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08/17/1999

Brains

Brian has received e-mail on this website asking what I feel is
the most important invention of this century. That''s too tough a
question to mull over in the summer heat and drought so I
thought I would address a much easier question, namely "What is
Nature''s biggest invention ever?" To my mind, the answer is
simple - the human brain. Some might say galaxies, the Big
Bang or even life itself. I would probably opt for the latter but it
seems likely that life on a small-scale cellular level isn''t a big
deal since the chemicals to start it off are scattered around
liberally throughout the universe. Besides, cellular life sat
around here on earth for billions of years before things began to
evolve that ended up with us humans at the top of the food chain.
Just last week you may have seen articles reporting evidence for
the existence of living cells 2.7 billion years ago. At any rate, to
me the fact that our brain is able to contemplate the origins of the
universe and even its own structure and actions makes our brain
quite worthy of the best invention award.

In truth, I was prompted to write this column by the reports of
the findings on Einstein''s brain after it had been lying around on
a shelf for over 40 years. It seems that Einstein''s brain has an
unusual feature in an area called the parietal lobes. Specifically,
there is a part of the parietal lobe that normally is divided in two.
Not in Einstein''s brain, where the split is missing. In addition, his
parietal lobes were larger by 15% than in the average brain.
Appropriately, this region of the brain is the very region that
controls the ability to visualize spatial relationships. And, a great
segue, in my last column we talked about Einstein''s concepts of
spacetime and its 4-dimensional nature.

Dr. Sandra Witelson, a neuroscientist who collaborated on this
work at McMaster University in Canada, warns that her study is
not definitive since the sample size was limited (there were 90
other brains available for comparison). I don''t know of any other
geniuses whose brains are available for comparison but it will
obviously take a lot more evidence to really nail down the
conclusion that the theory of relativity is due to lack of a split in
a brain. However, when reading about acknowledged scientific
geniuses, it seems that many of them are able to visualize the
answer to a problem before they''ve done all the mathematical
calculations. This certainly belies the old fashioned perception
of the "scientific method", in which everything proceeds in an
orderly fashion. I''ve decided that my own brain definitely has
that cleavage in the parietal lobe because I''m terrible at dealing
with 3-dimensional objects and haven''t yet come up with a single
theory that has cosmic significance.

We''ve all seen articles likening the brain to one hugely efficient
computer, with our neurons behaving in a way similar to the
transistors in a computer. This analogy has some degree of truth
in it but there a hugely important difference. In a computer, we
program into it a very strict set of rules (software) for reading,
writing and processing data from the computer''s memory. These
data are stored either in the transistor circuitry or on either floppy
or hard disks as either "on" or "off" (1 or 0) states.
Unfortunately, the electronic transistor circuitry is leaky and the
RAM memory disappears when you turn off your computer;
hence the need to reboot when you turn it back on.

The brain on the other hand contains billions of neurons, each
with thousands of connections to thousands of other neurons.
Unlike in our computers, the connections aren''t "on" or "off" but
have strengths. A given connection can be weak or strong or
zero or anything in between. All kinds of scanning techniques
have been used to study the areas of the brain responsible for
different actions, memory storage, emotions, etc. By observing
which areas "light up" when a person is involved in some
activity, such things as the parietal lobe''s role in visualizing
spatial relationships have been pinned down. On a smaller scale,
trying to determine just how the individual neurons with their
myriad connections do their job through the shuttling of various
chemical and electrical signals is truly a challenge of the first
magnitude. Surprisingly, the brains of dedicated and very bright
scientists have made amazing progress in finding out how their
own and our brains work.

While the computer stores each piece of information in a specific
place, the brain stores it in various places through a pattern of
strengths of connections among thousands or hundreds of
thousands of neurons. When you see a green dill pickle, for
example, the color, the shape, the sourness and the aroma may all
be stored separately in different areas of the brain. Later, just the
taste of a bit of pickle hidden in a sandwich might invoke the
memory of all the other qualities of the pickle. Also, unlike the
computer when turned off, chances are that pickle will remain in
our memory for a lifetime.

A former colleague at Bell Labs is John Hopfield, an eminent
theoretical physicist who for a time worked with us in
understanding the origin of light emanating from gallium
phosphide, the material we used to make light emitting diodes.
John left Bell Labs to go to California and work on "neural
networks", computers employing circuits that attempt to mimic
more closely the action of the brain. Unlike our computers, these
circuits do not have a rigid set of rules and can work with
strengths of connections between "nodes", an electronic circuit
that mimics somewhat the neuron in the brain. I was impressed
by one of Hopfield''s neat examples comparing the brain''s
memory storage with that in your computer memory. He held up
a phone directory with a name and phone number listed on a
given page. Then he tore out that page and threw it away. That
name and number are gone. This is analogous to a damage to a
spot on your hard disk; information is lost or the computer may
even crash.

Hopfield then wrote that same name and number across the
edges of the pages of the phone book as you might do on a book
you treasure and want to be sure that your name is visible to
anyone tempted to "borrow" the book permanently. Now, he
tore out a page, or even several pages, and the name and number
are still clearly visible and legible. He then made the analogy to
the brain, which has this spread out storage so that the loss of a
few connections or neurons does not wipe out the entire pattern
of a given object or experience. You might have to take a little
longer to remember that fellow''s name however.

Hopfield hasn''t done too badly since leaving Bell Labs. In
addition to being made a member of the very prestigious
National Academy of Sciences, he was a recipient of one of the
MacArthur awards. You probably have read of these awards,
generally in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and granted out
of the blue with no strings attached! John is now a professor at
Princeton University. Having established that Hopfield is quite a
respected guy in the fields of theoretical physics and molecular
biology let me tell you of my greatest achievement in world of
physics. Hopfield had a formula that I was using to calculate the
energies of a multitude of spectral lines (colors) we observed in
coming out of gallium phosphide. This formula had a term that
contained a parameter, alpha, multiplied by itself 6 times, i.e., a6.
One very valuable lesson I learned at Pitt when I took Basic
Electricity from Prof. Worthing was "Always keep track of the
units." So, I kept track of the units in this formula and by golly,
the term wasn''t energy but energy times length, which didn''t
make sense. Alpha should have been multiplied by itself only 5
times, a5! Actually, the error didn''t really matter in the grand
scheme of things but Hopfield''s formula was wrong and I got to
mention it as senior author of a paper in Physical Review.
You''re right; we chemists have to get our kicks out of such silly
little things.

But back to the brain. Perhaps you saw not too long ago a report
of a study that concluded that youngsters exposed to classical
music early in life end up being smarter than those who aren''t
exposed. The theory was that the classical music stimulated
some process in the brain. As a result of this study, one governor
decided that babies in his state should be exposed to classical
music and a program was begun to introduce the proper CDs into
the maternity wards, etc. Now, the papers have an article by a
couple of different professors who say that the original
conclusion is essentially hogwash and that no such beneficial
effect exists. There obviously is a need to pursue vigorously
studies on what really controls the development of the brain in
order to intelligently design or perhaps un-design some programs
thought to encourage the lot of, for example, of disadvantaged
children.

How often have you heard that someone, perhaps you yourself,
when complaining of some kind of ailment are told that "it''s all
in your head"? I was very interested in an article I read, probably
in Discover magazine. This article dealt with the medical aspects
of those who are obviously in distress of some sort, often with
severe pain, and yet all the tests show everything is perfectly
normal. These cases are baffling to the doctors and it is often
clear that the patients themselves are indeed suffering in every
real sense. The article mentioned that one such patient
complained of having certain symptoms, as I recall, pain in the
chest and difficulty in breathing. These attacks would come and
go and all tests were normal. Then the patient had some other
problem that was quite serious and required brain surgery. While
the surgeon was probing around with his electrode or needle to
make sure he didn''t destroy anything important, the patient
suddenly had the same symptoms with severe chest pain and
difficulty breathing. When the surgeon backed off from that
location, the symptoms went away. Later in the operation, the
surgeon returned to that same area and sure enough, the chest
pain and breathing problems appeared. The observation was
quite significant, for here indeed was a case for which the
medical problem was really in the patient''s head. There have
been many cases reported for many years in which during brain
surgery, touching of certain spots in the brain causes old
memories, songs odors, etc. to return. Can diseases without
other organic causes also be stored? Not an easy question to
answer or to study!

Another item in the news recently suggests that a brain, like a
computer, has a limited storage capability and that one reason the
memory goes weaker with old age is that there just isn''t room to
store more information. This brings to mind a visit I made to one
"pi" website. If you log onto that site you not only hear a person
reciting the value of pi, which goes on forever, in French but also
learn that there is someone who apparently holds the record for
having memorized the first 40,000 digits of pi. For those who
might not remember, pi is the number you multiply the diameter
of a circle by to get the circumference of the circle. I can''t seem
to find that website again but, as I recall, it takes this person
about 8 hours to recite these 40,000 numbers and I can''t help
wondering who was able to listen to this recitation and verify the
fact that all 40,000 were correct? And could this individual have
put that storage space in his brain to better use inasmuch as the
demand for a person to recite the first 40,000 digits of pi seems
somewhat limited! I personally can only recite the first 6 digits
of pi, namely, 3.14159, and it takes me less than two seconds. I
hope you''re impressed!

Allen F. Bortrum



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-08/17/1999-      
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Dr. Bortrum

08/17/1999

Brains

Brian has received e-mail on this website asking what I feel is
the most important invention of this century. That''s too tough a
question to mull over in the summer heat and drought so I
thought I would address a much easier question, namely "What is
Nature''s biggest invention ever?" To my mind, the answer is
simple - the human brain. Some might say galaxies, the Big
Bang or even life itself. I would probably opt for the latter but it
seems likely that life on a small-scale cellular level isn''t a big
deal since the chemicals to start it off are scattered around
liberally throughout the universe. Besides, cellular life sat
around here on earth for billions of years before things began to
evolve that ended up with us humans at the top of the food chain.
Just last week you may have seen articles reporting evidence for
the existence of living cells 2.7 billion years ago. At any rate, to
me the fact that our brain is able to contemplate the origins of the
universe and even its own structure and actions makes our brain
quite worthy of the best invention award.

In truth, I was prompted to write this column by the reports of
the findings on Einstein''s brain after it had been lying around on
a shelf for over 40 years. It seems that Einstein''s brain has an
unusual feature in an area called the parietal lobes. Specifically,
there is a part of the parietal lobe that normally is divided in two.
Not in Einstein''s brain, where the split is missing. In addition, his
parietal lobes were larger by 15% than in the average brain.
Appropriately, this region of the brain is the very region that
controls the ability to visualize spatial relationships. And, a great
segue, in my last column we talked about Einstein''s concepts of
spacetime and its 4-dimensional nature.

Dr. Sandra Witelson, a neuroscientist who collaborated on this
work at McMaster University in Canada, warns that her study is
not definitive since the sample size was limited (there were 90
other brains available for comparison). I don''t know of any other
geniuses whose brains are available for comparison but it will
obviously take a lot more evidence to really nail down the
conclusion that the theory of relativity is due to lack of a split in
a brain. However, when reading about acknowledged scientific
geniuses, it seems that many of them are able to visualize the
answer to a problem before they''ve done all the mathematical
calculations. This certainly belies the old fashioned perception
of the "scientific method", in which everything proceeds in an
orderly fashion. I''ve decided that my own brain definitely has
that cleavage in the parietal lobe because I''m terrible at dealing
with 3-dimensional objects and haven''t yet come up with a single
theory that has cosmic significance.

We''ve all seen articles likening the brain to one hugely efficient
computer, with our neurons behaving in a way similar to the
transistors in a computer. This analogy has some degree of truth
in it but there a hugely important difference. In a computer, we
program into it a very strict set of rules (software) for reading,
writing and processing data from the computer''s memory. These
data are stored either in the transistor circuitry or on either floppy
or hard disks as either "on" or "off" (1 or 0) states.
Unfortunately, the electronic transistor circuitry is leaky and the
RAM memory disappears when you turn off your computer;
hence the need to reboot when you turn it back on.

The brain on the other hand contains billions of neurons, each
with thousands of connections to thousands of other neurons.
Unlike in our computers, the connections aren''t "on" or "off" but
have strengths. A given connection can be weak or strong or
zero or anything in between. All kinds of scanning techniques
have been used to study the areas of the brain responsible for
different actions, memory storage, emotions, etc. By observing
which areas "light up" when a person is involved in some
activity, such things as the parietal lobe''s role in visualizing
spatial relationships have been pinned down. On a smaller scale,
trying to determine just how the individual neurons with their
myriad connections do their job through the shuttling of various
chemical and electrical signals is truly a challenge of the first
magnitude. Surprisingly, the brains of dedicated and very bright
scientists have made amazing progress in finding out how their
own and our brains work.

While the computer stores each piece of information in a specific
place, the brain stores it in various places through a pattern of
strengths of connections among thousands or hundreds of
thousands of neurons. When you see a green dill pickle, for
example, the color, the shape, the sourness and the aroma may all
be stored separately in different areas of the brain. Later, just the
taste of a bit of pickle hidden in a sandwich might invoke the
memory of all the other qualities of the pickle. Also, unlike the
computer when turned off, chances are that pickle will remain in
our memory for a lifetime.

A former colleague at Bell Labs is John Hopfield, an eminent
theoretical physicist who for a time worked with us in
understanding the origin of light emanating from gallium
phosphide, the material we used to make light emitting diodes.
John left Bell Labs to go to California and work on "neural
networks", computers employing circuits that attempt to mimic
more closely the action of the brain. Unlike our computers, these
circuits do not have a rigid set of rules and can work with
strengths of connections between "nodes", an electronic circuit
that mimics somewhat the neuron in the brain. I was impressed
by one of Hopfield''s neat examples comparing the brain''s
memory storage with that in your computer memory. He held up
a phone directory with a name and phone number listed on a
given page. Then he tore out that page and threw it away. That
name and number are gone. This is analogous to a damage to a
spot on your hard disk; information is lost or the computer may
even crash.

Hopfield then wrote that same name and number across the
edges of the pages of the phone book as you might do on a book
you treasure and want to be sure that your name is visible to
anyone tempted to "borrow" the book permanently. Now, he
tore out a page, or even several pages, and the name and number
are still clearly visible and legible. He then made the analogy to
the brain, which has this spread out storage so that the loss of a
few connections or neurons does not wipe out the entire pattern
of a given object or experience. You might have to take a little
longer to remember that fellow''s name however.

Hopfield hasn''t done too badly since leaving Bell Labs. In
addition to being made a member of the very prestigious
National Academy of Sciences, he was a recipient of one of the
MacArthur awards. You probably have read of these awards,
generally in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and granted out
of the blue with no strings attached! John is now a professor at
Princeton University. Having established that Hopfield is quite a
respected guy in the fields of theoretical physics and molecular
biology let me tell you of my greatest achievement in world of
physics. Hopfield had a formula that I was using to calculate the
energies of a multitude of spectral lines (colors) we observed in
coming out of gallium phosphide. This formula had a term that
contained a parameter, alpha, multiplied by itself 6 times, i.e., a6.
One very valuable lesson I learned at Pitt when I took Basic
Electricity from Prof. Worthing was "Always keep track of the
units." So, I kept track of the units in this formula and by golly,
the term wasn''t energy but energy times length, which didn''t
make sense. Alpha should have been multiplied by itself only 5
times, a5! Actually, the error didn''t really matter in the grand
scheme of things but Hopfield''s formula was wrong and I got to
mention it as senior author of a paper in Physical Review.
You''re right; we chemists have to get our kicks out of such silly
little things.

But back to the brain. Perhaps you saw not too long ago a report
of a study that concluded that youngsters exposed to classical
music early in life end up being smarter than those who aren''t
exposed. The theory was that the classical music stimulated
some process in the brain. As a result of this study, one governor
decided that babies in his state should be exposed to classical
music and a program was begun to introduce the proper CDs into
the maternity wards, etc. Now, the papers have an article by a
couple of different professors who say that the original
conclusion is essentially hogwash and that no such beneficial
effect exists. There obviously is a need to pursue vigorously
studies on what really controls the development of the brain in
order to intelligently design or perhaps un-design some programs
thought to encourage the lot of, for example, of disadvantaged
children.

How often have you heard that someone, perhaps you yourself,
when complaining of some kind of ailment are told that "it''s all
in your head"? I was very interested in an article I read, probably
in Discover magazine. This article dealt with the medical aspects
of those who are obviously in distress of some sort, often with
severe pain, and yet all the tests show everything is perfectly
normal. These cases are baffling to the doctors and it is often
clear that the patients themselves are indeed suffering in every
real sense. The article mentioned that one such patient
complained of having certain symptoms, as I recall, pain in the
chest and difficulty in breathing. These attacks would come and
go and all tests were normal. Then the patient had some other
problem that was quite serious and required brain surgery. While
the surgeon was probing around with his electrode or needle to
make sure he didn''t destroy anything important, the patient
suddenly had the same symptoms with severe chest pain and
difficulty breathing. When the surgeon backed off from that
location, the symptoms went away. Later in the operation, the
surgeon returned to that same area and sure enough, the chest
pain and breathing problems appeared. The observation was
quite significant, for here indeed was a case for which the
medical problem was really in the patient''s head. There have
been many cases reported for many years in which during brain
surgery, touching of certain spots in the brain causes old
memories, songs odors, etc. to return. Can diseases without
other organic causes also be stored? Not an easy question to
answer or to study!

Another item in the news recently suggests that a brain, like a
computer, has a limited storage capability and that one reason the
memory goes weaker with old age is that there just isn''t room to
store more information. This brings to mind a visit I made to one
"pi" website. If you log onto that site you not only hear a person
reciting the value of pi, which goes on forever, in French but also
learn that there is someone who apparently holds the record for
having memorized the first 40,000 digits of pi. For those who
might not remember, pi is the number you multiply the diameter
of a circle by to get the circumference of the circle. I can''t seem
to find that website again but, as I recall, it takes this person
about 8 hours to recite these 40,000 numbers and I can''t help
wondering who was able to listen to this recitation and verify the
fact that all 40,000 were correct? And could this individual have
put that storage space in his brain to better use inasmuch as the
demand for a person to recite the first 40,000 digits of pi seems
somewhat limited! I personally can only recite the first 6 digits
of pi, namely, 3.14159, and it takes me less than two seconds. I
hope you''re impressed!

Allen F. Bortrum