Archive | July, 2018

117. The Amazing Brain: How it was made.

6 Jul

Most people know, or are at least aware of the idea, that our amazing brains were developed through biological evolution. I am going to try to make a clear explanation of this process. One approach is to make comparisons with easy to understand non-biological processes.

A manufactured product can evolve under the following conditions:
1. Consider a product such as a cell-phone, that has a high volume of sales.
2. This product can and will be improved in a number different ways.
3. After each modification, there is an objective measure of the product’s success.
4. The product is permanently modified if there are indications of its success with the public.

So, the procedure is to make and sell a specific improvement, say, a larger screen. If the larger screen sells more phones, then it will be included in all future versions. If sales are worse, then the improved version will be abandoned. In this way, the cell-phone will “evolve” and customers will enjoy better and better phones.

The key factors in this and other evolution are variation (which is persistent) and feedback related to the new features. And, of course, the feedback must have an effect on the persistence of variations.

In biological evolution, mutation (relatively permanent changes) occurs in a species as new DNA is created for offspring. The feedback is success in survival. If a change, such as a longer neck for a giraffe, helps giraffes to survive, then giraffes may “evolve” longer necks. Note, longer necks allow giraffes to reach more food. Natural selection (survival of the fittest) is the biological process, similar to customer satisfaction for the cell phones.

It is really remarkable that “nature” has created automatically self-improving objects like animals and plants. The improvements can take place without any human intervention. Every animal and plant on earth has developed, in this way, for billions of years.

.                           Amazing time leads to Amazing complexity
Now think about this: the amazing complexity of the human brain is based on an amazing amount of time, billions of years. Brains (and all other organs) have developed to a fantastic degree, because of a fantastic amount of time for this “evolution” process to take place.

I should also mention that in our world, there are many types evolution. Similar to natural biological evolution, is animal breeding. Here, the selection is NOT natural, but by humane intervention. As civilization developed, there have been remarkable changes in species to make them more desirable for human use. The clear effects of breeding are very supportive of the concept of natural evolution.

If you want to develop your understanding of brain evolution, do an Internet search on the words “animal nervous systems” or “animal brains” and look at the images. This will help you to see the progression. After the transition from single-celled to multi-cellular animals, rudimentary nervous systems appeared. These provided simple two-cell reflexes based on an input (sensory neuron) and an output (motor neuron). Eventually, more neurons were added to the processing and finally complex brains appeared. Some of this nervous system development is well
understood, but there is still very much to learn.

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116. Brain Complexity

5 Jul

In my Blog-114, I provide some information on brain micro-structure:
“Our nervous system is composed of billions of nerves with around 150 trillion interconnections called synapses, and other connection variations. Further, each synapse (which functions like a transistor) has a complicated and variable structure. The nerve cells, their branching structures, and connections, provide all of our simple and complex behaviors.”

In my study of neuron science, I often see proposals and conjectures
regarding total brain simulations, and even the transfer of stored brain info
to a gigantic computer as a way of prolonging life. One speculator proposes that a person’s intellect could continue after death.

My study of all these conjectures suggests that the writers do not
appreciate the size and levels of brain complexity. My assessment is that
our current and future knowledge will not be capable of producing any
such copying or sizable transfer. Perhaps in 400 or 500 years different viewpoints will be more acceptable.

What follows is a further description and clarification of brain complexity.

A computer has transistors, diodes, resistors, conducting wires and other electronic components that function in concert to provide logic, control,
computation, sensory systems, memory, and information transfer over a
distance.

Analogous systems in the brain are various types of connections between
nerve cells, and elongated cell structures (axons) that are like transmission
wires. The electrical pulse that is mostly used for communication over a distance
is the “action potential.”

I could include, here, a few relevant pictures, but to really see most of
the known variations just use your browser to search “nerve cells” and also
“gap junctions.” (click “images” at top of page). Many of the pictures are
very current and show an amazing variety of structures.

There are two types of connection: chemical (synapses) and electrical (gap-junctions). The terminology can be a little inconsistent but the principles are clear. Neurons have (separate) sending and receiving points. For cells A and B to communicate, a sending point (terminal) of cell A must be in very close proximity to a receiving point (receptor site) for cell B. If the connection is a chemical synapse then the sending point of cell A sends transmitter chemicals across the gap to neuron B receptor. Sending is triggered by an electrical signal (action potential) that causes the release of a chemical (transmitter). The receiving point (or receptor) generates a transmittable signal when enough transmitter is received. Transmission can be excitatory (producing action potentials) or inhibitory (preventing action potentials). Some examples of common neuro-transmitters are acetylcholine, epinephrine, GABA, ATP, and Serotonin. There are about 25 different known transmitters.

Electrical connections between nerve cells operate similarly, except that the
excitation is more direct and transmitter chemicals are not used. Gap junctions
mediate electrical excitation by opening gates that allow the passage of ions.
Ions are tiny charged particles (atoms or molecules) that function in transmission. There can also be transferred electrical excitation without specific gap-junction structures, if parts of cells are making actual contact.

Further functioning (and more complexity) is related to the number of sending points that simultaneously contact a single receptor. A single nerve cell (neuron) could have hundreds of sending and receiving contacts and direct ommunication with many other cells.

Another layer of complexity is that there are many transmitter chemicals and countless substances that can affect the transmitters and the transmission process. Some of these excitatory or inhibitory substances in the brain are there naturally, and can depend on what you eat and your activities. There are also a multitude of drugs that can affect transmission in a multitude of ways.

All animal brains have specific structures and a very sophisticated organization.
Synaptic receptor sites (the receiving points) can have a variety of properties
depending on DNA coding and also actual usage. The extent of excitation by
sending points (pre-synaptic terminals) can be relatively fixed or variable.
In some situations, receiving points (postsynaptic sites) can produce a stream
of action potentials, or just one or two. If a synapse is used repeatedly,
transmission could be enhanced or inhibited, depending on a number of
temporal and chemical factors. Depending on usage, a receptor site could
store information that alters its performance — a “memory” function.

From the discussion above, you can see that there are numerous devices in
the brain that function as “logic.” The brain has common “and-gates”,
“or-gates”, “nor-gates” and many other types of gating to use in programming all of the fantastic abilities we enjoy. Much of the logic used by our brains is similar to that used in our computers. But brain logic has a far greater variation and is
really a combination of digital and analog systems. Information in a computer
is generally a universal pulse of a fixed voltage. In brains, information takes many forms including pulses, graded potentials, ion movements, and the presence or absence of a great number of chemicals. In computers, memory is achieved by manipulating magnetic and electrical properties of tiny bits of matter. In brains, some methods of storage are known and others are the subject of reasearch. It is likely that much of memory has to do with long-term facilitation (or inhibition) in synaptic transfer. There is much research on molecular structures that are altered to provide long-term information storage.

Imagine trying to construct something like a biological synapse with all
the properties described above. Your constructed synapse could have a hundred excitatory and inhibitory inputs, with several different transmitter chemicals. The receptor site should be able to produce a variety of action potential rates and be capable of changes related to memory. Even the construction of one
complete synapse would be very difficult. Imagine trying to create a human
brain with 150 trillion synapses with a variety of properties, AND with an
extremely complicated and as yet unknown organization.

Scientific brain research is valuable and should be continued. But productive
lines of inquiry should be promoted while most unrealistic speculation should be
ignored or presented as science fiction.

How did this extremely complicated biological computer system called a brain
develop? In a future blog I will deal with this question.

115. Voting in Desperate Times

1 Jul

Our democracy ordinarily works in wonderful ways, but as the founding fathers anticipated, could be corrupted. It is now on a dangerous path. Republicans and their top leaders (Trump, McConnell, Ryan, etc.) are quite willing to sacrifice our ideals, integrity, and world leadership, to survive, and to support their wealthy patrons. The “desperate times” are caused by the factors described below.

In order for Republicans to survive, they feel that they must tell lies, create havoc, and engage in ruthless character assassination. An example is the many repetitions of the investigation of Hillary Clinton and Benghazi, which NEVER resulted in significant findings. The basic reason why Republicans must lie is that they cannot say “vote for us, so that our extremely rich donors can be made even richer.” They fool people by saying that their financial programs will help the middle class, but history shows that they do not. The often used “trickle-down” concept is not supported by fact (even the Pope stated this).

Below I will discuss voting, but it is important to first really define the Republican problem so that the urgency will be apparent. Here is a list of current and future dangers:

1. Alienation of our long-standing and faithful allies (example: NATO and G7 members) in favor of Russian Putin and other ruthless dictators. Difficult international decisions are best made with the support of allies.
2. Encouragement of racism through lies and false data. On two occasions, Trump provided some support for Neo-Nazis, saying “some were very fine people.”
3. Creating an ultimately unfavorable world trade policy, that is not good for us and creates world leadership openings for China and Russia. All of Trump’s tariffs were countered by foreign equivalents. The final result was a loss of many USA jobs. 
4. Shattering our reputation for honesty. World leaders never know where we stand because Trump frequently and impulsively keeps changing his mind.
5. Judicial appointments are based primarily on loyalty to Trump rather than appropriate reputation and experience.
6. Failure to seriously deal with Russian attacks on our election system and also Republican gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other election scams.
7. Failure to separate politics from the functioning of the FBI and other agencies. Inane attacks on the FBI will have long-term effects on its important functioning.
8. Abolishing government regulations that protect us from various forms of pollution, and from financial scams that are often aimed at the elderly and those poorly educated.
9. Degrading government agencies that were established to improve international relations and decisions, such as the State Department.
10. Failure to fill important offices. We lack ambassadors, judges, agency leaders and experts, etc. Republicans want to blame the Democrats, but there is a failure to present nominations, and those nominated are often unqualified and simply Trump sycophants.
11. Disorganized border procedures keep worsening and are establishing rules that will negatively affect border policy for many years. Desperate decent people that are seeking asylum are locked up like criminals and have had their children taken away. It is well-known that certain Latin American countries have been essentially taken over by criminal gangs, and that decent people have needed to escape. Some of the money spent on their jailing could have been spent on helping these desperate countries.
12. Failure to support the problem of climate-change. This could be the most serious problem in the list. Eventually millions of people may die, and the mass migrations due to changes in rainfall patterns, could be horrendous.
13. Policies that negatively affect education and science can ultimately have serious harmful effects. Every nation needs educated people and will benefit from scientific research. Republicans fear education because knowledgeable voters will see through their schemes. Science is discouraged because some manufacturers may lose a little money in doing the right thing.
14. Future Supreme Court justices could be disreputable Trump loyalists that will create laws that a majority of Americans don’t want.
15. Corruption of the Census rules likely will eliminate non-citizens from being counted. This will have a negative political impact.
16. In general, current USA policies emerge from impulsive, simplistic decisions – often by Tweets. Frequently there is little study of all possible outcomes and all relevant factors when a decision is made. The traditional and effective process for making decisions based on hearings and the knowledge of experts is ignored. An example of poor judgment is the very biased tax-cut bill, which will affect infrastructure repair and other important programs. Trump’s advisors are mostly his friends, relatives, and yes-men rather than experienced leaders in relevant fields.

Now that the very real dangers have been described, we know that the most effective way (not the only way) to deal with all these long-term dangers is by voting Trump and Republicans out of office. Voting is critical.

Voting is so important now, that we must consider certain factors. It is sad to say that voting is often based on superficial subjective features like appearance, familiarity, religion, attractiveness, speaking voice, appearance of strength, etc.
We must choose candidates that will get maximum votes.
Of course, candidates must also be intelligent, well-educated, reliable, and supportive of the best policies.
What to avoid in getting maximum votes:
1. A certain number of people will not vote for those with foreign names and accents.
2. People that appear weak. Many voters require an appearance of physical strength.
3. People that lack charisma and a really fluent speaking ability.
4. I hate to say it, but a tall, white, Christian, articulate man is optimal. No one in the USA will reject someone like this, but someone lacking some or all of these features will definitely lose some votes.

A final thought:
I must admit that when the leading Democrat candidates for the presidency were Hillary and Barack, I was worried. Still, it was a great joy for me when Barack Obama emerged, and overcame these petty limitations. (I would also have been very happy with Hillary C.)
There are some really good trends now that hopefully will prevail. For example, women are more and more capable of getting votes. I see really good leadership ability in women like Elizabeth Warren.