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.

GM Spin

I posted a comment in this MetaFilter thread about GM crops, on how research in the area is often misrepresented by the anti-GM lobby. Case in point: it was claimed that the Bt toxin pesticide might actually benefit some pests, meaning that transgenic Bt plants could be utterly counterproductive. In reality, the research data has no grounds for such a conclusion.

A Love of Memory

When I got back home from Australia I took the opportunity to reread some of my favourite books. These included Kim Stanley’s Mars Trilogy, which are probably up there in my top ten of rereadable books (Cryptonomicon sits at the pole position, having withstood at least a couple of years of sustained rereading).

I’ve forgotten how much I enjoy the Mars Trilogy. It gets bashed so often for apparently being too dry, political and sometimes boring, but consider this – the first two books won the Nebula and Hugo awards, and the trilogy as a whole was singlehandedly responsible for getting me interested in Mars. There are few (if any) events in my life that I can point to and say, this changed everything, but that fateful day when I spotted the trilogy in a book club brochure must be one of them.

The last book in the trilogy, Blue Mars, is not considered to be as good as the first two, which is a fair claim to make but it certainly doesn’t mean it’s not a good read. In Red Mars, the first book, a group of scientists develop a longevity treatment that results in people regularly living to over 200 years old by the time of Blue Mars. This is all very well and good, but said geriatrics are having a really hard time with their memory.

Accordingly, one of the main characters joins an effort to develop a memory boosting drug. At this point, most authors would be happy to say, ‘…and then after much work they made the drug,’ or if they were feeling particularly generous, they might throw in a few choice words like ‘dopamine’ or ‘serotonin’. If you were really lucky, they might take the time to look up a diagram of the brain and mention the hippocampus.

But this isn’t enough for KSR, and it’s part of the reason why I love his books. He spends over seven full pages on a monologue/stream of consciousness that dives right into the way that memory works and how you might enhance it. That’s over two thousand words of detailed information and informed speculation, none of which is wildly wrong. In fact, most of it is right, it’s only the speculation that I have a problem with and even then I have to give him a lot of respect for giving it a good try. I would say that to have written that monologue, KSR must have read at least a few reviews on the subject and perhaps a book.

Here is the bit which I love and hate (and yes, the first paragraph is that long):

The original Hebb hypothesis, first proposed by Donald Hebb in 1949, was still held to be true, because it was such a general principle; learning changed some physical feature in the brain, and after that the changed feature somehow encoded the event learned. In Hebb’s time the physical feature (the engram) was conceived of as occuring somewhere on the synaptic level, and as there could be hundreds of thousands of synapses for each of the ten billion neurones in the brain, this gave researchers the impression that the brain might be capable of holding some 10^14 data bits; at the time this seemed more than adequate to explain human consciousness. And as it was also within the realm of the possible for cmoputers, it led to a brief bogue in the notion of strong artificial intelligence, as well as that era’s version of the ‘machine fallacy’, an inversion of the pathetic fallacy, in which the brain was thought of as being something like the most powerful machine of the time. The work of the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries, however, had made it clear that there were no specific ‘engram’ sites as such. Any number of experiments failed to locate these sites, including on in which various parts of rats’ brains were removed after they learned a task, with no part of the brain proving essential; the frustrated experimenters concluded that memory was ‘everywhere and nowhere’, leading to the analogy of brain to hologram, even sillier than all the other machine analogies; but they were stumped, they were flailing. Later experiments clarified things; it became obvious that all the actions of consciousness were taking place on a level far smaller even than that of neurons; this was associated in Sax’s mind with the general miniaturization of scientific attention through the twenty-second century. In that finer-grained appraisal they had begun investigating the cytoskeletons of neuron cells, which were internal array of microtubules, with protein bridges between the microtubules. The microtubules’ structure consisted of hollow tubes made of thirteen columns of tubulin dimers, peanut-shaped globular protein pairs, each about eight by four by four nanometres, existing in two differen configurations, depending on their electrical polarization. So they dimers represented a possible on-off switch of the hoped-for engram; but they were so small that the electrical state of each dimer was influenced by the dimers around it, because of van der Waals interactions between them So messages of all kinds could be propagated along each microtubule column, and along the protein bridges connecting them. Then most recently had come yet another step in miniaturization; each dimer contained about four hundred and fifty amino acids, which could retain information by changed in the sequences of amino acids. And contained inside the dimer columns were tiny threads of water in an ordered state, a state called vicinal water, and this vicinal water was capable of conveying quantum-coherent oscilliations for the length of the tubule. A great number of experiments on living monkey brains, with miniaturized instrumentation of many different kinds, had established that while conscousness was thinking, amino acid sequences were shifting, tubulin dimers in may different places in the brain were changing configuration, in pulsed phases; microtubules were moving, sometimes growing; and on a much larger scale, dendrite spins then grew and made new connections, something changing synapses permanently, sometimes not.

So now the best current model had it that memories were encoded as standing patterns of quantum-coherent oscillations, set up by changes in the microtubules and their constituent parts, all working in patterns inside the neurons. Although there were now researchers who speculated that there could be significant action at even finer ultramicroscopic levels, permnanetly beyond their ability to investigate (familiar refrain); some saw traces of signs that the oscillations were structured in the kind of spin networks that Bao’s work described, in knotted nodes and networks that Sax found eerily reminiscent of the palace of memory plan – rooms and hallways – as if the ancient Greeks by introspection alone had intuited the very geometry of timespace.

The reason why I hate it (and hate is too strong a word) is because I don’t happen to think that his explanation for memory and consciousness is true at all. It has a very Penrosian feel about it, and I’ve never really thought that it was possible for there to be a working quantum computer residing in our neuron microtubules; and neither have I seen the necessitity for it. Plus, the idea that you would use alterations in the tubulin dimer amino acid sequence is really not workable (although I suppose that enzyme-mediated residue methylation or ubiquitination wouldn’t be out of the question).

I love this passage because it almost makes sense. KSR clearly understands what he’s talking about, and I’m pretty sure that he realises it’s extreme speculation. The rest of the monologue is much like this, discussing terms that neuroscientists bandy about regularly but don’t actually understand fully, like LTP and glutamate receptor sensitizers.

In a way, to most readers it doesn’t matter if the science makes any sense. What matters is the flow of the words and the beautiful progression from one magical concept to the next that science seems to make effortlessly; in this passage, KSR has managed to convey some of the feeling that you experience when you understand (or think you understand) a horribly complicated system; the feeling when everything shifts, just so, and interlocks into place.

The fact that it also happens to largely make sense is something that I truly appreciate; it would have been simple enough for KSR to just make all of it up, but I think KSR must have actually enjoyed learning about how memory might work for him to have written this.

The TEDMED3 Experience: Day 1

Wednesday 11th June. Jump to:

The Backstory
Some pre-conference musings

Tap Dancers
William Haseltine (medicine that’ll change the world)
Josef Penninger (genetics)
Kevin Kamler (extreme telemedicine and Everest)
Laurie Garrett (SARS in China)

Conversation Break (I got a tour around the Kimmel Center)

Marvin Minsky (crazy-ass future and AI talk)
Sherwin Nuland (‘why do we want to live forever?’)
Keith Black (getting rid of invasive surgery)
David Macauley (writer and illustrator extraordinaire, and I got to talk to him!)
Michael Jackson (biodata-mining)

IBM Life Sciences Reception

The Backstory

(You can skip this bit if you only want to read my notes on the speakers)

As invariably happens these days, it all began with an email. Back in 2001, I managed to get myself invited to speak at the 11th Technology, Entertainment and Design conference (TED11) in Monterey, California; you can read my report of that conference here. Since then, I occasionally get sent mass mailings from the TED conference organiser, Richard Saul Wurman, usually on how I should sign up for the next conference. As it costs around $3000 to simply register at TED conferences, it’s not too surprising to see why I tend to ignore those emails.

So when I received an email from Richard in early May, it was just luck that prevented me from sending it straight to my ‘Non-critical’ email folder (it’s not as bad as my junk mail folder, but not as good as my meticulously maintained inbox). The email turned out to be an invitation to attend the TEDMED3 conference in Philadelphia in June, TEDMED3 standing for the third TED Medical conference.

It didn’t take long for me to make up my mind about attending and book the flight over to Philadelphia, hopefully before they realised that they’d made a terrible mistake in inviting me. I found TED11 to be one of the most exciting and intellectually stimulating events I’ve ever been to, both in terms of the speakers present and the people I was able to talk to. Sure, I’d still have to pay for my own accommodation and flights to Philadelphia, but a TED conference is a sure thing. With the speaker list including people like Oliver Sacks, Marvin Minsky, Laurie Garrett and Dean Kamen, there wasn’t much of a dilemma.

Some pre-conference musings

I used to enjoy flying, but I think the magic disappeared when I was about 15 years old. Nowadays I spend most of my time trying to keep myself hydrated and figuring out what the least-worst movie to watch. Still, it’s not really the actual flying that bothers me, it’s everything that surrounds it – the stress of having to get to the airport in time, check in, do the baggage checks, waiting around for hours and spending ridiculous amounts of time in queues.

Since I don’t have a laptop, I brought a little paper notebook with me to the conference. One of the first things I wrote down was ‘Queue theory’. Queue theory is actually a real area of research, but in this case I’m just using it as a springboard for a digression. If you are concerned – even mildly so – about reducing the amount of time you spend in queues, you probably have some ideas about how to improve queueing systems, especially those at airport immigration. I have a lot of ideas. These include only having one main queue that splits off into subqueues for each desk, and some kind of adaptive system that routes around damage (i.e. people who are spending far too much time at an immigration desk).

Anyway. I got into Philadelphia on Tuesday (June 10th) and made my way to the Bank Street Hostel in the city centre, possibly the cheapest place that any conference attendee was staying at…

‘So, which hotel are you staying at? The Doubletree? The Hilton?’

‘Uh, I’m actually staying at a (mumble).’

‘A what?’

‘A hostel. The Bank Street Hostel.’

In the milliseconds after such a conversation, I can visibly see the person I’m talking to ratchet down their monetary estimation of me; it’s a barely perceptible tilt backwards of the head and a slight raise of the eyebrows. It’s cross-cultural, I tell you. Margaret Mead probably found tribal villagers doing exactly the same in some Pacific jungle.

Philadelphia is actually a pretty interesting city which I’m told that many schoolkids make pilgrimages to, on account of it being the colony where the US declared independance and did any number of things to bug the British. All the places named ‘Independence Hall’, ‘Independence Square’, ‘Independence …’ clued me into this fact which I was not aware of when I landed. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is also world-famous, for a couple of reasons; it has an outstanding collection, and it’s the place where they filmed Stallone running up the steps in the first Rocky movie. Apart from that, it’s not that interesting.

One of the many differences between TED and other conferences is that attendees are told to dress down. That means no suits and no ties; as Richard said, if you’re found with a tie, he’ll personally cut it off with a pair of scissors, unless it’s a really nice tie in which case you’ll be allowed to take it off and keep it. From TED11 it seemed that most people were happy enough wearing shirts/T-shirts and trousers, so I felt it was perfectly fine to turn up wearing shorts and T-shirts on the first day for registration, especially since Philadelphia is quite humid. However, when I walked through the front doors of the Merriam Theatre where the conference was being held, a security guard came up and said:

‘I’m sorry, you’re not allowed in here.’

I was taken aback; this was definitely the right place, there were TEDMED3 posters all over the place. Had I somehow transformed into the very picture of a malcontent?

‘Why not?’

‘There’s a conference going on.’

‘I’m here for the conference!’ I protested.

‘Oh, okay, sorry,’ he said, backing off (although undoubtedly keeping an eye on me, sneaky tourist-lookalike that I was).

After that, I managed to register fine and positively strutted around with my ID nametag, daring any other security guards to try and throw me out. Alas, it did set the scene for the rest of the conference in that I was perhaps the third or fourth youngest attendee there (and probably the second-youngest looking one, the youngest being about ten years old) and hence was treated a little dismissively by some.

Being at a conference on your own can be quite a lonely affair, moreso when a lot of people aren’t willing to talk to you because you obviously don’t have anything to offer them (namely money or opportunities). I therefore resolved to find myself a group of young people that I could hang around with for the four days of the conference, and I was successful almost immediately when I spotted around eight twenty-somethings from the MIT Media Lab hovering around the theatre lobby. I introduced myself and asked if I could tag along with them to lunch, which I think they were a bit surprised by but were happy enough to acquiese. They turned out to be a very fun group to hang around with, all students or friends of John Maeda, an MIT Media Lab Professor. John had an interesting habit of repeating my name multiple times whenever he saw me, so as to aid his terrible memory for names.

Enough rambling – onto the conference!

Wednesday 11th June – Session 1

Tap Dancers

The first presentation in the first session of the conference was not from a renowned doctor or scientist, but rather a tap dancing performance by legendary LaVaughn Robinson and students from the nearby University of the Arts. It was a wonderful start to the conference and put everyone in a relaxed mood.

Two things went through my mind during the performance. The first was that we’re so accustomed – you could almost say conditioned – to watch images on screens that there was a tangible pull to watch the blown-up image of the performers projected onto the screen instead of the real performers themselves*. The second was that these guys would be excellent Dance Dance Revolution players.

*It was commented later on that the whole conference had a very television-like feel to it. Everyone ran very slickly, there were cameramen lurking about videoing the speakers who were then projected onto a screen in the middle of the stage and there was a nice mixture of presentations.

William Haseltine

William Haseltine is the CEO of Human Genome Sciences Inc. and was a professor at Harvard Medical School; quite an established scientist and entrepreneur in the medical sciences. I understand that Richard chose Haseltine to give the first proper presentation in order to supply a broad outline and context to the conference.

Haseltine spent his WTU* talking about the four areas of medicine that have been most influential in the past 25 years (proteins, antibodies, surgery and imaging) and the four areas he believes will be most influential in the next 25 years. These are gene therapy and RNA interference, the use of cells and stem cells as therapy, the integration of artificial materials into the human body (e.g. prosthetics) and the interface of humans with electricity. That could mean anything, really, but I recall he was referring to reading and interpreting neural signals.

I was not particularly impressed with Haseltine’s presentation; it was far too diffuse for my liking, and I don’t think I learned anything new. It seemed that other attendees agreed with me. I appreciate the need for a more general ‘keynote’ presentation, but this could’ve been better.

*WTU: Wurman Time Unit. Coined by Richard Rockefeller and usually equates to fifteen minutes of time on stage. For favored speakers, this can expand to thirty minutes. You can sense the end of a WTU by increased movement on the part of Richard Saul Wurman.

Josef Penninger

Professor of Immunology and medical biophysics at the University of Toronto. He started off talking about a ‘genetic map of the world’ and then moved onto to the OPGL and DREAM genes, which are responsible for bone loss and pain perception respectively. Seemed a bit too technical for this sort of conference.

I remember that Penninger expressed a desire to measure the activity of every single neurone in the brain to investigate the circadian rhythm. I’m not sure whether he really believe he could do this, because it is frankly impossible for the next couple of decades at the very least.

He did have an interesting unifying theory of autoimmunity that stated that autoimmune diseases (e.g. multiple sclerosis) only occur as a result of outside infections that initially compromise the immune system. I can’t remember the details and I’m not an immunologist, but it seemed to make sense to me.

Ken Kamler

A physician who was notably present at Everest during the events covered in the book ‘Into Thin Air’. Ken’s talk was on ‘extreme telemedicine’ – in other words, conducting medical treatment with remote support in a hostile environment such as Everest or indeed outer space. However, he spent most of his time going over the events that occurred when he was at Everest and a number of climbers died. Very compelling stuff – it gave me a real impression of how crazily dangerous climbing Everest is – but it seemed as if Ken had given the talk a number of times before.

Laurie Garrett

Pulitzer prize-winning medical and science writer. I was quite looking forward to this talk because Garrett’s was involved in a nasty spat on MetaFilter not too long ago – and of course she is quite a good journalist.

Garrett started out by saying she didn’t like the hype about the medical and scientific community having beaten microbial diseases via antibiotics. While this probably wasn’t news to the audience, it is to the general populace and it really is a dangerous assumption to think that we have all such diseases beaten, especially with vancomycin-resistant bacteria, etc etc.

I have in my notes that she said the French vetoed the Nobel prize going to the team who beat smallpox in the 70s or 80s. Nasty French, as usual. Garrett believes that the state of readiness for another smallpox vaccination on the scale of that in New York in 1947 (6 million vaccinated in 3 weeks) is far worse now than it was then. Back in the 40s, just after the war, the US medical system was supposedly very well run, well funded and well respected. These days, the implication by Laurie is that this is not the case.

Garrett then asked what would happen if there was a SARS outbreak in a US city? Would the response be better or worse than, say, Hong Kong, China or Singapore? I don’t think she actually answered this question, but she did talk about what she’d learned from her recent trip around China (she’d told Richard that she’d only come to the conference if China got SARS under control, so at least one person thinks things are getting better).

Researchers have found that the SARS coronavirus has been found in a large range of animal species; Garrett believes this is because China has a number of ‘exotic live animal markets’ which consist of overcrowded animal cages jammed right next to each other, overflowing with faeces; perfect places for viruses to jump across the species barrier and mutate all over the place. Indeed, a great number of SARS infections have been tracked back to cooks who deal in exotic animals.

As for the Amoy Gardens outbreak in Hong Kong, Garrett outlined a number of different theories that might explain how one person (a ‘superspreader’) managed to infect hundreds. The first is that there are two strains of SARS with differing virulance. The second is that the external plumbing employed in Amoy Gardens is to blame. The U-tubes in plumbing (you can see them under sinks and toilets) are supposed to always be filled with water. However, due to a combination of them being outside and water conservation efforts in Hong Kong, the water in this particular Amoy Gardens U-tube had dried up. As a result, the faeces produced by the superspreader underwent aerosolization, zipped through the rest of the plumbing system in no time and infected hundreds of people.

A third theory favored by the Amoy Gardens residents is that the bizarre pattern of infection was caused by contact-transmission via the fiendishly strange elevator button system. Who knows.

  • Garrett mentioned that while the rest of the world was watching the war on TV, in south Asia they set up 24-hour television networks dedicated to SARS.
  • Political infighting was the reason behind the Mayor of Beijing and the Health Minister both being fired; it was a struggle between the old guard and the new Prime Minister.

The May Day shutdown in China was widely publicised and enacted by the Chinese government to prevent transmission of SARS. However, Garrett contends that the real result was the many people thought the shutdown was merely a prelude to martial law being declared, and so thousands of people fled Beijing to the countryside, including many university students – thus further spreading the virus.

She concluded by saying that China’s efforts to contain SARS to date have all involved mass mobilisation of people and resources. This can only work to a point before paralysing the country’s economy. Instead, she believes that China needs a sustainable and permanent response to SARS; in other words, a much improved public healthcare and disease control system.

On a somewhat unrelated note, I first heard of Laurie Garrett when she made something of a splash on MetaFilter, in which she came off looking very bad indeed. While I was very impressed with her talk at the conference, she did seem quite acerbic to me and I don’t think it’d be pleasant to get into an argument with her.

Conversation Break: Seed Magazine

I’d managed to get on the list for a tour around the Kimmel Center with the site’s Project Manager, Sandy McKee. The Kimmel Center is a very impressive building housing two concert halls; the 650-seat Perelman Theatre which can rotate an entire third of its space, and the 2500-seat Verizon Hall.

On entering the Kimmel Center, you have an immediate impression of open space due to the high curved glass ceiling. I remarked to McKee that it seemed very much like the new glass roof at the British Museum. She replied that she’d just visited it a few weeks ago and thought it was very cool – although she claims that the Kimmel Center thought of it first!

The Verizon Hall feels like the insides of a string instrument; the coloring and curves mimic those of a cello or violin. It also has excellent acoustics with surrounding baffle rooms, and sits on a rubber pad to dampen subway vibrations (apparently this is a real problem at the Lincoln Center in New York).

Marvin Minsky

Minsky needs no introduction – he’s one of the most famous pioneers of AI in the world, and to boot, I just found out that he invented the confocal microscope. He is one seriously intelligent guy. Alas, it has been noted by many people (including people I have spoken to at MIT) that he is going a little weird and somewhat crazy in his old age. With that in mind, Minsky’s talk:

Minsky displayed a list of problems that need to be solved. These will be familiar to most of you: infections and epidemics, education, pollution, longevity, energy, wealth distribution, etc. Most of these, he argued, were a result of overpopulation, and so he asked the question: how many people do we need? If, for example, we only had 500 million people in the world, most of these problems would be solved. There wouldn’t be any overcrowding and we could farm everywhere and dump our rubbish without worrying about serious environmental effects.

So, how could we solve this overpopulation problem?

Solution 1: Don’t reduce the number of people, just make them smaller – literally! If you made every six inches tall, why, we’d have plenty of space! To his credit, Minsky did concede that there might be some fundamental limits of miniaturisation with regards to humans in that you can’t really make neurones any smaller than they currently are. It is still weird though.

Solution 2: Currently, when a child is born, it has two parents that each contribute 23 chromosomes. How about a world in which each parent only contributed one chromosome, giving each child 46 parents? This would allow more people to have a genetic contribution in a child and hopefully reduce the birth rate. What’s more, the death of one parent wouldn’t be as traumatic if there were still 45 left.

Solution 3: Time-sharing (cf. ‘Against the Fall of Night’ by Arthur C. Clarke). You could have five billion people in the world, but only 500 million of them are alive and walking around at any one time – the other 4.5 billion are in storage.

Solution 4: Mind-sharing (c.f. Benford’s ‘Galactic Center’ novels). This means ‘more ways to think’ inside each brain’.

At this point there appears to be a discontinuity in my notes, perhaps attributable to my brain exploding. Anyway, Minsky started talking about the problems of increased longevity. If the age of retirement remains at 60 or 70, then we are rapidly approaching an era in which there will only be one active worker per retiree. This is clearly not a good thing when it comes to the economy and quality of life. Minsky presented a rather pretty looking graph and then spoiled the moment by saying, ‘I just made this graph up – it means that I don’t have to do any work!’

Minsky thus concludes that we need robots to do the boring things so ‘people can do more important things.’ Therefore, we need AI! AI could also help us solve those problems that are too hard for human brains (he didn’t elaborate on this).

Things went downhill from here, as Minsky began to vigorously beat the joint strawmen of psychology and philosophy. Psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists (and I suppose anyone apart from AI researchers) have been asking the wrong questions all along, Minsky claimed. They’ve been asking, ‘What are feelings? What are emotions? What is consciousness?’ instead of more novel and useful stuff like, ‘How do we solve problems? How does common-sense reasoning work?’

I don’t really want to go into how much is wrong with this claim – for one thing, people have been thinking about problem solving for decades, if not centuries – so I will once again move on.

Minsky finished with his new idea for an intelligent machine called a ‘cognitive sandwich’. This machine would be designed akin to Freud’s ego, supergo and id, and for some reason Minsky believes it will work where others have failed. Now, I don’t really want to say that it’s not a new idea because Minsky is a very bright guy, but I can’t see what’s new with this model. Time will tell, I suppose.

Sherwin Nuland

Clinical Professor of Surgery at the Yale School of Medicine. Nuland began by drawing an interesting parallel with Narcicuss looking at his reflection in a pool in Greek mythology, and people looking at molecular cell biology today in the hopes of a treatment that will keep us young and beautiful forever. Just as Narcicuss’ heart was broken as he futilely struggled to reach his reflection, so will ours, he claimed.

In today’s atmosphere of biotech hype, I personally think it is important to remain realistic about the potential of new discoveries. Nuland is not just realistic about them, he’s pessimistic. He talked about telomeres. While it’s true that telomerase treatments proved to be a false hope in conferring immortality (to be honest, I don’t think that many people really thought it’d work) that’s hardly the whole story.

‘What’s the point of immortality?’ asked Nuland. ‘What good does it do?’

What indeed? It doesn’t do any good at all, from the traditional perspective, but then neither does watching the Simpsons on TV or playing football. It’s a bit of a non-sequitur. From my point of view, I think it’d be quite fun to live an extra few decades – immortality is stretching it a bit though.

Nuland then moved onto a more fruitful track that proved to set a major theme for the conference; compressed morbidity. He believes that instead of trying to increase longevity, medicine should concentrate on enhancing life and reducing the amount of time that we are unable to live independently.

It turns out that the main reason why we can’t live independently when we are old is strength – we don’t have the strength to move around or to carry out important tasks. To attack this problem, Nuland talked about a study in which they successfully made the ‘oldest old’ (85+) exercise to increase their strength. A careful exercise regimen actually doubled the subject’s strength in only six weeks and it appeared that further gains in strength were attainable. An added benefit was a reduced incidence of osteoperosis. The same could clearly be attempted with minds, by keeping them alert and active.

All in all, an interesting talk. I might not agree with everything Nuland said, but I found his views on compressed morbidity to be quite novel (for me).

Keith Black

Neurosurgeon at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in LA. Black has conducted over 3000 operations to remove brain tumours and his work inspired an episode of ER. He’s currently working on a way to non-invasively remove brain tumours. The current practice is to simply cut them out, which clearly is not a desirable thing to do because you invariably end up removing bits of healthy and useful brain at the same time; it might be (relatively) okay to do this with a bit of skin or lung, but you don’t really want to end up not being able to talk or see after having a brain tumour removed.

In other parts of the body it’s possible to use pharmacotherapies to kill cancer tumours, but these don’t work for brain tumours due to the existence of the blood/brain barrier. In short, this barrier serves as a selective filter that only allows a few types of molecules to travel from the blood supply into the brain. If the blood/brain barrier didn’t exist, then you’d probably die shortly after having lunch due to your brain reacting aversely to toxic chemicals in the bloodstream. So it’s obviously there for a good purpose, but it unfortunately also stops medicines from reaching the brain as well.

Black’s main area of research concentrates on selectively opening the blood/brain tumour barrier so that pharmacotherapies will be able to pass into brain tumours, but not healthy regions of the brain. Judging from the results from clinical trials he demonstrated at the conference, it appears to be working. He remarked that it’s a bit underwhelming to simply give a patient a shot in the arm and then have the tumour shrink, as opposed to cutting their brains open.

Other techniques he’s investigating include using microwaves to ablate tumours non-invasively, as well as using vaccines to stimulate the body’s natural immune response to attack the tumour.

All good stuff, not an overly technical talk but it bestowed the conference with an appropriate aura of seriousness.

David Macaulay

David was one of the speakers I was most anticipating; if you haven’t seen his Dorling Kindersley books, then go out and buy them, now, and start with The Way Things Work. David is an excellent illustrator and writer, and can explain the most complicated concepts and machines with only a few drawings and judicious use of woolly mammoths. But what’s he doing at a medical conference?

David is writing a book about the brain. Now, this is something that I was never clear about through the entire talk – I think either he wrote a book about the human body about twenty years ago, and now is going to write one about the brain, or he hasn’t done a book about the human body (but is going to do a brain one).

Anyway, his work on the brain book got held up because he’s spent the last two years writing a book about Mosques, following 9/11. During his talk, he showed three different ideas he has for the brain book.

The first idea is based on a romantic artwork nothing, that of building up the brain layer by layer, based on evolutionary time, in other words, starting with the brainstem, then the hindbrain, then midbrain, then limbic system, etc etc. Seemed pretty enough, but I didn’t find it especially inspiring.

His second idea was a bit better; it traced the events that occur when David (of Michalangelo fame) sees an object and then says something. The book would follow the photons of light travelling through David’s eye, hitting the retina, getting converted to impulses to be sent through the optic nerve, then passing to the visual cortex via the lateral geniculate cortex. From there, we zoom into a neurone, then a synapse, and so on. Not bad, but not hugely innovative.

David’s final idea was of course the best, and sees him in top form. He envisages the brain as a theme park the size of several skyscrapers, in which people walk around examining the ears and the eyes and sliding around nerves and things. It was very funny and cool. The Brain Park would of course be quite expensive to build and run, so it would have things like the Caudate Cafe and Cortex Condos. I look forward to seeing it.

My chat with David Macauley

On Thursday (the next day) I spotted David in the lobby in the morning and had a brief chat with him. As I expected, he was a very interesting and approachable guy. I started off with the traditional ‘I loved The Way Things Work’ shtick and then followed on to talk about the difficulty of learning anatomy from a textbook – it’s so dry. I then launched into the now-famous (and probably apocryphal) story of how a biology student at Cambridge managed to get the top first by writing an essay composed entirely of cartoons.

David mentioned something about paper versus electronic media. He sees The Way Things Work CD as being transitional between the two; it had some animation and some sounds. Apparently the sounds helped people tremendously, which baffled him a bit.

He confessed that he still prefers paper media to anything else; it’s so much more permanent and not subject to the feeling of transcience that comes from electronic products, i.e. that there’s always something better coming out soon. We then started talking about when he had to write the cartoon of Jack and the Beanstalk in only four pages; he found it to be a very difficult task. David claimed that it makes you have to choose your words so much more carefully when you have so little space, and then you really to have work on boiling down to the essence of the story; which is always a good thing to do.

So the idea is that even if you don’t intend to use a cartoon to convey your final message, they are always good to use for intermediate stages for designing and editing stages of (say) an essay; they stop you from fudging things. You can’t fudge cartoons – it’s all out there in black and white.

Michael Jackson

Vice president for drug discovery at the R. W. Johnson Pharmaceutical Research Institute. I have to confess, I really didn’t like this guy at all. He gave an awful introduction and had a voice that grated. Plus, he had a weird accent – not quite English, not quite Scottish and not quite Californian, but 100% bizarre and annoying.

He did say some interesting things about the difficulty of data analysis these days. When you conduct gene expression experiments on 2000 different cell types, you have several million data points. He thinks he can automate acquiring the data and (here’s the clever bit) cross-referencing it with web-accessible Medline absracts using character and word analysis. So say you wanted to find out what happens to gene expression when you remove or alter a particular gene – you get all the data, and then you press ‘go’ (presumably) and the program will tell you, ‘Hey! It seems that cluster ABC genes were all consistently affected, and then there are a few papers on the function of these genes as well, with reference to the one you altered.’

Could be vapourware though.

There was some really cheesy early 90s CGI, and some stuff about a computational model of diabetes, which I said in my notes might be ‘sorta helpful for clinical trials’.

IBM Life Sciences Reception Reception

And that’s the end of the first day of sessions. A busy day, followed up by a reception by IBM Life Sciences and Bombay Sapphire at Solmssen Court, a few hundred yards down the road. The reception was interesting enough with lots of nice food and sushi, but the place was slightly too small. Still, we had free drinks including probably the most potent cocktail I have ever tasted. It looked blue, so I thought it’d be okay, but it must have been 99% gin and 1% food coloring or something – I stayed well away from it for the rest of the night.

But forget about the food and drink – let’s talk about the swag, for this was the night when we received our goodie bags. I’ll admit that I was a bit disappointed given that at TED11 I received (as a speaker) a very nice Palm VII wireless PDA. This year the best thing I got was a Hasbro board game of ‘Operation’ (which is still admittedly very cool). Other things included the Merck Manual for Medicine, which should be very useful. Some of the MIT folks played ‘Merck lottery’ where you’d guess a three digit number, turn to that page, and whatever was there is what you’d die from. Fun stuff! There was more in the bag but it can’t have been interesting because I’ve forgotten it.

Biononsense

After reading this article about human genetic engineering, I have to comment on something that’s been bugging me for a while now. The article is inoffensive enough, but it uses the term ‘biogenetics’. I’m sorry, but there is no such field as biogenetics; it’s either genetics or nothing, and there’s no use in trying to make it more sexy by putting a bio- in front of it.

I suppose you could make an argument that not all genetics is necessarily biological, but it wouldn’t be a good one. If you go to any university in the world and check out their genetics department, you’ll find that they’re studying biological organisms. Kids: don’t use the word biogenetics. In fact, whenever you feel the urge to prepend a word with ‘bio’, think long and hard.

This reminds me of an email exchange I had with Brad DeLong about overuse of the word ‘cognitive’:

Me:

Off Topic: I note that Brad has made a post about Cognitive Economics on his blog. I am most disappointed at this; not at the post, but at the use of the word ‘cognitive’. It seems as if everyone and his dog is using ‘cognitive’ – there are cognitive radios, cognitive networks, cognitive economics… all you people should get your grubby hands off the word and leave it where it belongs, in cognitive (neuro)science. Grumble. Just because you all wished you were in the cool gang.

But seriously. I know that we’ve had buzzwords for centuries, but dammit, this time it’s personal. In times past, you wouldn’t call it a cognitive radio, you’d call it an ‘intelligent radio’ or adaptive radio or whatever. There’s nothing cognitive about it. Ditto for ‘cognitive economics’. Whatever happened to ‘psychology’ or ‘value judgements’ eh? Damn kids…

Brad:

Jeebus!!!! We economists make one little foray into buzzword-land to try to land some few small drops of water from the firehose of funding being directed by the NSF and others at the “cognitive sciences,” and what happens?

It’s not so much that we wish we were in the cool gang (actually, we do–but put that to one side: most economists felt in college that they didn’t have the mathematical firepower to do nat sci, and still feel ashamed and inferior), as WE WANT SMALL POOLS OF RESEARCH MONEY, DAMMIT!!!

TEDMED3

Long-time followers of my weblog (all three of you) will remember that back in 2001, I was a speaker at the 11th Technology Entertainment Design conference in Monterey, California. It was an incredible experience and the old line, “Yeah, I had dinner with Matt Groening,” never fails to impress.

The idea behind the TED conferences is basically to pull together a load of really interesting speakers doing cool stuff, and then keep the audience very exclusive by charging thousands of dollars for registration fees. The TEDMED conferences put a medical spin on event, with an emphasis on health and the life sciences.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that when I received an email inviting me as a guest to the TEDMED3 conference in June, I was pretty damn pleased. The schedule indicates that there’ll be a lot of very interesting presentations from people ranging from CEOs to Nobel Prizewinners and neurosurgeons to professors. The fact that it’s not strictly an academic conference means that there’ll be an good mix of hard science, R&D, design and business talks.

I’ve accepted the invitation and I’ll be in Philadelphia from 10th to 16th June, returning 12 hours before I have to go to a May Ball. I think I’ll be OK with the jetlag issues providing I have a nap in the afternoon, but it’ll certainly be a packed week.

As usual, I’ll be covering the event on my weblog and my digital camera will be in tow. It’s at times like these that I wished I had a laptop, but hopefully I should be getting one when I go to Oxford University next year.