Exploring the Astronomical Universe Within Us — Reflections from a Two-Day Tour of The Impossibly Magnificent Brain and The Unfathomable Mind

A Recap of BrainMind Summit — Stanford 2019

by: Karina Mendoza

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“I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix.”

 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, 1921

“It is essential to understand our brains in some detail if we are to assess correctly our place in this vast and complicated universe we see all around us.”

― Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit, 1988

“We want Google to be the third half of your brain.”

― Sergey Brin, at the launch of Google Instant, Sept. 2010

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It took me several days to settle down from the wonder and awe at BrainMind Summit — Stanford. It was that sensational feeling of elation — of a mind, spinning after a weekend of phenomenal learning, and a spirit buoyed by the incredible energy there — that lingered. I still find myself talking about it every chance I get.

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There seems to be a steady increase in interest and activity in “wetware” or the human brain in recent years. Surely this is at least in part correlated to the dawning of radical technological advances in AI, machine learning, robots, other thinking machines, nanoscale technology, biotechnology, autonomous vehicles, and so on … that are today’s hottest topics. These developments are revolutionizing the very fabric of our lives and our world in ways imagined and unimagined. Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, even gave it a name in 2016, the fourth industrial revolution. 4IR. It’s a big deal for both good and not so good.

By definition and design, Artificial Intelligence is evolving to have functions that are more and more similar to that of the human brain and mind. As such, consciousness, feelings, emotions, perception, cognition, bias, free will are interesting discussion points from conferences to casual conversations in cafés. Machines mimicking human brains are one of those difficult subjects to broach. It’s natural and prudent to wonder “Where does this path lead us or humanity?”

At a Christmas party a few years ago, an old acquaintance there asked me what’s the latest in the world of technology knowing it’s my field and that I must keep abreast of the most recent developments. I brought up the news then of social and care robots underway — for elderly care, companionship for children and adults to combat loneliness, including sex robots, and so on. — How these might change people’s behaviors, relationships, and cultural and religious institutions is interesting, to say the least. This line of discussion is not unusual at the conferences I attend.

Abruptly interrupted mid-sentence, I suddenly found myself being subjected to startling ire and hostile ridicule. The confrontation, I thought, was emphatically misguided and misdirected towards me. And a bit strong, I might add, as strong as the alcohol he had consumed perhaps to put some sense in the asinine comportment. Come to think of it, with enough consumption, alcohol can shrink the size of the brain and can also cause brain damage. At the least, it changes behavior. There’s a difference between advocating for and merely stating information, in this case, to his inquiry. I was doing the latter at his behest.

Long story short he would much rather be dead, which fortunately he expects to be by the time this happens to society he said. My point here is, there are people that will instantaneously react with negativity, consternation, disdain or abject fear to new and different ideas, major shift ideas, paradigm shift ideas. Robots taking people’s jobs in factories, at the checkout register at grocery stores, or replacing truck drivers are what’s usually talked about but this aspect of robots in the human social context also needs some careful consideration. Studies have shown that humans can develop feelings for robots as depicted in the movie Her and distress when robots are mistreated. When humans show empathy or some other feeling to robots, what then would be their effects on the broader society? We can banish some of the fear by more research, more understanding, and guidance from past lessons.

When it comes to today’s incipient machine neural network, aka Artificial Neural Network, nobody really knows what goes on in there, not even the programmers themselves.

There’s even more unknown about the human brain, aka Biological Neural Network, which to this day remains shrouded in mystery. I won’t delve into the details but suffice it to say, the two have many differences. Yet, there are some big names with deep pockets who are already venturing into the idea that these two will merge.

Novel technologies that are highly transformative are not fully embraced by many in the beginning. First in the Against line, if it so applies, would be those whose skills, knowledge, jobs, and other investments they’ve worked hard for and earned through most of their lives are suddenly threatened to be made obsolete, irrelevant, and useless.

The apprehension lies in knowing that these advancements will potentially seep into society. For example, human enhancements. After the medical applications, it would be the early adopters, those who can afford the still novel, thus, expensive technology that could make them or their children smarter, stronger, faster, stay youthful, live longer, and so on. Biotechnological privileges, if you will, that can be bought by those who can afford them, furthering the chasm between the haves and have-nots going beyond economics, and potentially creating a class of enhanced humans.

An article on OpenMind states, “One cannot understate the breadth of these implications, as both advocates and critics of human enhancement agree that they will change fundamental parameters of human existence (Fukuyama 2002, Harris 2007). In a world where achievements are brought about more by technological intervention than effort, the entire system of justice that underpins society is brought into question. Alternatively, if a patient can ask a doctor to ensure that their medicine has an enhancing rather than simply reparative outcome, then the role of medicine and health care, along with the relationship between the doctor and patient changes considerably.”

For instance, BCIs, Brain-Computer Interfaces. Many shudder at the thought of brain implants whose purpose it is to be a direct link between computers and our brains. It would be reasonable if it were an absolute medical necessity. But if not, if it were an elective procedure it would be very unsettling, to say the least. Because — what could go wrong? On the other hand, if we, humans don’t keep up with the advancement of machine intelligence, as Elon Musk predicts might happen, we face the risk of the “control problem” and the “usefulness problem” befalling humanity.

But then again there already is the reality of the numerous mental health issues that have been plaguing generations for millennia like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression, to name a few — that we are faced with now. Should people, our neighbors, friends, family be left to suffer if there are possible technologies for possible cures?

There are many concerns, many questions, and there are also many opportunities.

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Cover Image: A photo of my brain that I took during my live, real-time 3d brain scanning session with Intheon at BrainMind Summit - Stanford.

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The Brain

Unless you still remember biology class in high school, and for those of you reading this that are not in the field of brain science, I, myself, am not — I did a quick research on the Internet about the human brain for a brief overview of what we are dealing with here.

It’s complicated. The human brain is the most complex organ of the human body and is said to be more complex than any other known structure in the universe. The spongy mass of fat and protein weighs about 3 pounds. About 75% of the brain is made up of water with the texture of tofu or gelatin. It is extremely delicate and sensitive and benefits from being encased in a thick skull. The brain is incapable of feeling pain. It interprets pain signals sent to it, but it does not feel pain. The human brain consists of approximately 100 billion neurons, which is as many cells as there are estimated stars in the Milky Way. Neurons or nerve cells are interconnected by synapses, the tiny junction between neurons. Neurons gather and transmit electrochemical signals to each other via these synapses. Each neuron has somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 synapses, so the brain is estimated to have about 1 quadrillion synapses in total. The firings of the synapses are the information being passed on to the other parts of the body for all its functions, breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, memory, thought, senses, movement, thinking, dreaming, memory, feelings, and emotions. All that in a compact space the size of, well, the top of your head. But there’s a lot more.

So much more, it’s mysterious. Many have made analogies of the brain to the cosmos, the outer universe. Largely unknown, full of mystery, and infinitely fascinating, the human brain is our inner universe. As we are building better rockets and spaceships and reaching further distances way out into outer space, we are also building better tools for exploring deeper into our inner space. We are in the precipice of exciting discoveries that will lead to even more discoveries towards more ground-truth and understanding.

We do need to understand the brain more. Experts agree that we know so little about the brain that most of the time treatments today are still a hit or miss. On top of that what’s usually treated is not even the disease itself but just the symptoms. What are the intricate details of the minutiae of the brain? What do they do precisely? What do they look like in action when we think, dream, remember a memory, listen, speak, as we dance in the rain, while running a marathon, are in love, in pain, in fear, and everything else we do and feel? How do they behave? How do brain diseases look like and behave in the brain? Which neurons and neuronal circuits are affected? And so forth.

Matters of the brain touch all of us deeply at our core. The brain and the mind are tied to our being, our very existence. The brain is what makes you, “you”. To you, nothing exists when you are in a vegetative state, not even yourself.

BrainMind is a platform for opportunities to help answer many of these questions and hopefully solve a myriad of issues involving our inner universe.

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These are just some of my thoughts before we dive into the fascination of BrainMind Summit — Stanford. I really am very excited to tell you all about it.

Let’s begin.

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BrainMind

Begin with the “Why”. Co-founders Michael McCullough, Diana Saville, and Calvin Nguyen summed it up in their letter, the event program’s foreword, “to fill in the critical gaps that prevent impactful brain science ideas and companies from reaching their full potential impact. Guided by a focused roadmap, we are collectively energizing basic science and terraforming the valley of death using only the energies present in society (goodwill, expertise, capital), represented by those converging at Stanford this weekend.” You can also find BrainMind’s vision on their website at http://www.brain-mind.org.

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Image: Ideas-to-Impact roadmap Michael McCullough presentation slide. Photo by: Karina Mendoza

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“The problem is unintuitive,” said McCullough in his presentation. “Capital is no problem but it’s the cultural shift that has to happen.”

Past successes have come from both application-inspired top-down approaches like McCullough’s, and technology-inspired bottom-up paths. At the meeting, Joe Betts-LaCroix said that many advances have come from technologies developed in labs that, once commercialized, enabled whole new fields. Analogous to seeds in the academic meadow that need to be cultivated towards the venture mountaintop.

In its current form, the ideas-to-impact path is long and arduous. Several speakers including Magali Haas, Amit Etkin, Robert Malenka, and many others brought this up in their presentations, a resounding cry that it could be much better. Too many great ideas, great projects by great minds fall by the wayside, the dreaded Valley of Death, the way it is now. The stakes are high.

McCullough made clear that imperative to BrainMind’s success is for all its members to be contributors, not just consumers of the wonderful energy therein — for the organization to survive, thrive in achieving its goals, and evolve. Each member being instrumental to the whole’s welfare is fundamental in fostering the growth of an organic entity like BrainMind, especially that it’s still in its infancy. Be useful, be relevant, give and not just take, take and give back, or suffer the risk of being forgotten and being left out of its evolutionary gene pool.

In spite of perhaps being infinitesimal in this grand scheme of things at BrainMind, hopefully not inconsequential, this piece is my first contribution to the ecosystem, not counting the word-of-mouth BrainMind goodwill I’ve been spreading to my friends, associates, whoever I meet that I think might be interested. The interest I’ve gathered after sharing my personal experience and insight of the summit is remarkable, at a solid 100%. If there’s an uptick in membership sign-ups, I can proudly admit to one, two or a few of them due to the plausible transference of my elation from the weekend.

Now that BrainMind has been set in motion with a growing membership of about 2,500 top brain scientists, philanthropists, and investors, McCullough envisions BrainMind as a “self-sustaining organism, like a flywheel gathering energy from other areas and distribute”. — That is the big picture. — And it does take a village.

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BrainMind Summit – Stanford 2019 Highlights:

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Into the river flow of astonishment

As a technologist with a passion for emerging and future technologies, I found myself in constant amazement throughout the presentations. Their untold implications are cathartic. One after another the speakers — leading scientists, authors of bestselling books, speakers at popular TED Talks, chief clinicians, artists, and innovators — conquered Stanford’s Frances Arrillaga Alumni Center auditorium leaving the audience many times awe-struck. Their diversity of perspectives like many facets of a diamond made the summit shine brilliantly, and more and more stunning as the two days progressed.

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Image: Juan Enriquez, BrainMind core advisor giving the opening introduction. Photo by: Karina Mendoza

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Babies’ brains’ extreme neuroplasticity is the utopia of learning

Patricia Kuhl Ph.D., MA Bezos Family Foundation Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning, University of Washington made the case for talking and reading to babies from Day 1. It may appear that babies are not paying attention and not yet verbally responding but their brains are very busy building connections at the rate of 1 million per second from the day they are born. Kuhl in her research found out that the magical period for learning a new language is age 0 to 9 months then on it starts to slowly decline. Remarkably, they found out, babies’ brains will absorb and learn any language you teach them in this short window of opportunity. Kuhl calls this period of extreme neuroplasticity in brain development “the utopia of learning”.

She also said that their findings reveal there’s no learning for babies from machines and TVs as opposed to music. Expose babies to music because it also enhances learning, Kuhl recommended. Social interactions and having experiences with others are the best environments for babies’ learning, they found out.

Kuhl explained why and how this happens. When you talk to a baby you are activating their brain to respond, to anticipate or form a response. She showed us a video of two areas of the brain lighting up; the region that is responsible for listening, and the other region responsible for speech. The two regions (listening and speaking) light up when talking to babies, and only the listening region lights up when in front of the TV. Babies, just by being with another child showed improved learning.

“Early experiences are the most important as they create the architecture for the detection of patterns for future learning,” said Kuhl.

I highly recommend Patricia Kuhl’s TED Talk on this amazing topic.

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The decrease in federal funding is a problem — Enter RTAP.

Addressing the challenges of propelling vital game-changing ideas from the lab and into the market, Amit Etkin MD, Ph.D. Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University said, “With less funds available, everything is getting more conservative, which impacts science and scientists.”

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Image: “Stanford Research Translation Accelerator Program (RTAP)” Amit Etkin presentation slide. Photo by: Karina Mendoza.

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Etkin raised other important issues under the general constraint of time; the age of scientists, the long arc of the FDA approval process, the tedious complexities of writing grants — They all take time, and together, a really long time. Time is money. Time is an opportunity cost. “Scientists,” he pointed out, “are busy writing grants and not doing the actual science.”

Etkin introduced the recently launched RTAP Research Translation Accelerator Program, a new philanthropically-driven research program from Stanford’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. It aims to “identify ideas for commercial translation, early-stage projects and investigators driving innovative science”.

He proudly presented the first group of accepted proposals now officially RTAP projects and their lead scientists:

  1. Hadi Housseini, Ph.D. is mapping neural connections in the brain.
  2. Karen Parker, Ph.D. is working on a laboratory-based Autism diagnostic test.
  3. Eric Stice, Ph.D. is developing a computer program to fight obesity by training an individual’s palatability for healthy eating.

“The crazy ideas are the hardest to fund,” Etkin said. If we continue on the old path we will only see 0% change-the-world projects.

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Sleep, sunlight and circadian rhythm for good health.

“When circadian rhythms are disrupted, rhythms are changed. As a result, we get sleep disruption and sleep deprivation,” Satchidananda Panda, Ph.D. Professor, Regulatory Biology Laboratory, Salk Institute for Biological Studies said. It is easier said than done. People are so addicted to their cell phones that their sleep is disrupted by the urge to check their phone throughout the night when they ought to be fast asleep.

When we sleep less, we are less active, and eat more. We also have mood swings. We end up drugging the clock, taking sleeping pills and pills to help keep us awake. “Studies have shown that when we deactivate the clock we can actually kill cancer. Wisdom is knowing when to sleep and when to wake up,” he said.

Simply walking outside and exposing yourself to bright natural light will improve your sleep and wake pattern. “We need the sun on our skin and natural light into our eyes.” Sticking to the good old “circadian rhythm will contribute in a big way to solving multiple problems,” Panda said.

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Hypnosis is like taking a pain pill.

“The Strain in Pain Lie Mainly in the Brain” a quote from one of the slides of David Spiegel, MD, Jack, Samuel, and Lulu Willson Professor in Medicine Associate Chair of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University. Higher than losses from guns and automobile accidents is from suicide, which is just one among many mental illnesses around. Spiegel argued for non-pharmaceutical solutions to fight mental illness, particularly hypnosis, his area of expertise with over 40 years of experience in clinical practice and research. “When one is hypnotized as having an enjoyable experience, like skiing,” Spiegel said, “it reduces pain.” Supportive psychotherapy helps people cope better stating, “Hypnosis is like taking a pain pill”.

Spiegel mentioned that Alexa has proven to be an effective platform for hypnosis. Reveri, a company he co-founded created two products on the Alexa platform, Stop Smoking with Alexa and Hypnosis Pain Relief also with Alexa.

Spiegel parted with sage advice, “If you don’t want someone to do something don’t tell them to stop doing it. Focus on what you’re for, not what you’re against,” that one is especially appealing to me as a parent of teenagers.

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The Talk of Neuroscience-town: Optogenetics and Expansion Microscopy

Neuroscientists have been abuzz with excitement in recent years from a couple of groundbreaking technologies, work done by neuroengineer Ed Boyden.

Boyden who is currently a Y. Eva Tan Professor in Neurotechnology at MIT, Leader, Synthetic Neurobiology Group, Professor, MIT Media Lab and McGovern Institute, Departments of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and Co-Director, MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering is also one of BrainMind’s core advisors.

Boyden is among a handful of people that to me personifies BrainMind, particularly in being interdisciplinary, the nature of BrainMind’s top-caliber ecosystem. Boyden’s multifaceted academic background in Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, and Physics from MIT, and a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Stanford convergently pave the way to “serendipity” as he calls the A-ha moments of his ground-truthing discoveries.

Optogenetics

It is at Stanford while doing research more than a decade ago where Boyden stumbled onto his first wonderful discovery in optogenetics. Optogenetics has been around for almost a couple of decades, but not the way Ed Boyden and collaborator Feng Zhang imagined it in 2005. In 1999, Francis Crick, the renowned scientist who discovered the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule along with James Watson, first thought of using light to control neural activity in the brain as a “far-fetched” possibility. The field is relatively new.

In 2005, Boyden and collaborator Feng Zhang published the first demonstration of a single-component optogenetic system in cultured mammalian neurons using the channelrhodopsin-2 , a protein that functions as light-gated ion channels. “There were early efforts to achieve targeted optical control dating back to 2002 that did not involve a directly light-activated ion channel, but it was the method based on directly light-activated channels from microbes, such as channelrhodopsin, emerging in 2005 that turned out to be broadly useful.” Wikipedia

Boyden and his collaborator Zhang discovered something that could be found in nature — the channelrhodopsin-2 — proteins that have pores that open to collect and absorb light then within milliseconds close stopping the flow of ions. Since it reacts to light, light being a stimulus, this allows neuronal activity to be controlled by light at the tiny level of the gene. Imagine turning on or off the light, making it dimmer or brighter, and shining different colors (different wavelengths) to manipulate the electrical “synaptic” activity of a neuron, of a cluster of neurons, or of certain regions of the brain all with millisecond precision.

“This technology allows the use of light to alter neural processing at the level of single spikes and synaptic events, yielding a widely applicable tool for neuroscientists and biomedical engineers,” Nature, Aug 2005. It is precise to the nano cell-type-specific level, control at millisecond-scale speed, targeted, and painless.

Boyden’s findings in optogenetics have proven to be a game-changer, more broadly useful than ever before.

“The brain has extreme spatial complexity with nanoscale proteins, gene products, and nanoscale precision neural connections. Neurons have millisecond electrical pulses and chemical exchanges that are very brief. So I often say one of our goals in our group is to develop tools to help us across space and time if we really want to fix the brain.”

— Ed Boyden

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Image: Space: Nanoscale building blocks, spanning centimeters. “Towards the Comprehensive Mapping of Normal and Pathological Brain Mechanisms” Ed Boyden presentation slide. Photo by: Karina Mendoza.
Image: Time: Millisecond timescale electrical and chemical events “Towards the Comprehensive Mapping of Normal and Pathological Brain Mechanisms” Ed Boyden presentation slide. Photo by: Karina Mendoza.
Image: Technologies for understanding the brain: expansion microscopy, optogenetics, Tools for imaging dynamics “Towards the Comprehensive Mapping of Normal and Pathological Brain Mechanisms” Ed Boyden presentation slide. Photo by: Karina Mendoza

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Showing an image of a piece of brain tissue with different colored neurons, Boyden explained that they can color-code the neurons with jellyfish and coral proteins and expand it.

“So what we are doing is color-coding neurons. We can do this by taking proteins from jellyfish and corals and other species that glow. And you can put them into the brain in combinations and using tricks from the field of gene therapy,” Boyden said. “We want to image molecules across cells and cells across circuits. We want to find out what they’re doing all throughout the brain in order for them to pinpoint where diseases are treatable. We want to know what the biggest changes are that occur in different brain regions, and where are the earliest changes that occur.”

“Recently in the last couple of months, we’ve been pushing the machine learning front with algorithms being developed that are optimized for the tracing of these color-coded and expanded brain circuits,” he added.

Expansion Microscopy

He then went on to explain their other ground-truth engineering discovery they call expansion microscopy. It addresses the space problem of the brain, which is prohibitive because of its size and delicate nature. It is also very compact with a highly intricate network of about a hundred billion neurons. Rather than making smaller tools, this inspired Boyden to just make the brain bigger by expanding it. The analogy he uses to demonstrate expansion microscopy is the gel in the baby diaper that expands when liquid (the baby’s urine) is applied.

Describing the process, “We had to invent handles so that they would bind to the molecules that allow us to pull on them so we could move them apart from each other in an even way. So now we’ve already (created) biomolecular handles that can bind to different molecules like DNA and RNA and proteins and so forth. Then we weave this polymeric mesh like a spider web permeating the brain. We do that by a process called polymerization,” explained Boyden.

“Polymers have little white spears, have several long chains and are a spiderweb-like mesh. When those little chains encounter the handles they form a bond. The polymer expands just like the baby diaper material being added water to. Now you can have the handle to convey the force. Then we have softening agents like detergents to loosen stuff up. And then we add water, the polymer threads will swell but this time because of the handles the biomolecules will come along for the ride,” said Boyden following up with a video demonstrating the use of expansion microscopy in expanding a mouse brain.

With these two new tools available, optogenetics and expansion microscopy, scientists are now also able to color-code proteins for easy identification and differentiation, tag and label these different building blocks of life. He showed another fascinating video clip of neural action using these methods. Below is a photo of the video.

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Image: Can already image 700x-1200x faster than previous methods – Ed Boyden showing his video demonstrating optogenetics. Photo by: Karina Mendoza

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“The yellow is the fluorescent proteins filling the cells, but the magenta and blue are different proteins that are involved with neural communication, involved with synaptic exchange communication. We can label them and buy tags off the Internet that bind these selectively and deliver them into specimens. We can also bring other technologies from other fields of biology. For example, sequencing is really important. We can bring sequencing technologies directly into these expanded tissues. We can take a brain, expand it and sequence the genetic codes right there inside the piece of brain tissue. So we can sort of map out where the gene is expressed in the brain in a way that lets you pinpoint them with extraordinary precision and also lets us store the processes as it scales.”

“So expansion microscopy as we call it has become really popular. Discoveries are being announced every week. It’s really one of the most practical ways of doing 3D imaging with nano precision of molecules across scales. You really don’t even need any hardware beyond what you already have. My colleagues are packing their cellphone cameras when trying to collect pathogens,” Boyden elucidated.

These new tools are shaking up and waking up neuroscience today. What makes them even better is they’ve made them open-source, a proven strategy that fosters collaboration and growth. It is no wonder this community is electrified and empowered like never before.

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Love is in the air.

Could love be really in the air? Poppy Crum would argue, Yes. — And she might add, it’s so secret it’s BTS — Better Than Signal, the top-rated messaging app employing end-to-end encryption. But it’s not just the feeling of amoré, this goes for all other feelings, too, at least according to Poppy Crum, Ph.D. Chief Scientist, Dolby Laboratories, and Adjunct Professor, Stanford.

In her compelling presentation “Inner Lives, Outer Signals”, Crum made the case for why we should be more picky with our friends or those with whom we surround ourselves, and spend time. Why? Because people share feelings, just by being in the same room. What?

In her marmosets experiment, she learned that these small South American monkeys are social units, communicate richly, tell rich stories, which affects their biological states. The changes in these marmosets, their study concluded, affect other primates including humans.

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Image: People share feelings just by being in the same room. “Inner Lives, Outer Signals” Poppy Crum presentation slide. Photo by: Karina Mendoza

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Our breath sends out messages like confidential encrypted messengers of our emotional state. The notes are written in the chemical composition of our exhale, insights on how we are feeling, so secret no one is consciously aware of them being transmitted or received.

“We can’t underestimate the non-overt feelings that we give all the time. What is the impact of non-overt feelings when we are having an emotional experience?” Crum asserted.

“There are neural correlations in just being in the same space. Neural signals are influencing each other. Each time we are in the same space we share the feelings of others in proximity. This shows the power of the shared live experience. Just by being in the same space, we inhale and exhale chemicals from our body that affect others there. Our breath tells the story we are feeling. In the chemical composition of the room, you see the love story. There are powerful phenotypes,”

— Poppy Crum

How about devices?” We can measure the diameter of the eye that tells how engaged we are but the pupil also adjusts to the light,” she said. Which one is the eye reacting to? “Devices today are still incapable of knowing what we’re truly thinking or feeling just based on a few biometrics like the diameter of the eye,” a racing heartbeat, or body temperature.

Perhaps one day there would be wearables or room sensors that could notify us whether we’d want to stay, leave the room when we’re around other people, or even warn us even before entering a room. The question is would we want to know this much? To what extent can this be achieved? To me, this was another one of the summit’s more memorable presentations. Here’s Poppy Crum’s TED Talk that touches on this subject.

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Brain-To-Text

For someone who is “locked-in”, medical-speak for someone who is paralyzed, unable to speak, the person may sometimes even appear to be in a vegetative state but aren’t because they are aware, — might we be able to know what’s in their mind? Would we be able to communicate with them somehow?

Eddie Chang, a Jeanne Robertson Distinguished Professor and Vice-Chair of Neurological Surgery, UCSF, has been studying brain mapping and is particularly interested in decoding speech. He wants to find out how language works in the brain. “After all, our thoughts, emotions, how we relate to others, our quality of life, all rely on our ability to communicate,” Chang said.

Chang’s quest lies in finding out not only where in the brain does language exist, but more importantly, how does it work? What is the algorithm in mapping out the movement of the motor neuroscience? Chang aspires towards life articulatory encoding for all, including, those in a locked-in condition with full-thought cognition but unable to communicate.

“Can we translate knowledge that’s in the brain? Is it possible to decode speech? Can you synthesize what the person said? Are we able to reconstruct the words just by looking at the brain activity?” These are the questions Eddie Chang rhetorically asked as I, at the edge of my seat, waited with bated breath for his answer. — “Yes,” Chang finally said.

He then showed us a jaw-dropping video demonstrating the speech-synthesized experiment in the Bravo Clinical Trial, of someone who is paralyzed but can think certain words.

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Image: Brain-to-text. A paralyzed patient wearing a brain device is shown the word “Up” for him to read quietly in his mind. Photo by: Karina Mendoza
Image: Brain-to-text. From the brain waves of the paralyzed patient transmitted to the computer, the screen prints out “up” successfully matching the patient’s thought. “Decoding Speech” Eddie Chang presentation video. Photo by: Karina Mendoza
Image: Brain-to-text. A paralyzed patient wearing a brain device is shown the word “Computer” for him to read quietly in his mind. Photo by: Karina Mendoza
Image: Brain-to-text. From the brain waves of the paralyzed patient transmitted to the computer, the screen prints out “computer” successfully matching the patient’s thought. “Decoding Speech” Eddie Chang presentation video. Photo by: Karina Mendoza

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We watched in disbelief as the words given to the patient to read in her mind, in her thoughts alone, appeared one by one on the computer screen. We in the audience were utterly stunned. Hello Brain-To-Text!

Fortunately, I found it online at the UCSF Neurology channel on Youtube so I could share it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbX9FLJ6WKw | (Anumanchipalli, Chartier, Chang UCSF Department of Neurological Surgery Appeared in Nature on April 24, 2019.)

Another breathtaking presentation. Astounding.

“Although I cannot move and I have to speak through a computer, in my mind I am free.”

– Hawking

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Cultivate resilience to keep depression at bay.

The leading cause of health burden in the US, according to Manpreet Singh MD, MS Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University is depression.

He proposed studying the brain to find out who will be and won’t be resilient, who will develop depression. If we can figure out the predisposition before the onset of symptoms, who are at-risk, Singh claims this allows intervention at an opportune window. “We need to move beyond the traditional method that is focused on the symptoms,” Singh said, echoing the sentiment of several other speakers at the summit.

Singh suggests cultivating pro-social behaviors, communication skills, problem-solving skills starting in the family setting before going out into the social setting. “How do we move from transactional to transformational? We need preemptive interventions. If we can predict it we can prevent it,” argued Singh. He thinks cultivating resilience at the earliest possible stage will be the most potential impact. “Stronger brain connectivity predicts resilient outcomes,” Singh said.

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Wiring our brains

Nick Melosh shared his work in BCIs — another of today’s more talked about issues ever since the news that went viral when Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg in 2016 and 2017 respectively made announcements of their projects in the highly controversial technology. Whether it’s Facebook’s “brain-typing” technology, so that people could post to the social network “directly” from their cerebra, Musk’s diminutive Bluetooth-enabled Neuralink, DARPA’s portfolio of well-funded BCI startups, the subject of BCIs is highly provocative, charged with emotions anywhere from nervous disbelief to down-right chilling.

Nick Melosh, Ph.D., Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Stanford University in his talk titled “CMOS to Mind, Merging Computers and Brains” identified two main problems in making BCIs. He did, however, say that they’ve already solved the first one, and are now on to solving the second problem, the total size problem.

Problem 1: Bleeding at the insertion of the probe. The earlier versions of brain electrodes had the undesirable effect of bleeding upon insertion. After several iterations, they got them thin enough so they didn’t rupture blood vessels. This was at a thickness of 20 microns. At this size, the electrode displaces parts of the brain where it is passed, not ruptures. To imagine the diameter of 20 microns, a human hair is about 40 microns to 120 microns. Copy paper thickness is about 100 microns.

Problem 2: Scaling. “Plastic connectors are still very bulky,” Melosh said. No one will want to go walking around town or hopping into a subway with a device on top of their head the size of half a brick.” In this case, size most definitely matters. They are still working on making the whole piece smaller.

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Image: “CMOS to Mind, Merging Computers and Brains” Nick Melosh presentation slide. Photo by Karina Mendoza

“Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.”

— Elon Musk, at the World Government Summit in Dubai, Feb. 2017

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Intermezzo

Both days were wonderfully optimized, even at lunch. As our bodies were fed with a tasty and healthy fare of tofu, chicken or salmon out in a relaxing garden al-fresco setting, I thought it was well-thought-out and befitting that our minds were nourished as well. There was a selection of thought-provoking discussion tables to choose from so guests can break bread with a speaker and their special topic du jour among fellow like-minded guests. All Breakout Discussions’ topics and speakers looked intriguing that I even considered table-hopping.

I decided to join Anil K. Seth, DPhil Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, Co-Director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science who talked about “Being You”. I got to ask Seth one question: “With more IoT Internet of Things devices in this faster and ever more interconnected world we live in, devices that are increasingly becoming more intelligent, powered by AI that is becoming more and more intelligent and powerful, where would my consciousness be? Would it be where I am physically? Or would it be in that far-away remote village in another continent where my IoT device (or drone) is through which I am looking around, hearing, maybe even feeling (via haptic signals)? Seth posited, “The nature of this experience would be similar to an out of body experience, but consciousness is tied to our embodiment as an organism. Your consciousness is and would remain where your body is.” But … my consciousness was suddenly filled with more questions, a flurry of questions.

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Image: Breakout Discussion with Speaker Lunch. “Being You” with Anil Seth

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Alas, lunch was over and it was time to head back into the auditorium for more learning, which was not a bad idea at all. But still, Seth’s answer didn’t fully satisfy my curiosity, which now grew even bigger. I look forward to continuing this interesting discussion with him someday.

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Babies brains are like lanterns — Adult brains, spotlights

“Consciousness narrows as a function of age. As we know more, we see less.”

— Alison Gopnik and Alvy Ray Smith

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Image: Consciousness narrows as a function of age, As we know more, we see less. — Alison Gopnik & Alvy Ray Smith. “Why Babies Are More Conscious Than We Are” Alison Gopnik presentation slide. Photo by Karina Mendoza

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Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Affiliate Professor of Philosophy, UC Berkeley in her talk “Why Babies Are More Conscious Than We Are” gave the analogy of luminosity of light to compare the brain of a baby to the brain of an adult. Infant brains are like lanterns, and adult brains are like spotlights. Babies minds are open to anything they perceive. What we adults would call “bugs”, or “noise”, they do not. Babies are curious about anything and everything.

We, adults, tune, filter, censor out these bugs and noisiness that studies have revealed are important to babies’ viability. Babies’ natural “randomness, risk-taking, impulsivity, play, curiosity, …” fire up their brains much more than adults, thereby learning more, and more rapidly in their mental development stage of high plasticity.

It’s interesting to learn that psychedelics can return the adult brain to a child-like state, back into a neurological state of plasticity found in childhood. — It is the “Oh Wow!” effect of someone who took psilocybin, Gopnik said, illustrating her point.

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Image: Psychedelic effects on the brain mirror childhood exploration. Ly et al. Cell 2018, “Why Babies Are More Conscious Than We Are” Alison Gopnik presentation slide. Photo by Karina Mendoza

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Great minds like that of Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs manifested marvel throughout their lives because of their incessant childlike-wonder and curiosity.

“Throughout his life, Albert Einstein would retain the intuition and the awe of a child. He never lost his sense of wonder at the magic of nature’s phenomena-magnetic fields, gravity, inertia, acceleration, light beams-which grown-ups find so commonplace. He retained the ability to hold two thoughts in his mind simultaneously, to be puzzled when they conflicted, and to marvel when he could smell an underlying unity. “People like you and me never grow old,” he wrote a friend later in life. “We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.”

― Walter Isaacson, Einstein

“Be curious, relentlessly curious. “I have no special talents,” Einstein once wrote to a friend. “I am just passionately curious.” Leonardo actually did have special talents, as did Einstein, but his distinguishing and most inspiring trait was his intense curiosity. He wanted to know what causes people to yawn, how they walk on ice in Flanders, methods for squaring a circle, what makes the aortic valve close, how light is processed in the eye and what that means for the perspective in a painting. He instructed himself to learn about the placenta of a calf, the jaw of a crocodile, the tongue of a woodpecker, the muscles of a face, the light of the moon, and the edges of shadows. Being relentlessly and randomly curious about everything around us is something that each of us can push ourselves to do, every waking hour, just as he did.”

― Walter Isaacson, Leonardo Da Vinci

“There was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment […] Steve’s final words were: OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.”

― Mona Simpson, Steve Job’s sister, A Sister’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs, NY Times

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It’s complicated!

That seems to be a unanimous appraisal of the brain, echoed once more by Dawid Pogeiter DPhil Senior Program Officer, Head of Program Management, Templeton World Charity Foundation a key financial supporter of BrainMind. He hears and understands the clamor for more information, for clarity and agreement, and implementations.

“I am not a scientist but am interested in the big vision,” and what could be bigger in a lot of people’s minds today than AI that’s been estimated to eat the world. “The foundational concepts for AI are related to this space,” Pogeiter said. In exploring consciousness, he is curious to find out what to study to discover new practices and treatments. Pogeiter identified three challenges that he has observed thus far: 1) Too many definitions. 2) The brain IS complicated. 3) Outdated funding mechanisms.

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Feelings, nothing more than Feelings

Antonio Damasio MD, Ph.D. would disagree with Morris Albert’s sentiment of minimizing and suppressing feelings in his old song Feelings because they are anything but ‘nothing more than feelings’. “The fundamental aspects of feelings relate to life. Feelings are conscious of necessity. They are not trivial matters,” asserts Damasio who is a Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology and Philosophy, and Director at the Brain and Creativity Institute, USC. Damasio is another deep thinker there at the summit whose interesting views reflect his multidisciplinary background into a distinct field of neuropsychology.

Imagine walking in a dark alley, you stepped on a branch you would simultaneously hear the crackling of a branch and the sound wouldn’t be anything really meaningful to you. You wouldn’t give it a second thought. But if you were walking in the same dark alley and heard a crackling of a branch but you didn’t step on any branch, you would probably immediately feel fear. You would immediately wonder in your mind who or what caused that sound, think if your life might be in danger if you are going to get attacked or hurt. You might begin to walk faster or turn to a street that has more lighting and other people in it.

“Feeling and consciousness are not usually spoken together but they should be together. There’s no way to talk about consciousness, in my view, without talking about feelings. Feelings are usually ignored, by-passed in talking about brain, mind, perception, consciousness, how we make decisions,” Damasio explained further. With regard to our body, it is usually only when something is wrong that we feel pain, for example, in our cramping stomach, throbbing headache, or jabbing toothache. However, when all is working well in our body, as it should be, we feel nothing. Our body part or our organ is not in our consciousness, but they’re there, working.

When our kidneys are ok, we don’t feel anything. There’s no action to be taken. But our body will surely let us know if we have kidney stones, a feeling so excruciatingly painful it couldn’t possibly be ignored.

“Feelings put our bodies in “homeostasis”. They are critical to maintaining life for it to be continued. Feelings are critical for this bizarre perception of what is going on in our organs, for what is going on in our being,” Damasio explained.

It is about homeostasis. Damasio mentioned the Biology jargon several times, indicative of its significance to him to his argument. For clarity, here is a definition from the biology dictionary, “Homeostasis is an organism’s process of maintaining a stable internal environment suitable for sustaining life.”

“Consciousness allows us the non-centrality of the brain. Feelings put us in line with living processes. It is tied to our evolution. Feelings and consciousness is a cooperation of neural and non-neural events,” posited Damasio.

There is a feeling of ease that sedates those in Damasio’s audience unless, of course, you are in disagreement with his thinking and ready to refute and challenge his arguments. His calm and poised demeanor, and eloquence that of a poet makes it easy to forget how much time has passed when he talks. Or was it hearing the word homeostasis multiple times that effused the subliminal semi-hypnotic side-effect?

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It’s time for paradigm shifts — New models

The last and final talk was a fireside chat with Michael McCullough and Reid Hoffman, a major supporter and one of BrainMind’s core advisors. On the topic of impact investing in the scale of an organism, startups come to mind. Failure is indeed a big part of the process. It is because of this that new models, new mindsets, paradigm shifts need to take place. Radical shifts require radical thrust, or “terraforming” the landscape as McCullough put it. It is foolish to squander precious time, talent and resources to continue on ineffective pathways. For what BrainMind is endeavoring to accomplish, the rewards are worth the risk. “There will be failure,” Hoffman said, but “failure will be fertilizer for the field.”

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Image: Reid Hoffman, BrainMind core advisor and major sponsor, and Michael McCullough, BrainMind co-founder in a fireside chat. Photo by Karina Mendoza

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“There will be failure — but failure will be fertilizer for the field.”

– Reid Hoffman

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There were ‘more creative’ sessions aptly intermingled between the mind-boggling to break the intensity of the talks. Delightfully unexpected, the otherworldly music and astounding visual arts were remarkable and memorable as they were soothing and calming; like the mesmerizing microscopic brain photographs in Neuronal Micrography by Andrew Paul Leonard, the renderings of a monkey’s mind with a special twist of letting the monkey’s neurons select their own stimuli to evolve unique, distinct ethereal images by Wu Xiao, and “paintings” of reflections of the mind being guided into theta, into a dream turning thoughts into reality recorded using EEG by Grace Ng. The brain-refreshing meditations by Hui Qi Tong and Daniel Siegel, and breathing and stretching exercises by Qi-Gong by Guan-Cheng Sun and William Spear were paradoxically relaxing at the same time energizing.

The summit was wrapped up by a performance by quick-witted rapper Baba Brinkman who brought the house down with his just-made recap of the just-ended summit in rap.

All in all the BrainMind Summit — Stanford event was one wonderful takeaway. All of it — wonderful people with wonderful ideas with wonderful energy, individually and collectively, wonderfully connecting in splendid synchrony in lovely autumn days at Stanford’s beautiful grounds. Everyone gathered at Pampas in Palo Alto for the evening reception for more belonging and awe. The neuroscientist Christof Koch cast his colorful character’s quirky brilliance to an enchanted crowd. Another bright star in the field of neuroscience, Koch gave his remarks officially opening Consciousness Day, which happened the very next day.

BrainMind Summits are open to members of the BrainMind ecosystem. Each event is invitation-only, one must apply to participate. It is highly curated through and through, from the agenda, the topics, speakers as well as attendees, each one there bearing their own torch and sharing their own light, adding brilliance, luminosity, and warmth to the whole community.

Magic happened at BrainMind Summit — Stanford felt by many, including myself. I’m proud of my affiliation as a member of this world-class organization. I am an unabashed advocate for it now.

I hope to see some of you at BrainMind — Cambridge 2020!

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Image: Emily Angelopoulos, researcher, and Ricci Lam, engineer, of Advanced Brain Monitoring one of brain tech companies explaining their exciting neurodiagnostic device B-Alert wireless EEG system, at BrainMind Summit’s Experiential NeuroLab
Image: An attendee wearing a brain-mind-body interfacing device by Intheon and Christian Kothe CTO showing attendee his brain activity in real-time. After the session, the EEG/biosignal recording was uploaded to the cloud and the report is sent to the participant. Intheon was one of the neuro device companies demoing their inventions at BrainMind Summit’s Experiential NeuroLab.
Cover Image: A still photo of my brain that I took during my live, real-time 3d brain scanning session with Intheon at BrainMind Summit — Stanford.
Image: A still photo I took during the live, real-time 3d scan of my brain by Intheon zoomed-in. They emailed me the complete report from the recording after a couple of days.

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