Sunday, July 22, 2012

Scientists 'read' the brains of monkeys

In the last couple of years, scientists have greatly increased their abilities to extract thoughts or behaviour from brains. By discovering the function of individual brain areas, consisting of groups of neurons, it is possible to translate brain activity into patterns that tell us something about what the person is thinking or doing. For example, scientists have proven capable of allowing paraplegics to control robot limbs, simply by using their thoughts. While these new options greatly increase the possibilities of artificial limbs or other robotic equipment, it is also possible to translate these methods to animal research. Now, researchers from the Washington University have applied a brain scanning technique to monkeys, revealing how they process thoughts necessary to perform a task.

In their experiments, monkeys were given a task to reach for an object while an obstacle was preventing them from reaching it directly. It means they had to reach around the obstacle, which requires some effort from the brain in order to 'calculate' the necessary muscle movements. While the monkeys were contemplating their actions, the scientists scanned their brains and checked for activity, to see what happens in the brain in order to control the monkey's muscles.

Originally, the study was to be conducted because the researchers wanted to find out whether individual brain cells, called neurons, are able to send different types of information, even though such cells can only fire their signals in one particular way. The scientists showed it is actually possible to 'encode' multiple parameters in one neuron, and that only the necessary information is packaged and sent. This is quite different from the idea that different parameters can only be encoded by groups of neurons acting together. Apparently, a single neuron can contain more information than originally thought.
Structure of a neuron. The axon is required to propagate electrical signals, required for signalling,  to other neurons.
In addition to analysing the information packaging of individual neurons, the scientists also analysed what happened to larger populations of brain cells. They then discovered that there are big differences between individual monkeys when it comes to how they handle their task. When assessing the behaviour of two monkeys, for example, they found that one of them was very trigger-happy, while the other one adopted a wait-and-see attitude. This particular difference was clearly visible in the brain scans that were made of the monkeys.

What the scientists basically showed is that is possible to derive an animal's personality or attitude from a brain scan. By revealing the brain patterns, scientists have proven to be capable of translating brain activity into behaviour. When expanding on this in the future, it may be possible to gain more insight into the brains of animals. While humans mostly have the capability to say what they think, we do not have the luxury of being able to understand monkeys. Having their brains scanned may change that.
An overview of a monkey's response when trying to touch an object while evading an obstacle.

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