Neuroscience

So Bhisma has requested a few long posts on the cognitive neuroscience conference I’m currently attending in Oxford (that’s my life – one long, endless round of conferences…). The conference, properly named the Autumn School in Cognitive Neuroscience, began on Monday at the Department of Experimental Psychology. Some thoughts on the sessions:

First talk was by Heidi Johansen-Berg from Oxford on ‘Plasticity of movement representations in disease’. Basically about the problems of investigating remapping of function to different brain areas (elicited by brain trauma), monitored by fMRI. The problem is that of correlation and causation; is the remapping a direct consequence of the trauma, or merely epiphenomenal? Heidi advocates using transcranial magnetic stimulation to tease out of the causation to test the functional relevance of the areas in question in human subjects. Seemed interesting to me, but nothing world-shattering.

Oh, and she mentioned something called DTI – diffusion tensor imaging, which is a way of using fMRI to map out neurones and blood vessels in the brain. Very neat stuff. It works by tracking the self-diffusion of protons, and from that you can infer fibre direction. Check Catani et al, Neuroimage, 2002.

Next talk was by Roger Lemon of UCL. I know this guy because he’s a collaborator with a guy who worked down the corridor in Cambridge. I have serious issues with his use of multi-unit neuronal recording in brains. That’s about it – he did talk about the importance of oscillations in neurones that might serve as a ‘sensorimotor working memory’ to ensure a constant and appropriate level of force while grasping objects.

Nothing hugely interesting for the rest of the day until Daniel Wolpert’s talk (UCL) in the afternoon. Wolpert is an excellent speaker and he talked about his theory of how all human movement is governed by a requirement to reduce the uncertainity of final limb position, given the fact that there is inevitably noise generated when moving limbs in the first place. Touched on the difficulty of tickling yourself, and Bayesian estimates for the uncertainty of the body’s own sensors.

Today started off with a talk about Janette Atkinson on kids suffering from Williams’ Syndrome. A good talk, except for the fact that it was identical to the one given by her at the Festival of Science last year in Leicester. Oh well.

Kate Watkins (formerly of McGill, now Oxford) talked about using a new technique of ‘Brain morphometry’ to help map out the brain and investigate differences in brain morphology between patients with brain trauma and controls. Not so bad, but I have concerns about the methodology of exactly how ‘morphometry’ works. I imagine I will have to read a paper or two on this to make an informed comment.

Kate Plaisted (Cambridge) discussed her theory of ‘reduced generalisation’ to explain both the social and non-social aspects of autism. We all know that autists are very good at distinguishing very small differences in objects or things that most normal people wouldn’t even notice – this is why autists can solve jigsaw puzzles by simply looking at the shape of the pieces, rather than the pictures on them. Kate argues that the downside of this is that they aren’t good at generalising the similarities between objects and things, which leads to lots of problems down the road – including social deficits.

An interesting theory, that again I will have to read up on. I asked a question at the end, about whether she feels her theory is in conflict with Baron-Cohen’s Theory of Mind (that she briefly mentioned). She basically thinks that it is. I am a bit worried about this because I feel that Baron-Cohen’s theory is awfully convincing as well. She also doesn’t like his idea that ‘autism is an extreme form of the male mind’ – but then, neither do most people.

The last talk today was by John Stein, on ‘The magnocellular theory of dyslexia’. This was great stuff, if very controversial. Stein basically thinks that a great deal of dyslexia, and similar cognitive deficits, can be explained by problems in the magnocellular component of the visual system (the retinal ganglion cells, remember?) – and the putative ‘magnocellular auditory system’ which most people don’t think even exists.

Apparently dyslexics generally have a very reduced magnocellular system which means that they aren’t good at all at stablising their vision, resulting in blurry vision – and blurry text when reading. Why is this so? Several reasons. Dyslexics have an uncommonly high number of auto-immune problems that could explain the reason for an impaired magnocellular system (the growth of which is, appropriately enough, governed by the immune system) and they are also lacking in essential fish oils. By this, he means HUFAs – highly unsaturated fatty acids – that make up an essential component of cell membranes that accelerate the action of ion channels.

Some interesting factoids from his talk: 3/4 of people in jail are illiterate. Half of those in jail are dyslexics. Dyslexia is one of the biggest causes of family strife and misery. Furthermore, the state of literacy in the western world is such that 20% of people in the UK and USA are unable to find the word ‘plumber’ in the Yellow Pages.

All in all, the conference has been interesting. There have been some boring talks, to be sure, but there have been some interesting ones. I have fallen asleep for roughly the average amount of time I normally do during lecture (maybe 10-15% of the time). I’ve met a lot of interesting people in neuroscience, and amazingly enough, despite the fact that this is the sixth conference I’ve been to, it’s the very first academic conference related to my actual line of research.

Mefi photos

Metafilter UK Oxford meetup photos – a highly geeky and highly successful meetup of Metafilter UK members, featuring drinks, noodles, more drinks, a run-in with the police, a gig in a dive bar, yet more drinks and ice cream. I had a lot of fun and met a bunch of very interesting people; hopefully another one will be organised soon.

Doctor Who

Doctor Who will finally be back on TV in two years time. I was never a big fan of Doctor Who, but I do think that the BBC could do a good job in developing an SF show now, and it would be fun to see some British SF as well.

The reason why this announcement is much more believeable than previous ones (which amounted to nothing) is because the Radio Times recently conducted a poll of 12,000 UK viewers to see what show they would most want to see back on TV. They discovered that Doctor Who was by far and away the most wanted, with 31% of them wanting to see it revived.

I am convinced that this is what caused the BBC’s announcement, a mere two days afterwards; they’ve been wanting to revive Doctor Who for some time, and with the poll they have a cast-iron reason for doing so. So sit tight…

FeedDemon

FeedDemon is a great RSS reader for Windows, possibly the best. It’s streamlined my reading habits and speeded things tremendously. It’s not perfect, still being in the beta stage, but that does mean that it’s still free. Normally I use Newzcrawler but it managed to trash my subscriptions while upgrading to 1.5; plus it was still quite buggy and a bit unwieldy.

Cheap DVDs

Cheap Friends DVDs at Play.com – Seasons 1 to 4 are selling for only �18 each, which isn’t bad at all. I’m inclined to buy Seasons 1 and 2, after which the show broke my heart by making all the characters intensely irritating. Also, Virgin are running a ‘Mega Sale’ promotion at the moment on CDs and DVDs – I picked up Monsoon Wedding for only �5.

Spin Me Right Round

GameCube dev kits for UK universities – the story isn’t that interesting in itself, but the spin is great. Nintendo have just given four ‘leading UK universities’ GameCube development kits. Who are these universities, you might wonder? Are they Oxford or Cambridge, or Imperial or UMIST or Warwick or some red-brick institution? No.

They are the Universitives of Hull, Abertay, Northumbria and Liverpool John Moores. I don’t want to pass judgement on these four institutions, but there is absolutely no way that anyone in the UK would call them ‘leading universities’. Typical spin. For shame, Nintendo!

A Map of Time

Several months ago, I read about a project at Media Lab Europe that showed a lot of promise (I was shocked as anyone else) – Amble Time. Amble Time basically factors time into geographical maps, telling you where you could walk in a certain amount of time.

By using a GPS system and your average walking speed, it creates a bubble that indicates everywhere you could walk in an hour. Alternatively, given a final destination, it can show where you could roam along the way and still arrive on time. In the second situation, as your position changes and time ticks by, the bubble slowly shrinks and morphs until eventually it highlights the shortest path to your destination.

This is all very cool, but the question is, how did they create their temporal data? Are they just using the walking distance along streets, or are they taking into account the fact that some streets might be busier than others? And surely it’s a shame that Amble Time doesn’t work for driving?

Anyway, I thought up a possible solution this morning that ties into a similar project called Amsterdam Real Time, where a group of people carried GPS units around Amsterdam for two months and created ‘trails’ around the city which were eventually transformed into pretty maps.

The solution would involve giving lots of people GPS units that track their positions. By matching up their lat/long with actual streets and roads and measuring how long it took them to walk/drive/cycle along them, you could create a fantastically detailed idea of how long it would take to get from any point to any other point at any time of the day. So instead of pretending that all roads are equally traversible and distance is the only thing that matters, you could take into account narrow roads, wide roads, rush hour, congested spots – everything.

I don’t really know how you would go about coding this kind of system – it’d be non-trivial, but then it wouldn’t be impossible either. If you wanted to be really ambitious, each users’ map could ‘learn’ their average walking speed at different times of the day and week, and tweak the raw data accordingly. Even more ambitious would be to track people in real time to create up to the minute maps of how long it would take to get from A to B (or where you could walk or drive in x minutes).

Spheres

I try to make a point of just reading, not posting to, Star Trek messageboards; there’s some fun stuff that gets said there but I just don’t feel like I have the time or patience to get involved.

However, after I watched the latest Enterprise episode (Anomaly) – which was unusually entertaining and well done, I thought it’d be worth seeing what other people felt. As I expected, everyone else seemed to like it although there were a few people who said that the episode was highly derivative.

To be precise, the episode featured a kilometres-wide sphere that contained several fusion reactors; the sphere appeared to be generating a number of bizarre spatial anomalies and wasn’t working properly – and by the end of the episode, it still wasn’t explained (as it should be! Some things are better left unexplained, at least at first).

A few unimaginative folks latched on to two facts – it was a big sphere. Therefore, obviously it was a ripoff of either a Dyson Sphere, or a Death Star, both of which have obviously been in science fiction before. The simplicity of this thinking of just astounding; it’s as if it doesn’t matter what’s inside the sphere, or what it does, or its history – if it’s a big sphere, then it’s a ripoff. And never mind the fact that Dyson Spheres were not, in fact, invented by Star Trek, but Freeman Dyson – or the fact that there have been big spheres in space in SF since the beginning of last century.

Thus enraged, I wrote a long reply enumerating all of this, and more, and was then asked by one wag, ‘Name one SF story that has featured big spheres in space before.’ Just one? I could name half a dozen, beginning with Doc Smith’s Lensman.

There are a lot of things to criticise Enterprise on, but claiming that it’s ripping off other shows and stories because it has a big sphere in it is unbelievably shallow. There’s more to science fiction than Star Wars and Star Trek – if only people would bother looking for it.