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Technology offers glimpses of brain at work

by MALCOLM RITTER AP Science Writer on June 22, 2015 10:34 AM

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — To the untrained eye, the graph looked like a very volatile day on Wall Street — jagged peaks and valleys in red, blue and green, displayed on a wall. But the story it told was not about economics.

It was a glimpse into the brains of Shaul Yahil and Shaw Bronner, two researchers at a Yale lab, as they had a little chat.

“This is a fork,” Yahil observed, describing the image on his computer. “A fork is something you use to stab food while you’re eating it. Common piece of cutlery in the West.”

“It doesn’t look like a real fancy sterling silver fork, but very useful,” Bronner responded. And then she described her own screen: “This looks like a baby chimpanzee.”

The jagged, multicolored images depicted what was going on in the two researchers’ heads — two brains in conversation, carrying out an intricate dance of internal activity. This is no parlor trick. The brain-tracking technology at work is just a small part of the quest to answer abiding questions about the workings of a three-pound chunk of fatty tissue with the consistency of cold porridge.

How does this collection of nearly 100 billion densely packed nerve cells, acting through circuits with maybe 100 trillion connections, let us think, feel, act and perceive our world? How does this complex machine go wrong and make people depressed, or delusional, or demented? What can be done about that?

Such questions spurred President Barack Obama to launch the BRAIN initiative in 2013. Its aim: to spur development of new tools to investigate the brain. Europe and Japan are also pursuing major efforts in brain research.

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