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Inside the Moonshot Effort to Finally Figure Out the Brain

AI is only loosely modeled on the brain. So what if you wanted to do it right? You’d need to do what has been impossible until now: map what actually happens in neurons and nerve fibers. Here’s the problem with artificial intelligence today," says David Cox. Yes, it has gotten astonishingly good, from near-perfect facial recognition to driverless cars and world-champion Go-playing machines. And it’s true that some AI applications don’t even have to be programmed anymore: they’re based on architectures that allow them to learn from experience. Yet there is still something clumsy and brute-force about it, says Cox, a neuroscientist at Harvard. “To build a dog detector, you need to show the program thousands of things that are dogs and thousands that aren’t dogs,” he says. “My daughter only had to see one dog”—and has happily pointed out puppies ever since. And the knowledge that today’s AI does manage to extract from all that data can be oddly fragile. Add some artful static to an image—noise that a human wouldn’t even notice—and the computer might just mistake a dog for a dumpster. That’s not good if people are using facial recognition for, say, security on smartphones (see “Is AI Riding a One-Trick Pony?”).

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Scientists Can Read a Bird’s Brain and Predict Its Next Song

Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley this year set themselves an audacious new goal: creating a brain-reading device that would allow people to effortlessly send texts with their thoughts. In April, Elon Musk announced a secretive new brain-interface company called Neuralink. Days later, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared that “direct brain interfaces [are] going to, eventually, let you communicate only with your mind.” The company says it has 60 engineers working on the problem. It’s an ambitious quest—and there are reasons to think it won’t happen anytime soon. But for at least one small, orange-beaked bird, the zebra finch, the dream just became a lot closer to reality. That’s thanks to some nifty work by Timothy Gentner and his students at the University of California, San Diego, who built a brain-to-tweet interface that figures out the song a finch is going to sing a fraction of a second before it does so. “We decode realistic synthetic birdsong directly from neural activity,” the scientists announced in a new report published on the website bioRxiv. The team, which includes Argentinian birdsong expert Ezequiel Arneodo, calls the system the first prototype of “a decoder of complex, natural communication signals from neural activity.” A similar approach could fuel advances towards a human thought-to-text interface, the researchers say.

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Total Recall: The Woman Who Can’t Forget

The one thing we do know is rather vague: Memories live in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. After that, the entire question of how memory works is up for grabs. For example, where precisely in the hippocampus (or prefrontal cortex) is my memory of reading Kurt Vonnegut for the first time? If I try to summon that experience, I am likely to wind up with a blur—a half dozen indistinct recollections. And no brain-scan technology will help me bring it into better focus. So when I hear about Price's feats, my mind boggles. From the perspective of evolution, finding a human being with memory that works with the precision of a computer would be like finding someone with bones made of steel. The type of memory system we have—in technical terms, context-dependent rather than location-addressable—has been around for several hundred million years. The existence of a human brain that works completely differently is astronomically unlikely.

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Scientists investigate why crows are so playful

New experiments reveal a complex link between crow play and tool use. Crows share an interesting set of behaviors with humans: they like to play, and they often use tools. We know that humans play to learn. When toddlers knock over a pile of blocks, they're developing the ability to build and measure objects in the real world. The question is, do crows play for the same reason? An international team of cognitive scientists played with some crows to find out. What they discovered gives us a new understanding of crow consciousness, but it still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Lund University cognitive science researcher Megan Lambert and her colleagues designed three experiments to figure out whether there's a relationship between crow play and their ability to use tools to solve puzzles. It's well-documented that wild New Caledonian crows make a variety of tools, from hooked sticks to specially-prepared leaf edges, to pull insects out of hard-to-reach spots in trees. But crows have also been observed doing all kinds of weird things with tools, often for what seems like the pursuit of fun.

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For Your Brain’s Sake, Keep Moving

Because we can never have enough reasons to keep exercising, a new study with mice finds that physical activity not only increases the number of new neurons in the brain, it also subtly changes the shape and workings of these cells in ways that might have implications for memory and even delaying the onset of dementia. As most of us have heard, our brains are not composed of static, unchanging tissue. Instead, in most animals, including people, the brain is a dynamic, active organ in which new neurons and neural connections are created throughout life, especially in areas of the brain related to memory and thinking. This process of creating new neurons, called neurogenesis, can be altered by lifestyle, including physical activity. Many past studies have shown that in laboratory rodents, exercise doubles or even triples the number of new cells produced in adult animals’ brains compared to the brains of animals that are sedentary. But it has not been clear whether the new brain cells in active animals are somehow different from comparable new neurons in inactive animals or if they are just more numerous....Last year, in an important study published in NeuroImage, the researchers found for the first time that young brain cells in adult mice that spent a month with running wheels in their cages did seem to be different from those in animals that did not run. For the experiment, the scientists injected a modified rabies vaccine into the animals, where it entered the nervous system and brain. They then tracked and labeled connections between brain cells and learned that compared to the sedentary animals’ brain cells, the runners’ newborn neurons had more and longer dendrites, the snaky tendrils that help to connect the cells into the neural communications network. They also found that more of these connections led to portions of the brain that are important for spatial memory, which is our internal map of where we have been and how we got there.

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Dogs really can smell your fear, and then they get scared too

Dog owners swear that their furry best friend is in tune with their emotions. Now it seems this feeling of interspecies connection is real: dogs can smell your emotional state, and adopt your emotions as their own. Science had already shown that dogs can see and hear the signs of human emotions, says Biagio D’Aniello of the University of Naples “Federico II”, Italy. But nobody had studied whether dogs could pick up on olfactory cues from humans....D’Aniello and his colleagues tested whether dogs could sniff out human emotions by smell alone. First, human volunteers watched videos designed to cause fear or happiness, or a neutral response, and the team collected samples of their sweat. Next, the researchers presented these odour samples to domestic dogs, and monitored the dogs’ behaviours and heart rates. Dogs exposed to fear smells showed more signs of stress than those exposed to happy or neutral smells. They also had higher heart rates, and sought more reassurance from their owners and made less social contact with strangers....D’Aniello’s study suggests humans can inadvertently hijack their dogs’ emotions by releasing smells. A second study suggests dogs can return the favour, using their expressive faces. Juliane Kaminski of the University of Portsmouth, UK, and her colleagues have found that dogs’ faces are most expressive when they know people are looking at them. The researchers introduced dogs to a human who was either looking at them or facing away, and either presenting food or offering nothing. The team analysed how much the dogs’ facial movements varied in the four scenarios. They found that the dogs’ facial expressions varied the most when the person was looking at them. In contrast, Kaminski says there was no sign of a “dinner table effect”, “which would predict that dogs try and look super-cute when they want something from the humans.”

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Team finds training exercise that boosts brain power

One of the two brain-training methods most scientists use in research is significantly better in improving memory and attention, Johns Hopkins University researchers found. It also results in more significant changes in brain activity. Though this exercise didn't make anyone smarter, it greatly improved skills people need to excel at school and at work. These results, published this week by the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, suggest it's possible to train the brain like other body parts—with targeted workouts....First, the team assembled three groups of participants, all young adults. Everyone took an initial battery of cognitive tests to determine baseline working memory, attention and intelligence. Everyone also got an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brain activity. Then, everyone was sent home to practice a computer task for a month. One group used one leading brain exercise while the second group used the other. The third group practiced on a control task. The training programs Johns Hopkins compared are not the commercial products available sold to consumers, but tools scientists rely on to test the brain's working memory. Everyone trained five days a week for 30 minutes, then returned to the lab for another round of tests to see if anything about their brain or cognitive abilities had changed. The researchers found that the group that practiced what's known as a "dual n-back" exercise showed a 30 percent improvement in their working memory. That was nearly double the gains made by the group working with the other common task, known as "complex span." The dual n-back group also showed significant changes in brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, the critical region responsible for higher learning.

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Asperger and Me: an insightful documentary

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Want to control your dreams? Here's how

New research at the University of Adelaide has found that a specific combination of techniques will increase people's chances of having lucid dreams, in which the dreamer is aware they're dreaming while it's still happening and can control the experience. Although many techniques exist for inducing lucid dreams, previous studies have reported low success rates, preventing researchers from being able to study the potential benefits and applications of lucid dreaming. Dr Denholm Aspy's research in the University of Adelaide's School of Psychology is aimed at addressing this problem and developing more effective lucid dream induction techniques. The results from his studies, now published in the journal Dreaming, have confirmed that people can increase their chances of having a lucid dream. The study involved three groups of participants, and investigated the effectiveness of three different lucid dream induction techniques:

reality testing – which involves checking your environment several times a day to see whether or not you're dreaming.

wake back to bed – waking up after five hours, staying awake for a short period, then going back to sleep in order to enter a REM sleep period, in which dreams are more likely to occur.

MILD (mnemonic induction of lucid dreams) – which involves waking up after five hours of sleep and then developing the intention to remember that you are dreaming before returning to sleep, by repeating the phrase: "The next time I'm dreaming, I will remember that I'm dreaming." You also imagine yourself in a lucid dream.

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Delayed word processing could predict patients' potential to develop Alzheimer's disease

A delayed neurological response to processing the written word could be an indicator that a patient with mild memory problems is at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, research led by the University of Birmingham has discovered. Using an electroencephalogram (EEG) - a test that detects electrical activity in a person's brain via electrodes attached to their scalp - researchers studied the brain activity of a group of 25 patients to establish how quickly they processed words shown to them on a computer screen. The study, published in Neuroimage Clinical, was led by the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology and Centre for Human Brain Health and was carried out in collaboration with the Universities of Kent and California. The patients who took part were a mix of healthy elderly people, patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and patients with MCI who had developed Alzheimer's within three years of diagnosis of MCI. MCI, a condition in which someone has minor problems with mental abilities such as memory beyond what would normally be expected for a healthy person of their age, is estimated to be suffered by up to 20 per cent of people aged over 65. It is not a type of dementia, but a person with MCI is more likely to go on to develop dementia.
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