The human brain builds structures in 11 dimensions, discover scientists

Groundbreaking research finds that the human brain creates multi-dimensional neural structures.

The human brain builds structures in 11 dimensions, discover scientists
Courtesy of the Blue Brain Project

The brain continues to surprise us with its magnificent complexity. Groundbreaking research that combines neuroscience with math tells us that our brain creates neural structures with up to 11 dimensions when it processes information. By "dimensions," they mean abstract mathematical spaces, not other physical realms. Still, the researchers "found a world that we had never imagined," said Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain Project, which made the discovery.


The goal of the Blue Brain Project, which is based in Switzerland, is to digitally create a “biologically detailed” simulation of the human brain. By creating digital brains with an “unprecedented” level of biological information, the scientists aim to advance our understanding of the incredibly intricate human brain, which has about 86 billion neurons.

To get a clearer vision of how such an immense network operates to form our thoughts and actions, the scientists employed supercomputers and a peculiar branch of math. The team based its current research on the digital model of the neocortex that it finished in 2015. They probed the way this digital neocortex responded by using the mathematical system of algebraic topology. It allowed them to determine that our brain constantly creates very intricate multi-dimensional geometrical shapes and spaces that look like "sandcastles".

Without using algebraic topology, a branch of mathematics that describes systems with any number of dimensions, visualizing the multi-dimensional network was impossible. 

 

Utilizing the novel mathematical approach, researchers were able to see the high degree of organization in what previously seemed like "chaotic" patterns of neurons.

"Algebraic topology is like a telescope and microscope at the same time. It can zoom into networks to find hidden structures—the trees in the forest—and see the empty spaces—the clearings—all at the same time," stated the study’s author Kathryn Hess. 

The scientists first carried out tests on the virtual brain tissue they created and then confirmed the results by doing the same experiments on real brain tissue from rats.

When stimulated, virtual neurons would form a clique, with each neuron connected to another in such a way that a specific geometric object would be formed. A large number of neurons would add more dimensions, which in some cases went up to 11. The structures would organize around a high-dimensional hole the researchers called a “cavity”. After the brain processed the information, the clique and cavity vanished.

Left: digital copy of a part of the neocortex, the most evolved part of the brain. Right: shapes of different sizes and geometries that represent structures ranging from 1 dimension to 7 dimensions and more. The "black-hole" in the middle symbolizes a complex of multi-dimensional spaces aka cavities.

The researcher Ran Levi detailed how this process is working:

"The appearance of high-dimensional cavities when the brain is processing information means that the neurons in the network react to stimuli in an extremely organized manner. It is as if the brain reacts to a stimulus by building then razing a tower of multi-dimensional blocks, starting with rods (1D), then planks (2D), then cubes (3D), and then more complex geometries with 4D, 5D, etc. The progression of activity through the brain resembles a multi-dimensional sandcastle that materializes out of the sand and then disintegrates."

The significance of the discovery lies in allowing us greater understanding into "one of the fundamental mysteries of neuroscience - the link between the structure of the brain and how it processes information,” elaborated Kathryn Hess in an interview with Newsweek. 

The scientists look to use algebraic topography to study the role of "plasticity" which is the process of strengthening and weakening of neural connections when stimulated - a key component in how our brains learn. They see further application of their findings in studying human intelligence and formation of memories. 

The research was published in the Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience.


This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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