Brain wave recording goes into overdrive

Neuropixels researchers
Severine Durand and Tamina Ramirez, researchers at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, review data collected from mice using the Neuropixels brain-probing system. (Allen Institute Photo)

Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science is sharing 70 trillion bytes’ worth of data documenting electrical activity in mouse brains, collected by a new type of silicon probe that can monitor hundreds of neurons simultaneously.

The Neuropixels system, developed by an international collaboration that includes the Allen Institute, could be adapted to record brain activity in human patients as well, said Josh Siegle, a senior scientist at the institute who works with the probes.

“The application I’m most interested in is decoding the communication patterns of the brain, and really understanding how information is transmitted between regions,” Siegle told GeekWire. “What are the transmission protocols?”

Neuropixels has already produced insights into the brain’s inner workings, Siegle said. This week, the institute is due to publish findings on the BioRxiv preprint server that confirm hierarchical patterns of connectivity in the brain.

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Scientist takes on the consciousness conundrum

Christof Koch
Neuroscientist Christof Koch, president and chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, talks about the roots of consciousness at the 2017 GeekWire Summit. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

Do animals possess consciousness? Can consciousness be uploaded into a computer? Can we measure objectively whether someone is conscious or not?

Those may sound like deep, imponderable questions — but in a newly published book, “The Feeling of Life Itself,” neuroscientist Christof Koch actually lays out some answers: Yes, no … and yes, scientists are already testing a method for measuring consciousness, with eerie implications.

Along the way, Koch addresses brain-teasing concepts ranging from the Vulcan mind melds seen on “Star Trek” to the kind of brain-computer interface that billionaire Elon Musk is backing through his Neuralink venture.

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Scientists publish a ‘parts list’ for the brain

Rebecca Hodge with brain
Rebecca Hodge, a senior scientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and one of the principal authors of a research study outlining a “parts list” for mouse brains and human brains, holds a section of postmortem human brain that was used in the study. (Allen Institute Photo)

A study led by researchers at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science lays out a “parts list” for the brain, including a detailed look at the differences between the parts for human brains and mouse brains.

They say the genetic results, published today in the journal Nature, suggest that relying on mice to study how the brains of men and women work could lead neuroscientists down blind alleys.

“The answer may be that you have to go to species that are more similar to humans,” Ed Lein, an investigator at the Allen Institute who’s also affiliated with the University of Washington, told GeekWire.

It’s not that the basic parts list is all that different: The researchers found that most of the 75 different cell types identified in the human brain, based on genetic makeup, are found in the mouse brain as well.

That commonality applies even to cells that the scientists had previously thought might be uniquely human, such as the “rosehip neurons” discovered last year.

But there are significant differences in the way those genes are expressed — differences that have developed over 75 million years of evolution. “The genes themselves haven’t really changed, but their regulation can change a lot,” Lein said.

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Scientists fine-tune brain-to-speech translator

David Moses and Edward Chang
Eddie Chang (right), a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Francisco, discusses findings with postdoctoral researcher David Moses. (UCSF Photo / Noah Berger)

Neuroscientists have demonstrated a computerized system that can determine in real time what’s being said, based on brain activity rather than actual speech.

The technology is being supported in part by Facebook Reality Labs, which is aiming to create a non-invasive, wearable brain-to-text translator. But in the nearer term, the research is more likely to help locked-in patients communicate through thought.

“They can imagine speaking, and then these electrodes could maybe pick this up,” said Christof Koch, chief scientist and president of the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science, who was not involved in the study.

The latest experiments, reported today in the open-access journal Nature Communications, were conducted by a team at the University of California at San Francisco on three epilepsy patients who volunteered to take part. The work built on earlier experiments that decoded brain patterns into speech, but not in real time.

“Real-time processing of brain activity has been used to decode simple speech sounds, but this is the first time this approach has been used to identify spoken words and phrases,” UCSF postdoctoral researcher David Moses, the study’s principal investigator, said in a news release.

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Neuralink takes the wraps off brain probe

Neuralink connection
An illustration shows how electrodes could be implanted in a patient’s brain, with wires running under the scalp to a device surgically implanted behind the ear. (Neuralink Illustration)

Two years after word emerged that tech billionaire Elon Musk was backing a company called Neuralink, the secretive brain-link venture opened up about its progress, including tests of a robotic “sewing machine” that has wired up rat brains with threadlike sensors.

During tonight’s presentation at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Musk and other company executives said they’d seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration to start wiring up human test subjects as early as next year. And they’re looking for help.

“The main reason for doing this presentation is recruiting,” said Musk, who has reportedly invested more than $100 million in Neuralink and serves as its CEO. The company currently has about 100 employees.

Neuralink aims to develop a brain interface capable of recording deep-brain electrical activity, with the objective of understanding and treating brain disorders as well as preserving and enhancing the human brain.

Musk, who’s the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla as well as the founder of a tunneling venture called the Boring Company, doesn’t think small. Neuralink is no exception.

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$43 million effort targets brain-blood connection

Salk researchers
Rusty Gage and Carol Marchetto study brain cells at the Salk Institute. Gage will lead one of three teams taking part in a $43 million research initiative created by the American Heart Institute and the Allen Institute’s Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group. (Salk Institute Photo)

Medical researchers know all about the blood-brain barrier, but Seattle’s Allen Institute and the American Heart Association have selected three teams to participate in a $43 million initiative to study the blood-brain connection.

The American Heart Association-Allen Initiative in Brain Health and Cognitive Impairment initiative, launched in May, is aimed at merging research focusing on the brain and on the blood circulation system to develop a new understanding of age-related brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease — and find new ways to counter such disorders.

Today the heart association and the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, a division of the Allen Institute, announced which researchers will take part in the effort. The three teams are headquartered at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Stanford University School of Medicine in California; and at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center in Ohio.

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Neuroscientists draw up ‘parts list’ for brain cells

Neuroscientists used a new, gene-based classification of mouse brain cell types and additional information about neuron shape to uncover two new types of neurons involved in movement. (Credit: Michael Economo, Janelia Research Campus / Lucas Graybuck, Allen Institute)

How many different kinds of cells are there in the brain? At least 133 kinds, including two types of neurons not recognized before, according to a pair of studies featured on the cover of this week’s issue of the journal Nature.

The “parts list” builds on 15 years of work at Seattle’s Allen Institute, focused on analyzing genetic activity in nearly 24,000 of the 100 million brain cells in the mouse cortex. Each cell type exhibited a different combination of genes that were turned on or off.

“This is by far the most comprehensive, most in-depth analysis of any regions of the cortex in any species,” senior study author Hongkui Zeng, executive director of structured science at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, said in a news release. “We can now say that we understand the distribution rules for its parts list.”

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Scientists discover mysterious human brain cell

Rosehip neuron
This is a digital reconstruction of a rosehip neuron from a human brain. (Tamás Lab, University of Szeged)

A gene-by-gene, neuron-by-neuron search has turned up a new breed of brain cell that may serve as a fine-scale “volume control” for neural activity in humans.

The novel type of brain cell, known as a rosehip neuron, is described in a study published today by Nature Neuroscience.

“It’s very rare, and you only see it, so far, in a human,” study co-author Ed Lein, an investigator at the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science, told GeekWire.

Lein’s group at the Allen Institute and a Hungarian research team at the University of Szeged, headed by Gábor Tamás, narrowed in on the neurons using two different lines of inquiry.

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Scientists get time on a telescope for the brain

Jerome Lecoq in lab
Jerome Lecoq, senior manager of optical physiology at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, sets up a microscope in the Allen Brain Observatory. The observatory is run by a team of nearly 100 engineers, scientists and technicians. (Allen Institute Photo)

OpenScope is open for business.

The Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science has taken a page from the playbook for the Hubble Space Telescope to create its latest channel for open-access neuroscience.

Like Hubble’s handlers, the institute is taking requests from researchers for access to its experimental platform for observing neural activity in mice.

Leaders of the project went so far as to consult with leaders in the astronomy community, particularly at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, to learn how they divvy up telescope time.

“We seek to do the same in neuroscience, where we now have a brain-based observatory,” Christof Koch, the Allen Institute’s chief scientist and president, said today in a news release.

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Brain scientists meet to share big data

Louis-David Lord
Oxford University neuroscientist Louis-David Lord discusses the effect of psychedelic drugs on the brain during the CNS 2018 meeting at the University of Washington;. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

What’s the best way to fine-tune brain stimulation to stop tremors? How do brain-wave patterns shift as we grow up? Can psychedelic drugs reverse the descent into depression? Such questions are being addressed in Seattle this week during a conference that blends big data and brain science.

“We bring numbers to the game, with quantitative methods and computer modeling to understand brain data,” Emory University’s Astrid Prinz, president of the Organization for Computational Neurosciences, told GeekWire.

About 500 brain experts from 29 countries are attending the group’s annual meeting, CNS 2018, which has been jointly organized by the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the University of Washington.

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