• Bionic Brain Adaptations by Dr Jack Lewis

    luke-skywalker-arm-chopFirst I met a bona fide bionic man in Cambridge – that got me thinking about an essay I wrote whilst in my undergraduate neuroscience days. It explained, in great molecular detail, the obstacles that would have to be overcome for a robotic limb to ever adequately replace the functional repertoire of a severed one. In other words I described what it would take to do a “Luke Skywalker” (for those who actively avoid Star Wars: Luke is the hero who get his arm chopped off in a light sabre battle only to have an operation that replaces the severed limb with a fully-functional robotic one that he controls as effortlessly as the original).

    luke skywalker armSecond I flew to Kyoto – to interview the Godfather of Androids, a man who has created some of the most sophisticated human-like robots in the world. Over ten days of filming I must have come face-to-face with over a dozen robots. Each time I thought back to something that happened, totally spontaneously, during a game of Jenga with Nigel Ackland – my real life Luke Skywalker.

    Finally, Nigel performed a manouevre with his robotic arm that no human could with a mortal one. This event brought to mind a classic series of Japanese neurophysiology experiments from the lab of Professor Iriki. These studies expanded our understanding of how brains keep track of the space around us. In particular, how brains distinguish between parts of the environment that can be influenced with a extended arm (plus any tool that provides an extension), and parts that cannot (NB see in particular the original observations from 1996).

    Consequently, this month’s brain blog is dedicated to a combination of…

    Robotic Technology, Human Determination & Neuroplasticity

    neglectThe parietal cortex of the primate brain (including the human primate) is responsible for, among several other important functions, our awareness of space. For example, damage to the patch of brain tissue that resides where the parietal lobe borders its temporal and occipital lobe neighbours can lead to neglect if it occurs on the right side of the head (See the images in this free classic paper on neglect if you want to see exactly where in the brain this is) – resulting in the person’s awareness of the left side of everything being highly compromised. Give someone with neglect a piece of paper with circles drawn all over it, asking them to place a mark at the centre of each, they only mark circles on the right side of the page. Ask them to draw a clock face and they will not draw the numbers on the left side (i.e. having successfully drawn a circle and the hours from 12 to 6 on the right hand side, they’ll typically omit the hours of 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 and 11 because they lack awareness of what should be on the left side of a clock face). They will only eat food from the right side of their plate. They will often even only shave the right side of their face, dress the right side of their body. Their awareness of “leftness” has been fundamentally compromised. Such is the importance of the parietal cortex to our awareness of space.

    iriki macaqueTowards the end of the 90’s and early 00’s researchers working with Japanese macaques trained to reach for food rewards observed that certain neurons would become activated if the treat was placed within arm’s reach. If the primates were provided with a croupier’s rake (usually used in casinos to collect up chips on gambling tables) then neurons representing nearby space that was previously out of reach would become activated once they gained experience using this simple tool to drag the food rewards towards them. The researchers even took it a step further by providing two rakes, one with a short handle and one with a long handle. Neurons representing space out of reach with the short handled rake became recruited into the “network of reachable space” when the macaques figured out they could use the short rake to pull the long rake closer and then use this to drag the treat from the opposite side of the table. Keep this in mind as you read the following account of bionic brain adaptation.

    Bionic Brain Adaptation?

    Version 2Nigel Ackland is a real life bionic man since a nasty industrial accident left his arm mangled and several subsequent botched surgeries led to his decision to have his right arm amputated from the elbow down. Shortly after this operation, he started to develop pain in his phantom limb. His NHS-issued “pincer” enabled him to gain some additional dexterity, but it did little to diminish the phantom sensation of his fingers and wrist locked into an extremely uncomfortable position. However once he started using a cutting-edge bionic arm, equipped with various pre-programmed five fingered hand movements operated via neuronal signals passing from his brain to the muscles at the end of his arm stump, not only did the phantom limb pain start getting better, but the phantom limb started extending gradually from his stump into the hand and fingers of his bionic arm.

    bebionicWhilst playing Jenga with him for my new series Nigel did something quite remarkable, triggering the memory of those Japanese macaques. Reaching with his bionic arm to grab an awkwardly positioned brick, from his side of the table he could only present the back of his hand to the block he was after. Unlike the rest of us mere mortals Nigel can rotate the hand of his bionic arm at the wrist by 360 degrees. To reach the brick in question he simply rotated his hand 180 degrees to face the other way, and then grabbed the block he was after with his bionic thumb, fore- and middle fingers in the usual way. It immediately occurred to me that people with bionic limbs – who can do things a normal human limb can not – may be awakening neurons in their parietal cortex that represent areas of space that have never before been recruited into the “network of reachable space” in the history of our species. Now that is very cool.

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs, you can subscribe to my weekly science podcast (via itunes, via libsyn) and follow me on Twitter (@drjacklewis) for a daily dose of news articles describing the latest breakthroughs in brain science.

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  • Game Review: “MORE Brain Training” on the Nintendo DS

    More-Brain-Training-from-Dr-Kawashima-How-Old-Is-Your-Brain-DS-_I reviewed the first Brain Training title on the Nintendo DS a couple of years ago and, to be perfectly honest, the sequel “MORE Brain Training” a.k.a. “Brain Age 2” is not a great deal different. Dr Kawashima’s floating head is still there in its chunky pixelated glory; guiding, encouraging and chiding you throughout. Even the constant repetition that X, Y or Z game is “great for giving your prefrontal cortex a good work” out is also ever-present. I had hoped he’d get a bit more specific about which task was working out which part of the prefrontal cortex in this sequel. Especially given that, if the crinkly outer surface of the brain was increased to the size of planet earth, the prefrontal cortex would cover an area the size of North and South America put together (at least!).  Still there are a few new games, many of which bear a striking resemblance to the old ones, some are plain dull, but others really quite novel / clever. Overall I would say it is a bit tougher on the old synapses than the predecessor; which is a good thing…

    Brain Test BritainYou may be aware of fierce debate going on about the effectiveness of these games when it comes to positively influencing cognitive abilities that have:

    • a long term impact
    • that goes beyond improved performance on the specific games being played to other cognitive functions useful in daily life

    I would argue that, purely in terms of short-term arousal (Steady! In your brain.. not your pants), it is really quite effective. Based on personal experience I have found that 10-15 minutes spent taxing various mental abilities with the higher levels of any of these games is a more effective way of getting going in the morning than a slug of strong coffee. So even if the evidence does not mount up to support the claims of Lumosity, Cognifit and Torkel Klingberg regarding long term cognitive benefits for everyday people that might help them in their daily life, I think it would be pretty hard to refute the claim that challenging your brain to solve a few puzzles first thing in the morning can really help you hit the ground running each and every day.

    running raceAnyway, I digress (again). What I like about Brain Age 2 is that it is really hard; punishingly hard at times. In one game you have to keep track of a stickman’s position in a running race as other runners are overtaken / overtake you. In another your task is to keep track of blocks that pile up on each other as they fall behind a screen recalling the height of one particular column. Both are good solid working memory training games (and thus have the best potential to boost IQ; read this book for full explanation) and have a nice progression to them in that they start easy on the earlier levels, build the difficulty gradually, but soon end up challenging even the sharpest of brains.

    correct changeOther new games are not so challenging. “Days and Dates” and “Correct Change” are clearly built with the aim of developing cognitive skills that have an obvious practical application in everyday life. I suspect these might have been included to address criticisms leveled at the brain training market by suggesting that the games only help people get better at the specific task being tackled. Either way, figuring out what the day was 4 days after 2 days ago, or figuring out the correct coins to give as change if a £/€/$1.40 bill was paid with a ten pound/euro/dollar note, are a pretty dull ways to pass the time, if you ask me.

    missing symbols“Missing symbols” – adding the appropriate plus, minus, multiplication or division sign to make the sum work – verges on the dull, but the speed element keeps it challenging. You can always go faster. “Memory addition” takes mental arithmetic to the next level by having to perform a calculation but then keep one of the numbers in mind to use it in the next sum. I must admit to hissing the to-be-remembered number under my breath (recruiting the “phonological loop” aspect of working memory) so as not to get confused with the correct answer for the current sum. “Word Scramble” is cute. Solving an anagram where the letters are not just shuffled but are presented in a ring that slowly rotates. Surprisingly tough, particularly with the longer letter strings!

    masterpiece recitalAnyone who has read my review of Beat City will know I am a fan of games that involve making music. So it will come as no surprise that I think “Masterpiece Recital” is brilliant. A little bit pointless for people that actually play the piano, but great for the rest of us. You have to hit the right note on a piano keyboard as the musical score scrolls past. And you don’t have to be able to read music as it labels both the keyboard and the music notation with the appropriate letter (see left). The reason I found it so satisfying is because in the later levels the tunes are really beautiful pieces of classical music (and I’m no classical music buff, that’s for sure) plus the accompanying backing music makes even the most amateurish efforts  sound pretty good; even if you’re a bit late hitting the notes. You get marked down for this at the end, but whilst you’re in the game it very enjoyable to feel like you are actually creating such pretty music.

    Word Blend“Word Blend” is a good idea, but poorly executed. It’s loosely based on the dichotic listening test (usually different information is presented to each ear) – straight out of the psychology textbooks – whereby 2 or 3 voices simultaneously say a single word and your job is to recognize the words and write them down. Personally I just found this game irritating. Despite having the option of hearing them repeat it five times or so (but you only score points for words identified without hitting the repeat button) it can sometimes be quite impossible (for me at least) to hear one voice over the other. I suspect it is the fault of the game rather than the player because there was no improvement. So I’m either acoustically challenged, or this particular game is a bit crap.

    woman who changed her brainThe game I liked the most, despite upon first encountering it that it was a bit remedial, is a game that seemed to be inspired by exercises developed to help people overcome learning disabilities. “Determine The Time” is reminiscent of an cognitive development technique invented by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young (whose book: “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain” is as amazing as it is inspirational). She developed this simple clock reading task, first to help overcome her own difficulties learning relationships between symbols (like the relationship between the big hand and little hand of a clock) and then started to roll it out as an entry level exercise for kids and adults with learning disabilities (making a dazzling impact on improving their cognitive abilities).

    determine the timeIt quite literally involves reading the time of a clock, but the twist in this particular game is that the clockface is rotated. This requires you to do a “mental rotation task” – imagining in your mind’s eye what the clock would look like if it was the right way up – so that you can give the right answer. Such spatial rotation tasks stimulate the parietal cortex (finally something that benefits a brain area other than the prefrontal cortex!!) and, presumably, improvements in these mental rotation tasks will enable the parietal cortex to manipulate all sorts of other information in space.

    einsteins brainIncidentally, Einstein’s brain had a larger-than-normal parietal cortex and, given that this lobe is also critically involved in mathematical abilities, it is thought to account (in part at least) for his tremendous contributions to physics. As well as rotating the clock in the harder levels Dr K becomes particularly devious by mirror reflecting the images as well. So your parietal cortex has to perform two sequential transformations reflecting it back and then rotating it the right way up again. It is a very simple idea, but genuinely, in my opinion, a tremendous work out for the parietal cortex.

    Acknowledgement/Disclaimer:

    I am aware that so far the brain games I’ve reviewed are all on the Nintendo DS.  I am also conscious that it may seem that I am in some way biased in favour of the Nintendo DS. Both are perfectly reasonable observations. For the record the true reasons that, so far, I have only reviewed titles on the Nintendo DS are quite simply that a) I happen to own one, b) positive outcomes from brain training is only possible if you play it regularly and intensively and c) the smartphone I happen to own is not optimized for gameplay.

    Convenience Lends Itself To Regular Training:

    For brain training to have even the slightest chance to yield genuine benefits it must be undertaken regularly, intensely and for long periods of time. In my opinion convenience is therefore a prerequisite of any good brain training game, thus I favour options that enable people to fill dead time in their daily routine with gameplay wherever they happen to be. I am aware that there are many home computer-based brain training games but as I personally feel that when I’m at my computer I should be working, not playing games – I suspect others feel the same way. This is why I haven’t reviewed the various online brain training offerings, instead focusing on those that enable you to brain train on the move. Not only is the Nintendo DS extremely portable and therefore convenient, I also happen to own one, so it is currently my device of choice for gameplay on the move (the only time I personally get the chance to get stuck in).

    Why No Smartphone Based Brain Training Reviews?:

    I’ve been using a Blackberry for the last few years purely for the slideout keyboard which enables me to type without looking at the buttons. Once I’ve got over my distaste for touchscreen smartphone technology (I’m nearly there) I’ll start reviewing iOS / Android brain games. In light of this avowed intent I would be grateful if anybody out there would suggest any games marketed as Brain Training so I can give them the once over (rather than leaving a comment please drop me an email by clicking here instead).

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