November 15, 2011

Mimicking the brain, in silicon

New computer chip models how neurons communicate with each other at synapses.

(November 15, 2011)  For decades, scientists have dreamed of building computer systems that could replicate the human brain’s talent for learning new tasks.

MIT researchers have now taken a major step toward that goal by designing a computer chip that mimics how the brain’s neurons adapt in response to new information. This phenomenon, known as plasticity, is believed to underlie many brain functions, including learning and memory.

With about 400 transistors, the silicon chip can simulate the activity of a single brain synapse — a connection between two neurons that allows information to flow from one to the other. The researchers anticipate this chip will help neuroscientists learn much more about how the brain works, and could also be used in neural prosthetic devices such as artificial retinas, says Chi-Sang Poon, a principal research scientist in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

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November 2, 2011

The Mind Reader

How Frank Guenther turns thoughts into words

(November 2, 2011)  For thousands of years humans have spoken. Noam Chomsky and many other linguists argue that speech is what sets Homo sapiens apart in the animal kingdom. “Speech,” wrote Aristotle, “is the representation of the mind.”

It is a complex process, the series of lightning-quick steps by which your thoughts form themselves into words and travel from your brain, via the tongue, lips, vocal folds, and jaw (together known as the articulators), to your listeners’ ears—and into their own brains.

Complex, but mappable. Over the course of two decades and countless experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other methods of data collection, neuroscientist Frank Guenther has built a computer model describing just how your brain pulls off the trick of speaking.

And the information isn’t merely fascinating. Guenther (GRS’93), a Sargent College professor of speech, language and hearing sciences, believes his model will help patients suffering from apraxia (where the desire to speak is intact, but speech production is damaged), stuttering, Lou Gehrig’s disease, throat cancer, even paralysis.

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November 1, 2011

TMC Shows New Nursing and Healthcare Robots in Tokyo

Four New Types of Robots Aimed for Commercialization from 2013

(November 1, 2011)  Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) held an event today here at its vehicle display space and theme park Mega Web to display a number of new robots developed to provide support in nursing and healthcare.  The robots form part of the Toyota Partner Robot series, which is being developed to assist humans in their everyday activities.

TMC considers Partner Robots to be useful in four fields: nursing and healthcare, short-distance personal transport, manufacturing and domestic duties.  TMC is developing technology that cooperates with humans, including devices that assist in the loading and moving of heavy components in factories, in addition to automated technology that enables autonomous tool operation.

TMC endeavors to provide the freedom of mobility to all people, and understands from its tie-ups with the Toyota Memorial Hospital and other medical facilities that there is a strong need for robots in the field of nursing and healthcare.  TMC aims to support independent living for people incapacitated through sickness or injury, while also assisting in their return to health and reducing the physical burden on caregivers.

Each robot incorporates the latest in advanced technologies developed by TMC, including high-speed, high-precision motor control technology, highly stable walking-control technology advanced through development of two-legged robots, and sensor technology that detects the user's posture as well as their grasping and holding strength.

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Hippocampus Plays Bigger Memory Role Than Previously Thought

(November 1, 2011)  Human memory has historically defied precise scientific description, its biological functions broadly but imperfectly defined in psychological terms. In a pair of papers published in the November 2 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at the University of California, San Diego report a new methodology that more deeply parses how and where certain types of memories are processed in the brain, and challenges earlier assumptions about the role of the hippocampus.

Specifically, Larry R. Squire, PhD, a Research Career scientist at the VA Medical Center, San Diego and professor of psychiatry, neurosciences, and psychology at UC San Diego, and Christine N. Smith, PhD, a project scientist, say that contrary to current thinking the hippocampus (a small seahorse-shaped structure located deep in the center of the brain and long associated with memory function) supports both recollection and familiarity memories when these memories are strong.

Recollection and familiarity memory are two components of recognition memory – the ability to identify an item as having been previously encountered. Recollection memory involves remembering specific details about a learning episode, such as where and when the episode occurred. Familiarity memory refers to remembering an item as previously encountered, but without any recall of specific details, such as recognizing someone’s face but recalling nothing else about that person (For example, where you met the person.).

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