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January 17, 2006

Good versus Am I Good?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Is there a difference between how our brains file information about ourselves versus general information about our environment? Yes. The neurolearning blog has a great post titled personal learner on this subject that I highly recommend clicking over to and reading. You might pay special attention to all the great links at the end of their post.

This study is a good reminder that when we really personalize information (general knowledge vs. knowledge that we relate to ourselves), we change how the information is filed, and increase the likelihood that it will be remembered and used later.

The figure below shows the brain activity differences in subjects either reading a list of personality traits or reading and reflecting whether the traits applied to them (e.g. good, kind vs. Am I good? Am I kind?).

Self-referential information is remembered best.
Two reflections for teaching - first, it's worthwhile to know that personal learning is not only more motivating, but it is also more memorable. For some teachers, this may mean they have to work hard to connect new information with what students already know. Connections might be intersections personal events, histories, or interests, analogical situations or themes from current events, or parallels concepts in different disciplines.

Second, there are some students with such a strong preference for personal learning that it seems it is the only way they learn. Be on the look out for these kids. These students may have erratic performances in different subjects (might depend on the teacher or how the subject is taught), and yet clearly be very knowledgeable. Strong personal learners may be gregarious people who are natural story-tellers...because it's who they are as stories are very personal.

As strong personal learners grow older, many may recognize this trait more. More will be able to consciously choose the situations in which they can thrive.

Please see the neurolearning blog for many more insightful posts.

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November 09, 2005

Lower Cholesterol and Learn Better?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

In a serendipitous twist that can only be found in medical science a widely used cholesterol-lowering drug, Lovastatin, may also aid learning in adults and kids with learning disabilities. Researchers at UCLA will begin three separate human trials in both children and adults within a few weeks after their initial animal testing showed hopeful results. Amazingly, after the knock-out mice received the drug, their performance (on a series of memory tasks) improved 30 percent so that they outperformed normal mice, reported the LA Times.

Lovastatin, trade-named Mevacor, is one of a family of drugs known collectively as statins that have revolutionized the treatment of high cholesterol. The drugs, first introduced in the 1990s and taken daily by millions of people at risk for heart disease and other problems, have been widely recognized as safe.
The learning problems studied by the researchers were caused by a genetic defect called neurofibromatosis 1, the most common genetic cause of learning disabilities. It affects 1 in every 3,000 to 4,000 people. The learning disabilities include poor attention spans, difficulties in carrying out tasks involving spatial abilities and problems learning new tasks.

The LA Times article continues, "The treatment also may be useful in a much larger group of people because the underlying molecular disorders in other types of learning disabilities may be similar, the researchers said. As much as 5 percent of the population is learning disabled, and lovastatin may be useful in treating many of them, he said.

The key to the discovery is a protein called Ras, which regulates how brain cells communicate. Researchers had previously shown that the genetic mutations associated with neurofibromatosis 1 lead to an excess production of Ras, which inhibits the brain's ability to record newly learned information. Statins interfere with Ras by reducing the level of fats found in blood, known as lipids, which are required by Ras to carry out its function."

No matter how powerful the scientific method is as a technique for real progress, it never ceases to amaze me how many breakthroughs occur as afterthoughts or side effects of other projects.

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September 15, 2005

When Are You Most Alert?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

People reach their peak of alertness between 6pm and 7pm according to Circadian Technologies. From an evolutionary perspective, this time of day, early evening, was most likely spent securing the hearth for a safe night's sleep. Human alertness also rises at dawn or early morning. While a CMO magazine piece warns employers that trying to mess with this natural cycle won't get them very far, emerging neurotechnologies from companies like Cortex Pharmaceuticals are making are making headway on improving alertness and attention.

Located in Irvine, California, Cortex is a neuroscience company focused on novel drug therapies for neurological and psychiatric disorders. The company is pioneering a new class of proprietary pharmaceuticals called AMPAKINE compounds, which act to increase the strength of signals at connections between brain cells. The loss of these connections is thought to be responsible for memory and behavior problems in Alzheimer's disease. Many psychiatric diseases, including schizophrenia, occur as a result of imbalances in the brain's neurotransmitter system. These imbalances may be improved by using the AMPAKINE technology.

A recently completed clinical study with AMPAKINE compounds in patients with schizophrenia indicated improvement in a number of symptoms also common to patients with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD"'). The US Department of Defense is also studying the use of these compounds to improve alertness in air force pilots and infantry.

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July 31, 2005

Cogniceuticals Defined in the UK Observer

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Posted by Zack Lynch

John Hind, writer at the UK Observer, recenly picked up on the term "cogniceuticals" in the "What's the Word" column:

n. medicines for saving and increasing cognition

Cogniceuticals are drugs that work on 'knowing' - memory, learning, attention. They are 'the fastest-growing neuro-pharmaceutical market' and are set to be so for several decades, unfolding a 'neurosociety' in which functions of the human mind are protected and then enhanced in earnest. Social and economic forecaster Zack Lynch, author of the daily Brain Waves sees 2010 to 2040 as being a period in which cogniceuticals (and also 'emoticeuticals') will metaphorically move from invention-of-the-wheel stage to intercontinental-flight stage. Lynch sees us taking advantage, via drugs, of the vast amount of data out there. One pundit on cheers, 'Competitive advantage will come not just from managing knowledge generated within your company, but by cogniceutically managing the ability of your employees to learn, think, be creative ...'

For more on cogniceuticals click here.

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May 31, 2005

MIT Finds Waldo in Your Brain

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Posted by Zack Lynch

waldo.gif "Attention is a general problem for the brain, and maybe it has a general solution," according to a new study, published in a recent issue of Science, that addresses a central question that anyone who has tackled a "Where's Waldo?" book can appreciate. When looking for Waldo on the crowded page, does the brain scan the page spatially, like a mental spotlight moving across an otherwise dark page? Or does the brain take in the whole page at once and gradually zoom in on relevant features such as color and shape?"

Using the visual system as a model, Professor Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, and colleagues report that neurons synchronize their signals to command attention, like a chorus rising above the din of noisy chatter in a crowded room. "We think that synchronizing signals could be a general way the brain focuses on what's important," says Desimone, who also holds an appointment through MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

"If timing is important for visual attention and this is the way the brain focuses," reflects Desimone, "that exploration might open up whole new domains for understanding and possibly treating attention disorders, which are common in mental illnesses, including ADHD and even schizophrenia."

This line of reasoning seems right on target to me. Now comes the hard part of translating this basic research in the better tools for mental illness.

NOTE: Italicized paragraphs directly from MIT press releases.

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March 23, 2005

Saegis Continues Cogniceutical Progress with ADHD Focus

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Cogniceuticals improve and treat disorders of attention, learning, memory, or cognition. Cogniceuticals are the fastest growing neuropharmaceutical market for two primary reasons: (1) demographic shifts towards aging population (2) scientific progress on memory related disorders, especially animal models.

As I wrote last year in Saegis a cogniceutical pure play, Saegis continues to prove their cogniceutical focus with their recent announcement that it began a Phase II study of its lead product candidate, SGS742, for adult patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It's progress and focus like this that have made the neurotechnology industry one of the hottest areas for venture capital investment in the life sciences, surging 225% in the past 5 years.

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October 20, 2004

Too Intelligent? A Book Review of Jeff Hawkins’ "On Intelligence"

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Posted by Zack Lynch

by Chris Furmanski

Even though we find ourselves at the start of the 21st century, computers that can make decisions with breadth and creativity that humans do are still the subject of science fiction rather than the reality of modern science. In On Intelligence, a recently released book from the founder of Palm Computing, Jeff Hawkins lays out an impressive blueprint for making intelligent machines a reality.

With resume bullets like inventor of the PalmPilot and CTO of PalmOne, a popular-science book about the future of computing certainly seems like an obvious choice for Hawkins. But as soon as you open up the sharp, electric-blue dust-cover, you’ll realize On Intelligence was probably the last thing you’d expect from a Silicon-Valley techie. Missing are detailed technology roadmaps and ethereal speculations about fantastical improbable futures. Instead, On Intelligence adeptly intertwines lay-English summaries of decades of research from neurophysiology, computer science, cognitive psychology, and even includes some well-placed philosophical sidebars that mesh into an approachable and well-written narrative addressing the plausible future of computing.

In a nutshell, On Intelligence is Hawkins’ popular-science proposal for building intelligent machines. The basic premises go something like this: (1) to build intelligent machines, we must understand human intelligence; and (2) to understand human intelligence, we must understand how the brain works.

From these intuitive assumptions, On Intelligence launches into an in-depth description of brain function, physiology, and cognitive psychology, which ultimately provides quite an education. Hawkins doesn’t shy away from the daunting task of defining intelligence, imagination, consciousness, perception, and reality using a single general theory. Dare I say, that is not an easy thing to do. Now I won’t spoil Hawkins broad-brush-stroked Memory-Prediction Framework, which is the core of the book, but his theory is an interesting, almost Ockham’s-Razor synthesis which certainly fits nicely in the pursuit of next-generation intelligent machines.

Hawkins’ concludes the book up with a brief overview of how his theoretical framework could be applied to a range of intelligent machines in the near future. Thankfully, Hawkins’ future is not deluded with fantastic visions of Schwarzenegger-esque Terminators; instead, it intelligently concentrates on the numerous pragmatic applications (e.g., smart cars or machines that think about theoretical physics) that are realizable in the next 10 or so years. I was a little surprised to find that only the last chapter of the book was been dedicated to Hawkins’ application of his theory. It felt a little like the end of Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol 1; boom, it’s over, and the audience wants more. Hawkins probably could have gotten away with making all of the same arguments just as effectively without quite so much emphasis on human cortical physiology.

In the end, if you have a basic science or technical background and are interested in an explanation of how the human brain works, then On Intelligence is certainly for you. And even if you don’t know your cerebellum from your cerebral cortex, don’t be intimidated; one the book’s strong suits is the clarity of its writing, and Hawkins on-going use of good metaphors to simplify otherwise complex theories is fantastic.

And don’t think On Intelligence is just a great neurophysiology lesson. Hawkins mixes in well-timed (auto)biographical material (the book is co-written by science writer Sandra Blakeslee) to make it readable by readers with a wide range of interests and backgrounds. In retrospect, I think it was the biographical snippets of how Hawkins’ quest to understand the human brain molded his entrepreneurial successes that I found most interesting. For example, On Intelligence give us glimpses of Hawkins’ invention of Graffiti (Palm’s writing ‘language’) during his graduate research at Berkeley, and he shares some of his pursuits of artificial intelligence while at Intel working for the illustrious Gordon Moore. And as more of these historical vignettes come to light, Hawkins convinces us that he was not just a successful technologist, but is also someone that holds a deep-seeded, life-long passion for neuroscience--- so maybe On Intelligence’s heavy focus on brain physiology starts to seem less out of place.

Speaking personally, having spent almost 15 years in the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, as well as having the opportunity to work on bleeding-edge artificial intelligence, I have to say Hawkins’ philosophy and general approach are right on the mark. That said, veterans of many of these multidisciplinary fields might find Hawkins’ theory not quite as ground breaking as advertised--- though the list of testable predictions in the appendix made the empiricist in me smile.

To make sure I wasn’t letting my closeness to field blind my assessment of the book, I polled a few of my friends and colleagues that don’t share my affinity for cognitively-inspired computing. As I expected, the general consensus was very positive and everyone I talked to would recommend On Intelligence to their friends. One psychologist I know remarked that Hawkins too often paints the world with generalities and falls into portraying the progress of psychology as more bleak than it really is. An executive I know thought On Intelligence has probably thrust Hawkins to forefront of the artificial intelligence community in the popular press’s eyes-- if CNN is going to do a story on the super intelligent computers, they probably call Hawkins first. A marketing acquaintance I know would have liked to see more illustrations in the context of the physiology descriptions, but all and all, everyone that it was thumbs up.

So, on one hand, Hawkins does a fantastic job of explaining how the human brain works in a way that is clear, well organized, and not jargon laden. The real question is, will the general public find On Intelligence engaging cover to cover? Maybe more to the point, will popular-science readers be scared away by Hawkins’ rather lengthy neurophysiology lesson when they were probably expecting something completely different from the inventor of the original PalmPilot?

It may just be that On Intelligence’s is a “betweener” --- it may go into too much detail about neurophysiology for the average reader and yet may still lack sufficient detail to be awe-inspiring for experts in the field. In the grand scheme of popular-science, On Intelligence may not have the controversial impact of Hernstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve, and probably won’t have the mass appeal of Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

But as the once disparate fields of computer science and cognitive neuroscience become more aligned, On Intelligence could eventually replace Minsky’s The Society of Mind as the contemporary bible of modern artificial intelligence. In the final analysis, Hawkins’ On Intelligence is a clearly written book that would certainly be a worthy companion for science-savvy readers looking to learn about the human brain and the future intelligent machines. Enjoy!

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September 30, 2004

Russia's Alcohol Addiction

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Posted by Zack Lynch

New statistics from Russia concerning use of alcohol were presented at a recent conference in Moscow:

- Russia is 1st in the world for alcohol use at 14.7 liters/person
- Addiction is considered a serious threat to national security
- 71% of boys and 76% of girls use alcohol more than twice a month

If you are interested in learning more about this issue, visit Prevention Partnership.

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July 07, 2004

Addicted to Motivation

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Addiction expert Howard Fields published a very important paper this month in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Given the paper's relative technical depth I asked Howard to summarize this research for the rest of us mortals. So he put together the following: (thanks Howard)

"Contrary to the intuitive sense that we passively receive signals from the outside world and that our experience reflects this input, evidence is growing that sensations are usually preceded by a decision process. To carry out this decision process the brain weighs different behaviors on a utility/cost scale and selects the optimal goal. Then it then screens all inputs for those that are task relevant and inhibits those that are not. This process is striking for the pain sensory pathway, which may be completely absent in the face of serious injuries, including bone fractures. The implementation of this phenomenon depends on the release of endogenous opioid peptides that activate a pain suppressing control system, under conditions in which it is not in the individual's interest to respond to such severe stimuli (A life threatening situation or one offering very large rewards)."

Here is the summary for the neuroscientists among you:

Opioid receptors are a family of related G-protein-coupled receptors. Both endogenous and exogenous ligands for these receptors have powerful motivational actions. Opioid actions on nociceptive transmission are exerted through a circuit that connects limbic forebrain and brainstem structures to spinal and trigeminal dorsal horn.

Opioid receptor agonists act at sites that are distributed throughout this circuit to produce analgesia. This effect involves the release of endogenous opioids at serially connected brainstem and spinal sites. This circuit can exert bidirectional control through on cells that facilitate and off cells that inhibit nociceptive transmission.

The action of selective -(KOR) and ORL1 receptor agonists depends on the state of the circuit. When the circuit is in the pain-facilitating on-cell state, both KOR and ORL1 agonists have a pain-reducing effect. When the circuit is in the off-cell (pain suppressing) state, these same agonists reduce analgesia.

The opioid-mediated off-cell state is robustly activated by both aversive and appetitive motivational states. The reversal of placebo analgesia by naloxone indicates that it might be an example of an appetitive state.

The bottom line: Addiction science is advancing rapidly and brings with it profound changes for all aspects of society, including: neurocops, neurocompetitive advantage, and hopefully some less destructive leisure tools.

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June 14, 2004

Saegis Pharmaceuticals - A Cogniceutical Pure Play

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Saegis Pharmaceuticals is a bright star among the dozens of private cogniceutical companies. Last week I had a chance to sit down with CEO Rodney Pearlman to discuss their unique approach to developing "medicines that protect and enhance the function of the human mind."

Saegis is a cogniceutical pioneer focused on age-related cognitive impairment disorders like Alzheimer's Disease, Mild Cognitive Impairment, as well as, psychiatric and trauma related cognitive impairment induced by schizophrenia and coronary artery bypass surgery. Cogniceuticals are neuropharmaceuticals that target the mental processes responsible for perception, attention, learning, memory, thought, and communication (see NIMH definition of cognition).

Unlike many neuroceutical companies whose research emphasizes specific neurochemical pathways that have been correlated to memory impairment, Saegis uses a high-throughput behaviorial model called Parallax to identify and validate preclinical compounds that improve memory. Instead of trying to discover molecules that can influence a specific molecular pathway which has shown some correlation to cognition, but may also impact emotional and sensory systems, the Saegis "phenotypic" approach looks for novel compounds that result in improved cognitive abilities as measured by overall behavioral improvement in memory related tasks after taking different cogniceuticals.

This pure focus on cognition should allow Saegis to compete effectively in almost every segment of the cogniceutical market. Saegis is nearing Phase II clinical trials this year in the two fastest growing neuroceutical markets, Alzheimer's Disease and Schizophrenia, but will likely attack other markets like OCD in the coming years as complex mental disorders are differentiated further. For example, "While currently marketed drugs are effective in treating the psychotic aspects of schizophrenia, Cognitive Impairment Associated with Schizophrenia (CIAS) is rapidly becoming recognized as an untreated area for these patients."

By differentiating the cognitive, emotion and sensory modalities associated with complex mental disorders, Saegis is recognizing cutting edge research that is emphasizing "the need to rethink how we categorize psychiatric disorders." As Dr. Sanjaya Saxena, who has led several recent brain imaging studies on OCD, "Diagnosis and treatment should be driven by biology rather than symptoms."

For this reason we should see an increasing trend towards the research and development of cogniceuticals, emoticeuticals and sensoceuticals that will be used in combination to treat complex mental disorders in the coming years.

While there is great hope for emerging cogniceutical treatments, the ever "sagacious" Rodney Pearlman reminds us that "the real proof is in the pudding." Fortunately for Saegis, he seems to have the right mix.

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June 05, 2004

Ronald Reagan, Alzheimer's Disease and Cogniceuticals

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of United States, died today after struggling with Alzheimer's Disease for almost 15 years. (The New York Times has a wonderful 18 page overview of Reagan's presidency.)

As Nancy Reagan would attest, Alzheimer's Disease (AD) is a debilitating disease that affects not only an individual, but entire families. It remains an area for which few treatments are available. AD is a degenerative disease of unknown origin. The disease typically strikes between the ages of 50 and 60 and is characterized by the gradual death and disappearance of nerve cells in the cerebral cortex. Early clinical signs include marked forgetfulness and episodes of mental confusion. In advanced stages, memory is almost completely obliterated and the disabling effects of the disease are so severe that patients require institutional care.

AD is estimated to cost the U.S. economy $100 billion annually and affects up to four million patients in the U.S. alone. Over 100 companies are currently involved in developing diagnostics and therapeutics for AD. AD treatments are part of the growing cogniceutical market that focus on memory, learning, attention and attention. Mental illnesses included in the cogniceutical market include: ADHD, Alzheimer's Disease, Mild Cognitive Impairment, dementia, psychosis, sleep disorders among others. Among the neuroceutical companies developing cogniceuticals are private one's like Addex Pharmaceuticals and Saegis Pharmaceuticals and the recently public Memory Pharmaceuticals.

The AD market in the seven major pharmaceutical markets is worth $4.7 billion and are expected to increase to $6.1 billion by the year 2005 and $7.8 billion by the year 2010. Unfortunately, Reagan will not be able to benefit from the "Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Effect," that will result in major cogniceutical breakthroughs in the next ten years and improve mental health expectancy to new levels.

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May 26, 2004

Revisiting Population Codes - RNI Stanford Lecture this Thursday

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Posted by Zack Lynch

RNI Stanford Theoretical Neuroscience Lecture:

Don't miss this week's special lecture by Alex Pouget. Dr. Pouget's research focuses on two main topics: neural coding and spatial representations. Dr. Pouget's laboratory is part of the Center for Visual Science and the department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester. His talk is titled: "Revisiting Population Codes". This talk is also part of the Stanford University Department of Neurobiology's "Frontiers in Neuroscience" seminar series. Stanford's faculty host is Jennifer Raymond.

Location: Munzer Auditorium, 279 Campus Drive, Stanford University Thursday, May 27, at 4:15pm.

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April 11, 2004

Better than Caffeine

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Posted by Zack Lynch

As I wrote in wake up drivers, Provigil has recently been approved by the FDA for use by shift workers. Given the amount of caffeine university professors, bloggers and others are consuming, perhaps the FDA should consider extending it's use further. Brad Delong posts the milligrams of caffeine he and a few other professors drink each day:

Brad DeLong, professor of economics, UC Berkeley: TOTAL: 373.25 mg
Philippe Bourgois, professor of medical anthropology, UCSF TOTAL: 310 mg
Daniel A. Mendelsohn, frequent lecturer in classics, Princeton: TOTAL: 1,419 mg
John E. Sexton, president of New York University:TOTAL: 919 mg

While not everyone desires the neurotransmitter boost that caffeine provides, it is clear that many of us continue to search for a neurocompetitive advantage. So while I wait for more effective cogniceuticals to be developed, I guess I'll just head down to Cafe XO for my morning dose.

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March 31, 2004

Cogniceutical Improves Verbal Memory in Older Men

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Nature and The New Scientist report on a new cogniceutical based on a liquorice extract that improves memory in older men. The substance works by blocking the activity of a brain enzyme that boosts levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This hormone is thought to be responsible for eroding memory with age.

The drug, called carbenoxolone, was once used to treat stomach ulcers. But when given to men aged between 55 and 75 it sharpened their verbal memories within weeks. "You get subtle but definite improvements," says Jonathan Seckl who led the study at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Verbal memory, he explains, is needed for remembering recently received information, and is "crucial to normal functioning" - for example, recalling the time of an appointment.

Seckl believes such compounds may be available for the elderly within five years to help improve memory and possibly even treat dementia. "A lot of fine ideas get stuck between animal models and the first clinical trial, but we have at least got preliminary [human] data suggesting it would be a good idea," he told New Scientist."

I wonder how carbenoxolone would impact the memory of a younger person?

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January 14, 2004

Future Pundit on Recent Brain Research

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Randall Parker has three recent posts that are worth reviewing:

1. Researchers find key gene for evolution of intelligence

2. Stanford researchers find evidence of memory suppression mechanism

3. Therapy vs. drugs for depression compared with brain scans


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December 02, 2003

Performance Enabling Cogniceuticals Will Boost Productivity

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Posted by Zack Lynch

As pervasive information access emerges over the next decade, seamlessly embedding itself into our daily routine like electricity is today, how will individuals be able to take advantage of our global knowledge web?

One way will be to use tools like performance enabling cogniceuticals. Marrying information technology and pharmaceuticals is already proving to be a powerful way to help people overcome phobias as described in last week's Science article "Pills and Games Help Conquer Fear"(sub. required).

"Using a virtual reality game that stimulates the experience, combined with a drug that revs up certain learning circuits in the brain is helping people overcome their fear of heights." And the difference is substantial. "Many subjects overcame their fears in two sessions rather than eight."

Although there will be limits to expanding short-term or long-term memory in the near term, the ability to stimulate specific neural connections related to memory formation will create stunning results in memory retention when combined with pervasive computing.

By providing the brain with additional capability to learn, we will really begin to be able to take advantage of the immense quantity of information we are creating. For example, language learning and retention although greatly augmented by real-time digital translation devices will be even easier as cogniceuticals accelerate neural connectivity in the brain networks involved in language. As neural plasticity and connection patterns are created through experience, retention rates will be dramatically higher, decreasing overall learning time.

Now that is neurocompetitive advantage.

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October 23, 2003

Memory and Today's Tools

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Derek Lowe recently posted a very good explanation of the presumed mode of action of the new Alzheimer’s drug memantine.

Memantine has some affinity for a wide range of receptors in the brain, but at the doses that are seen therapeutically, the relevant interactions seems to be with the NMDA receptor....The weird thing is, memantine is an antagonist; it blocks NMDA signaling. So at high doses, it actually interferes with memory....At clinical doses, the compound does play against type and seem to improve memory. The best guess for how this works is through a mechanism for neuronal injury in Alzheimer's. Too frequent (and too prolonged) firing of excitatory pathways like NMDA have long been associated with cellular damage in the brain, and this seems to be going on in AD as well...

There is some evidence that neurons with NMDA receptors are lost in AD, but it’s hard to explain the improvement in cognitive performance of some patients if you are merely stopping or slowing damage. Also memantine has been shown to have a short term effect on memory and memory related cellular plasticity. Why not consider this evidence that memantine is working through a more subtle mechanism than preventing excitotoxicity?

NMDA is believed to function in learning by giving a neuron “memory” of previous activity. Since we have to be picky about which memories are stored and which can be forgotten, NMDA is thought to be a sort of memory “bouncer” determining whether the stimulus is strong enough to be laid down permanently, or whether you really don’t need to remember where you left your keys.

So a reasonable theory would be that in Alzheimer’s, NMDA is underactive and is not letting in any new memories. But the efficacy (though slight) of memantine suggests that maybe NMDA is overactive, letting in any memory at all and promoting the cellular changes that allow memories to be stored at random. Without any barrier for memory formation, perhaps a neuron can’t distinguish between important and unimportant events, so it appears that nothing is stored, when really “everything” is stored and each event instantly erases the last event. Memantine can reduce the activity of NMDA and restore its selectivity for the right memories.

Complicated explanations may not suit a pharmaceutical company, but understanding the true therapeutic nature of current pharmaceuticals will be an important part of future neuroceutical development. For example, SSRI's like Prozac take several weeks to be effective, but for years pharma claimed that the anitdepressant effect was due to a short term reduction in serotonin reuptake. The fact is we still don't know why SSRI's have the effect they do.

Thanks Casey.

Comments (3) | Category: Cogniceuticals | Neuropharma

June 23, 2003

Stimulating a Smarter You?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Yesterday's New York Times magazine piece, Savant for a Day, describes how transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is not only being tested as a potential treatment for mental illnesses like depression but also as a way to enhance human cognition.

Allan Snyder, Chair of the Centre for the Mind has performed "TMS dozens of times on university students, measuring its effect on their ability to draw, to proofread and to perform difficult mathematical functions like identifying prime numbers by sight. Hooked up to the machine, 40 percent of test subjects exhibited extraordinary, and newfound, mental skills."

Like most emerging neurotechnologies, TMS shows promise but there is a long road ahead.

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June 03, 2003

Punctuated Cognition

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Have you ever suddenly realized that you’re routinely doing complex tasks that flummoxed you a few years ago? That’s what it feels like to cross a cognitive threshold.

According to organizational psychologist Elliot Jaques, who died in March, skills and capabilities seem to accumulate through a kind of punctuated equilibrium, wherein human ability to deal with complexity crosses a cognitive threshold every 15 years.

It will be interesting to see how the emergence of cogniceuticals will influence this observed rule. 

(Thanks to Art Kleiner and Ross Mayfield for bringing this to my attention.)

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March 19, 2003

Growing Your Nervous System Vineyard

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Posted by Zack Lynch

In the case of epilepsy, severing nerves in the brain can help restore mental health.  To solve most nervous system ailments, cutting nerves is the exception, not the norm for regaining function.

Recent advances in nano-material science have made significant strides in reconnecting nerves in the peripheral nervous system. Until now the standard approach to repairing damaged nerves as been to take a nerve from one part of the body and move it to the damaged section.  The downside here is obvious; there is one less nerve somewhere else in your body.

The new approach uses tube-like polymer substrates structures that act as a bridge to guide the nerve growth.  These structures, made of biodegradable polymer films have nano-patterned grooves that guide neurons so they grow in the right direction. This technique is similar in spirit to how viticulturists guide the grape vine growth that makes all the fine wine.  Perhaps in time, similiar techniques might be used to help regrow damaged tissue in our brains.

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March 17, 2003

Cogniceuticals to Enhance Memory

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Advancing research powered by a tremendous market opportunity promises to help solve a number of memory related problems such as mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia and Parkinson's.  Although current technologies are still in their infancy, the continued focus on enhancing human cognition will only grow in importance, especially as life spans get longer.

The potential to use cogniceuticals to accelerate learning and knowledge acquisition makes the market for the technologies extensive.  The development of effective cogniceuticals may provide individuals and organizations a new way to achieve competitive advantage in the coming decades.

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