With advances coming faster than in any other field of science, a lot has been going on in neuroscience throughout 2019. Here are three genuinely mind-blowing areas of neuroscience research that challenge our preconceptions of who we are, or who we could be.
Reincarnating Neanderthal Brains
As we speak, neuroscientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology are literally building “miniature brains” genetically grafted with multiple versions of Neanderthal DNA. Using the bottom-up futuristic biotech known as CRISPR, these lentil-sized mini-brains will contain clusters of live neurons grown from stem cells, performing real brain activity.
Although they will be too small to involve any complex behavior like communication, it is expected that they will reveal differences in fundamental brain activity that Neanderthals may have had. In this way genetics is providing a kind of historical telescope for neuroscience, allowing it to peer into the workings of ancient brains. All this from DNA preserved in bone fragments for tens of thousands of years.
And if you think this is something as simple as a few cells in a petri dish…think again. The German researchers are planning to hook-up the Neanderthal mini-brains to robots, in order to observe behavioral outputs. Even more ambitious than the plot a futurist sci-fi movie, if successful the mind simply boggles at what will be possible in the coming years – Neanderthal robot house maids anyone?!
One of the biggest challenges neuroscientists face is that it is very difficult to study live brains. Even with brains recently deceased, neurons rapidly decompose in the hours after death, literally disintegrating. To tackle this challenge gung-ho neuroscientists at Yale University created a vanguard biotech called BrainEx. This high-tech support system was designed to keep brain cells alive in the way that hair and finger nails keep growing post-mortem.
Putting the tech to the test, the researchers used BrainEx to restore synaptic activity and circulation to a pig brain that had been dead for four hours. The brain had been removed from the pig and revived with an artificial blood supply using a proprietary mixture of protective, stabilizing and contrast agents. This took place just before the destruction of cellular and molecular functions started to take place. The image below shows the difference between a normally disintegrating pig brain 10 hours after death (left), and health looking cells on the revived pig brain (right).
Here comes the zombie part. Although the neurons were being kept alive and kicking, there was no higher-level functional activity in the brain circuits – so alive and dead at the same time. This flip from Frankenstein-like fiction to non-fiction, shows how neuroscience can change big ethical questions from the philosophical to the practical.
The biotech isn’t limited to zombie pigs though, in principle it will work with any kind of mammalian brains…including humans! The breakthrough has huge potential for improving our working knowledge of how our own minds operate. At the same time, it does looks unnervingly close to bringing the dead back to life.
On a more inspiring note, 2019 also saw the development of a computer system capable of translating brain activity into synthesized speech. It works by decoding the movements of muscles involved in speech via nerve impulses analyzed through electrophysiological activity. The results of an experiment at the at the University of California San Francisco showed that a prototype version could successfully interpret language through muscular nerve signals, if speaking slowly.
The researchers expect to improve the biotech to natural speech speeds, which are around 150 words per minute. Still, it is already quite remarkable considering that only brain signals are measured. Here is a video demonstrating how patterns of brain activity from the speaker’s somatosensory cortex, decoded into vocal tract movements, can then be interpreted as language.
Many scientists have tried to solve this problem before and failed. These researchers took a fresh approach by creating artificial intelligence models for building simulations of vocal tracts. In effect the AI then taught itself from a library of speech experiments data and trained its neural networks to be able to decode language from vocal movements. These developments could be important steps in simulating human biology in computer programs for research purposes.
From a medical perspective, many patients with throat or neurological conditions, such as strokes or paralysis, can completely lose their abilities for speech. This neurotechnology paired with a smartphone could allow the voiceless to talk normally in real-time, on an everyday basis, simply by thinking about speaking.
However, as the simulated voice only requires reading a small region of brain activity, and the speech could be sent to virtually any computer, then potentially anyone could silently and covertly communicate to anyone with a smartphone and headphones. As that system could be two-way, it represents a literal neurotech solution for human telepathy. The possibilities are endless.
If you enjoyed this blog, then checkout our other blogs on the top neuroscience of 2017 and 2018.