Brain Observatory peers into the minds of mice

Brain Observatory research
Senior scientist Jerome Lecoq and research associate Kate Roll inspect a microscope platform from the Allen Brain Observatory that was used to record real-time cellular activity in the visual cortex of mice as they were shown pictures and movies. (Credit: Allen Institute)

The Allen Brain Observatory is open for business, revealing what’s running through the mind of a mouse as it sees patterns of light and dark, pictures of butterflies and tigers – or even the opening scene of Orson Welles’ 1958 classic film, “Touch of Evil.”

The online repository of 30 trillion bytes’ worth of brain-cell readings represents the latest scientific offering from the Allen Institute for Brain Science, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. It follows through on a $300 million pledge that Allen made more than four years ago.

The Allen Institute’s president and chief scientific officer, Christof Koch, has compared the project to a Hubble Space Telescope for the brain.

“No one has ever taken this kind of industrial approach to surveying the active brain at cellular resolution in order to measure how the brain processes information in real time,” Koch said today in the institute’s announcement of the data release. “This is a milestone in our quest to decode how the brain’s computations give rise to perception, behavior and consciousness.”

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Scientists join forces to study aging brains

Image: Brain tissue
This brain tissue has undergone antibody labeling for the Aging, Dementia and TBI Study. Dark brown spots are amyloid plaques, implicated in Alzheimer’s Disease. (Credit: Allen Institute)

Scientists from Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science, the University of Washington and Group Health Research Institute have put together a first-of-its-kind database of brain imagery and medical data, to help unravel the potential links between brain injuries, aging and dementia.

The database for the Aging, Dementia and Traumatic Brain Injury Study is hosted at the Allen Institute’s website. For years, the institute has been mapping the connections between brain function and gene expression, but this database goes way beyond genetics.

The study’s brain samples come from a bigger study called Adult Changes in Thought. That longitudinal research effort, led by Eric Larson and Paul Crane of the Group Health Research Institute and UW, looks at health records and cognitive assessments from thousands of aging adults.

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Scientists straighten out a tangle of brain cells

Image: Brain neurons
This graphic traces a network of cortical neurons from a trillions of bytes’ worth of 3-D data. Some of the neurons are color-coded according to their activity patterns in the living brain. (Credit: Clay Reid, Allen Institute; Wei-Chung Lee, Harvard Medical School; Sam Ingersoll, graphic artist)

Scientists say they’ve analyzed trillions of bytes’ worth of mapping data from the brain of a mouse to trace the connections within a tangle of neurons that’s smaller than a pinhead.

The results, published today in the journal Nature, mark a preliminary step toward an even more ambitious neuron-mapping project called MICrONS.

“This is the culmination of a research program that began almost 10 years ago,” study co-author R. Clay Reid, senior investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, said in a news release. “Brain networks are too large and complex to understand piecemeal, so we used high-throughput techniques to collect huge data sets of brain activity and brain wiring.”

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Study says meditation helps ease back pain

Image: Meditation class
A study conducted at Group Health Research Institute found that meditation can be as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy and medication for treating low back pain. (Credit: JAMA via YouTube)

Mindfulness meditation can give a boost to treatments for chronic low back pain for a wide spectrum of patients, a study conducted by Seattle’s Group Health Research Institute has found.

The study, published today by the Journal of the American Medical Association, assessed treatment outcomes over the course of a year for 342 Group Health back-pain patients, ranging in age from 20 to 70.

The patients were divided into three groups. The control group continued their usual treatment plan, including medications and physical therapy. The other two groups went through two-hour training sessions, once a week for eight weeks, in two different types of mental techniques for addressing stress and pain.

One technique is known as cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which has previously been used to treat back pain as well as other conditions such as depression. CBT helps patients reframe how they think about pain to manage it more successfully. It also helps them change behaviors that may contribute to pain.

The other technique is mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR. Practitioners are trained to observe, acknowledge and accept their thoughts and feelings, including their sensation of pain. The training also promotes body awareness through yoga.

The CBT and MBSR patients were allowed to receive other types of care independent of the study.

Group Health’s researchers found that the CBT and MBSR patients were more likely to experience at least a 30 percent improvement in function, as well as in their self-reported assessments of how much they were bothered by back pain.

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Big project aims to build a bit of a virtual brain

Image: Neuron network
This image shows a network of neurons reconstructed with large-scale electron microscopy. (Credit: Clay Reid, Allen Institute / Wei-Chung Lee, Harvard Medical School / Sam Ingersoll)

Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science is in on a multimillion-dollar campaign to trace the connections between the neurons in a mouse’s brain and figure out what they do, well enough to create a 3-D wiring diagram.

The five-year project – backed by the federal government’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or IARPA – is aimed at reverse-engineering the way the brain processes information. The project is called Machine Intelligence From Cortical Networks, or MICRONS.

“The reason IARPA is funding this is not merely to get a better understanding of the brain, but to get inspiration from biology to do the next iteration of machine learning,” R. Clay Reid, the Allen Institute’s principal investigator for the project, told GeekWire.

IARPA is the U.S. intelligence community’s equivalent of the Pentagon’s DARPA think tank, and you can assume that the new types of artificial intelligence programs inspired by MICrONS could help give the United States an edge when it comes to analyzing data for national security purposes.

At the same time, neuroscientists will benefit from seeing how neurons work together in unprecedented detail. “It’s absolutely a win-win situation,” Reid said.

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Scientists read minds at the speed of thought

Brain monitoring
Subjects viewed a random sequence of images of faces and houses and were asked to look for an inverted house like the one at bottom left. “That was a distractor,” Jeff Ojemann said. “We were interested in what the brain was doing at the other times.” (Credit: Kai Miller / Brian Donohue / UW)

University of Washington neuroscientists and their colleagues have developed a system that uses electrodes implanted in the human brain’s temporal lobe to decode brain signals at nearly the speed of perception.

“Clinically, you could think of our result as a proof of concept toward building a communication mechanism for patients who are paralyzed or have had a stroke and are completely locked-in,” Rajesh Rao, a UW professor who directs the Center for Sensorimotor Engineering, said in a news release.

The study was published Jan. 28 in PLOS Computational Biology.

Rao and his colleagues inserted the electrodes into the brains of epilepsy patients undergoing care at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center. The patients’ seizures couldn’t be relieved by medication alone, so they were given the implants temporarily in an attempt to locate the seizures’ focal points.

“They were going to get the electrodes no matter what,” said Jeff Ojemann, a neurosurgeon at UW Medicine. “We were just giving them additional tasks to do during their hospital stay while they are otherwise just waiting around.”

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Elon Musk wants to go into space by 2021

Image: Elon Musk
Elon Musk flashes a smile during the StartmeupHK Festival. (Credit: InvestHK via YouTube)

SpaceX founder Elon Musk says he has his heart set on going into space himself, perhaps in the next four or five years, and organize the first flights to Mars by 2025.

Musk’s travel timetable came out this week during Musk’s chat at the StartmeupHK Festival in Hong Kong. The 44-year-old billionaire said he’d unveil his detailed plan for sending settlers to Mars in September at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico. That means the SpaceX fans who have been buzzing about the Mars Colonial Transporter may have to just keep buzzing for another eight months or so.

The StartmeupHK talk was as wide-ranging as Musk’s interests, which take in electric cars (as Tesla Motors’ CEO), solar power (as Solar City’s chairman) and the potentialuses and misuses of artificial intelligence (as a backer of the OpenAI foundation). That’s all in addition to his focus on spaceflight and humanity’s interplanetary future.

Musk introduced yet another theme: the prospects for creating brain-computer interfaces that would let you store and retrieve images and other information directly from implants in your head.

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Scientists list brain’s common gene patterns

Image: Brain gene expression
An image from the Allen Brain Explorer shows gene expression across the human brain. (Credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science)

Researchers say they’ve traced 32 of the most common genetic patterns at work in the human brain, as part of a mapping project that could lead to new insights about Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

“We’re really trying to understand the genetic basis for the architecture of the human brain,” said Ed Lein, a researcher at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and one of the authors of a study published online on Monday by Nature Neuroscience.

Lein told GeekWire that the study, based on data from the Allen Human Brain Atlas, demonstrates “we’re really much more similar than we are dissimilar” when it comes to the genetic code for our brain’s wiring. The genes that are most consistently associated with specific regions of the brain include some associated with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, as well as epilepsy and disorders associated with cocaine and nicotine use.

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