Of Computers and Brains

Art by Cassandra Chee

Earlier this summer, Gary Marcus – a New York University professor of neural science and psychology –  wrote a very influential piece for the New York Times called Face It, Your Brain Is a Computer. He attracted a lot of attention for his strong stance, and reinvigorated the debate about how we should or should not view the brain/computer analogy.

Since people had a lot to say about it, I want to go over Marcus’ article, along with some responses to the idea. My synopses do not always include the authors’ full arguments – I mainly focus on the parts I find most critical or thought-provoking – so make sure to check out the links to each piece if you’re interested in the full dialogue.

The discussion begins

Much of Marcus’ time is dedicated to explaining why those who argue against the brain/computer analogy are wrong. To begin with, he says the idea that brains perform processes in parallel while computers complete things in a step-by-step process is “woefully out of date.” He goes on to explain that some degree of parallelism has been seen on computers since they came to the desk-top, and that hardware design has trended toward increased parallel processing ever since.

Next, Marcus analyzes the argument that computers are digital, but brains are analog. The main distinction here is that analog things work on a smooth-continuum while digital things work in divisible units. He dismisses this by saying that many of the parts making up the digital computer are analog, as were older computers. Additionally, he claims that “we still don’t really know whether our brains are analog or digital or some mix of the two.” I’ll let you decide how convincing these arguments are.

Amongst these and other criticisms to the stance that brains are not like computers, Marcus does give some reasons why he thinks they are like them, using the example of a specific type of computer called the field-programmable gate array. This type of computer can be designed to carry out many individual tasks which are then combined to compute the overall state of the system. “Much of the logic can be executed in parallel,” Marcus says, “like in the brain.”

Many programmable logic devices come together to form field programmable gate arrays. I guess it almost looks like a neural network diagram...

Many programmable logic devices come together to form field-programmable gate arrays. I guess they almost look like neural network diagrams…

A challenge

Vaughan Bell, a neuroscientist who practices clinical psychology and frequently writes for the mainstream media, responded to Marcus on a blog he helps run called Mind Hacks. His post, titled Computation is a lenstalks about whether the brain computes or whether computation is “just a convenient way of describing its function.”

Though the post is written as a balanced, diplomatic evaluation, it’s clear Bell thinks the brain/computer analogy is not very useful in describing the brain. He uses a stone as an example of why not:

“If you throw a stone you can describe its trajectory using calculus. Here we could ask a similar question: is the stone ‘computing’ the answer to a calculus equation that describes its flight, or is calculus just a convenient way of describing its trajectory.”

Furthermore, Bell claims that it’s not clear where we should draw the line for computations the brain does. He asks: “If the brain is a computer based on its physical properties and the blood is part of that system, does the blood also compute? Does the body compute? Does the ecosystem?”

The heart of his argument is that if we can describe almost anything as computing in some sense, and can’t distinguish the computing done on your laptop with the computing done by a rock, then saying the brain is a computer does not tell us much about “the nature of brains.” Whether or not people describe many things as computing is another argument entirely.

Digging deeper

After Bell, Dr. Andrew Wilson of Leeds Beckett University published a blog post named Brains don’t Have to be Computers (A Purple Peril). Wilson’s view builds on Bell’s idea by saying that while computation may be convenient for describing the brain’s function, it “may or may not be (and probably isn’t) the actual mechanism by which the brain does whatever it does.”

He uses the example of a polar planimeter, a machine that can be used to find an object’s area simply by tracing it, to make his argument. In short, Wilson makes two points with the planimeter: One is that the composition of a polar planimeter is what produces its behavior – directly measuring area – not a computation (such as multiplying length by height). The other, related point is that computation is not the only option for transforming an input to an output.

A diagram of a polar planimeter. By Keuffel & Esser Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A diagram of a polar planimeter. By Keuffel & Esser Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wilson’s analysis of this latter point is particularly interesting. He says that if you use computation to describe how a polar planimeter works, “you won’t have the right mechanism, and you will therefore ask the wrong questions as you do science on the planimeter (e.g. you’ll go hunting for the ‘length detectors’ and the ‘multiplication module’).” Though this post doesn’t tell us what the brain is doing if not computing, Wilson’s argument for why we should remain sensitive to other options is compelling.

Wait, what?

To close, I’m going to introduce you to one more challenge; this one coming from way out in left field. In his Huffington Post article Is Your Brain Really a Computer, or Is It a Quantum Orchestra? Dr. Stuart Hameroff – a professor, anesthesiologist, and researcher at the University of Arizona – got in on the discussion  by saying that “the brain is looking more like an orchestra, a multi-scalar vibrational resonance system, than a computer.”

These vibrations, according to Hameroff, arise from components of neurons called microtubules. Traditionally, microtubles are thought of as one of the main structural elements of  cells, as well as a substrate that different molecules or proteins can travel along. Hameroff sees them as much more.

Evidently, microtubules are home to quantum events that oscillate at very high frequencies. Hameroff claims that this “quantum resonance” could be the root of many neural functions, such as memory encoding and  perhaps even consciousness. Essentially, these microtubules serve as yet another level of complexity in the neural processing hierarchy, acting from within a neuron to modulate its function.

So where does this leave us in terms of the brain/computer argument? Frankly, I can’t frame most of what Hameroff says in terms of the neuroscience that I know. I can say that at one point Hameroff recalls his 1980s proposal that microtubules are like computers, but the rest of his article makes it sound like he is staunchly opposed to calling brains computers.  I’m mostly hoping someone else can explain to me whether or not he’s a genius or a madman.

Is your brain a computer?

Another piece by Cassandra Chee

Another piece by Cassandra Chee

Many people, like Marcus, are willing to argue that if the brain and its components take in an input and transform it to a new output in some kind of algorithmic manner, then yes, it is a computer – but we still need to figure out how it’s computing. Others, including Bell and Wilson, are more comfortable saying that computation is a nice way to describe what the brain is doing, but calling the brain a computer or saying it computes doesn’t tell us much about the brain or the mechanism by which it works.

Beyond this there are probably thousands of others who have a different idea entirely, such as Hameroff. Like many questions in neuroscience, the best answer here is “we don’t really know” if the brain is a computer. But the freedom to explore that comes with uncertainty is what makes science enjoyable.

Keep up with Jesse on Twitter: @JesseTMiles


How Neurons Behave as we Form Memories

Art by Cassandra Chee

One of the things that pushed me toward neuroscience was the desire to understand memory and how we learn things. I know many others who feel the same way, but I doubt any of us really appreciated how difficult a task this would be. A complete picture of how memory works is still out of our reach, but scientists from the University of Leicester and the University of California, Los Angeles recently pushed our understanding a bit further.

The group, led by Drs. Matias Ison, Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, and Itzhak Fried, discovered that individual neurons have the ability to rapidly alter their activity as we learn to associate things [1]. This research provides a framework for understanding what neurons might do as we begin to form a memory, especially of one-time events that occur throughout the day.

To really grasp this experiment’s findings, it helps to understand what the researchers actually did. Epileptic patients undergoing neurosurgery volunteered to participate in the experiment. To find out where their seizures were, researchers implanted single or multi-unit electrodes in patients’ brains. These electrodes also allowed them to record neural activity while showing them different pictures. Recordings were done in the medial temporal lobe, which contains regions like the hippocampus, entorhinal cortex, and amygdala – all locations associated with memory formation and/or processing.

After implantation of the electrode, but before the actual experiment, patients were shown two classes of images: one of people or animals (mainly people, as they caused more neural activity than animals), and the other of famous places like the Eiffel Tower or the White House. Researchers identified which pictures evoked the most activity, calling this the “preferred stimulus”. They then combined the preferred stimulus with a non-preferred stimulus – a picture of the other class that did not cause a change in baseline activity during these pre-experiment trials. In other words, if a neuron was particularly active when shown an image of a cat, but not the Eiffel Tower, the cat might be paired with the Eiffel Tower for the next round of testing.

Illustration of the types of images patients might be shown. After assessing neural responses, a preferred image, perhaps a cat, would be paired with a non-preferred image, like the Eiffel Tower.

Illustration of the types of images patients might be shown. After assessing neural responses, a preferred image, perhaps a cat, would be paired with a non-preferred image, like the Eiffel Tower.

Throughout the course of their experiments, however, the researchers found that after showing the images containing both the preferred and non-preferred stimuli patients learned to associate the two very quickly in a behavioral task. Moreover, this behavior was accompanied by the neuron (or group of neurons) firing at rates much closer to that of the preferred stimulus when shown either the preferred, composite, or non-preferred image, but not others.

Below are data showing the neural activity and behavioral activity. The left image shows the activity on a trial-by-trial basis, and the right image shows the same activity rearranged for each individual based on the time of learning. In the right graph, point zero is the trial where learning occurred, regardless of when that trial actually was for that patient. So, if neurons fired at similar, elevated rates after one trial for Patient A, this would be point 0 for Patient A. But if it took three trials for Patient B, their data would be adjusted so point zero began at their third trial.

side-by-side Graph

Graphs from Ison, Quiroga, and Fried. Both compare behavioral (green) and neural (black) responses. The graphs show the same data, but the figure on the left has re-aligned the data so that the learning trial is “Relative trial number” 0 for all patients. This accounts for the variability in learning time for different individuals.

This re-arrangement was done to illustrate that when accounting for variability in the time it takes different individuals to learn the associations, there is a strong similarity between a correct behavioral outcome – that is, making the proper association – and increases in neural activity rates. It would be an interesting addition, however, to show individual data for patients learning at different rates to see if they still had similar neural activity learning curves. Such graphs would give a better idea of whether or not learning was always accompanied by a sharp increase in firing rate, or if it were a more gradual process, requiring multiple trials in some individuals. These features are lost in the population data presented here.

The general idea behind this research, that specific neurons are involved with the perception of specific things, is not new. In his 1949 work The Organization of Behavior, famous neuroscientist Donald Hebb postulated that “a particular perception depends on the excitation of particular cells at some point in the central nervous system” [2]. The idea has also been experimentally confirmed many times with the observation that certain neurons in distinct regions of the brain can be “tuned” to a particular sensory stimulus, like a neuron in the visual cortex that is only active when something of a specific orientation enters the visual field.

It has also been shown before that single neurons can alter their activity as they learn to make associations. When monkeys are shown a complex visual stimulus and rewarded for looking in a certain direction, some neurons in the hippocampus increase their firing rate as the association between the correct direction and reward is learned [3].

What the recent study offers is the finding that neurons tuned to a particular preferred stimulus can widen their tuning to include other stimuli with which an association is learned. Though this is similar to Wirth et. al.’s finding in monkeys, the authors of this study claim that the increase in activity is the result of changes in a single neuron. Wirth et. al. suggest that other neurons are likely recruited to increase activity as the association forms.

Most strikingly, there is some evidence that the changes in firing pattern, which the authors equate with learning, can happen very quickly. In the learning task – where patients were shown composite images of preferred and non-preferred stimuli – it only took, on average, 3 trials for individuals to meet the criteria for learning. Some, the authors claim, made the association after one trial. As seen above, this was accompanied by changes in neural activity which, supposedly, occurred as the association was encoded.

This research provides an idea of what’s going on at the neuronal level as we learn associations. It also suggests that these changes might be occurring to enable us to remember things that only happen once. So, although this research alone does not show that associations are made because neurons alter their firing patterns, it does provide empirical evidence that can be used to further our theories for how memories, particularly associations, are created, and how neurons behave while forming them.

Keep up with Jesse on Twitter: @JesseTMiles


1. M. J. Ison, R. Quian Quiroga, I. Fried. Rapid encoding of new memories by individual neurons in the human brain. Neuron. Vol. 87, Issue 1. 1 July, 2015. Pages 220 – 230.
2. D. O. Hebb, The Organization of Behavior. Wiley, New York, 1949.
3. S. Wirth, M. Yanike, L.M. Frank, A.C. Smith, E.N. Brown, W.A. Suzuki. Single neurons in the monkey hippocampus and learning of new associations. Science 6 June 2003: 300 (5625), 1578-1581.

Categories: Blog, Front Page, Neuro News, Uncategorized Tags: , , , , ,


    1. M. J. Ison, R. Quian Quiroga, I. Fried. Rapid encoding of new memories by individual neurons in the human brain. Neuron. Vol. 87, Issue 1. 1 July, 2015. Pages 220 - 230.
    2. D. O. Hebb, The Organization of Behavior. Wiley, New York, 1949.
    3. S. Wirth, M. Yanike, L.M. Frank, A.C. Smith, E.N. Brown, W.A. Suzuki. Single neurons in the monkey hippocampus and learning of new associations. Science 6 June 2003: 300 (5625), 1578-1581.

Art Neureau 2015

On a lovely Tuesday evening, a unique art event took place in the Fremont Abbey Arts Center. Art Neureau is a one-of-a-kind intersection between art and neuroscience—two disciplines which at first glance may seem mutually exclusive. Hosted by the UW Neuroscience Community Outreach Group, the second iteration of Art Neureau featured over 30 local scientists and artists who united knowledge of neurobiology with beautiful displays of creative expression. 

“[We want] to create a space for people to combine their interests of art and neuroscience” said Aiva Ievins, a 4th year neuroscience graduate student at UW, who helped to put on the event.

The inspiration behind the show was a desire to unite two disciplines which often seem almost adversarial to one another—especially in the STEM-obsessed culture in which we are currently immersed. The project displayed a realization that art and neuroscience are intimately connected; after all, the perception and creation of art is ultimately performed by the brain! 

One particularly powerful aspect of the show was the fact that most of the works contributed were not made by traditional “art” students. In fact, the majority of artists who contributed pieces are involved in neuroscience research themselves. These individuals ranged from UW undergraduates, graduate students, and even professors and faculty members.

The show highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of neuroscience—a field that combines physics, biology, chemistry, philosophy, computer science, and even art.

Inspirations cited by individual artists ranged far-and-wide, and a huge variety of artistic styles were on display. Some artists took a more scientific approach and attempted to highlight the inherent beauty of neural images. Others adopted a somewhat psychedelic approach, using abstract aesthetics to portray higher level ideas of cognition and creativity.

Notably, the pieces were not limited to two dimensions. Some artists took advantage of optical illusions, creating 3D pieces which seemed to extend into the wall itself. Other, more interactive pieces changed depending on the observer’s actions, highlighting the interdependence between the brain, one’s consciousness, and the environment.

All in all, each piece captured a unique aspect of the human experience:


“Identity,” Mark Wronkiewicz


“Brain States,” Eberhard Fetz

11273306_10152959767167339_1502312700_n (1)

Art by Sierra Schleufer


“a family of neuroscience macaques,” Sierra Schleufer


“Brain in Motion,” James Wu


Neuron Sculpture, Andrew Bogaard


“Sagittal Anatomy,” Jen Whiting


“L’Art du Cerveau,” Alexa Erdogan


“L’Art du Cerveau,” Alexa Erdogan


Live music!


Quite a number of people turned out for the event


“Think Outside of the Lines,” Stephanie Mizuno


“The Unfolding,” Tracy Larson, Ph.D


“Intimacy,” Dr. Billy Spain


“Untitled,” Julia Licholai



11349113_10152959767147339_1037070754_n “Parallax Corridors,” Wyeth Bair


If you feel that you would like to contribute pieces to next year’s show, please contact the the Art Neureau organizational team at neubehart@gmail.com.

All photos were taken by Tyler DeFriece.

Decisions, Decisions…

How did you get here? Every person who is reading this article made a different set of decisions that led them to this point in time. The path of cumulative actions taken by each individual is different. It seems intuitive that the decision to read this article was made by you.

There is no debate that the subjective experience of free will exists. You could decide at this moment to close this article, or to continue reading. You could decide to lift your right finger and touch your nose. Most individuals feel that they are in control of their decisions, but for some, this is not the case.  These individuals have described experiences of depersonalization and derealization, the feeling that they cannot control their actions.

In 2011, David Eagleman wrote an intriguing article discussing specific examples of people who felt they were not in control of their actions. In it, he points to the example of Charles Whitman, a happily married former marine who studied engineering at the University of Texas. On August 1st, 1966, Whitman awoke and made the decision to murder his wife and mother in their sleep. Later that day, he climbed to the top of the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower in Austin, carrying with him a footlocker of weapons. Whitman then proceeded to execute a shooting rampage, killing 12 people and wounding 32 more before being killed by police.

In a suicide letter,  Whitman stated that he had been feeling like “a victim of his unusual and irrational thoughts.” He also went on to say, “It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight … I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this.1

Interestingly, Whitman requested that an autopsy of his brain be performed. Doctors found a glioblastoma—a tumor the size of a nickel in diameter—that had been compressing his amygdala. The amygdala is a primitive structure in the brain responsible for the regulation of emotion—specifically fear and aggression.

Eagleman also examines the case of a man, “Alex,” who suddenly developed urges of pedophilia in his 40s. Alex’s previous sexual preferences were considered  “normal” by our social standards: he was married and had no history of sexual misconduct. Within a short period of time, however, he had amassed extensive collection of child pornography, and was eventually confronted by his wife. Alex was arrested and sentenced to rehabilitation as an alternative to prison. He began to complain of increasingly painful headaches and eventually went to the emergency room, where a brain scan revealed a large tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex1.

Upon surgical removal of the tumor, Alex’s headaches—and his pedophilic urges—were alleviated1.

Now we must consider: are Charles Whitman and Alex to blame for the crimes they committed? Or were these crimes simply committed by brain tumors? This ethical debate is a complicated one. Even if we were to agree that these individuals were not in control of their actions, the heinousness of their crimes remains. How should the justice system treat individuals in cases like these?

In many ways, our justice system has already drawn a line between people who are accountable for their actions and people who are not. The insanity plea and the fact that adolescents are given less harsh sentences than adults are examples of this structure. These aspects of our justice system assume that some individuals are better able to control their decisions than others. Whether this is a result of altered brain structure, mental illness, or brain injury, our society agrees that people exhibit varying degrees of blameworthinessi.e. the ability to exercise free will.

The unfortunate drawback to this approach is that it is limited by the current technology used to study the brain. If Brad had been around in 1950—when brain scans did not exist—how would society know that he was not in control of his behavior? What if there are undiscovered differences in the neurochemistry of today’s criminals that will ultimately lead to exoneration twenty years from now? As highlighted by Eagleman, there may even exist in some a genetic predisposition towards criminal behavior. If this is the case, how can we be so confident that our justice system is sentencing individuals appropriately, especially in instances where individuals are given harsh sentences such as the death penalty? Perhaps a temporary solution is shifting the focus of sentencing away from “punishment,” and more towards a focus on preventing recidivism and protecting society. Ultimately this debate comes down to a simple question: are you in control of any decision you make, or is your behavior simply a product of your neurochemistry?

Some scientific evidence supports the latter conclusion. In a study done by Dr. Chun Siong Soon, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, it was found that simple binary decision making (choosing between two options) could be predicted with 95% accuracy up to 10 seconds before the subject reported to be aware of their decisionThis is quite shocking, considering how much we all take our subjective experience of free will for granted. Some boldly say that it is even a waste of time to devote further study to it, and that it should be left to the domain of philosophers. Regardless, we have to acknowledge that at some point in our lives we have all made a decision that we did not feel we were in charge of, but instead, gave into our impulsiveness.

Think about when you change your mind about a decision that you’ve yet to make. Generally, this is a result of a new experience which gives you a different perspective on the decision in question. This memory of the experience is encoded into your brain, which ultimately alters your neurochemistry, leading you to make a different decision.

In reality, every experience and every moment of consciousness alters the brain’s chemistry. Your sense of a continuous and unified self is an illusion. Behind the scenes, different parts of your brain are competing to contribute to your next decision. In healthy individuals, this cognitive decision-making process is subconscious, and the individual feels they are uniquely in control of their actions. The ability to make rational decisions is self-evident. As David Eagleman’s article shows, however, this is not the case for everyone.

This leaves us with one final question: if all of your thoughts, actions, and decisions are simply a function of your neurochemistry, and your neurochemistry is ultimately determined by your genes interacting with every arbitrary event you experience in time, who are you?

This question may never have an answer. To conclude, I’ll leave you with this wonderful quote by neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky:

Is a loved one, sunk in a depression so severe that she cannot function, a case of a disease whose biochemical basis is as “real” as is the biochemistry of, say, diabetes, or is she merely indulging herself? Is a child doing poorly at school because he is unmotivated and slow, or because there is a neurobiologically based learning disability? Is a friend, edging towards a serious problem with substance abuse, displaying a simple lack of discipline, or suffering from problems with the neurochemistry of reward?

Alien Hand Syndrome

Photo Courtesy of Ying Chen

It’s a disorder that makes you fling your cereal away, undress yourself in public, steal merchandise, and even look dangerous to the rest of the world. For over five decades, Alien Hand Syndrome has been puzzling patients and neuroscientists alike.

Despite the somewhat sci-fi inspired nickname, Alien Hand Syndrome is a disorder of the brain that affects our movement. It is typically prevalent in individuals diagnosed with severe epileptic seizures. The seizures are so awful that the individual undergoes a procedure that entails having a neurosurgeon cut out the portion of the brain that the storm of an epileptic seizure roots from 1. When that doesn’t help the patient, the neurosurgeon takes a more radical and risky approach by literally severing the brain in two along the corpus callosum. This is what’s called a “corpus callosotomy” 2. Having a portion of your brain cut out is something we usually don’t hear of these days but for some individuals, it has become the only last resort that works. . .until now.

A corpus callosotomy is a big word and a big procedure that sounds extremely intense. First, let me explain how our hemispheres work together in order to help us interact with the world. The brain is basically two halves that form a whole. The two halves consist of the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere. Typically, the left hemisphere (responsible for language, speech, and motor functioning) controls the right side of the body whilst the right hemisphere (responsible for visual and spatial recognition) controls the left side of the body (see figure 1). The corpus callosum is the middle part of the brain that connects these two hemispheres and allows them to successfully communicate with one another through a band of neural fibers that bridges these two hemispheres together. When these two hemispheres cooperate with one another, we can function “normally” with the world. In a corpus callosotomy, this bridge and these neural fibers are severed, and the bridge is broken. The patient, as a result, becomes “split-brained” 3. This is where things start to get interesting.

An example of how our hemispheres work separately to piece words and images together. Photo Courtesy of Ying Chen.

Figure 1. An example of how our hemispheres work separately in order to piece words and images together. Photo Courtesy of Ying Chen.

Split-brained patients have an issue with their brain hemispheres communicating with one another because the line of communication is cut. This makes it nearly impossible for individuals to function as normally as they would have before the procedure was performed. Issues that arise from the surgery result in a difficulty in recognizing words or images that lead to a lack of effective communication between brain hemispheres. For example, a study done by Michael Gazzaniga, a leading neurobiologist, psychologist, instructor, author, & researcher in split-brain patients for over 50 years, showed that individuals see and do two entirely separate things when a word is flashed on a screen on different sides of the brain. In his study, when the word “face” was flashed on the right side of the patient, the left hemisphere recognized the word and could say it out loud because it is the part of the brain responsible for speech and verbal recognition. When the same word, “face”, was flashed on the individual’s left side, the individual could say they saw absolutely “nothing” because the right brain (responsible for visual and spatial recognition) would not be able to recognize, nor say what it saw, but the individual would be able to draw a picture of a face 4. The two hemispheres were not working together to allow the individual to say the word and draw it, regardless of what side it was on. See below (skip to 1:22 for actual footage from the study):

The video above really encompasses what Joe’s life is like and how his brain works. It’s amazing to think that our brains act as two separate entities, two separate consciences, when the part that bridges them together is removed. This video really puts into context how our brain hemispheres work together and Michael Gazzaniga has shown us awe-inspiring and completely eye-opening evidence proving the existence of split-brain. Now that we’ve seen how these affect our minds, let us examine how this affects our bodies.

Karen Byrne, a woman from New Jersey who has had epileptic seizures since she was 10 years old elected to do the surgery at 27 and has been affected by it ever since. Although her epilepsy had been cured after the corpus callosotomy, Miss Byrne had an inability to control her left hand. It was as if some sort of “alien” force was controlling her hand for her. Without thinking, Karen’s hand would begin undressing herself, or stubbing out her newly lit cigarette. Her hand would literally remove things out of her purse and she would have no idea. But even worse – her left hand would repeatedly slap her in the face, and she could not stop it 5. Her right hand would try to correct the left, but her left hand would continue to do what it was doing and would not stop. It was as though she had no apparent free will because her left hand & her right hemisphere had a mind of its own. After 18 years of dealing with this largely life obstructing inconvenience, post surgery, doctors on the case discovered a new, unnamed medicine that put a stop to these battling, contradicting, and separate wills. Finally Karen was free of seizures and free to control her motor functioning. See the video here.

Although the study of Alien Hand Syndrome has been ongoing for decades now, it is still a disorder that we really do not know much about. As of right now, the only thing we know about it is the very fact that it is a miscommunication between the brain hemispheres and the body, and that it deeply affects individuals dealing with it. Hopefully in the future, neuroscientists and psychologists will collaborate and ultimately discover a way to permanently stop seizures in patients without the drastic surgeries and untested or overused medications. But for now, picture being in the shoes of a split-brained patient like Joe or Karen. How would that make you feel? What would you rather deal with – 18 years of seizures, or 18 years of not being able to control your own two hands?



1. Schachter, S. (2014, March 1). What Happens During A Seizure? l Epilepsy Foundation. Retrieved November 12, 2014, from http://www.epilepsy.com/learn/epilepsy-101/what-happens-during-seizure
2. Corpus Callosotomy. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2014, from http://epilepsy.med.nyu.edu/epilepsy-surgery/surgery-treatment-options/corpus-callosotomy#sthash.cJLAdivR.VPbAXq5n.dpbs
3. Chudler, E. (2011, January 1). Neuroscience For Kids – Hemispheres. Retrieved November 12, 2014, from http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/split.html
4. Wolman, D. (2012, March 14). The Split Brain: A Tale of Two Halves. Retrieved November 12, 2014, from http://www.nature.com/news/the-split-brain-a-tale-of-two-halves-1.10213
5. Mosley, M. (2011, January 20). Alien Hand Syndrome sees woman attacked by her own hand. Retrieved November 18, 2014, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-12225163

Grey Matters’ Clothing & Food Drive

Image by Allison Chan.

Donation collection: December 1st and the 3rd-5th from noon to 3:00 p.m. in Red Square. Look for the Grey Matters table.

The time of winter is fast approaching, officially starting December 21.  As the next weeks unfold, the days will get shorter and the temperatures will drop, which is nothing more than a mild inconvenience for most of us. But for much of the homeless population, this is the most challenging season of the year.

While the more fortunate find reprieve from the cold in a light blanket or sleeping bag, most of our homeless neighbors only have the clothing on their backs.

According to the January 2014 One Night Count (an annual event where roughly 1,000 volunteers walked through King County to count the homeless), there were at least 3,123 people sleeping on the streets, a 14% increase over last year (2014 One Night Count Fact Sheet). While the more fortunate find reprieve from the cold in a light blanket or sleeping bag, most of our homeless neighbors only have the clothing on their backs.

Hypothermia is a constant threat for someone living on the street. Each year, approximately seven hundred people die from hypothermia each year in the US. This is a staggeringly high number given that hypothermia is prevented by appropriate winter attire (NCH Winter Homeless Services, 2010).

Additionally, nearly half of the homeless population in King County suffers from serious mental illnesses or substance abuse problems (2007 King County Mental Illness & Drug Dependency Action Plan).  In a 2008 survey of 25 cities, 12 (48%) reported that mental illness was the third largest cause of homelessness (NCH Mental Illness and Homelessness 2009). Sadly, this means that the homeless population is disproportionately affected by mental illness, which limits their ability to  secure resources and services – including warm clothing.

Donations will go to the adult service center, “Peter’s Place” in Seattle. Items do not need to be washed first, but they should be in usable condition and relatively clean.

So, please help and donate what you can.  It could save a life!


  • Blankets/sleeping bags and sleeping pads
  • Clothing (emphasis on hats, socks, and gloves)
  • Towels and other hygiene items, such as soap

Other Useful Items:

  • Books, games, other forms of entertainment (even DVDs)
  • Food, with preference toward non-perishable items.

If you have any questions about the clothing and food drive, please let us know.

SfN 2014’s Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society Presentation

Image by Justen Waterhouse

cerebrum_15556With the holidays approaching, homes will soon be filled with foods to fit the season. The smells and tastes of traditional holiday cuisines have the power to conjure up memories of celebrations past – a fact that renowned chef Brian Voltaggio is well aware of, and showcased in this year’s Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society presentation. In his talk and accompanying demonstration, Voltaggio discussed a chef’s view on using cooking as means of engaging the senses in unique ways to create and evoke memorable experiences.

Though the idea was sound, the chef will be the first to tell you that he’s not a neuroscientist, which was reflected in the talk. The ties to neuroscience were a bit foggy, and conversation was often directed toward fine dining and restaurant operation. What’s more, he really only mentioned eating for pleasure – a luxury when one considers the type of eating conditions under which brains are developed. Nevertheless, there was value in what he was trying to communicate: that the entirety of everyday life is intricately bound to the brain. Because this idea was the crux of the presentation’s argument, the rest of the article will focus on the times it was best put into practice.

Voltaggio opened by showing how he plays with the senses to allow people with specific dietary aversions, such as allergies, to enjoy foods they would otherwise pass up. During his demonstration four panelists with PNG pumpkinneuroscience backgrounds were brought out to discuss some of Voltaggios creations. In his first, he was able to use different ingredients to simulate the taste and texture of oysters without using shellfish. These “Mock Oysters” were created as a way to allow someone to enjoy a dish they would not normally be able to consume. In a similar vein, the chef has worked hard to transform ingredients people often find unattractive into delicacies by altering some aspect of their composition, such as texture, flavor, or presentation. In doing so, he has tapped into the nuances of how brains process the various inputs associated with eating (many of which are laid out in another Grey Matters post titled Food for Thought).

He also capitalizes on memory’s association with the senses as a means of connecting people to pleasurable past experiences. To trigger memories of fall, for example, Chef Voltaggio prepared an assortment of autumnal mushrooms in a parchment paper bag. When opened, not only are diners exposed to the earthy smell of the mushrooms, they’re reminded of crackling leaves underfoot as the parchment paper crinkles to prime thoughts of foraging in fall. In another dish, he transformed a common comfort food, bagels and lox, into an extravagant form that almost in no way resembled its traditional preparation but preserved the characteristic elements of its taste, enhancing recall of any memories associated with this classic meal.

“The lavender is shocking!”

To finish off the meal, Chef Voltaggio had the idea of introducing a dessert that looked, in his words, like “nothing”. A host of ingredients were all made white (if they weren’t already) and presented in a manner that would give very few cues as to what flavors they might house. So, when panelists dug in and were greeted by tastes including vanilla, coconut, and lavender, they were quite surprised. In fact, panelist Barry Everitt, a memory researcher from the University of Cambridge, reacted by exclaiming “The lavender is shocking!” after digging in. It is known that memories of novel and surprising events are enhanced, so, whether consciously or not, the chef is again drawing on neuroscience to inform his cooking.

Although at this point Chef Voltaggio’s philosophies and work are not explicitly rooted in scientific practice, exploring the interplay between food and the brain provides an example of how disciplines traditionally thought of as being peripheral to science have the opportunity to take a place center stage.

Check back soon for more updates on fascinating neuroscience from the nation’s capital.

The living memory

Cortical pyramidal neurons. Image from UC Regents Davis.

Kicking off this year’s SfN Presidential Special Lecture series, Dr. Kelsey Martin presented her work exploring the molecular contributions to memory formation. Dr. Martin is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Biological Chemistry at UCLA where she studies how memories are stored in the brain.

In order to better discuss the ideas and findings presented by Dr. Martin, we have decided to cover her talk in a four-part series:

  1. An introduction to discuss background and research questions
  2. Evidence for signaling between active synapses and the nucleus
  3. Distributed or specified distribution? How does mRNA travel to distal synapses?
  4. Synapse activation regulates protein synthesis



By 1970, it was clear that long-term memory formation relied on protein synthesis [1]. Later studies further confirmed this by showing that long-term potentiation (LTP) is similarly dependent on the generation of new proteins [2]. In hindsight, these findings may not be altogether surprising. However, as is typical of important scientific discoveries, the protein synthesis dependent nature of memory formation spurred further questions and research. In her recent work, Dr. Martin has explored the mechanisms that allow signaling molecules, mRNA, and/or proteins to negotiate the distance between the synapse and nucleus. This research is important for linking the electrical activity that enables memory formation, like LTP, with the cellular and molecular mechanisms that allow protein synthesis to occur.


According to Dr. Martin, there are essentially two broad questions that have to be addressed in order to understand the nature of synapse-nuclear interactions. The simpler of the two revolves around the spatial relationship of distal synapses to the nucleus. In other words: how does the signal, or information, that a synapse has been activated travel to the nucleus and trigger transcription?

Because of the possibility of highly varied dendritic arborization, this distance from can be rather far. In mouse pyramidal cells, for example, dendritic length varies from 200-800 um [3] – a distance that is 10-40 times further than the diameter of the soma.

The second, more complex, problem is to understand how the product of nuclear activity targets the activated synapse with a high degree of specificity. The protein-dependent LTP and corresponding increase in synaptic strength are synapse specific [4]. Therefore the consequence of nuclear activity cannot have widespread effects.

Next Steps

In the following posts of this series, we will discuss the the experiments that have allowed Dr. Martin and her lab to show 1) how signaling molecules move from distal dendritic synapses to the nucleus and trigger transcription, 2) how this leads to a distribution of mRNA within the cell, and 3) how synapse activation results in synapse-specific translation.


1. Agranoff, B.W., Davis, R.E., Casola, L. & Lim, R. (1967). Science 158, 1600-1601
2. Lynch, M.A. (2004). Long-term potentiation and memory. Pysiological Reviews. 84:1, pp. 87-136.
3. Benavides-Piccione, R., Hamzei-Sichani, F., Ballesteros-Yanez, I., DeFelipe, J., Yuste, R. (2006). Dendritic size of pyramidal neurons differs among mouse cortical regions. Cerebral Cortex, 16:7, pp. 990-1001
4. Martin, K.C. (2014). The living record of memory: Gene, neurons, and synapses. SfN 2014 Presidential Lecture.

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    1. Agranoff, B.W., Davis, R.E., Casola, L. & Lim, R. (1967). Science 158, 1600-1601
    2. Lynch, M.A. (2004). Long-term potentiation and memory. Pysiological Reviews. 84:1, pp. 87-136.
    3. Benavides-Piccione, R., Hamzei-Sichani, F., Ballesteros-Yanez, I., DeFelipe, J., Yuste, R. (2006). Dendritic size of pyramidal neurons differs among mouse cortical regions. Cerebral Cortex, 16:7, pp. 990-1001
    4. Martin, K.C. (2014). The living record of memory: Gene, neurons, and synapses. SfN 2014 Presidential Lecture.

Live from Neuroscience 2014

More than 30,000 neuroscientists are expected to gather in the nation’s capital this week to attend the annual Society for Neuroscience conference. The newest findings and breakthroughs in brain science are first shared and discussed at conferences such as Neuroscience 2014. And this year, we are bringing those findings to you.

Two of Grey Matters’ officers will be attending the conference and writing about the seminars, symposia, and posters they encounter. So, follow along and learn about the cutting edge neuroscience coming out of Neuroscience 2014.

All posts related to this year’s conference will be lited below. Our twitter feed will have more frequent updates.