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Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Sunday, October 20, 2013
Scientists pinpoint brain’s area for numeral recognition
BY BRUCE GOLDMAN
Jennifer Shum and Josef Parvizi led a team that identified a tiny area in the brain that processes numerals.
Scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine have determined the precise anatomical coordinates of a brain “hot spot,” measuring only about one-fifth of an inch across, that is preferentially activated when people view the ordinary numerals we learn early on in elementary school, like “6” or “38.”
Activity in this spot relative to neighboring sites drops off substantially when people are presented with numbers that are spelled out (“one” instead of “1”), homophones (“won” instead of “1”) or “false fonts,” in which a numeral or letter has been altered.
“This is the first-ever study to show the existence of a cluster of nerve cells in the human brain that specializes in processing numerals,” said Josef Parvizi, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences and director of Stanford’s Human Intracranial Cognitive Electrophysiology Program . “In this small nerve-cell population, we saw a much bigger response to numerals than to very similar-looking, similar-sounding and similar-meaning symbols.
“It’s a dramatic demonstration of our brain circuitry’s capacity to change in response to education,” he added. “No one is born with the innate ability to recognize numerals.”
The finding pries open the door to further discoveries delineating the flow of math-focused information processing in the brain. It also could have direct clinical ramifications for patients with dyslexia for numbers and with dyscalculia: the inability to process numerical information.
the inferior temporal gyrus, a superficial region of the outer cortex on the brain. The inferior temporal gyrus is already generally known to be involved in the processing of visual information.
The new study, published April 17 in the Journal of Neuroscience, builds on an earlier one in which volunteers had been challenged with math questions. “We had accumulated lots of data from that study about what parts of the brain become active when a person is focusing on arithmetic problems, but we were mostly looking elsewhere and hadn’t paid much attention to this area within the inferior temporal gyrus,” said Parvizi, who is senior author of the study.
Not, that is, until fourth-year medical student Jennifer Shum, who also is doing research in Parvizi’s lab, noticed that, among some subjects in the first study, a spot in the inferior temporal gyrus seemed to be substantially activated by math exercises. Charged with verifying that this observation was consistent from one patient to the next, Shum, the study’s lead author, reported that this was indeed the case. So, Parvizi’s team designed a new study to look into it further.
The new study relied on epileptic volunteers who, as a first step toward possible surgery to relieve unremitting seizures that weren’t responding to therapeutic drugs, had a small section of their skulls removed and electrodes applied directly to the brain’s surface. The procedure, which doesn’t destroy any brain tissue or disrupt the brain’s function, had been undertaken so that the patients could be monitored for several days to help attending neurologists find the exact location of their seizures’ origination points. While these patients are bedridden in the hospital for as much as a week of such monitoring, they are fully conscious, in no pain and, frankly, a bit bored.
Over time, Parvizi identified seven epilepsy patients with electrode coverage in or near the inferior temporal gyrus and got these patients’ consent to undergo about an hour’s worth of tests in which they would be shown images presented for very short intervals on a laptop computer screen, while activity in their brain regions covered by electrodes was recorded. Each electrode picked up activity from an area corresponding to about a half-million nerve cells (a drop in the bucket in comparison to the brain’s roughly 100 billion nerve cells).
To make sure that any numeral-responsive brain areas identified were really responding to numerals — and not just generic lines, angles and curves — these tests were carefully calibrated to distinguish brain responses to visual presentations of the classic numerals taught in Western schools, such as 3 or 50, as opposed to squiggly lines, letters of the alphabet, number-denoting words such as “three” or “fifty,” and symbols that in fact were also numerals but — because they were drawn from the Thai, Tibetan and Devanagari languages — were extremely unlikely to be recognized as such by this particular group of volunteers.
In the first test, subjects were shown series of single numerals and letters — along with false fonts, in which the component parts of numerals or letters had been scrambled but defining curves and angles were retained, and the foreign-number symbols just described. A second test, controlling for meaning and sound, included numerals and their spelled-out versions (for instance, “1” and “one,” or “3” and “three”) and other words with the same sound or a similar one (“won” and “tree,” respectively).
All of our brains are shaped slightly differently. But in almost the identical spot within each study subject’s brain, the investigators observed a significantly larger response to numerals than to similar-shaped stimuli, such as letters or scrambled letters and numerals, or to words that either meant the same as the numerals or sounded like them.
Interestingly, said Parvizi, that numeral-processing nerve-cell cluster is parked within a larger group of neurons that is activated by visual symbols that have lines with angles and curves. “These neuronal populations showed a preference for numerals compared with words that denote or sound like those numerals,” he said. “But in many cases, these sites actually responded strongly to scrambled letters or scrambled numerals. Still, within this larger pool of generic neurons, the ‘visual numeral area’ preferred real numerals to the false fonts and to same-meaning or similar-sounding words.”
It seems, Parvizi said, that “evolution has designed this brain region to detect visual stimuli such as lines intersecting at various angles — the kind of intersections a monkey has to make sense of quickly when swinging from branch to branch in a dense jungle.” The adaptation of one part of this region in service of numeracy is a beautiful intersection of culture and neurobiology, he said.
Having nailed down a specifically numeral-oriented spot in the brain, Parvizi’s lab is looking to use it in tracing the pathways described by the brain’s number-processing circuitry. “Neurons that fire together wire together,” said Shum. “We want to see how this particular area connects with and communicates with other parts of the brain.”
Method of recording brain activity could lead to 'mind-reading' devices, scientists say
BY BRUCE GOLDMAN
A brain region activated when people are asked to perform mathematical calculations in an experimental setting is similarly activated when they use numbers — or even imprecise quantitative terms, such as “more than”— in everyday conversation, according to a study by Stanford University School of Medicine scientists.
Using a novel method, the researchers collected the first solid evidence that the pattern of brain activity seen in someone performing a mathematical exercise under experimentally controlled conditions is very similar to that observed when the person engages in quantitative thought in the course of daily life.
“We’re now able to eavesdrop on the brain in real life,” said Josef Parvizi, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences and director of Stanford’s Human Intracranial Cognitive Electrophysiology Program . Parvizi is the senior author of the study, published Oct. 15 in Nature Communications. The study’s lead authors are postdoctoral scholar Mohammad Dastjerdi, MD, PhD, and graduate student Muge Ozker.
The finding could lead to “mind-reading” applications that, for example, would allow a patient who is rendered mute by a stroke to communicate via passive thinking. Conceivably, it could also lead to more dystopian outcomes: chip implants that spy on or even control people’s thoughts.
“This is exciting, and a little scary,” said Henry Greely, JD, the Deane F. and Kate Edelman Johnson Professor of Law and steering committee chair of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics , who played no role in the study but is familiar with its contents and described himself as “very impressed” by the findings. “It demonstrates, first, that we can see when someone’s dealing with numbers and, second, that we may conceivably someday be able to manipulate the brain to affect how someone deals with numbers.”
The researchers monitored electrical activity in a region of the brain called the intraparietal sulcus, known to be important in attention and eye and hand motion. Previous studies have hinted that some nerve-cell clusters in this area are also involved in numerosity, the mathematical equivalent of literacy.
However, the techniques that previous studies have used, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, are limited in their ability to study brain activity in real-life settings and to pinpoint the precise timing of nerve cells’ firing patterns. These studies have focused on testing just one specific function in one specific brain region, and have tried to eliminate or otherwise account for every possible confounding factor. In addition, the experimental subjects would have to lie more or less motionless inside a dark, tubular chamber whose silence would be punctuated by constant, loud, mechanical, banging noises while images flashed on a computer screen.
“This is not real life,” said Parvizi. “You’re not in your room, having a cup of tea and experiencing life’s events spontaneously.” A profoundly important question, he said, is: “How does a population of nerve cells that has been shown experimentally to be important in a particular function work in real life?”
His team ’s method, called intracranial recording, provided exquisite anatomical and temporal precision and allowed the scientists to monitor brain activity when people were immersed in real-life situations. Parvizi and his associates tapped into the brains of three volunteers who were being evaluated for possible surgical treatment of their recurring, drug-resistant epileptic seizures.
The procedure involves temporarily removing a portion of a patient’s skull and positioning packets of electrodes against the exposed brain surface. For up to a week, patients remain hooked up to the monitoring apparatus while the electrodes pick up electrical activity within the brain. This monitoring continues uninterrupted for patients’ entire hospital stay, capturing their inevitable repeated seizures and enabling neurologists to determine the exact spot in each patient’s brain where the seizures are originating.
During this whole time, patients remain tethered to the monitoring apparatus and mostly confined to their beds. But otherwise, except for the typical intrusions of a hospital setting, they are comfortable, free of pain and free to eat, drink, think, talk to friends and family in person or on the phone, or watch videos.
The electrodes implanted in patients’ heads are like wiretaps, each eavesdropping on a population of several hundred thousand nerve cells and reporting back to a computer.
In the study, participants’ actions were also monitored by video cameras throughout their stay. This allowed the researchers later to correlate patients’ voluntary activities in a real-life setting with nerve-cell behavior in the monitored brain region.
As part of the study, volunteers answered true/false questions that popped up on a laptop screen, one after another. Some questions required calculation — for instance, is it true or false that 2+4=5? — while others demanded what scientists call episodic memory — true or false: I had coffee at breakfast this morning. In other instances, patients were simply asked to stare at the crosshairs at the center of an otherwise blank screen to capture the brain’s so-called “resting state.”
Consistent with other studies, Parvizi’s team found that electrical activity in a particular group of nerve cells in the intraparietal sulcus spiked when, and only when, volunteers were performing calculations.
Afterward, Parvizi and his colleagues analyzed each volunteer’s daily electrode record, identified many spikes in intraparietal-sulcus activity that occurred outside experimental settings, and turned to the recorded video footage to see exactly what the volunteer had been doing when such spikes occurred.
They found that when a patient mentioned a number — or even a quantitative reference, such as “some more,” “many” or “bigger than the other one” — there was a spike of electrical activity in the same nerve-cell population of the intraparietal sulcus that was activated when the patient was doing calculations under experimental conditions.
That was an unexpected finding. “We found that this region is activated not only when reading numbers or thinking about them, but also when patients were referring more obliquely to quantities,” said Parvizi.
“These nerve cells are not firing chaotically,” he said. “They’re very specialized, active only when the subject starts thinking about numbers. When the subject is reminiscing, laughing or talking, they’re not activated.” Thus, it was possible to know, simply by consulting the electronic record of participants’ brain activity, whether they were engaged in quantitative thought during nonexperimental conditions.
Any fears of impending mind control are, at a minimum, premature, said Greely. “Practically speaking, it’s not the simplest thing in the world to go around implanting electrodes in people’s brains. It will not be done tomorrow, or easily, or surreptitiously.”
Parvizi agreed. “We’re still in early days with this,” he said. “If this is a baseball game, we’re not even in the first inning. We just got a ticket to enter the stadium.”
Saturday, October 19, 2013
India's Finance Minister P. Chidambaram speaking at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 10-19
Recapturing India's Growth Momentum
Speech by Mr.P.Chidambaram, Union Finance Minister, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Recapturing India’s Growth Momentum
|Dr. Perkovich, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Ladies and Gentlemen! |
Thank you for the invitation to speak at one of the oldest and well-regarded global think tanks. I understand Carnegie is in the midst of establishing a Carnegie South Asia Centre based in New Delhi, and I welcome that initiative. Carnegie currently has two captains of Indian industry on its Board of Directors, Shri Sunil Mittal and Shri Ratan Tata. I am glad to see these growing Carnegie-India links. One of Carnegie’s core priorities today is building a research program on India’s political economy. To this end, I gather you have recently launched your “India Decides 2014” initiative. I wish you all the best in this exercise, but may I tell you in advance that your study will discover that India will vote my government back to power. I thought I may caution you lest you should waste too much time and effort to figure this out.
Let me now turn to the topic of India’s economic growth. India’s growth story attracted the attention of the world when our economy grew at an average of 8.5 per cent per annum during the period, 2004-05 to 2010-11. This was achieved despite the strong negative spill-over effects of the global financial crisis in 2008 and subsequently. Growth slowed down in the crisis year, 2008-09, but India took the world by surprise by rebounding quickly from the slower growth of 6.7 per cent in that year to record rates of growth of 8.6 per cent in 2009-10 and 9.3 per cent in 2010-11. However, there was a further downturn in the global economy in 2011 on account of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and the subsequent slump in the World economy. We also witnessed the emergence of domestic constraints on investment and consumption. As a consequence, India’s growth rate declined again to 6.2 per cent in 2011–12 and further to 5.0 per cent in 2012-13. The increasing trade deficit and fall in net invisible earnings led to a widening of the current account deficit to USD 88 billion or 4.8 per cent of GDP in 2012-13.With a sharp slowdown in manufacturing growth and a moderation in the expansion of services, the growth in the first quarter of 2013-14 further declined to 4.4 per cent. India’s experience in this period is not unique. Virtually all the major emerging economies around the world have seen a sharp decline in growth -- the so-called Great Descent.
However, we are now seeing that some of the worst-affected countries of the Euro zone are showing signs of recovery, with significant improvements in their current account and fiscal deficits. The expectations of improvement in the economic and financial conditions of the US, coupled with the decision of the Fed to postpone the tapering of the quantitative easing, have shaped expectations of a gradual global revival. But I am aware that there may be possible ‘bumps’ on the road ahead. In line with this emerging global outlook, the Indian economy has also showed early indications of recovery with a pick-up in exports in July, August and September – our second quarter; reversal of the negative growth in manufacturing; and a reasonable rise in freight traffic, indicative of economic activity picking up. With very good rainfall in the current year and a sharp increase in the sown area, we expect robust growth in farm output. We have also taken numerous reform measures over the past one year. We expect these measures to show their impact from the second half of the current fiscal and believe that the Indian economy will grow at over 5.0 per cent and perhaps closer to 5.5 per cent in 2013-14. I know that the World Economic Outlook report does not share my optimism, but I may tell you that we do not share their pessimism. Set against the current global economic background, even a growth rate of 5.0 per cent looks good, but is much lower than the ambitious standards that we set for ourselves in 2004. I would be the first person to say that we need to do better and recapture the growth momentum of the last decade.
Macro economists maintain a very clear distinction between trend and fluctuations. The fluctuations are the function of open economy macroeconomics, of fiscal policy and of monetary policy. To understand trend growth, however, we have to look deeper. Trend growth is largely determined by the underlying microeconomic fundamentals. In the next ten minutes I wish to speak to you about the microeconomic fundamentals which have given us one doubling of our GDP every decade. In my reckoning, there are at least six main stories:
(i) Demographics. As is well known, India has young demographics. Alongside, we are doing well on improving the quality of the workforce. Household survey data (the CMIE Consumer Pyramids database) shows that for children of age 12, literacy is now 95%. We have a great surge in college enrolment: a full one-fifth of 21-year-olds now have a college degree. Every year, millions of young people are added to the labour force and their education is qualitatively superior to that of the elderly cohort leaving the labour force. We have also launched an ambitious national mission on Skilling in order to qualify young men and women with only a school education for jobs in the manufacturing and service sectors.
(ii) The second growth fundamental is international economic integration. On the current account and on the financial account, India is now engaging with the world on an unprecedented scale. Gross flows on the current account are now 63.3 per cent of GDP and gross flows on the financial account are now 55.3 per cent of GDP. These add up to gross flows across the border of 118.6 per cent of GDP. This makes India one of the more open economies of the world. Engagement with the world drives a flow of ideas into the economy, which is a growth fundamental.
(iii) The third growth fundamental is an increasingly “capable” financial system. On average, we invest 35 per cent of GDP every year. Finance is what determines the allocative efficiency of how this investment is done. What industries and what firms get is controlled by the financial system. We are taking measured steps on strengthening the financial system and taking the best that the global financial system has to offer. Every year, our financial system is getting better and stronger and, through this, we expect to translate our good investment to GDP ratio into a higher GDP growth rate. I shall speak a bit more on this in a moment.
(iv) The fourth growth fundamental is sophisticated firms. As all of you are aware, Indian firms are increasingly becoming capable and competitive. We used to think – and fear -- that if India opened up, our so-called large firms (I shall not take names) were third world dinosaurs that would collapse in the face of global competition. Instead, we have a clutch of firms in steel, oil and gas, mining, power, information technology, and hospitality that have become multinationals and are buying out companies in the advanced economies.
(v) The fifth growth fundamental is sophistication of the workforce. A young girl of age 21, who started her labour market career in 1991, now has 21 years of experience in a competitive and globalised market economy. She has dealt with modern technology, foreign companies, and a truly competitive domestic environment. The forty-somethings of India today are qualitatively superior to the older cohorts who grew up in a closed economy and did not face modern technology or foreign companies or competition.
(vi) The sixth growth fundamental - and I know this will be contested by many - is democracy. While it is fashionable to criticise the workings of Indian democracy, when we look deeper, I think it is working reasonably well. Liberal democracy is the ultimate foundation of rule of law and legal certainty, without which nobody can trust a country or invest in it. At its best, democracy is a great conversation, where diverse views and aspirations get heard, and the issues that genuinely concern the majority of the people become the priorities of policy makers. On a bigger scale of history, when we start from 1947, I think India has fared well on the project of constructing a liberal and open democracy.
To summarize, the Indian trend growth of the last 21 years was caused by several microeconomic fundamentals, and I have listed six of them. Nothing has changed on these. In fact our resolve to strengthen these fundamentals has become stronger. I believe India continues to have great prospects based on these fundamentals.
From the viewpoint of public policy, our job is to clear our minds of old cobwebs as well as of day to day problems and stay focused on laying the long-term foundations of a capable State that is able to deliver.
While India has greatly deregulated, there is much more to be done. However, looming large is the issue of State “capacity”. We need a State that has in place institutions to resolve market failures. We need a State that will deliver public goods quietly, efficiently and economically. This is the prime challenge in India today. In a liberal democracy, we need to build the full framework of laws that will clearly articulate specific objectives, empower the arms of government that will enforce these laws, and put in place mechanisms that will ensure performance and accountability.
If you believe what our newspapers and television channels report you may conclude that no Indian politician or civil servant is doing any work. Actually, the pace of work has been quite hectic. Let me illustrate this with examples of what have been done to improve the Indian financial system, only in 2013. So far, we have had four historic events. A commission of eminent people has drafted a new Indian Financial Code: a path breaking piece of law that has been drafted to replace 50 existing laws governing finance with a single, integrated, coherent, modern financial law. This is a law which dwarfs the scope of the Dodd-Frank Act. We have enacted a brand new Companies Act to replace a law that was 57 years old. We have shifted the subject of commodity futures to the Ministry of Finance, something which has not been possible in the US even after the 2008 crisis. We have enacted a law establishing the Defined Contribution Pension system under a statutory regulator. The New Pension System is already one of the world's big individual account DC pension systems with over 6 million participants.
Each of these four was a huge project involving enormous planning and preparation. The genesis of the Indian Financial Code goes back to 2004, when we started deep thinking about the possibilities of Mumbai as an international financial centre. The Companies Bill was pending before Parliament for many years. The work on shifting commodity futures to the Ministry of Finance began in 2003. The NPS was originally designed in 1999. All these projects have been largely bipartisan. We have dug in through these years, chipped away at the objections, cultivated the technical capacity, and built consensus, through which we are now able to reap the fruits of the long years of labour.
To conclude, I would urge everyone not to lose sight of the microeconomic foundations of Indian growth, which are delivering one doubling of GDP every decade. That is not an insignificant achievement. It will find its place in history in due course. The defining challenge in India however is in augmenting State capacity. How do we construct a competent and ethical State, that will minimally interfere with the rights of citizens in property and contracting, that will focus on preventing or resolving market failures, and that will successfully produce and deliver public goods? A wave of new thinking in public administration is now underway in India. We need to build completely new organization charts within government, leading to sharply focused agencies that can be held accountable for delivery on specific objectives. Those are the first few lines of an absorbing new story that I hope will begin in the near future. And that is the story that I am sure will captivate the world in the next ten to twenty years, as India takes its place as the third or fourth largest economy in the world.
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