Imagination is often considered a uniquely human trait. Simply put, it is what allows us to think about things that aren’t happening in that moment, and it plays an integral part in our day-to-day lives. We use it when we think through our calendar for the day, consider restaurant options for dinner, or visualize the best route. It turns out this trait might not be as unique to humans as we thought. In fact, a study published in Science suggests that we might share this ability with rats (1).
Rats are the most divisive of rodents. Some people see disease-carrying scourges; some see intelligent, affectionate creatures with larger-than-life personalities; and still others simply can’t get past their bare tails and small eyes. Love them or hate them, science has shown that there is more to these creatures than meets the eye. They are intelligent, ticklish and empathetic; and the study in Science suggests, imaginative.
Research in animal models shows physical exercise can induce changes in the brain. In humans, studies also revealed changes in brain physiology and function resulting from physical exercise, including increased hippocampal and cognitive performance (1). Several studies in mice and rats also demonstrated that exercise can improve learning and memory and decrease neuroinflammation in models of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative pathologies (2); these benefits are tied to increased plasticity and decreased inflammation in the hippocampus in mice (2). If regular time pounding the pavement does improve brain function, what is the underlying molecular biology of exercise-induced neuroprotection? Can we identify the cellular pathways and components involved? Can we detect important components in blood plasma? And, is the benefit of these components transferrable between organisms? De Miguel and colleagues set out to answer these questions and describe their results in a recent study published in Nature.
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 “Back for More: Thoughts from 3 Regular Attendees on the International Forum on Consciousness”
“The Great Book of Nature is written in mathematical language” –Galileo Galilei (1)
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.
The 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/.
Summer, a much-looked forward to season. We typically pack in the activities and make the most of the daylight. We work hard and we play hard. This summer will be no exception, and at the BTC Institute, we are already getting set to host as many students as we can. We will see middle and high schoolers, K-12 teachers, college students, graduate students, college and university faculty and staff, and professionals in the biotech community under our roof at some point. You may want to join us too!
Our programs for advanced learners, geared toward the graduate student or biotech professional, offer much more than just a rigorous immersion in molecular biology theory and practice. Held at the BTC Institute at Promega Headquarters, they are taught by highly knowledgeable scientists, coming from both industry and academia. These instructors offer a wealth of information and share their expertise as well as life experiences with students. Informal discussions about career trajectories and access to industry are important added benefits to attending these off-campus workshops. Continue reading “Pack a Little Science into Your Summer with Advanced Courses from BTCI”
Curling up with a good book is one of life’s greatest pleasures, whether you’re reading on a tropical beach while on vacation or nestled into your favorite chair at home. As your eyes skim over the words, your mind conjures up images of the events unfolding on the page. Books can take us to fantastic places, real and imaginary, that we will never visit in our lifetime. And while there is some pleasure to be gained from nonfictional books, my favorite books all seem to fall in the realm of fiction. I am not alone. The science fiction and fantasy genre of literature continues to be one of the most popular. Why do so many readers find these types of books so enticing and engaging?
It all comes down to science, specifically neuroscience.
The past weekend I switched lines in the grocery store only to regret it a few seconds later when another shopper with an enormous cart got there before me and I had to wait an additional 20 minutes for the cashier to fix a problem with the register. Sound familiar? As far as I know rodents do not shop in the stores that I do but it seems that a rat might have felt the same in my place. Or so say a team of scientists from the University of Minnesota out to study decision-making abilities in rats. 1 Continue reading “The Road Not Taken: Rodents Rue Bad Decisions”
When my son was about 2 years old, he commented that the jingles “Twinkle twinkle little star” and “alphabet song” had the same musical notation. While I do not think I am tone deaf and I do appreciate music, I had not made the connection in all these years. Music appreciation is perhaps one of the most subjective and controversial topics. For some people, appreciating music involves understanding the technical nuances and critically evaluating artist’s mastery over the art, and for some of us, it is about simply enjoying the patterns and rhythms. While one might claim that they enjoy all kinds of music, for most of us, only certain kinds of music elicit a deeper appreciation, emotive experience and pleasure. Our music preferences are molded by exposure, cultural diversities and to some extent, mood. Music is extremely varied, and listing the kinds of music could fill pages. Arguing one kind of music is better than other is as like saying one color is better than the other.
It is hard to undermine the role of cleanliness in disease prevention, both internally and externally. Within our body, the lymphatic system plays an important role in clearing the intercellular passages of large and potentially harmful toxic molecules and recirculate back into the blood stream. This enables the transport of these molecules to liver for inactivation and subsequent removal from the body. Therefore, lymphatic system prevents build-up of soluble proteins in the interstitial space. Typically, more metabolically active a cell is, more intricate is the lymphatic vasculature around it. This observation was in contrast to our scientific knowledge a few years ago, when we believed that due to the presence of the blood-brain barrier, there was no lymphatic system active in the brain. The brain, as we know, is highly active metabolically and the removal of harmful solutes and proteins from the neuronal vicinity is of utmost urgency. For a long time it was believed that cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), while coursing through the brain also removed cellular metabolite by products, apart from carrying nutrients to brain tissue, through a process known as diffusion. This is a rather slow process and it did not very well explain how large molecules such as proteins were removed from the interstitial place.
Recently, using two-photon imaging technique in live mice, scientists at Rochester discovered (1) that there is another vasculature functioning in the brain which circulates CSF to every corner of the brain much more efficiently, through bulk flow or convection. Continue reading “A Clean Brain Is a Healthy Brain”
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