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Ask any neuroscientist to draw you a neuron, and it’ll probably look something like a star with two tails: one stubby with extensive tree-like branches, the other willowy, lengthy and dotted with spindly spikes.
While a decent abstraction, this cartoonish image hides the uncomfortable truth that scientists still don’t know much about what many neurons actually look like, not to mention the extent of their connections.
But without untangling the jumbled mess of neural wires that zigzag across the brain, scientists are stumped in trying to answer one of the most fundamental mysteries of the brain: how individual neuronal threads carry and assemble information, which forms the basis of our thoughts, memories, consciousness, and self.
What if there was a way to virtually trace and explore the brain’s serpentine fibers, much like the way Google Maps allows us to navigate the concrete tangles of our cities’ highways?
Thanks to an interdisciplinary team at Janelia Research Campus, we’re on our way. Meet MouseLight, the most extensive map of the mouse brain ever attempted. The ongoing project has an ambitious goal: reconstructing thousands—if not more—of the mouse’s 70 million neurons into a 3D map. (You can play with it here!)
With map in hand, neuroscientists around the world can begin to answer how neural circuits are organized in the brain, and how information flows from one neuron to another across brain regions and hemispheres.
The first release, presented Monday at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Conference in Washington, DC, contains information about the shape and sizes of 300 neurons.
And that’s just the beginning.
“MouseLight’s new dataset is the largest of its kind,” says Dr. Wyatt Korff, director of project teams. “It’s going to change the textbook view of neurons.”
MouseLight is hardly the first rodent brain atlasing project.
The Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle tracks neuron activity across small circuits in an effort to trace a mouse’s connectome—a complete atlas of how the firing of one neuron links to the next.
MICrONS (Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks), the $100 million government-funded “moonshot” hopes to distill brain computation into algorithms for more powerful artificial intelligence. Its first step? Brain mapping.
What makes MouseLight stand out is its scope and level of detail.
MICrONS, for example, is focused on dissecting a cubic millimeter of the mouse visual processing center. In contrast, MouseLight involves tracing individual neurons across the entire brain.
And while connectomics outlines the major connections between brain regions, the birds-eye view entirely misses the intricacies of each individual neuron. This is where MouseLight steps in.
Slice and Dice
With a width only a fraction of a human hair, neuron projections are hard to capture in their native state. Tug or squeeze the brain too hard, and the long, delicate branches distort or even shred into bits.
In fact, previous attempts at trying to reconstruct neurons at this level of detail topped out at just a dozen, stymied by technological hiccups and sky-high costs.
A few years ago, the MouseLight team set out to automate the entire process, with a few time-saving tweaks. Here’s how it works.
After injecting a mouse with a virus that causes a handful of neurons to produce a green-glowing protein, the team treated the brain with a sugar alcohol solution. This step “clears” the brain, transforming the beige-colored organ to translucent, making it easier for light to penetrate and boosting the signal-to-background noise ratio. The brain is then glued onto a small pedestal and ready for imaging.
Building upon an established method called “two-photon microscopy,” the team then tweaked several parameters to reduce imaging time from days (or weeks) down to a fraction of that. Endearingly known as “2P” by the experts, this type of laser microscope zaps the tissue with just enough photos to light up a single plane without damaging the tissue—sharper plane, better focus, crisper image.
After taking an image, the setup activates its vibrating razor and shaves off the imaged section of the brain—a waspy slice about 200 micrometers thick. The process is repeated until the whole brain is imaged.
This setup increased imaging speed by 16 to 48 times faster than conventional microscopy, writes team leader Dr. Jayaram Chandrashekar, who published a version of the method early last year in eLife.
The resulting images strikingly highlight every crook and cranny of a neuronal branch, popping out against a pitch-black background. But pretty pictures come at a hefty data cost: each image takes up a whopping 20 terabytes of data—roughly the storage space of 4,000 DVDs, or 10,000 hours of movies.
Stitching individual images back into 3D is an image-processing nightmare. The MouseLight team used a combination of computational power and human prowess to complete this final step.
The reconstructed images are handed off to a mighty team of seven trained neuron trackers. With the help of tracing algorithms developed in-house and a keen eye, each member can track roughly a neuron a day—significantly less time than the week or so previously needed.
A Numbers Game
Even with just 300 fully reconstructed neurons, MouseLight has already revealed new secrets of the brain.
While it’s widely accepted that axons, the neurons’ outgoing projection, can span the entire length of the brain, these extra-long connections were considered relatively rare. (In fact, one previously discovered “giant neuron” was thought to link to consciousness because of its expansive connections).
Images captured from two-photon microscopy show an axon and dendrites protruding from a neuron’s cell body (sphere in center). Image Credit: Janelia Research Center, MouseLight project team
MouseLight blows that theory out of the water.
The data clearly shows that “giant neurons” are far more common than previously thought. For example, four neurons normally associated with taste had wiry branches that stretched all the way into brain areas that control movement and process touch.
“We knew that different regions of the brain talked to each other, but seeing it in 3D is different,” says Dr. Eve Marder at Brandeis University.
“The results are so stunning because they give you a really clear view of how the whole brain is connected.”
With a tested and true system in place, the team is now aiming to add 700 neurons to their collection within a year.
But appearance is only part of the story.
We can’t tell everything about a person simply by how they look. Neurons are the same: scientists can only infer so much about a neuron’s function by looking at their shape and positions. The team also hopes to profile the gene expression patterns of each neuron, which could provide more hints to their roles in the brain.
MouseLight essentially dissects the neural infrastructure that allows information traffic to flow through the brain. These anatomical highways are just the foundation. Just like Google Maps, roads form only the critical first layer of the map. Street view, traffic information and other add-ons come later for a complete look at cities in flux.
The same will happen for understanding our ever-changing brain.
Image Credit: Janelia Research Campus, MouseLight project team Continue reading
Many of us intuitively think about intelligence as an individual trait. As a society, we have a tendency to praise individual game-changers for accomplishments that would not be possible without their teams, often tens of thousands of people that work behind the scenes to make extraordinary things happen.
Matt Ridley, best-selling author of multiple books, including The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, challenges this view. He argues that human achievement and intelligence are entirely “networking phenomena.” In other words, intelligence is collective and emergent as opposed to individual.
When asked what scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit, Ridley highlights collective intelligence: “It is by putting brains together through the division of labor— through trade and specialization—that human society stumbled upon a way to raise the living standards, carrying capacity, technological virtuosity, and knowledge base of the species.”
Ridley has spent a lifetime exploring human prosperity and the factors that contribute to it. In a conversation with Singularity Hub, he redefined how we perceive intelligence and human progress.
Raya Bidshahri: The common perspective seems to be that competition is what drives innovation and, consequently, human progress. Why do you think collaboration trumps competition when it comes to human progress?
Matt Ridley: There is a tendency to think that competition is an animal instinct that is natural and collaboration is a human instinct we have to learn. I think there is no evidence for that. Both are deeply rooted in us as a species. The evidence from evolutionary biology tells us that collaboration is just as important as competition. Yet, at the end, the Darwinian perspective is quite correct: it’s usually cooperation for the purpose of competition, wherein a given group tries to achieve something more effectively than another group. But the point is that the capacity to co-operate is very deep in our psyche.
RB: You write that “human achievement is entirely a networking phenomenon,” and we need to stop thinking about intelligence as an individual trait, and that instead we should look at what you refer to as collective intelligence. Why is that?
MR: The best way to think about it is that IQ doesn’t matter, because a hundred stupid people who are talking to each other will accomplish more than a hundred intelligent people who aren’t. It’s absolutely vital to see that everything from the manufacturing of a pencil to the manufacturing of a nuclear power station can’t be done by an individual human brain. You can’t possibly hold in your head all the knowledge you need to do these things. For the last 200,000 years we’ve been exchanging and specializing, which enables us to achieve much greater intelligence than we can as individuals.
RB: We often think of achievement and intelligence on individual terms. Why do you think it’s so counter-intuitive for us to think about collective intelligence?
MR: People are surprisingly myopic to the extent they understand the nature of intelligence. I think it goes back to a pre-human tendency to think in terms of individual stories and actors. For example, we love to read about the famous inventor or scientist who invented or discovered something. We never tell these stories as network stories. We tell them as individual hero stories.
“It’s absolutely vital to see that everything from the manufacturing of a pencil to the manufacturing of a nuclear power station can’t be done by an individual human brain.”
This idea of a brilliant hero who saves the world in the face of every obstacle seems to speak to tribal hunter-gatherer societies, where the alpha male leads and wins. But it doesn’t resonate with how human beings have structured modern society in the last 100,000 years or so. We modern-day humans haven’t internalized a way of thinking that incorporates this definition of distributed and collective intelligence.
RB: One of the books you’re best known for is The Rational Optimist. What does it mean to be a rational optimist?
MR: My optimism is rational because it’s not based on a feeling, it’s based on evidence. If you look at the data on human living standards over the last 200 years and compare it with the way that most people actually perceive our progress during that time, you’ll see an extraordinary gap. On the whole, people seem to think that things are getting worse, but things are actually getting better.
We’ve seen the most astonishing improvements in human living standards: we’ve brought the number of people living in extreme poverty to 9 percent from about 70 percent when I was born. The human lifespan is expanding by five hours a day, child mortality has gone down by two thirds in half a century, and much more. These feats dwarf the things that are going wrong. Yet most people are quite pessimistic about the future despite the things we’ve achieved in the past.
RB: Where does this idea of collective intelligence fit in rational optimism?
MR: Underlying the idea of rational optimism was understanding what prosperity is, and why it happens to us and not to rabbits or rocks. Why are we the only species in the world that has concepts like a GDP, growth rate, or living standard? My answer is that it comes back to this phenomena of collective intelligence. The reason for a rise in living standards is innovation, and the cause of that innovation is our ability to collaborate.
The grand theme of human history is exchange of ideas, collaborating through specialization and the division of labor. Throughout history, it’s in places where there is a lot of open exchange and trade where you get a lot of innovation. And indeed, there are some extraordinary episodes in human history when societies get cut off from exchange and their innovation slows down and they start moving backwards. One example of this is Tasmania, which was isolated and lost a lot of the technologies it started off with.
RB: Lots of people like to point out that just because the world has been getting better doesn’t guarantee it will continue to do so. How do you respond to that line of argumentation?
MR: There is a quote by Thomas Babington Macaulay from 1830, where he was fed up with the pessimists of the time saying things will only get worse. He says, “On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?” And this was back in the 1830s, where in Britain and a few other parts of the world, we were only seeing the beginning of the rise of living standards. It’s perverse to argue that because things were getting better in the past, now they are about to get worse.
“I think it’s worth remembering that good news tends to be gradual, and bad news tends to be sudden. Hence, the good stuff is rarely going to make the news.”
Another thing to point out is that people have always said this. Every generation thought they were at the peak looking downhill. If you think about the opportunities technology is about to give us, whether it’s through blockchain, gene editing, or artificial intelligence, there is every reason to believe that 2017 is going to look like a time of absolute misery compared to what our children and grandchildren are going to experience.
RB: There seems to be a fair amount of mayhem in today’s world, and lots of valid problems to pay attention to in the news. What would you say to empower our readers that we will push through it and continue to grow and improve as a species?
MR: I think it’s worth remembering that good news tends to be gradual, and bad news tends to be sudden. Hence, the good stuff is rarely going to make the news. It’s happening in an inexorable way, as a result of ordinary people exchanging, specializing, collaborating, and innovating, and it’s surprisingly hard to stop it.
Even if you look back to the 1940s, at the end of a world war, there was still a lot of innovation happening. In some ways it feels like we are going through a bad period now. I do worry a lot about the anti-enlightenment values that I see spreading in various parts of the world. But then I remind myself that people are working on innovative projects in the background, and these things are going to come through and push us forward.
Image Credit: Sahacha Nilkumhang / Shutterstock.com
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As Dorothy famously said in The Wizard of Oz, there’s no place like home. Home is where we go to rest and recharge. It’s familiar, comfortable, and our own. We take care of our homes by cleaning and maintaining them, and fixing things that break or go wrong.
What if our homes, on top of giving us shelter, could also take care of us in return?
According to Chris Arkenberg, this could be the case in the not-so-distant future. As part of Singularity University’s Experts On Air series, Arkenberg gave a talk called “How the Intelligent Home of The Future Will Care For You.”
Arkenberg is a research and strategy lead at Orange Silicon Valley, and was previously a research fellow at the Deloitte Center for the Edge and a visiting researcher at the Institute for the Future.
Arkenberg told the audience that there’s an evolution going on: homes are going from being smart to being connected, and will ultimately become intelligent.
Intelligent home technologies are just now budding, but broader trends point to huge potential for their growth. We as consumers already expect continuous connectivity wherever we go—what do you mean my phone won’t get reception in the middle of Yosemite? What do you mean the smart TV is down and I can’t stream Game of Thrones?
As connectivity has evolved from a privilege to a basic expectation, Arkenberg said, we’re also starting to have a better sense of what it means to give up our data in exchange for services and conveniences. It’s so easy to click a few buttons on Amazon and have stuff show up at your front door a few days later—never mind that data about your purchases gets recorded and aggregated.
“Right now we have single devices that are connected,” Arkenberg said. “Companies are still trying to show what the true value is and how durable it is beyond the hype.”
Connectivity is the basis of an intelligent home. To take a dumb object and make it smart, you get it online. Belkin’s Wemo, for example, lets users control lights and appliances wirelessly and remotely, and can be paired with Amazon Echo or Google Home for voice-activated control.
Speaking of voice-activated control, Arkenberg pointed out that physical interfaces are evolving, too, to the point that we’re actually getting rid of interfaces entirely, or transitioning to ‘soft’ interfaces like voice or gesture.
Drivers of change
Consumers are open to smart home tech and companies are working to provide it. But what are the drivers making this tech practical and affordable? Arkenberg said there are three big ones:
Computation: Computers have gotten exponentially more powerful over the past few decades. If it wasn’t for processors that could handle massive quantities of information, nothing resembling an Echo or Alexa would even be possible. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are powering these devices, and they hinge on computing power too.
Sensors: “There are more things connected now than there are people on the planet,” Arkenberg said. Market research firm Gartner estimates there are 8.4 billion connected things currently in use. Wherever digital can replace hardware, it’s doing so. Cheaper sensors mean we can connect more things, which can then connect to each other.
Data: “Data is the new oil,” Arkenberg said. “The top companies on the planet are all data-driven giants. If data is your business, though, then you need to keep finding new ways to get more and more data.” Home assistants are essentially data collection systems that sit in your living room and collect data about your life. That data in turn sets up the potential of machine learning.
Colonizing the Living Room
Alexa and Echo can turn lights on and off, and Nest can help you be energy-efficient. But beyond these, what does an intelligent home really look like?
Arkenberg’s vision of an intelligent home uses sensing, data, connectivity, and modeling to manage resource efficiency, security, productivity, and wellness.
Autonomous vehicles provide an interesting comparison: they’re surrounded by sensors that are constantly mapping the world to build dynamic models to understand the change around itself, and thereby predict things. Might we want this to become a model for our homes, too? By making them smart and connecting them, Arkenberg said, they’d become “more biological.”
There are already several products on the market that fit this description. RainMachine uses weather forecasts to adjust home landscape watering schedules. Neurio monitors energy usage, identifies areas where waste is happening, and makes recommendations for improvement.
These are small steps in connecting our homes with knowledge systems and giving them the ability to understand and act on that knowledge.
He sees the homes of the future being equipped with digital ears (in the form of home assistants, sensors, and monitoring devices) and digital eyes (in the form of facial recognition technology and machine vision to recognize who’s in the home). “These systems are increasingly able to interrogate emotions and understand how people are feeling,” he said. “When you push more of this active intelligence into things, the need for us to directly interface with them becomes less relevant.”
Could our homes use these same tools to benefit our health and wellness? FREDsense uses bacteria to create electrochemical sensors that can be applied to home water systems to detect contaminants. If that’s not personal enough for you, get a load of this: ClinicAI can be installed in your toilet bowl to monitor and evaluate your biowaste. What’s the point, you ask? Early detection of colon cancer and other diseases.
What if one day, your toilet’s biowaste analysis system could link up with your fridge, so that when you opened it it would tell you what to eat, and how much, and at what time of day?
Roadblocks to intelligence
“The connected and intelligent home is still a young category trying to establish value, but the technological requirements are now in place,” Arkenberg said. We’re already used to living in a world of ubiquitous computation and connectivity, and we have entrained expectations about things being connected. For the intelligent home to become a widespread reality, its value needs to be established and its challenges overcome.
One of the biggest challenges will be getting used to the idea of continuous surveillance. We’ll get convenience and functionality if we give up our data, but how far are we willing to go? Establishing security and trust is going to be a big challenge moving forward,” Arkenberg said.
There’s also cost and reliability, interoperability and fragmentation of devices, or conversely, what Arkenberg called ‘platform lock-on,’ where you’d end up relying on only one provider’s system and be unable to integrate devices from other brands.
Ultimately, Arkenberg sees homes being able to learn about us, manage our scheduling and transit, watch our moods and our preferences, and optimize our resource footprint while predicting and anticipating change.
“This is the really fascinating provocation of the intelligent home,” Arkenberg said. “And I think we’re going to start to see this play out over the next few years.”
Sounds like a home Dorothy wouldn’t recognize, in Kansas or anywhere else.
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