Encephalon #18

At last, it’s time for Encephalon, the carnival of neuroscience. There were a lot of submissions, and I’ve tried to organize them into four categories: basic and cognitive neuroscience addresses the problem of understanding brains, more medically and psychiatrically inclined work tries to fix brains, a few crazy dreamers think about technological ways to improve brains, and some rare individuals wonder about how brains evolved. I should mention that brains are incredibly complex and all of these efforts are struggling against the immensity of the problems…but it’s fun to try and to watch, and sometimes we actually make progress.

I also need to complain that the last Encephalon was done pirate style, depriving me of a creative schtick I could have used. Curse you, Jake Young, you scurvy dog.

Understanding brains: how do we understand the basic science of brain function?

Everyone should experiment on their own brain—it’s safe, fun, and easy. Do your own visual cognition experiments.

The Mungers test your brain’s ability to notice and remember pictures flashed at you. Which images will stick best, the scary ones or the pleasant ones? Which raises the question of how quickly we can judge the emotional content of an image.

Here’s a strange study of the perception of agency—do you think a robot, a corpse, or a frog are conscious?

How are music and language alike? The brain seems to respond to bad grammar and a misplayed note in similar ways.

When you’re trying to figure out what’s going on in a big complicated brain, one useful tool is to have molecular markers for subsets of all that complexity. And one useful way to mark cells is to use an infective agent, like a virus, that will insert its recognizable genome into a scattering of cells. So here’s a story about using rabies as a neuronal tracer. Umm, don’t do this experiment at home, or on your own brain.

Heresy! Everyone knows you can’t have axonal to glial synapses…but there they are, after all.

It gets worse! Neurons are dribbling out transmitters all over the place, on all kinds of cells. Our brains are hotbeds of promiscuity and perversity.

What do all the complicated modules of the brain do? Here’s an interesting idea: the hippocampus is a fast learner that trains your cortex while you’re sleeping.

There may well be neurological correlates of aromatherapy, but that doesn’t mean I should believe 99% of the extravagant (and untested!) claims of its proponents.

I’ve always wondered what’s going on in the brains of people sitting in front of slot machines—watching people gamble with their heads in an MRI sounds like an interesting project.

Cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging are hot topics right now, but is there any reason to think they’ll tell us anything about how the mind works? Here’s a word of caution.

Fixing brains: Brains are delicate organs, and one concern is repairing the damage done by time, injury, and disease.

Some neurological disorders are caused by degeneration or impairment of sets of cells. One corrective has been to compensate for the selective loss of neurotransmitters with the addition of drugs, but how about using deep brain stimulation to directly activate the population of affected cells?

Can we old people use video games to help keep our brains sharp? Ouroboros has some doubts.

The brain is a plastic structure that responds to stimulation — one neuroscientist who suffered a severe stroke uses stained glass art as therapy, and not only does it work, it produces beautiful art.

Anesthesia causes short term impairment, fortunately…does it also cause any long term changes? Some research shows that anesthesia in mice can increase the number amyloid plaques, one of the markers for Alzheimer’s disease. The results don’t show any behavioral problems, though, so this does not mean you need to buck up and suffer if you need surgery.

Psychiatry has some well-funded critics: the Church of Scientology. Who knew psychiatry was an industry of death and that psychiatrists have a master plan for world domination? It’s strange how they are also willing to critically analyze their own methods, though.

Even the DSM isn’t safe from critical scrutiny. How are they ever going to conquer the world if they keep getting all introspective?

Neurosurgeons must be real butterfingers. I do not want to hear about the frequency of bone flaps being dropped on the floor. If they can’t even keep my skullcap on a tray, what business do they have poking a finger in my brain?

We’re seeing a quiet flood of serious brain injuries, thanks to our involvement in a certain bloody war. Traumatic brain injury and neuropsychological disorders is going to be one of the Bush legacies.

Improving brains: If you’ve got Too Much Science Fiction syndrome, you know that one of the utopian dreams of the future is a way to make us smarter, geekier, and able to surf the internet in our heads.

You will be assimilated. Look forward to your future with a brain implant.

Well, I don’t know if I want to join that club…would you like to be a member of the Borg collective if the first members are pigeons?

I guess if the radical surgical approach is out, an alternative would be to just try exercising the brain.

Wait, don’t try to modify your brain! Just get a smarter alarm clock.

Evolving brains: Tsk, tsk. There really weren’t enough submissions addressing this important question—how did our brains get to be this way? What factors drove the expansion of the brain in our particular lineage?

Have our brains adapted to contain specialized circuitry for recognizing common elements in our environment? Maybe one instance would be the presence of specialized face recognition elements.

Language is one of the more interesting specializations of the human brain, but people are such intractable research subjects. Maybe we should examine and compare the evolution of vocalization-associated specializations in other animals first.

The next edition of Encephalon will be at Peripersonal Space on the 26th of March.


  1. Zombie Mrs Tilton says

    You’ve left out the most important category: Eating Brains.


  2. says

    When I headed over to do the visual cognition experiment I discovered that I would have to check the appropriate box on the demongraphic form, and hesitated.

    Won’t my soul be in jeopardy if I have anything to do with demongraphic forms? Is this some sort of trick?

  3. Mrs Tilton, all excited now says


    muchas gracias for that link. That is one kitchen utensil that I will definitely be ordering!

  4. says

    Thanks Sandra, we may need a sarcasm surfer too :-) (I know, difficult to see via blog comments especially when we don’t know each other).