December 22nd, 2010
02:15 PM ET
This week I'm excited about frontiers in brain enhancement, research on fear and phobias, and a potential new test for Alzheimer's.
If you've got some time during the holiday weekend to think about the future of the human species, take a moment to consider what it would mean to have your brain immortalized as a computer. Head over to Scientific American to check out this chapter about uploading your mind from Carl Zimmer's e-book "Brain Cuttings: 15 Journeys Through the Mind."
Zimmer delves into the science of the singularity, which refers to the potential moment when technology allows intelligence to surpass current human capabilities. Were this to happen, singularity theorists argue, computers would become self-aware, and human brains could be technologically enhanced and even preserved in a mind-machine fusion.
How far off are we? When it comes to machines taking over the world sci-fi style, we are not in immediate danger. But Zimmer interviews many serious scientists who are working toward enhancing the brain in various ways and who don't see the singularity concept as fanciful. In fact, as of this year, 30,000 people battling Parkinson's disease have had electrodes put in their brains to help deal with their condition, Zimmer writes.
And, of course, we are increasingly relying on computers to remember things for us.
In other brain news, it's possible to have no fear. No fear at all.
You may feel fearless in some situations, but some people don't even register the reaction of fear. A 44-year-old American woman cannot feel fear as a result of brain damage from a genetic disease called lipoid proteinosis, CBC News reports. Her amygdala, the part of the brain that alerts you about impending danger, has holes in it because of the disease.
At a pet store, scientists found that she willingly reached out to tarantulas and snakes, which commonly give people chills. She also said she felt entertained, rather than scared, by a haunted house, and didn't have strong fear responses to horror films. Further study of this patient may help scientists understand mental disorders such as post traumatic stress disorder better, researchers said.
Progress in Alzheimer's diagnosis
This year has brought a lot of discussion about detecting Alzheimer's disease early, and many children of Alzheimer's sufferers say they want to know their risk. Researchers at the Institute of Neurology at University College of London say they are getting even closer to being able to catch the earliest signs of Alzheimer's, BBC News reports.
The scientists focused on these indicators of Alzheimer's: "shrinkage of the brain and lower than normal levels of a protein, called amyloid, in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that bathes the brain and spinal cord," the BBC said.
It's important to note that this study, published in Annuals of Neurology, has not followed up with the participants for long enough to see if those predicted to get Alzheimer's actually develop it. Also, it involved a lumbar puncture, a procedure that gets that cerebrospinal fluid out of the spine with a needle, so it might not be as simple as you'd want. But other scientists are working on various types of brain scans for diagnosis as well.
About this blog
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.