Archive for March, 2007

Weekly Brain Video: Magnetic Fields and The Inner Life of a Cell

Welcome to the latest installment of the weekly-if-I-have-time-and-feel-like-posting video.

Neither of these are directly related to the brain, but I found them stunning visually.

The first is a special type of fluid that reacts to magnetic fields:


This guide shows you how you can make your own Ferrofluids.

Thanks to Heide for this next video, called “The Inner Life Of a Cell”. A really fantastic animation of a cell’s biological processes.


Using light to control brain cells

This was posted in our forum recently, so I thought I would share it here as well.

Scientists at MIT have developed a way to control the electrical activity of neurons using pulsing light of different colors. Neurons are injected with a solution that causes them to become light sensitive. After doing this, simply shining yellow light on them causes them to lower their voltage and stop firing impulses.

In a similar way, neurons can be activated using blue light.

Researchers believe that this technique could be used in the future to treat epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease, though for the time being it will mostly be used to study brain circuitry.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

The work takes advantage of a gene called halorhodopsin found in a bacterium that grows in extremely salty water, such as the Great Salt Lake in Utah. In the bacterium, Natronomas pharaonis, the gene codes for a protein that serves as a light-activated chloride pump, which helps the bacterium make energy.

When neurons are engineered to express the halorhodopsin gene, the researchers can inhibit their activity by shining yellow light on them. Light activates the chloride pumps, which drive chloride ions into the neurons, lowering their voltage and silencing their firing.

Here is the article:

And another more technical write up:

Brain Rhythms and Consciousness, and how Alpha may play a new role

Gamma waves are commonly associated with consciousness in the brain. In fact, Gamma is often called the frequency band of “higher consciousness”, because it is present when people are awake and paying attention, it is reduced during sleep, and disappears altogether during loss of consciousness such as when under anesthesia.

Gamma waves

A variety of cognitive activities have been associated with gamma (40 hz in particular) – attention, memory, facial recognition, REM sleep and the comprehension of new concepts, to name a few. Most importantly, gamma is thought to be important to binding, or the ability of the brain to combine all input, external and internal, into a single unified conscious experience.

High amplitude gamma is often exhibited by experienced meditators. An interesting study by Antoine Lutz, of the National Academy of Sciences USA, analyzed 2 groups of people while meditating. The first group consisted of students trained for a single week in meditation, while the second group had at least 15 years of meditation training and experience. Under an EEG, the experienced meditators exhibited far greater amounts of gamma amplitude and phase synchrony, leading many to believe that long-term meditation actually increases conscious awareness. (For those who are interested, this was during what is called “compassion meditation”, or a state of compassion not directed at any particular source. I wonder if the same result would be derived with other traditional types of meditation?)

Gamma frequencies and phase synchrony have even been tested in robotics and neural networks, lending some intriguing evidence to the gamma-consciousness theory – but that is a story for a different post.

In contrast, Alpha frequencies are usually associated with an idle, quiet mind. Alpha frequencies are increased when you close your eyes, day dream, or when your attention starts to wander. Therefore, Alpha has not really been considered a candidate for active participation in attention and consciousness.

But new evidence presents a different theory. A recent study by Palva and Palva, of the University of Helsinki, suggests that Alpha plays a crucial role in consciousness by interacting with other frequency bands. Alpha rhythms seem to “lock” on to other frequencies by synchronizing with their phase, and this appears to happen particularly with stimuli that are consciously perceived – something normally associated with Gamma!

The study also found that the presence of alpha prior to visual stimuli correlated with better cognitive performance. Chris Chatham, of Developing Intelligence, concludes that this is because alpha “calms the waters” in the cortex prior to receiving a visual stimulus, so that it can be more easily detected.

In prior studies, a higher Peak Alpha Frequency has been associated with greater intelligence and a more mature brain. In other words, it is good sign to have a peak alpha frequency in the 10-12 hz range rather than 7-9 hz.

It is interesting to note that a faster brain (more Beta) doesn’t always mean you will be smarter, in the same way a deep, quiet brain dominated by low frequencies isn’t always what you find when you analyze meditation. The more we look at how frequencies interact with each other, the more it seems that all frequencies play some role in a wide variety of tasks.

Weekly Brain Video: Hypno-Surgery, Live surgery using only hypnosis as a pain killer

One of the oldest uses of hypnosis is in surgery. James Braid, the Scottish man who coined the term “Hypnosis”, was a neurosurgeon. Another surgeon, James Esdaile, performed hundreds of operations in the mid 19th century using nothing but the power of suggestion as a pain killer (at the time, what he did was called “Mesmerism”).

This video records a live surgical procedure using no anesthetics whatsoever. It also goes into the fascinating history of anaesthesia, surgery and hypnosis, as well as interviewing many others who have had similar operations.


The Neurobiology of Morality

“Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.

Biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality.”

I’ve used this blog-space to talk about the neurology of free choice, politics, creativity and other topics that I find interesting. Yesterday a fascinating article appeared in the New York Times about the biology of Morality that I thought I would share.

Traditionally, morality has been the heavily guarded dominion of theologians and philosophers. It is also thought by most people to be a uniquely human quality. Not so, according to this article. After studying primates it seems we share with them the amazing gift of empathy, and so the place of morality in the realm of religion and philosophy could be shifting to a more biological perspective.

Here is another excerpt:

“Social living requires empathy, which is especially evident in chimpanzees, as well as ways of bringing internal hostilities to an end. Every species of ape and monkey has its own protocol for reconciliation after fights, Dr. de Waal has found. If two males fail to make up, female chimpanzees will often bring the rivals together, as if sensing that discord makes their community worse off and more vulnerable to attack by neighbors. Or they will head off a fight by taking stones out of the males’ hands.

Dr. de Waal believes that these actions are undertaken for the greater good of the community, as distinct from person-to-person relationships, and are a significant precursor of morality in human societies.”

The deeper you dive into it, the more mysterious and ambiguous the subject of Morality becomes. Even looking at it through the lens of biology, there are many unanswered questions. For example, monkeys will kill those who act or look different than them – something they are genetically programmed to do, for the better of the group – yet still something we as humans would find horrifying and certainly not moral.

The NYT article hinted at a part of the brain dedicated to morality, similar to the neural areas of Broca and Wernicke for language. But I wonder what triggers this area. What stimulus triggers the “moral consciousness” in our brains. For years the phenomenon of road rage has been studied. In the enclosed confines of a car, morality seems to deteriorate significantly, allowing people to behave in a way that they would never do were they face to face with someone. More recently, the decline of online etiquette is becoming a huge problem. Behind a screen, without a human face in front of you, seeing their emotions, seeing how they react to what you are saying to them – all of this leads to a sharp decline in moral behavior. Conversely, it has been proven that theft can be reduced by putting up posters of human eyes (you know, the kind of pictures that seem as though they are always looking at you no matter where you are in the room).

Many of you also may have heard of the famous Milgram Experiment, which studied the effects of authority on morality. It seems that if there is an evolutionary system for morality, it can break down or become transferred to a person of higher social authority.

Here is a link to the NYT article:


Also, here is an interesting morality game you might enjoy:

– Adam

Thoughts on the emerging “Brain Fitness” movement and Brainwave Entrainment for seniors

There is a rapidly growing interest in brain fitness today. The aging baby boomer generation is feeling the effects of time, and many are perhaps interested in repairing the damage made by overindulgence in the 60’s. 😉 Research over the past few decades has indicated strong links between an active brain and defense against age-related mental deterioration, including the ability to stave off diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The industry is seeing a boom of new companies, and a lot of related research appears to be in the works. A new study from the University of California-Irvine analyzed the ability of regular mental workouts to delay the progress of Alzheimer’s in hundreds of mice (I know what you’re thinking: how do you give a rat a mental workout?! – I was hoping it would be something innovative, but apparently they just used the traditional rat maze). Another study funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), analyzed the effect of a mere 10 sessions of cognitive skills training on the elderly, showing significant increases in the ability to succeed in daily tasks such as driving and managing finances. The cognitive improvements held for nearly a year, after only 10 initial sessions! Very promising.

Because of this large emerging market for cognitive improvements, we’re seeing a lot of new faces pop up in the industry. Sharp BrainsRocky Mountain Learning, Posit Science and Vigorous Mind all offer affordable software for brain exercise. Happy Neuron and My Brain Trainer offer online-based “mind gyms” and brain fitness advice. There are probably many more I’m not aware of yet. Many are boasting studies with very promising results, such as a study on Happy Neuron that showed an increase in brain activity confirmed by PET scans. Many of these companies also have Neuroscientists in advisory positions, or on staff like we do.

These programs use puzzles, games and brain teasers to focus the mind on tasks involving memory, attention or complex use of language. Some also integrate nutritional advice and even regular meditation into the regimen, such as the Happy Neuron mentioned above.

The interest in brain fitness is not just on the fringe, or relegated to concerned baby boomers. Some large, established companies are investing in this, and marketing to all ages. Notably, Nintendo recently released a game called “Brain Age”, meant to exercise and sharpen the mind in a fun, entertaining way. You can find this title today in nearly every gaming store.

Of course I am hoping that all this interest in puzzles and games is going to carry over to Neurofeedback and Brainwave Entrainment (BWE), which have also shown great promise with age-related mental problems, as much as they have with ADD. In 1998 Thomas Budzynski, Ph.D. used both Neurofeedback and BWE to vastly improve the cognitive function of a 75 year old man. In 2001, Budzynski and Tang successfully treated 31 seniors by randomly stimulating frequencies ranging from 9-22 hz over about 33 sessions. In a 2004 study by Berg and Siever, 18 hz was stimulated in the left hemisphere and 10 hz in the right, resulting in significant improvements in geriatric depression and balance. Our own Dr. Huang has a great interest in cognitive decline and aging, having focused much of her early neuroscience work on related subjects. You can find a session designed for seniors in our Neuro-Programmer product.

Baby boomers are not just seeking out mental exercise either. American Sports Data reports that Gym memberships for people over 55 have seen a surge of 33%, while memberships among the younger crowd has seen nearly no growth over the same time period. Yoga and Tai Chi have grown 118%, cycling by 66%, elliptical training by 306% – the list goes on and on. The importance of exercise to mental health should not be underestimated. In fact there is some controversy over whether “brain fitness” games offer more mental benefits than a regular physical fitness routine, although there seems to be very little argument that combining both physical and mental fitness into any lifestyle will result in dramatic enhancement of the brain’s capabilities.

Speaking of games and exercise, as the “Nintendo generation” loses its high metabolism, many companies are working to combine gaming with physical exercise as well. I will admit that I own a Game Bike and couldn’t live without it. I have heard that a game-based tread mill is also in the works.

If you’re interested, here is a free online guide to maintaining brain fitness:


New glasses, and Light/Sound Synergizers are back in stock

Just a brief update on our product accessories:

– Light / Sound Synergizers are back in stock. They are so popular we didn’t order quite enough last time, and sold out for a few months. But they are back up and available here:

– We’ve also added the latest variation on the fantastic 12-LED glasses I described at the bottom of this post. You can find a full description on this page:



Weekly Brain Video: Live EEG meditation demonstration

Live EEG recording of “Tsonhakapa” Tibetan meditation: 


New brain cells in adults and the “miraculous” ability of the brain to adapt

The rules that we think govern the brain are as fickle and malleable as the brain itself. As our ability to observe the brain in action increases, new discoveries shed light on how so-called brain miracles are possible.

Most people view the brain as unchanging, like a computer that can never be upgraded or replaced. This is not surprising since we have all been taught from an early age that the brain does not produce new cells – what you are born with is what you will have when you die, provided you don’t waste your cells by drinking alcohol or sneezing too often 🙂

Recoveries from strokes and severe head injuries are often labeled as miracles. If you have been keeping up on the news lately, you might have heard about journalist Bob Woodruff, who was injured while reporting in Iraq. One of the doctors commented “You have no business speaking right now”, referring to Woodruff’s seemingly miraculous recovery.

The reason these miracles are possible is because the brain DOES produce new cells. In fact, it produces them all the time, as long as you live. There will never be a time in your life when your mind is not ready to change or grow.

The Scientific American blog “Mind Matters” recently explored this topic:

Here is an excerpt:

Neurogenesis, as this neuron creation is known, has ignited interest in all kinds of latent stem cells in the adult brain, and it comes as an enormous relief to aging baby boomers mourning neurons lost during overexuberant college days. The latest news even shows that the crop of new neurons increases after physical exercise! What a relief to know that you can repent and repair simply by jogging around the block if you wanted to.

The Plasticity of the brain, or it’s ability to “rewire” itself, has also been studied for some time. When a part of the brain is injured, other parts of the brain can compensate. One amazing example of this is the case of Sarah Scantlin who was in a vegetative state for 20 years before she miraculously began to speak in 2005.

One very intriguing (and controversial) example of brain plasticity is an experiment involving monkeys and joysticks. The brains of the monkeys were wired up and recorded as they used a joystick to control a virtual display. Eventually, the monkeys realized that they didn’t even need to use the joystick. The brain had literally rewired itself to control their virtual arm as well as the real one! This is called a Brain Machine Interface, and you can see this particular experiment in action by viewing the video I posted here.


An example of this in humans would be the use of the tongue’s nerves to transfer visual information, giving sight to the visually impaired. The tongue is actually one of the best information pathways to the brain. Here is an article on this neurotechnology breakthrough: