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Pulse 20: From Broccoli to 11-Dimensional Computing in the Brain

Giulio Prisco Pulse Newsletter

Multidimensional Brain Computing

Let’s start with simple things: the rest of this issue of Pulse news is challenging.

I don’t know much about nootropics but I do know, and love, broccoli. Therefore I was intrigued to see that the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recommends broccoli as a secret weapon against diabetes. Concentrated broccoli sprout extract may help type 2 diabetes patients manage their blood sugar, according to a new study published in Science Translational Medicine.

Those who are into meditation will certainly be pleased to hear that, in a new study published in Frontiers in Immunology, which reviews over a decade of studies analyzing how the behavior of our genes is affected by different Mind-Body Interventions (MBIs) including mindfulness and yoga, researchers at the University of Coventry and Radboud have found that MBIs can ‘reverse’ the molecular reactions in our DNA which cause ill-health and depression.

The following news might require meditation of the intellectual sort. Especially the last item: close your eyes, and try to imagine how groups of neurons in your three-dimensional brain could be operating, in some sense, as computing circuits in an 11-dimensional space (string theory anyone?). If you are into science fiction, you could find related food for thought in Greg Egan’s “Diaspora” (look for the magic carpets).

Watching how DNA operates in real-time. Using sophisticated imaging technology, researchers at UC Davis watched DNA from bacteria as it replicated and measured how fast enzyme machinery worked on the different strands. The study, published in Cell, shows how scientists have been able to watch individual steps in the replication of a single DNA molecule, and reports unexpected findings. It seems likely that the ability to watch DNA as it operates will permit a better understanding of how life works and open the way to futuristic medical technologies.

Ultrasound-driven nanoparticles boost the efficacy of cancer drugs. Scientists at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard have used ultrasound-sensitive nanoparticles to deliver toxic doses of chemotherapy drugs to tumors, while minimizing toxicity to nearby healthy tissues. The new drug delivery platform uses ultrasound waves to trigger the dispersal of chemotherapy-containing nanoparticles precisely at tumor sites. The research results, published in Biomaterials, show that concentrating nanoparticles at the tumor site resulted in a significantly greater reduction in tumor volume compared to tumors treated with a 20-fold higher dose of the free drug.

Toward bioengineered human liver tissue. Using bioenginered human liver tissue, researchers led by a Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center team have uncovered networks of genetic-molecular crosstalk that control the liver’s developmental processes. The study, published in Nature, illuminates previously inaccessible aspects of human liver development, opening the possibility to generate healthy and usable human liver tissue from human pluripotent stem cells.

Organ Chips with sensors for studying human organs. Scientists at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard have developed “Organ Chips” - synthetic testbeds to study the physiology of human organs and tissues - with embedded electrodes that enable accurate and continuous monitoring and evaluation of the electrical activity of living cells. The research results, published in Lab Chip (1, 2), show how electrically active Organ Chips help to open a window into how living human cells and tissues function within organs, as demonstrated in a Heart Chip model.

Finding the best patients for new cancer drugs. Researchers at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute have found a way to identify the right patients for promising new anti-cancer drugs called FGFR (fibroblast growth factor receptor) inhibitors, which are being investigated for treating lung squamous cell carcinoma. In the study, published in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics, the scientist show that the presence of a specific ‘biomarker’ indicates the patients who would best respond to the treatment.

Nerve bridges with Pac Man cells repair damaged nerves. Scientists at Duke University have shown that macrophages - known as the Pac-Man of the immune system - can play an important role in “nerve bridges” to regenerate damaged nerves. The research results, published in PNAS, documents how the scientists used nerve bridges filled with a biological signal able to attract younger, undifferentiated cells destined to become pro-healing macrophages, and achieved enhanced axonal regeneration and muscle reinnervation in lab rats, with results comparable to the best nerve regeneration technique operational today.

Advances in brain-inspired computing. Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology and University of Notre Dame have created a new computing system inspired by the human brain, where processing is handled collectively with a massively parallel neural oscillatory network, rather than with a central processor. The study, published in Scientific Reports (open access), shows that the new computer system has an impressive performance on “hard” computational problems like mathematical graph coloring.

Evidence for high-dimensional data processing in the brain. Using the sophisticated mathematical techniques of algebraic topology, a team of neuroscientists led by the Blue Brain Project have uncovered “a universe of multi-dimensional geometrical structures and spaces within the networks of the brain.” Here, “dimension” refers to the complexity of the connections between neurons, which can be analyzed with the mathematics of higher-dimensional spaces. “In some networks, we even found structures with up to eleven dimensions,” said Blue Brain project leader Henry Markram. Futurism has a very readable explanation, and Wired has a somewhat critical explanation. The study, published in Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience, could have significant implications for our understanding of the brain, according to the authors.

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