Friday, August 2, 2013

Making Mice Remember What Never Was

It's been a century since someone got the first EEG by hooking an electroencephalograph to a dog. Today a "routine clinical EEG recording" is a useful, if pricey, medial tool: and researchers have planted false memories in mice.
  1. Plugged-in Mice
  2. Champagne, Rats, and Memory
A century from now, folks will almost certainly be discovering something new about our brains: and will have found ways to use and misuse today's research.

Remote Control Rabble

Long before novels like "The Terminal Man" and motion pictures like "King of Kong Island" brought the dangers of mind control to the American public's attention, science fiction writers had been playing with the idea.

The idea of controlling people by wiring their brains was 'old-hat' by at least the 1960s: or at least so familiar that an author could assume that readers would accept remote control hats without explanation.

For example, a story I read in my youth included a very brief but vivid scene. The lead character watched a crowd of people, all wearing identical squarish hats. Some air vehicle came, the folks all lined up in formation and marched to and fro: quite precisely.

The idea was that the rulers controlled the Masses through those boxes: and that the impromptu drill team exercise was to weed out rebels who wore fake hats.

Psychosurgery and Potboilers

I suppose the lobotomy fad and other enthusiastic experiments in psychosurgery may have encouraged writers to assume that meddling with the human brain was sure to go wrong: horribly wrong.

Besides, mad scientists with armies of push button primates or Nazi zombies can be colorful villains.

A bit more - realistically?? - I suppose a cabal of unscrupulous corporate executives in cahoots with corrupt politicos might enslave employees with propitiatory plugins. I don't really think so: but it would be good enough for a potboiler.

"I can't imagine a better career."

Neural Interfaces: Real Ones

I suppose someone has already decided that cochlear implants are part of the government conspiracy to control our brains. After all, the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services knows about this nefarious technology: but won't admit they they're really sending subliminal messages into people's brains!

For a dedicated conspiracy buff, that might be 'proof' of a conspiracy. For the record, I think cochlear implants are a very useful technology; and I don't put aluminum foil inside my hat.

We do, however, have some very exciting new sorts of neural interfaces.

The University of Pennsylvania's Brian Litt, a neurologist, is part of a team that printed electrodes on very thin silk sheets. Very gently placing the sheet and electrodes on a brain, then washing the silk away with a saline solution, leaves the electrodes attached to the brain.

The experiment showed that electrodes picked up signals from a cat's visual cortex for a month without causing trouble.

Coupled with off-the-shelf tech like the Argus II Retinal Implant, it's possible that folks with eye injuries could have another option for restoring at least some vision.

Could technology like cochlear implants or Litt's electrodes be misused? Of course. We have free will, and can decide to help or hurt others.

1. Plugged-in Mice

(BBC News, used w/o permission)
"Optical fibres implanted in a mouse's brain activated memory forming cells"
"Scientists can implant false memories into mice"
Melissa Hogenboom, BBC News (July 25, 2013)

"False memories have been implanted into mice, scientists say.

"A team was able to make the mice wrongly associate a benign environment with a previous unpleasant experience from different surroundings.

"The researchers conditioned a network of neurons to respond to light, making the mice recall the unpleasant environment.

"Reporting in Science, they say it could one day shed light into how false memories occur in humans.

"The brains of genetically engineered mice were implanted with optic fibres in order to deliver pulses of light to their brain. Known as optogenetics, this technique is able to make individual neurons respond to light...."
This isn't even close to the sort of thing we've seen in movies like Total Recall. On the other hand, it's a remarkable achievement.

It looks like the memory planted in the brains of these mice was the sort of "I have a bad feeling about this" emotional response some folks get when they see a hypodermic needle or envelope from the government.

Not that mice ever got an IRS audit, and that's another topic.

Of Mice and Brains

(from BBC News, used w/o permission)
  • "A mouse was put in one environment (blue box) and the brain cells encoding memory were labelled in this environment (white circles)
  • "These cells were then made responsive to light
  • "The animal was placed in a different environment (the red box) and light was delivered into the brain to activate these labelled cells
  • "This induced the recall of the first environment - the blue box. While the animal was recalling the first environment, they also received mild foot shocks
  • "Later when the mouse was put back into the first environment, it showed behavioural signs of fear, indicating it had formed a false fear memory for the first environment, where it was never shocked in reality"
    (BBC News)
Giving mice phobias isn't the goal of this research. The scientists want to learn more about how human brains store information. They're working with mice because a mouse's brain is wired roughly the same way as a human's: and is a whole lot simpler.

Besides, it might be hard to get human volunteers.

Little Albert and Nuremberg

Back in the 'good old days,' a psychologist named Watson became famous for making a baby afraid of white furry things. That was in 1920. We've finally found out who "Little Albert" was, and that's yet another topic: a sad one.

A quarter-century after the Little Albert experiment, Josef Mengele and others showed what human experimentation can achieve when unhindered by ethics. Cleaning up that mess gave us the Nuremberg Code.

'Medical ethics' still occasionally seems like an oxymoron, but I like to think that we're making a little progress.

Fearful Associations

"...Neil Burgess from University College London, who was not involved with the work, told BBC News the study was an 'impressive example' of creating a fearful response in an environment where nothing fearful happened.

" 'One day this type of knowledge may help scientists to understand how to remove or reduce the fearful associations experienced by people with conditions like post traumatic stress disorder.'

"But he added that it's only an advance in 'basic neuroscience' and that these methods could not be directly applied to humans for many years...."
(Melissa Hogenboom, BBC News)
I agree with Neil Burgess. This research could help a lot of folks: many years from now.

PSTD, post traumatic stress disorder, isn't the only problem folks have with fear. Sometimes a phobia, "an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of an object or situation that poses little real danger," gets in the way of everyday life. (Mayo Clinic)

We have ways to deal with 'unreasonable fears,' but I think it would be nice to add another tool to our troubleshooting kit.

The BBC article quotes someone from the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, who says that learning how the brain works could help us deal with "diseases of thought" like schizophrenia. Schizophrenia, by the way, isn't having a "split personality," although the word means "split mind." Folks with schizophrenia have "a disruption of the usual balance of emotions and thinking." (Mayo Clinic)

Technology - - -

When researchers find ways of directly manipulating our emotional responses, some folks will find ways to help others with technology based on this research. I'm pretty sure that other folks will use the technology to abuse others.

Leaders of a totalitarian regime or a cult might decide that installing control boxes in their subjects' heads was worth the expense.

- - - and Freedom

Freedom isn't an 'extra.' It's built into us. We may choose to do good or evil: but being able to choose is part of being human. (Catechism, 1730-1738)

Taking away that freedom is wrong. (Catechism, 1782)

I think that folks who use technology to hurt others are a threat: but tech isn't the problem.

People misuse things. People have killed other people with rocks. That doesn't make the rocks bad. (Apathetic Lemming of the North, December 2, 2009))

Using science and technology, learning about this creation and developing new tools, are part of being human. They're not good or bad by themselves: it's how we decide to use them that matters. (Catechism, 159, 282-284, 2292-2295, 2375)

2. Champagne, Rats, and Memory

"Champagne Anti-Aging Regimen Could Improve Memory, Research Suggests"
Katie Kelly Bell, Forbes (July 8, 2013)

"New research indicates that moderate Champagne (or any sparkling wine) consumption has a positive effect on memory as we age; now isn't that the good news you've been waiting for? According to researchers at the UK's Reading University, specific polyphenol compounds in red grapes are believed to improve spatial memory and assist in memory storage. These phenols slow the loss of proteins (a loss commonly associated with aging) that are responsible for storing memory. Red wine is known to have these phenols, but researchers weren't so sure about bubbly.

"Researchers gave some lucky rats champagne-laced food while the control group of rats was merely offered ordinary food. They then placed the rats in a maze in search of food. Five minutes later they placed the rats in the same maze to see which group best remembered the location of the food. The ritzy rats with Champagne-laced food had a 70% success rate over the ordinary food rats (who had a mere 50% success rate). After six weeks of Champagne with dinner, the Champagne rats showed a 200% increase in memory-boosting proteins...."
"Moderate" is a key word here. Polyphenol compounds in red grapes are what make some champagne good for memory: in rats, anyway. These polyphenol compounds make it all the way from a grape vine to a glass of champagne. That's interesting, and may be useful.

A glass or two of champagne each day might improve someone's memory. Swilling bubbly by the case almost certainly wouldn't be smart. Or cheap.

Rats and Lab Tests

Scientists use critters like mice and rats for experiments because they're small, and easy to keep. 'Generational' studies go by 80 times faster with rats than they would with humans, even faster with mice. Rats hit puberty when they're about 55 days old, mice when they're about 42 days, compared to a human's dozen years: give or take.

Scientists can make educated guesses about how something would affect humans by trying it out on rats or mice. Like everything else that we do, ethics apply. We can't 'do anything we like' to animals. We can, actually, but we shouldn't. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2416-2418)

Experimenting on humans is okay, too: but ethics apply here, too. Mottoes like 'the end justifies the means' may play well to some audiences, but that's not how things work: not in the long run. (Catechism, 1752-1753, 2292-2295)

I've got a personal interest in using humans as test subjects, and that's yet again another topic.

Humans, Rats, and Living in Tiksi

Scientists can take test results from experiments using rats or mice and make educated guesses about how humans would react because there isn't all that much difference between rats and humans, physically.

We're both mammals, can eat almost anything, and have a track record for spreading to nearly every bit of land that's not an ice cap. Interestingly, we've even settled in places like Tiksi, north of the brown rat's 'too cold' line.

Space aliens might assume that it's because we're smarter than rats: or because we're crazy; or both; and that's still more topics:

"A Little Wine"

"...The other good news: In a December 2009 study, Champagne was also identified as improving heart health and reducing risk of stroke. The full release is here, but more importantly, stock your medicine cabinet with these suggested blanc de noir Champagnes and sparkling wines...."
(Katie Kelly Bell, Forbes)
I'm not surprised that a little Champagne is good for a person. Champagne is a sparkling wine: a fermented beverage with enough dissolved carbon dioxide to make it fizzy. Folks have been aware that a little wine, fizzy or otherwise, is healthy for a long time:
"Stop drinking only water, but have a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent illnesses."
(1 Timothy 5:23)
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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.