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Searching for the "Free Will" Neuron

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

Gabriel Kreiman’s single-neuron measurements of unconscious decision-making may not topple Descartes, but they could someday point to ways we can learn to control ourselves.

It was an expedition seeking something never caught before: a single human neuron lighting up to create an urge, albeit for the minor task of moving an index finger, before the subject was even aware of feeling anything. Four years ago, Itzhak Fried, a neurosurgeon at the University of California, Los Angeles, slipped several probes, each with eight hairlike electrodes able to record from single neurons, into the brains of epilepsy patients. (The patients were undergoing surgery to diagnose the source of severe seizures and had agreed to participate in experiments during the process.) Probes in place, the patients—who were conscious—were given instructions to press a button at any time of their choosing, but also to report when they’d first felt the urge to do so.

Eavesdropping on Neurons

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

A new automated version of one of neuroscience’s most important techniques, patch clamping, makes it much easier and faster for scientists to tap into the inner workings of brain cells.

Several new tools for exploring individual neurons allow scientists to probe the workings of the brain in great detail. Optogenetics makes it possible to turn specific neurons on and off in lab animals to determine how those brain cells are affecting activity. Patch clamping lets scientists record the electrical activity of neurons inside a living brain, a process that has now been automated.

The Promise and Perils of Manipulating Memory

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

Fundamental discoveries about the nature of memory could lead to new treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, and anxiety.

When it comes to the study of memory, we might be living in something of a golden age. Researchers are exploring provocative questions about what memory fundamentally isand how it might be manipulated. Some scientists are tweaking the brains of lab rats in order to implant false memories or remove specific memories. Others are looking into how memory might be enhanced. Such research often sounds creepy, but it could lead to ways of staving off dementia, neutralizing post-traumatic stress disorder, reducing anxiety, treating depression, or curbing addiction.

Shining Light on Madness

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

Drugs for psychiatric illnesses aren’t very effective. But new research is offering renewed hope for better medicines.

At Novartis’s research lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a large incubator-like piece of equipment is helping give birth to a new era of psychiatric drug discovery. Inside it, bathed in soft light, lab plates hold living human stem cells; robotic arms systematically squirt nurturing compounds into the plates. Thanks to a series of techniques perfected over the last few years in labs around the world, such stem cells—capable of developing into specialized cell types—can now be created from skin cells. When stem cells derived from people with, say, autism or schizophrenia are grown inside the incubator, Novartis researchers can nudge them to develop into functioning brain cells by precisely varying the chemicals in the cell cultures.

Neuroscience’s New Toolbox

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

With the invention of optogenetics and other technologies, researchers can investigate the source of emotions, memory, and consciousness for the first time.

The hypothalamus is a small structure deep in the brain that, among other functions, coördinates sensory inputs—the appearance of a rival, for example—with instinctual behavioral responses. Back in the 1920s, Walter Hess of the University of Zurich (who would win a Nobel in 1949) had shown that if you stuck an electrode into the brain of a cat and electrically stimulated certain regions of the hypothalamus, you could turn a purring feline into a furry blur of aggression. Several interesting hypotheses tried to explain how and why that happened, but there was no way to test them. Like a lot of fundamental questions in brain science, the mystery of aggression didn’t go away over the past century—it just hit the usual empirical roadblocks. We had good questions but no technology to get at the answers.

The Cross-Section of Memory

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

Neuroscientists at MIT’s Picower Institute have demonstrated that optogenetics can be used to place false memories in the brains of lab rodents.

Can you install a false memory in the brain? Researchers at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory have shown it’s possible in lab animals. First they locate where in the brain the memory is formed; then they use optogenetics to manipulate the memory neurons. One day such techniques could be used to help people with debilitating traumatic memories.

Cracking the Brain’s Codes

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

How does the brain speak to itself?

In What Is Life? (1944), one of the fundamental questions the physicist Erwin Schrödinger posed was whether there was some sort of “hereditary code-script” embedded in chromosomes. A decade later, Crick and Watson answered Schrödinger’s question in the affirmative. Genetic information was stored in the simple arrangement of nucleotides along long strings of DNA.

A Search Engine for the Era of Apps

Sun, 06/15/2014 - 12:00

A new kind of search engine will make it possible to search inside the apps on your phone.

Once upon a time there was the Web, a vast universe of information and services that were tangled together by hyperlinks but easy to explore using search engines. Then smartphones came along. Now people are spending less and less time on the Web and more in mobile apps, convenient but isolated packages not open to links or visible to any search engine.

For One Baby, Life Begins with Genome Revealed

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 00:00

How a California father made an end run around medicine to decode his son’s DNA.

An infant born last week in California appears to be the first healthy person ever born with his entire genetic makeup deciphered in advance.

A Plan B for Climate Agreements

Thu, 06/12/2014 - 00:00

U.N. negotiations are going nowhere, and greenhouse-gas emissions are soaring. It’s time to move on.

In 2007, just before he accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri, the organization’s leader, declared that the world was running out of time to prevent catastrophic global warming. “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late,” Pachauri told the New York Times. “What we do in the next two or three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

Digital Summit: Microsoft’s Quantum Search for the “Next Transistor”

Tue, 06/10/2014 - 17:23

Microsoft is investing in quantum physics research that could lead to a whole new kind of computer.

Microsoft is making a significant investment in creating a practical version of the basic component needed to build a quantum computer, the company’s head of research said Monday.

My Life, Logged

Tue, 06/10/2014 - 00:00

If a device could capture every moment in life for your easy recall later, would you want it to? There are plenty of things I’d rather forget.

I always knew I was short, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized exactly how short.

Why the EPA Regulations Go Easy on Coal States

Mon, 06/09/2014 - 00:00

Huge differences in renewable energy and natural gas potential influenced the EPA’s proposed carbon regulations.

Last week the EPA released a plan to significantly reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions over the next 15 years (see “EPA to Take Biggest Step Ever to Fight Climate Change” and “EPA Issues Proposed Carbon Emissions Rules”). It turns out that some of the states faced with making the biggest changes to meet that goal aren’t the ones that rely heavily on the biggest source of emissions—coal power.

Imposing Security

Thu, 06/05/2014 - 00:00

Computer programmers won’t stop making dangerous errors on their own. It’s time they adopted an idea that makes the physical world safer.

Microsoft’s “3-D Audio” Gives Virtual Objects a Voice

Wed, 06/04/2014 - 10:57

Headphones that make sounds seem to come from specific points in space could be the perfect counterpoint to virtual reality goggles.

Just as a new generation of virtual reality goggles for video games are about to hit the market, researchers at Microsoft have come up with what could be the perfect accompaniment—a way for ordinary headphones to create a realistic illusion of sound coming from specific locations in space.

The Robots Running This Way

Tue, 06/03/2014 - 00:00

Some of the machines acquired recently by Google represent a giant leap forward for robot-kind.

EPA Issues Proposed Carbon Emissions Rules

Mon, 06/02/2014 - 17:36

The EPA’s emissions targets will accelerate the use of natural gas in states that have resisted alternatives to coal.

The Obama administration took its most forceful step yet on climate change with an EPA proposal to curb greenhouse gases from existing power plants. The most likely impact from the rules, if they survive legal challenges, will be an accelerated shift to natural gas and more energy efficiency measures in coal-heavy states.

Lazy Humans Shaped Google’s New Autonomous Car

Fri, 05/30/2014 - 14:50

Google came up with a new approach to its self-driving car project because humans trusted its previous prototypes too much.

The fact that Google’s bubble-like self-driving car, unveiled this week, lacks a steering wheel might be seen as evidence the company’s software is close to mastering the challenges of piloting a vehicle. But the car’s design is just as much a consequence of what Google’s existing fleet of automated Lexus SUVs revealed about human laziness.

Military Funds Brain-Computer Interfaces to Control Feelings

Thu, 05/29/2014 - 13:06

A $70 million program will try to develop brain implants able to regulate emotions in the mentally ill.

Researcher Jose Carmena has worked for years training macaque monkeys to move computer cursors and robotic limbs with their minds. He does so by implanting electrodes into their brains to monitor neural activity. Now, as part of a sweeping $70 million program funded by the U.S. military, Carmena has a new goal: to use brain implants to read, and then control, the emotions of mentally ill people.

Google’s Experimental Smartphone Captures a Future Mapped in 3-D

Thu, 05/29/2014 - 00:00

Early testers are building a range of prototypes from drones to immersive video games using Google’s 3-D mapping smartphone.

Four months after Google unveiled Project Tango—a prototype Android smartphone with cameras and sensors that capture the phone’s environment in 3-D—developers are using the device to make cheap drones for surveying zones, more immersive video games, and even a system for finding a better-fitting suit.