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Scientists Build Microscope Onto The Head Of A Rat

timothy posted about 13 years ago | from the ran-out-of-other-things-to-do dept.

Science 32

mindpixel writes: "Unisci is reporting: 'The ability to see individual neurons in detail in the brains of conscious, behaving animals seems like the stuff of science fiction. But in the current issue of Neuron, Professor Winfried Denk and colleagues report that they have done just that. In a stunning technical achievement, they have built a tiny, powerful microscope onto the head of a rat.'" This might be technically stunning, but I wonder how much the rat likes it.

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NOt very useful (1)

The1lorax (454853) | about 13 years ago | (#2362119)

I think I see something, SQUEEK, darn stop moving.

Re:NOt very useful (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 13 years ago | (#2363600)

Yeah it is. Now scientists will know what the brain looks like when thinking "Holy @#$%! Theres a microscope in my head!"

Applications to neural networks? (1)

brokenwndw (471112) | about 13 years ago | (#2362284)

I wonder what kind of use the data gathered from this experiment will have for computer scientists studying neural networks. By studying mechanisms of connection formation in the real thing, maybe we could improve the performance of computer neural networks. Of course, the opposite should hold as well, where we could better model the living brain in computers. Unfortunately, I would guess that the optical camera can't pick up on patterns of electrical activity, so we wouldn't gain insight into firing patterns as the network operates. IANA computer scientist, though; does anyone know how practical this would be?

Re:Applications to neural networks? (1)

Liquor (189040) | about 13 years ago | (#2362366)

I wonder what kind of use the data gathered from this experiment will have for computer scientists studying neural networks. By studying mechanisms of connection formation in the real thing, maybe we could improve the performance of computer neural networks. Of course, the opposite should hold as well, where we could better model the living brain in computers. Unfortunately, I would guess that the optical camera can't pick up on patterns of electrical activity, so we wouldn't gain insight into firing patterns as the network operates. IANA computer scientist, though; does anyone know how practical this would be?

I don't know if they have some other method of determining the electrical activity not mentioned in the article, but it should certainly help in determining how the brain learns to recognize patterns. Does it actually grow new neural connections, or does it just change the behaviour of an existing connection?

Presumably, they are watching an area of neurons whose function has been at least generally determines - the part of the cortex that recognizes parallel lines and similar geometric relationships perhaps - and can apply stimuli that would load or change the behaviour of that area.

For that matter, maybe the brain starts out fully connected and the learning process doesn't grow new connections, just destroys the ones that it seem to provide the wrong answers? This might even explain some politicians.........

Re:Applications to neural networks? (1)

madPatter (455303) | about 13 years ago | (#2363114)

I probably don't speak for everyone in this case, but my experience with biology inspiring artifiical intelligence is as follows:

1. Start out with something vaguely like something biological (a neural net)

2. Talk about how you're going to use the biological model because evolution is powerful.

3. Make changes to the model that don't follow the biological model because it's easier to get reasonable results quickly if you're not restrained by biological constraints.

So, in short I thought the "biology inspires AI" idea was mostly smoke and mirrrors (at least in the classes I've taken). Biology did inspire the original idea, but biology got dropped after that.

Science gone awry (1, Offtopic)

sigep_ohio (115364) | about 13 years ago | (#2362393)

this is a disgusting use of science. I honestly feel it furthers science relatively little to do this. personally i think the good doctor who put the microscope in the rats head should have put a microscope on his own ego-laden head. I don't want sound too preachy, but what right does the researchers involved have to do this to even the lowly rat.

i am disgusted to be in the same genus as the people who worked on this project.

Re:Science gone awry (2, Informative)

scanman857 (46863) | about 13 years ago | (#2362489)

> this is a disgusting use of science. I honestly feel it furthers science relatively little to do this.

Don't get your panties in a knot. This research may eventually lead to such things as complete computer simulations of human brains. (or at least animal brains.) Besides, the rat probably doesn't feel all that much pain anyway. The brain has no sense of pain or even touch.

Really? (0, Flamebait)

Monkeychunks (449273) | about 13 years ago | (#2363155)

If that's the way you feel then why don't you have the microscope implanted into your head... Don't like that do you? Neither does the rat.

Rats may not have the lavish and lengthy life that we do, but they're still entitled to live their lives the way rats do, without amoral "scientists" vivisecting them.

Besides, a rat brain is a damn sight different to a human one, and frankly unless you apply this technique to a human brain, then this "research" will lead down some potentially dangerous dark alleys, and life will have been destroyed in a useless experiment.

Re:Really? (1)

bpowell423 (208542) | about 13 years ago | (#2363317)


Get a life, man. All you tree-hugging, rat-kissing idiots should offer yourself up for scientific study. Without the ability to do experiments on animals, the ability of science to increase the quality and length of life would be severly hampered. So it's either you or the rat, or we could all go back to living in caves.

And, yes, a rat brain is different that a human one. I'd venture there are a great many similarities, too. If I was a scientist trying to figure out just what the heck neurons due anyway, I'd want to start with something simple, like a rat. Maybe if they can figure out a few things from this rat, maybe, just maybe, it'll apply to humans, too. Not that this has ever happened before in science, though.

OTOH, maybe you were being sarcastic, in which case, I'm sorry to have flamed you needlessly! :)

Re:Really? (1)

MarkusH (198450) | about 13 years ago | (#2364103)

If that's the way you feel then why don't you have the microscope implanted into your head... Don't like that do you? Neither does the rat.


You do realize of course that these are laboratory rats, specifically bred for experimentation? And that if they weren't being used as such, wouldn't be bred? Of course you did.


Besides, if I felt that it was worth it to have a microscope monitoring my brain, why wouldn't I do so? I have volunteered for scientific experiments in the past. If by doing so, a cure for some disease or a development for handicapped individuals could occur, why not?


re (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 13 years ago | (#2364585)


I mean come on, have you been vaccinated? would you take antibiotics for the disease a rat gave you? Doctors practice surgery on animals... unless you are a christian scientist i dont wanna hear any bitching.

I live in the city and rats are not friendly loving animals. I've seen rats bigger than cats and even heard a story that a rat ate an infant.
whatever, this rat was bred for scientific research anyways.

Re:Science gone awry (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 13 years ago | (#2369171)

Personally, I think we should do this all the time, just to hear the little suckers squeal.

Probing the visual cortex (2, Informative)

zardor (452852) | about 13 years ago | (#2363006)

There is an interesting article here [sciencedaily.com] that describes recent work in analysing electrical patterns in the brains of people to determine what they are looking at. Success rates were very good, at least in being able to tell what type of object the subjects were looking at.

Sick, sad science. (1, Offtopic)

Monkeychunks (449273) | about 13 years ago | (#2363203)

I am very well studied in this sort of thing, and simply put, anyone who still thinks that humankind can benefit from animal experimentation should read this site [curedisease.com] thoroughly, stick a crowbar up their ass and open up their mind. I recommend it as a site which discusses only the scientific standpoint, leaving the ethic aside (although the ethic should be enough of a reason to abolish vivisection).

What will they learn from this? Better brain surgery techniques for rats. Not humans, rats.

Do they have a right? Only if you think that "lesser" creatures only have as much right to life as it's usefulness to you. And if you think that way, then start rounding up handicapped people for the vivisection labs.

Re:Sick, sad science. (1)

bpowell423 (208542) | about 13 years ago | (#2363384)

First off, handicapped people aren't "lesser" creatures. They're human, too, just unfortunate to have a disability. So, no, I don't think we should experiment on them.

I read through part of the faq at curedisease.com, and, if they're telling the truth, then maybe there's something to that. I'd be surprised if we haven't made mistakes in the past. Last I checked, humans were doing all the science on this blue marble, and all humans are (gasp!) subject to making mistakes. Maybe we should be more careful in applying what we learn from animals to humans, but I doubt it would be in our best interest to stop research on animals entirely.

And, for the record, I do think we should use animals as necessary and prudent for the advancement of medical science.

Re:Sick, sad science. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 13 years ago | (#2364642)

I don't think you are well studied in this sort of thing... are you a doctor or some animal rights activist that only looks at the stuff that contributes to your mentality. I'm not saying all animal testing is moral, I oppose testing beauty products on animals for instance.

But I know for a fact that surgeons test transplant procedures on animals before performing on humans.

Re:Sick, sad science. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 13 years ago | (#2364884)

Testing cosmetics on animals is *very* important.

Sure, you can make a normal woman look good with a little makeup. But what about the really ugly ones? If it takes something as ugly as a rat to serve as an "ugly-baseline", then so be it. I don't want your Aunt Heifer wearing makeup that couldn't at least make a rat somewhat attractive and sexy.

Re:Sick, sad science. (4, Interesting)

dragons_flight (515217) | about 13 years ago | (#2368914)

I read through the FAQ on the site you offered, and I would say there are two significant problems with it.

1) All the examples deal with attempts to learn about and cure diseases in people. It neglects the fact that a good amount of research, such as the rat discussed, hopes to learn about a system given any environment because we've never studied it in any context. And, other times scientists really do want to learn about rats or rabbits or monkeys in question.

2) It presumes that animals are in all ways radically different than people and no results are comparable. This is patently false. Not every animal can be used for everything, but over time we learn what animals are good models for some processes. For instance the recent artificial hearts probably never would have been implanted without numerous practice surgerys on pigs, who have similar heart needs. Rabbit eyes while not perfect are a good predictor of irritation in human eyes. Failure of a drug in one animal model doesn't mean you can't try it in a different animal if you think it will give more accurate resuls.

I have actually protested (seriously!) animal research in the past, but that doesn't mean all animal research is bad. Complaining about a single rat with a microscope on its head isn't worth one's time. For instance one experiment I recently found offensive involved dozens of parakeets that were intentionally maimed, allowed to live for several more weeks and then vivisected. After reading the research reports and other documentation (it dealt with studying language acquisition), I concluded that this treatment was substantially unjustified and went after it. (The experiment is now over, though largely because it reached its natural conclusion before there was enough momentum to close it down preemptively.)

If you really want to stop ALL animal research you basically need to prove one of three points:

1) No animal research produces useful information.
2) The amount of misinformation greatly outweighs the value of any useful infomration.
3) The ethical implications of harming animals are never justifiable.

IMHO, the first two are largely false when dealing with human medicine and entirely false when the point of the research is to learn about the animal in question. The ethical point is hard to justify unless you are opposed to all medicine, or deny that the suffering/death of animals can ever be justified by improvements in the lives of people. (Not all animal experiments lead to improvements in the human condition, but at least some does.)

I am concerned for animals and have taken active stances to defend their rights, but I think blatantly opposing all forms of animal research is unrealistic and counterproductive.

sacrifice a millions rats if it will help... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 13 years ago | (#2387058)

... a single human

What they'll find in that Rats brain! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 13 years ago | (#2363255)

I wonder what types of Eggplants [eggforge.net] those neural networks comprise!

I want microscopes on my head (0)

robvasquez (411139) | about 13 years ago | (#2363557)

telescopes, microscopes, night vision, and infa-red! that'd be so cool....

Oh, I'd like a wireless interface for it, or firewire, so I can walk around with my laptop, recording what I see.

I dont get this... (1)

hhe_hee (470065) | about 13 years ago | (#2364842)

Why should this be so exciting!
They can hardly see much because it will only give an image of the surface of the brain. And also, only one little part of the surface will be visible. A brain is 3D not 2D, hope that they know that.

Why cant they just use Magnetic Resonance Imaging instead, then they doesnt even have to put stuff in the poor little rats head. Using nuclear magnetic resonance seems to me to be the only way to se things in 3D because you can scan out "slices" and put them together and so to speak get a 3D-picture of the stuff in the brain.
That would be much more easy and also more ethical.

Why MRI won't help much for this. (3, Informative)

Christopher Thomas (11717) | about 13 years ago | (#2365609)

Why cant they just use Magnetic Resonance Imaging instead, then they doesnt even have to put stuff in the poor little rats head. Using nuclear magnetic resonance seems to me to be the only way to se things in 3D because you can scan out "slices" and put them together and so to speak get a 3D-picture of the stuff in the brain.

Actually, PET (Positron Emission Tomography) and CAT (Computed Axial Tomography [via x-ray absorption scanning]) and even old-fashioned ultrasound give you 3D pictures too.

None of these are anywhere close to the resolution you'd get looking through a microscope. Great for finding tumours or looking at large-scale brain activity, and useless for looking at function on the level of individual neurons.

Even if you're looking only at surface neurons, watching neurons while they're operating in a brain will teach you one heck of a lot (especially if you hook a spectrophotometer up to the microscope and get chemical composition readouts - neurochemistry is only partly understood).

the poor little rat (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 13 years ago | (#2364846)

Man.

As much as this may be a good thing for the human race...

"And my newest creation..." (2, Funny)

waldoj (8229) | about 13 years ago | (#2367186)

"...a two-assed monkey!"

However, (1)

forsaken33 (468293) | about 13 years ago | (#2368180)

What good does having a microscope do? Im pretty sure we know what neurons look like. What would be neat is something that allows us to look at how the electrical impulses are sent and the interactions between them. Some sort of device that tracks the origin of electric signals and where they move to could be built, im sure. Of course, not having a degree in electronics or anything, i dont know how large or small this would be.


We could look and say, "Oh, it moved its leg, hmm......went from this neuron to this one........then to here...." things like that. And as far as i can imagine, thats the real mystery. But hey, everything is a step. This proves that we can make things that small, and that the animal rights people dont yell about this....yet. Shall wait and see....could be intersting.

so when are we going to see... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 13 years ago | (#2369151)


http://webcam.ratbrain.com/

"Pinky, are you thinking what I'm thinking?... (0)

pyramid termite (458232) | about 13 years ago | (#2370060)

... Wait, Pinky. According to my neuron activity monitor, you're not thinking anything at all."

www.ratbrain.com??? (1)

iainmcphersn (523791) | about 13 years ago | (#2371886)

Hmm, how long is it going to be before we have the RatCam?

Hmm... (1)

radiashun (220050) | about 13 years ago | (#2378485)

I bet PETA just loves this :-)

Sharks with lasers (2)

DeadVulcan (182139) | about 13 years ago | (#2378835)

All I want is some sharks with lasers implanted in their heads; is that too much to ask??

-- Dr. Evil

Re:Sharks with lasers (1)

One Tonna Fan Mail (524518) | about 13 years ago | (#2382194)

"Or what? You'll release the dogs? Or the bees? Or the dogs with bees in their mouths, and when they bark they shot bees at you?"
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