A quick post to point you to something that looks like a serious case of the funsies. It’s an interactive ebook that’s just been released detailing the adventures of Ned the Neuron – a proper story-book, but with three interactive games built in, all with the aim of teaching kids about basic neuroscience. It’s produced by Kizoom Labs, which was co-founded by Jessica Voytek (one of the developers, along with her husband Brad, of the excellent brainSCANr site).
A break from normal service today, as I thought I’d post up a little video of me being silly on stage on the occasion of Science Showoff a few weeks ago. Science Showoff is a fantastic open-mic night for science communication, organised by the inimitable Steve Cross of UCL. People get up on stage in the back room of a pub in Clerkenwell, and do science-y things for the amusement (and occasionally even for the education) of the crowd.
For their May event, I thought I’d have a go at re-creating the world’s first brain-imaging experiment, live, on-stage, using nothing more than a table, a rolling-pin, and a kitchen scale. How was such a feat accomplished (I hear you gasp, dear reader, in tones hushed with reverential awe)? I shall explain.
What’s often called ‘the world’s first neuroimaging experiment’ was conducted by a gentleman by the name of Angelo Mosso in the late 19th Century; a professor of physiology at the University of Turin. He’s generally credited with the notion that blood flow in the brain is related to mental activity; he arrived at this conclusion by studying patients with open head wounds – the pulsations of their dura would increase in frequency when the patients became agitated or engaged in some demanding mental task.
He also (apparently) designed an experiment in order to see the effect of increased blood flow during mental activity in ‘normal’, uninjured people. This was the first time an external apparatus had been used to visualise the internal processes of the brain – hence ‘world’s first neuroimaging experiment’. I say ‘apparently’ because the only write-up we have about the experiment is from William James’ journal of 1890:
“The subject to be observed lay on a delicately balanced table which could tip downwards either at the head or the foot if the weight of either end were increased. The moment emotional or intellectual activity began in the subject, down went the balance at the head-end, in consequence of the redistribution of blood in his system…”
Now, most people who’ve written about this experiment since, have generally cast doubt on the idea that this could ever actually work. But, being on occasion an incautious type, and thinking that even if it didn’t work it could at least be amusing, I figured I’d just give it a try. I used a couple of modern-day modifications – I got a cheap digital scale off Amazon, which could distinguish increments of 0.1g, and used a webcam pointed at the scale’s readout to display it to the crowd via a projector. I rested the head-end of the balance-board on the scale, and figured that any increase in blood-flow to the brain should result in an increase in weight on the scale. The able and moderately-willing volunteer for the experiment was my good friend Thom Scott-Phillips of Edinburgh (and Durham) University and the video was shot by Rita Santos. Unfortunately it’s impossible to make out the scale readout on the video, but it definitely worked. Oh yes. Absolutely. *Ahem*. I’m also slightly embarrassed to admit that it contains quite a few of the naughty swears, but, y’know, it’s just that kind of event. If it’s alright for Ben Goldacre, then it’s alright for me, dammit.
Without further ado then – the video (watch it on YouTube for glorious 720p):
A very minimal post just to point you towards something else I’ve written that you might find of interest. It’s putatively a review of the film ‘Inception’ but I end up talking about some other movies too, and especially about some recent developments in neuroscience that are related to the ideas in the films. You can read it here at Scientific Kitty. There’s lots of other great reviews by scientists on SK as well (including my earlier review of ‘Limitless’) so make sure you have a good poke around while you’re there.
The really-very-excellent Ben Thomas (of The Connectome) recently posted something on facebook which got me thinking; it was a link to a project called NeuroSynth, which is an ongoing collaboration between several high-profile brain researchers and groups (details here) to provide an easy method for performing automated large-scale analyses (or meta-analyses) across a large portion of the neuroimaging literature. Briefly, the builders of this system have developed a way of automatically parsing the full text of published articles, and extracting 1) the parts of the brain which are active (as reported in the paper by a commonly-used 3-axis coordinate system) and 2) the topic of the paper (by looking at which terms are used with high frequency in the paper). Using these two bits of information, a huge meta-analysis is then conducted, and brain-maps showing areas which are reliably associated with particular terms in the literature can be produced. Wonderfully, they’ve made the brain maps available on the web, and you can even download these maps in the standard NIFTI (*.nii) format.
Give it a try with some common terms, e.g.:
Fun, huh? One of the best applications that immediately springs to mind when looking at these data is that these brain maps could be used to constrain the search-space in new brain-imaging experiments – for instance, by using these maps to define ROIs for hypothesis-driven analyses (something which I’m very keen on), or for defining regions for multi-voxel-pattern-analysis. Read the rest of this entry
The brain is like a computer; this is the fundamental metaphor at the heart of 1980s cognitive psychology. To an extent this was a useful way of thinking about the brain, it certainly stores and processes information just like a computer, and you can even (perhaps) draw some rough parallels between parts of the brain and computer components.
However, in at least one important respect, the brain appears to function very differently from a computer. A computers’ processing power is highly centralised in a single processor (or perhaps a dual/quad core processor – doesn’t matter – still centralised). The processor does all the computational work, and the hard disk stores all the data that the processor works on. This means that data is constantly being shuttled back and forth from the hard disk to the processor (using the RAM as an intermediary, to avoid the hard disk spinning up and down all the time) and this transfer of data is slow, inefficient and creates a bottleneck which restricts the maximum speed at which computers can run. Read the rest of this entry
I decided to put together a computer skills checklist. A lot of the things on this list are not specific to psychology and should be part of the training of every student. I would advise students to work through the list and note down any entries that you’re not comfortable with – finding out how to do these things and ticking off every item on the list will definitely advance your knowledge and help you out in future. Some of the things on the list have already been covered on this blog, and some I’m planning to cover in the future. Let me know in the comments if you think I’ve missed anything!
Green text denotes a basic/essential skill, orange means intermediate, red means it’s an advanced skill. Most students should be able to tick off all the green ones straight away – if you can’t you’ve got some work to do! Read the rest of this entry
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has now become a pretty mainstream activity for researchers interested in the workings of the human brain, and since its inception in the early-90s a whole load of software has been developed which can enable even the most clueless or Unix-averse researcher to (reasonably) easily perform complex analyses on fMRI datasets. I wrote a brief earlier post about fMRI software based on a presentation, and thought I’d expand on it a little more in a future series. There’s obviously a great deal to say about these pieces of software in terms of advanced features, UI etc. and I’ll get to all that at some point in the future. This post will focus on the very basic aspects of three popular choices for fMRI analysis: BrainVoyager, FSL and SPM*; what platforms they support, and the basic features of each. Read the rest of this entry
This one’s a bit advanced for the kind of information I generally want to include on here, but I thought it might be useful to somebody, so I’d put it up. I was recently asked to do a talk on fMRI software, so put together a presentation comparing three popular choices for analysing brain imaging data: SPM, BrainVoyager and FSL. I’ve used all three packages in the past for my work, although I’m not so expert with the new versions of SPM as I used to be. The talk was pretty basic, and focussed more on features and the UI experience of the three applications, rather than any technical details.
Anyway, the slides are available for download here (PDF, 3.6Mb) if anyone’s interested. All content is my personal opinion, your mileage may vary, etc. etc.