Got a smartphone? Take part in the Great Brain Experiment

There has been much chatter recently about the new found potential of "big data". Google NGram for example, tracks usage of words in books and Google Flu Trends does what it says on the tin. The vast quantities of data that are now available enable new possibilities for experimenting with data in a way that would have been inconceivable a decade ago. Only this week a study has been published which demonstrates the potential of web search data to signal previously unknown side effects of medications


A new project that will be officially announced on Monday aims to collect a previously unprecedented amount of data on the way we think and feel through an application that is being made available for smart phones and tablets. The researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL aim to shed new light on "our understanding of memory, impulsivity, how we take risks, and how well the mind's eye can see". The researchers hope to draw in huge numbers of participants by "gamifying" their study - offering it in the format of an app consisting of four games - one on memory, one to test impulsiveness, one to look at happiness and one to examine the phenomenon of "brain blink" - the difficulty we have seeing an image that is flashed in quick succession after another image.

The Great Brain Experiment app has just become available for free on the iPhone and it will soon also be available on Android. The app is being released as part of wonder: art and science, a month long series of events being put on by the Wellcome Trust at the Barbican in London - so if you are able to get to London in the next month it's well worth checking out the programme, I'll certainly be stopping by! 

Image Credit: Wellcome Trust

Related Articles

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less