Day one and my brain is already full. Here’s the quick run-down of today.
Breakfast was good – though I do wonder if it was nutritionally scrutinized to be the optimal food for learning potential. I mean, when you’re at a neuroscience boot camp, shouldn’t they be giving us pure glucose every 20 minutes or so for our brain’s best processing?
We got a booklet of everyone who is in attendance. I have counted 19 PhDs and 8 JDs and 4 PhD candidates out of 40 participants. I feel woefully undereducated. Though, really, no one is currently a practicing neuroscientist, so I hope we’re all coming at this from a similar knowledge level about the brain and stuff like that.
Our first topic was to learn about the “unity of science” and the key conceptual advances that made brain imaging possible – notably that cognition = computation (in the broadest sense of the word). This reminded me of Seligman’s concept that humans are “pulled by the future”. Essentially, the broad sense of “computation” includes creating stories and extrapolations about what might happen. So it’s really a broad definition. This took the field beyond pure behaviouralism and into the notion that concepts like learning, memory and planning can be described in mechanistic, objective, physical terms. Hence the ability to check in with the brain on what’s going on with unobservable processes.
We got a brief history of brain imaging and how the field has moved from isolating cognitive processes to affective processes, to disaggregating subjects to determine individual differences, and now into disaggregating thoughts (which the media likes to portray as “mind reading”). I’m sure I will learn more about this as the program continues, but I’d like to state right up front that I don’t plan on buying my very own fMRI machine to be able to read anyone’s mind, so you’re all safe.
We also got a tour of the brain – the basic names of the basic bits and pieces that we should be familiar with – like the cerebral cortex, the different lobes, the hippocampus, the amygdala… I’m now on a first-name basis with my brain parts.
Next came the physics and the scientific explanation of how an MRI (or fMRI) actually work – about the magnetic field and the right-hand rule and all great things like that. I took notes. I hope there’s no quiz on this part. As another participant put it: “I don’t know how my car works, but I still drive it. If a gauge is broken, I want to know about it, but I don’t need to know how the whole thing works.”
But here are a few things I did take away about fMRI functioning, imaging and experiments:
- It measures blood flow as a proxy for neural activity – this means that if a certain part of the brain is more active, it will have increased oxygenated blood flow.
- We can only see the blood flow in a “voxel” that is approximately 3mm x 3mm x 3mm and it takes a couple of seconds for the blood flow to respond to the increased brain activity. This means that the science is pretty good, but not as granular or immediate as we might like to think. This is because we’re measuring the proxy. One day, when science can measure the brain activity directly (either by electrical or chemical changes, for example) then these restrictions and constraints may go right out the window.
- A “bold” fMRI doesn’t have any units – the measurement is only good as a relative measurement. And “bold” stands for “blood oxygen level dependent” – because that’s what you’re really measuring.
- There are two basic types of neuroimaging studies:
- forward inference studies – where you try to figure out which isolated brain area corresponds to an isolated behaviour or mental state (e.g. you get someone to express “love” and watch what part of the brain lights up)
- focal reverse inference – where you try to figure out isolated mental state provokes a certain brain activity (e.g. you watch the brain light up and determine what mental state the individual is in)
- a combination of the above (that’s the bonus one, where our instructor thinks all the good stuff is going to emerge in the next few years)
Tomorrow we get Advanced fMRI part 2 (our instructor is excellent – I’m really looking forward to this) and a field trip to a scanner (if they want volunteers, they can scan my brain!)
Now to get sleep – because I hear that’s important to learning…
To learn more about the neuroscience bootcamp in real time, tune in to their Twitter hashtag #neurobootcamp