Sunday, July 17, 2011

Brain Overclocking: Living a More Intense Life

Neurons recruited for local computations exhibit rhythmic activity at gamma frequencies. The amplitude and frequency of these oscillations are continuously modulated depending on stimulus and behavioral state. This modulation is believed to crucially control information flow across cortical areas....by rapidly balancing excitation with inhibition, the hippocampal network is able to swiftly modulate gamma oscillations over a wide band of frequencies. _ScienceDirect
SPIE

Besides finding ways to prolong one's life, it would be worthwhile to find ways to live one's life more intensely. We have discussed ways in which we might reduce the amount of time spent in sleep, without suffering from diminished mental or physical health. There are also everyday ways in which a person can intensify his experience of his waking time. Some examples are listed at the end of this piece.

From the neurocognitive standpoint, the concept of the controlled "overclocking" of the brain -- speeding up the functioning of brain processes so that more can be experienced and accomplished in less time -- is just coming into the realm of possiblity. The concept, once developed, will rest upon a sound understanding of brain processing and inter-brain communications.
Brain activity changes between different brain states, whether awake, asleep, drugged, etc. Besides the activation of different centers in the brain according to brain state, the actual speed (frequency) of brain activity varies with different brain states.

It is thought that synchronous oscillations involving gamma carrier waves (30 to 100 Hz) modulated by theta frequencies (4 to 8 Hz) allow multiple brain processes to occur, including the transfer of working memory to long-term memory, and the binding of different sensory or other inputs into a coherent mental image of an object or idea. In other words, the way the oscillations of the brain are organised on a moment to moment basis, is what allows us to "think" and remember. (see Working Memory: The Importance of Theta and Gamma Oscillations, Lisman, Current Biology Vol 20 No 11)
Gamma oscillations are thought to transiently link distributed cell assemblies that are processing related information1, 2, a function that is probably important for network processes such as perception1, 2, 3, attentional selection4 and memory5, 6. This 'binding' mechanism requires that spatially distributed cells fire together with millisecond range precision7, 8; _Nature
The idea of a synchronous oscillator, or "clock", involved in thinking and memory suggests the possibility of "speeding up the clock" or "overclocking," analogous to the overclocking of a computer processor to achieve higher computing speeds. In reality, of course, things work much differently in the brain, and no central processing unit is available for safe and controlled overclocking.

But we do know that the top end of the gamma "carrier wave" frequency can vary between types of animals. Some kinds of insects, for example, exhibit brain synchrony at frequencies up to 200 Hz in certain circuits. (Kirschfeld PNAS USA Vol. 89, pp. 4764-4768, May 1992 Neurobiology)

Different frequencies of gamma oscillation serve to connect different brain centers, in practise. This allows for simultaneous parallel activity between multiple circuits. Therefore, when "overclocking," one must be sure not to "step on" the frequencies used by different brain circuits.

There are a number of other cautions, assuming that one had a good idea how to begin to go about ramping up gamma oscillation carrier wave frequencies in the first place. The intricacy of neuronal signaling of brain circuits should discourage any attempts to permanently alter neuronal oscillatory activity. For example, gamma frequencies are closely controlled and modulated by inhibitory interneurons. You cannot change the timing of one type of cell and expect to maintain a system of smooth communication between brain nuclei. Rather, multiple keys that control the timing of networks across the brain will have to be discovered and mastered.

Why should we bother to attempt something which will require so much work? It is possible, after all, to intensify the experience of everyday life without resorting to the extremes of genetic modification of the brain.

Below are some of the everyday means by which some persons provide themselves with temporary experiences of high intensity consciousness:

Pharmacological brain stimulants have been used for this purpose for centuries, but in general they extract a steep price from the user who does not exercise prudence. Veterans of combat can attest to the consciousness-intensifying effect of the life-or-death experience. But we are looking for something more sustainable and less risky. Sky-diving, hang gliding, scuba diving, whitewater kayaking, etc. are less risky than combat, but provide a temporary aura of intensity which lingers after the experience. In occupational settings, life or death emergencies attended to by firefighters, police officers, EMS personnel, medical personnel in hospitals, etc. provide temporary "fixes" of intensity. And under the category of "not to be recommended," the commission of a crime and the attendant risk of being caught supplies the outlaw with a feeling of intensity which can become addictive to some. Similarly, committing acts which may be legal but which are socially or occupationally frowned upon, can sometimes provide a touch of that "outlaw intensity," that accompanies risk.

Perhaps the most dangerous method of intensifying experience is to fall in love. The fallout from such a turn is apt to be fatal to any number of persons involved and in the immediate vicinity. ;-)

As for using brain science to overclock the brain, I will be exploring some of the ideas that might be tried eventually in short works of fiction on another Al Fin blog.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Regenerative Medicine, Stem Cells, Designed Evolution Machines

Image via NextBigFuture

A revolution in regenerative medicine, genetic recombineering, synthetic biology, systems biology, and several other points of the biosingularity are pushing ahead despite three years of global economic downturn and counting, since the fall of 2008.

Brian Wang introduces us to the "accelerated evolution machine," pictured above.
Say hello to the evolution machine. It can achieve in days what takes genetic engineers years. So far it is just a prototype, but if its proponents are to be believed, future versions could revolutionise biology, allowing us to evolve new organisms or rewrite whole genomes with ease. It might even transform humanity itself.

...Because biological systems are so complex, it is a huge advantage to be able to tweak lots of genes simultaneously, rather than one at a time, she says. "In almost every case you'll get a different solution that's a better solution."

...By automating selection and using a few tricks, though, it should be practical to screen for far more subtle characteristics. For instance, biosensors that light up when a particular substance is produced could be built into the starting strain. "The power going forward will have to do with clever selections and screens," says Church.

As revolutionary as this approach is, Church thinks MAGE's most far-reaching potential lies elsewhere. He reckons it will be possible to use the evolution machine to make many thousands of specific changes to a cell's DNA: essentially, to rewrite genomes.

At the moment, making extensive changes to even the smallest genome is extremely costly and laborious. Last year, the biologist and entrepreneur Craig Venter announced that his team had replaced a bacterium's genome with a custom-written one (Science, vol 329, p 52). His team synthesised small pieces of DNA with a specific sequence, and then joined them together to create an entire genome. It was an awesome achievement, but it took 400 person-years of labour and cost around $40 million.

MAGE can do the same job far more cheaply and efficiently by rewriting existing genomes, Church thinks. The idea is that instead of putting DNA strands into the machine with a range of different mutations, you add only DNA with the specific changes you want. Even if you are trying to change hundreds or thousands of genes at once, after a few cycles in the machine, a good proportion of the cells should have all the desired changes. This can be checked by sequencing.

...As the technology improves and becomes routine, says Church, it could also be used to alter the cells used for cell-based therapies. Tissue-engineered livers grown from stem cells, say, could have their genetic code altered so that they would be immune to liver-destroying viruses such as hepatitis C. _NewScientist_via_NBF

The "evolution machine" has its work cut out for it, but it may very well speed up some projects which do not depend upon significant transformations of the genome. More sizeable genomic transforms are not likely to be possible using such a simplist approach. But future generations of such machines are likely to grow sophisticated enough to make the work of future Craig Venters much faster and simpler.
Researchers at the LA Children's Hospital built a fully functioning artificial small intestine in mice.

A man from Eritrea was recently given an artificial trachea transplant in Sweden. The trachea was grown on a scaffold inside a bioreactor.

Scientists have isolated the human blood cell progenitor stem cell, which is capable of growing all the various cellular components of the blood system.

Johns Hopkins researchers have identified a "super neural precursor stem cell" which can not only differentiate into specialised brain cells, but can also reproduce itself!

A partial list of companies involved in regenerative medicine research and development

The US has been the world's driver of scientific and biomedical R&D for several decades now. There has been some question as to how long American research could maintain its drive, if the nation's economy was dragged down by dysfunctional governmental economic and regulatory policies. Yet, despite the current US government's apparent war against the private sector, some areas of private R&D are still thriving -- although not as well as prior to the fall of 2008.

It is vital that private sector financing be central to advanced R&D, to prevent the type of politicisation of science which has frozen climatology in an infantile state of biased activism (via GWPF), rather than dispassionate observation and honest hypothesis testing.
Federal domination of science funding has two quite intended consequences: both individual scientists and major universities have become wards of Washington. For decades, academic sociologists have noted that almost all faculty party affiliations are with the Democrats. This is no conspiracy–it is merely like-minded individuals hiring other like minds and voting their best interest. _Forbes

Previously published at Al Fin

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