- (Quotes here)
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The quest to build a brain in the lab
“I’m a neuroengineer, and one of my goals is building brains.”
Prof Steven Potter was disarmingly understated as he introduced himself.
It’s not that tissue engineering is unusual. Nor even that doing it with neural cells should be an issue.
If heart cells or skin cells can be reprogrammed, why not neurons?
Yet Steven Potter, professor in the department of biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, is insistent that words like “brain” and “mind” belong to his endeavour.
“One of the ways in which I differ from a lot of neuroscientists is to believe that there’s a spectrum of minds. There isn’t some point where the mind suddenly is there,” he said.
“I think that there is a different amount of mind in different animals. And even in you, whether you’ve had your coffee or not, whether you’re asleep or awake.
“There are always different levels of how much mind you have. So you could carry it all the way down to the cultured network, there is still some sort of proto-mind in there.”
The key tool in the Potter lab is the “multi-electrode array”, an upgraded version of the traditional Petri dish used in microbiology labs around the world, improved by the addition of an array of electrical contacts the researchers can use to “listen” in to the electrical activity of the neural cells.
Another researcher likens the device to an EEG, the electroencephalogram that clinicians use to check a patient’s brain activity.
The neural cultures themselves comprise a few tens of thousands of cells - a tiny fraction of the hundred billion or so that make up a human brain - “a little smear of brain” in the words of graduate student Michelle Kuykendal in the Potter lab.
You can’t expect much from them, Steve Potter concedes. “But we’re sure that [one of these cultures] has a lot of complex behaviour - even with 10,000 neurons. There are some insects, simpler animals, that have approximately the number of cells we have in our culture dishes,” he said.
When the neural cells are first plated on to the arrays, they are capable of nothing. The process of preparing them from pre-existing neural tissue, taken from rats, resets the neurons, so they retain none of the structure that had previously grown.
Down a microscope, using time-lapse photography, one can watch as the neurons sprout tendrils called axons, which reach out to make contact with other neurons.
They look like they are feeling their way blindly, but neurons also release chemical signals that help guide the extensions. As more and more axons make connections - called synapses - the whole culture starts to come electrically to life.
“It’s like a great mesh, a spider’s web of interconnectivity,” explains Ben Whalley, of Reading University, whose experiments start with cultures grown from human stem cells. “It’s not a static system. And that’s why you have to monitor these things so very rapidly.”
The same process happens in our own infant minds. In fact, it happens all the time - the reconfiguration of the pattern of synapses is what learning and memory are all about.
Talk to me
But in these cultures, the researchers can watch it happen, and intervene. Both Potter and Whalley use the electrodes to talk to the cells, as well as to listen.
“We can watch how specific electrical inputs cause certain connections to be strengthened,” says Dr Potter. “We can see the activity flowing in the circuit, we can try to strengthen certain circuits, and to weaken other circuits by the electrical stimulation we give them.”
To the extent that these cultures have “minds of their own”, there’s a limit to how much direction they can be given, Dr Whalley suspects.
“If you introduce your little bit of electrical stimulation, which might last two or three minutes, and then your culture goes back into its incubator, there’s all sorts of chatter going on across the whole of that network that may not have a great deal to do with that little intervention that you did.”
Immy Smith, postdoctoral assistant in Ben Whalley’s lab, admits the thought of those cells firing away inside the incubator is a little disturbing.
“While we’re not looking, I’m sure they’re carrying on being neurons, basically, doing what they do,” Dr Smith said.
“And it’s a strange thing to think about when you’re growing human cell cultures because you do kind of wonder: what are you doing in there, what are you thinking?”
Dr Potter suspects that locked away, the cultures could be suffering - he compares it to sensory deprivation. Often they lapse into bursts of excessive electrical activity he likens to epileptic fits.
“Every neuron is expecting signals to come into it. If it doesn’t get those, it keeps turning up the gain, turns up the volume on its synapses to try to amplify whatever noise might be there. And eventually, you have so many cells that have such twitchy synapses that noise passes through the network like wildfire.”
At Reading University, Dr Whalley has teamed up with cyberneticist Slawomir Nasuto to establish a Brain Embodiment Laboratory, where cultures will be connected to robots - or at least simulations of robots - so that their outputs lead to actions, and their inputs are real signals.
Dr Whalley has already shown that a small, wheeled robot equipped with proximity sensors can learn over a few days to avoid the walls of its wooden pen. It looks clever, though he warns: “I don’t want to imply too much intelligence from it!”
And Prof Potter’s lab has collaborated with artists at the University of Western Australia to create a robotic art installation, Silent Barrage, which can be controlled over the internet by a neuronal culture.
“It was the world’s largest cyborg,” explained Georgia Tech’s Riley Zeller-Townson, “because we had the body on one side of the planet, and the brain on the other.”
Interested as much in the viewer’s perception of the installation as the technical functioning of the robot, Dr Zeller-Townson suggested the collaboration threw up some unsettling questions.
“A neural system as part of a biological entity has, we suppose, its own interests - it wants to stay alive. But once we’ve removed it from the body, those interests seem to go away,” he explained.
“It no longer has a body to keep alive, so what interests could be there? What are the properties of the neural system itself that might dictate those interests - does it have a mind, does it have experiences?”
But at the Brain Embodiment Lab, the idea is to look much more closely at the practical issue of learning in cell cultures.
“We would like to look at some more complicated robots which could manipulate objects,” Prof Nasuto explained. “So we’ll provide the ability to grasp something, turn it around perhaps, bring it closer and at the same time have some sort of rudimentary visual system.”
The idea is to “close the loop” - have neural systems with feedbacks, so that the robot can compare the task it has planned with what it is actually achieving, in the same way as a child might learn by trial and error to reach and grasp.
But all the while, the researchers can watch the electrical activity in the culture, and watch the network shape and reshape itself down a microscope.
Reward chemicals, like dopamine, could be added to reinforce the achievement when the robot succeeds in a task. Dr Potter suggested that a culture that controls a dopamine delivery system directly could in some ways mimic addiction - it might learn to give itself chemical highs on demand.
But perhaps the most astonishing closed loop would be self-awareness, he said.
“Self-awareness is not a magical spark that human neurons have in them; it arises thanks to specific circuits that are monitoring what is going on in the human brain. Our cultures do not have that perception at the moment, but we could put it in.
“Our computer programme could monitor activity patterns and send the information back as a particular stimulation through the electrodes. That could be like their self-consciousness circuits. It would be a very rudimentary self-consciousness, but that is all it would take.”
It may seem a remote possibility. But already these cultures force us to accept the truth that no matter how mysterious and instinctive thinking feels, it all comes down to electrical and chemical signals flashing across the three pounds of matter between our ears.
“Most people that you talk to who study anything to do with the brain are in it for the mystery,” said Georgia Tech graduate student Michelle Kuykendal.
“But the beauty is we’ve extracted these brains and we’re growing them to cut down on some of that mystery, so that we have a lot more control, so we can better understand exactly what’s happening in it.”
Image 1: By building a brain from the ground up, researchers hope to learn more about what makes us tick.
Image 2: Ben Whalley, from Reading University, has used a blob of brain cells to control a robot.
Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud
Says that America is for him a maximum-security prison
Whose walls are made of RadioShacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes
Where you can’t tell the show from the commercials,
And as I consider how to express how full of shit I think he is,
He says that even when he’s driving to the mall in his Isuzu
Trooper with a gang of his friends, letting rap music pour over them
Like a boiling Jacuzzi full of ballpeen hammers, even then he feels
Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds
Of the thick satin quilt of America
And I wonder if this is a legitimate category of pain,
or whether he is just spin doctoring a better grade,
And then I remember that when I stabbed my father in the dream last night,
It was not blood but money
That gushed out of him, bright green hundred-dollar bills
Spilling from his wounds, and—this is the weird part—,
He gasped “Thank god—those Ben Franklins were
Clogging up my heart—
And so I perish happily,
Freed from that which kept me from my liberty”—
Which was when I knew it was a dream, since my dad
Would never speak in rhymed couplets,
And I look at the student with his acne and cell phone and phony ghetto clothes
And I think, “I am asleep in America too,
And I don’t know how to wake myself either,”
And I remember what Marx said near the end of his life:
“I was listening to the cries of the past,
When I should have been listening to the cries of the future.”
But how could he have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable
Or what kind of nightmare it might be
When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you
And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river
Even while others are drowning underneath you
And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters
And yet it seems to be your own hand
Which turns the volume higher?
- “America,” by Tony Hoagland (via compassing)
“It’s taboo to admit that you’re lonely. You can make jokes about it, of course. You can tell people that you spend most of your time with Netflix or that you haven’t left the house today and you might not even go outside tomorrow. Ha ha, funny. But rarely do you ever tell people about the true depths of your loneliness, about how you feel more and more alienated from your friends each passing day and you’re not sure how to fix it. It seems like everyone is just better at living than you are.
A part of you knew this was going to happen. Growing up, you just had this feeling that you wouldn’t transition well to adult life, that you’d fall right through the cracks. And look at you now. La di da, it’s happening.
Your mother, your father, your grandparents: they all look at you like you’re some prized jewel and they tell you over and over again just how lucky you are to be young and have your whole life ahead of you. “Getting old ain’t for sissies,” your father tells you wearily.
You wish they’d stop saying these things to you because all it does is fill you with guilt and panic. All it does is remind you of how much you’re not taking advantage of your youth.
You want to kiss all kinds of different people, you want to wake up in a stranger’s bed maybe once or twice just to see if it feels good to feel nothing, you want to have a group of friends that feels like a tribe, a bonafide family. You want to go from one place to the next constantly and have your weekends feel like one long epic day. You want to dance to stupid music in your stupid room and have a nice job that doesn’t get in the way of living your life too much. You want to be less scared, less anxious, and more willing. Because if you’re closed off now, you can only imagine what you’ll be like later.
Every day you vow to change some aspect of your life and every day you fail. At this point, you’re starting to question your own power as a human being. As of right now, your fears have you beat. They’re the ones that are holding your twenties hostage.
Stop thinking that everyone is having more sex than you, that everyone has more friends than you, that everyone out is having more fun than you. Not because it’s not true (it might be!) but because that kind of thinking leaves you frozen. You’ve already spent enough time feeling like you’re stuck, like you’re watching your life fall through you like a fast dissolve and you’re unable to hold on to anything.
I don’t know if you ever get better. I don’t know if a person can just wake up one day and decide to be an active participant in their life. I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that people get better each and every day but that’s not really true. People get worse and it’s their stories that end up getting forgotten because we can’t stand an unhappy ending. The sick have to get better. Our normalcy depends upon it.
You have to value yourself. You have to want great things for your life. This sort of shit doesn’t happen overnight but it can and will happen if you want it.
Do you want it bad enough? Does the fear of being filled with regret in your thirties trump your fear of living today?
We shall see.”"
You’re Not Making The Most Of Your 20s by Ryan O’Connell
in australia, we pronounce ‘gif’ as ‘OI MATE THIS FUCKIN PICTURE IS MOVIN I AM SO FUCKIN FRIED’