Recording dreams from the brain – yes, it’s still a dream. But it makes a damn fine story when media frenzy and actual science meet. So let’s meet Moran Cerf, neuroscientist and storyteller.
Cerf has an entire website dedicated to this Nature study and the “yes, it’s possible” implication. The 2010 Nature paper is entitled “On-line, voluntary control of human temporal lobe neurons” (full pdf, thank you US government).
Daily life continually confronts us with an exuberance of external, sensory stimuli competing with a rich stream of internal deliberations, plans and ruminations. The brain must select one or more of these for further processing. How this competition is resolved across multiple sensory and cognitive regions is not known; nor is it clear how internal thoughts and attention regulate this competition.
Recording from single neurons in patients implanted with intracranial electrodes for clinical reasons, here we demonstrate that humans can regulate the activity of their neurons in the medial temporal lobe (MTL) to alter the outcome of the contest between external images and their internal representation. Subjects looked at a hybrid superposition of two images representing familiar individuals, landmarks, objects or animals and had to enhance one image at the expense of the other, competing one. Simultaneously, the spiking activity of their MTL neurons in different subregions and hemispheres was decoded in real time to control the content of the hybrid.
Subjects reliably regulated, often on the first trial, the firing rate of their neurons, increasing the rate of some while simultaneously decreasing the rate of others. They did so by focusing onto one image, which gradually became clearer on the computer screen in front of their eyes, and thereby overriding sensory input. On the basis of the firing of these MTL neurons, the dynamics of the competition between visual images in the subject’s mind was visualized on an external display.
And here’s the video Cerf made to promote his work. Some mad video skills! Very cool how he illustrates what his work is about, from everyday scenes to the neurosurgeons describing their work and why this research matters.
The ending quote, “Here at least idealism trumps realism,” seemed prophetic, not just about how the brain works but about how we build our own social view of what matters and what does not. And then tell stories about it.
Cerf has a fascinating recent paper with co-authors Michael Mackey and Christof Koch on Evidence for two distinct mechanisms directing gaze in natural scenes. Cerf also has a 2012 technical book available, Competition and attention in the human brain: Single neuron recordings and eye-tracking in healthy controls and subjects with neurological and psychiatric disorders.
Hat-tip to Kerim Friedman for bringing the Cerf Moth story to my attention. Here’s the direct link to The Moth Presents Moran Cerf: On Human (and) Nature. See here for more about The Moth, True Stories Told Live.