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




Thursday, 18 April 2019
Online Game Advances Neuroscientific Research

Five years ago, I wrote a post in this blog about a website called EyeWire, on which Dr. Sebastian Seung and his laboratory enlisted the help of the general public to colour the extensions (axons and dendrites) of neurons on various thin, sequential slices of nerve tissue. The lab then used the results to reconstruct each neuron in 3D on a computer. Today I want to tell you about the Mozak project, which has the same objective of reconstructing neurons in 3D. But where Dr. Seung’s EyeWire project dealt only with ganglion neurons in the retinas of mice, the Mozak project deals with neurons from various parts of the brains of various animals.

The Mozak project does, however, employ the same strategy as EyeWire. It gets human beings to play a game in which they exercise their judgment to determine the continuity (or lack of continuity) of axons and dendrites, because computers still make too many mistakes when they attempt this difficult task. The methods that Mozak uses to visualize these neurons, the interface that it uses to show them to players, and the tracing tools that it provides are different from EyeWire’s, but the objective is the same: to build a database of neurons in 3D with the hope of eventually classifying them into various categories and relating their forms to their functions (how they integrate and transmit nerve signals).

Because if we keep building large-scale functional models of the brain, or models of more localized neural circuits based on typical neurons, but continue to ignore the fine details of the branchings of actual neurons and their actual morphology, we will still be missing the most important aspect of the connectome—the map that scientists hope to make of all the neural connections in the brain. In one sense, though, the connectome will always remain a somewhat theoretical concept, because the fine connections that the neurons make with one another are constantly changing. (This synaptic plasticity is the basis for all learning.) Hence the detailed connectome of an individual’s brain on the synaptic scale at any given time in his or her life will never be the same a year or even just a day later.

Nevertheless, being able even to start to visualize, on this microscopic scale, the astonishing variety of forms of these small cells with branches as extensive as a tree’s can tell neurobiologists a great deal about the types of relationships that these cells have with one another. Playing the Mozak game also teaches non-scientists that neurons come in a greater variety of forms than is commonly believed. For example, some neurons have an apical dendrite, while others do not; some dendrites have spines, while others do not; and some axons even emerge not from the cell body but rather from the base of a large dendrite! These are just some of the things that you can observe when you get your head out of the textbooks and immerse yourself in the somewhat messy reality of actual neurons.

And besides, I love the idea that anyone can volunteer the 86 billion neurons in their brain to help scientists learn more about a few of them.

From the Simple to the Complex | No comments


Tuesday, 19 March 2019
A neuroscientist gets drunk to explain alcohol’s effects on the brain

And that’s not all she does! She also explains the effects of sugar on the body/brain by eating candy, the effects of insomnia by staying up all night, the effects of the flu when she has it herself and even the effects of a break-up by showing how she responds when her boyfriend breaks up with her (or at least that’s what she lets you believe).

The neuroscientist’s name is Shannon Odell, and at the time this blog post was written, she was a neuroscience Ph.D. candidate at the Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University, in New York City. In November 2017, she began producing and starring in a series of 5-minute videos called Your Brain On (Blank), in which she explains very entertainingly and accessibly, but with great scientific rigour, just what happens in your brain and your body when you engage in various kinds of behaviours. (more…)

Pleasure and Pain | No comments


Tuesday, 26 February 2019
A Podcast on the Nature of the Human Mind

Some of you may be aware of the distinction, in Cartesian radical dualism, between the extended thing and the thinking thing, otherwise known as the body and the mind. A similar but perhaps more insidious distinction is made between the brain and the rest of the body. Likewise, the distinction between the individual and the rest of his or her environment is still taken as self-evident. In all three cases, tradition and “basic common sense” naturally lead us to think of the two terms in each dichotomy as clearly separate things. But in all three cases, according to today’s cognitive science, we are quite simply wrong.

In the June 2018 episode of the podcast Brain Science, Ginger Campbell talks with Alan Jasanoff about his book The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are. Jasanoff takes issue with what he describes as a certain “mystique of the brain”—our tendency to overemphasize the brain as a “subject”, as it it had its own life disconnected from the organism in which it is housed. Jasanoff reminds us that, on the contrary, the brain is part of this body that is subject to the biological imperative to stay alive, to postpone for as long as possible the victory of entropy, the second law of thermodynamics—in short, death. (more…)

From the Simple to the Complex | No comments


Thursday, 14 February 2019
A Summer School on Animal Sentience and Cognition

Without consciousness the mind-body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness it seems hopeless.” – Thomas Nagel

What is it like to be a bat? is the somewhat disconcerting title of philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous 1974 article on the ineffability of subjective consciousness. In reality, we humans will never know what it is like to use echolocation to navigate as we fly through the air, because, unlike bats, we simply don’t have the bodies or the nervous systems to do so. But the question of animals’ experience in general is nevertheless highly relevant, if only because our human species has the faculty of language and has developed a scientific method that lets us make observations and deductions about the mental states of other human beings and other animals. And because humans domesticate, exploit and exterminate thousands of other animal species, knowing what they may experience becomes an ethical imperative to guide the way we treat them. (more…)

The Emergence of Consciousness | No comments


Tuesday, 22 January 2019
Are Nationalist Sentiments Inversely Proportional to Cognitive Flexibility?

Many studies have shown how certain emotional characteristics can have higher-level cognitive effects. including an impact on people’s political choices. For example, studies have shown that being more sensitive to disgusting things is correlated with having a more conservative political or ethical outlook. Being afraid of nature or even of hearing someone read horror stories out loud is also likely to attract people to the conservative end of the political spectrum. More recently, the opposite phenomenon has even been demonstrated: making people feel invincible through a simple thought experiment can move them toward the more liberal, progressive end of this spectrum. (more…)

Emotions and the Brain | No comments


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