by Robbie Gonzalez

THE SHAPE ON the screen appears only briefly—just long enough for the test subject to commit it to memory. At the same time, an electrical signal snakes past the bony perimeter of her skull, down through a warm layer of grey matter toward a batch of electrodes near the center of her brain. Zap zap zap they go, in a carefully orchestrated pattern of pulses. The picture disappears from the screen. A minute later, it reappears, this time beside a handful of other abstract images. The patient pauses, recognizes the shape, then points to it with her finger.

What she’s doing is remarkable, not for what she remembers, but for how well she remembers. On average, she and seven other test subjects perform 37 percent better at the memory game with the brain pulses than they do without—making them the first humans on Earth to experience the memory-boosting benefits of a tailored neural prosthesis.

If you want to get technical, the brain-booster in question is a “closed-loop hippocampal neural prosthesis.” Closed loop because the signals passing between each patient’s brain and the computer to which it’s attached are zipping back and forth in near-real-time. Hippocampal because those signals start and end inside the test subject’s hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped region of the brain critical to the formation of memories. “We’re looking at how the neurons in this region fire when memories are encoded and prepared for storage,” says Robert Hampson, a neuroscientist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and lead author of the paper describing the experiment in the latest issue of the Journal of Neural Engineering.

By distinguishing the patterns associated with successfully encoded memories from unsuccessful ones, he and his colleagues have developed a system that improves test subjects’ performance on visual memory tasks. “What we’ve been able to do is identify what makes a correct pattern, what makes an error pattern, and use microvolt level electrical stimulations to strengthen the correct patterns. What that has resulted in is an improvement of memory recall in tests of episodic memory.” Translation: They’ve improved short-term memory by zapping patients’ brains with individualized patterns of electricity.

Today, their proof-of-concept prosthetic lives outside a patient’s head and connects to the brain via wires. But in the future, Hampson hopes, surgeons could implant a similar apparatus entirely within a person’s skull, like a neural pacemaker. It could augment all manner of brain functions—not just in victims of dementia and brain injury, but healthy individuals, as well.

If the possibility of a neuroprosthetic future strikes you as far-fetched, consider how far Hampson has come already. He’s been studying the formation of memories in the hippocampus since the 1980s. Then, about two decades ago, he connected with University of Southern California neural engineer Theodore Berger, who had been working on ways to model hippocampal activity mathematically. The two have been collaborating ever since. In the early aughts, they demonstrated the potential of a neuroprosthesis in slices of brain tissue. In 2011 they did it in live rats. A couple years later, they pulled it off in live monkeys. Now, at long last, they’ve done it in people.

“In one sense, that makes this prosthesis a culmination,” Hampson says. “But in another sense, it’s just the beginning. Human memory is such a complex process, and there is so much left to learn. We’re only at the edge of understanding it.”

To test their system in human subjects, the researchers recruited people with epilepsy; those patients already had electrodes implanted in their hippocampi to monitor for seizure-related electrical activity. By piggybacking on the diagnostic hardware, Hampson and his colleagues were able to record, and later deliver, electrical activity.

You see, the researchers weren’t just zapping their subjects’ brains willy nilly. They determined where and when to deliver stimulation by first recording activity in the hippocampus as each test subject performed the visual memory test described above. It’s an assessment of working memory—the short-term mental storage bin you use to stash, say, a two-factor authentication code, only to retrieve it seconds later.

All the while, electrodes were recording the brain’s activity, tracking the firing patterns in the hippocampus when the patient guessed right and wrong. From those patterns, Berger, together with USC biomedical engineer Dong Song, created a mathematical model that could predict how neurons in each subject’s hippocampus would fire during successful memory-formation. And if you can predict that activity, that means you can stimulate the brain to mimic that memory formation.

Stimulating the patients’ hippocampi had a similar effect on longer-term memory retention—like your ability to remember where you parked when you leave the grocery store. In a second test, Hampson’s team introduced a 30- to 60-minute delay between displaying an image and asking the subjects to pull it out of a lineup. On average, test subjects performed 35 percent better in the stimulated trials.

The effect came as a shock to the researchers. “We weren’t surprised to see improvement, because we’d had success in our preliminary animal studies. We were surprised by the amount of improvement,” Hampson says. “We could tell, as we were running the patients, that they were performing better. But we didn’t appreciate how much better until we went back and analyzed the results.”

The results have impressed other researchers, as well. “The loss of one’s memories and the ability to encode new memories is devastating—we are who we are because of the memories we have formed throughout our lifetimes,” Rob Malenka, a psychiatrist and neurologist at Stanford University who was unaffiliated with the study, said via email. In that light, he says, “this very exciting neural prosthetic approach, which borders on science fiction, has great potential value. (Malenka has expressed cautious optimism about neuroprosthetic research in the past, noting as recently as 2015 that the translation of the technology from animal to human subjects would constitute “a huge leap.”) However, he says, it’s important to be remain clear-headed. “This kind of approach is certainly worth pursuing with vigor but I think it will still be decades before this kind of approach will ever be used routinely in large numbers of patient populations.”

Then again, with enough support, it could happen sooner than that. Facebook is working on brain computer interfaces; so is Elon Musk. Berger himself briefly served as the chief science officer of Kernel, an ambitious neurotechnology startup led by entrepreneur Bryan Johnson. “Initially, I was very hopeful about working with Bryan,” Berger says now. “We were both excited about the possibility of the work, and he was willing to put in the kind of money that would be required to see it thrive.”

But the partnership crumbled, right in the middle of Kernel’s first clinical test. Berger declines to go into details, except to say that Johnson—either out of hubris or ignorance—wanted to move too fast. (Johnson declined to comment for this story.)



Linguists from Lund University in Sweden have discovered a previously undocumented language — a perfect example of why field research is so important in the social sciences. Only spoken by about 280 people in northern Peninsular Malaysia, this language includes a “rich vocabulary of words to describe exchanging and sharing,” according to researchers Niclas Burenhult and Joanne Yager, who published their findings in the journal Linguistic Typology.

Burenhult and Yager discovered the language while surveying for a subproject of the DOBES (Documentation of Endangered Languages) initiative. Under the Tongues of the Samang project, they were looking for language data from various speakers of the Asilan language.

They named the new language Jedek. “Jedek is not a language spoken by an unknown tribe in the jungle, as you would perhaps imagine, but in a village previously studied by anthropologists. As linguists, we had a different set of questions and found something that the anthropologists missed,” Burenhult, an associate professor of general linguistics, said in a university release.

The people who speak Jedek are settled hunter-gatherers, and their language may influence — or reflect — other aspects of their culture. As detailed by the linguists, “There are no indigenous verbs to denote ownership such as borrow, steal, buy or sell, but there is a rich vocabulary of words to describe exchanging and sharing.”

The community in which Jedek is spoken is different in other ways than just sharing versus owning. It’s more gender-equal than Western societies, according to the linguists. They also report that there are no professions; everyone knows how to do everything. “There are no indigenous words for occupations or for courts of law. There is almost no interpersonal violence, they consciously encourage their children not to compete, and there are no laws or courts.”

By Brandon Specktor

Imagine your least-favorite world leader. (Take as much time as you need.)

Now, imagine if that person wasn’t a human, but a network of millions of computers around the world. This digi-dictator has instant access to every scrap of recorded information about every person who’s ever lived. It can make millions of calculations in a fraction of a second, controls the world’s economy and weapons systems with godlike autonomy and — scariest of all — can never, ever die.

This unkillable digital dictator, according to Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, is one of the darker scenarios awaiting humankind’s future if artificial-intelligence research continues without serious regulation.

“We are rapidly headed toward digital superintelligence that far exceeds any human, I think it’s pretty obvious,” Musk said in a new AI documentary called “Do You Trust This Computer?” directed by Chris Paine (who interviewed Musk previously for the documentary “Who Killed The Electric Car?”). “If one company or a small group of people manages to develop godlike digital super-intelligence, they could take over the world.”

Humans have tried to take over the world before. However, an authoritarian AI would have one terrible advantage over like-minded humans, Musk said.

“At least when there’s an evil dictator, that human is going to die,” Musk added. “But for an AI there would be no death. It would live forever, and then you’d have an immortal dictator, from which we could never escape.”

And, this hypothetical AI-dictator wouldn’t even have to be evil to pose a threat to humans, Musk added. All it has to be is determined.

“If AI has a goal and humanity just happens to be in the way, it will destroy humanity as a matter of course without even thinking about it. No hard feelings,” Musk said. “It’s just like, if we’re building a road, and an anthill happens to be in the way. We don’t hate ants, we’re just building a road. So, goodbye, anthill.”

Those who follow news from the Musk-verse will not be surprised by his opinions in the new documentary; the tech mogul has long been a vocal critic of unchecked artificial intelligence. In 2014, Musk called AI humanity’s “biggest existential threat,” and in 2015, he joined a handful of other tech luminaries and researchers, including Stephen Hawking, to urge the United Nations to ban killer robots. He has said unregulated AI poses “vastly more risk than North Korea” and proposed starting some sort of federal oversight program to monitor the technology’s growth.

“Public risks require public oversight,” he tweeted. “Getting rid of the FAA [wouldn’t] make flying safer. They’re there for good reason.”

Roughly the same number of new nerve cells (dots) exist in the hippocampus of people in their 20s (three hippocampi shown, top row) as in people in their 70s (bottom). Blue marks the dentate gyrus, where new nerve cells are born.


Healthy people in their 70s have just as many young nerve cells, or neurons, in a memory-related part of the brain as do teenagers and young adults, researchers report in the April 5 Cell Stem Cell. The discovery suggests that the hippocampus keeps generating new neurons throughout a person’s life.

The finding contradicts a study published in March, which suggested that neurogenesis in the hippocampus stops in childhood (SN Online: 3/8/18). But the new research fits with a larger pile of evidence showing that adult human brains can, to some extent, make new neurons. While those studies indicate that the process tapers off over time, the new study proposes almost no decline at all.

Understanding how healthy brains change over time is important for researchers untangling the ways that conditions like depression, stress and memory loss affect older brains.

When it comes to studying neurogenesis in humans, “the devil is in the details,” says Jonas Frisén, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm who was not involved in the new research. Small differences in methodology — such as the way brains are preserved or how neurons are counted — can have a big impact on the results, which could explain the conflicting findings. The new paper “is the most rigorous study yet,” he says.

Researchers studied hippocampi from the autopsied brains of 17 men and 11 women ranging in age from 14 to 79. In contrast to past studies that have often relied on donations from patients without a detailed medical history, the researchers knew that none of the donors had a history of psychiatric illness or chronic illness. And none of the brains tested positive for drugs or alcohol, says Maura Boldrini, a psychiatrist at Columbia University. Boldrini and her colleagues also had access to whole hippocampi, rather than just a few slices, allowing the team to make more accurate estimates of the number of neurons, she says.

To look for signs of neurogenesis, the researchers hunted for specific proteins produced by neurons at particular stages of development. Proteins such as GFAP and SOX2, for example, are made in abundance by stem cells that eventually turn into neurons, while newborn neurons make more of proteins such as Ki-67. In all of the brains, the researchers found evidence of newborn neurons in the dentate gyrus, the part of the hippocampus where neurons are born.

Although the number of neural stem cells was a bit lower in people in their 70s compared with people in their 20s, the older brains still had thousands of these cells. The number of young neurons in intermediate to advanced stages of development was the same across people of all ages.

Still, the healthy older brains did show some signs of decline. Researchers found less evidence for the formation of new blood vessels and fewer protein markers that signal neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to make new connections between neurons. But it’s too soon to say what these findings mean for brain function, Boldrini says. Studies on autopsied brains can look at structure but not activity.

Not all neuroscientists are convinced by the findings. “We don’t think that what they are identifying as young neurons actually are,” says Arturo Alvarez-Buylla of the University of California, San Francisco, who coauthored the recent paper that found no signs of neurogenesis in adult brains. In his study, some of the cells his team initially flagged as young neurons turned out to be mature cells upon further investigation.

But others say the new findings are sound. “They use very sophisticated methodology,” Frisén says, and control for factors that Alvarez-Buylla’s study didn’t, such as the type of preservative used on the brains.

M. Boldrini et al. Human hippocampal neurogenesis persists throughout aging. Cell Stem Cell. Vol. 22, April 5, 2018, p. 589. doi:10.1016/j.stem.2018.03.015.

S.F. Sorrells et al. Human hippocampal neurogenesis drops sharply in children to undetectable levels in adults. Nature. Vol. 555, March 15, 2018, p. 377. doi: 10.1038/nature25975.

Right now, dozens of train cars carrying 10 million pounds of poop are stranded in a rural Alabama rail yard. Technically it’s biowaste, but to the 982 residents in the small town of Parrish, that’s just semantics.

They want it gone. The load has been there for almost two months, and it’s making the whole place smell like a rotting animal carcass.

To add insult to injury, it isn’t even their poop. For the last year, waste management facilities in New York and one in New Jersey have been shipping tons of biowaste — literally, tons — to Big Sky Environmental, a private landfill in Adamsville, Alabama. But in January, the neighboring town of West Jefferson filed an injunction against Big Sky to keep the sludge from being stored in a nearby rail yard.

It was successful — but as a result, the poo already in transit got moved to Parrish, where there are no zoning laws to prevent the waste from being stored.

‘God help us if it gets hot’

Parrish Mayor Heather Hall said she is doing everything in her power to get the feculent freight out of her town.

“It’s so frustrating,” Hall said. Last week, Hall met with Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, and she and other Montgomery lawmakers told Hall they would help get it sorted out. “They’re trying to work behind the scenes to get us a little bit of help, but we’ve been told that for weeks, and there’s still no solution.”

Hall said the stench permeates everything. The rail yard is across from a baseball field and next to a softball field. Parrish only measures about 2 square miles, and pretty much everything is within smelling distance.

“It greatly reduces the quality of life,” Hall said. “You can’t sit out on your porch. Kids can’t go outside and play, and God help us if it gets hot and this material is still out here.” On Tuesday, when Hall spoke to CNN, the temperature in Parrish reached 81 degrees.

“You can’t open your door because that stuff gets in your house. It’s really rough,” Parrish resident Robert Hall told CNN affiliate WVTM. Other residents said the waste smelled like dead bodies.

‘Is that not a public health issue?’

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management have both told Hall the material isn’t dangerous, because it’s supposed to be Grade A biowaste, not raw sewage (which is also the reason for the unique smell).

She’s willing to take them at their word, but that doesn’t mean she and other Parrish residents aren’t concerned.

“Other than it smelling absolutely terrible, I have to trust them that it’s not going to hurt you,” she said. “But if you have asthma or COPD or breathing problems, what is that going to do to you? [The rail yard] is probably less than 50 yards away from homes. What happens if flies get into someone’s house? Is that not a public health issue?”

Hall said her colleagues in the capital city of Montgomery have asked her not to file an injunction against the landfill, not that it would be a smart idea anyway; if they went to court over the matter, the other matter would just sit there, stinking up Parrish, until the trial was over.

‘They keep telling us the situation is almost over’

So, in short, nobody knows when the poop will be moved.

“I’m just getting little bits and pieces of information, and I cannot tell you how frustrating it is,” Hall said. “My understanding is, they are really trying to work on the problem, and they keep telling us the situation is almost over.”

Hall hasn’t been in contact with Big Sky for a few weeks. When she first spoke to the company, when the cars of waste were just beginning to be stockpiled in Parrish’s rail yard, they told her it would take seven to 10 days to move them out. That was two months ago.

CNN contacted Big Sky and is waiting to receive comment.

Parrish isn’t the only town on the waste route that has been dealing with the fetid fallout. According to, residents in Birmingham were livid when at least 80 train cars full of the sludge came to a stop in their city in January.

Hall said, at one point, there were 252 tractor-trailer loads of the stuff stockpiled in her town.

“People need to understand that this waste does not need to be in a populated area,” she said. “There are places to put it, industrial places. We’re a very small town caught in the middle of this, and I feel like that’s part of the issue here. This shouldn’t be happening.”

Train Carrying 10 Million Pounds of Human Feces Has Been Stranded in Alabama Town For Months

Thanks to Teresa Lindley for bringing this to the It’s Interesting Community.


“Zombie-like” raccoons have taken over an Ohio town. This isn’t the inevitable re-boot of Night of the Living Dead, though, or another Walking Dead spin-off. Instead, it’s an eery invasion that has authorities looking for answers.

Police in Youngstown, Ohio, have responded to over a dozen calls from concerned humans who have spotted raccoons behaving very strangely, according to local news outlet WKBN. The raccoons were seen popping up onto their hind legs, baring their teeth, and then falling over in a comatose state. The animals weren’t easy to scare off, either, and seemed to have lost their natural fear of humans. If that wasn’t odd enough, the majority of the sightings and calls happened in the daytime even though raccoons are nocturnal.

Police received calls about 14 raccoons over the past three weeks, with some of the residents making the zombie comparison. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources said it doesn’t sound like rabies, but rather a disease called distemper. If this diagnosis is correct, distemper is not transmissible to humans, but can be spread to dogs who come in contact with zombie raccoons.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, distemper “attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems” of infected animals and symptoms include, “head tilt, muscle twitches … seizures, and partial or complete paralysis.” Unfortunately, the affected raccoons have to be captured and put down to prevent the disease from spreading further.

THE FIRST HUMAN brain balls—aka cortical spheroids, aka neural organoids—agglomerated into existence just a few short years ago. In the beginning, they were almost comically crude: just stem cells, chemically coerced into proto-neurons and then swirled into blobs in a salty-sweet bath. But still, they were useful for studying some of the most dramatic brain disorders, like the microcephaly caused by the Zika virus.

Then they started growing up. The simple spheres matured into 3D structures, fusing with other types of brain balls and sparking with electricity. The more like real brains they became, the more useful they were for studying complex behaviors and neurological diseases beyond the reach of animal models. And now, in their most human act yet, they’re starting to bleed.

Neural organoids don’t yet, even remotely, resemble adult brains; developmentally, they’re just pushing second trimester tissue organization. But the way Ben Waldau sees it, brain balls might be the best chance his stroke patients have at making a full recovery—and a homegrown blood supply is a big step toward that far-off goal. A blood supply carries oxygen and nutrients, allowing brain balls to grow bigger, complex networks of tissues, those that a doctor could someday use to shore up malfunctioning neurons.

“The whole idea with these organoids is to one day be able to develop a brain structure the patient has lost made with the patient’s own cells,” says Waldau, a vascular neurosurgeon at UC Davis Medical Center. “We see the injuries still there on the CT scans, but there’s nothing we can do. So many of them are left behind with permanent neural deficits—paralysis, numbness, weakness—even after surgery and physical therapy.”

Last week, it was Waldau’s group at UC Davis that published the first results of vascularized human neural organoids. Using brain membrane cells taken from one of his patients during a routine surgery, the team coaxed them first into stem cells, then some of them into the endothelial cells that line blood vessels’ insides. The stem cells they grew into brain balls, which they incubated in a gel matrix coated with those endothelial cells. After incubating for three weeks, they took a single organoid and transplanted it into a tiny cavity carefully carved into a mouse’s brain. Two weeks later the organoid was alive, well—and, critically, had grown capillaries that penetrated all the way to its inner layers.

Waldau got the idea from his work treating a rare disorder called Moyamoya disease. Patients have blocked arteries at the base of their brain, keeping blood from reaching the rest of the organ. “We sometimes lay a patient’s own artery on top of the brain to get the blood vessels to start growing in,” says Waldau. “When we replicated that process on a miniaturized scale we saw these vessels self-assemble.”

While it wasn’t clear from this experiment whether or not there was rodent blood coursing through its capillaries—the scientists had to flush them to accomplish fluorescent staining—the UC Davis team did demonstrate that the blood vessels themselves were comprised of human cells. Other research groups at the Salk Institute and the University of Pennsylvania have successfully transplanted human organoids into the brains of mice, but in both cases, blood vessels from the rodent host spontaneously grew into the transplanted tissue. When brain balls make their own blood vessels, they can potentially live much longer by hooking them up to microfluidic pumps—no rodent required.

That might give them a chance to actually mature into a complex computational organ. “It’s a big deal,” says Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, “but it’s still early days.” The next problem will be getting these cells wired into circuits that can receive and process information. “The fact that I can look out at the world and see it as spatially organized—left, right, near, far— is all due to the organization of my cortex that reflects the regularity of the world,” says Koch. “There’s nothing like that in these organoids yet.”

Not yet, maybe, but it’s not too soon to start asking what happens when they do. How large do they have to be before society has a moral mandate to provide them some kind of special protections? If an organoid comes from your cells, are you then its legal guardian? Can a brain ball give its consent to be studied?

Just last week the National Institutes of Health convened a neuroethics workshop to confront some of these thorny questions. Addressing a room filled with neuroscientists, doctors, and philosophers, Walter Koroshetz, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said the time for involving the public was now, even if the technology takes a century to become reality. “The question here is, as those cells come together to form information processing units, when do they get to the point where they’re as good as what we do now in a mouse? When does it go beyond that, to information processing you only see in a human? And what type of information processing would be to a point where you would say, ‘I don’t think we should go there’?”