- Eventually 97

JakartaDean writes: Each of IBM's "TrueNorth" chips contains 5.4 billion transistors and runs on 70 milliwatts. The chips are designed to behave like neurons—the basic building blocks of biological brains. Dharmenda Modha, the head of IBM's cognitive computing group, says a system of 24 connected chips simulates 48 million neurons, roughly the same number rodents have.

Whereas conventional chips are wired to execute particular "instructions," the TrueNorth juggles "spikes," much simpler pieces of information analogous to the pulses of electricity in the brain. Spikes, for instance, can show the changes in someone's voice as they speak—or changes in color from pixel to pixel in a photo. "You can think of it as a one-bit message sent from one neuron to another." says one of the chip's chief designers. The chips are designed well not for training neural networks, but for executing them. This has significant implications for consumer AI: big companies with lots of resources could focus on the training, which individual TrueNorth chips in people's gadgets could handle the execution.

Implanted Optogenetic Light Switch Lets Scientists Flip Neurons On and Off 26

the_newsbeagle writes: Optogenetics is a fairly new (and fairly awesome) research tool for neuroscientists: By using light to jolt certain neurons into action, they can study how those neurons function in the mouse brain. But getting the light to those neurons has been difficult. Previous systems have required either fiber optic cables that tether the mouse to a computer, or heavy head-mounted receivers. Now Stanford's Ada Poon has invented a tiny and fully implantable system that wirelessly receives the signal to stimulate, and uses a micro-LED to activate the neurons. The device will let researchers study brain function while mice are running around, interacting socially, etc.

Could a Digital Pen Change How We Diagnose Brain Function? 23

An anonymous reader writes: By using custom tracking software to monitor the output from a digital pen, MIT researchers say they have found a way to better predict the onset of brain conditions like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. according to MIT: "For several decades, doctors have screened for conditions including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's with the CDT, which asks subjects to draw an analog clock-face showing a specified time, and to copy a pre-drawn clock. But the test has limitations, because its benchmarks rely on doctors' subjective judgments, such as determining whether a clock circle has 'only minor distortion.' CSAIL researchers were particularly struck by the fact that CDT analysis was typically based on the person's final drawing rather than on the process as a whole. Enter the Anoto Live Pen, a digitizing ballpoint pen that measures its position on the paper upwards of 80 times a second, using a camera built into the pen. The pen provides data that are far more precise than can be measured on an ordinary drawing, and captures timing information that allows the system to analyze each and every one of a subject's movements and hesitations."

Octopus Genome Sequenced 43

An anonymous reader writes: A large, international team of researchers has completed the full sequencing of the octopus genome. "The researchers discovered striking differences between the genomes of the octopus and other invertebrates, including widespread rearrangements of genes and a dramatic expansion of a family of genes involved in neuronal development that was once thought to be unique to vertebrates." Among other things, the data allows scientists to more deeply analyze the creature's unique nervous system. "The central brain surrounds the esophagus, which is typical of invertebrates, but it also has groups of neurons in the arms that can work relatively autonomously, plus huge optic lobes involved in vision." Their study has been published in Nature.

Spoken Language Could Tap Into "Universal Code" 83

sciencehabit writes: While we know a lot about language but we know relatively little about how speech developed. Most linguists agree that a combination of movement and sound like grunts and pointing probably got us started, but how we decided which sounds to use for different words remains a mystery. Now, an experimental game has shown that speakers of English might use qualities like the pitch and volume of sounds to describe concepts like size and distance when they invent new words. If true, some of our modern words may have originated from so-called iconic, rather than arbitrary, expression—a finding that would overturn a key theory of language evolution.

Brain Scan Predicts the Success of Social Anxiety Disorder Treatment 39

jan_jes writes: MIT researchers performed brain scans on 38 SAD patients and were able to predict with about 80% accuracy which patients would do well in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Use of the scans to predict treatment outcomes improved predictions fivefold over use of a clinician's assessment alone. The researchers used a form of brain imaging that scans patients in a state of rest. Resting-state images can be done quickly and reliably, so they have the potential to be used in a clinical setting. “Choice of therapy is like a wheel of chance,” says first author Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, a research scientist in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. “We’re hoping to use brain imaging to help provide more reliable predictors of treatment response.”

Internet Search Engines May Be Influencing Elections 67

sciencehabit writes: Thomas Epstein, a research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research in Vista, California, has found that the higher a politician ranks on a page of Internet search results, the more likely you are to vote for them — 80% more likely in some cases. The story also suggests that the folks at Google may already be influencing elections. "Google's algorithm has been determining the outcome of close elections around the world," says Epstein. As predicted, subjects spent far more time reading Web pages near the top of the list (abstract). But what surprised researchers was the difference those rankings made: Biased search results increased the number of undecided voters choosing the favored candidate by 48% compared with a control group that saw an equal mix of both candidates throughout the list.

Chemical Treatment Transforms Skin Cells Into Neurons 25

An anonymous reader writes: Two teams of researchers have independently succeeded in turning skin cells into neurons using a chemical cocktail. One group used human cells from healthy individuals and Alzheimer's patients, and the other used cells from mice. Sciencemag reports: "Molecular and cell biologists say the technique could become an important player in personalized medicine, specifically in using a patient's own cells to develop therapies for their disease or even to provide a source of transplantable cells for treatment."

An Organic Computer Using Four Wired-Together Rat Brains 190

Jason Koebler writes: The brains of four rats have been interconnected to create a "Brainet" capable of completing computational tasks better than any one of the rats would have been able to on its own. Explains Duke University's Dr. Miguel Nicolelis: "Recently, we proposed that Brainets, i.e. networks formed by multiple animal brains, cooperating and exchanging information in real time through direct brain-to-brain interfaces, could provide the core of a new type of computing device: an organic computer. Here, we describe the first experimental demonstration of such a Brainet, built by interconnecting four adult rat brains."

Robot Performs Prostate Surgery Inside an MRI 64

the_newsbeagle writes: Researchers have developed a non-metallic robot with ceramic piezoelectric motors that functions inside an MRI machine, allowing surgeons to perform procedures guided by real-time imaging. It's now being tested in prostate biopsies. Doctors say this system will let them aim their needles more precisely and reduce the number of times they stick them in. The NIH thinks such systems could come in handy for neurosurgery too. Gregory Fischer, a professor of mechanical engineering at WPI whose Automation and Interventional Medicine Robotics Lab led the research says: "You can bring it into any MRI room and have it up and running in an hour. It can locate the target, track the needle, and if it deflects during insertion, it can steer the needle to hit the target. We’re taking baby steps to get the robot into clinical use."

Brain-Inspired 'Memcomputer' Constructed 53

New submitter DorkFest writes: "Inspired by the human brain, UC San Diego scientists have constructed a new kind of computer that stores information and processes it in the same place. This prototype 'memcomputer' solves a problem involving a large dataset more quickly than conventional computers, while using far less energy. ... Such memcomputers could equal or surpass the potential of quantum computers, they say, but because they don't rely on exotic quantum effects are far more easily constructed." The team, led by UC San Diego physicist Massimiliano Di Ventra published their results in the journal Science Advances.

Common Medications Sway Moral Judgment 132

sciencehabit sends news that two commonly-prescribed drugs have been shown to influence how the human brain makes moral decisions. Citalopram is an SSRI used to treat depression, and levodopa is often used to combat Parkinson's disease. A new study (abstract) asked subjects to set a monetary value on receiving painful electric shocks — for themselves and for others (e.g. "Would you rather endure seven shocks to earn $10 or 10 shocks to earn $15?"). The study found that subjects on citalopram (which affects serotonin levels) were willing to give up more money to reduce shocks, both for themselves and others. Those on levodopa (which affects dopamine levels) made people just as willing to shock others as they were to shock themselves, when those on a placebo tended to be more reluctant to shock others. [Neuroscientist Molly] Crockett says those effects could suggests multiple underlying mechanisms. For example, excess dopamine might make our brain's reward system more responsive to the prospect of avoiding personal harm. Or it could tamp down our sense of uncertainty about what another person is experiencing, making us less hesitant to dole out pain. Serotonin, meanwhile, appeared to have a more general effect on aversion to harm, not just a heightened concern for another person. Such knowledge could eventually develop drugs that address disorders of social behavior, she says.