Brain Theory Beyond Hubel and Wiesel


David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel have been enormously influential in vision science, as we blogged about nearly seven years ago.  Brain science has progressed, however, well beyond their original experiments on anesthetized animals forty and fifty years ago.  An updated model of what he calls Relativistic Brain Theory (RBT) is summarized by Miguel Nicolelis,  a pioneer in neuroprosthetics, in his book The True Creator of Everything: How the Human Brain Shaped the Universe as We Know It.

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A key distinction that Nicolelis makes is differentiating Gödelian Information Expression from the notion of information processing more suitable to inorganic matter such as traditional computers, originally conceived by Claude Shannon.  Nicolelis writes (p.28): “Our discovery required the introduction of a new definition of information, one that more closely reflected the basic operation of living systems and offered a contrast with the more well-known version of the term introduced by Claude Shannon in the electrical engineering  context of studying messages transmitted through noise channels in artificial devices … Organic computers, which differ from the mechanical, electronic, digital or quantum computers engineers build, emerge as a result of the process of natural evolution.  Their main feature is that they utilize their very organic structures and the laws of physics and chemistry for acquiring, processing, and storing information.  This fundamental property means that organic computers rely primarily on analog computing to perform their tasks, although elements of digital computing can be used in several important cases.”

In other words rather than being binary and digital like Shannon information, Gödelian information is continuous or analog, embedded in organic, neuronal tissue and fueled by the process of energy dissipation in living organisms.  One can sense, however, that when there is atypical development or acquired brain injury, information that should be analog and free-flowing in the Gödelian sense breaks down into digitalized, discretized, binary bits of information that becomes bottlenecked in noisy communication channels.

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Nicolelis shares a number of other interesting observations about the brain.  The cortex and its white matter represents about 82% of the overall brain mass, yet contains only 19% of the brain’s neurons.  In comparison, our cerebellum and its grey matter is the inverse, packing 80% of the brain’s neurons dedicated to motor functions into an area comprising only 10% of the brain’s mass.  It is the complex mesh of white matter in the cortex that enables it to reciprocally connect with grey matter through loops that Nicolelis cleverly refers to a biological solenoids, somewhat analogous to the coils of wire used in electromagnets.  The largest of these coils is the corpus callosum, and another familiar example is the medial longitudinal fasiculus.

Biological solenoids include not only very large nerve loops but a variety of white matter rings of difference sizes down to the microscopic level.  Based on this pervasive anatomical arrangement, the relativistic brain theory predicts the existence of widespread electromagnetic fields in addition to those found in the cortex.  Nicolelis proposes that neuronal electromagnetic fields enable the emergent  neural properties essential for the manifestation of higher mental and cognitive skills.  These EMFs provide the physiological glue needed to fuse the neocortex into a single organic computational entity coordinating cortical and subcortical regions of the brain.

That is one reason why atypical brain development or acquired brain injury can wipe out large areas of cortex in some cases with minimal impact on function, yet more circumscribed damage can result in significant dysfunction if communication channels through these biological loops are damaged or impaired.  Patients who display typical stroke symptoms usually suffer damage to underlying white matter as well as to large portions of grey matter.  Plasticity in the white matter bundles or loops that connect cortical areas is what we often tap into during neuro-rehabiltation.  That enables the brain to re-integrate its recursive analog and digital neuronal signals, essential to the hybrid nature of its digital-analog organic computing.

In the TED talk above, Dr. Nicolelis extends the application his work into neuroprosthetics as well as to brain-to-brain interfaces.  You can gain a deeper sense of his work through this 2017 monograph on neuroprostheses and neurorehabilitation.  We previously blogged about neuroadaptive IOLs as an example of an oculo-visual neuroprosthetic.  Brain-to-brain interface occurs in the traditional sense in doctor-therapist-patient interrelationships, with the Nicolelis model extending this into the future to therapeutic alliances impacting brain function between individuals in remote locations.  If brain-to-brain signaling expands its reach, we may even need a new definition for what it means to have a doctor on the premises. 😉

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