Thursday, November 18, 2010

Neuroscience research working for you

I just attended the 40th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego. There were over 31,000 scientists there, about 20,000 of whom presented research findings.Attendees come from all over the world. I an a Charter member of the Society and attended the first and most of the other annual meetings. It is hard for "outsiders" to appreciate just how much has changed in brain research over that time. The first meeting had less than 1,000 attendees. Now the meeting is so big that only a handful of U.S. cities can host such a large meeting.

There were many papers on memory presented. Most, however, were focused on how the brain achieves memory, and a lot of that has no immediate practical application for everyday life. I keep an eye out for such papers and report them in this blog when I find it.

One paper confirmed what I already knew about teaching "old dogs new tricks."  It showed that learning of a series of items was impaired in Seniors compared to younger people, but the deficiency was overcome if the experimenters just increased the interval between presentation of items. In other words, you CAN teach old dogs new tricks, it just takes longer.

I was really excited to see that I am on the right track on my new book, due out from Springer next Spring. The book is titled "Atoms of Mind. The 'Ghost in the Machine' Materializes." A few scientists are starting to do  the kind of research I advocate in the book for the study of consciousness. While at the meeting, I got a new idea nobody has considered yet. I'll tell people about it in the book, which I am mailing off to the publisher in a week or so..

I presented a paper on why people dream. A commonly accepted idea is that we dream to consolidate memories of the preceding day's events  It is true that memory consolidation does occur in sleep, both dream and non-dream sleep. But that is not the CAUSE of either dreaming or non-dreaming sleep. It is the consequence.

The simple answer is that we dream because the brain becomes activated in what is called REM sleep. Activated brains want to think, and thinking during sleep is expressed as dreams. So the real question I addressed is why do we have REM sleep. It's a long story, but the short answer is that REM helps to re-boot a sleeping brain so that we can become awake and conscious again. My presentation was well received. I had 50 copies of handouts, and they were scarfed up in the first 30 minutes of my poster session. Lots of people left their e-mail address so I could mail them copies of the poster. Over 100 people came by the poster. And they weren't window shopping. They stayed, read it all, and discussed it with me during the time when I was attending the poster. Nobody could punch any holes in the theory. I think I have the best explanation anybody has every presented.

It has been a stimulating four days. I will need some time to unwind.


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  2. But there are other explanations for why we go into REM sleep. Like Matt Wilson at MIT pointed out, during REM the entorhinal cells of mice, or was it hippocampal? in the same order, but 20x faster (evidence of memory consolidation). So couldn't REM be argued as necessary to properly store memories rather than enabling us to wake up from deep sleep, which is, of course, supremely important.

  3. Consider, as I explain in my scholarly paper which is in review, that the need to consolidate memory is not a cause of dreaming but a consequence. I contend that we dream (and consolidate memories therein) because the brain is enabled for conscious thought by the neural processes that trigger the activated brain of the REM state.

    It will be interesting to see if scientist reviewers agree.

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