After some really horrible nightmares about an unkillable murderer coming after me with a silver knife, I woke up twenty minutes later than I had planned and took the fastest shower of my life before running the couple blocks over to the IRCS (Institute for Research in Cognitive Science) for our morning announcements and lectures. I wasn’t particularly excited for this morning’s line-up of material because they were about decision-making and cognitive economy, but I nonetheless tried to do my best to pay attention. Instead of having a huge lecture section in this post I’ll summarize briefly what I learned today:
- Decision Making – Joseph Kable
- There has been identified at least one set of areas in the brain that actually store and feed forward the subjective value that we attribute to rewards, and the value we place on those rewards changes hyperbolically (in theory).
- Dopamine input is key for learning after making decisions and after receiving rewards, etc.
- Fat people really like chocolate cake
- Some people are willing to wait 60 days for $21 instead of an immediate $20, while others will take $20 immediately over $140 in 90 days.
2. Neural Basis of Perceptual Decisions – Long Ding
- Different sets of neurons fire as signals that something in the visual field is in motion. Different neurons fire for different directions, and then those signals are fed forward to other neurons that add those up to decide on what direction the object is actually moving.
- In the case of learning to tell what direction something is generally flowing in (for example, lots of dots moving around on a screen with the majority of them moving right), neurons work like neural networks in order to learn (like artificial neural networks, used in AI programming and the suchlike). The neurons that are more sensitive to the specific direction will take more weight than the others and the learning process is augmented by this.
- Monkeys like juice.
- There is a ventral and dorsal pathway through the brain that carries visual information from the optic nerve to the processing centers of the brain.
- There are two separate areas in the brain that appear to have the exact same function in these tasks; the LIP in the parietal lobe and the FEF in the pre-frontal cortex.
After morning lectures were over, we got to do some really really awesome stuff. We went to the Center for Autism Research after lunch to learn about current research in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and the treatments and theories related to ASD. The speaker was Robert Schultz, who gave us an introduction to autism before sending us to the lab areas. What we learned was that:
DSM V will no longer recognize Aspergers as its own diagnosis– instead, it will be lumped in as an ASD.
Diffuser Tension Imaging is being done on children as young as 6 months to detect biomarkers of ASD. They are about to do scans on 3-month olds to see what else they can learn. They have found that In 6 month olds, children who later present with the onset of ASD have different axonal wiring than other children as well as global anisotropy in the DTI scans, but that these criteria are not reliable predictors of ASD. It’s difficult to tell without further research. They are looking into finding more specific biomarkers early in life that reliable predict the presence of ASD.
We split up into three groups and rotated between three labs. The first one we went to (and probably the coolest in my opinion) was the eye tracking lab. I volunteered myself as a guinea pig, and we got to see where my eyes were looking on a giant computer screen when I was presented with several stimulus images/videos. This technology helps them figure out what ASD children are more interested in looking at as opposed to those with normal development (i.e., without the social deficits of ASD). Then, we went to the EEG lab (which was also really cool) and learned how EEG machines, EKG, and skin electric conductivity (basically, measurement of sweat secretion) are being used to track anxiety in ASD when subjects are presented with certain stimuli like faces or the sounds of laughter, etc. Often, ASD is comorbid with severe anxiety, and especially social anxiety, and this is one of the things they want to treat early on. So, on to the third lab, in which there was a demonstration of video games which are being used to train kids with ASD to better recognize faces and emotion. It was really quite ingenious. In one of the games you play a raptor running away from a T-Rex and you have to run into the faces that appear on the screen that match the face at the top of the screen for a speed boost, or else you die. There were several others that weren’t demonstrated to us, but they seemed like good ideas. Now, about the ethics of brain scanning a 3-year-old with noisy machinery, I’m not so sure.
Last but definitely not least we listened to a talk on schizophrenia. I was actually able to contribute something to this discussion because of my own experiences with my grandfather who has paranoid type schizophrenia. We learned that meds are really the only way to give hope to people with schizophrenia (in combination with other methods, of course, but without meds there is essentially no hope). We also learned that drugs like cocaine, meth, and marijuana in particular destroy the functioning of glial cells as well the dopamanergic system in many areas of the brain. Essentially, these drugs make irreversible changes to how you think, learn, and perceive the world, and are especially potent before the age of 21. Dr. Steven Siegel, the speaker, put it like this: the brain never actually heals after these substances have been put into the brain. Then we learned about lots of different antipsychotics and how they affect the brain in different ways by upregulating or downregulating neural activity by making changes to neurotransmitters and neuron’s sensitivity to those neurotransmitters. It was really a fantastic lecture. Siegel is a practicing psychiatrist (med school, therapist, the works) who has seen over a thousand schizophrenic patients. He was really passionate about teaching us and very straightforward about everything including how useless he thought rocket scientists were in the real world. Lol.
After all our talks we convened at dinner and decided to go to Rittensomething Park, which is one of the optional social events on our calendar. I was going to go back to my dorm to drop off some stuff and catch up, but I lost my way and half an hour later finally made it to my dorm. For an idea of how pathetic I am, the dining hall is like three blocks from the dorms and I still couldn’t find my way. Anyway, I eventually caught up with them and on the way there met someone with whom I hadn’t had the opportunity to talk. We had another discussion about determinism and free will, linguistics, school, etc. until we met up with the larger group, walked around a bit, and had “water ice.” It’s like snow cone stuff but more finely shaved and it tastes better. I just had frozen custard. We ended up taking the bus back to campus (my first bus ride!) and now I’m sitting here writing this blog and reading the research paper for tomorrow.