Video of my TEDxRainier talk, on Linking Human Brains, is now up. This is all about the current science of sending sights, sounds, and sensations in and out of human brains, and the frontiers of augmenting and transferring memory and intelligence. I loved giving this talk. The audience laughed a lot, as I hoped they would. It was one of the best, most receptive crowds I’ve spoken to.
I spoke last night at University Book Store on the science of sending sight, sound, and more in and out of the human brain – the real life science behind my novels Nexus and Crux. For those who couldn't make it, you can check out a video of an earlier version of the talk that I gave at Google back in January.
Two extra copies of the SRGAP2 gene appear to have led to slower human brain development, but denser interconnection between neurons, possibly contributing to our current cognitive abilities. (Total brain interconnectivity correlates moderately well with IQ.)
Makes one wonder about the possibilities for further changes…
From New Scientist:
Eichler’s group discovered that SRGAP2 duplicated itself 3.5 million years ago, well after humans and chimps diverged. One million years later, this “daughter” of the original gene underwent its own duplication and created a “granddaughter” copy. All three coexist in modern humans.
The effect of this genetic sabotage, however, was that the brain had more time to develop. Although the mouses brain itself didnt grow larger, the neurons in the neocortex changed to look like human brain cells, growing thick spines to exchange information with other cells. The neurons also formed 50 to 60 per cent more of these spines than normal mouse neurons do, which would likely increase the brains processing power.
In my upcoming sci-fi novel Nexus , I write about a nano-device that can cross the blood-brain barrier and which has a very real impact on the mind. Not so far fetched…
A team of scientists from Johns Hopkins and elsewhere have developed nano-devices that successfully cross the brain-blood barrier and deliver a drug that tames brain-damaging inflammation in rabbits with cerebral palsy.
Below is a clip showing the reconstruction of video subjects where shown via MRI scanning of their brains. Pretty remarkable.
The ‘reconstructed’ video looks odd because the reconstruction method was actually to match the brain activity against snippets of YouTube videos. Future techniques will be able to do far better. The key proof of concept here is the fidelity with which the MRI scanning of the brains can identify what sort of thing they’re looking at at all.
New Scientist covers another step towards functional neural prosthetics. Development here will be slow and complex, but we now have sufficient proof of concept across the field to see that interfacing digital systems with out brains is quite possible. We’ll use that first to help those who’ve suffered brain damage of some sort, and then eventually to augment.
AN ARTIFICIAL cerebellum has restored lost brain function in rats, bringing the prospect of cyborg-style brain implants a step closer to reality. Such implants could eventually be used to replace areas of brain tissue damaged by stroke and other conditions, or even to enhance healthy brain function and restore learning processes that decline with age.
Now Matti Mintz of Tel Aviv University in Israel and his colleagues have created a synthetic cerebellum which can receive sensory inputs from the brainstem – a region that acts as a conduit for neuronal information from the rest of the body. Their device can interpret these inputs, and send a signal to a different region of the brainstem that prompts motor neurons to execute the appropriate movement.
“It’s proof of concept that we can record information from the brain, analyse it in a way similar to the biological network, and return it to the brain,” says Mintz, who presented the work this month at the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence meeting in Cambridge, UK.
Theodore Berger and team, who I’ve been following since describing their work in More Than Human, achieved success earlier this year in recording a rat memory during encoding, and playing it back to the rat later.
This is a very very very early step towards being able to encode our memories digitally, outside of our brains, and potentially even transfer them from person to person. It’s on the path towards Matrix-style transfer of skills. The first applications will be for those who’ve suffered memory damage through aging, senility, disease, or brain damage. But eventually (perhaps in decades), it has the power to enhance our cognitive abilities.
With a flick of a switch and a burst of electrical activity, rats have been given access to lost memories. The concept might one day help people with brain damage remember how to perform everyday tasks.
Theodore Berger at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and colleagues, used electrodes implanted within the hippocampus to record patterns of brain activity while rats learned how to operate a sequence of levers to gain a reward.
Ghrelin is a hormone that helps regulate body weight and metabolism. Higher ghrelin levels lead us to expend less energy and to eat more in an attempt to conserve resources. Now a group in Portugal has shown that it’s possible to immunize mice against ghrelin, using their own immune system to suppress levels of the hormone. This is another avenue to reprogramming our metabolisms to avoid one of the largest health perils of our age: obesity. (Not to mention the obvious cosmetic appeal.)
Compared with unvaccinated controls, vaccinated mice—both normal-weight and obese mice—developed increasing amounts of specific anti-ghrelin antibodies, increased their energy expenditure and decreased their food intake, the authors reported. Within 24 hours after the first vaccination injection, obese mice ate 82 percent of the amount that control mice ate, and after the final vaccination shot they ate only 50 percent of what unvaccinated mice ate, Monteiro said.
>Three of my friends and fellow futurists commenting on the future of future of human aging.
Anders focuses on uploading the brain (the best preservation, but most challenging),
Aubrey de Grey on our attitudes on change.
And Nick Bostrom on the uncertainties implicit in the future.
All three honest and straightforward as usual (though I disagree slightly with Nick Bostrom on overpopulation).
>Now this is really exciting.
Organ transplants have lots of problems, from the number of donors and availability of the right organ, to the issues of transport and logistics, and especially immune rejection.
For a while researchers have dreamed of growing new organs using someone’s own genetic material, so they can place them in the body and have them be exact genetic matches. That would eliminate the need for orgon donors and the risk of immune rejection.
We are not there yet, but this case is very close. The researchers used the connective tissue from a windpipe from a dead organ donor but removed all living cells. Then they used the female patient’s own stem cells (extracted from bone marrow) to grow a fully functional windpipe on that scaffolding (in particular to grow new cartilage), which they then ‘transplanted’ into her.
In principle the same technique could be used to regrow all sorts of organs, though actually growing the organs and having the right scaffolding is still extremely tricky and has only been demonstrated for a few organs. Even so, progress is being made at a remarkable rate.