Brains Understanding Computers Understanding Brains

“Computers aren’t smart.”  That’s the first thing my professor said on the first day of in Intro to Computer Science. “They’re dumb, but they’re fast,” he added.  At first I couldn’t believe what my professor was saying.  Computers seem to be quite intelligent.  IBM’s Watson could compete with Jeopardy! champions.  Need to know the answer to a question?  Just type it into Google.  Over the last few years, as I’ve learned more about computer science, I’ve come to learn that what my professor said on that first day of class is absolutely true.
In order to work, computers require extremely specific and detailed instructions laid out in a code they can understand.  Leave out a semicolon at the end of a line?  Forget it.  The computer will stop working.  A computer is nothing without a human brain to help it along.
The real value to a computer, of course, is its speed.  Today, an average laptop can carry out over a billion instructions in just one second.  Need to add up a million numbers in a spreadsheet?  Today’s computers can do so instantly.  Today’s computers can analyze massive amounts of data in very short amounts of time.
This is welcome feature for researchers studying the brain.  A single brain scan today can generate several gigabytes of data.  Even 25 years ago, this was unthinkable [1].  With new projects like the US Government’s BRAIN Initiative, research centers across the country are generating more data on the human brain than ever before [2].  To analyze this data, researchers are working hard to develop new algorithms and computational techniques.  Many scientists have expressed how important it is to train new researchers in the science of “big data” if we are ever going to truly understand how the brain works [3], [4].
The “big data” methods being used to better understand the human brain are the same that determine which advertisements show up in your web browser; the same that help Google decide what you’re searching for; the same that stock brokers use on Wall Street; and the same that the NSA controversially uses to “protect” sensitive American communications.
With big data, computers are starting to look like they might actually be smarter than humans.  But this isn’t true.  Without a human brain to ask the right questions and interpret the results, big data algorithms are worthless.  Rather, humans and computers are beginning to form a symbiotic relationship.  We use computers to speed up our own mental processing.  And now in neuroscience, we use computers and the artificial intelligence we have given them, to better understand our own intelligence, and our own minds.
[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_hard_disk_drives
[2] http://www.braininitiative.nih.gov/index.htm
[3] Sukel, K. “Big Data and the Brain: Peaking at the Future of Neuroscience.” BrainFacts.org, 8 Dec 2015. Web.
[4] Van Horn, JD. “Opinion: Big data biomedicine offers big higher education opportunities. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 7 June 2016:113(23):6322-4 doi: 10.1073/pnas/1607582113.



Brain Connectivity and Video Game Addiction

Pokemon Go, a game that allows users to catch Pokemon while walking around, has taken the world by storm. The app has surpassed Netflix, Twitter, and Tinder in popularity.  The game’s immense success got me curious about video game addiction and the neuroscience behind it.

In a study published in Addiction Biology in December 2015, researchers found that there were differences in brain connectivity in adolescent boys who were compulsive video game players compared to boys without the disorder. fMRI was performed on 106 boys aged 10-19 who were being treated for Internet gaming disorder and 80 boys without the disorder. In those with Internet gaming disorder, brain regions associated with vision and hearing (auditory cortex and frontal eye field) had enhanced connection to the motor cortex and  “salience network”, which focuses attention on important events and response action. Researchers also found increased coordination between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal junction, which has also been seen in patients with neuropsychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, Down’s syndrome, and autism. The study was a collaboration between Chung-Ang University School of Medicine in South Korea and the University of Utah School of Medicine.

The researchers stated that it’s unknown whether persistent video gaming causes rewiring of the brain or whether individuals with differently wired brains are drawn to video games. While Pokemon Go has benefitted its users by increasing fitness and becoming a social experience, it has also caused accidents due to distracted users. Pokemon Go certainly seems to have gained quite a following. Who knows what an fMRI study could reveal… 







When Two Wrongs Make a Right

Poliovirus, which was once a serious threat to the lives of many, is now playing a vital role in the fight against the deadliest types of brain cancer. A genetically modified version of the poliovirus has been used to treat some cases of glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer that kills its victims within two years on average[1]. Dr. Matthias Gromeier, a molecular biologist at Duke University, is credited with the discovery of the modified poliovirus. Over the course of 5 years, there have been a total of 22 patients who have used the poliovirus as an attempt to cure their glioblastoma with 11 deaths and 11 patients recovered or in remission[2]. Despite the high number of deaths, the drug is held in high regards because it has shone a light on future advancements in cancer research.

            The poliovirus was chosen because its receptor, cluster of differentiation 155 (CD155), is commonly found on most tumor cells. This discovery prompted scientists to try using the poliovirus to kill tumor cells. However, in order for that treatment to be successful, the disease-causing ability had to be removed from the virus. The development of the genetically modified strain of poliovirus, which is called PVS-RIPO, requires the internal ribosomal entry site (IRES) of the poliovirus to be replaced with the IRES of the human rhinovirus 2[3].This slight change does not completely alter the functions of the poliovirus, but reduces its intensity, preventing damage to the nervous system and accidental death of the patient. This is important to the success of PVS-RIPO. When injected in the body, the virus attacks the cancerous tumor cells and partially kills the cancer. The rest of the work is done by the immune system, which attacks the site of the poliovirus and thus the tumor[4]. As the immune system works to kill the disease, the tumor size increases and appears to worsen over the span of two months. Eventually the inflammation decreases and the tumor slowly disappears, placing the patient in remission. A safe remission period is defined as 6 months without any signs of a tumor, which has become a fairly common result of patients using the poliovirus strain.

            Although there will need to be improvements made to the PVS-RIPO treatment, there are still many accomplishments to look forward to. Many patients are still in remission up to 36 months after treatment, which is unheard of for cases of glioblastoma2. Looking into the future, Dr. Gromeier and his colleagues at Duke are hoping to test this virus on other types of cancer to determine the versatility of PVS-RIPO4.

-  LR

[1] "Glioblastoma (GBM)." American Brain Tumor Association. American Brain Tumor Association, 2014. Web.

[2] Pelley, Scott. "Killing Cancer." CBS 60 Minutes. CBS Interactive Inc., 29 Mar. 2015. Web. 24 May 2016.

[3] Goetz, Christian, and Matthias Gromeier. "Preparing an Oncolytic Poliovirus Recombinant for Clinical Application against Glioblastoma Multiforme." Cytokine & Growth Factor Reviews 21.2-3 (2010): 197-203. Web.

[4] Gromeier, Matthias, MD, and Gordana Vlahovic, MD, MHS. "Targeting Cancer with Genetically Engineered Poliovirus (PVS-RIPO)." The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke. Duke University Health System, 2016. Web. 26 May 2016.


What Does a Real Dinosaur Look Like?

In the movie of Jurassic Park and in the museums of natural history, most of the classic dinosaurs have featherless, dark-colored, lizard-like skins.

Recent studies of fossil records show that a real dinosaur may look far better than that. In a 2010 Science paper, paleontologists reconstructed a small, feathered, bird-like Jurassic (~160 mya) dinosaur, Anchiornis huxleyi. In general, colors of extinct organisms are very rarely preserved in the fossil record, and thus it is difficult to re-establish the color of an extinct species. Melanosomes are organelles held in soft-tissue structures such as skin and feathers, which contain the pigment melanin. Quantitative comparison of melanosome shape and density between fossil records and modern black, grey and brown feathers helped to determine the color patterns of the skin and feathers of A. huxleyi. The re-constructed A. huxleyi reminds me the special bird I saw in San Diego Zoo, Cassowary. Cassowary, the third largest and most dangerous living bird, probably the closest creature to a living dinosaur.

In a 2011 Science paper, well preserved dinosaur feathers were found in late Cretaceous (~80 mya) ambers from western Canada. Those feathers display a wide range of pigmentation, ranging from nearly transparent to dark. However, the researchers did not think this discovery could lead to a Jurassic Park scenario since those specimens are extremely small and would not be expected to contain any DNA material.

Ref: (1) Li, Q.; et al. Science 2010, 327, 1369.

        (2) McKellar, R. C.; et al. Science 2011, 333, 1619.



Street Drug W-18 Has Grabbed the Attention of Canadian and United States Law Enforcement

A new street drug called W-18 claims to be 10,000 times more powerful than morphine, produces a heroin-like high, and may be the most deadly drug seen in several decades. Subsequently, U.S. law enforcement, scientists and government are scrambling to characterize this drug and determine the potential harm, if any. On June 1st 2016, Canada passed laws making W-18 illegal to possess, produce, or traffic.

On June 2nd 2016, scientists gathered at Northeastern University for a conference co-hosted by the Center for Drug Discovery (CDD) at Northeastern University and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to discuss the chemistry and pharmacology of addiction research. The symposium was led by a discussion on W-18, and recent unpublished scientific results characterizing its mechanism of action. Several scientists from this conference indicated that W-18 is not an opiate at all, as it failed to demonstrate any reasonable affinity for opioid receptors in cellular experiments. In addition, a common test for determining opioid specificity is a blocking experiment performed with naloxone (Narcan), as this drug blocks the effects of all known opiates. Results from this experiment indicated that naloxone does not block the effects of W-18, further disproving the claims that this drug is a synthetic opiate. The misrepresentation of this street drug as a synthetic opiate has deceived opiate dependent users in thinking that they can tolerate such a drug and that Narcan will be able to reverse accidental overdose. These claims are simply untrue and unfortunately may result in death from this street drug. While the exact target of this drug is still unknown, scientists mentioned that W-18 was toxic in cellular assays, supporting the effects law enforcement and hospitals have witnessed from victims who have used W-18 and/or combined its use with other illicit substances. In addition, deaths related from this drug are likely underrepresented due to the difficulty in detecting the drug in toxicology tests. Law enforcement officials in Philadelphia say they haven't been able to prove that W-18 has killed anyone. "It scares the living crap out of us, but we haven't seen it yet," said Patrick Trainor, spokesman for the DEA's Philadelphia office.” [excerpt from philly.com]

No information on W-18 is currently available on NIDA’s website.

Dr. Bryan Roth, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the National Institute of Mental Health Pyschoactive Drug Screening Program at UNC School of Medicine was recently quoted on his preliminary results in a recent news article on VICE NEWS, an international news organization. That article can be found here:


A recent article on W-18 posted on philly.com: