week 9

Excursions to Aalto Neuroimaging Infrastructure & Institute of Occupational Health

This week was an excursion week going to Aalto Neuroimaging Infrastructure on Monday and Institute of Occupational Health on Tuesday. The experiences were quite impressive so I wasn’t able to take any images that I now wish I had.

Aalto Neuroimaging Infrastructure showed us all the different facilities they had for doing research and projects. The coolest was the fMRI machine because of the large scale of it and the feel it gave. Also, interestingly some metals are actually permitted near the MRI machine (basic chemistry here) but came as a shock when the facility master wore chains of silver. I was a bit late to see the EMG and EEG, but what I did see was TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) and it seemed cool to stimulate an area of the cortex to view the effects.

Institute of Occupational Health showed us different commercial tools they use to do research on work effects on health. They had stress, sleep and physical activity in focus. The sleeping lab was an interesting place where test subjects could sleep a night and their EEG is measured and recorded. They have master thesis and PhD projects for the summer and possible to use this equipment for those. Otherwise, there is no collaboration between Aalto and the Institute of Occupational Health.

Some concluding thoughts

The course is coming to an end and it is time to draw some concluding lines about the functions of the nervous system. All in all it is an immensely complex system, with probably still much more to be learned than is currently known. The enhanced brain scanning technology gets ever more accurate, with not having to settle for gross level images, but rather the firing of individual neurons at constantly reducing time delays. The overall progress of neuroscience seems, to me, to follow a more general shift in science, where whole systems, rather than just a few main variables are increasingly getting the credit they deserve. The woods are being distinguished from the trees. We see this in environmental studies where the fragility of whole ecosystems, and the importance of even the smaller parts participating in it, are being noticed. The same line of thinking applies to brain models, where certain areas are no longer thought to be individually in charge of certain functions. Rather than one area taking care of e.g. constructing the visual image, it is born from a co-operation of so many different areas. Not withstanding the brains incredible and mysterious tendency for substituting lost functional areas with other ones.

On learning about the brain, the toughest part for me has been to memorize the names, structures and functions of the myriad of different areas, as well as the knowledge of how each part communicates with one another. The complexity seems, at times, startling and one wonders how can this system be ever fully understood. It also begs the question of how far in general is the collective human mental capacity capable of managing the whole picture.

Surely, different inner fields of neuroscience focus on very narrow aspects and single individuals don’t even try to comprehend the whole picture. That said, it will be interesting to see in the future, are we capable of coping with the full mass of information. In the field of physics, a “collapse” or compression of information holding equations to simplified forms can be seen every now and then. I wonder if the same thing is possible with “descriptive” information? Or will the task of information holding and thus the formation of any meaningful new theories be outsourced to some future AI? Also, today’s brain models seem to be far from complete. The more accurate image we want to create requires taking into account more and more details, eventually going to the level of the whole body. It will be interesting to see is it possible to construct a feasible “mind-brain-structure”, without all the feedback loops of other bodily systems.

week 8

Motor System and Movement Control

I’ve always been fascinated with Stephen Hawking. Not because everyone else was (especially in the nerdy school lunch talks), but because I had a personal connection. My dad had always encouraged me on my fascination for the stars and the movement of planets. I had read the books ‘A Brief History of Time’ and ‘The Universe in a Nutshell’ in my early teens and spun my childhood imagination to the galaxies and science-fiction. But most importantly I had a godfather, Jorma Louko, who studied under Stephen Hawking at the University of Cambridge and went on to the University of Nottingham to do research in the interplay of gravity and the quantum. Even with these great role models I somehow never managed myself into pure mathematics. Just didn’t have the aptitude for it, instead choosing to roam around in the warm fuzzy arts and engineering field.

Now you might be asking what has this got to do with week 8 and the human motor system, and movement control. Well yes, the first paragraph almost nothing, except with Stephen Hawking everything… he had a rare early-onset slow-progressing form of motor neurone disease (also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, “ALS“, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), that gradually paralysed him over the decades. This disease was also referenced in our chapter readings Box 13.1 “ALS: Glutamate, Genes, and Gehrig” depicting it as a “particularly cruel disease that was first described in 1869 by the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot” that show as muscle weakness and atrophy and progresses to movement loose and eventually to death by failure of the respiratory muscles. The disease has no effect on sensations, intellect, or cognitive function making the victim watch their own bodies deteriorate with no way of affecting it. ALS degeneration affects large alpha motor neurons leaving other neurons in the CNS intact. The causes of the disease are unknown, but it is believed to have something to do with excitotoxicity (“overstimulation by the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate and closely related amino acids can cause the death of otherwise normal neurons” – Chapter 6). Interestingly only 10% of ALS cases are inherited the rest seem to be caused by environmental causes, such as, cycad nuts, which contain an excitotoxic amino acid. Looking at inherited ALS recent research has identified mutations of about 16 genes. And there is still so much to be understood and treatments are still in the distant future, with “neuronal stem cells to replace lost neurons and glia, and genetics-based strategies to suppress the effects of mutations”.

A science-fiction leap forward would be if technology could replace our bodies as in the cult movies chappie, Robocop, ghost in the shell, etc. This would allow for ALS patients to move from their broken bodies into completely new ones. A far in the future possibility, but interesting to speculate since we already have working concepts coming out in cybernetics. An example is MIT designer Hugh Herr who builds “prosthetic knees, legs and ankles that fuse biomechanics with microprocessors to restore (and perhaps enhance) normal gait, balance and speed”. He’s captivating ted talk can be viewed here.

From thought to action

Muscle movement is a necessity to express behavior initiated in the cortex of the brain. The overall picture of descending pathways seems nowadays pretty clear. The central motor system is arranged as a hierarchy of control: the neocortex takes care of the planning together with the basal ganglia of the forebrain. After a quick meeting, they come up with a strategy. The strategy is sent onward to the tactics department (motor cortex and cerebellum), which flip through the files of previous success and decide the best set of actions to execute. They in turn send their plans to the level of execution (which is just one step above the proletarian level aka “the muscle”). The two executives, the brain stem and spinal cord, activate the motor neuron and interneuron pools, altering motivational speeches and threats of co-operation negotiations. In all, the whole show is run like the R&D department of Nokia, except with a better success rate and an inclination for improvement.

Looking at the big picture, we seem to be missing one important part of the hierarchy: the investors. If the neocortex is coming up with the business strategy, who is it trying to please? Which part of the brain constructs the necessity to want something in the first place? Could the lower company levels just cast off the investors and start working solely for the common benefit? Or would it lead to a conflict of interests, causing the organism to dash around aimlessly like a beheaded chicken?