Sunday, December 5, 2010

Events NYC | Neurotechniques: New Approaches to Understanding Mind, Brain and Behavior

Astrocytes, from the Cell Centered Database (CCDB)

At the Italian Academy an all-day workshop brings together neuroscientists from across US academic institutions to present the latest techniques in neuroscience ---the interdisciplinary science, branch of biology, concerned with the study of the nervous system.
Neuroscience methodologies and focus of research draw from both physical science and humanities to include, mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science as well as medicine, psychology and philosophy. In recent years neuroscence has greatly developed due to the major advancement of computing and digital imaging techniques, utilized to gather experimental data.

The morning sessions were devoted to presentation of experimental data from different types of neurotechniques:
  • Michael Goldberg, Professor of Brain & Behavior, Neuroscience, Neurology, Psychiatry, Ophthalmology at Columbia University, “What a single electrode can tell a neuroscientist about the brain: insights into the problem of spatial accuracy”: results from single electrode recording in the determination of spatial accuracy. Goldberg’s research “specializes in studying the physiology of cognitive processes: visual attention, spatial perception and decision making. He studies the psychophysics and physiology of cognitive processes in the monkey, using single unit recording, iontophoresis, and careful behavioral measurements. He has made enormous contributions to the field of single-cell physiology in awake, behaving primates. He is one of the founding fathers of the technique.”*
  • Elizabeth Hillman, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University, “Understanding neurovascular coupling with intravital microscopy and optical imaging”. Hillman
  • introduced her work on Functional Optical Imaging in the understanding of neurovascular activity; the optical techniques used by her Laboratory at Columbia University include two-photon microscopy, laminar optical tomography, dynamic contrast enhanced molecular imaging and hyperspectral imaging. She also showed visually intriguing images of astrocytes, a cell type in the Central Nervous System; the clearly discernable patterns in the images which made me wonder if there is an underlying logic in their spatial configuration of the astrocytes morphology…
  • Aniruddha Das, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and Psychiatry at Columbia University, “Simultaneous measurements of spikes and hemodynamics in alert subjects: What can brain imaging tell us about neural activity?” Das presented his experiments with fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to detect neural activity in monkeys.
  • Adam Kohn, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University, “Measuring signal propagation in the visual system with multi-electrode recordings” introduced Kohn’s research on “ the neural circuits that underlie visual perception, using multi-electrodes to measure changes in the correlation of the activity of populations of cells in early visual cortex. His research is showing how the brain could be using the rich amount of information available for sensory processing. He hopes that by understanding the principles of adaptation we will also gain insight into other forms of plasticity such as perceptual learning and recovery from injury.”*
  • The morning session ended with John Maunsell, Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard University. Maunsell’s presentation “Multi-electrode Recordings to Construct a Neuronal Population Measure of Attention” is representative of his experimental work “directed at understanding the function of visual cerebral cortex. Much of his work has examined how attention alters the way that neurons represented visual objects, and how these changes improve behavioral performance.”*
One issue, raised from a question by the audience, particularly caught my attention: the derangement of the experiment, due to the intrusive nature of the experiment itself, in the specific case of the insertion of electrodes in the monkey or rats. It reminded me of the double slit experiment of quantum physics.

An electrode array

The remaining sessions seemed to me broader in scope of a more interdisciplinary nature and more accessible to a general audience:
  • David Heeger, Professor of Psychology and Neural Science, New York University even introduced some intriguing visual illusions in “ Computational Neuroimaging”. Heeger’s research “spans an interdisciplinary cross-section of engineering, psychology, and neuroscience, the current focus of which is to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and computational theory to quantitatively investigate the relationship between brain and behavior.”*
  • Uri Hasson, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Princeton University, presented “Reliability of cortical activity during natural stimulation”. Hasson’s research “focuses on developing new methods to assess both shared and idiosyncratic aspects of the cortical response time courses across individuals. These methods measure the reliability of cortical activity, within or between subjects, in response to naturalistic stimulation. Despite the seemingly uncontrolled task, some of these complex stimuli evoke highly reliable and selective responses in many brain areas.” I found his presentation most interesting, especially in the experiments relating to meaning.
  • Frank Tong, Associate Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University, presented “Decoding visual and mental states from human brain activity” which explored the role of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the human visual system. Tong’s uses “uses functional neuroimaging and computational methods to understand how the human visual system represents basic features, complex objects, and conscious visual experiences.”* His presentation was also quite intriguing to me for the mention of interpreting mental states through experimental measurements.
  • Winrich Freiwald, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience, The Rockefeller University, presented “Understanding cortical networks by integrating fMRI and electrophysiology” Winrich's work uses these methods “ to answer questions such as: How does face selectivity emerge in a single cell? How is information transformed from one face patch to another? And how is information extracted from a patch?”*
  • Karl Deisseroth, Associate Professor of Bioengineering, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, concluded the workshop with a presentation on “Optogenetics” the technology he created, which “uses light to control and tune brain activity”.*
The workshop was announced “to present research and methodological approach from a broad, interdisciplinary perspective.” My impression is that the interdisciplinary perspective was missing from the majority of presentations, coming solely from experimental scientific experiments in the hard-sciences context and lacking a synthesis and critical considerations ---which would have been appreciated by an audience of not only scientists. Also missing were a general synthesis and critical considerations of why certain techniques are important and why the can make meaningful contributions to knowledge and practices, to go beyond the universe of the experiment. Nevertheless the workshop offered great learning opportunities even for an audience ---including myself--- not belonging to the field of neuroscience.

*from the web page of the workshop