Despite a century of research, memory encoding in the brain has remained mysterious. Neuronal synaptic connection strengths are involved, but synaptic components are short-lived while memories last lifetimes. This suggests synaptic information is encoded and hard-wired at a deeper, finer-grained molecular scale.
In an article in the March 8 issue of the journal PLoS Computational Biology, physicists Travis Craddock and Jack Tuszynski of the University of Alberta, and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff of the University of Arizona demonstrate a plausible mechanism for encoding synaptic memory in microtubules, major components of the structural cytoskeleton within neurons.
Microtubules are cylindrical hexagonal lattice polymers of the protein tubulin, comprising 15 percent of total brain protein. Microtubules define neuronal architecture, regulate synapses, and are suggested to process information via interactive bit-like states of tubulin. But any semblance of a common code connecting microtubules to synaptic activity has been missing. Until now.
› Neuroscientists to Top Brass: Mess With Minds... Carefully | Danger Room
Note: This will make a lot more sense if you read this short post first.
UK - A report published today by the Royal Society tackles the divisive issue of the potential uses of neuroscience research by the military or security forces — whether to improve the performance of our troops, to “diminish” the performance of the enemy or, perhaps most controversially, in law enforcement.
[Rod Flowers, chairman of the working group that produced the paper and Professor of Biochemical Pharmacology at Queen Mary University of London] argues that neuroscientists need to be aware of the potential dual usage of their research at an early stage of their training. “The neuroscientists conducting this research also need to be aware that knowledge and technologies used for beneficial purposes can also be misused for harmful purposes.”
Key will be communication between scientists and those in power. The paper says: “The UK government…should improve links with industry and academia to scope for significant future trends and threats posed by the applications of neuroscience.” The authors also call for the bodies such as the World Medical Association to study “the legal and ethical implications of biophysical degradation technologies (such as directed energy weapons) targeted at the central nervous system”.
Ethical issues aside, Flower questions whether the resources being used for neuroscience research for potential military applications might not be better deploted elsewhere: “The application of neuroscience research in the development of enhancement and degradation technologies for military and law enforcement use raises significant ethical considerations. Support for this type of research is potentially diverting funding and resources away from other important social applications such as the treatment of neurological impairment, disease and psychiatric illness. This is why it should be subject to ethical review and as transparent as possible.”
› Consciousness: The Black Hole of Neuroscience
The simplest description of a black hole is a region of space-time from which no light is reflected and nothing escapes. The simplest description of consciousness is a mind that absorbs many things and attends to a few of them. Neither of these concepts can be captured quantitatively. Together they suggest the appealing possibility that endlessness surrounds us and infinity is within.
But our inability to grasp the immaterial means we’re stuck making inferences, free-associating, if we want any insight into the unknown. Which is why we talk obscurely and metaphorically about “pinning down” perception and “hunting for dark matter” (possibly a sort of primordial black hole). The existence of black holes was first hypothesized a decade after Einstein laid the theoretical groundwork for them in the theory of relativity, and the phrase “black hole” was not coined until 1968.
Likewise, consciousness is still such an elusive concept that, in spite of the recent invention of functional imaging - which has allowed scientists to visualize the different areas of the brain - we may not understand it any better now than we ever have before. “We approach [consciousness] now perhaps differently than we have in the past with our new tools,” says neuroscientist Joy Hirsch.
“The questions [we ask] have become a little bit more sophisticated and we’ve become more sophisticated in how we ask the question,” she adds - but we’re still far from being able to explain how the regions of the brain interact to produce thought, dreams, and self-awareness. “In terms of understanding, the awareness that comes from binding remote activities of the brain together, still remains what philosophers call, ‘The hard problem.’”