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Simon Makin

Location of Primary Visual Cortex.

Being able to watch your brain’s activity while you work might help you to control your thinking and boost performance, according to a new study from researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London (UCL). The approach, known as neurofeedback, involves letting people watch what their brains are doing on a screen – as it’s actually happening. The team at UCL monitored brain activity using a technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show volunteers the location of activity in their brains as they imagined images. During this ‘training’, volunteers were asked to try to change how they thought to increase activity in the back of their brain – the visual cortex, where visual

information is processed. After a training session, the subjects were given the job of spotting subtle changes in the contrast of a picture – that is, tiny differences in colour intensity and brightness. Those who had been able to control their brain activity during the initial training – by successfully learning how to increase visual cortex activity – were better able to detect the subtle changes in the task. The scientists hope the technique could be used to benefit people with impaired brain function, such as people who have had a stroke, and often have difficulty seeing even though their eyes aren’t damaged. Who knows, maybe one day ‘neurofeedback’ might be a technique we could all use to boost our mental abilities. Well, here’s hoping…


(E-Volve) Flickr • Keoni Cabral

Author: Simon Makin

Scientists at the University of Waterloo, Canada, led by Professor Chris Eliasmith, have built the most sophisticated simulation of a working brain ever constructed. Although much smaller than the human brain itself, consisting of only 2.5 million brain cells (compared to 100 billion) and many fewer than some previous simulations – it displays an impressive range of different behaviours. The artificial brain can recognise images, remember sequences, and even complete the kind of complex task you might find in an IQ test. The supercomputer program, called SPAUN (Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network), uses a 28 x 28 pixel digital camera ‘eye’ to gather input from its surroundings and then gives its responses with a robot arm. For instance, when shown the sequence 1 2 3 - 5 6 7 - 3 4 ?, together with an instruction, SPAUN will scrawl the digit ‘5’ on a piece of paper. Unlike IBM’s Watson supercomputer, which was built in 2011 to do one thing (play Jeopardy!) and do it well, but made

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no attempt to copy how the brain works, SPAUN replicates actual brain cell activity and wiring. More importantly, though, it turns this activity into behaviour. This is in contrast to larger, more detailed brain models, such as the Blue Brain Project, which produce detailed simulations of neural activity, but don’t necessarily do anything. SPAUN has two software systems that work in harmony: a ‘working memory’ system that is modelled on the ‘higher’ thinking part of the brain (called the prefrontal cortex – where we make our decisions), and an ‘action selection’ system, which is based on other parts of the brain called the basal ganglia and thalamus (more primitive, instinctual regions). The ‘action

Guru Magazine Issue 10  

Guru Magazine is back for 2013. 'X Marks the Spot' features the usual variety of engaging news, features and reviews. Something for everyone...

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