Intellecting through Perceiving

Sep 16

Microsoft Makes Real Real-Time Voice Translation -

The short video is worth watching.

Sep 05

Down syndrome reversed in newborn mice with single injection -

Scientists injected mice with a molecule designed to boost normal growth of the brain and body. (ABC TV)

The philosophical conception of man is more fundamental than the biological or genetic one. A man is defined not by how many pairs of genes he has, but by his capacity and potential to be rational. This proof-of-concept experiment affirms it:

U.S. researchers have found a way to reverse Down syndrome in newborn lab mice by injecting an experimental compound that causes the brain to grow normally.

The study, published in the Science Translational Medicine journal, offers no direct link to a treatment for humans but scientists are hopeful it may offer a path towards future breakthroughs.

There is no cure for Down syndrome, which is caused by the presence of an additional chromosome and results in intellectual disabilities, distinctive facial features and other health problems.

The team at Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, in Baltimore, used lab mice that were genetically engineered to have extra copies of about half the genes found on human chromosome 21, leading to Down syndrome-like conditions such as smaller brains and difficulty learning to navigate a maze.

On the day the mice were born, scientists injected them with a small molecule known as a sonic hedgehog pathway agonist. The compound, which has not been proven safe for use in humans, is designed to boost normal growth of the brain and body via a gene known as SHH. The gene provides instructions for making a protein called sonic hedgehog, which is essential for development.

"It worked beautifully," said Roger Reeves of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

"Most people with Down syndrome have a cerebellum that’s about 60 per cent of the normal size," he said. "We were able to completely normalise growth of the cerebellum through adulthood with that single injection."

The injection also led to unexpected benefits in learning and memory, normally handled by a different part of the brain known as the hippocampus.

Researchers found that the treated mice did as well as normal mice on a test of locating a water platform while in a swimming maze.

On this philosophical basis, those with intellectual malfunctions are still human beings. And it is only a matter of scientific and technological progress that those malfunctions will be remedied. In the meantime, such individuals ought to be treated as wards of some other persons, like normal children.

Sep 02

IBM to Build 'Brain in a Box' -

The next technological trend points to neurosynaptic computers:

Scientists at IBM (IBM) are developing new, super-smart computer chips designed from the human brain — and that might ultimately prove much more impressive.

These new silicon “neurosynaptic chips,” which will be fed using about the same amount of energy it takes to power a light bulb, will fuel a software ecosystem that researchers hope will one day enable a new generation of apps that mimic the human brain’s abilities of sensory perception, action and cognition.

It’s akin to giving sensors like microphones and speakers brains of their own, allowing them to consume data to be processed through trillions of synapses and neurons in a way that allows them to draw intelligent conclusions.

IBM’s ultimate goal is to build a chip ecosystem with ten billion neurons and a hundred trillion synapses, while consuming just a kilowatt of power and occupying less than a two-liter soda bottle.

“We are fundamentally expanding the boundary of what computers can do,” said Dharmendra Modha, principal investigator of IBM’s SyNAPSE cognitive computing project. “This could have far reaching impacts on technology, business, government and society.”

The researchers envision a wave of new, innovative “smart” products derived from these chips that would alter the way humans live in virtually all walks of life, including commerce, logistics, location, society, even the environment.

“Modern computing systems were designed decades ago for sequential processing according to a pre-defined program,” IBM said in a release. “In contrast, the brain—which operates comparatively slowly and at low precision—excels at tasks such as recognizing, interpreting, and acting upon patterns.” 

Mayhaps the garage entrepreneurs can begin their ventures now.

Aug 28

Miniature Brain Grown in Lab -

This is one small step for a brain, one giant leap for neuroscience:

Miniature “human brains” have been grown in a lab in a feat scientists hope will transform the understanding of neurological disorders.

The pea-sized structures reached the same level of development as in a nine-week-old foetus, but are incapable of thought.

The study, published in the journal Nature, has already been used to gain insight into rare diseases.

Neuroscientists have described the findings as astounding and fascinating.

Are we ever going to actualize the philosophical brain in vat scenario? No. That scenario presupposes a grown man’s brain stolen overnight and then hooked up elsewhere. A brain that never experiences human perception is not anything but a lump of tissue.

Age-Related Forgetfulness Tied to Diminished RbAp48 -

This is the kind of therapy that will enhance the quality of longer living:

Age-related forgetfulness may be due to a deficiency in a brain protein that helps form memories, a study found. Targeting the gene that produces that protein could lead to new therapies.

Scientists identified the protein, called RbAp48, in human brain cells and showed that inhibiting it in mice made the animals forgetful while raising the protein improved their memories. That suggests that age-related memory loss may be reversible.

Let’s remember what we want to remember and forget what we want to forget. That is, let it be a matter of our choice and not a matter of chancy nature.

Jul 09

Nostalgia as an Episodic, Reactive Form of Self-Reflection -

The science article is written by John Tierney: “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows”. The article is really about the need for self-reflection. Yes, it is good thing generally when we remember episodes of the past.

A quick way to induce nostalgia is through music, which has become a favorite tool of researchers. In an experiment in the Netherlands, Ad J. J. M. Vingerhoets of Tilburg University and colleagues found that listening to songs made people feel not only nostalgic but also warmer physically.

That warm glow was investigated in southern China by Xinyue Zhou of Sun Yat-Sen University. By tracking students over the course of a month, she and colleagues found that feelings of nostalgia were more common on cold days. The researchers also found that people in a cool room (68 degrees Fahrenheit) were more likely to nostalgize than people in warmer rooms.

[P]eople tend to have a healthier sense of self-continuity if they nostalgize more frequently, as measured on the scale developed at Southampton. To understand why these memories seem reassuring, Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University and other psychologists conducted a series of experiments with English, Dutch and American adults.

First, the experimenters induced nostalgia by playing hit songs from the past for some people and letting them read lyrics to their favorite songs. Afterward, these people were more likely than a control group to say that they felt “loved” and that “life is worth living.”

Then the researchers tested the effect in the other direction by trying to induce existential angst. They subjected some people to an essay by a supposed Oxford philosopher who wrote that life is meaningless because any single person’s contribution to the world is “paltry, pathetic and pointless.” Readers of the essay became more likely to nostalgize, presumably to ward off Sartrean despair.

Moreover, when some people were induced to nostalgia before reading the bleak essay, they were less likely to be convinced by it. The brief stroll down memory lane apparently made life seem worthwhile, at least to the English students in that experiment. (Whether it would work with gloomy French intellectuals remains to be determined.)

“Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function,” Dr. Routledge says. “It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. …”

Feeding the Memory Bank

The usefulness of nostalgia seems to vary with age, according to Erica Hepper, a psychologist at the University of Surrey in England. She and her colleagues have found that nostalgia levels tend to be high among young adults, then dip in middle age and rise again during old age.

“Nostalgia helps us deal with transitions,” Dr. Hepper says. “The young adults are just moving away from home and or starting their first jobs, so they fall back on memories of family Christmases, pets and friends in school.”

“Many other people,” [Dr. Sedikides] explains, “have defined nostalgia as comparing the past with the present and saying, implicitly, that the past was better — ‘Those were the days.’ But that may not be the best way for most people to nostalgize. The comparison will not benefit, say, the elderly in a nursing home who don’t see their future as bright. But if they focus on the past in an existential way — ‘What has my life meant?’ — then they can potentially benefit.”

This comparison-free nostalgizing is being taught to first-year college students as part of a study testing its value for people in difficult situations. Other experiments are using the same technique in people in nursing homes, women recovering from cancer surgery, and prison inmates.

One does not know oneself unless one self-reflects. Bring on the nostalgia!

Air Transparent Soundproof Windows -

This is a great demonstration of what materials science can do to improve human living. The description of the technology is a bit difficult to follow, but it is worth trying to understand it.

Jul 05

Aspirin Slows Cellular Mutation -

A daily regimen of baby-tablet aspirin is the way to go.

But since most cancers take decades to develop, … “if you could just slow it down, you could slow it enough to have people die of something else.”

Jun 30

Same-Sex Marriage Resumes in California -

So, as of Friday, June 28, California government resumes recognizing same-sex marriage. This happened just after two days following the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to delegitimize the proceduralism of a plebiscite to vote out the rights of some number of Californians. Because the case was before the Court, lower courts, in deference to the high One, had put an injunction to resume recognition, following their own findings that the proceduralism was unconstitutional to California’s Constitution. In less than two days, the injunction is dissolved, and 81 same-sex couples got married on Friday. What convoluted irony!

That makes California the 10th state (plus Washington, D.C.) to legalize same-sex marriage. But starting tomorrow, July 1, three more states will have activated their laws also to legalize this most-recent advance in individual rights: Delaware, Rhode Island, and Minnesota.

Jun 28

A Shirt with Letter T on It Masculinizes Men -

Researchers at Nottingham Trent University have made a startling discovery: what’s printed on your T-shirt could have a large effect on your attractiveness to the opposite sex.

The study involved plain white T-shirts with the letter “T” printed on them—one shirt had a right-side-up T, and one was upside-down, with the cross of the letter stretching across the belly. The hypothesis was that heterosexual women would find men more attractive if an illusion was perpetrated that emphasizes a “v-shaped torso,” a supposed sign of masculinity. The letter T, across the chest, could either exaggerated that shape or negate it, depending on which way it’s turned.

Jun 09

Walking, Fast or Slow, Living Longer or Die Sooner -

Something for the grandparents out there to ponder as they stroll:

Senior citizens who are the fastest walkers live longer than those with the slowest gaits, according to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh.

The researchers say crunched numbers from nine studies involving nearly 35,000 people following the lives of slow and fast walkers who were 75 years old.

Only 19 percent of the slowest men and 35 percent of the slowest women lived another 10 years. However, 87 and 91 percent, respectively, of the fastest walkers were still going.

Does it make sense? It sounds more like a correlation, not causation. The cause is more basic. Healthy people are more energetic; thus, they walk faster and live longer.

Jun 01

One in Thirteen of Humans Have Floppy Feet -

People vary even with their feet:

A team studied the feet of 398 visitors to the Boston Museum of Science.

Jeremy DeSilva from Boston University and a colleague asked the museum visitors to walk barefoot and observed how they walked by using a mechanised carpet that was able to analyse several components of the foot.

Most of us have very rigid feet, helpful for stability, with stiff ligaments holding the bones in the foot together.

When [about one in thirteen people] lift their heels off the ground, however, they have a floppy foot with nothing holding their bones together.

This is known as a midtarsal break and is similar to what the Boston team identified in some of their participants.

This makes the middle part of the foot bend more easily as the subject pushes off to propel themselves on to their next step.

In addition, Dr DeSilva found that people with a flexible fold in their feet also roll to the inside of their foot as they walk.

The bone structure of a two-million-year old fossil human relative, Australopithecus sediba, suggests it also had this mobility.

"We are using variation in humans today as a model for understanding what this human creature two million years ago was doing," added Prof De Silva.

Tracy Kivell, a palaeoanthropologist from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said: “The research has implications for how we interpret the fossil record and the evolution of these features.

"It’s good to understand the normal variation among humans before we go figure out what it means in the fossil record," Dr Kivell told BBC News.

The sample size seems small, under 400. Is that enough to generalize to 7 billion people living today?

May 01

Italian Pizzas Mostly Baked by Egyptians -

Ah, the mindset of socialism has consequences for the stomach:

"We are good at it because we are prepared to work hard. Italians, in contrast, want a nice comfortable office job where they can work six hours a day, five days a week, in air-conditioning. They’re not prepared to work 10, 12 hours a day." Alessandro Rossi, who runs another pizzeria in Rome, is also surprised that Italians refuse to take up an occupation that is part of their cultural DNA, especially as unemployment among young people has reached 35 per cent.

"The Italian mindset is that being a pizza-maker is humiliating, it is a manual labour job," he said. "Young Italians want to own 40,000 euro cars and wear nice clothes but they are not prepared to work for it. So the gap is being filled by the Egyptians, the Filipinos and the Arabs."

How fitting that the solution to the problem is entrepreneuralism!

Mar 14

Brain fMRI Scans Can Determine People-Type Being Thought -

The experiment shows that thinking has a physical basis.

[Cornell University cognitive neuroscientist Nathan Spreng and his colleagues] first gave 19 volunteers descriptions of four imaginary people they were told were real. Each of these characters had different personalities. Half the personalities were agreeable, described as liking to cooperate with others; the other half were less agreeable, depicted as cold and aloof or having similar traits. In addition, half these characters were described as outgoing and sociable extroverts, while the others were less so, depicted as sometimes shy and inhibited. The scientists matched the genders of these characters to each volunteer and gave them popular names like Mike, Chris, Dave or Nick, or Ashley, Sarah, Nicole or Jenny.

The researchers then scanned volunteers’ brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. During the scans, the investigators asked participants to predict how each of the four fictitious people might behave in a variety of scenarios — for instance, if they were at a bar and someone else spilled a drink, or if they saw a homeless veteran asking for change.

The scientists discovered that each of the four personalities were linked to unique patterns of brain activity in a part of the organ known as the medial prefrontal cortex. In other words, researchers could tell whom their volunteers were thinking about.

“This is the first study to show that we can decode what people are imagining,” Spreng says.

The medial prefrontal cortex helps people deduce traits about others. These findings suggest this region is also where personality models are encoded, assembled and updated, helping people understand and predict the likely behavior of others and prepare for the future.

This is not entirely surprising.

Mar 09

Rejuvenating Old Brains -

I look forward to the day the brain can be coaxed to heal from damages.

It’s no secret that juvenile brains are more malleable and able to learn new things faster than adult ones – just ask any adult who has tried to learn a new language. That malleability also enables younger brains to recover more quickly from trauma. Researchers at Yale University have now found a way to effectively turn back the clock and make an old brain young again.

As we enter adulthood, our brains become more stable and rigid when compared to that of an adolescent. This is partially due to the triggering of a single gene that slows the rapid change in synaptic connections between neurons, thereby suppressing the high levels of plasticity of an adolescent brain. By monitoring the synapses of living mice for a period of months, the Yale researchers were able to identify the Nogo Receptor 1 gene as the key genetic switch responsible for brain maturation.

This is what good science should be about.