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How to Get Reeled in By Neuroscience – a Mathematician’s Guide

how to get reeled in by neuroscience

What lies at the intersection of math and medicine? Why many things, of course. Certainly more than could possibly fit into a blog post! But today, I am going to talk about the connection between brain function and numbers.

My name is Natalia Díaz and I am a student of Mathematical Engineering at the University of Santiago de Chile. Ever since I can remember, I have been tantalized by mathematics and medicine (especially brain function). The opportunity to mix both subjects finally arose when I entered college. That is how Neuroscience popped into my life!

To get my degree, I must complete my internship and my thesis. That’s how I started working with my mentors Dr. Patricio Rojas (University of Santiago) and Dr. Patricio Orio (University of Valparaíso). We are investigating, through numerical simulations, the effect of the electrical synapse topology between inhibitory neurons.

For this, we use a neural mathematical model of a mixed network of inhibitory and excitatory neurons of the cerebral cortex, and we study different types of topology (“all with all” or lattice style) of connection between inhibitory neurons characterizing the patterns obtained.

For example, the figure below shows a significant difference in network synchronization using different topologies. In the first yellowy-whitish graph, there is no gap junction (electrical synapse). The second shows a gap junction with a lattice topology, and in the last one we apply a gap junction with an all-to-all topology. To plot this, we use different values for the mean synaptic strength between excitatory neurons (mGsynE) and for the mean synaptic strength between inhibitory neurons (mGsynI). Lots of abbreviations, I know. But I promise they are fun!

neuroscience math medicine
The network synchronization using different topologies of connection between inhibitory neurons.

As I was researching internship opportunities, Dr. P. Rojas told me about Backyard Brains, a go-to company for those who want to tackle neuroscience through mathematics. As for my project, I will be working on our next generation interface products. Coding Neural Interfaces for beginners can be difficult to understand, so I’ll help make the interface by testing an Ardiuno library Backyard Brains has developed, seeing how easy it is to use, trying to “break” it, and improving the documentation on the library.

This way, someone using our Arduino -based products won’t have to start from scratch as they learn to control devices like robotics, computers, musical instruments, and video games with the signals of their bodies (EOG, EMG, EKG, and EEG). My project will last until the end of January, and depending on my time, I may roll up my sleeves and get into some Python data analysis programming, a long-standing data analysis dream for the Backyard Brains team.

In my spare time (before COVID), I used to travel to my mother’s house in Pichidegua (VI Region), where we’ve always got together as a family and had a good time, as you can see in the above photo. Yes, there are many of us – try to find me! But now due to the quarantine, I have only been in Santiago, which I also love because I can spend time with my boyfriend, Luis. He is very funny, and he’s also a mathematician.


Neuroscience Pushes Autonomous Cars Forward – Backyard Brains CEO Discussion With TED & Lexus

The future of AV

Can you imagine riding on an autonomous car that knows your emotions and thoughts better than you do?

Neither can we, but our co-founder and CEO Dr. Greg Gage can, and he isn’t freaked out by the prospect. On the contrary, he’s quite optimistic about it. How come?

Human-centered technology is the keyword here. As Senior TED Fellows, Greg and artist Sarah Sandman were invited by Lexus to give their two cents on the future of AV (autonomous vehicles) operated by AI rather than humans. They both think that there is a possibility of a car that is not driven by humans yet remains human-driven – or rather, in Greg’s vision, emotion-driven!

Can a Car Feel You?

Emotions are, Greg says in his latest TED video, one of the major evolutionary inventions that we’ve developed in order to better interact with one another. A human-centered autonomous vehicle should therefore be equipped to detect not only obstacles on the road and other external signals, but also the passenger’s state of mind. Are you tired? The seat’s already lowering down into a bed and tucking you in with some chill-out music. There are sensors picking up your bodily signs such as blood pressure or EKG, so the car can give you exactly what you need before you even know you’re needing it.

This is not science fiction but merely smooth teamwork between the car’s brain and your own. It’s no secret, though, that this car – any car – will be a lot smarter than you are. But no reason to feel bad about it! If you allow it insight into your emotions, it will go one step further from technology for its own sake to technology for human sake.

The future of AV
“Does it know what it thinks it knows?” (Source: TED video)

Devices can’t read our minds just yet. But Greg doesn’t think it’ll be all doom and gloom once they learn how to do it. We reached out to him to tell us a wee bit more about the broader impact of AV that detects and interprets human emotion. “I think that advanced technology will be forced to interpret our emotional state to better communicate and make better predictions of our needs. It could even help us communicate better with other humans by modeling healthy behaviour within its interaction,” Greg told us while tinkering with the DIY beehive in his backyard. “In an autonomous car, the occupants would not be in direct control. So any detected emotional states of passengers (aggressive or otherwise) would be shielded from the control systems. I feel there could be some feedback in extreme situations, for example, if someone is in an emergency and needs to get to a doctor. But overall, this technology is mostly inward focused on the passenger’s experience.”

So the goal is to improve human-to-human interaction by way of an advanced car-to-human interplay. Plug us in!

Another thoughtleader and TED Senior Fellow, Sarah Sandman envisions a car that we’ll happily leave our homes for – one that would fulfill our social as well as physical and emotional needs. As you’re dropping your kid to school, you could be spending some quality time with them instead of keeping your eyes locked on the road. And how about having a cozy cup of coffee with other passengers instead of silently sitting next to each other on a train, everyone glued to their smartphone? Commuting could finally become communal!

If we create a human-centered artificial intelligence, we won’t have to worry about evil robots chasing us around the scorched earth as they whip us into submission. How about (re)claiming our own future instead of envisioning dystopian havoc?


Apply Now for Brain Awareness Week Outreach Grants – Cerebrate the Brain!

brain awareness week grants

Are you a member of an organization or institution committed to celebrating the wonders of the brain and bringing them from academic heights down to your local community?

If yes, now is the time to apply for Brain Awareness Week (BAW) Outreach Grants for US and Canada! Grantees will be awarded up to $1,500 that they can use to organize events and spread the love for Citizen Neuroscience to kids, adults, budding scientists, and just about any curious soul.

Brain Awareness Week Grants
Last year’s outreach event accross the Northwest: NW Noggin, an organization of brain enthusiasts, amazed kids with our very own Human-Human Interface.

Who’s Eligible for These Grants?

Any or all partners of the Dana Foundation are eligible to apply for these funds. Partnership is free but you will need to cover the cost of organizing the event. All the more reason to try and get the award to cut down on your costs!

Take a look at the list below and see if you fit any of these types of organizations:

  • K12 schools
  • Hospitals
  • Colleges and universities
  • Neuroscience & medical research organizations and facilities
  • Outreach organizations
  • Government agencies
  • Commercial organizations

But even if you don’t get a grant, Dana Foundation offers lots of FREE perks you can avail yourself of as a partner: event planning ideas and tips, promotion materials, outreach tools and calendars, handouts. The worthiest of all benefits is that you get to network or team up with other partners. (Speaking from our personal experience!)

As part of this application, you will to provide a full program of the activities you plan to organize during Brain Awareness Week, with as many details as possible. Lots of things to do, so hurry – the deadline is November 6!

What Is Brain Awareness Week?

Since its inception back in 1996, BAW has grown into a huge campaign that has so far reached 117 countries across all continents. But even though it’s a global initiative, its core impact is where it matters the most – locally. What better way to promote citizen science than to appeal to the citizens themselves?

Especially because promoting neuroscience to diverse audiences from all walks of life has never been easier and more affordable, what with all the inexpensive yet powerful electrophysiology kits such as BYB’s very own inventions! (Which have already toured the nation as part of Brain Awareness Week, by the way!)

This provides a unique opportunity to become part of the elaborate network of institutions that are all aligned with the same goal: to show the world that neuroscience IS for everyone!

As always, the campaign is scheduled for late March – or more precisely, March 15-21, 2021. But as this year taught us, not all Marches were made equal. Due to a probability of a prolonged COVID crisis, participants will be able to host their 2021 BAW events online or in-person – or both!

Celebrate or cerebrate? Why not do both at the same time!