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Jan 19, 2006

We’re Cracking the Neural Code, the Brain’s Secret Language

By: John Horgan
http://adbusters.org/the_magazine/63/Were_Cracking_the_Neural_Code_the_Brains_Secret_Language.html

Chances are you have never heard of the neural code. And yet, from both a practical and philosophical perspective, the neural code is  the most important remaining scientific mystery. Analogous to the machine code of a digital computer, the neural code is the software, set of rules, syntax, that transforms electrical pulses in the brain  into perceptions, memories, decisions. A solution to the neural code could – in principle – give us almost unlimited power over our psyches, because we could monitor and manipulate brain cells with exquisite precision by speaking to them in their own private language.

The neural code is such a dauntingly complex, technical topic – overlapping with nonlinear dynamics, information theory, and other esoteric fields – that it receives little publicity beyond  specialized journals. Moreover, until recently a complete decoding of the brain seemed impossibly remote, because researchers had limited means of probing the microcircuitry of living brains. Trying to glean the neural code with external scanning methods such as magnetic- resonance imaging or electroencephalography is like trying to learn English by standing outside a baseball stadium and listening to the roar of the crowd. But just in the past decade researchers have begun crafting arrays of microelectrodes that can eavesdrop on hundreds and even thousands of separate neurons simultaneously, and they have acquired ever-more-powerful computers and algorithms for analyzing data.

The immediate goal of many neural-code researchers is producing “neural prostheses” for the disabled. By far the most successful neural prosthesis is the artificial cochlea. More than 80,000 people have been equipped with these devices, which restore at least rudimentary hearing by feeding signals from an external microphone to the auditory nerve. Work on other prostheses is proceeding more slowly. Artificial retinas, light-sensitive chips that mimic the eye’s signal-processing ability and stimulate the optical nerve or visual cortex, have been tested in a handful of blind subjects, but they usually “see” nothing more than phosphenes, or bright spots.

Several groups have recently shown that monkeys can control computers  and robotic arms “merely by thinking,” as media accounts invariably  put it – not telekinetically but via implanted electrodes picking up  neural signals. The potential for empowering the paralyzed is obvious, but so far only a few experiments with humans have been carried out, with limited success. A program to create chips that can restore the memory of those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease or other disorders is still a year or two away from testing in rats.

The National Institutes of Health and the Defense Advanced Research  Projects Agency (darpa) nonetheless see enough promise in this  research to pump millions into it every year. darpa is less interested in treating the disabled than in enhancing the cognitive capacities of healthy soldiers. darpa officials have broached the prospect of cyborg warriors downloading complex fighting procedures directly into their brains, like the heros of The Matrix; controlling jets with their thoughts, like Clint Eastwood in the old flick Firefox; or being remotely controlled, like the assassin in the recent remake of The Manchurian Candidate. “Implanting electrodes into healthy people is not something we’re going to do any time soon,” a darpa official told me recently. “But 20 years ago, no one would have thought we’d put a laser in the eye either. So this is an agency that leaves the door open to what’s possible.”

Beyond these bionic possibilities, neural-code research could have a  dramatic impact on artificial intelligence, which has thus far failed  to deliver on its promise of creating truly intelligent machines. If  the brain’s programming tricks can be transferred to computers and  robots, they may finally become as clever as hal in 2001 and c3po in  Star Wars. In perhaps the most fantastic scenario of all, long  envisioned by AI mavens such as Marvin Minsky and Ray Kurzweil, mastery of the neural code might allow us to transform our psyches into software programs – strings of ones and zeros – that can be downloaded into machines, where we will live forever in cyberspace.
Finally, the neural code could represent the key to one of  philosophy’s oldest and deepest conundrums – the mind-body problem – in the following way: all codes involve the transformation of purely physical phenomena – the positioning of base pairs in a dna strand, the flow of electrons in a computer, the scratch of a pen on paper – into information, which transcends the physical realm. By revealing how the brain transforms a physical process such as the firing of a neuron into information and even meaning, another non-physical phenomena, the neural code may reveal how mere matter becomes a mind. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even solve the riddle of free will. We may finally understand how this wrinkled lump of jelly in our skulls generates a unique self with a sense of personal identity and autonomy, a self that perceives, emotes, remembers, imagines, chooses, acts, creates.

Neuroscientists are still far from converging on a solution to the neural code. They are embroiled in debates over whether informationis represented primarily by signals from individual neurons, by many neurons firing in lockstep, by even higher-level waves of chaotic electrical activity sweeping through the brain, or all of the schemes above and more. These disputes have led some theorists to warn that the neural code may never be fully deciphered. But 60 years ago, some biologists feared the genetic code was too complex to crack. Then in 1953 Francis Crick and James Watson unraveled the structure of dna, and researchers quickly established that the double helix mediates an astonishingly simple genetic code governing the heredity of all organisms.

Science’s success in deciphering the genetic code, which has  culminated in the Human Genome Project, has been widely acclaimed – and with good reason, because knowledge of our genetic makeup could allow us to reshape our fundamental nature. A solution to the neural code could, in principle, give us much greater, more direct control over ourselves than mere genetic manipulation. It is not too soon to start pondering the potential consequences of this achievement. How will knowledge of the neural code be used, and by whom? Who will be liberated, and who enslaved?

John Horgan, former senior writer at Scientific American, is author of, most recently, Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in  the Search for Enlightenment.


Left in the Dark

'The Biological Origins of the Fall From Grace'

You can read this book for free http://www.kaleidos.org.uk/


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Posted: Jan 19, 2006 10:54am
Dec 25, 2005
Focus: Consumer Rights
Action Request: Read
Location: United States
The Age of Autism: 'A pretty big secret'  <>
By DAN OLMSTED

UPI Senior Editor

From:  http://www.upi.com/ConsumerHealthDaily/view.php?StoryID=20051204-060313-6829r

  <>
CHICAGO
, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- It's a far piece from the horse-and-buggies of Lancaster County, Pa., to the cars and freeways of Cook County, Ill.
  <>
But thousands of children cared for by Homefirst Health Services in metropolitan Chicago have at least two things in common with thousands of Amish children in rural Lancaster: They have never been vaccinated. And they don't have autism.
  <>
"We have a fairly large practice. We have about 30,000 or 35,000 children that we've taken care of over the years, and I don't think we have a single case of autism in children delivered by us who never received vaccines," said Dr. Mayer Eisenstein, Homefirst's medical director who founded the practice in 1973. Homefirst doctors have delivered more than 15,000 babies at home, and thousands of them have never been vaccinated.
  <>
The few autistic children Homefirst sees were vaccinated before their families became patients, Eisenstein said. "I can think of two or three autistic children who we've delivered their mother's next baby, and we aren't really totally taking care of that child -- they have special care needs. But they bring the younger children to us. I don't have a single case that I can think of that wasn't vaccinated."
  <>
The autism rate in Illinois public schools is 38 per 10,000, according to state Education Department data; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the national rate of autism spectrum disorders at 1 in 166 -- 60 per 10,000.
  <>
"We do have enough of a sample," Eisenstein said. "The numbers are too large to not see it. We would absolutely know. We're all family doctors. If I have a child with autism come in, there's no communication. It's frightening. You can't touch them. It's not something that anyone would miss."
  <>
No one knows what causes autism, but federal health authorities say it isn't childhood immunizations. Some parents and a small minority of doctors and scientists, however, assert vaccines are responsible.
  <>
This column has been looking for autism in never-vaccinated U.S. children in an effort to shed light on the issue. We went to Chicago to meet with Eisenstein at the suggestion of a reader, and we also visited Homefirst's office in northwest suburban Rolling Meadows. Homefirst has four other offices in the Chicago area and a total of six doctors.
  <>
Eisenstein stresses his observations are not scientific. "The trouble is this is just anecdotal in a sense, because what if every autistic child goes somewhere else and (their family) never calls us or they moved out of state?"
  <>
In practice, that's unlikely to account for the pronounced absence of autism, says Eisenstein, who also has a bachelor's degree in statistics, a master's degree in public health and a law degree.
  <>
Homefirst follows state immunization mandates, but Illinois allows religious exemptions if parents object based either on tenets of their faith or specific personal religious views. Homefirst does not exclude or discourage such families. Eisenstein, in fact, is author of the book "Don't Vaccinate Before You Educate!" and is critical of the CDC's vaccination policy in the 1990s, when several new immunizations were added to the schedule, including Hepatitis B as early as the day of birth. Several of the vaccines -- HepB included -- contained a mercury-based preservative that has since been phased out of most childhood vaccines in the United States.
  <>
Medical practices with Homefirst's approach to immunizations are rare. "Because of that, we tend to attract families that have questions about that issue," said Dr. Paul Schattauer, who has been with Homefirst for 20 years and treats "at least" 100 children a week.
  <>
Schattauer seconded Eisenstein's observations. "All I know is in my practice I don't see autism. There is no striking 1-in-166," he said.
  <>
Earlier this year we reported the same phenomenon in the mostly unvaccinated Amish. CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding told us the Amish "have genetic connectivity that would make them different from populations that are in other sectors of the United States." Gerberding said, however, studies "could and should be done" in more representative unvaccinated groups -- if they could be found and their autism rate documented.
  <>
Chicago
is America's prototypical "City of Big Shoulders," to quote Carl Sandburg, and Homefirst's mostly middle-class families seem fairly representative. A substantial number are conservative Christians who home-school their children. They are mostly white, but the Homefirst practice also includes black and Hispanic families and non-home-schooling Jews, Catholics and Muslims.
  <>
They tend to be better educated, follow healthier diets and breast-feed their children much longer than the norm -- half of Homefirst's mothers are still breast-feeding at two years. Also, because Homefirst relies less on prescription drugs including antibiotics as a first line of treatment, these children have less exposure to other medicines, not just vaccines.
  <>
Schattauer, interviewed at the Rolling Meadows office, said his caseload is too limited to draw conclusions about a possible link between vaccines and autism. "With these numbers you'd have a hard time proving or disproving anything," he said. "You can only get a feeling about it.
  <>
"In no way would I be an advocate to stand up and say we need to look at vaccines, because I don't have the science to say that," Schattauer said. "But I don't think the science is there to say that it's not."
  <>
Schattauer said Homefirst's patients also have significantly less childhood asthma and juvenile diabetes compared to national rates. An office manager who has been with Homefirst for 17 years said she is aware of only one case of severe asthma in an unvaccinated child.
  <>
"Sometimes you feel frustrated because you feel like you've got a pretty big secret," Schattauer said. He argues for more research on all those disorders, independent of political or business pressures.
  <>
The asthma rate among Homefirst patients is so low it was noticed by the Blue Cross group with which Homefirst is affiliated, according to Eisenstein.
  <>
"In the alternative-medicine network which Homefirst is part of, there are virtually no cases of childhood asthma, in contrast to the overall Blue Cross rate of childhood asthma which is approximately 10 percent," he said. "At first I thought it was because they (Homefirst's children) were breast-fed, but even among the breast-fed we've had asthma. We have virtually no asthma if you're breast-fed and not vaccinated."
  <>
Because the diagnosis of asthma is based on emergency-room visits and hospital admissions, Eisenstein said, Homefirst's low rate is hard to dispute. "It's quantifiable -- the definition is not reliant on the doctor's perception of asthma."
  <>
Several studies have found a risk of asthma from vaccination; others have not. Studies that include never-vaccinated children generally find little or no asthma in that group.
  <>
Earlier this year Florida pediatrician Dr. Jeff Bradstreet said there is virtually no autism in home-schooling families who decline to vaccinate for religious reasons -- lending credence to Eisenstein's observations.
  <>
"It's largely non-existent," said Bradstreet, who treats children with autism from around the country. "It's an extremely rare event."
  <>
Bradstreet has a son whose autism he attributes to a vaccine reaction at 15 months. His daughter has been home-schooled, he describes himself as a "Christian family physician," and he knows many of the leaders in the home-school movement.
  <>
"There was this whole subculture of folks who went into home-schooling so they would never have to vaccinate their kids," he said. "There's this whole cadre who were never vaccinated for religious reasons."
  <>
In that subset, he said, "unless they were massively exposed to mercury through lots of amalgams (mercury dental fillings in the mother) and/or big-time fish eating, I've not had a single case."
  <>
Federal health authorities and mainstream medical groups emphatically dismiss any link between autism and vaccines, including the mercury-based preservative thimerosal. Last year a panel of the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies, said there is no evidence of such a link, and funding should henceforth go to "promising" research.
  <>
Thimerosal, which is 49.6 percent ethyl mercury by weight, was phased out of most U.S. childhood immunizations beginning in 1999, but the CDC recommends flu shots for pregnant women and last year began recommending them for children 6 to 23 months old. Most of those shots contain thimerosal.
  <>
Thimerosal-preserved vaccines are currently being injected into millions of children in developing countries around the world. "My mandate ... is to make sure at the end of the day that 100,000,000 are immunized ... this year, next year and for many years to come ... and that will have to be with thimerosal-containing vaccines," said John Clements of the World Health Organization at a June 2000 meeting called by the CDC.
  <>
That meeting was held to review data that thimerosal might be linked with autism and other neurological problems. But in 2004 the Institute of Medicine panel said evidence against a link is so strong that health authorities, "whether in the United States or other countries, should not include autism as a potential risk" when formulating immunization policies.
  <>
But where is the simple, straightforward study of autism in never-vaccinated U.S. children? Based on our admittedly anecdotal and limited reporting among the Amish, the home-schooled and now Chicago's Homefirst, that may prove to be a significant omission.
  <>
--

 

This ongoing series on the roots and rise of autism welcomes comment. E-mail: dolmsted[at]upi.com

 

 

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