People: Rodolfo Llinás on movement, mysteries, and nanowires

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Touted as "the founding father of modern brain science," here's a video where Rodolfo Llinás talks about his background and discusses the brain's consciousness, posted on The Science Network. It's a really long video (one hour plus) but it's fascinating, nevertheless. Keep in mind that this is someone who is deeply involved in the scientific community, and one who says that "we are our brains" and that "you can’t love an entity you don’t see or understand," so you know where he's coming from.

One of the points he mentions is that our life is driven by movement, a concept that's been suggested by other older psychological figures (e.g. Alfred Adler), and that the brain is the instrument for motricity (or movement). He defines movement in a more motor-esque manner - that is, stationary plants don't really move, as they just "eat their brains." This is quite interesting, though questionable, since plants do move - very slowly - if you give them time. It's too bad that he's so spatial about it.

He also talks about Sir Charles Sherrington's (a very famous neuroscientist who coined the word synapse) idea that "somehow in order for us to respect each other, in order for us to love each other, in order for us to be kind, to be civil and so on, there had to be a mystery type component to the whole thing. That if we were to really understand why we love and what we hate and why we do what we do, that somehow the drive, somehow that which makes us human would disappear because somehow humanity is fed by the mysterious and by the unknowable."

Of course, being the one who dedicates his life to finding out as much as possible about the brain, he disagrees with the notion that we need mysteries to live with each other. Quote:

the more you learn about the nature of what we are, the more we would like each other and the more we would understand each other. Mostly what we do is not so much hate each other. What we mostly do is not understand each other. So indeed if I, I think if I could really understand another human being as well as physically possible, let’s say, that individual becomes more interesting to me rather than less interesting. At least this happens with everything else that I’ve done in life and probably happens to most people and happens for sure to scientists. That the more they understand something, the more they like it, the more they love it, the more they understand it, and there’s an incredible feeling of, not of possession, but of being a part of something when you understand it.

The fallacy here is, of course, the idea that the more you understand something, the more likely you'd feel affection towards it. Would an understanding of someone like Hitler, or a given psychopath, make you like him/her more? And from academic research, we can bloody be assured that more answers lead to more questions.

Also, ironically, he runs into the natural physical barrier that prevents us from literally see what another person's brain is doing: the cranium that guards the brain and makes it opaque to outsiders. That is, we are mysterious by nature, literally. So what do scientists like him do to get around this? Nanowires. He explains:
the brain is full of holes, don’t make any new ones. And what are the holes I’m thinking about? The vascular system. So imagine. The blood vessels, right. Imagine yourself becoming very small in this beautiful whole film- science fiction, into the vessels and you go into the brain. Where can you go? Anywhere. The brain is completely vascularized. It’s full of these vessels and they occur every 15 microns, it’s a 3-dimensional scaffolding that goes everywhere. And then the question is, don’t go to the brain through the outside, go to the brain through the inside. Why not put a wire up to anywhere you want in the brain and try to record or stimulate or both. But it has to be a very thin wire because you don’t want it to bother circulation. It has to be of such material that it’s not recognized by the body as being there.
At this moment we are getting to about a 30 nanometer wire. It is a third of a micron- a micron being very small- thousandths of a millimeter. You can put several hundred in the diameter of a single hair. Ok so you float this thing, say you want to do more than one, you want to do ten or a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand or however many, so you can wire the brain from the inside. What can you do? Two things, you can record and you can stimulate.
yes you can repair things. Or you can have man-machine
interface. Seriously for the first time, seriously seriously. You need to remember the name of all the people that you know so you have a little bank in principle might be able to whisper to you the names of the people whose names you need to remember. You may buy a good program to learn or play chess. There are many things that you can do once you have direct access to the brain.
Yeah, brace yourself for the future of controversies.

(Transcript provided by Chanel N).

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2 Response to People: Rodolfo Llinás on movement, mysteries, and nanowires

August 15, 2010 at 10:28 PM

This research is, of course, very fascinating. It reflects a dream that many people interested in the brain have had for a very long time.

However, nanowires do pose some restrictions. For example, you will be restricted by the point at which the nanowires will impede blood flow and become dangerous.

And even a 30nm wide nanowire is still too wide to effectively reach a majority of the neurons.

In order to measure/stimulate each individual neuron in the brain (which is really the ultimate goal of neuroscience) a different kind of technology will need to be developed.

Where, when and who will this come from? That's what interests me.

August 18, 2010 at 2:47 AM

Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that it poses a clogging challenge. A more serious challenge is to hide from the body as a foreign object, I would think. Moreover, I'm not sure measuring individual neurons would be more efficient than, say, measuring a pattern of these neurons?


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