The Brain’s Building Blocks: Of Protons and Voxels

What’s in a brain? That which we call a voxel by any other name would sound far less confusing.

Imagine all of the atoms in your brain. Now imagine how these atoms might behave inside of a giant magnet. Fortunately, there’s a technique that makes this thought experiment possible. Structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses the behavior of basic building blocks—like atoms and their protons within—to form a truly interdisciplinary technique that spans physics, biology, and computer science in order to “photograph” the brain.

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How Neuroimaging Changes Our View of Science & Humanity

“The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.” – René Magritte

Magritte’s comments on our fascination with the unknown rings true not just in artistic surrealism, but also in many of our scientific research endeavors. The human mind is continually fascinated with what it has yet to understand, and curiously enough, the human mind itself is one such mystery. However, recent efforts focused on imaging and analyzing the entire brain, performed by both scientists and artists alike, have helped shed some light on this mystery. With this new technology, however, comes the question of how neuroimaging can influence the perspectives of a sentient being. What does it mean to see a reflection of our own cognition, both for our understanding of science and for our perception of humanity and living creatures?

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PET Imaging: The Real Positronic Brain?

In Isaac Asimov’s 1950 short story collection I, Robot, intelligent robots with positronic brains exist alongside humans. Unlike conventional computer hardware, the word positronic implies that electrical current is carried in the wires of these robots’ brains by  positrons, the antimatter counterpart of the familiar electron. Though the advantage of antimatter here is anyone’s guess, the stories of I, Robot may have introduced the positron to the public.  And as bizarre as Asimov’s fantasy sounds, neuroimaging has given the term “positronic brain” yet another meaning.

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The Ultimate Thought Experiment Part III: Flowers for Algernon

In Part II of this series, we considered artificial intelligent in the context of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel and Stanley Kubrik’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Space Odyssey, intelligence is arguably seen as an end in-and-of itself, rather than a means to an end. Flowers for Algernon, a short story later turned into a novel by author Daniel Keyes, questions that assumption while considering the ethical implications of artificially manipulating a person’s intelligence.

The protagonist of Flowers for Algernon is Charlie Gordon, a janitor who begins the story with intellectual disability, or mental retardation as it was referred to at the time when Keyes wrote the story. Gordon’s intellectual disability is a result of phenylketonuria, a real life metabolic disorder resulting from mutations of the gene encoding phenylalanine hydroxylase, an enzyme that breaks down the amino acid phenylalanine. An inability to metabolize this amino acid causes its toxic build up in the brain, often resulting in a low IQ and other problems, such as mental disorders.

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Stimulating Neural Circuits with Magnetism

Brain stimulation might sound like some Frankensteinian demonstration from a Victorian science fair. But in reality, it is a contemporary technique making a huge impact in neuroscience by addressing a longstanding limitation of traditional methods for investigating human brain function. Such techniques, like EEG and fMRI, can only be used to infer the effects of a stimulus or task on brain activity, and not vice versa. For example, a scientist might use EEG to study the effect of a task like arm movement on brain activity, but how can one study the effect of brain activity on arm movement?Continue reading