First Medical Neuroscience Hangout on the new platform
-by Marina Buryak- course Mentor
The first Google Hangout for both sessions on the new Coursera platform occurred on July 20th, at 2pm Eastern Time. It kept lively with stirring questions and great conversations. The following are summaries of Dr. White’s and asker’s words.
How it all starts and the concept of soul
Ahmed, a Sudanese medical student living in Khartoum, expending on a forum discussion, asked how signaling starts. For example, what factors initiate the signals to make the brain alive vs. dead? How does the soul interact with the brain?
Professor White reminded us that it’s easy to forget that neighboring neurons, always active at some level, initiate neural signaling in the neuron of interest. The developmental unit (weeks 9—11) would explore the origins of these connections. Briefly, the 2nd and 3rd trimester of a developing life has neurons acquire electrical properties. The environment interaction contributes to the cycle of activating initially intrinsic action potentials while the action potentials let the being interact with that environment. We need to keep in mind that the brain generates its own activity and is only modulated by its environment.
Dr. White then asked Ahmed to expend on the part about the soul. Ahmed was curious about what makes a brain truly dead when all the solid mass is intact. Professor White grabbed his model brain for this discussion, addressing the concept of brain death—a damage to the cerebral cortex that prevents further cognition. That loose criteria for brain death still allows for brainstem function, opening the possibility that the individual still may be alive.
Prof. White discussed different cutoff points where death can be defined: cessation of all cellular brain activity or otherwise all body activity. He cites donation of organs in considering the morals of death, and lets us know that while scientists classically attribute cognition to the cortex, neurobiologists are beginning to see a more distributed role. One example is grounded cognition, when the mind is embodied (cognition influenced by bodily states and perceptions). Nowadays, neuroscientists are more open to consider how religious concepts of soul play into the biology.
Neuroplasticity, emotion, and working therapy
Deborah, a returning learner and psychotherapist, first had nice things to say about the course since taking it in January. She asked from her field’s perspective how electrical signals and neuroplasticity manifests in behavior and emotion. For part 2 of the question, Deborah was interested in what sort of neuroplastic “codebreaking” occurs when therapy is working.
While no one has full answers to those, Dr. White reminds us synaptic connections are dynamic with plasticity occurring as a result of aggregated connections. He supposes that a clinician sees a manifestation of some adaptive plasticity when she notes progress, with complementary changes in opposing systems. As an example of opposing systems, he notes that for an anxious patient, the hope is to decrease the threat-sensing amygdala response and simultaneously increase the introspective medial structure activity. We could potentially monitor these changes through functional magnetic resonance imaging. Such precise tools will help psychiatrists see brain states of wellness and alike illness. Therefore, technologies such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) can then modulate activity to eventually provide therapeutic benefits. As a neuroscientist, Dr. White feels that science should fully explore cognitive therapy or physical activity as a means for neuroplasticity, before jumping the gun to more extreme, invasive measures.
Deborah’s follow-up was related to brainspotting therapy she uses to help patients with traumatic events; she was specifically interested in the visual and subcortical affecting the cortical. Dr. White offered advice for her PhD studies to look into functional connectivity.
Wise words from the head mentor
Prof. White then introduced our chief mentor, reminding us of the powers of the site she’s created, which is the site you are currently reading 🙂 Ellen announced that Class Central named Medical Neuroscience as top 50 of all time. Dr. White asked Ellen for tips on success in the course, which was a simple but brilliant advice to enjoy it as much as possible (because out of positive affect and enthusiasm comes learning reinforcement, which we tend to overlook.)
Puneet asked if we can do anything to enhance the brain. Differentiating between imaging tools (fMRIs) and modifying techniques (TMS or deep brain stim).
Prof. White stressed that “the best way to enhance the brain is to harness the plastic potential,” using the principles we know rather than technology. Dr. White goes on to provide an example of repetition in learning; repeated precise experience strengthen synapses. A challenge for people recovering from injuries is that discipline and structure of repeated physical therapy. Healthy individuals can benefit from the principle of repetition, too, in their daily experience. Musicians and athletes are known for utilizing repetition, which we call practice. To enhance practice, one can isolate a particular movement. Neuroscience can now describe what guitar legend Segovia has instinctively taught his student, that is, to practice a measure a hundred times before he’d continue to teach them.
Exciting and underrepresented research
Steve, who is enjoying the course, inquired of Dr. White’s thoughts on the most exciting neuroscience research and of the areas that may not get enough attention.
Addressing the second part, Prof. White said we need to better understand the principles touched on above. How do we reshape the appropriate circuits using our minds and bodies? Focusing solely on technology narrows the benefits we can achieve but does provide a road to that understanding. We need to understand the neurobiology of the connections and the formation and progression of those circuits throughout a lifetime. Shifting to the part about exciting research, Prof. White talked about the brain–machine interface, where artificial neural networks connected to a machine decode signals obtained via electrodes, allowing people who’re paralyzed to regain artificial function.
Another exciting brain research is about art and semantic representation. Even a recent finding shows the complexity and wide activation of language processing. Steve shared that he’s in England and follows mindfulness, back pain treatment, and neuroplasticity.
Dementia and brains
Babawale from Nigeria, studying neurology, who was very thankful for the course, asked about the patients with dementia he encounters, noting their cerebral atrophy although some with milder dementia have normal-looking brains.
This topic is close to professor’s family, as Dr. White’s wife is a geriatrician caring for many of such patients. Other than Alzheimer’s, we want more understanding about dementia factors, which a delirium or depression misdiagnosis can masked. Yet, an interesting phenomenon arises at autopsy: some individuals with plaques and tangles—even atrophy—had functioned normally, while some symptomatic elderly had a seemingly normal autopsy. So, we may be missing part of the story. Music therapy that is meaningful to a dementia patient’s life story is one relief. Remarkably, the brain engaged in memories from youth for some on the therapy.
Babawale mentioned that his team encourages patients to return to their childhood hometowns.
Ulf first complimented for the work put into the course, including Ellen’s, and for the inspiring enthusiasm. Originally from Germany, Ulf has backgrounds in engineering and sales. He asked how humans are capable of violence, speculating if the mirror neurons respond to media images.
Professor White appreciates the community and in turn appreciated Ulf’s sharing the inside view for the course journey. Stating that all questions are those of neuroscience, Dr. White mentioned Dr. Lasana Harris as a key figure in bringing attention to violence research, such as brain changes in response to propaganda. Dr. Harris found two features: right tempo-periato-occipital engaged in pro-social networks would be less active during hateful speech, and amygdala’s threat-detection would turn up. This likely relates to dehumanization, such as that of group psychology, and opens the mind to amoral judgement and potential violence.
Advantages of forgetting
Anal from India asked from the evolutionary standpoint why a brain forgets. He then wanted to know if humans could think in 4D.
Our capacity is limited, Dr. White suggests. So, economically speaking, it would be beneficial to keep a limited amount of information. How a brain selects the info to keep is not entirely perfect, but threatening, associated, and repeated info is treated to be important. Thus, the ability to forget is a healthy way of optimizing function, and individuals with extreme memory usually have related mental illness. We can harness a memory boost by using multiple modalities such as movement, speech, sight, story when learning the info.
For the second part, Dr. White is curious to know the perspective of a theorist or a mathematician. He believes we have capacity to create cognitive maps of higher dimensions. As an example, a memory castle of stored info can enhance recall, and movement through the castle adds a fourth dimension.
Wrap-up points and MSG
Ahmed jumped in with three points: the monosodium glutamate receptors affecting neurotransmitters, importance of regeneration research, Muslim sympathizers not just culture. Umami receptors do have connections via pathways from nerves 7, 9, and 10.
Dr. White agrees that we need multiple perspectives in discussing issues of violence, different fields and religious organizations coming together to support political interactions.
A couple of poor connections occurred toward the wrap-up of the Hangout, but another Hangout will happen in the near future.