Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A not so rambling thought from AK - "A new integrative theory for cortical pyramidal neurons"

This is a blogpost I want to take apart carefully and fully appreciate, look up all the papers referenced, as well as the paper under discussion, see how it might relate top parietal lobes, body sense, kinesthetic constructs, exteroception, body work, manual treatment for pain.
A New Integrative Theory for Cortical Pyramidal Neurons.

Thank you for this, AK.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mo on the "Connectome": "Not so fast"

Mo from Neurophilosophy linked to an article, Not so fast, written for re: his perspective on the ambitious project of mapping all the pathways and connections there are in the brain.

He says confounding factors include neuroplasticity, ignoring the functions of neuroglia, and ordinary small-scale variations that occur:

"the connectome apparently ignores the phenomenon of neuroplasticity.

Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to physically alter its structure in response to experience. Far from being immalleable, as was once thought, the brain is a highly dynamic organ. Neurons can sprout new connections within minutes of a given stimulus, and entire neural pathways can be rerouted so that function is recovered after a brain injury.

The connectome also disregards the functional importance of neuroglial cells, another class of cells which are found in the nervous system and which outnumber neurons by at least 10 to 1. Once thought to merely provide structural and nutritional support for neurons, glia have, in recent years, come into their own as key players in the brain. As well as performing the roles initially ascribed to them, glia carry out a whole host of other vital functions, including monitoring neuronal health, identifying damaged neurons, and regulating synaptic plasticity. They are also known to be capable of communicating not only with one another, but also with neurons. A map of brain connectivity cannot therefore be complete without taking glia into account.

Finally, although the large-scale connections are very similar among individuals, there are significant variations at smaller scales."

My bold.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Single cells, memory, learning

Ever since I read Seth Grant's paper on synaptic evolution last year, which discusses proteomics at the level of synapses and how we have synaptic proteins in common with yeast, I've been thinking about synapses as gateways to information flow, controlled by proteins that are common to multiple life forms. It caught my full attention that we have synaptic proteins in common with yeast.

Last night I read "Microbes exploit groundhog day" in Nature's July issue. Excerpt:
"The proposal that microorganisms can associate a stimulus with an appropriate response to a future environment might seem far-fetched. After all, without cognition, microorganisms rely on simple regulatory networks to sense and respond to their environment. A canonical example of gene-regulation, the response of Escherichia coli to the sugar lactose, illustrates why it seems surprising that such networks can be used to anticipate environmental changes."
The write-up discusses a paper by Mitchell et al., Adaptive prediction of environmental changes by microorganisms (same issue).
"The insight of Mitchell et al., building on previous work, was to realize that the connection between stimulus and response can be offset in time. For example, if a non-lactose sugar consistently follows the availability of lactose, selection might favour the evolution of a regulatory network that directly links the presence of lactose to the expression of the non-lactose-utilization genes. This network would serve to 'prime' cells conferring an advantage by preparing them to use the non-lactose sugar in anticipation of its imminent availability and thereby reducing the lag time characteristic of de novo activation of response genes. Mitchell et al. call this mechanism adaptive anticipatory conditioning."
A clever experimental design was employed to examine the responses of E. coli and baker's yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, to an environment simulating what each organism would ordinarily find in a typical higher intestinal tract (higher in lactose and low in maltose), compared to lower part of the tract (low in lactose and higher in maltose). Mitchell et al. found that "microorganisms can interpret their environment and respond in a way that provides a benefit only in following a future environmental change." A few wrinkles remain, but "one message is clear" -
"The regulatory networks that link environmental stimuli to microbial responses are complex and can evolve rapidly. The potential for microorganisms to offset responses from environments in which those responses are useful provides both a warning and an opportunity for researchers involved in testing the functional significance of links between stimuli and responses."
Possibly related, in some way, somewhere down the road, are these two recent tidbits from New Scientist:

1. Memristor minds: The future of artificial intelligence
by Justin Mullins. It discusses artificial intelligence and a "fourth" ingredient, "memristor" (in addition to resistor, capacitor and inductor):
"Chua had anticipated the idea that memristors might have something to say about how biological organisms learn. While completing his first paper on memristors, he became fascinated by synapses - the gaps between nerve cells in higher organisms across which nerve impulses must pass. In particular, he noticed their complex electrical response to the ebb and flow of potassium and sodium ions across the membranes of each cell, which allow the synapses to alter their response according to the frequency and strength of signals. It looked maddeningly similar to the response a memristor would produce. "I realised then that synapses were memristors," he says. "The ion channel was the missing circuit element I was looking for, and it already existed in nature."

To Chua, this all points to a home truth. Despite years of effort, attempts to build an electronic intelligence that can mimic the awesome power of a brain have seen little success. And that might be simply because we were lacking the crucial electronic components - memristors." - (my bold)

2. Evolution's third replicator: Genes, memes, and now what? by Susan Blackmore. She comments (excerpts):

"We humans have let loose something extraordinary on our planet - a third replicator - the consequences of which are unpredictable and possibly dangerous.

What do I mean by "third replicator"? The first replicator was the gene - the basis of biological evolution. The second was memes - the basis of cultural evolution. I believe that what we are now seeing, in a vast technological explosion, is the birth of a third evolutionary process. We are Earth's Pandoran species, yet we are blissfully oblivious to what we have let out of the box."

"Billions of years ago, free-living bacteria are thought to have become incorporated into living cells as energy-providing mitochondria. Both sides benefited from the deal. Perhaps the same is happening to us now. The growing web of machines we let loose needs us to run the power stations, build the factories that make the computers, and repair things when they go wrong - and will do for some time yet. In return we get entertainment, tedious tasks done for us, facts at the click of a mouse and as much communication as we can ask for. It's a deal we are not likely to turn down."

Additional resources:

1. BrainScience Podcast #51 Dr. Seth Grant on Synapse Evolution