Imagine you’re paralyzed and can’t move or speak. How would you communicate with the world? This video describes the principles of early brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) designed to read electrical brain signals, analyze how brain activity patterns contribute to vocal tract movements, and reproduce the sound patterns as speech. The model is a first step toward one day restoring paralyzed individuals’ natural rate of communication and quality of life.
Through the prisms of behavioral neurology and cognitive neuroscience, Scott Grafton brilliantly accounts for the design and workings of the action-oriented brain in synchronicity with the body in the natural world, and he shows how physical intelligence is inherent in all of us—and always in problem-solving mode. Drawing on insights gleaned from discoveries by engineers who have learned to emulate the sophisticated solutions Mother Nature has created for managing complex behavior, Grafton also demonstrates the relevance of physical intelligence with examples that each of us might face—whether the situation is mundane, exceptional, extreme, or compromised.
Elegantly written and deeply grounded in personal experience—works by Oliver Sacks come to mind—Physical Intelligence gives us a clear, illuminating examination of the intricate, mutually responsive relationship between the mind and the body as they engage (or don’t engage) in all manner of physical action.
During this decade, as in previous decades, Caltech scientists and engineers reinvented the landscape of scientific endeavor: from the first detection of gravitational waves and the discovery of evidence for a ninth planet in the solar system; to bold missions to explore and understand the solar system; to the development of new methods to see inside the body and the brain and understand the universe around us; to the invention of devices to improve human health, some taking inspiration from nature; to the initiation of a transformative new effort to support research into the most pressing challenges in environmental sustainability.
Though the brain orchestrates how we experience the world, many questions remain about its complex workings. During the past 10 years, Caltech scientists have discovered how the brain recognizes faces and drives and quenches thirst, and learned about the pathways that govern sleep. A major focus has been on understanding the experience of non-neurotypical individuals, such as those who have autism or those who are missing a brain hemisphere. New realms of neuroscience research were made possible in 2016, when philanthropists Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen announced a gift to establish the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech.
In our own study of more than 7,000 middle-aged to older adults in the U.K., published in 2019 in Brain Imaging and Behavior, we demonstrated that people who spent more time engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity had larger hippocampal volumes. Although it is not yet possible to say whether these effects in humans are related to neurogenesis or other forms of brain plasticity, such as increasing connections among existing neurons, together the results clearly indicate that exercise can benefit the brain’s hippocampus and its cognitive functions.
In fact, a growing body of research suggests that exercise that is cognitively stimulating may indeed benefit the brain more than exercise that does not make such cognitive demands. For example, Gerd Kempermann and his colleagues at the Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden in Germany explored this possibility by comparing the growth and survival of new neurons in the mouse hippocampus after exercise alone or after exercise combined with access to a cognitively enriched environment. They found an additive effect: exercise alone was good for the hippocampus, but combining physical activity with cognitive demands in a stimulating environment was even better, leading to even more new neurons. Using the brain during and after exercise seemed to trigger enhanced neuron survival.
Parkinson’s disease is a neurological condition that affects the brain and other parts of the nervous system. The gradual loss of nerve cells leads to a suite of characteristic motor and non-motor symptoms.
What causes these cells to die and how the pathology develops in the nervous system are not yet clear but multiple lines of investigation are being pursued to answer these questions. In this animation, we explore some of the latest in Parkinson’s disease research.
From a Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News release:
“These results show quite clearly that there’s a very specific part of the brain network that’s affected by inflammation,” noted Mazaheri. “This could explain ‘brain fog’.”
Raymond added that “this research finding is a major step forward in understanding the links between physical, cognitive, and mental health and tells us that even the mildest of illnesses may reduce alertness.”
Researchers at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam say they have uncovered a possible explanation for the mental sluggishness that often accompanies illness. The team investigated the link between “mental fog” and inflammation, the body’s response to illness. In a study (“Selective effects of acute low-grade inflammation on human visual attention”) published in Neuroimage, they showed that inflammation appears to have a particularly negative impact on the brain’s readiness to reach and maintain an alert state.
Dementia is a complicated disease that has multiple causes and risk factors, some of which remain unknown. Nevertheless, there is increasing evidence that people—even those who inherit genes that put them at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s in later life—can improve their chances by adopting lifestyle changes.
“It’s not just about running three times a week,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, executive director of AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health. “Instead, it’s about a package of behaviors, including aerobic exercise, strength training, a healthy diet, sleep and cognitive training.”
When it comes to battling dementia, the unfortunate news is this: Medications have proven ineffective at curing or stopping the disease and its most common form, Alzheimer’s disease. But that isn’t the end of the story. According to a recent wave of scientific studies, we have more control over our cognitive health than is commonly known. We just have to take certain steps—ideally, early and often—to live a healthier lifestyle.
In fact, according to a recent report commissioned by the Lancet, a medical journal, around 35% of dementia cases might be prevented if people do things including exercising and engaging in cognitively stimulating activities. “When people ask me how to prevent dementia, they often want a simple answer, such as vitamins, dietary supplements or the latest hyped idea,” says Eric Larson, a physician at Kaiser Permanente in Seattle and one of a group of scientists who helped prepare the report. “I tell them they can take many common-sense actions that promote health throughout life.”