Health Scan: HU deepens our understanding of brain function

A new analytical tool showing how our brains record outside stimuli and react to them has been developed by a team of Hebrew U. scientists.

brain 88 (photo credit: )
brain 88
(photo credit: )
A new analytical tool showing how our brains record outside stimuli and react to them has been developed by a team of Hebrew University scientists. Although much progress has been made in recent decades in understanding the brain, scientists still know relatively little about how it functions. The two key problems are that there will never be enough real data from measuring what the brain actually does, and even if there were, there haven't been enough methods for analyzing such data to reveal how neural coding takes place. The analytical method developed at Hebrew University should be able to provide an indication, for example, of how many neurons encode a given stimulus such as reactions to a face or movement, and how they collaborate to do it. Current technology allows researchers only a very partial view of brain activity. For example, we can't record the activity of more than a few hundred nerve cells from the cortex of an animal carrying out a task. Methods like MRI can map larger brain areas, but cannot measure single neurons. What can one learn from such a partial view? The HU team, headed by Dr. Amir Globerson of the Benin School of Computer Science and Engineering, formulated the novel principle of Minimum Mutual Information (MinMI) to tackle the issue. An article detailing their findings has been published online in the Proceedings of the[US] National Academy of Sciences. The researchers provide analyses of both real and simulated data. Their method permits quantification of information in the brain about behavior, given sets of very partial measurements. The key insight to obtaining such results is to consider, via computer simulations, a set of "hypothetical brains" that could have generated the combination of observed measurements, and then drawing conclusions valid for all the brains in this set. Although this seems like a daunting computational task, the researchers have shown that it can be achieved in some cases. Real data were recorded from monkeys in the lab of brain researcher Prof. Eilon Vaadia, who works in the university's Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation. As experimental tools develop, the researchers are looking forward to obtaining access to actual brain measurements on a larger scale. Methods such as the ones they developed will be applied to help analyze such data and reach even more far-reaching conclusions as to how brain cells process information. DELIVER AN ACUPUNCTURE BABY Women who come to deliver babies at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center in Tzrifin may ask for acupuncture to relieve their pain. The service is an experimental project provided by the hospital's obstetrics department and its complementary medicine service. Studies have shown that acupuncture can reduce the desire to receive analgesics in half. The needles used during delivery are very fine, and sometimes conduct an electrical stimulus. They are inserted in various parts of the body and not in organs involved in labor. Practitioners say the complementary treatment increases blood flow to the uterus and encourages the release of hormones necessary to expel the fetus. Acupuncture can also be used with conventional pain relievers. The treatment is given for a fee. CAMP RAISES SPIRITS OF YOUNG BURN PATIENTS The Middle-East's first camp for children who have survived serious burns was recently opened at Kibbutz Haon on the shores of the Kinneret, with 25 campers ranging in age from seven to 17. The kids came from all over the country to enjoy the recreational activities planned by the Burn Advocates Network. Treatment for serious burns is one of the most painful there is. Together with a staff of over 30 therapists, social workers and volunteers from the burn units of local medical centers, the children were taken to a nature park and a "drum circle" for learning how to play different types of percussion instruments. Even children whose hands were badly damaged improvised with adaptive instruments "These activities are not just fun, but also an excellent way to bring the young burn survivors out of the isolation and depression which frequently follows disfiguring burn injuries," said Marcia Levinson, head of physical therapy at Philadelphia's Jefferson Hospital and co-founder of the camp. Dr. Dave Mendes, chief of plastic surgery at Meir Hospital, attended the drum circle, which was led by well-known Israeli percussionist Gilad Dobrecky, who introduced drums, bells, shakers and rattles. "I can see how by learning to play an instrument these kids are changing. The smiles on their faces speak volumes about the effectiveness of this program. I hope my patients will have the opportunity to get the benefits of this camp in coming years. We know that healing the psychological trauma from burn scars is a process that takes years. The importance of restoring the patient to a productive life cannot be underestimated." The Burn Advocates Network brings therapeutic music and recreational programs to camps and burn centers all across the US. Founder and director Samuel Davis says: "This is the first time we are actually opening our own camp. It is clear that there is a tremendous need for this type of camp here, especially among the many minority groups. It is amazing to see religious and secular Jewish and Muslim children participate together, singing the same songs and sleeping in the same cabins. Real bonding takes place. "The cultural and religious differences are outweighed by the shared burn experience. Our only regret is that our funding allows us to accept only 25 campers this year; we had to turn away so many children. Next year, we hope to double our capacity."