Elastic Brains and New Tech

Maybe ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,’ but apparently the adult brain isn’t nearly as rigid as scientists thought.

I’ll be looking at neuroplasticity, the idea that brains can change; research that may lead to better neural interfaces; and ‘brain training’ games.

  1. Teen Brains, Old Dogs, New Science
  2. Memristors and Neural Interfaces
  3. Games, yes; Training Solutions, Debatable

We’ve been learning a great deal about the human brain and how it works. That’s a good thing for me, since I have maintenance issues with mine.

Suicide: No Future In It

As I said last week, undiagnosed depression and something probably on the autism spectrum has been part of my life for decades. (October 5, 2016)

The first time I felt like killing myself was in my teens. At the time, I decided that I could last longer than the pain.

I was right.

That’s no great virtue on my part. I’m very stubborn, and could apply what I’d learned about enduring physical pain to the psychological version.

When I became a Catholic, I learned more about why suicide is a bad idea.

I’m responsible for my life. It’s a gift from God. I don’t have the authority to end it. Besides, it’s not just about me. Other folks might be affected, too. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 22802282)

However, if someone tells you that your child/spouse/relative/friend is in Hell because he or she committed suicide: that is not what the Church says:

“We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”
(Catechism, 2283)

There’s help available for those of us with suicidal thoughts these days: like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

That’s 800-273-TALK (8255) / 800-273-8255 — a free, 24/7 service that can provide suicidal persons or those around them with support, information and local resources. (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline / www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org)

An Irritable Life, But a Short One?1

Major depressive disorder probably isn’t lethal, by itself. On average, though, folks with this disorder have shorter lives — partly because we’re much more likely than most to kill ourselves.

We’re also more likely to drop dead from heart disease and assorted other illnesses.

Meanwhile, feeling hopeless or irritable most of the time doesn’t help us concentrate.

Neither does our inadequate supply neurotransmitters: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Quite a few of us wind up homeless; but again, that doesn’t always happen.

Nerves in the peripheral nervous system handle signals to the diaphragm, heart, and other vital systems.

These nerves use dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s in short supply in folks with major depression. I’d be surprised if glitchy control circuits didn’t eventually kill us.

Praise the Lord and Pass the Prescriptions

(Image from ISS program and the JSC Earth Science & Remote Sensing Unit, ARES Division, Exploration Integration Science Directorate, used w/o permission.)

I learned this sort of thing as a child:

4 Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side; your rod and staff give me courage.”
(Psalms 23:4)

“You are my hope, Lord; my trust, GOD, from my youth.”
(Psalms 71:5)

“Praise the LORD, my soul; I shall praise the LORD all my life, sing praise to my God while I live.”
(Psalms 146:2)

Remembering it while stumbling though a dark valley: that’s not easy, but I think it’s important.

So is remembering this sort of thing:

“The soul of the sluggard craves in vain, but the diligent soul is amply satisfied.”
(Proverbs 13:4)

Folks who don’t believe in medicine, assuming that ‘God will provide,’ occasionally hit the news when one of their number drops dead of a treatable condition.

‘Relying on the Lord’ is a very nice notion, and appropriate. Within reason.

I believe that God constantly sustains my existence — and makes a world where the creatures in it, myself included, have a role in making things happen. (Catechism, 301, 306)

I’ve got hands and a brain. I figure God expects me to do something with them.

My life and health are “precious gifts” from God. Taking “reasonable care” of them is part of my job. (Catechism, 2288)

That includes taking methylphenidate, one of the psychoactive drugs that lets me think without constantly fighting the machinery in my brain.

I could try ‘rising above’ my brain’s lack of neurotransmitters, continuing a decades-long struggle to focus on each hour’s tasks. I could also try turning my metal-and-plastic hip joints into flesh-and-blood ones with the power of my mind.

That doesn’t seem reasonable.

Genetics and Responsibility

Feeling sad and hopeless is part of major depressive disorder — but this “depression” isn’t just a mood or a bout of the blues.

It’s probably a “weakness,” in the sense that something in my genes may have made me more susceptible than others.2

It could have been worse. Some folks are susceptible to things like Chron’s disease.

I do not think “depression” is a sign of weak moral character, or feel guilty because I can’t think myself into good health.

Some folks who enjoy good health seem convinced that it’s due to their moral and mental strength.

I’ll grant that good behavior generally helps me stay healthier.

I don’t think depression and whatever else is wrong with my brain’s circuitry gives me an excuse for misbehaving. (Catechism, 387)

I can decide to act, or not act; and am responsible for my actions. (Catechism,17301738)

But I don’t think God will blame me for experiencing the effects of illness, mental or otherwise. (Catechism, 1735)

1. Teen Brains, Old Dogs, New Science

(From Harry Campbell, via The New York Times, used w/o permission.)

Return to the Teenage Brain
Richard A. Friedman, op-ed, The New York Times (October 8, 2016)

“There’s a reason adults don’t pick up Japanese or learn how to kite surf. It’s ridiculously hard. In stark contrast, young people can learn the most difficult things relatively easily. Polynomials, Chinese, skateboarding — no problem!

“Neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to form new neural connections and be influenced by the environment — is greatest in childhood and adolescence, when the brain is still a work in progress. But this window of opportunity is finite. Eventually it slams shut. Or so we thought.

“Until recently, the conventional wisdom within the fields of neuroscience and psychiatry has been that development is a one-way street, and once a person has passed through his formative years, experiences and abilities are very hard, if not impossible, to change….”

The best, or easiest, time for learning is when we’re very young. But ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ isn’t always true. Not for humans, anyway.

Researchers found that giving adults valproic acid, Valproate, helps adults learn perfect pitch; and I learned that it’s called “absolute pitch.”

It looks like histone deacetylase, a substance that affects DNA, is involved in making our brains more open to rewiring. I put a list of resources near the end of this post.3

Mr. Friedman ends his op-ed with this:

“…You … can’t be sure that opening a new sensitive period won’t leave you worse off than the first one did. You might find it easier to pick up Chinese, but you might also remember more acutely all the disappointments and traumas that you’d prefer to forget.

“Finally, our very identity is enmeshed in these neural circuits. Do we really want to tamper with them at the risk of altering who we are?

“But the allure of recapturing neuroplasticity, with its potential to treat diseases like Alzheimer’s and autism, as well as to repair early psychological trauma, will be very hard to resist.”
(Richard A. Friedman, op-ed, The New York Times)

I’m not convinced that we should “resist” developing medical technology that could enhance neuroplasticity, treat degenerative diseases, and help folks like me repair our minds.

Taking time to think about how we should use new technology — seems reasonable. I talked about new tech and rational reflection last week.4 (October 7, 2016)

Learning How Our Brains Work

My high school science textbooks said that adult brains were static, unchanging. The assumption was that our brains don’t change, once we get past youth: no new neurons, no new connections between neurons.

I’m not sure how that belief took hold, or why the idea that adult brains aren’t hardwired took so long to catch on. The fancy term for the brain’s ability to change is neuroplasticity.5

Michele Vicenzo Malacarne’s 1793 research suggested that training makes an animal’s cerebellum grow. William James apparently raised the idea that adult brains aren’t rigid in his 1890 book, “The Principles of Psychology.”

Karl Lashley’s 1923 research with Rhesus monkeys showed neural connections in their brains changing through adulthood.

I suspect it helps that we’ve got functional neuroimaging tech now, like Single-photon emission computed tomography and magnetoencephalography.

Scientists have known that electrical impulses happen in brains since around 1860, and we’ve learned a very great deal about how the brain works in the last few decades.

We don’t have science fiction’s ‘brain scanners’ yet. But tech like Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is getting close.

My guess is that we’ll learn a very great deal more in the next few generations.

There’s more about medical imaging and other technology near the end of this post.6

2. Memristors and Neural Interfaces

(From University of Southampton, via The Atlantic, used w/o permission.)

Memristors Could Be a Boon to Brain-to-Prosthesis Communication
Andrew Silver, IEEE Spectrum (October 4, 2016)

“Inside the brain, many neurons fire so that the body will perform a single action like picking up a cup or kicking a ball. Unfortunately for amputees with missing limbs, this brain activity is for naught. Now, engineers at the University of Southampton say they’ve shown that low-power devices known as memristors might be more energy efficient than today’s experimental neural interfaces that help relay signals from the brain to prosthetic limbs.

“Themis Prodromakis, who studies nanoelectronics at the University of Southampton, in England, is exploring one of the building blocks of brain and computer interfaces for medical applications. His early research supports the development of special neuronal brain-chips: neural implants that communicate with prosthetic limbs when neurons fire….”

As of this week, Wikipedia’s Memristor page says it’s “a hypothetical non-linear passive two-terminal electrical component,” and says “there are … some serious doubts as to whether the memristor can actually exist in physical reality….”

Rational caution is a good idea; which is why scientists tried replicating cold fusion results back in 1989, instead of uncritically accepting the claims.

Maybe that’s the reason for the “serious doubts.” Or maybe this is like the Koch-Pasteur rivalry. Sometimes personal and political issues slosh into acceptance of new ideas.

In this case, since a different team also got positive results from a titanium oxide film — my guess is that memristors may be more than “hypothetical.”

Even if this memristor research leads to practical hardware, I think it’ll be years — at least — before neural implants using the new tech join existing commercial brain-computer interfaces like Emotive’s EPOC+.7

3. Games, yes; Training Solutions, Debatable

(From Edgar Su/Reuters, via The Atlantic, used w/o permission.)

The Weak Evidence Behind Brain-Training Games
Ed Yong, The Atlantic (October 3, 2016)

“Seven psychologists reviewed every single scientific paper put forward to support these products—and found them wanting.

“If you repeat a specific mental task—say, memorizing a string of numbers—you’ll obviously get better at it. But what if your recollection improved more generally? What if, by spending a few minutes a day on that simple task, you could also become better at remembering phone numbers, or recalling facts ahead of an exam, or bringing faces to mind?

“This is the seductive logic of the brain-training industry….

“…People are certainly buying the hype—and the games. According to one set of estimates, consumers spent $715 million on these games in 2013, and are set to spend $3.38 billion by 2020.

“And they might be wasting their money….”

$715 million a year sounds like a lot of money, and it is. I figured learning how much one person might “waste” on a game might give me a better idea of what we’re looking at.

A one-year subscription to BrainHQ costs $96. That’s more than I pay for Sky and Telescope, but doesn’t seem exorbitant for an entertainment expense.

Another outfit, Cogmed, says “Cogmed solutions help consumers, professionals, and schools address attention problems.”

That got my attention, particularly since I couldn’t find a price listing. I’ve learned to associate profuse self-praise and no visible price with “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” products and services.

Cogmed’s claim to have practical benefits makes their offer something other than entertainment

Patent Medicines for the Information Age?

My quick look at ‘brain game’ marketing backs up what the seven psychologists said:

Do ‘Brain-Training’ Programs Work?
Daniel J. Simons, Walter R. Boot, Neil Charness, Susan E. Gathercole, Christopher F. Chabris, David Z. Hambrick, Elizabeth A. L. Stine-Morrow; Psychological Science in the Public Interest, via Sage Journals (October 2016)

“…As a rule, brain-training companies promote the efficacy of their products for a very wide range of conditions and outcomes, from specific genetic, neurological, and mental diagnoses (e.g., Turner syndrome, age-related cognitive impairment, schizophrenia), to sports performance, general cognitive ability, everyday memory for names and locations, and driving ability….”

Hamlin's Wizard Oil advertising poster. (ca. 1890)I expect a certain amount of puffery in advertising: exaggerations that no reasonable person would believe, like polar bears drinking Coca-Cola.

I don’t see a problem with marketing a product, maybe because I spent two decades in that field.

But presenting a product or service’s benefits is one thing. Emulating patent medicine advertising like Hamlin’s Wizard Oil’s is something else.

American patent medicine makers flourished in the later 19th century because so many folks didn’t trust doctors, and the Pure Food and Drug Act wasn’t around yet.

Fear of 19th-century medical practice wasn’t unreasonable. Bloodletting, emetics, and laxatives, were routine medical procedures.8

The Pure Food and Drug Act wasn’t a cure-all. Radium 226 and 228 in Bailey Radium Laboratories’ “Perpetual Sunshine,” Radithor, eventually put Eben Byers in a lead-lined coffin, decades after the FDA’s launch.

I’d be astonished if any of today’s ‘brain game’ software is lethal. But I think it’s probably more entertainment, and less “solution” to anyone’s problems.

More of my views on faith, science, and being human:

1 Bartholomew Roberts (1682-1722) apparently decided that he was better off as a pirate: ” ‘…no, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto.’ ” (Wikipedia))

I see his point, since as a Welsh commoner in the British merchant navy he could look forward to earning “less than £3 per month and … no chance of promotion to captaincy.” (Wikipedia)

That doesn’t justify making piracy/theft a career, but I think his situation shows why paying just wages and promoting qualified folks makes sense. (Catechism, 24082409, 24332434)

2 Depression, background:

3 Neuroplasticity, genes, and what we experience:

4 ‘Because we can’ isn’t a good reason:

“…what is technically possible is not for that very reason morally admissible. Rational reflection on the fundamental values of life and of human procreation is therefore indispensable for formulating a moral evaluation of such technological interventions on a human being from the first stages of his development….”
(“Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions,” William Cardinal Levada, Prefect; Luis F. Ladaria, S.I., Titular Archbishop of Thibica, Secretary; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (September 8, 2008)) [Emphasis mine]

5 Neuroplasticity and all that:

6 Medical imaging and other monitoring tech:

7 Brain-computer interfaces, commercial and otherwise:

8 More reasons for not missing the ‘good old days:’

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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