Archive for the ‘I is for IA’ Category

Cognitive Curiosity is the Brain’s Fix

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Photo via flickr by h.koppdelaney

Neuroscientists have proposed a simple explanation for the pleasure of grasping a new concept: The brain is getting its fix.

The “click” of comprehension triggers a biochemical cascade that rewards the brain with a shot of natural opium-like substances, said Irving Biederman of the University of Southern California. He presents his theory in an invited article in an issue of American Scientist.

“While you’re trying to understand a difficult theorem, it’s not fun,” said Biederman, professor of neuroscience in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “But once you get it, you just feel fabulous.”

The brain’s craving for a fix motivates humans to maximize the rate at which they absorb knowledge. Biederman hypothesized that knowledge addiction has strong evolutionary value because mate selection correlates closely with perceived intelligence. Only more pressing material needs, such as hunger, can suspend the quest for knowledge, he added.

The same mechanism is involved in the aesthetic experience, Biederman said, providing a neurological explanation for the pleasure we derive from art. “This account may provide a plausible and very simple mechanism for aesthetic and perceptual and cognitive curiosity.”

Biederman’s theory was inspired by a widely ignored 25-year-old finding that mu-opioid receptors—binding sites for natural opiates—increase in density along the ventral visual pathway, a part of the brain involved in image recognition and processing. The receptors are tightly packed in the areas of the pathway linked to comprehension and interpretation of images, but sparse in areas where visual stimuli first hit the cortex.

Biederman’s theory holds that the greater the neural activity in the areas rich in opioid receptors, the greater the pleasure. In a series of functional magnetic resonance imaging trials with human volunteers exposed to a wide variety of images, Biederman’s research group found that strongly preferred images prompted the greatest fMRI activity in more complex areas of the ventral visual pathway.

via ScienceDaily

Switching on the Smart Gene

Monday, November 9th, 2009

Photo via flickr by mandykoh

Over-expressing a gene that lets brain cells communicate just a fraction of a second longer makes a smarter rat, report researchers from the Medical College of Georgia and East China Normal University.

Dubbed Hobbie-J after a smart rat that stars in a Chinese cartoon book, the transgenic rat was able to remember novel objects, such as a toy she played with, three times longer than the average Long Evans female rat, which is considered the smartest rat strain. Hobbie-J was much better at more complex tasks as well, such as remembering which path she last traveled to find a chocolate treat.

The report comes about a decade after the scientists first reported in the journal Nature that they had developed “Doogie,” a smart mouse that over-expresses the NR2B gene in the hippocampus, a learning and memory center affected in diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Memory improvements they found in the new genetically modified Long Evans rat were very similar to Doogie’s. Subsequent testing has shown that Doogie maintained superior memory as he aged.

“This adds to the notion that NR2B is a universal switch for memory formation,” says Dr. Joe Z. Tsien, co-director of the MCG Brain & Behavior Discovery Institute and co-corresponding author on the paper published in PLoS ONE. Dr. Xiaohua Cao at East China Normal University also is a co-corresponding author.

The finding also further validates NR2B as a drug target for improving memory in healthy individuals as well as those struggling with Alzheimer’s or mild dementia, the scientists says.

Scientists found that Hobbie-J consistently outperformed the normal Long Evans rat even in more complex situations that require association, such as working their way through a water maze after most of the designated directional cues and the landing point were removed. “It’s like taking Michael Jordan and making him a super Michael Jordan,” Deheng Wang, MCG graduate student and the paper’s first author, says of the large black and white rats already recognized for their superior intellect.

via PhysOrg.com and PLoSone.org

I is for IA

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

It is believed that in the next 10 to 20 years, there will be people who are smarter than we are today, and the comparison will be so drastic, that the rest of us will be seen as intelligent as a goldfish or a chimpanzee. Provided we manage not to destroy civilization, it has been suggested by computer scientist Vernor Vinge, that we are headed towards the Singularity, a hypothetical point in the future where the pace of technological development becomes so rapid that it leads to the creation of a never-ending feedback loop where intelligent systems breed more intelligent systems, resulting in a world where there’s super-human intelligent critters running around. Considering that university students are buying and selling prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin not to get high, but to get higher grades, a tomorrow-now future where the brain becomes real estate doesn’t sound so trippy. According to science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, instead of the psychedelic revolution we will enter the cognitive revolution, and once there’s a combination of computer science and a real understanding of how neurons work, our mental processes will become retail items, able to be changed for $8, or $3 or 30 cents. In addition to human-enhanced intelligence, the goal of the newly-formed Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence is smarter-than-human intelligence, as their objective is the development of recursively self-improving machines that are able to automatically implement upgrades to their own functionality. The negative side, of course, is that these critters might not like us very much, whereas the hope is that if we program them to value humanity and consider us as their ancestors, they will. And while many readers may be thinking of HAL’s behavior in 2001 or shaking your head doubting this will ever occur in your lifetime, the fact is that one of the many advisors of SIAI includes venture capitalist Peter Thiel, and beyond being the founder of PayPal, he was also one of the first investors of Facebook. And if the rumors about the Indigo Children are true, and there is a set of children on the Earth who have been born with paranormal powers, well then, we are surely in store for a world transformed. The Singularity is Near.