In the introduction to her story on deep-brain stimulation for Pacific Standard, Sarah Scoles tells the story of Liss Murphy, a woman with treatment-resistant depression—in her words, a “sepsis of the soul”—who saw deep-brain stimulation as her last opportunity to live a normal life. The moment doctors turned on the stimulating current was a life-changer. But then they had to turn it off.
The doctors installed the electrodes and turned them on.
For Murphy, the moment was astonishing. A warmth surged through her. Everything felt lighter, clearer. But then those sensations stopped. The doctors had cut the current so that they could finish wiring the circuit, close her cranium back up, and insert the permanent pulse generator into her chest
After the surgery, Murphy spent a few days in recovery, and then the doctors sent her home. She would need to heal for three weeks, they told her, before they could turn her device back on. Back at home, returned to the gray world of her depression, Murphy remembered that warm, light, clear feeling. I wish that could be forever, she thought.
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Lonni Sue Johnson was a successful illustrator — think New Yorker covers — amateur violist, pilot, and small businesswoman. When the herpes simplex virus attacked her brain, it caused substantial tissue loss in her medial temporal lobes; she lost almost her entire lifetime of knowledge and experiences, along with the ability to form new memories. In Aeon, Michael Lemonick describes how she’s invaluable to neuroscientists working to understand how we make, organize, and store memories.
There’s no established protocol, however, for probing an amnesia victim on the sorts of knowledge Johnson gathered in her lifetime. The neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins started at the most basic level they could think of – the ‘Who painted this?’ test, which she pretty much failed. Her semantic memory about art and artists, her primary area of expertise, was significantly impaired. Remarkably, though, when the scientists included some of her own artworks in the testing, she correctly flagged every one as hers. Even more surprising, when the researchers added drawings done in a style somewhat similar to Johnson’s, she picked them out as artworks she might have produced. To do so, she had to be drawing on some sort of memory. It clearly wasn’t episodic memory, since artworks aren’t events – but it’s unclear that it qualifies as semantic memory either, since it addresses an ineffable quality, not a set of facts. ‘I don’t think we know how to characterise that sort of memory,’ Barbara Landau, one of the Johns Hopkins scientists, told me in an interview.
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A look at the 59-year-old Microsoft cofounder who has invested $500 million into the Allen Institute for Brain Science with the goal of decoding how the human brain works:
Four years later six brains have been donated and four analyzed to some degree. The project is due to be finished this year, but the first brain images, put online in 2010, are already yielding scientific results. So far, the gene expression from the first two human brains in the new atlas varies only a little, yielding hope that scientists will be able to understand some of what it all means.
How might this work? A young University of California, San Francisco neuroscientist named Bradley Voytek used software to match words that frequently appeared together in the scientific literature with matches of where genes are expressed in the Allen atlas. For instance, he found that scientists studying serotonin, the neurotransmitter hit by Prozac and Zoloft, were ignoring two brain areas where the chemical was expressed in their research. It might even play a role in migraines. This data-driven approach led to 800 new ideas about how the brain may work that scientists can now test, leading to hope that computational methods can help decipher the computer in our heads.
“Inside Paul Allen’s Quest To Reverse Engineer The Brain.” — Matthew Herper, Forbes
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