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I am Writing a scifi story. Is my hypothetical neuron at least plausible?

  1. Nov 2, 2009 #1
    I'm writing a scifi story about a human undergoing rapid evolution due to his being repeatedly "connected" to an alien biological machine,that would be controlling the evolution through some kind of program.

    one of the changes would be a "master" cell that was able to regulate clusters of neurons from a distance. It would be able to selectively "turn off" other neurons in the brain through a targeted electromagnetic pulse. The idea is that it would act like transcranial magnetic stimulation only far more sophisticated. Leading to far more complex interactions between the cells.

    It would lack the ability to receive input from neurotransmitters but would still be powered by a voltage gradient. Perhaps, input would come from a magnetite core that detected surrounding electrical activity and then responded based on some biological algorithm. Output could be produced by ferrite?

    My biggest concern is that it would be impossible for a cell to produce a powerful enough pulse to effect change at distances greater then what could be achieved by a normal neuron with dendrites.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 3, 2009 #2
    Since individual organisms can not evolve, at least in any technical sense of the word that I am aware of, it already appears that you are not terribly concerned with scientific accuracy. It makes no sense to refer to the evolution of a single animal because evolution by definition functions through natural selection and natural selection can not occur within a single animal. I suppose you could hypothesize that neurons are being "selected for" within the brain but even this makes little sense and is not evolution as it is understood today.

    Without differing statistical survival of multiple organisms possessing slightly different genomes, the process of evolution can not occur.

    I am going to address this point from a biology perspective (not an electromagnetism physics perspective) but before I do I will summarize right away: do whatever you like as long as you don't break any laws of thermodynamics, because predicting the distant technological future is basically NEVER going to be plausible.

    Even more so than manmade technology, it is EXTREMELY UNLIKELY to IMPOSSIBLE to speak seriously about predicting evolutionary progress. What I mean by this is simple and can be explained in two points.

    1. If you currently used the most sophisticated engineering known to man today and invested all resources, money, and minds on the planet into achieving the objective of, for example, creating an artificial brain, you would fail, and you would fail HARD. Without using pre-existing materials and blueprints and equipment (DNA, cells, and a womb) we still cannot even duplicate something we have billions of copies to work from. Eventually this WILL change, but my point is that our current ignorance of biology is astounding.

    2. I can not think of a single case where a cursory glance at a knee joint or an elbow or a retina or ANY evolved structure in ANY species revealed inefficient functionality for the environment the organism was in. Certainly genetic engineering has worked in the sense that we can predict what environment or properties will be desirable FOR HUMANS and try to nudge organisms in that direction using pre-existing evolved structures, but we have never produced a "superior version" of something that evolved naturally FOR THE SAME PURPOSE. We have forced selection of plants that are better at feeding us and cows that are better at producing milk but we have NEVER encountered any such species that NATURALLY evolved for this purpose. We have never produced a plant or animal BETTER at surviving on its own and that is because evolution is VASTLY SUPERIOR at such things. Our entire ability to think and have a functioning brain is precisely the result of evolution laying down the law and saying, through statistical dominance of various changes, "homo sapien brains are so far the best possible for keeping a reproducing animal alive." We are completely unable to grasp how to improve on current designs precisely BECAUSE of our ignorance and complete lack of experience in this area.

    Taking the above points together, what I'm trying to say is this:
    You have to have some balls to say that neurotransmitters are going to be replaced. You have to have some balls to say ANY given thing you can think of will "[lead] to far more complex interactions between the cells" when we do not even currently understand how complex interactions between cells are. Cells are powered by energy, not a "voltage gradient," and require a dizzying array of astronomically complex molecules and physics to achieve their proper signaling patterns. They are hardly just wires or magnets with a voltage supply. To think that you can imagine at a detailed scientific level how to create something better than the most advanced structure produced from billions of years of evolution is ballsy.
    You may be right, but you may be laughably wrong, and this will be true regardless of how rigorous or physically possible any particular process you seek to describe is. Currently there is no way to answer a question such as "what will a more evolved human brain be like?" even assuming you had all the parameters of the future environment.
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2009
  4. Nov 4, 2009 #3
    You can essentially ignore everything that mk12 wrote if you change a single premise in your original question. Mk12 is correct about the evolution parts etc, bc as he stated evolution is a change in the total genetic material of a population of organisms, not in a single cell or organism. If you rewrite it to say that a human is undergoing rapid DIRECTED MUTATION, instead of rapid evolution, then your story can really take off with fewer limitations.

    To mk12, you're fricken harsh lol. But there are a couple points you made i'd like to address:

    "I can not think of a single case where a cursory glance at a knee joint or an elbow or a retina or ANY evolved structure in ANY species revealed inefficient functionality for the environment the organism was in."

    - To this i'd ask you why then do some species go extinct, why does natural selection occur at all if there are never inefficient structures or mutations arising? Environments change, and when they do, many organ systems, cell functionalities, etc., cease to work in their intended or optimal capacity. For example, the appendix, or the fact that the mammalian eye has a blind spot because the optic nerve blocks out a small portion of the field of view. These examples aren't ones where the organs have been rendered useless necessarily, but they are valid counterexamples to your statement that there are no inefficiencies in functionality among evolutionary products.

    Lastly, to mihna- keep it up, your ideas are yours, and if all else fails, throw your character through a wormhole into another universe or alternative dimension where the rules are different, and work for your story :-) It is science fiction writing you're pursuing afterall, not science fact :-)
  5. Nov 8, 2009 #4

    "natural selection can not occur within a single animal"

    Can you elaborate?
    Last edited: Nov 8, 2009
  6. Nov 10, 2009 #5
    I am going to ignore the current debate on the technicalities of the term "evolution," and its relation to individual members in a species, since this can be easily solved without further critique or encouragement.

    Now, I'd like to refer you to motor units and the alpha motor neuron in the motor unit. Remember that there are many neurons that have capabilities to control other neurons. If you just need a master cell, why not have on connected to when interneurons? Primary neurons do have the capabilities to control which interneurons to send information to. I believe that that is the simpler method of approach, and would require less explanantion.

    Not many people are knowledgable about electromagnetic theory, whereas more people are knowledgable about basic cellular neuroscience. It would be beneficial to attempt to tone the requirement of knowledge down a little.
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