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Your Brain’s Memory Capacity May Be as Big as the World Wide Web

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In an attempt to understand and measure the brain’s synapses, whose shape and size have remained mysterious to scientists, researchers at the University of Texas, Austin and the Salk Institute worked together to determine that the brain’s memory capacity is much larger than previously understood. The results, published in the journal eLife, estimate that an individual human brain may store as much as a petabyte of information—perhaps 10 times more than previously estimated, and about the equivalent of the World Wide Web.

The study was the first attempt “to reconstruct in three dimensions every single synapse and associated structure in a brain region,” to try to understand “basic synaptic structure and local connectivity among neurons,” Kristen Harris, co-senior author of the study and professor of neuroscience at UT Austin, tells mental_floss.

Synapses communicate signals between neurons. They're formed when the cable-like axon from one neuron connects with a "spine" on a dendrite, a branch-like structure extending from the neural cell body, of another. To better understand the way synaptic storage is measured, consider that a computer’s memory is measured in bits, each of which can have a value of 0 or 1. "In the brain, information is stored in the form of synaptic strength, a measure of how strongly activity in one neuron influences another neuron to which it is connected,” write the authors. “The number of different strengths can be measured in bits. The total storage capacity of the brain therefore depends on both the number of synapses and the number of distinguishable synaptic strengths."

Researchers were able to see these synapses by analyzing thin slices of tissue from the hippocampus—the brain region connected to learning and memory—from three male adult rats using electron microscopy. Then, over several years, they used computer software to reconstruct in 3D every “structural process” and roughly 500 synapses found in a tiny section of brain tissue the size of a single red blood cell.

They identified places where two neurons were connected to each other through two synapses, called "axon-coupled pairs,” which allowed them to estimate new sizes of synapses. What they found were 26 different “bins” of synapses that can store 4.7 bits of information each.

Not only is the diversity of synapses they observed in such a small brain region surprising, the storage capacity of each is “markedly higher than previous suggestions,” write the authors. Prior to this, researchers believed an individual synapse was only capable of storing 1 to 2 bits of information. This suggests we may have underestimated the memory capacity of the brain, which has trillions of synapses, "by an order of magnitude."

According to lead author Terry Sejnowski, in whose lab the study was conducted, "Our new measurements of the brain’s memory capacity increase conservative estimates by a factor of 10 to at least a petabyte, in the same ballpark as the World Wide Web." 

The research provides researchers who study memory and learning with a deeper understanding of the brain’s memory capacity, and a new dataset to work with. “This is just the beginning—a tiny chink in the mysterious armor of the structure and function of synapses in the brain,” Harris says.

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Pop Culture
Neil deGrasse Tyson Recruits George R.R. Martin to Work on His New Video Game
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Kevin Winter / Getty Images

George R.R. Martin has been keeping busy with the latest installment of his Song of Ice and Fire series, but that doesn’t mean he has no time for side projects. As The Daily Beast reports, the fantasy author is taking a departure from novel-writing to work on a video game helmed by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

DeGrasse Tyson’s game, titled Space Odyssey, is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. He envisions an interactive, desktop experience that will allow players to create and explore their own planets while learning about physics at the same time. To do this correctly, he and his team are working with some of the brightest minds in science like Bill Nye, former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, and astrophysicist Charles Liu. The list of collaborators also includes a few unexpected names—like Martin, the man who gave us Game of Thrones.

Though Martin has more experience writing about dragons in Westeros than robots in outer space, deGrasse Tyson believes his world-building skills will be essential to the project. “For me [with] Game of Thrones ... I like that they’re creating a world that needs to be self-consistent,” deGrasse Tyson told The Daily Beast. “Create any world you want, just make it self-consistent, and base it on something accessible. I’m a big fan of Mark Twain’s quote: ‘First get your facts straight. Then distort them at your leisure.’”

Other giants from the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, including Neil Gaiman and Len Wein (co-creator of Marvel's Wolverine character), have signed on to help with that same part of the process. The campaign for Space Odyssey has until Saturday, July 29 to reach its $314,159 funding goal—of which it has already raised more than $278,000. If the video game gets completed, you can expect it to be the nerdiest Neil deGrasse Tyson project since his audiobook with LeVar Burton.

[h/t The Daily Beast]

Flying Telescopes Will Watch the Total Solar Eclipse from the Air

If you've ever stood on the tips of your toes to reach something on a high shelf, you get it: Sometimes a little extra height makes all the difference. Although in this case, we're talking miles, not inches, as scientists are sending telescopes up on airplanes to monitor conditions on the Sun and Mercury during the upcoming total eclipse.

Weather permitting, the Great American Eclipse (as some are calling it) will be at least partially visible from anywhere in the continental U.S. on August 21. It will be the first time an eclipse has been so widely visible in the U.S. since 1918 and represents an incredible opportunity not only for amateur sky-watchers but also for scientists from coast to coast.

But why settle for gawking from the ground when there's an even better view up in the sky?

Scientists at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) have announced plans to mount monitoring equipment on NASA research planes. The telescopes, which contain super-sensitive, high-speed, and infrared cameras, will rise 50,000 feet (about 9.5 miles) above the Earth's surface to sneak a very special peek at the goings-on in our Sun and its nearest planetary buddy.

Gaining altitude will not only bring the instruments closer to their targets but should also help them avoid the meteorological chaos down below.

"Being above the weather guarantees perfect observing conditions, while being above more than 90 percent of Earth's atmosphere gives us much better image quality than on the ground," SwRI co-investigator Constantine Tsang said in a statement. "This mobile platform also allows us to chase the eclipse shadow, giving us over seven minutes of totality between the two planes, compared to just two minutes and 40 seconds for a stationary observer on the ground."

The darkness of that shadow will blot out much of the Sun's overpowering daily brightness, giving researchers a glimpse at rarely seen solar emissions.

"By looking for high-speed motion in the solar corona, we hope to understand what makes it so hot," senior investigator Amir Caspi said. "It's millions of degrees Celsius—hundreds of times hotter than the visible surface below. In addition, the corona is one of the major sources of electromagnetic storms here at Earth. These phenomena damage satellites, cause power grid blackouts, and disrupt communication and GPS signals, so it's important to better understand them."

The temporary blackout will also create fine conditions for peeping at Mercury's night side. Tsang says, "How the temperature changes across the surface gives us information about the thermophysical properties of Mercury's soil, down to depths of about a few centimeters—something that has never been measured before."


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