Friday, May 20, 2011

Alive or dead? And the brain, of course

A person is either alive, or dead, or... in a "middling state," which can be hard to decipher. According to Amber Dance's article for Nature, "Even when a team of doctors agree to diagnose a vegetative state, they have been shown to be wrong more than 40% of the time compared to the a standardized test, the Coma Recovery Scale."

In other words, when the going gets tough, we're not very good at determining whether someone is with us or not.

However, a new test, developed by Melanie Boly and her team at the University of Li├Ęge in Belgium, uses an electroencephalogram (EEG), to peer in at the brain, and the results suggest "that the key difference between minimally conscious and totally unconscious non-coma states is communication between the frontal cortex — the planning, thinking part of the brain — and the temporal cortex, where sounds and words are processed."

Here's more:
Boly and her colleagues...used EEG to measure electrical signals from the brains of 8 people in vegetative states, 13 in minimally conscious states and 22 healthy participants. The subjects were played a series of tones, which occasionally changed in pitch. The differing tone constituted a surprising event in the environment — something that the frontal cortex has to consider, so in all subjects the temporal cortex would send the frontal cortex a message.

In minimally conscious and healthy people the frontal cortex would then send a message back to the temporal cortex. The reason for this is uncertain; it may be to let the temporal cortex know what to expect in the future. But for people in a vegetative state, the communication was one-way: signals passed from the temporal to frontal area, but not back.

Interesting stuff. To read even more, see Test measures spark of consciousness

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Grey matter turns blue!

Boing Boing recently brought us news of the Blue Brain Project, which is, according to its website:
Reconstructing the brain piece by piece and building a virtual brain in a supercomputer—these are some of the goals of the Blue Brain Project. The virtual brain will be an exceptional tool giving neuroscientists a new understanding of the brain and a better understanding of neurological diseases.
The team has already successfully simulated a rat cortical column (evidently, there are about 100,000 such columns in the average rat brain). The human brain has more like two million (even more complex) columns.

Constructing a model of the human brain will require a fair amount of computing power:
Each simulated neuron requires the equivalent of a laptop computer. A model of the whole brain would have billions.

The technology of medicine marches forward!

For photos of the team and project, see Blue Brain Project: Build a virtual brain in a supercomputer.

Friday, May 13, 2011

It's all about the marketing

The Scientist has a great story about William Helfand's medical poster collection, which contains thousands of marketing posters and other assorted "marketing paraphernalia" dating back to the 1920s. The article features a poster for Uricure, which depicts a rather deranged looking bearded man holding aloft a small box of the substance. The article explains:
Uricure was a drug purported to improve rheumatism, arthritis, gout, and kidney disorders. The molecular details of the product are unknown, however, as is its therapeutic value.
The posters in the slide show are even more amazing, featuring slogans like, "Weed with roots in hell" and skeletons pouring cups of allegedly curative tonics.

To read the entire article, see Edyta Zielinska's, Medical Posters, circa 1920.