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Scientists Discover 11 Dimensional Brain Structures

  1. Jul 7, 2017 #1
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  3. Jul 7, 2017 #2

    jim mcnamara

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    I think frontiersin.org does represent a reputable online journal. If anyone knows differently please comment. I do not know enough about neuroscience to give this article a 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down'.

    One neuroscience guy, Dirac pool, commented in GD about using buzzwords and how his organization does not accept them. This might fall into the buzzword arena.
  4. Jul 7, 2017 #3


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  5. Jul 7, 2017 #4
    Clearly only someone who really knows this field will be able to grasp what this research does or doesn't mean. Given that Newsweek is mass media, it would have been nice if the reporter could have translated for the magazine's readers; however it doesn't seem likely she did very much actual reporting, as the article appears to be largely a rewrite of a press release from the Frontiers blog; the only additional material cited by Newsweek is an "email interview" with one of the study authors. Here's the press release: https://blog.frontiersin.org/2017/0...multi-dimensional-universe-in-brain-networks/

    Also annoying for sheer hype is the way in which "11 dimensional space" is implied to have some vague relation to physical space; other news outlets picking up the press release have repeated this gimmick, e.g. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/06/170612094100.htm. However someone at Wired was alert enough to catch this and offer a clarification: "It is important to understand these structures do not exist in more than three dimensions in space. Only the mathematics used to describe them uses more than three dimensions."

    Some background that seems highly relevant and also quite interesting: This study comes out of the Blue Brain Project, which is related to the European Human Brain Project; they are both the brainchilds of neuroscientist Henry Markram; he apparently founded Blue Brain in 2005 before getting funding to launch the even more ambitious HBP in 2013. Scientific American in 2015 published a lengthy article contending the HBP was a very costly disaster, but with sympathy for Markram's motives: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-the-human-brain-project-went-wrong-and-how-to-fix-it/ Wikipedia also mentions such controversy in its article on the HBP: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_Brain_Project#Criticism

    Anyway I hope folks who know this field will offer some perspective.
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2017
  6. Jul 7, 2017 #5
    Okay, it gets better (or worse, depending on how you feel about these sorts of things): Henry Markram, the guy behind Blue Brain and thus behind this study just published in Frontiers, is also . . . a co-founder of Frontiers.

    As mentioned in the "About" page at Frontiers, http://home.frontiersin.org/about/history:
    And also as mentioned (which is how I came upon it) in this long blog post about the problems at the Human Brain Project: https://forbetterscience.com/2016/07/15/the-laborious-delivery-of-markrams-brainchild/

    Kamila and Henry are husband and wife. Wikipedia, in its article on Frontiers Media, identifies Kamila as the current CEO: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frontiers_Media; this is confirmed by her bio at the company: http://loop.frontiersin.org/people/79/overview

    Probably these affiliations are well-known within the worlds of open access journals and neurobiology, but I don't know those worlds and am a little surprised. Although the study lists two reviewers, I can't help but think that publication and review done outside of Frontiers would have more credibility: when the founder of the journal is a co-author on a paper, how truly diligent is a reviewer likely to be? This is irrespective of any previously expressed concerns about Frontiers' publication and review process.
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2017
  7. Jul 8, 2017 #6
    I met Henry Markram just this last May at the IJCNN in Anchorage. I don't remember him talking about this 11 dimensional stuff. I think he gave a more staid talk in his plenary lecture. I gave a talk there too, in a concurrent session forum.

  8. Jul 8, 2017 #7
    I am the wrong person to be digging into this, since my neuroscience understanding is at the level of "picture books to be shown to infants." I have read many of the typical pop science books on the subject; also papers to do with brain function vis-a-vis vision, sleep, nociception, fatigue, etc.; but I have little math and no expertise. About the only thing I can do is Google or look in journal databases. Having said that, I did finally find a neuroscientist/blogger's reaction to this latest Blue Brain paper.

    The blogger in question is Yojan John, a researcher at the Neural Systems Laboratory, Department of Health Sciences, Boston University. He describes himself and his research on his Quora profile here, and his ResearchGate list of publications is here; typical titles include "Distinction of Neurons, Glia and Endothelial Cells in the Cerebral Cortex: An Algorithm Based on Cytological Features," Nov. 2016, "Posterior orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate pathways to the amygdala target inhibitory and excitatory systems with opposite functions," April 2017, etc. So he seems like someone who potentially could have a meaningful opinion on Blue Brain research.

    He maintains (apparently sporadically) a blog called Neurologism; and on June 21 he offered a brief critique of the "11-dimensional" Blue Brain paper, under the title "Is there a multi-dimensional universe in the brain? A case study in neurobabble." He says he wrote the critique in response to a question he was asked about the study on Quora.

    He starts with the same objection I had to the way the Frontiers press release implies that the "11 dimensions" are somehow spatial in nature:

    I was asked a question on Quora about a recent study that talked about high-dimensional ‘structures’ in the brain. It has been receiving an inordinate amount of hype, partly as a result of the journal’s own blog. Their headline reads: ‘Blue Brain Team Discovers a Multi-Dimensional Universe in Brain Networks.’ As if the reference to a ‘universe’ weren’t bad enough, the last author, Henry Markram, says the following: “We found a world that we had never imagined”.

    As will soon be clear, using words like ‘universe’ and ‘world’ in conjunction with the word ‘dimension’ creates a false impression that these researchers are dealing with spatial dimensions and/or how the brain represents them. This is simply not the case.

    He next moves on to the study. The question he got on Quora was this: "What exactly are the recently discovered multidimensional geometrical objects in the neuronal networks of the brain?" The gist of his answer is as follows; I have snipped a few paragraphs and condensed a few others (removed line endings), as well as bolding the last two sentences:

    The authors employ somewhat complex ideas from graph theory to analyze connectivity among neurons in a small segment of rat neocortex . . . dimension [in the study] just refers to the number of neurons that are connected in an all-to-all network. In the area of rat neocortex they studied, they found that 11-neuron cliques were common.

    The word dimension has a variety of meanings in mathematics and science. The idea of spatial dimension is most common: when we refer to 3D movies, this is the kind of dimension we are thinking of. The space we are familiar with has 3 dimensions, which we can think of in terms of X, Y, and Z coordinates, or in terms of up-down, left-right, and front-back directions. The dimension of a network has nothing to do with spatial dimension. Instead, it has more to do with the number of degrees of freedom in a system. In physics, the number of degrees of freedom is the number of independent parameters or quantities that uniquely define a system.​

    So really, this paper is just talking about the statistics of local neuronal connectivity. They describe their findings as surprising when compared to other statistical models. All this means is that certain connectivity patterns are more common that one might expect under certain ‘random’ models . . .​

    Outside of the narrow community of computational neuroscientists who use graph theory, these results are interesting but hardly ground-breaking. Moreover, as far as I can tell these findings have no definitive functional implications. (There are some implications for network synchrony, but in my opinion synchrony has itself not been clearly linked with higher-level concepts of function.)

    Neural network modelers assume all kinds of connectivity patterns than deviate from pure ‘randomness’, so such findings aren’t particularly surprising. So I am baffled by the hype this research is getting. It strikes me that extremely lazy science journalism has collided with opportunistic PR practices.

    Although as I say I know pretty much nothing about neuroscience as such – certainly nothing about the attempts of the Blue Brain folks & others to develop computational simulations of brain function - I would certainly agree with the last sentence above. Basically the Frontiers press release got picked up by many news outlets, the editors/reporters of which (a) probably didn't understand a word in either the press release or the study, and (b) didn't care.

    All this may go some way toward answering the quite appropriate question asked by the OP (@Greg Bernhardt) in his initial post.
    Last edited: Jul 8, 2017
  9. Jul 8, 2017 #8
    Markram is the last-named author on the study. On the other hand, the Blue Brain project wouldn't even exist if it weren't for him, so this is all his baby. The Scientific American article I mentioned in my first comment, although written by an economist, has some interesting quotes from Markram as to why he wants to build a working software brain in the first place.
  10. Jul 8, 2017 #9
    I think this blue brain project is a bunch of bullshit. I can go into details if you want. It's a huge waste of money. Why? because the relevant dynamics in brain operation is at the mesoscopic level, not the microscopic level, which is what the Blue Brain project is targeting. That is not to say that mesoscopic and macroscopic researchers such as myself will not benefit from this research, we will, but the cost of the project is mis-directed, in my opinion.
  11. Jul 8, 2017 #10
    If you have the time, yes, I would be very interested to hear more about the difference in target level that you mention. "Mesoscopic" isn't a term I've heard before, but if I look it up, e.g. at Scholarpedia, I find this:

    Mesoscopic brain dynamics usually refers to the neural activity or dynamics at intermediate scales of the nervous system, at levels between neurons and the entire brain. It is commonly considered to relate to the dynamics of cortical neural networks, typically on the spatial order of a few millimeters to centimeters, and temporally on the order of milliseconds to seconds. It is usually the type of dynamics that can be measured by methods such as ECoG (electrocorticography), EEG (electroencephalography), LFP (local field potentials) or MEG (magnetoencephalography). Indeed, the terminology can be used in relative terms, where “meso” just indicates that the scale of interest is in between the “micro” and the “macro”.​

    Reading this definition leads me to a question I hadn't thought of before. The folks at Blue Brain are very clear that their target is the brain and only the brain; this is from their About page:

    The goal of the Blue Brain Project is to build biologically detailed digital reconstructions and simulations of the rodent, and ultimately the human brain. The supercomputer-based reconstructions and simulations built by the project offer a radically new approach for understanding the multilevel structure and function of the brain.​

    But what I wonder is, what about the body? The definition of "mesoscopic" I found mentions not just the brain, but the nervous system as a whole; and my latest reading, to do with pain as a protective system (the "Explain Pain" research & education projects out of Australia & New Zealand, led by Lorimer Moseley), is very much about the functionality of the nervous system as a whole - including its interactions with other systems, e.g. the immune system etc. They are hardly alone in this; I could give many other examples of research connecting mind with body (gut, autonomic nervous system, etc.) And yet here is Blue Brain claiming that modeling the brain in isolation will allow us to "understand the biological mechanisms which give us our thoughts and emotions and which make us human." It seems half a model.
    Last edited: Jul 8, 2017
  12. Jul 9, 2017 #11


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    The neuron model I just developed for my dissertation is 10 dimensional, so a network of N neurons is technically 10N dimensions and I usually run it with 100 neurons, so 1000 dimensions! It's just the number of variables I use to encode the behavior (that represent observables like membrane potential, calcium concentration, and the activation states of the channels).
  13. Jul 10, 2017 #12
    My impression is that this is simply marketing for more research grants and media attention. If a neuron had these dimensional capabilities, why wouldn't the bundles of His or other similar cells? When we can "see" four dimensions, how would you possibly detect and prove such a claim in a living cell? What cell elements are being "lost" within or "gained" the hidden dimensions? Do prostate cells have 14 dimensions as this gland grows larger later in a man's life? Eureka!!!
  14. Jul 10, 2017 #13

    jim mcnamara

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    This has become confusing. @Pythagorean 's post indicates the dimensions are inherent in a computer model. Math. Nothing else. I once modeled the beta state of a large electric grid, with thousands of dimensions, in the sense of a vector or tensor having dimensions, not the object being modeled having physical dimensions. It is quite common to refer to the 'dimensions' of an array of objects. If you are not a programmer, you can think of them as the number of identically formatted Excel sheets in a large workbook. Not some spooky Star Trek thing.

    No other interpretation applies.
  15. Jul 10, 2017 #14
    I think we established early on in this thread (my first comment, then the "Neurologism" blog post I quoted; and now @Pythagorean's confirmation) that the 11 dimensions is to do only with the math.

    With the hype set aside, the questions were, what does the study actually say & what is the significance? The "Neurologism" excerpt gave some perspective on this as has @DiracPool.

    The only confusion that remains is why Mackram and his people are couching their research in terms of hype, given he has a heavyweight background. But that is not worth speculating about.
  16. Jul 10, 2017 #15

    jim mcnamara

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    @UsableThought - okay. But your walls of text and mine did nothing to abate other comments about dimensions. Just doing damage control. My job.
  17. Jul 11, 2017 #16

    Andy Resnick

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    The actual journal article seems reasonable enough and is based on sound science. The newsblurb, unfortunately, is garbage. For example, the phrase 'eleven dimensional' (and similar variants) appear nowhere in the journal article. Most unfortunate.
  18. Jul 11, 2017 #17
    Ignorant layman here...but the actual article body sounds a lot like an example of correlation is not causation combined with argument from ignorance. "We looked with previously unused tool..." (alarm bells clanging loudly already), "we saw some unexplained results,..." (klaxon horns thrown into the mix) "therefore it must be X..." (I'm going deaf from all the bells and alarms and the flapping of red flags waving)

    If they didn't have a hypothesis in hand when they started, wouldn't the reasonable/responsible thing to do is to go back _with_ a hypothesis, test it, and then publish that result?

    It'd be interesting to know what the energy costs of erecting one of these n dimensional structures would be. If they're required for every thought, is it even possible to supply that much energy to the brain without boiling any sensitive bits of it, or perhaps BBQing thalf the planet?
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