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7 Things We Can Turn Off and On in the Brain

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iStock / Rebecca O'Connell

As much as we’d like to think we’re always in control of our own actions, a lot of human behavior, mood, and habit can be traced to involuntary reactions in the brain. As researchers learn more about what’s going on inside our heads, they’re finding the light switches that control some of our most basic functions—many of which can be turned off. 

1. Thirst

Researchers know the control center for thirst is somewhere in the hypothalamus, an almond-sized section of the human brain that regulates a number of our basic functions (hunger, sex drive, temperature). But recently, neuroscientists at Columbia University identified two specific populations of neurons in the hypothalamus of mice that control the impulse to hydrate, and they wanted to know what happens when they’re activated. By using a process called optogenetics, they manipulated these cells to make them sensitive to certain wavelengths of light. Then, fiber-optic cables were implanted in the brains of mice that when illuminated, turned the corresponding neurons on or off.

They found that one group of thirst neurons “evokes intense drinking behavior” when activated. How intense? Mice drank up to eight percent of their body weight in water when these neurons were switched on. That’s the equivalent of a human drinking a gallon and a half of water in 10 minutes.

The second group of neurons reduces the desire to drink, even when the animal is deprived of water. You can see video of some very thirsty mice from this study here.

2. Hunger

Using the same optogenetics technique, scientists at Johns Hopkins University have pinpointed the brain cells that control our impulse to eat. When these cells are activated in mice, the rodents are compelled to stuff themselves well beyond the point of being full. But when they’re shut down, the mice ignore food, even when they should be hungry. Researchers think this information could potentially help treat eating disorders in humans.

3. Consciousness

We consider consciousness and self-awareness to be defining characteristics of human life. So it may surprise you to know that such sacred traits can be turned off and on like a light switch in a lab setting. At George Washington University, Mohamad Koubeissi and his team accidentally flipped the switch while using electrodes to stimulate different parts of the brain in an epileptic woman.

When they stimulated a section called the claustrum, the patient lost consciousness, but she didn’t pass out. Instead she sat motionless with a blank stare and showed no response to cues around her. She snapped out of her trance when the stimulation stopped, and had no memory of the lapse. "Ultimately, if we know how consciousness is created and which parts of the brain are involved then we can understand who has it and who doesn't," says Christof Koch at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. "Do robots have it? Do fetuses? Does a cat or dog or worm?” The caveat: because of her epilepsy, this woman had part of her hippocampus removed, so her brain is far from that of a “normal” person.

Other studies have shown the human brain may switch off self-awareness when we’re stressed, without any help from researchers. In 2006, neurobiologists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel observed that when humans are forced to focus on a difficult task (particularly under a strict deadline), the area of our brains associated with introspection, the cortex, becomes quiet, and we go into a sort of robotic mode until the task is done. This ability could have evolved for purposes of self-defense. "If there is a sudden danger, such as the appearance of a snake, it is not helpful to stand around wondering how one feels about the situation," researcher Ilan Goldberg told New Scientist.

4. Pain

We can already ease pain with certain drugs, but many treatments come with side effects like dependency and tolerance. Saint Louis University researcher Daniela Salvemini and her team think they’ve found a way to treat chronic pain caused by nerve damage, including the physical agony caused by chemotherapy and bone cancer. By turning on the “A3 adenosine receptor” in the brain and spinal cord, Salvemini and her team were able to block pain caused by nerve damage in rodents, without any of the side effects associated with drug treatments.

5. Violence

What if we could reduce the human urge to fight? Dayu Lin from New York University zoomed in on the hypothalamus, the previously-mentioned hub of bodily functions, to look at the specific neurons that fire during acts of physical violence. By stimulating those neurons using optogenetics, Lin was able to turn male mice into vicious fighters that attacked anything in their vicinity—including inanimate objects, and both male and female mice. She could also calm them, quelling their violent urges by silencing these neurons. Could this strategy one day be used on people? "I think there's every reason to think that this would be true in humans," says Newton Canteras, a neuroscientist at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, and a co-author of this study.

Interestingly, Lin and her team found violence-inducing neurons overlap and compete with neurons associated with sex. In fact, the act of sex temporarily suppresses the violent urges in mice.

6. Bad habits

Can’t stop biting your nails? Plagued by an urge to crack your knuckles? Neuroscientists have found the brain cells responsible for habit formation, at least in rats. By turning these neurons on or off, they are able to eliminate or encourage the formation of new habits. To test this, they gave lab rats a new habit. With a little help from a tasty reward, scientists trained the rodents to navigate a maze until it became so habitual that they’d do it even after the reward was replaced by punishment. But when the neurons were inhibited in the lab, the habit disappeared.

Right now, this kind of procedure would be too invasive to try on humans, says Professor Ann Graybiel, a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. But it does pave the way for similar, more advanced treatments in the future.

7. Parkinson’s, depression—and maybe Alzheimer’s

Using electrodes embedded in the brain, a neurosurgeon from the University of Toronto named Andres Lozano is harnessing electricity to treat some of humanity’s most vexing ailments. For example, Lozano knows which neurons in the brain are misfiring to cause the severe shaking associated with Parkinson’s disease. In his TED Talk, he explains, “we use electricity to dictate how they fire, and we try to block their misbehavior using electricity. So in this case, we are suppressing the activity of abnormal neurons.” As a result of this suppression, tremors can be dramatically reduced.

Lozano has done similar work with areas in the brain that cause severe depression and is “seeing very striking results in these patients,” he says. Can this approach work for memory? In 2014, he launched a clinical trial to treat 50 people with mild Alzheimer’s with electrical stimulation “to get these areas of the brain that were not using glucose to use glucose once again.” We’ll know in April if the treatment worked.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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