After providing all the funding for The Brain from Top to Bottom for over 10 years, the CIHR Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction informed us that because of budget cuts, they were going to be forced to stop sponsoring us as of March 31st, 2013.

We have approached a number of organizations, all of which have recognized the value of our work. But we have not managed to find the funding we need. We must therefore ask our readers for donations so that we can continue updating and adding new content to The Brain from Top to Bottom web site and blog.

Please, rest assured that we are doing our utmost to continue our mission of providing the general public with the best possible information about the brain and neuroscience in the original spirit of the Internet: the desire to share information free of charge and with no adverstising.

Whether your support is moral, financial, or both, thank you from the bottom of our hearts!

Bruno Dubuc, Patrick Robert, Denis Paquet, and Al Daigen

Tuesday, 21 July 2020
How neuronal communication began, and how brains differ from computers

When you move through space, your sensory perceptions change constantly, in real time. What we call cognition can be equated with this uninterrupted flow of perception and action through by a body and a brain located in an environment. But as scientists have now told us, the modern human brain contains many neurons that are neither sensory nor motor—so many that it can sometimes be hard to realize that this perception/action loop is still the foundation of the nervous systems of primates and other animals. These interneurons, as they are called, receive nerve impulses from sensory neurons and transmit signals to other neurons, and so on. And at some point in time, after all sorts of indescribably complex detours, a motor neuron will receive signals from some of these interneurons and then be able to command a muscle to contract to make a body part move.

What distinguishes the nervous system from other communication systems in the human body, such as the endocrine and immune systems, is its speed. The time that elapses between a perception and a suitable bodily action in response can be a second or less. How do the myriad neurons in the nervous system manage to communicate with one another so rapidly?

In this regard I will refer to a 2014 article by Antonio Damasio and his colleagues that I discussed in an earlier blog post entitled From membrane excitability to subjective consciousness. These authors had investigated the nature of the disturbances that might alert a sensory nerve cell that something that concerned it was happening in its environment. These authors found that the process always started with a massive influx of small, positively charged ions, essentially sodium (Na+) and calcium (Ca2+), into the nerve cell. Furthermore, they found that along the entire chain of transmission from neurons to neuron and ultimately to the muscles, this influx of positive ions was always the first event that occurred in a cell before the molecular mechanisms specific to each subsequent step of neuronal communication were triggered. And that’s what led them to think that a massive intrusion of sodium or calcium ions, which are abundant in the marine environment where life began, may have been the first direct signal telling the inside of a cell that something was going on outside—for example, that ions were flooding in because a predator had eaten a hole in its cell membrane, and that it had better trigger a movement to get away from this danger.

According to Damasio and his co-authors, this grounding of animal cognition in the most fundamental processes of life also explains why artificial intelligence, implemented in electronic circuits in which the flows consist of electrons, cannot have sentience in the sense that we understand animals to have it. Because these microprocessors, even though they process inputs and produce outputs in a way that is often very similar to what happens inside animal brains, do not have the intrinsic concern for their own survival that we have here seen to be associated with the inflow of positive ions into nerve cells.

Obviously, there are many other things that distinguish a brain from a computer in terms both of the “hardware” of these two systems (the number of elementary units that they contain, the degree of conductivity between them, their processing speed, etc.) and of their flexibility or plasticity. Not to mention that whereas computers perform digital computations, animal brains perform computations that are neither entirely digital nor entirely analog, but instead of a mixed type called “neuronal”. All of these considerations provide fodder for what are still very fierce debates in the cognitive sciences, such as the extent to which the brain can be said to perform computations, and what that word really means.

From the Simple to the Complex | Comments Closed

Monday, 6 July 2020
Acute stress reaction initiated by a hormone secreted by the bones

Today I’d like to tell you about an article published in the journal Cell Metabolism in September 2019. The article, entitled “Mediation of the Acute Stress Response by the Skeleton”, reports a discovery that is surprising, to say the least. Apparently, all on its own and in just a few minutes, osteocalcin, a hormone produced in our bones, can initiate the physiological changes associated with acute stress, such as increased heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure. (more…)

Body Movement and the Brain | Comments Closed

Thursday, 18 June 2020
Our brains have not evolved to handle so many electronic inputs

For almost all of our long evolutionary history, we human beings have lived in calm, quiet natural settings such as the African savannah in the photo below. From time to time, our attention might have been caught by a slight movement in the distant grass, or by an unusual sound such as the cracking of a branch, because either one might have signified an animal that we could hunt for dinner, or one that was hunting us for its own dinner. To survive, we had to pay immediate attention to such unexpected stimuli. Those of us who didn’t because we were just a bit too relaxed didn’t survive long enough to pass our genes on to descendants.

As a result, all of the human beings who are alive today are descended from those individuals who were the most sensitive to such sudden stimuli from the outside world. Our brains are “wired” to pay attention to these stimuli. But the problem is that the world that we have been living in for the past decade or two, with the constant flood of incoming information from the Internet, e-mail and social media, is completely different from the one that shaped the brains that we must use to respond to it. This explains the problems of attention control that I’ll be discussing in a moment. (more…)

From Thought to Language | Comments Closed

Thursday, 28 May 2020
Dancing (like playing music) alters your brain if you do it a lot

The various brain-imaging techniques that have been available for some decades now have made it possible to observe the structural anatomical changes that occur in the brains of people who engage regularly in a given a activity, such as dancing or playing music. Today I want to talk about research on these changes that has been conducted recently by Falisha Karpati of McGill University in Montreal. In her 2017 study entitled “Dance and music share gray matter structural correlates”, she compared the brains of professional dancers with those of professional musicians, on which more research had previously been done. In her 2018 study, “Structural Covariance Analysis Reveals Differences Between Dancers and Untrained Controls, she compared the brains of professional dancers with those of control subjects who had no dance training. In these two studies, Karpati found that dancing or playing music for eight hours every day does indeed make one’s brain different from those of people who do neither. (more…)

Uncategorized | Comments Closed

Tuesday, 19 May 2020
Neural correlates of mathematical beauty

This week I’d like to tell you about a study published in 2014, entitled “The experience of mathematical beauty and its neural correlates”.

We know that mathematicians have long talked about experiencing genuine aesthetic pleasure at the sight of certain mathematical formulas. We also know from several brain-imaging studies that activation of field A1 of the medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC) is one of the most common neuronal correlates of the more conventional, sense-based experience of beauty (for example, in someone’s face, or in a landscape, or in a piece of music). Hence the authors of this study (neuroscientist Semir Zeki and his colleagues) decided to investigate whether the aesthetic pleasure that mathematicians derive from such a seemingly abstract source as a mathematical formula activates this same area in their brains. And the answer seems to be yes. … (more…)

Pleasure and Pain | No comments