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Behavioral Science, Big data, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

What were you just looking at? Oh, wait, never mind – your brain’s signaling pattern just told me

What were you just looking at? Oh, wait, never mind - your brain's signaling pattern just told me

headI’ve blogged previously (here, here and here) about scientific developments that could be construed, to some degree, as advancing the art of mind-reading.

And now, brain scientists have devised an algorithm that spontaneously decodes human conscious thought at the speed of experience.

Well, let me qualify that a bit: In an experimental study published in PLOS Computational Biology, an algorithm assessing real-time streams of brain-activity data was able to tell with a very high rate of accuracy whether, less than half a second earlier, a person had been looking at an image of a house, an image of a face or neither.

Stanford neurosurgical resident Kai Miller, MD, PhD, along with colleagues at Stanford, the University of Washington and the Wadsworth Institute in Albany, NY, got these results by working with seven volunteer patients who had recurring epileptic seizures. These volunteers’ brain surfaces had already been temporarily (and, let us emphasize, painlessly) exposed, and electrode grids and strips had been placed over various areas of their brain surfaces. This was part of an exacting medical procedure performed so that their cerebral activity could be meticulously monitored in an effort to locate the seizures’ precise points of origin within each patient’s brain.

In the study, the volunteers were shown images (flashed on a monitor stationed near their bedside) of houses, faces or nothing at all. From all those electrodes emanated two separate streams of data – one recording synchronized brain-cell activity, and another recording statistically random brain-cell activity – which the algorithm, designed by the researchers, combined and parsed.

The result: The algorithm could predict whether the subject had been viewing a face, house, or neither at any given millisecond. Specifically, the researchers were able to ascertain whether a “house” or “face” image or no image at all had been presented to an experimental subject roughly 400 milliseconds earlier (that’s the time it takes the brain to process the image), plus or minus 20 milliseconds. The algorithm correctly nailed 96 percent of all images shown in the experiment. Moreover, it made very few lousy guesses: only one in 25 were rotten calls.

“Although this particular experiment involved only a limited set of image types, we hope the technique will someday contribute to the care of patents who’ve suffered neurological imagery,” Miller told me.

Admittedly, that kind of guesswork gets tougher as you add more viewing possibilities – for instance, “tool” or “animal” images. So this is still what scientists call an “early days” finding: We’re not exactly at the point where, come the day after tomorrow, you’re walking down the street, you randomly daydream about a fish for an eighth of a second, and suddenly a giant billboard in front of you starts flashing an ad for smoked salmon.

Not yet.

Previously: Mind-reading in real life: Study shows it can be done (but they’ll have to catch you first), A one-minute mind-reading machine? Brain-scan results distinguish mental states and From phrenology to neuroimaging: New finding bolsters theory about how brain operates
Photo by Kai Miller, Stanford University

Autoimmune Disease, Immunology, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

New perspective: Potential multiple sclerosis drug is actually old (and safe and cheap)

New perspective: Potential multiple sclerosis drug is actually old (and safe and cheap)

new perspectiveAbout 400,000 people in the United States are affected by multiple sclerosis (often referred to by the acronym MS), an autoimmune disorder in which rogue immune cells attack the insulating layer surrounding many nerve cells in the central nervous system.  Some 200 new cases are diagnosed every week in the U.S.

I wrote a while back about a study by Paul Bollyky, MD, PhD, showing that blocking production of a naturally made substance in the body could potentially protect against type 1 diabetes, another autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the pancreas’s insulin-producing cells (the only place where insulin is made). It now appears possible that the same drug Bollyky’s team used to achieve that benefit may also be beneficial in MS.

The substance in question — hyaluronan, a hefty, complex carbohydrate substance — is usually present at trace concentrations in the extracellular matrix that pervades all tissues and, among other things, helps glue those tissues’ constituent cells together. Intriguingly, hyaluronan levels spike markedly at the site of an injury. If you twist your ankle or stub your toe, the swelling you see afterwards is mainly due to hyaluronan, which is prone to soaking up water. That causes fluid buildup, aka swelling,  in the injured region — a cardinal feature of inflammation, along with heat, redness and pain.

In a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bollyky and his colleagues show that hyaluronan also abounds in sites of autoimmune attack in MS patients’ brains after they induced a mousie version of MS in laboratory mice. They confirmed that hyaluronan likewise accumulates near the mice’s MS lesions. And they showed that blocking new hyaluronan synthesis in the mice before symptoms developed prevented many of the mice from succumbing to MS and delayed disease onset and severity in those who did get it, while — importantly — blocking hyaluronan synthesis after symptoms developed alleviated those symptoms.

Perhaps most interesting of all: The drug they used to do that is already on the market for other indications.

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Neuroscience, Patient Care, Stanford News, Videos

Stanford Neuroscience Health Center opens to patients today

Stanford Neuroscience Health Center opens to patients today

Today, the Stanford Neuroscience Health Center officially opened its doors. Every part of the five-story, 92,000-square-feet building was designed with patients in mind.

As neurologist Jeffrey Dunn, MD, explains in the video above: “The medical architecture of the last generation placed the physician at the center of things. This building flips that. It puts the patient at the center of all things we do.”

Enjoy the tour.

Previously: Celebrating the new Stanford Neuroscience Health Center and Building for collaboration spurs innovative science

Addiction, Neuroscience, Stanford News

Brain connection influences gambling decisions

Brain connection influences gambling decisions

shutterstock_68220094Let’s say you had $10 and could place a bet with even odds to win or lose $3. Would you take it? What if you had a really good chance of winning a little and a low chance of losing a lot? Or a low chance of a big win with a higher chance of a small loss?

The choices you make in each those scenarios appear to come down to a tract of neurons in your brain. If that neuronal pathway has a lot of fatty insulation – an indication of a strong connection — you’ll make less risky decisions. A less insulated pathway makes it more likely that you will take a bigger risk.

That’s what psychology professor Brian Knutson, PhD, found when he used a relatively new technique to investigate the relationship between two brain regions known as the anterior insula and nucleus accumbens.

“Activity in one brain region appears to indicate ‘Uh oh, I might lose money,’ but in another seems to indicate ‘Oh yay, I could win something,’” Knutson told me.

The tract of neurons Knutson and his team discovered appears to provide a pathway for the more cautious region to dampen the enthusiasm of excitable region.

In my story about the work, I wrote about Knutson’s next steps:

Knutson said that finding the connection between the two regions won’t immediately lead to new interventions for people with gambling problems or other issues relating to risky choices, but it does provide a starting point for studying interventions.

“Now we can start asking interesting questions about impulse control and gambling,” Knutson said. “For example, does the connection change over the course of therapy?”

Previously: Genetics may influence financial risk-taking and Using neuroeconomics to understand how aging affects financial decisions
Photo by Shutterstock

Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Hyperactivity in brain’s “self-control” center may stifle the pleasure-seeking urge

Hyperactivity in brain's "self-control" center may stifle the pleasure-seeking urge

no fun signDiagnosing depression in a rodent is no mean feat. If you ask a rat how it’s feeling, it won’t tell you. But with a little ingenuity you can test that rat’s willingness to expend some energy in the quest for a pleasurable outcome.

And with the right technology, you can manipulate the rat’s so-called reward circuitry – a network of brain areas collectively responsible for enjoyment – and see what happens. That provides strong clues about how the reward circuitry works in us people, because rats’ reward circuitry looks and functions very much like ours.

Practiced wisely, the pursuit of happiness ennobled by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence is a successful species-survival strategy. It gets us to do more of exactly the kinds of things that keep us alive and result in our having more offspring: food-seeking and ingestion, hunting and hoarding, selecting a mate and, last but not least, actually mating.

The reward circuitry includes nerve bundles that run from deep inside the brain to numerous spots including, for example, the nucleus accumbens (associated with pleasure) and the more recently evolved prefrontal cortex, an executive-control center that guides our planning and decision-making, focuses our attention and generally keeps us organized. It’s also the case that nerve bundles convey signals in the opposite direction, from the prefrontal cortex to various components of the reward circuitry.

The medial prefrontal cortex, with its portfolio of high-level “executive function” activities, plays its own obvious role in survival. After all, what if all we did was seek momentary pleasures, ignoring our top-down control center’s “hey, cool it!” or “skip dessert!” or “get back to work!” commands? (When the reward circuitry escapes from this kind of control, the result can be addictive behavior.)

But Stanford neuroscientist and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, in a study conducted with help from numerous other Stanford researchers and recently published in Science, has shown in rats that hyperactivity in the medial prefrontal cortex reduces signaling between key components of the reward circuitry and impairs rats’ reward-seeking behavior. In humans, this dulling of the drive to pursue pleasure, known as anhedonia, is seen in a number of psychiatric conditions including, notably, depression.

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Aging, Chronic Disease, Neuroscience, Patient Care, Research, Stanford News, Stroke

Stanford study: Commonly used sleeping pill may boost stroke recovery

Stanford study: Commonly used sleeping pill may boost stroke recovery

sleeping pillIf what works in mice works in people, a widely popular sleeping pill could someday start seeing action as an aid to stroke recovery, according to a study carried out by Stanford neuroscientists Gary Steinberg, MD, PhD, and Tonya Bliss, PhD, and published in Brain.

Count to 40. Chances are that sometime between when you start and when you finish, someone in the United States will experience a stroke. That’s how common they are: about 800,000 strokes every year in the U.S., and – far from being confined to rich countries – around 35 million worldwide.

But that’s just the number of new strokes annually. Unfortunately, a stroke isn’t something you just get and then get over. Few people fully recover, leaving some 5.4 million Americans currently saddled with stroke-caused disabilities.

The main way for anyone incurring a stroke to minimize its damage is to get to a treatment center right away. As I wrote in a news release summarizing the study’s findings:

A stroke’s initial damage, which arises when the blood supply to part of the brain is blocked, occurs within the first several hours. Drugs and mechanical devices for clearing the blockage are available, but to be effective they must be initiated within several hours of the stroke’s onset. As a result, fewer than 10 percent of stroke patients benefit from them.

I repeat: Get to a treatment center right away. Don’t wait “to see if it blows over.” But since even in the best-case scenario many stroke sufferers will sustain some brain damage, the next best thing is a treatment that could help undo that damage – if only there were one.

Sad to say, no effective treatments during the recovery phase exist other than physical therapy, which has been shown to be only marginally successful. So anything that could enhance patients’ recovery during the  three- to six-month post-stroke period when 90 percent of whatever recovery a patient’s going to experience occurs, as a rule, would be a home run.

In their study, Steinberg, Bliss and their colleagues swung for the fences. They induced strokes in animal models, then waited for a few days to make sure that what they planned to do next, if it helped, was working during the recovery phase rather than the rush-rush damage-control phase.

Then they gave some of the mice the FDA-approved insomnia drug zolpidem (better known by the trade name Ambien) and others a control solution that did not contain the drug. Over the next month, they compared the mice’s performance on various tests of sensory and motor-coordination ability. By several measures, the zolpidem-treated mice were back at their pre-stroke levels within a few days of treatment; the control mice took the entire month. (Unlike humans, mice do eventually recover from strokes even when untreated.)

Mice are mice, and humans are humans. But Zolpidem’s already-on-the-market status greatly improves the prospects for clinical trials of the drug. And wouldn’t it be ironic if faculties slumbering under a stroke’s spell could be awakened by a pill designed to put us asleep?

Previously: Targeted brain stimulation of specific brain cells aids stroke recovery in mice, Calling all pharmacologists: Stroke-recovery mechanism found, small molecule needed and Brain sponge: Stroke treatment may extend time to prevent brain damage
Photo by Guian Bolisay

Neuroscience, Research, Science, Stanford News

Building for collaboration spurs innovative science

Building for collaboration spurs innovative science

clarkWhen Stanford’s original main quad was built 125 years ago, it was with the intent of bringing faculty together in its outdoor spaces and walkways. From its inception, the university was a place where faculty were encouraged to collaborate across disciplines.

Nothing has done more to extend that original idea than the James H. Clark Center, which opened in 2003 at the intersection of the Schools of Medicine, Engineering and Humanities and Sciences. It was built as a home for Stanford Bio-X, which brings faculty together from across disciplines to solve problems in the life sciences.

As people around the world began seeing the kind of science that came out of the interdisciplinary mix in the Clark Center, that style building has begun springing up world-wide. In fact, in 2014, the National Academies specifically pointed to the Clark Center as one way of encouraging what they call “convergence” science.

Stanford has since constructed another building to encourage collaboration (the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building) and just broke ground on a research facility to house the two newest interdisciplinary institutes: Stanford ChEM-H and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.

In my story about this building trend, Ann Arvin, MD, Stanford’s dean of research and vice provost, comments, “This building is a physical manifestation of Stanford’s commitment to breaking down barriers between disciplines.”

Arvin went on to say that she thinks disciplines still need to be strong, but that the really innovative research is taking place at the intersections between those disciplines. The new research facility will be across the street from the Clark Center, perfectly poised to continue bringing disciplines together around problems in neuroscience and human health.

Previously: They said “Yes”: The attitude that defines Stanford Bio-X and Stanford’s Clark Center, home to Bio-X, turns 10
Image from Stanford Office of Development

Biomed Bites, Genetics, Neuroscience, Research, Videos

A scientific metamorphosis: From butterflies to myelin

A scientific metamorphosis: From butterflies to myelin

Welcome to Biomed Bites, a weekly feature that introduces readers to some of Stanford’s most innovative biomedical researchers. 

William Talbot, PhD, started out studying how caterpillars become butterflies. Now a professor of developmental biology, his research focuses on the formation of myelin, that all-important sheath that protects nerve fibers and speeds the transmission of messages.

His aims are high: By understanding the genetic foundation of myelin development, he hopes to create treatments for conditions like multiple sclerosis, which affects myelin and myelin repair.

“We don’t know much about how [myelin] forms,” Talbot says in the video above. “We are taking a genetic approach to try to find mutations that disrupt myelin and use these to discover new genes that might allow us to repair myelin that is disrupted.”

The caterpillars were a crucial step in his own scientific development, Talbot says.

“The techniques that we use and the general logic we use to study these questions are basically the same, although the technology and specific research topics have evolved greatly,” Talbot says.

Learn more about Stanford Medicine’s Biomedical Innovation Initiative and about other faculty leaders who are driving biomedical innovation here.

Previously: Face blindness stems form differences in neurocircuitry, Brain, heal thyself? Stanford research describes delayed onset of multiple sclerosis in mice and Video game accessory may help multiple sclerosis patients reduce falls, boost brain connections

Neuroscience, Podcasts, Stanford News

A word with Karl Deisseroth

A word with Karl Deisseroth

Karl D at Breakthrough eventAt 44, Stanford bioengineer/neuroscientist Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, has achieved more success and accolades than most scientists receive in their lifetime. Two techniques, optogenetics and CLARITY, which open the brain to deeper and more penetrating explorations of its complexity, are among his seminal achievements. In November, he was awarded the prestigious 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, which comes with a no-strings attached monetary award of $3 million, and I sat down to talk with him for a 1:2:1 podcast shortly after he won.

Great scientific leaps, which optogenetics and CLARITY have been universally hailed as, are often preceded by challenges and detours that ferment doubt in the head of even the most determined researcher. And such was the case with optogenetics. Deisseroth told me there were arched eyebrows and skepticism from others during his quest. And he gave insight on how someone can keep those doubts at bay and remain focused on the endgame when their vision may not be shared or understood by others.

Deisseroth calls the human brain “the most complicated object in the universe.” So complicated, he says, that truly understanding its wiring and why and how it goes awry will take decades. “We don’t know what the finish line will look like,” he told me. “There [are] so many mysteries.”

Deisseroth’s track in neuroscience and medicine began in college, but from early on, as part of a family in which books and reading were venerated, words and creative writing were a strong interest. He told me, “I was just enthralled by how words could make you feel, how the emotions that could come from the words sometimes was independent of their formal meaning… I was so intrigued by their power to sway the mind and to uplift. Without making too sweeping of a claim, I also think that part of what got me interested in the brain is understanding how something like that could happen.”

So why psychiatry? What led him to that path, I asked? He said that he “trudged” into a psychiatry rotation as it was a required part of Stanford’s curriculum, but on the first day a passion was ignited:

There was a patient who was really on the inpatient ward, and really not doing well. This patient more or less accosted me. There was an interaction where there was just a stream of psychotic words and sentences directed at me, rageful, angry, loose in its framing and construction, very hard to understand, but in a way, there was a communicative effect achieved.

Although the words and the sentences didn’t mean anything relating to reality, there was definitely a communication that was achieved. I was so interested in understanding, from that moment, how an otherwise intact person could have a reality that was so different and could communicate in such an unconventional way.

It really hit all parts of me at once. It hit my interest in words and writing, my interest in neuroscience, and my desire to help people in the most direct way I could.

I started to look more into psychiatry, and I saw the opportunities, the depth of the mysteries, the extent of the suffering. It was like all the pieces of a combination lock clicking into place all at once.

We delved into numerous topics during our conversation. Why is the brain such a difficult organ to understand? How were optogenetics and CLARITY adding to the collective wisdom to the field?  Why is the stigma of mental illness so pervasive and persistent? And, if he could answer any one question about the brain and a psychiatric disorder, what would it be? I hope you’ll listen to the podcast and hear his responses.

Previously: Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth talks about the work he was “destined to do”Stanford bioengineer Karl Deisseroth wins 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Life SciencesInside the brain of optogenetics pioneer Karl DeisserothLightning strikes twice: Optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth’s newest technique renders tissues transparent, yet structurally intact and An in-depth look at the career of Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth, “a major name in science”
Photo, of Karl Deisseroth receiving his Breakthrough Prize, by Steve Jennings/Getty Images

Neuroscience, Patient Care, Stanford News

Celebrating the new Stanford Neuroscience Health Center

Celebrating the new Stanford Neuroscience Health Center

neuro health center ribbon cutting - 560

The first time Chris Bjornson walked through the infusion area in the new Stanford Neuroscience Health Center, he couldn’t stop smiling. Bjornson, 45, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis seven years ago. He’s happy with how well his doctor, neuro-immunologist Jeffrey Dunn, MD, has worked with him to control the progress of a disease that has gradually eroded Bjornson’s ability to walk.

Getting to his appointments, however, was something else. Many neurological disorders and injuries leave people with less ability to maneuver through crowded hallways, negotiate the changes in texture from one type of floor covering to another or endure going from one place to another to see different specialists. High countertops, narrow bathroom stalls and tight turns at corners become additional obstacles.

Stanford doctors agreed that asking patients to make such a difficult journey for care had to change. They also knew that that change couldn’t be done by renovating the several buildings that now house the Department of Neurology and Neurological Sciences and the Department of Neurosurgery. Only a from-scratch approach would work.

Last week, Stanford Health Care, in partnership with the Stanford School of Medicine, cut the ribbons to officially open the new Stanford Neuroscience Health Center for outpatient care. It’s a five-story, 92,000-square-foot building on the medical school campus. The exterior is, of course, brightly new and sparkling. It is the interior, however, where the center shows its best.

Hallways, floor coverings, lighting, chairs, bathrooms and the building’s floor-by-floor organization all reflect what the Center’s 12-person Patient Advisory Council told Stanford Health Care would eliminate those physical barriers to care — and, as a consequence, their stress. The infusion center that so impressed Bjornson has no dark corners or tiny treatment rooms. Instead, the area is filled with the light and views from three walls of windows.

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