Scientists Successfully Map Computational Language onto Neurons in the Brain
A novel study out of MIT is the first of its kind to accurately describe the behavior of certain classes of neurons using simple, yet subtle, mathematical formulas, aiding in the fight against neurological disease.
What's the Latest Development?
By studying a specific subclass of neurons, MIT researchers have found that simple mathematical formulas accurately describe how the brain allows us to perceive the world, control movements and make decisions. By programming two types of inhibitor cells to produce light-sensitive genes, researchers could easily activate them to study their effects on another type of neuron known as pyramidal cells. "The team combined this with calcium imaging inside the target pyramidal cells. Calcium levels reflect a cell’s electrical activity, allowing the researchers to determine how much activity was repressed by the inhibitory cells."
What's the Big Idea?
Thanks to new techniques that allowed researchers to target and manipulate well-defined cell classes, the ways in which different kinds of neurons interact with each other can be defined in computational language for the first time. The MIT study, published in the August 9 edition of Nature, reports that two major classes of brain cells repress neural activity in specific mathematical ways. "The findings could help scientists learn more about diseases thought to be caused by imbalances in brain inhibition and excitation, including autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder."
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Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."
By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.
In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."
That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.
As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.
Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.
And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.
"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"
It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…
The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.
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If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.
Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.
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- Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
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- Facebook and Google began as companies with supposedly noble purposes.
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