Tag Archives: brain

Wonderful Things: Chimpanzee brain

Meet the brain of your closest living relative in the Animal Kingdom…

Look human?

Look human? This brain belonged to a close relative…

It is easy to make the assumption that this is a human brain… the visual similarities are plain to see! But this is in fact the brain of a pan troglodytes, or as we know them, the chimpanzee.

We share a stunning 94% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and we can see the incredible closeness we have with them by looking at this brain. To the untrained eye the only difference we can see is in size – the human brain is a whopping three times larger than that of our hairy little cousin!

The similarities are not just on the surface but in the development of the brain itself. Humans and chimpanzees are perhaps the only species in which the brain continues developing after birth. When we are born, the part of our brain that controls our most complex cognitive functions, such as self-awareness and creativity, is not fully formed yet. It then starts developing very quickly…and much the same happens with chimpanzees.

So why do both humans and chimps share this commonality? The answer, it seems, is that this delay allows human and chimp brains to learn things they otherwise would not be able to. The delay gives their brains far greater plasticity, which, as Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University explains, leaves “their neural network and brain function more susceptible to the influence of postnatal experience.” Basically, the time spent waiting for the forebrain to grow is spent learning complex social interactions and establishing basic skills that will serve humans and chimpanzees well over the course of their lives.

 Of course, there comes a point where the human brain develops and moves far beyond that of the chimpanzee, but by that stage the chimp has gained the ability to do many things that continue to astound scientists. They have their own complex method of communication, but research has shown they can also understand basic human language and comprehend numbers and counting. They also use tools to help themselves on a day-to-day basis and have good memory skills. Incredible!

Chimpanzees are so smart that in 1961 the American Space Program sent a young chimp called Ham into space! He operated levers in a basic space capsule which paved the way for a human manned capsule several months later. Ham returned safely to Earth and lived the rest of his life as a national hero.

Brainy chimp Ham made it into space and back in 1961

Brainy chimp Ham made it into space and back in 1961

  • What does it take to man a solo mission into space like Ham? Do you think you could do it?
  • After seeing how similar our brains are, do you think Chimpanzees can ‘think’ like humans?
  • How would you feel about donating your brain to science?

For more about animals in space, check out the Laika the Spacedog Opera for KS2…

The Chimpanzee brain can be found in Who Am I?, on the first floor of the Wellcome Wing

-Shaun Aitcheson

 

Wonderful Things: Babbage’s brain

Would you expect to find human body parts in the Maths and Computing gallery?

Bizarrely, you can find one half of Charles Babbage’s brain which was donated to the Hunterian Museum by his son Henry (the other half is still with the Hunterian). Many brains of ‘great men’ were kept in the 19th Century to try and discover the nature of the link between the brain and consciousness.

Babbage was a computer pioneer, inventor, reformer, mathematician, scientist, philosopher and political economist!

Babbage, who was seen as a brilliant thinker is regarded as the first computer pioneer. He used his genius-like brains well, excelling in many scientific subjects and after graduating from Cambridge University, he returned in 1828 as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. What a boffin!

During the 1820’s, brain box Babbage devised the Difference Engine to automate the production of error-free mathematical tables. In 1823 he secured £1500 from the government and hired the engineer Joseph Clement. However, the project collapsed in 1833 when Clement downed tools. By then, the government had spent over £17,000 to build the machine – equivalent to the price of two warships!

It’s widely accepted that the reason for the collapse was because Victorian mechanical engineering was not developed enough to produce such accurate parts. However, some have suggested that it was more to do with issues of economics, politics and Babbage’s temperament and style of directing the enterprise. Not such a genius then….

The Science Museum has a special relationship with Babbage and in 1985 the Museum used its own brain power and launched a project to build Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2. It was completed and working in November 1991, one month before the 200th anniversary of Babbage’s birth. This proves that had it been built during his life, it would’ve worked.

The figure wheels of Babbage's Difference Engine No 2. Not exactly a Casio calculator is it?

What computer gadget can you not live without?

Can you tell anything of a person’s abilities from bits of their brain?

How do you feel about museums displaying human remains?

Babbage also worked in the field of codebreaking.

With this in mind, why not create a trail for your students to visit our Alan Turing: Codebreaker exhibition, the Maths and Computing galleries to see Babbage’s brain and Making the Modern World to see the trial portion of his Difference Engine and the first Apple I Mac computer!

Babbage’s brain is in the Maths and Computing gallery on the 2nd floor of the Museum.

-Denise Cook

Wonderful Things: Henry Molaison’s brain

When you think of the world’s most famous brain, whose comes to mind?

 Freud’s? Einstein’s? Marie Curie’s perhaps?

True, all these had quite a lot to offer in the grey matter department, but when it comes to offering the world a clearer picture of the human brain and providing vital insights into the formation and storage of memories, the prize goes to a man by the name of Henry Molaison.

In 1935, 9 year old Henry got in an accident with a cyclist in his home town of Hartford, Connecticut; he hit his head and later developed intractable epilepsy. In 1953 at the age of 27, in an attempt to correct his seizures, he was referred to William Beecher Scoville, a neurosurgeon at Hartford Hospital, for treatment. At that time, neuroscience was quite rudimentary and the procedure carried out on Henry was unprecedented. Scoville removed both temporal lobes of his cerebral cortex and a sea-horse shaped structure called the hippocampus. That’s quite a lot of brain tissue gone.

Brain model- green sections indicate the Temporal lobes removed by Scoville

The operation succeed in dissipating his seizures, but unfortunately he emerged unable to form new memories. They had removed a part of his brain that was responsible for storing short term memories! Neurologists refer to this state as profound amnesia.

He lived the rest of his life this way, remembering events that occurred before his operation and unable to form new ones after it. He knew  his mother was Irish and also about World War 2, recalling almost nothing after that. Luckily for the world of neuroscience, Henry wanted to help people and gave himself to neurological research for the rest of his life until his death in 2008.

Before Henry Molaison (or Patient HM as he is often known to psychology and neuroscience students), memory was an abstract idea, now, thanks to Henry and his brain, we can see where long and short term memory areas are formed in the brain.

Section of HM's brain indicating where tissue was removed

Had Henry not being so willing to help science to better understand the human brain, many people may not have received the treatment they needed to help with their conditions.

How do you feel about donating your body to Science?

Can you think of any reason that would prevent people from doing so?

 Would you donate your pet’s body to science?

If you would like to see and hear elements of this fascinating story, visit the Who Am I gallery on the first floor in the Wellcome wing of the museum.

-James Carmody

Wonderful Things: EEG cap

Imagine if your best friend -or even worse, your boss- could read your thoughts!  It sounds like the stuff from Star Trek but scientists are now experimenting with technology that could do just that.

The technology they are using is the electroencephalogram, or EEG.  This is a machine that detects the brain’s electrical activity and records it onto paper or a computer as wavy lines.    

The first human EEG recording, 1924

The first human EEG recording, 1924

This image is the first human EEG, which was recorded in 1924.  The recordings are taken using electrodes, which are flat metal discs that are placed at specific points on your scalp or are fitted into a special cap that you can wear.  The electrodes pick up the electrical signals in your brain as they jump across your synapses and transfer the signals to the EEG machine.  This records the activity as lines like this one.  

EEG tests are usually used by doctors to help them diagnose conditions that affect the brain, such as epilepsy or for detecting head injuries.  Scientists are now experimenting with them to see if it is possible to read people’s thoughts through them. 

EEG cap. What could this tell us about our minds?

EEG cap. What could this reveal about our minds?

Similar experiments have already occurred in the computer games industry.  Emotiv Systems have created a game which uses an EEG to record a players’ brain activity for six seconds.  The player then has to repeat the exact same brain signals and, if successful, they will be able to manipulate an image on the computer screen.  Of course, this isn’t actually reading your thoughts as you could have been thinking about anything during the game.  As long as you can replicate the brain activity it recorded you will win.      

At the moment it isn’t possible to decipher exact thoughts through an EEG but they can be used to successfully detect people’s emotions and when they are lying!  This is done by combining the EEG recording with image scans of the brain to see in which area the electrical activity originated. 

This has real potential to help those suffering from Locked-In Syndrome (who are only able to communicate using very basic means such as blinking) and even those with Total Locked-In Syndrome, where they are totally paralysed and cannot communicate at all. 

At present then, it isn’t possible for your boss to read your mind… but they might be able to work out how you really feel about them!

Can your students think of any pros or cons to this technology?

How would you feel if the police started using EEG’s and brain scans in their investigations? Would you happily take the test?

The mind-reading EEG cap is on display in the Who Am I? gallery on the 1st floor of the Wellcome Wing.

 -Kate Davis