Brain research. The term has a certain stress-inducing excitement to it. It’s fascinating to learn about, but intimidating at the same time. Our brains are the total construct of who we are, or at least who we think we are. Their complexity and mystery are part of the appeal. After all, they’re just up there in our heads, working away while we go for a run, work or watch TV. But all that mystery is slowly, very slowly, becoming less mysterious, thanks to neuroscience research.
Almost everyone will remember “the dress” debate that swept across social media channels. Some thought the dress was white and gold, others blue and black. It was a pretty hotly debated topic, and it led to brain research focused on how humans see color differences. Surprisingly, the difference is based on how well you can distinguish colors based on lighting. If you saw the dress as white and gold, your vision isn’t as good in dim light! It’s actually blue and brown.
Dunbar’s Number and Facebook
Dunbar’s Number equates brain size to the number of relationships primates can have. Humans come in at around 150 general relationships, and significantly fewer close ones. It makes sense, but there’s a good chance Facebook could change that. Today, it’s not uncommon to be connected to hundreds and in some cases, millions of people. Scientists are interested in knowing if the access to so many people is increasing the number of relationships we’re able to have.
According to the study, it doesn’t look like that’s happening. Dunbar’s Number still holds true. But Facebook is still too new for us to know for sure, and there’s a good chance that we just haven’t adapted to everything computers can give us yet.
Male vs. Female
For a long time, researchers considered male and female brains to be inherently different. As it turns out, this assessment is not nearly as accurate as we thought. Neuroscience research published in 2015 found male and female brains are not exactly the same, but they aren’t that different, either. Instead, they exist on a spectrum that comprises a lot of different features. Some of those features are more likely to occur in female brains, some in males and some in both. But the differences aren’t possible to distinguish on their own. This brain research showed that there is no “male” part of the brain. It provides a scientific basis for the ideas of gender and sexuality existing on a spectrum as well.
Optogenetics Makes Prey Into Predator
If this concept isn’t something you’ve heard of before, you aren’t alone. Optogenetics is an unusual field. It’s the process of stimulating neurons with light. Researchers can now do some experiments with just light. Since the technique was developed in 2005, scientists have used it for a wide variety of things.
Recently, we’ve learned how activating certain parts of the brain can produce predatory behavior in mice. Scientists used blue light to activate their amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for emotional control, and specifically for fear. When the amygdala was activated, the mice hunted just about everything they could, even if it wasn’t alive. This gives us some incredible insight into hunting behaviors and allows us to create new theories about how and why predators and prey evolved.
Implanting Fake Memories
Scientists have managed to create false memories in sleeping mice. That’s both cool and freaky. The most common theory on sleep assumes our bodies need downtime to give our brains time to organize. We have to sort through what happened during the day and process all the new information we got, though we need more research on sleep to know if that’s accurate.
However, even with sleep and a very complex brain, memories themselves are pliable and confusing. You can often misremember events — just ask your mom! In this case, scientists implanted some electrodes into mice’s brains. While the mice were sleeping, the scientists stimulated the parts of the brain responsible for spatial navigation. This stimulation led to the mice having a false, positive association with a specific area of their enclosure, which the mice then spent significantly more time in the next day.
Some people just know how to get places. They don’t seem to get lost, even in new areas. Others aren’t as skilled at that kind of navigation, and it turns out there’s a reason for that. In 2014, three men received the Nobel Prize for finding the brain’s “GPS.” Of course, GPS is an inaccurate term, since our brains aren’t connected to a satellite, but the idea is similar.
The discovery of “grid cells” allowed us to find the part of the brain that helps us figure out where we are relative to other locations. They generate a coordinate system and enable us to determine routes to an endpoint. It was the discovery of a new part of the brain!
Artificial Brain Cells
This takes artificial intelligence to an entirely different level. We’re still working on growing human organs like hearts, but there’s apparently no reason to stop there. These brain cells are pretty much just machine, without any living parts that would enable them to be part of a living thing. But the process of growing them on the chip allows us to see how they grow in the first place. Understanding the process is the first step toward actually being able to produce real, living brain cells.
This research could have countless advantages. It’s getting way ahead of ourselves, but if we can grow artificial neurons, we could fix brain damage, prevent dementia and even grow an entirely new brain. But that’s still sci-fi at this point.
Delving into brain research is messy, confusing and can be very slow-going. But the potential benefits are incredible. We just can’t afford to stop learning.