Musings on the 2018 International Forum on Consciousness

Held May 2018, Means and Metrics for Detecting and Measuring Consciousness was designed to explore emerging technologies for studying the phenomenon of consciousness, including research related to sleep, wakefulness, altered states, focused attention and coma.  We asked the question: How might our ability to better measure consciousness create opportunities to improve human function, resolve disease states and keep the mind and brain throughput all stages of life?

We’re grateful for the ideas and insights, the personal stories, shared by Christof Koch, Melanie Boly, Franz Vollenweider, Heather Berlin, Nicholas Schiff and Thupten Jinpa, as well as for the sound and movement experiences provided by Lisa O’Connor and Laura Flanagan.  (Videos of their talks can easily be accessed on-line: https://www.btci.org/events-symposia-2018/international-forum-on-consciousness/archive/2018-videos-2/ )

Our sense is that those who joined us (250+ attendees) left both more knowledgeable and inspired.  Comments from participants illustrate their appreciation for presenters’ insights: Continue reading

Back for More: Thoughts from 3 Regular Attendees on the International Forum on Consciousness

The International Forum on Consciousness offers a lively two days of information sharing and discussion regarding important—and often challenging—topics. Over the years, we have been guided through a range of topics, including creativity, near death, entheogens, intelligence in nature, business evolution and the effects of sensory inputs.  This year, we’re tackling Means and Metrics for Detecting and Measuring Consciousness.  You can find out more here: https://www.btci.org/events-symposia-2018/international-forum-on-consciousness/ .

As we work on the final details for this year and registrations flow in, I took a moment to pause and reflect on the fact that several of the registrants have joined us for many, if not all, of our past events. It’s gratifying to see that they are taking time out of their normal routines to make their way to the Promega campus again this spring.  So, I asked a few of them to share their thoughts for this post and this is what they had to say: Continue reading

Counting Crows: Evidence for Hard-Wired, Inborn Ability to Detect Numerical Sets

“The Great Book of Nature is written in mathematical language” –Galileo Galilei (1)

carrion crow (corvus corone) headshot portrait against a blue background

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

If mathematics is the language of the universe, might we find the ability to do math hard-wired in species?

Research in primates has demonstrated that even without training, humans and monkeys possess numerosity, the ability to assess the number of items in a set (2,3).

A paper in Current Biology from Wagener and colleagues provides evidence that crows are born with a subset of neurons that are “hard wired” to perceive the number of items in a set (4). This work provides yet more evidence supporting a hypothesis of an innate “number sense” that is provided by a specific group of “preprogrammed” neurons.

In this study, Wagener’s group measured the responses of single neurons in two “numerically naïve” crows to color dot arrays. They measured neurons in the endbrain region known as the niopallium caudolaterale (NCL), which is thought to be the avian analog of the primate prefrontal cortex. They found that 12% of the neurons in NCL specifically responded to numbers and that specific neurons responded to specific numbers of items with greater or lesser activity.

This is the first such study to investigate the idea of an innate “sense of number” in untrained vertebrates that are not primates, and as such it suggests that a hard-wired, innate “sense of number” is not a special feature of the complex cerebral cortex of the primate brain but is an adaptive property that evolved independently in the differently structured and evolved end brains of birds.

Many questions remain. Are there similarities in the actual neurons involved? What does learning do on a physiological level to these neurons: Increase their number, increase connections to them?  What other vertebrates have similar innate mechanisms for assessing numbers of items? What about other members of the animal kingdom that need to have a sense of number for social or foraging behavior? How is it accomplished?

And finally, one last burning question, if birds are dinosaurs, does that mean that dinosaurs perished because they didn’t do their math homework? Asking for an eleven-year-old I know.

  1. Tyson, Peter. (2001) Describing Nature with math. NOVA  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/describing-nature-math.html 
  2. Izard, V. et al. (2009) Newborn infants perceive abstract numbers PNAS USA 106, 10382–85.
  3. Viswanahtan, P. and Neider, A. (2013) Neuronal correlates of a visual “sense of number” in primate parietal and prefrontal cortices. PNAS USA 110, 1118–95.
  4. Wagnener, L. et al. (2018) Neurons in the endbrain of numerically naïve crows spontaneously encode visual numerosity Cur. Biol. 28, 1–5.

A Virus-like Neural Pathway Hints at the Origins of the Mammalian Brain

The mammalian brain is extremely complex. We know that it processes and stores information through synaptic connections within a complicated neural network. But how exactly do neurons communicate with each other? And how did this neural network come to exist? A recent paper published in Cell may provide some answers. It describes a previously unknown signaling pathway–with surprising origins–that transports RNA between neurons. Continue reading

“Reverse” Molecular Reactions in DNA through Mind-Body Interventions

While my morning routine typically only involves a large cup of coffee, increasingly more Americans are beginning their days with a set of sun salutations. Sun salutations are a series of poses originating from yoga, one of the most popular types of mind-body intervention in the United States. Along with yoga, other commonly recognized mind-body interventions (MBI) include meditation, mindfulness, Tai chi, and Qigong. Despite the fact that each of these activities differ in the amount of physical effort required, they all view mental and physical health as single cohesive system.

The influence of overall mind-body intervention on health and wellness is an ancient concept that is now revolutionizing Western medicine. In the past, Western medicine has focused primarily on the health of the physical body. Yoga and meditation were viewed as beneficial, but were less likely to be recommended by clinicians as a method for relief. Now, with recent developments in gene expression analysis techniques, we have a better understanding of biological mechanisms and how they interact with psychological variables. A possible shift in clinician’s philosophies can be seen in the steady rise in the complementary health approaches of yoga, Tai chi, and qi gong1.

To completely understand how MBI affects a person’s health, we must first realize the links between stress and the conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA). CTRA refers to the common molecular pattern discovered in individuals facing hardship. Whether it be in the form of diagnosis of a life-threatening disease or the death of a loved one, the characteristics of CTRA stay consistent. CTRA causes an influx in the production of epinephrine and norepinephrine. These neuromodulators then affect the production of transcription factors. Continue reading

In Healthy Eating Less is More: The Science Behind Intermittent Fasting

Mix a love of eating with a desire to live a long, healthy life what do you get? Probably the average 21st century person looking for a way to continue enjoying food despite insufficient exercise and/or an age-related decline in caloric needs.

Enter intermittent fasting, a topic that has found it’s way into most news sources, from National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences publications to WebMD and even the popular press. For instance, National Public Radio’s “The Salt” writers have tried and written about their experiences with dietary restriction.

While fasting has enjoyed fad-like popularity the past several years, it is not new. Fasting, whether purposely not eating or eating a restricted diet, has been practiced for 1,000s of years. What is new is research studies from which we are learning the physiologic effects of fasting and other forms of decreased nutrient intake.

You may have heard the claims that fasting makes people smarter, more focused and thinner? Researchers today are using cell and animal models, and even human subjects, to measure biochemical responses at the cellular level to restricted nutrient intake and meal timing, in part to prove/disprove such claims (1,2). Continue reading

Explore the World through All of Your Senses at the 2017 Forum on Consciousness

2017 forumThe 16th International Forum on Consciousness, Conscious Evolution: Awakening Through the Senses, in Madison, WI, May 18-19, will bring together a diverse group of presenters including Diane Ackerman (Best-selling Author, The Zookeeper’s Wife and A Natural History of the Senses),  Rebecca Alban Hoffberger (Founder and Director, American Visionary Art Museum), Louie Schwartzberg (Cinematographer, Director and Producer) and Andrea Stevenson Won (Director of the Virtual Embodiment Lab and Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, Cornell University), among others.

This year’s forum focuses on the senses, and explores how altering awareness of sensory inputs might change perceptions of reality and expand consciousness in positive directions for self and others.  In addition to presentations, attendees will have opportunities to engage in direct sensory experience through virtual reality, movement, sound and visuals, as well as tastes and aromas. Find more information at www.btci.org/consciousness.

The forum is open to the general public, but participation is limited to 300 people, and advanced registration is required. The registration fee is $250.00 (US), and scholarship opportunities are available. Registrants will have the opportunity to join a presenter for a small-group discussion over dinner on Thursday, evening, May 18, for an additional $85.00 (US).

About BTC Institute

The BTC Institute is a not-for-profit organization operated exclusively for educational, scientific and cultural purposes. Learn more about its K–12 programs, scientific course offerings, and annual educational forums and symposia at www.btci.org/.

Restoring Memory in Alzheimer’s Mice with Microbubbles and Ultrasound

Neurons with amyloid plaques.

Neurons with amyloid plaques.

Imagine driving in your car and suddenly not recognizing where you, you don’t remember where you were going and have no idea how to find your way home. What if you looked across the breakfast table at your spouse and no longer recognizing them?  Or maybe you have to brace yourself every time you visit your parent, waiting for the day when they won’t know who you are. This is reality for the estimated 50 million (worldwide) Alzheimer’s suffers and their families.

For a world with an aging population, Alzheimer’s is a growing problem. Recent estimates suggest that 11% of people over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s disease. For people 85 and older, that number increases to 32% (1).

Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating degenerative brain disease. It is the most common cause of dementia, and is characterized by a decline in cognitive skills such as memory, language skills, communication and problem solving abilities. These symptoms make it difficult for people with Alzheimer’s to perform everyday activities. It also is difficult to diagnose, even more difficult to treat, and, as of now, impossible to cure. Continue reading

Announcing: Stem Cells in the 4th Dimension—Mechanisms of Stem Cell Aging and Maturation

Image courtesy of Carlos Marti-Figueroa, Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Image courtesy of Carlos Marti-Figueroa, Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, University of Wisconsin, Madison

On April 13th, the BTC Institute and Promega Corporation will host the 11th Annual Wisconsin Stem Cell Symposium — Stem Cells in the 4th Dimension: Mechanisms of Stem Cell Aging and Maturation.

Our co-coordinators at the UW-Madison Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center have put together an outstanding list of presenters, including leading researchers who are investigating the effects of aging on stem cell populations and their progeny and recapitulating aging mechanisms in vitro to mature human stem cell derivatives and transplants.

The morning session will review systemic and cell autonomous factors known to impact stem cell maturation, aging and senescence. The afternoon session will focus on using these approaches and understanding to develop in vitro models of matured, stem cell-derived neural, cardiac, and pancreatic cells and tissues for regenerative medicine applications.

HIGHLIGHTED ISSUES:

  • Endocrine, micro-RNA, epigenetic, and metabolic regulators of aging
  • Systemic regulators elucidated by parabiosis
  • Treatment of age-related stem cell dysfunction
  • In vivo and in vitro models of neural, musculoskeletal, cardiac, and pancreatic tissue maturation

Continue reading

How Fruit Flies (and maybe Pigeons?) Navigate; A New Report

A rock dove, similar in plumage to a pigeon.

A rock dove, similar in plumage to a pigeon.

Several years ago an intriguing story of successful navigation in complex situation, by pigeons, the birds most often compared to rats, caught my eye.

Our backyard once had a coop full of pigeons, so I’m not a total stranger to their navigation abilities (nor am I a pigeon expert). My favorites were the tumbling pigeons.

But it didn’t take much time researching that article from 2012, to learn that one of the more hotly debated how-do-they-do-it topics is animal navigation, in particular, the ability of pigeons to navigate back to home/point A when released at point B.

So when it appeared online today, in Nature Materials, the story “A Magnetic Protein Biocompass” caught my eye. Continue reading