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The Thalamus - The Kernel in Your Mind 217

Posted by Zonk
from the my-brain-starts-with-the-thx-noise dept.
corbettw writes "This article on Yahoo Science News describes a new finding that explains how the thalamus is used by your brain to essentially boot your brain, and provide for central processing and control of all impulses going to and from the cortex. The article describes its function as an operating system, but from the description it actually seems closer to the functions of a kernel." From the article: "The finding, published last week in the journal Neuroscience, changes the way scientists understand nitric oxide's role in the brain, and it also has them rethinking the function of the thalamus, where it is released. The thalamus was thought to be a fairly primitive structure, sort of a gate that could either open and allow sensory information to stream into the cortex, the higher functioning part of the brain, or cut off the flow entirely. Godwin says the new research shows it's more accurate to think of the thalamus not as a gate but as a club bouncer, who doesn't simply allow a huge rush of people to go in or no one at all, but picks and chooses whom to let in and out. "
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The Thalamus - The Kernel in Your Mind

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  • by suso (153703) * on Friday August 18, 2006 @03:24PM (#15936631) Homepage Journal
    it's more accurate to think of the thalamus not as a gate but as a club bouncer, who doesn't simply allow a huge rush of people to go in or no one at all, but picks and chooses whom to let in and out. "

    Thalamus: Whoa buddy, you can't go in.
    Neuron: But, I'm with her!
    Thalamus: Her? Yeah right!
    Neuron: Cortica! Cortica! Come back! We can be together!

    [meanwhile in the real world]

    John: Hey Bobby, catch... whoa, heads up!
    Bobby: Owwww!
  • Drugs... (Score:3, Funny)

    by posterlogo (943853) on Friday August 18, 2006 @03:25PM (#15936635)
    KERNAL PANIC!!!
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Tackhead (54550)
      > Drugs...
      >
      > KERNAL PANIC!!!

      Knew I shouldn't have read the Nam-Shub of Enki out loud. Bloody buffer ovrflows. At least I got this nifty Sumerian-to-English plug-in from L. Bob Rife.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Rude Turnip (49495)
      Depends upon the drugs:

      coke/crack/meth: KERNEL PANIC!!!!!!OMG!!!!Eleventy!!!!11!!
      alcohol: Kernel is really fucking pissed off and wants to fight!!!
      nicotine: Kernel laid
      THC: Kernel mellow
      LSD: Kernel trails, whoa purple sounds awesome and crunchy.....
  • by krell (896769) on Friday August 18, 2006 @03:26PM (#15936638) Journal
    "the thalamus is used by your brain to essentially boot your brain"

    Which now raises hope for those of us who want dual-boot flexibility.
    • by s20451 (410424) on Friday August 18, 2006 @03:39PM (#15936735) Journal
      From the summary:

      The article describes its function as an operating system, but from the description it actually seems closer to the functions of a kernel.

      Does this mean we should call the brain the Brain/Thalamus? It's unfair to give the entire package precedence over the kernel, as one is useless without the other.
      • by MillionthMonkey (240664) on Friday August 18, 2006 @04:03PM (#15936916)
        Does this mean we should call the brain the Brain/Thalamus? It's unfair to give the entire package precedence over the kernel, as one is useless without the other.

        I used to study neuroscience. The thalamus is a HUGE bank of relay switches in the brain- all these trunk cables go into it from all over. Basically anything you're paying attention to involves some circuit going through the thalamus, and the way the thalamus works is what limits your ability to focus on multiple things at once. Once something becomes rote- like QWERTY typing or good guitar playing- the thalamus is no longer involved.

        I have epilepsy- really bad seizures- and my brain gets really messed up on restarts because it regains function piece by piece. Occasionally I'll be totally conscious (forming some long term memories again), and watching stuff come back online- I can hear, then I can see, then I can recognize things I see, etc. There are intermediate states where I can see but not recognize things. The seizures start in the right temporal lobe, so the right hemisphere is completely screwed up, but if my left brain works I can compensate with higher functions. Usually I'm looking for water fountains because my head is really hot and sweaty after a seizure. I'll find a water fountain and think, is this a water fountain? Well it has a stream of stuff that looks drinkable... it has a thing coming out the side that you can turn... it MUST be a water fountain! I almost pissed on my wife's chair once after somehow figuring it was a toilet. But without thalamic activity I'd never be able to patch right brain functions and send sensory information to the forebrain from the left side. If I'm able to pay attention to something at all, then there is some thalamic function. Recognizing it is a different task.

        The ability to form long term memories comes later and is a more distributed gradual process as areas of the cortex recover. I was in this cubicle working once... doing simple stuff like cleaning up someone's crappy code... then I started doing more mentally intense work, and I turned around after an hour or two and noticed my cubicle was a mess. Everyone said, "you had a seizure a few hours ago, don't you remember?"

        Recently my brain has been passing through a metastable fugue state after really nasty seizures where I have partial function, but it's not me yet- it's like someone else. I answer yes/no questions completely differently, I don't recognize my wife, I fight with people if they get in my way, and I don't know where I'm going but I'm going somewhere, sometimes out the door. Usually no new memories are being formed; I have to go by what people tell me afterward. Apparently I'm getting better at fooling people in the fugue state because my speech in the fugue is starting to almost sound normal even though I have only partial brain function. One of these days I'm going to regain consciousness in jail.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by iluvcapra (782887)
          all these trunk cables go into it from all over

          So, what you're saying is that the brain isn't like a truck, but it's actually a bunch of tubes? You can't just pull your brain up and load it and drive it away, 'cause it's tubes.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward
          This sounds somewhat similar to some recreational experiences I've had with dissociative drugs, primarily Dextromethorphan [wikipedia.org], although much less pleasant! The brain is a complex web of interconnected systems, the world becomes radically different when elements of that system operate out of spec. Have you ever had "strobing"? That was always one of the more interesting qualities of DXM at certain dosages - it's almost like being in a dark room with a strobe light except there is almost a kind of buffering, it'
        • by jd (1658)
          I know enough to know that some of the meds I take dangerously lower my seizure threshold, so have to take other meds to counteract that. One big danger for me is that a lot of meds do weird shit (I lost colour vision on Zyprexa) and the interaction is unstable and does shift - sometimes very dramatically. For that reason alone, I wish there was more solid research on seizures, brain chemistry and related meds. (How hard could it be to add some tracer isotopes to lithium salts, then use fMRI to see exactly
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Anonymous Coward

            How hard could it be to add some tracer isotopes to lithium salts, then use fMRI to see exactly what happens from start to finish?

            Dead easy but not terribly useful. Watching the blinking lights on all the network cards tells you precious little about why the LAN just melted down. To be able to analyze problems, we need detailed information about how individual neurons work, how they interact with the glial cells and blood vessels, and the structure of the larger networks of neurons. Unfortunately the in

        • wow. Sounds like descriptions of old world "possesed by the devil" type stories. Have you tried smoking weed to fight the seizures? I amm not a doctor though. It's like that guy who in like 1890 got a railway spike through his brain and became a complete asshole afterwards. This is probably the most interesting anecdote I have read all week.

          oh i found a link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage [wikipedia.org]

        • by RatBastard (949)
          I don't have anything positive to contribute, but I'd like to just say that that is a facinating post. To see your brain coming back online must be an unsettling and intense experience.

          Thank you for sharing this.
        • by pipingguy (566974) *
          Surely your family and friends must have considered exorcism by now, what are you waiting for?
      • by 6Yankee (597075)
        Well, that depends on the size of the package ;)
      • Well, since nobody has patented it, and the source code is readily available (not that anyone understands it yet) we should probably call it GNU/Thalamus.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by MattS423 (987689)
      We might have to wait for Book Camp for that one...
       
      ...and I hear theres no linux dirver support for the sense of smelll. (yet)
      • Book camp (Score:2, Funny)

        by krell (896769)
        "We might have to wait for Book Camp for that one..

        Dilbert: "Why has Wally been barking, chewing the managers, and peeing on the flowcharts all day?"
        Dogbert: "He rebooted his brain with Cujo using that new 'Book Camp' software."
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by wyip (914072)
        Well version 1.1 was recently released which added support for eye sight, among other things.
    • by Jerf (17166) on Friday August 18, 2006 @03:48PM (#15936807) Journal
      Which now raises hope for those of us who want dual-boot flexibility.

      So are you saying you're bi-curious?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by megaditto (982598)
      No, but it runs Linus [wikipedia.org], who happens to run Linux.
    • This already exists, but in people it is known as dual personalities :)
    • Of course running VirtualPC is like having schizophrenia, and remote desktop is either an out-of-body experience, or mind control.

      Blonde moments are, of course as a result of dodgy drivers.

      So long as the CDC don't manage to install a back orifice, we shouldnt worry too much.
  • by MECC (8478) * on Friday August 18, 2006 @03:26PM (#15936642)
    FTP:"Your Brain Works Like the Internet"

    A collection of pipes moving pr0n around?

  • by AltGrendel (175092) <`su.0tixe' `ta' `todhsals-ga'> on Friday August 18, 2006 @03:26PM (#15936643) Homepage
    ...is a brain that will boot in the first place.
  • Godwin? (Score:5, Funny)

    by computational super (740265) on Friday August 18, 2006 @03:27PM (#15936652)
    Godwin says the new research shows it's more accurate...

    But then they drifted off topic and started arguing about Nazis and Hitler and the discussion had to be ended.

  • by ettlz (639203) on Friday August 18, 2006 @03:28PM (#15936659) Journal
    From: Andy T.
    To: The Almighty

    I still maintain the point that designing a monolithic kernel in -3000 BC is a fundamental error.
    Be thankful you are not my student. You would not get a high grade for such a design :-)
  • by Anonymous Coward
    BThalamusD is dying. I'd give it 80-90 years. 100 years tops.
  • So... can it run Linux?

    The answer is obviously yes, but only the even version numbers.
  • by Flashpot (773365) on Friday August 18, 2006 @03:30PM (#15936673)
    but i'm paging out to my liver!
  • by andrewman327 (635952) on Friday August 18, 2006 @03:31PM (#15936678) Homepage Journal
    description it actually seems closer to the functions of a kernel.
    A reason to be even more afraid of Sony's rootkit!


    Anyway, this is an interesting article. This research has a lot of promise in coming years and decades as better understanding brain chemistry advances pharmaceuticals and medical treatments. From TFA: "This study shows a unique role for nitric oxide. It may help us to someday understand what goes wrong in diseases that affect cognitive processing, such as attention deficit disorder or schizophrenia, and it adds to our fundamental understanding of how we perceive the world around us."


    People have been comparing brains to computers almost as long as they have been comparing computers to brains. The Computational Theory of Mind looks at the mind (the brain's software as some have described it) in pretty a logical way, not too far away from computational reasoning. These comparisons are useful for understanding larger concepts but they generally fall apart when you get to the nuts and bolts of it. For example, the brain processes many shades of grey instead of a computer's binary perception. Neural networks and, to a lessor extent, quantum computing seek to emulate some of the processes of the brain.


    On an aside, if you are interested in learning more about machine intelegence, I highly recomend reading Ray Kurzweil's books.

    • by Yvanhoe (564877)
      Neural networks and, to a lessor extent, quantum computing seek to emulate some of the processes of the brain.

      Aren't quantum computer binary too ? A group of qu-bit is capable of representing more values that the same number of bits but they are expressed in binary too.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Kouroth (911586)
      The software and hardware are interchangeable. The brain makes hardware and software changes to itself during operation.
      *Tangent*
      Some day we may make DNA to build cells for computational biomasses. Such cells DNA would not need to be nearly as complex as real living creatures. Even single celled creatures need much more DNA based information than any artificial cells. Artificial computational biomass cells would only need enough information for replicating on command, following operation instructions an
    • The fact that a computer is binary or analogic (or digital with more than 2 states) is completely irrelevant to understand its behaviour. Knowing that it is a Von Neuman computer or a neural network is also almost irrelevant to understand its behaviour.

      Now, the difference from a network of a few hundred simple neurons and one of several bilion of very complex ones is quite relevant.

      You can't compare our brain with our computers, but you gave the wrong reasons.

    • ISTR that neurons are, pretty much, either firing or not firing, on or off, and that, consequently, a brain "processes" shades of gray in a way substantially similar to the way your typical digital computer "processes" real numbers.
    • by radtea (464814)
      People have been comparing brains to computers almost as long as they have been comparing computers to brains.

      And people have been using inappropriate analogies between the brain and the dominant technology of the day for even longer than that.

      Freud compared the brain to a steam engine, the visible motion of consciousness driven by the hidden fires of the unconscious. Later comparisons were made to telephone exchanges and electrical supply networks. I don't know if anyone ever compared the brain to the p
  • by Himring (646324) on Friday August 18, 2006 @03:32PM (#15936687) Homepage Journal
    Homer: Okay, brain. You don't like me, and I don't like you, but let's get through this thing and then I can continue killing you with beer.

    Homer's Brain: It's a deal!

  • orwell (Score:2, Offtopic)

    by User 956 (568564)
    This article on Yahoo Science News describes a new finding that explains how the thalamus is used by your brain to essentially boot your brain

    So that's what Orwell meant when he wrote: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face -- forever."
    • by Archtech (159117)
      'So that's what Orwell meant when he wrote: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face -- forever."'

      Stamping, actually, old man. Orwell was English.
  • by pb (1020) on Friday August 18, 2006 @03:33PM (#15936697)
    Are you sure that it doesn't sound more like a bootloader, or a DHCP server, or a firewall/router, at the edge of the network, protecting the main Beowulf cluster, etc., etc....

    Ok, enough of that.
  • nitric oxide (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Mr. Slippery (47854)

    One interesting thing about this is that nitric oxide is produced in the sinuses. Does "proper" nasal breathing result in altering the concentration of this molecule in the blood and therefore have an effect on consciousness?

  • Metaphor City (Score:4, Insightful)

    by exp(pi*sqrt(163)) (613870) on Friday August 18, 2006 @03:36PM (#15936709) Journal
    The thalamus is a gate, a bouncer, a kernel, a bootloader, a chamber, a relay, a telephone exchange.

    I personally think that the thalamus is like a coathook. You can hang whatever metaphor you feel like on it.

  • Can somebody tell me where to find the Ctrl, Alt, and Delete buttons for my brain???
  • That the odds that someone compares this to something about the Nazis approaches unity.
  • Norton Ghost (Score:2, Insightful)

    by krell (896769)
    This also brings us closer to the day when we can re-program our brains to a desired previous state. This is something you might want to do after (for example) learning Esperanto or how to speak very fluent Klingon, when you start to think that Jon Katz news items make perfect sense, having gone to see "Gigli" or "Star Trek 10", having seen the Goatse image one too many times (once is too much!) or getting infected with an embarassing Olivia Newton-John earworm [webmd.com]: things you'd really not have in your wetware.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by zlogic (892404)
      How about watching one (good) movie, playing one (good) game, reading one (good) book all over again?
      After forgetting the plot and characters you'll get the same experience as reading/watching/playing for the first time.
  • Research abstract (Score:5, Informative)

    by FleaPlus (6935) * on Friday August 18, 2006 @03:49PM (#15936811) Journal
    I really wish submitters would include a link to the research paper, so we could actually judge the research for ourselves instead of relying on some journalist's interpretation. Here's the abstract for this paper, from Neuroscience:

    Diurnal gene expression patterns of T-type calcium channels and their modulation by ethanol [sciencedirect.com]

    The transient (T-type) calcium channel participates in the generation of normal brain rhythms as well as abnormal rhythms associated with a range of neurological disorders. There are three different isoforms of T-type channels and all are particularly enriched in the thalamus, which is involved in generating many of these rhythms. We report a novel means of T-type channel regulation in the thalamus that involves diurnal regulation of gene expression. Using real time polymerase chain reaction we detected a diurnal pattern of gene expression for all T-type channel transcripts. The peak of gene expression for the CaV3.1 transcript occurred close to the transition from active to inactive (sleep) states, while expression for both CaV3.2 and CaV3.3 peaked near the transition of inactive to active phase. We assessed the effect of chronic consumption of ethanol on these gene expression patterns by examining thalamic tissues of ethanol-consuming cohorts that were housed with the controls, but which received ethanol in the form of a liquid diet. Ethanol consumption resulted in a significant shift of peak gene expression of approximately 5 h for CaV3.2 toward the normally active phase of the mice, as well as increasing the overall gene expression levels by approximately 1.7-fold. Peak gene expression was significantly increased for both CaV3.2 and CaV3.3. Measurements of CaV3.3 protein expression reflected increases in gene expression due to ethanol. Our results illustrate a novel regulatory mechanism for T-type calcium channels that is consistent with their important role in generating thalamocortical sleep rhythms, and suggests that alterations in the pattern of gene expression of these channels could contribute to the disruption of normal sleep by ethanol.


    Curiously, I get the impression that the emphasis of the research is somewhat different from what was emphasized in the popular-press article.
    • Re:Research abstract (Score:5, Interesting)

      by mspohr (589790) on Friday August 18, 2006 @04:09PM (#15936959)
      Thanks for posting this abstract and link. Most articles in the popular press are written by idiots so it's good to go to the source.

      From the abstract, it appears that the thalamus does act as a kind of "pacemaker" (or "motivator" as in R2D2).

      The really important finding of the study is that this may be the path that alcohol uses to disrupt sleep.

      • by Reziac (43301) *
        I found myself wondering if this is also a clue as to why some people take a while to get their brains online in the morning, while others are fully functional from the moment they open their eyes.

        I'm the sort who boots and loads the OS in a matter of seconds, so I'm completely awake by the time my feet hit the floor. I'm also a "morning person" and am at my best when I get up with the sun. Occurs to me to wonder if this is really a single trait, generated by a thalamus with a higher CPU speed. :)
        • by wanax (46819)
          Short answer is no.

          Your sleep cycles are regulated by two main features: environment (most importantly exposure to bright light when you get up), and circadian rhythms, which are a natural ~25hr rhythm generated in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of your hypothalmus (SCN), which is receives light signals and uses them to entrain your rhythms to a 24 hour day. The centers for controlling your sleep function mostly reside in the brainstem, although other areas such as parts of the thalmus and the pineal gland pla
      • Most articles in the popular press are written by idiots [...]
        That's perhaps a bit unfair. They are written by journalists, who have are often reasonably intelligent people who have spent many years studying journalism and practising their craft. They're just often completely ignorant of things besides journalism, including, all too often, the subject matter that their journalism addresses.
        • In other words, the word "idiot," as the grandparent poster and many other posters here use it, means "someone who doesn't have the specialized knowledge I do (though I have little knowledge of anything else)."
    • Re:Research abstract (Score:5, Informative)

      by phystor (938973) on Friday August 18, 2006 @04:27PM (#15937095)
      As a neuroscientist I completely agree that it would be useful to present at least some simplified version of the actual findings instead of some nifty computer analogy to make it sound cool. The actual findings are in stark contrast what is being claimed by the news piece.

      The paper you link is a different one. This is the actual paper:

      Alexander GM, Kurukulasuriya NC, Mu J, Godwin DW. Cortical feedback to the thalamus is selectively enhanced by nitric oxide. Neuroscience. 2006 Jul 28 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?db=p ubmed&cmd=Retrieve&dopt=AbstractPlus&list_uids=168 76956&query_hl=12&itool=pubmed_docsum [nih.gov]

      Indeed the area they study is somewhat mysterious: The thalamus provides separate communication channels for essentially all sensory information from the sensory organs (e.g. eyes) to the cerebral cortex. However, unlike most brain areas it appears that there is no transformation going on in the thalamus. So if there is no computation, it must be a relay! As much as much most neuroscientist find the idea of pure "relay" unsatisfactory we simply have no evidence for anything beyond it. Hence all the speculation. Unfortunately, the present paper sheds no light onto the thalamus mystery. The authos cut a slice out of a brain and study in isolation. Clearly you won't get much functional information about what's actually going on in this way. Then the authors dump a drug onto the slice to show that it differentially turns up the gain of one input and turns down the gain of another one. Nice, but we don't know if this is actually going on in the brain or how this chemical would get there. If --as the journalists claim-- this finding were to transform our ideas about the thalamus then it probably wouldn't be published in a third tier journal like 'Neuroscience'.

      So much for science journalisms.

      -phystor-

      • Wow, thanks for the link. I guess the paper I found was one by the same author last month in the same journal. I was wondering why the stuff in the paper was so different from what was being described in the article...

        Here's the abstract from what you linked:

        The brain somehow merges visual information with the behavioral context in which it is being processed, a task that is often attributed to the cerebral cortex. We have identified a new role of the gaseous neurotransmitter, nitric oxide (NO), in the earl
      • Well, if it's not performing any transformation then it is probably just a filter or suppressor. In that regard, I've always felt that certain Jedi mind tricks must work on the thalamus:

        Obi Wan: "You don't need to see his identification."

        Storm Trooper: "I don't need to see his identification."

        Obi Wan: "These aren't the droids you're looking for."

        Storm Trooper: "These aren't the droids we're looking for."
  • brain ... it actually seems closer to the functions of a kernel

    so... God and Linus invented the same thing?
    #@$&!!@# I always thought Linus is God =)
  • hi hi hi hah ha HA hAH HAH hihi hihi wooooo he he hah ha ha
  • Researcher (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Godwin says the new research shows it's more accurate to think of the thalamus not as a gate but as a club bouncer, who doesn't simply allow a huge rush of people to go in or no one at all, but picks and chooses whom to let in and out.

    Godwin also says that the thalamus is like Nazi Germany; it declares some people are full citizens and others are untermensch.

  • by suv4x4 (956391) on Friday August 18, 2006 @03:54PM (#15936857)
    It's not the brain that works like an OS, apparently it's the OS that has a similar structure to a brain (already).

    I guess we're on the right way to seeing higher intelligence emerge from machines in the next few decades.
  • Godwin says the new research shows it's more accurate to think of the thalamus not as a gate but as a club bouncer, who doesn't simply allow a huge rush of people to go in or no one at all, but picks and chooses whom to let in and out. "

    Why a bouncer. I thought we used car analogies around here...

    it's more accurate to think of the thalamus not as a bouncer, but a traffic cop, who doesn't simply allow a huge rush of cars to go in or no one at all, but picks and chooses whom to let in and out.

    There, now I un
  • login? (Score:2, Funny)

    by rolyatknarf (973068) *
    What happens when someone boots their brain and can't remember the password at the login screen?
  • by roman_mir (125474) on Friday August 18, 2006 @04:12PM (#15936984) Homepage Journal
    I don't know if I can trust any kernel to be compared to the brain, after all Windows gets the Blue Scream of Death and the Linux gets Panic Attacks, DOS has to be rebooted often to modify memory management, Unix gets segmentation falls and bus errors. This is terrible news, I think I am just going to walk around in circles until I stop thinking about this... Damn! It's a deadlock forced by a race condition! I just want to go to sleep.
  • from the my-brain-starts-with-the-thx-noise dept.

    Dammit, you people must have known I set that as my wakeup track! (No, seriously, I did...)
  • by Anonymous Coward
    That is why the creature only ate the thalamus of the humans it killed .

    A mind is a terrible thing to waste... Especially if you're really hungry
  • PENN FROM PENN & TELLER: They're coming in from remote nodes. They're going after the Kernal!

    TONY SOPRANO'S SHRINK LADY: Colonel who?

    PENN: The System Command Processor, it's the brain.

    TSSL: Cancer, brain, brain, cancer!
  • While less well known than club bouncers, I would think that the thalamus would be better likened to Maxwell's Demon [wikipedia.org].

    This would explain why all your body heat escape from your head!

  • This gives a whole new meaning to "microkernel". And what with microkernel now equivalent to "peakbrain", it looks like neuroscience sides with Linus against RMS and Tannenbaum. :)


    I run GNU/thalamus.

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