TEDxBARCELONA SCIENCE 2012
Discoveries about the brain’s structure and functioning reveal the bases of human experience and behaviour. The contributions of neuroscience have profound consequences on how we see ourselves, how we relate to others and how we interact with the world around us. The advances made in this field, therefore, have ever-greater economic, social and cultural impact.
The declaration of 2012 as the Year of Neuroscience in Spain by the Spanish Parliament represents a unique opportunity to boost neuroscience research, promoting knowledge about the brain in society.
TEDxBarcelona Science 2012 joined all the activities around neuroscience, organized by public and private institutions, research centers, universities and cultural stakeholders in Barcelona, aimed at the general public of the city.
You can download the mindmap of the event here.
The event was held on Wednesday July 18th from 16h to 19.30h at the CCIB (Centro de Convenciones Internacional de Barcelona).
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CONTENT OF THE EVENT AND SUMMARY OF THE TALKS
Roser Nadal Introduction
TEDxBarcelona Science 2012 Introduction
Bio: Roser Nadal is currently Assistant Professor at the School of Psychology (Psychobiology Unit) and Vice-director of the Neurosciences Institute at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). She got her PhD in Psychology at the UAB in 1992 and has done research stays at the University of Wake Forrest (North Carolina), University of California in San Francisco, and at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She works in the field of Neurobiology of stress and vulnerability to Psychopathology, including drug addiction, using rodent models.
Paul Verschure Consciousness and the machine
We can learn a lot from brains and bodies when making machines and robots. But, can we build conscious machines? Which are the core ingredients of consciousness? Consciousness is an enigmatic phenomenon. Yet evolution has invented it to solve a specific problem. Identifying this problem will thus shed light on the ontological question on the nature of consciousness. Now the only practical problem is that evolution, like consciousness, does not lend itself well for direct empirical study.
Consciousness emerged as a solution to the massive parallel processing required in response to this pervasive intentionality. It provided the serialization and virtualization of experience required to manage massive parallel processing. This leaves one question: How would a robot help us to address the hard problem of conscious experience? In short, a robot based approach allows us to exactly control and analyze all experiences of the machine as in its developmental and learning trajectory it masters its environment. This implies that in principle all future states of the machine can be decoded in terms of the registration of its past: the first person subjective perspective rendered into a third person view. In addition, like us, robots of the future will have to be conscious in order to be able to exist in a world that is pervaded by intentionality.
Bio: Dr. Paul F.M.J. Verschure (1962) is a research professor with the Catalan Institute of Advanced Studies (ICREA) and director of the Center of Autonomous Systems and Neurorobotics and the laboratory of Synthetic Perceptive, Emotive and Cognitive Systems at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) in Barcelona, Spain. He received both his Ma. and PhD in psychology and pursued his research at different leading institutes: the Neurosciences Institute and The Salk Institute, both in San Diego, the University of Amsterdam, University of Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology-ETH, where he was a founding member of the Institute of Neuroinformatics. Paul´s scientific aim is to find a unified theory of mind, brain and body through the use of synthetic methods and to apply this theory to the development of novel technologies and quality of life enhancing applications. This theory is called Distributed Adaptive Control that has been generalized to a range of invertebrate and vertebrate neuronal systems and tested on a range of robotic systems. The DAC theory has given rise to a novel neuroprosthetic device and has laid the foundation for a unique and highly effective virtual reality based approach towards neurorehabilitation called the Rehabilitation Gaming System.
Michael Hausser Neuronal code: How neurons talk to create behaviors
The brain is one of the last great challenges that we face. We have been to the moon, we have split the atom, we have sequenced the human genome, but we are still at the very beginning of understanding how brain drives behavior. To achieve this, we need to link different levels of brain function, all the way from a single molecule up to a final action. It is not enough to know which brain areas are active in the human brain during behavior. We need a greater resolution to understand the underlying machinery of the brain (neural circuits, neurons, synapses, molecules…).
The need of linking different levels is easy to understand with the case of two species of little mouse-like rodents called voles with different sexual behavior. While the males of one species are monogamous and behave similar to an “ideal husband” (prairie vole), their closely related cousins (montane voles) are promiscuous and behave more like a “Casanova”, skipping out on his mate as soon as the females are pregnant. What is remarkable is that this striking difference in behaviour has been traced to a single gene encoding a single neurotransmitter receptor. We have seen that if we put the gene from the praire vole into the montane vole, we can transform the behaviour of the montane vole from “Casanova” like to the “ideal husband” like.
Experiments like this help us to understand complex behaviors on the level of the underlying molecules; however, it is crucial not just to identify the underlying molecules: we need to fully understand the neural code. Michael Hausser explains the first steps and organisms that have been used so far for cracking it. When achieved, we will be able to treat disease, manipulate movements or restore vision, but also create sensations, recall memories or sway decisions.
Bio: Dr. Michael Häusser is working in the field of understanding synaptic integration and dendritic function. He has made important advances in revealing how the integrative properties of single neurons, and in particular of their dendrites, contribute to regulating information flow and memory storage in neural networks; and his group has also been instrumental in developing new approaches for recording from single neurons and small networks of neurons in vitro and in vivo using a combination of optical and electrophysiological approaches.
Cedric Notredame Phenome code: How behavior predicts the future of the brain
Mankind has always been obsessed about measuring things and doing predictions. Measuring, comparing, classifying and discovering. All modern experimental sciences rely on this simple combination and any time scientists change the way they measure things, they are also forced to change the way they think. Many times, measurements are right but not the correlations which are done with them. Bioinformatics open a new door to a large amount of data, predictions and discoveries.
How can we predict behaviors studying previous behaviors? Nowadays you can receive your genome by email and many companies claim they can predict your future. It has been proved that whole genome sequencing so far has failed to predict the risk of most common disease. Currently it is useless from a medical point of view and it is a real problem form a genetic perspective: a direct correlation is not possible. Technological novelty is always a threat to personal liberties, so democracy and innovation must go hand by hand.
Neuroscience is now changing at a mind blowing pace. This is happening because sophisticated new devices (like smart phones) can follow individuals in real time and generate an amazing amount of data. With this wealth of data we will soon be able to model, analyze and compare behaviors as if they were simple phenotypes like weigh or height. This is as much data, even more, as genomics is currently generating, but if managed properly, this predictive power could be turned into the most powerful and less invasive diagnostic tool mankind has ever had in its reach.
More information about the presentation here.
Bio: Cedric Notredame is a molecular biologist by training. He holds a PhD in Bioinformatics from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (Heidelberg and Cambridge). Since 2007 he has been on leave form CNRS and is currently working as a senior group leader at the Center for Genomics Regulation in Barcelona. Cedric specializes in the development of string comparison algorithms and is best known for the T-Coffee package, a widely used software for the multiple comparison of genomic sequences. Cedric is also very committed in making science accessible to all and his best-selling title “Bioinformatics for Dummies” has sold more than 34.000 copies world-wide.
TEDTalk – Vilayanur Ramachandran The neurons that shaped civilization
Luis M. Martínez Perceptome: How perceptions create reality
We experience the world as a seamless whole, continuous both in space and time. But we do not perceive it that way. Visual continuity is a brain construct that allow us to interact with our surroundings in an efficient manner. We are beginning to understand the strategies the brain uses to generate this illusion and this knowledge is shaping the way we think, not only about visual perception, but also about other very relevant issues such as the meaning of art and even our sense of self.
We should bear in mind that vision has nothing to do with images, but with processing information. We actually have a problem because we want to understand reality, but we never have access to it. The brain constructs reality in a creative process in which the whole is always more than the sum of its parts. Also, it is very “expensive” from a metabolic point of view.
Theoretically, we would need 129,6 kg of sugar/day to feed our 1012 neurons! That is how expensive the neuro tissue actually is, but obviously we do not need so much sugar per day. Our brain is extremely well designed to work in a very economical fashion to safe energy and time. How can it do that? Basically following three strategies: losing accuracy; enhancing adaptation (caring only about things that change); and analyzing situations relatively, not in absolute terms.
Bio: Luis M. Martinez heads the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience at the Institute of Neuroscience in Alicante, which is part of the Spanish National Research Council. His long-term scientific goals are to understand how the brain constructs the visual perception of the world, why in doing so different brains use such different strategies and what is the biological meaning of art that justifies its appearance at all times, places and cultures.
Pablo Gervas Creatome: How to build machines that write tales
Words can create magic. Could we build machines that write tales and predict the feelings poems create? Pablo Gervas is trying to discover if machines could write poetry that a human would appreciate. In the course of this quest, he has learnt many things about how poetry works, the limitations of machines and what makes our brains so special, the way people appreciate poetry and various ways in which machines scare them.
What goes on in a poets mind when writing a poem? The human brain is very complex and it works with a lot of different information at the same time, in parallel; while machines are linear. They can only work step by step but very fast, and they can store a massive amount of information. Could we build a machine that worked like a poet’s brain? Some promising attempts have already been developed, like the WASP Poetry Generation System, a rule-based system that generates automatically verses in Spanish.
If we understood how brains work when using language, we could improve communication in our world, both by having machines help people to communicate, and, more recently, by helping people and machines to communicate with one another.
Bio: Pablo Gervas has been working as a researcher in artificial intelligence for the past 22 years, in the fields of natural language processing, computational creativity and computational narratology. His first degree was in Physics and he got a PhD in Computing from Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine in London. Over all these years his main interest has been to understand how people use language to communicate and store information, and to find ways of applying parts of that understanding to the improvement of communication in our world, both by having machines help people to communicate, and, more recently, by helping people and machines to communicate with one another. He currently works as associate professor at Universidad Complutense de Madrid, where he leads a research group on Natural Interaction based on Language. In the area of creative text generation, he has worked on automatically generating metaphors, formal poetry, fairy tales and short stories.
TEDTalk – Daniel Wolpert The real reason for brains
Andrew Holmes Emotionome: How emotion creates brain states
We are living in trying times. But it so happens that while virtually all of us will at some time face one or more emotionally traumatic events, only a small percentage go on to develop a fully fledged psychiatric condition such as posttraumatic stress disorder. What is it about the way our brains functions and our genetic and biological predispositions that makes some of us resilient to trauma and others vulnerable to the lasting scars of stress?
By analyzing behavior, neuronal firing and gene networks, researchers aim to find the neural and genetic factors that underlie individual differences in stress reactivity. Various studies with laboratory animals have shown how traumatic situations influence different individuals and the regions of the brain and genes involved with diverse reactions. The amygdala region of the brain has been proved to be a very important zone related to traumatic experiences.
Currently we know the brain has an enormous plasticity capacity and the regions related to traumatic disorders, so, we could treat patients with traumatic experiences by modifying specific brain circuits. Our first challenge is to understand how these brain circuits are formed and then, we will be able to modify them.
Bio: Andrew Holmes is Chief at the Laboratory of Behavioral and Genomic Neuroscience, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health where he researches the neural and genetic factors that underlie individual differences in stress reactivity and risk of abusing alcohol. His work employs multiple techniques, incorporating analysis of behavior, neuronal firing and gene networks, to provide convergent lines of evidence. He has authored 150 scientific articles (H index=40) and serves as Editor for 6 journals.
Mara Dierssen Conclusions
TEDxBarcelona Science 2012 Conclusions
MY VISION OF TEDxBARCELONA SCIENCE 2012
Slavica Ilieska and David O’Riordan, TEDxBarcelona Science 2012 volunteers, helped us to summarize the content of the event. Thanks guys, you rock!