It's that time of year again for "Year in Review" type stuff.
"The spatial and temporal (time) resolution of brain scanning is also progressing at an exponential rate, roughly doubling each year, like most everything else having to do with information."
-- Ray Kurzweil
This just blew me away -- the ability for scientists to actually determine how old cells in your body are -- and which cells are replaced quickly and which are replaced slowly. Not just speculate, but actually measure! It turns out that brains cells are replaced slowly, some so slowly that, well, some cells in the cerebral cortex are never replaced your whole life. Other parts of the brain, such as the cerebellum, are "younger" because their cells are replaced more slowly.
Rather primitive at this point -- we can tell if you're looking at red stripy lines or blue ones. There were other similar experiments, such as the one where scientists could determine from your brain scan whether you are watching "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" or not. We are a long, long way from true full-blown mind-reading, but the first signs that it is indeed possible have arrived. Not mere "lie detection" but actually being able to tell what you are thinking, while you are thinking it.
This surprised me -- people who read in Chinese actually have more brain structures devoted to reading than people who read in English. This applies to any "pictographic" rather than "alphabetic" language.
This next one is a bit technical. Basically it involves a new method for measuring metabolism in mitochondria in brain cells. I put it on my list because I expect it to lead to significant improvement in brain scanning, keeping step with Kurzweil's statement above that the spatial and temporal (time) resolution of brain scanning is also progressing at an exponential rate. Most brain scanning today involves measurement of blood oxygen. In the future, methods that determine which cells are active based on direct measurements of their metabolism will lead to new insights into how the brain works. I've often heard the claim that brain imaging will hit limits set by the limits of the strengths of magnetic fields that can be used in fMRI scanners. I'm posting this article, even though it is technical, because it suggests that these limits will in fact be overcome by new and innovative ways of doing brain imaging.
This article mentions brain imaging only briefly, stating that "In using brain scans to study personality differences, researchers found introverts have more brain activity, in general, and specifically in their frontal lobes. When these areas are activated, introverts are energized by retrieving long-term memories, problem solving, introspection, complex thinking and planning." It goes on to describe the brain scans of extroverts. The rest of the article is basically about society's under-appreciation of introverts, so is basically a political rant rather than a science article. The reason I'm posting it is because it might affect the way you interpret the people around you.
I find the subject of introvert vs extrovert rather perplexing, because, you see, I took the Meyers-Briggs test twice, and both times, it said I was an extrovert (one said I was mildly extroverted and the other said I was strongly extroverted), yet as far as I can tell, everyone who meets me thinks I am an introvert.
There are more and more articles coming out lately where brain cells are grown in a dish, outside the body. This means that scientists have figured out what chemicals are needed in a brain cell's environment for brain cells to grow, and is a sign of steady progress in understanding the brain. But these guys went a bit further, connecting the brain cells to, are you ready for this? a flight simulator.
I'm using this article as a representative of the whole class of articles about genetics and behavior. In this article the brains of people with a genetic disease, Willis Syndrom, are analyzed. I expect to see a lot more studies where genes are connected to brain structures and behavior in the future.
It seems a little premature to be trying to simulate the brain -- literally -- in a computer, but IBM is trying to do exactly that. It's called the Blue Brain project.
This article says that the fear that us white people have when we see African-Americans is also experienced by African-Americans. I was like, whoa! That's bizarre. But if that's not bizarre enough, when people are told to think about the words "African American" the effect goes away. This will really get you thinking about racial stereotypes.
There is nothing more important in life than money. And there've been a lot of articles about money and the brain -- from talk about how if you have too much oxytocin, you'll trust people with your money -- whether you should or not -- to the subject of neuromarketing -- the use of brain research techniques for marketing. There are a lot of clever marketing insights in these articles -- unfortunately for me, I can't even seem to get far enough in the marketing process to where any of these techniques would be useful. But anyway, here's an article that summarizes some of the research. I expect we'll see much more powerful marketing techniques in the future -- and at the same time we'll be less aware of their existence.
#11 The Coming Boom
11? Hey, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. But how could I skip mentioning women having orgasms in brain scanners? Whaa? Orgasms happen in the brain?
If you found these articles interesting, I've got a webpage with all the neuroscience articles, including a lot I wanted to include in the "Top 10" but didn't have room for -- articles on hypnosis, meditiation, sarcasm, even humor...
Or subscribe to the RSS feed, and pick up all the 2006 articles:
If 2006 is anything like 2005, there's likely to be a torrent of brain research, of which I'll capture some small percentage but enough to be interesting.