Brain Waves

Category Archives

January 05, 2006

Paying Attention with Play Attention

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

In this month's Neurotech Insights we focused on the Attention markets. The following is a product review I did on a computer based "neurofeedback" software solution targeted at kids who are "attention challenged."

As the market for ADHD medication continues to grow, non-drug alternatives to treat less severe cases are emerging in the form of neurofeedback systems and less sophisticated computer games. Given the growing interest in non-drug treatment options for ADHD, we contacted the manufacturer of Play Attention, Unique Logic and Technology to take a test drive.

Play Attention is a computer game that uses brain waves, to move objects on a computer screen. Repetitive use of the training system is meant to improve attention, focus, and memory skills for children and others with ADHD, though people who are not “attention challenged” (as the company likes to put it), will also see improvement in their game performance.

Using technology originally developed to help pilots stay alert, the system utilizes a bike helmet lined with sensors connected to a computer. There are 5 games designed to improve different aspects of attention including attention stamina, visual tracking and discrimination of important vs. unimportant stimuli, and short term memory processing.

play%20attention.jpgIn the first game, the player must concentrate and stop fidgeting to make an action occur on the screen. If they are concentrating on the object (or a homework assignment), an object, like a UFO or bird, will move in a positive direction and collect power pellets, if they are not concentrating hard enough then the object will move in the opposite direction. For example, the bird will fly higher or descend depending on the level of player concentration.

As the student watches the screen, she learns to regulate her concentration in response to visual feedback from the computer. Results are measured as % of time on task and sessions last about ½ hour twice a week. The company spokesperson said that commonly a student will go from 50% of time on task for 5 minutes to around 80% time on task for after 12 hours of use. After 40-60 hours usually a student can stop using the system.

While our experience proved that a player would certainly get better at the game, it is difficult to tell in our short testing period whether this would translate into real life improvements. A noninvasive, no side effect treatment seems like a good first line option even if the efficacy or patient response rate is less than ideal. However, training games and feedback generally take a back seat to pharmaceuticals and will continue to do so, most likely because of the time to therapeutic impact. While medication, like Ritalin (methylphenidate) can improve symptoms in minutes, gaming can take months to years to show significant improvements, according to Dr. Leann Lesperance and Henry Bernstein of the Harvard Medical School.

According to their analysis, the “Play Attention system may improve symptoms in some children, but it may not help everyone. Although medications can help manage ADHD, there is no cure. You can expect continued research into the causes and treatments of ADHD. While the technology behind this system has been studied in pilots, it apparently has not been extensively studied in children with ADHD. Although preliminary findings seem encouraging, expect that researchers will continue to study its effectiveness.”

Other companies are also working to develop and sell neuroscience based computer games and neurofeedback systems. CyberLearning and Imagine Neuro Solutions sell competitive systems for improving attention, while Posit, Scientific Learning (SCIL), and Wild Devine, are developing training systems for “mental sharpness”, dyslexia, and emotional well being respectively. While the idea of a non FDA regulated, no side effect treatment is intriguing, most of these companies are still proving out their business models.

Play Attention has been on the market since 1996 and is currently being used in over 450 schools. The product has good features for coaching, performance tracking, and includes a module called “academic bridge” designed to translate the game performance to other tasks like homework.. Play attention is priced at $395. For more information, visit

Comments (3) + TrackBacks (1) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

December 22, 2005

Controlling Pain with Neurofeedback

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

images.jpgEmily Singer at the MIT Tech Review has started series of articles exploring how new approaches to brain imaging could improve treatment for neurological and psychiatric disorders. The first installment, published on December 20, examined how patients can use real-time fMRI images of their own brains to control chronic pain. Today's installment, Imaging the Unconsciousness, explores how researchers are using fMRI to understand different aspects of psychiatric illnesses. It is great to see another person reporting on how neurotechnology is influencing humankind.

Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

November 21, 2005

Human Brain Project - India

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

The President of India, A P J Abdul Kalam, today called for a comprehensive human brain project with global participation to tackle brain disorders.

Delivering 10th convocation address of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) in India, he said the project should aim at preparing a comprehensive structural and functional map of human brain and facilitate convergence of all activities pertaining to brain research.

hbp.jpg"This indeed is a challenging task which requires active participation and effective contribution of research institutions like NIMHANS, government agencies, academia and entire medical fraternity," he said.

Kalam said according to an estimate of World Health Organisation, brain disorders would be the greatest health threat in the next few decades to come. The project should tackle diseases like depression, sleep disorders, epilepsy and schizophrenia, he said.

I couldn't agree more with India's President. Fortunately for him, India, and the rest of us, the Human Brain Project, headed by the NIMH in the US, is already in it's 11th year and welcomes international participation.

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

October 12, 2005

Stimulating Consciousness, Understanding Dreams

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

One theory that tries to explain consciousness argues that the essence of consciousness is the integration of information. For example, communication between different areas of the brain (e.g. cortex) might be one sign of this integration and of consciousness. To test this hypothesis researchers at the University of Wisconsin led by Dr. Guilio Tononi recorded electrical activity in the brains of six sleepy volunteers using high density EEG. Before the subjects nodded off, the researchers stimulated a small path of right frontal cortex with transcranial magnetic stimulation, a noninvasive method that uses magnetic pulses to induce electrical activity inside the head. As results were published in this week's Science: (photo of TMS machine working on subject)


The EEG recordings revealed how the neural actvity triggered by TMS spread from the site of stimulation to other parts of the brain. The team repeated the experiment once the subjects had entered non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep. Noise canceling earphones ensured that subjects couldn't detect the sound of teh TMS magnet.

When the subjects were awake, TNS elicited waves of neural activity that spread through neighboring area of the right frontal and parietal cortex and to corresponding regions on the left side of the brain. During non-REM sleep, the same TMS stimulus only elicited neural activity at the site of stimulation.

The researchers say that the finding suggest that different areas of the cortex do indeed stop talking to each other during non-REM sleep- a stage of sleep on which people often report little or no conscious experience on waking. A follow up experiment is scheduled that will pulse the brain during late-night REM sleep, a time when researchers expect to see a pattern which is much more similar to wakefulness.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

October 10, 2005

Apple - Beyond Ipod to Open Source NeuroLens

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

Apple is more than Ipods and Macs. Apple is extremely prevalent in the life sciences, and increasing in popularity and in adoptions in neuroimaging labs. Much of the imaging software in common use now was first developed in the mid-1990s, by physicists. The engineering behind that software is now dated, focusing on things like a small memory footprint—performance bottlenecks were completely different than they are with current systems. Most older programs were also written for specific labs that used only a few file formats and so tend to be very restrictive about what formats they will support.

NeuroLens, developed by Rick Hoge at the A. A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging. Rick is a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, a faculty member at the Harvard Medical School, Department of Radiology, whose interests focus on cerebrovascular physiology and the physics of how this affects the signal screen seen in MRI scans. The application is targeted specifically at the research community, who works with large data sets—neurologists, biologists, and neuropsychologists, all doing basic research on brain function. The work is funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy as part of a project to understand the genetic bases of addiction and depression.


Rick designed NeuroLens much like [Adobe] Photoshop—it can read many data storage formats and get it into the program. “We focused on interoperability,” Rick explains. “In some instances, NeuroLens will be used for its front end to read three dimensional surface images of the brain with another program. In this way, it doesn’t replace other tools, but can be used in conjunction with them."

Brain imaging from MRI studies result in a series of three-dimensional images. Image analysis generally consists of image processing steps for data quality improvement, followed by statistical analysis to identify regions of brain activation during a task or stimulus that was applied when the subject was scanned. This multi-step process can be complicated by outdated software systems.

“For example,” Rick says, “a series of 3D images must be aligned to reduce the effect of subject motion and are often spatially smoothed in 3D to improve signal-to-noise ratio. Using the improved data structures, tasks that might have taken half an hour in the past can now be done in seconds. It is a research imaging tool whose performance far surpasses anything in use today, one that is easy to use, intuitive, and has the capabilities to analyze and combine data from many different sources in forms that are extremely useful for researchers. NeuroLens is an integrated visualization and analysis package for quantitative physiological neuroimaging, now in public Beta. Looks like Apple has a good slice of the growing neuroinformatics market.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (1) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

July 25, 2005

The Blue Brain Project

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

IBM and Swiss researchers have recently joined forces on a project, dubbed the 'Blue Brain Project', to uncover the secrets of cognitive intelligence.

While your genome can fit on an Ipod (about 3 gigabytes of data), the information about your brain will require petabytes of information storage and an unknowable amount of processing power. Over the next two years scientists from both organizations will work together to create a detailed model of the circuitry in the neocortex -- the largest and perhaps the most complex part of the human brain. By expanding the project to model other areas of the brain, scientists hope to eventually build an accurate, computer-based model of the entire brain.

Using the digital model scientists will run computer-based simulations of the brain at the molecular level, shedding light on internal processes such as thought, perception and memory. Scientists also hope to understand more about how and why certain microcircuits in the brain malfunction -- thought to be the cause of psychiatric disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and depression.

"Modeling the brain at the cellular level is a massive undertaking because of the hundreds of thousands of parameters that need to be taken into account," said Henry Markram, the EPFL professor heading up the project. "IBM has unparalleled experience in biological simulations and the most advanced supercomputing technology in the world. With our combined resources and expertise we are embarking on one of the most ambitious research initiatives ever undertaken in the field of neuroscience."

Markram is the founder of EPFL's Brain and Mind Institute, where more than 10 years of research and wet-lab experiments have been consolidated into the world's most comprehensive set of empirical data on the micro-architecture of the neocortex.

Looks like IBM has its head pointed in the right direction by pursuing the rapidly developing neuroinformatics market.

Comments (2) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

July 12, 2005

Dana Foundation NeuroImaging Primer

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

For those of you interested in learning more about brain imaging technologies and what they can and can not tell researchers I recommend the following resource written by Carolyn Asbury, a Dana Foundation grants consultant. The brief primer covers several imaging techniques and what each reveals. The creation of this primer was developed with the assistance of James P. Basilion, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Center for Molecular Imaging Research, Massachusetts General Hospital.

From Dana.Org: This primer is intended to help readers gain a better understanding of how the brain and immune system function normally, and how their functions are altered by diseases.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

June 03, 2005

Cool stuff...Neuroimaging, Neurodevices and Meditation from MIT Tech Review

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

Here are several links to articles that have appeared in the MIT Tech Review over the past few months that are worth taking a look at:

Demo: Magnetic Brain Imaging
Meditation and the Brain
The Economics of Brains
Precision Brain Scans
Zapping the Blues
Demo: Artificial Retina
Body Image

Thanks to my friend Robert for sending these to me.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

March 24, 2005

Numenta for Neurotechnology - Now That's Valuable

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

Jeff Hawkin's has started an "On Intelligence" company Numenta to apply neuroscience to computing problems. Numenta's business focus will be the development of software tools, support services, and the licensing of intellectual property. While products are still distant, let's hope Jeff provides this new platform technology an minimal cost to neuroinformatics groups, researchers and Paul Allen's Brain Atlas team to help accelerate the development of better tools for brain disorders that directly impact one out of every four people.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

March 18, 2005

WSJ - Neuroimaging Here to Stay

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

In Sharon Begley's WSJ article today "While Brain Imaging Offers New Knowledge, It Can Be an Illusion" she highlights important points about advancing neuroimaging. (subscription required)

On the ethics front she reiterates what Stanford's Judy Illes has been talking about for years. "Brain scans such as these have a power to persuade that other forms of data lack. Although measurements (perspiration, basically) had already shown that seeing cocaine triggers an intense physiological reaction, and although grandmasters can tell you they memorize old game positions and strategies, in both cases the brain scans carried the day."

She continues, "Blame it on the cognitive paparazzi. Neuroimaging such as PET and fMRI are seducing laypeople and scientists alike into believing we know more than we do about how and why we think, feel and behave, some scientists say. The power of brain imaging, says Frank Keil, a Yale University psychology professor, reflects "the illusion of explanatory depth. If people see something, they are often deluded into thinking they understand it better than they really do."

She ends with this reality check, "For all its flaws, neuroimaging is here to stay. No self-respecting psych department can afford to forgo it. Of the dozen or so new faculty members recently hired by his department, says Phillip Shaver, chairman of psychology at the University of California, Davis, 10 use primarily neuroimaging. Economists, political scientists and sociologists are not far behind. As with all powerful tools, let the user beware." (my emphasis added)

Beyond what she mentions here, we also see use of neuroimaging in finance, marketing, art, and even love (follow that link). So say good bye to the information society, and say hello to our emerging neurosociety. One last point, I have to hand it to Sharon for nailing the brilliant phrase "cognitive paparazzi." That's a meme that is sure to spread.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

March 15, 2005

Our Mind's Eye - Neuroimaging Suggests Survival

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

If the 1990s were the "Decade of the Brain," these 10 years could be called the "Decade of Neuroimaging," writes Joyce Ward in this month's feature article, The Minds Eye: Imaging Helps Unravel Mysteries of the Mind.

In her article in Advance Magazine (read by imaging, radiology and oncology professionals) Joyce takes them on a journey into how the neurodiagnostic tools they use daily to help patients understand their diseases are transformingother aspects of human society. Taking neuroimaging outside of medicine, she dives into neuromarketing and beyond.

Covering recent neuromarketing research by Brighthouse, NeuroSense and others, she finally arrives at the ethical implications. I've spent several years thinking deeply about the societal implications of neurotechnology, and like every tool ever developed, it's a double-edged sword. One side can slice open the fruits of life while the other cuts deeply through our souls.

As Thomas Friedman suggested in Dubai recently, the world is flat. I agree. And given this shift to business 3.0 where individuals are the locus of competition, not firms or countries, I have come to this position on much of the national neuroethics discussions....And so she ends the article on this thought:

"But inquiries into the ethics of neuroimaging may be a case of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. If there is a competitive advantage to using brain imaging to screen employees or to determine which advertising campaign will bring the best response, then industry will adapt the technology, says Zack Lynch, managing director of Neuroinsights, a commercial and financial consulting company based in San Francisco. Lynch is writing a book called "Neurosociety—How Brain Science will Shape the Future of Business, Politics and Culture."

"If you look at it historically, the financial sector is the first to adapt to technology advances," Lynch says, predicting that 10 years from now, industry would spend one of every 10 marketing dollars on neuromarketing, making the commercial use of neuroimaging a fait accompli.

"We live in a global economy," Lynch says. "If you are a company, and you are 15 percent more efficient because you use brain scanning and biochips, the next company will have to use it."

We might not like our cell phones, but they help us survive in our infomation society. We might not like our mind's read, but are you really trustworthy? Are all of us?

Beyond therapy and enhancement is survival.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

October 04, 2004

Human Brain Imaging Advances

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

The University Illinois at Chicago recently announced the installation of the most powerful human brain imaging system to date. While most fMRI systems in use today are powered 1.5-tesla or 3.0-telsa magnets, this new high resolution fMRI system has a 9.4-tesla magnet, built by GE Healthcare (a tesla is a large measuring unit of magnetic strength).

As I've mentioned many times, advances in neuroimaging are critically important in order to understand the workings of the human brain, detect diseases before their clinical signs appear, develop targeted drug therapies for illnesses and to provide a better understanding of learning disabilities. While I might not go as far as Dr. Keith Thulborn, director of the UIC Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, who claimed that this technological leap forward is as revolutionary to the medical community as the transition from radio to television was for society, I would suggest that this definitely a step toward our emerging neurosociety. Also, it looks like the neuroimaging group at University College London will now have some real competition.

Correction Update 10/10: Thanks to a reader a India for pointing out that in my haste to post this piece named the correct university in the first sentence. It is not the University of Chicago, but The University Illinois at Chicago.

Comments (2) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

July 23, 2004

Neuroimaging Breakthrough - Magnetic Resonance Force Microscopy

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

IBM Researchers have made a radical breakthrough in imaging sensitivity. The method is called magnetic resonance force microscopy (MRFM) and improves MRI sensitivity by some 10 million times compared to the medical MRI devices used to visualize organs in the human body. It is so sensitive that it can detect the faint magnetic signal from a single electron buried inside a solid sample. While applications on live human tissues, like the brain, are still speculative, this imaging breakthrough is an important step in non-invasive single neuron brain imaging. (read about other brain imaging breakthroughs, like those at MIT.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

May 06, 2004

The Chronoarchitecture of the Human Brain

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

This is for you neuroimaging fanatics. I highly recommend this recent NeuroImage paper by Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki on the Chronoarchitecture of the Brain- natural viewing conditions reveal a time-based anatomy of the brain. This reminds me of that talk Rodolfo Llinas gave at NBIC, Faster than Thought.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

April 30, 2004

Human Brain Project 2004

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

The Human Brain Project (HBP) turned 10 years old this past week and neuroscientists gathered to celebrate recent advances and speculate about what is to come. While the field of cognitive neuroscience took a while to realize the importance of data sharing and neuroinformatics, it is now working to archive and openly disseminate data from neuroimaging studies of brain function from across the globe.

One of the results of this decade long effort has been the development of the fMRI Data Center (fMRIDC) which provides computerized analysis of neuroimages, providing the ground work for a neuropsychiatric image database that could be used for clinical assessment.

As I've written previously, neurotechnology will be used to define mental disorders in the coming years. Indeed, the DSM-V, due for publication in 2010, will most likely contain neuroimaging and genetic analysis information to more accurately diagnose and treat mental disorders.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

April 15, 2004

Too Many Brain Imaging Systems?

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

This is very interesting (from Strategy and Business)

There is substantial evidence that overutilization and misuse of technology leads to spending that exceeds its value for patients. In the diagnostic imaging technology category — which has grown to nearly a $100 billion business — spending increases are driven to a large extent by the growth in the number of machines installed in hospitals, as well as in doctors’ offices and at imaging centers. This has led in turn to overcapacity in many areas and has created incentives for doctors to prescribe unnecessary procedures. Duplication of procedures (i.e., a patient receives an MRI, then a PET scan, even though doing both procedures does not help doctors get closer to a diagnosis) and overuse of high-end procedures in situations where they add little value has also driven up technology spending unnecessarily.

This needs more research.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

March 19, 2004

World's Largest Brain Imaging Center Announced

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

You know neurotechnology is emerging when people start putting hundreds of millions of dollars into building new centers of brain imaging excellence.

Last week, London Imperial College and GlaxoSmithKline announced plans to build a £76 million medical imaging research center in London that will staff 400 researchers. The center will focus on improving treatments for diseases like stroke and cancer, while at the same time driving new developments in imaging technology.

Even for a research-intensive university like Imperial College, the new center is on a huge scale. “This is by a long way the largest such investment internationally that I know of in imaging science,” said Leszek Borysiewicz, principal of the faculty of medicine.

The site at the college's Hammersmith Hospital campus was chosen over several top US and European institutions. It will house 400 researchers and support staff from industry and academia, half of which will be new positions. The company is contributing £28 million to the construction of the center and £16 million to furbish it with imaging equipment. The rest will be provided by Imperial College and the hosting hospital.

Basic and translational research will take place in the center when it stands finished in 2006. This will initially focus on neurological diseases and cancer; however, the publicly funded research is likely to also branch out into a number of other disorders. Borysiewicz said that there are likely to be developments in the diagnostics and therapeutics of diseases, but that the college at the same time will be able to push the technology with its strong base in engineering,
computing, and chemistry.

Fuelling basic science is a welcome side effect for the drug company. “If we can increase the science output of a major university, it's good for us because you can't discover drugs without understanding disease,” said John Brown, who oversees imaging research at GSK.

Mark my words, this is only the beginning. Wait until Wall Street realizes the power of neurofinance.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

March 17, 2004

Berkeley Brain Imaging Breakthrough

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

Alexander Pines and his colleagues at UC Berkeley have discovered a remarkable new way to improve the versatility and sensitivity of magnetic resonance imaging and the technology upon which it is based, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).

"NMR encoding is exceptional at recovering chemical, biological, and physical information from samples, including living organisms, without disrupting them," says Pines, noting that MRI, a closely related technology, is equally adept at nondestructively picturing the insides of things. "The problem with this versatile technique is low sensitivity."

In their soon to be released paper in the Journal of Magnetic Resonance Imaging they explain how encoding and detecting NMR/MRI signals separately makes many otherwise difficult or impossible applications possible.

"For example, xenon can be dissolved in chemical solutions or in the metabolic pathways of biological systems, then concentrated for more sensitive detection. Other signal carriers can also be used for remote detection, including hyperpolarized helium gas for medical imaging or liquid oil or water for geological analysis. Since only the carrier reaches the detector, alternate detection methods, incompatible with the sample because they may be intrusive or require transparency, can also be used -- for example, optical methods that can detect the miniscule NMR signals from living cells."

Like Randall Parker, I too believe that the most interesting developments to watch are analysis instruments. While still in basic research mode, this latest laboratory breakthrough will slowly make its way into corporate and academic labs, greatly refining our basic understanding of human biology in years to come.

[Thanks to Kevin Keck and the Bay Area Futurist Salon for bring this to my attention]

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

November 03, 2003

The Brainy Scientist

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

This week's "The Scientist" contains several relevant articles for neurotechnology.

Here are the highlights:

1. Numbers on the Brain breaks down the public and private funding initiatives supporting the $60B neuroscience/pharmacology market.

2. Cutting Neurons Down to Size details the latest research into how and why connections among neurons go through a process of self-pruning in early child development. Neuroscientists have known about neural pruning for decades, where synaptic density peaks from ages 1 to 2, declines until age 16, and then levels off. Experts predict that sorting out how pruning works might eventually help in understanding epilepsy, neurodegenerative diseases, mental retardation, autism, and schizophrenia.

3. fMRI The Perfect Imperfect Instrument covers how most investigators rely on the fMRI method that uses a blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) contrast. The signal arises from changes in magnetic characteristics of blood related to differences in the relative amounts of oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin. Though many researchers correlate blood flow to neural activity, the connection hasn't been solidly determined.

4. Caution: Brain Working further deconstructs fMRI. This has important implications for cognitive related experiments that depend on fMRI. fMRI suffers from poor temporal resolution which means it is impossible to segregate the different stages of how during conversions words and their meaning are differentiated. For this reason, language experts like Peter Hagoort use fMRI in combination with electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) in his efforts to identify those stages.

5. It's Neuron's Time describes how scientists are taking the first stabs at answering at least one part of the question, how the brain perceives time. A recent University of Washington study was the first to document how neurons in primates track time from one instant to the next. Timing is a subject of increasing interest, because it's important in learning. Learning skilled movements, for instance, involves internalizing their sequences and timing.

The Take Away: All these articles show that we are suffering from a brain imaging bottleneck.

Peter Hagoort's quote sums it up nicely, "Many neuroscientists dream of a "more perfect" instrument, one that will combine the spatial sensitivity of fMRI with the millisecond temporal acuity of EEG or MEG, but it is difficult to predict what such an already rapidly changing technology will look like in 10 or 20 years."

That timing seems just about right to me.

Comments (2) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

October 06, 2003

2003 Nobel Prize in Medicine

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

Recognizing the importance of brain imaging technologies, the Nobel Assembly has awarded the 2003 Nobel in Medicine to American Paul Lauterbur and Britain's Peter Mansfield for their discoveries on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a painless diagnostic method used by doctors to look inside the bodies of millions of patients every year.

Update: 22,000 MRI's are in use worldwide, and more than 60 million scans had been performed.  More.

Comments (1) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

July 14, 2003

Brain Waves Required for Consciousness?

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

Caltech neuroscientist Christof Koch is interviewed by The Scientist this week on his decade long discussion with Francis Crick about the nature of consciousness: 

Koch states that he and Crick have revised their earlier proposition that synchronous neuronal oscillations might be at the heart of consciousness. They originally believed that this theory might be the solution to the so-called binding problem: How do differently processed aspects of an object bind together into one percept--red + round + shiny = apple, for example. "Unfortunately, the evidence is slim for a direct relationship," Koch says. "What's much more plausible now is that synchronized firing activity in the 40-Hz range may be necessary to resolve competition (among separate neural circuits competing for conscious attention)... There's quite a bit of evidence that oscillations might be involved in biasing the selection, but once I'm fully conscious of [the percept], it's unclear whether [the oscillations are really needed.]"

As visual scientists, Koch and Crick are primarily defining consciousness as differences in visual attentiveness.  Although this reductionist approach may be moving the ball forward a bit, consciousness will remain an elusive concept for years to come.

Comments (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

July 08, 2003

Dividing Dyslexics for Their Own Good

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

Using fMRI brain scanners, Yale scientists report in the NYTimes that two types of brain problems cause dyslexia. This new information should lead to more effective treatment for both types. The two types are divided into those whose dyslexia is, either:

  • Predominately genetic: these individuals had gaps in the neural circuitry that the normal readers used for the basic processing of sound and language, but had learned to enlist other parts of the brain to compensate for the difficulty. They still read slowly but can comprehend what they read.
  • Environmentally influenced: these individuals had their brain system for processing sound and language intact, but they seemed to rely more on memory than on the linguistic centers of the brain for understanding what they were reading. These students had remained persistently poor readers, scoring poorly on speed as well as comprehension.

As I've written previously, neurotechnology will continue to define mental disorders more accurately as we understand how the brain operates at increasingly refined scales. Dyslexia is just the latest example. What's next?

Comments (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

July 02, 2003

Charting Your Neurome

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

San Diego-based Neurome is racing to chart the brain's neural circuitry in the hope of creating breakthroughs treatments for mental illnesses.

"All this information about the function of the brain has to somehow be stored in a database that is standardized and can accurately depict the molecular, cellular and circuitry patterns of brain activity so that researchers can look at it and determine what's normal and what's not, section by section, circuit by circuit. And that is the function that Neurome intends to provide to drug discovery companies, said Dr. Floyd Bloom, Neurome's chairman and one of its founders.

Neurome scientists have improved the technology so that now it takes about 35 minutes to collect the volume of data it previously took about seven hours to record, Bloom said.

They are trying to measure and record how over time the disease affects the connection and communication, or electrical charges, between the neurons and cells in the brain." (more)

Backed up by an all-star team and $13m in funding, Neurome is initially focused on Alzheimer's disease.  Although I expect valuable results from their work, they will have to solve the animal mental health model problem at some point, as human neural circuitry doesn't correlate precisely with mice neural circuitry.

Comments (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

April 22, 2003

The Human Brain Project

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

This year's annual Human Brain Project meeting will be held in Bethesda, Maryland, May 12-13.  Because understanding brain function requires the integration of information from the level of the gene to the level of behavior, neuroinformatics is the primary area of focus for the National Institute of Mental Health who sponsors most of government grants in this area. This meeting always has a few outstanding presentations.

Comments (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

April 11, 2003

Lastest Brain Imaging Breakthroughs

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

Developing safe and effective neurotechnology will depend on continued advances in biochips and brain imaging technologies.  This week's Science reports good progress on the imaging front: (article links require subscription).

  • Single Neuron Imaging: Using a combination of genetic engineering techniques and optical imaging techniques, neuroscientists at several universities are now able to observe synapse development in live rats.  Still in it's infancy, this technique will be an important one to follow, as it will have significant implications for understanding how the brain learns.
  • Brain Imaging Archives Are Catching On: Standardized databases of brain images (especially fMRI data) are igniting neuroinformatics, making possible the analysis of different brain phenomena across thousands of subjects instead of just a few.  Moreover, it is leading to standardized formats and descriptions that are searchable and fantastic process,  Free examples at: BRAID, FMRIDC, MITRE. (see these!)
  • Visualizing Signals Moving Through Cells: The development of fluorescent sensors and improved microscopic imaging techniques it is now becoming possible to investigate how signals propagate through living cells.  Although a far cry from being able to do this for neurons, this approach does show promise.

Brain science still has a long way to go but these efforts show that we are making headway on many fronts.

Comments (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

March 18, 2003

The Brain Imaging Bottleneck

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

Current brain imaging technologies constrain our ability to understand how the brain functions. To develop next-generation cogniceuticals we will need to move beyond today's three brain imaging technologies to the level of neuron and intra-neuron scanning.

fMRI's (functional magnetic resonance imaging) have a resolution limit of about a cubic millimeter, this volume can still contain tens of thousands of neurons. PET (positron emission tomography) scans are more accurate in determining where in the brain neurons are being activated but have poor temporal resolution, while EEG's (electro-encephalogram) are more accurate in precisely timing events, they are unable to track important biochemical attributes.

Update 5/20: Current brain imaging still provides only a crude snapshot of brain activity.  Neural processes are thought to occur on a 0.1 millimeter scale in 100 milliseconds (msec), but the spatial and temporal resolution of a typical scanner is only 3 millimeters and about two seconds.


Comments (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

March 06, 2003

Brain's Boundaries: Want a New Accent?

Email This Entry

Posted by Zack Lynch

How many ways can our brains be molded?  Researchers at Oxford believe they have zeroed in on the brain region involved in foreign accent syndrome, which causes patients' accents to shift suddenly.

Listen to a recent example of an English woman reporter who has foreign accent syndrome: before and after

The first known case was reported in 1941 and involved a Norwegian woman who was ostracized when she developed what her neighbors thought was a German accent after she recovered from shrapnel injuries. 

Comments (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics