Neuroscience methods and cool stuff you can do with it: Part Two.

Last time we talked about how to use fMRI for mind reading and what eye-tracking has to do with virtual reality; but what about methods enabling brainwave-controlled machines, you might ask? What about techniques allowing us to understand mental diseases on molecular level? (or you might not ask but I’m gonna talk about it anyway).

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Neuroscience methods and cool stuff you can do with it: Part One.

Neuroscientific methods are kind of unsung heroes of scientific journalism. Every now and then media flashes with buzzwords like “brain-controlled machines” and “mind reading” (“Scientists finally can READ your DIRTY THOUGHTS!!11”); but how exactly is it done? And while we’re at that, which methods are behind the mind-boggling futuristic projects like controlling virtual reality with just your eyes or determining whether a suspect was really present at the crime scene? Questions upon questions! (hint: you will find answers in this post).

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Lighting up the brain.

A little preamble: This week I wrote a guest post for another neuroscience blog. I talked about one of my favorite topics: optogenetics, the technique to control your neurons by shining a laser on them. Sounds like something Iron Man would do -- but is actually done by scientists in labs all over the world. Read on and enjoy!

In 1979, Nobel laureate Francis Crick mused about how wonderful it would be to find a way to control just one type of brain cells while leaving others untouched1. Twenty years later, seeing all the shortcomings of electrophysiology (low precision in targeting cells) and pharmacological manipulations (too slow in comparison to real neurotransmission), he went one step further and suggested that light might be the answer we’ve been looking for. The idea of switching neurons on and off like lightbulbs sounded both crazy and appealing, yet no one knew how to approach it. It took another six years for things to get real. Optogenetics was on its way.

Neuroplasticity: Remodel your brain!

Our brain is extraordinarily plastic. Not in the Tupperware and Barbie doll kind of way -- in the neuroscience field plasticity means the amazing ability of our brains to change and to adapt to pretty much everything that happens to us. There were times when scientists believed that once you’re out of the sweet childhood years your brain is like a dried clay pot, stuck in one form only. Yet tons of research has proved them wrong -- the brain turned out to be much more like play-doh, really. These changes can occur on very different scales: From a single neuron changing its connection to a whole cortical area shrinking or getting larger. There is plenty of factors altering the way your brain is wired including injury and stroke, as well as less tragic ones such as meditation, exercise or having piano lessons every day. As with everything in life, plasticity has two sides -- A side where your brain can reorganise itself during the after-stroke rehabilitation and the (dark) side where you are plagued by phantom pain after losing a limb. So let’s see how and what and why it all happens.

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Brain 101: Get to know your lord and master.

I'm gonna make a bold claim and say that you are your brain. Everything you think, feel and experience happens in and is possible solely because of your brain. Your consciousness arises there, your love resides there, your annoyance at the neighbour's dog barking in the night is also situated there (although many philosophers of mind would fight me on that reductionist view). So learning some basic things about our Lord Commander of the Mind Watch (sorry) doesn't seem like a bad idea to me. 

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Neuroscience news block! June 22th

It is this time of the month again: Time to overview the cool stuff neuroscience discovered in the last two (okay, almost three) weeks! On the agenda today:  How scientists can read your mind, why you better should clean up your work desk right about now, new victories in the fight against Alzheimer's and some encouragement for your scribblings on the old newspapers or writing Harry Potter fan fiction in your secret notebook.  

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