Usage of mathematics for an understanding of how the brain functions

When a tree falls in the middle of a forest and nobody heard it falling, can it be considered as a sound? Well, to answer this question, mathematics can guide us to understand how our vision and hearing works.

Priscilla Greenwood, a mathematicians and  Lawrence Ward, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia worked together on a research that explains how we perceive the things that occur around us as a part of our brain receives signals. Based on the enough patterns of the signals that occur when we use our senses, it is possible for a computer to imitate a real brain.

A part of our brain that lights up when we perceive things around us
Photo Credit: Flickr

To understand the pattern of the signals that our brains receive, we first need to encounter the shape of a Mexican hat, which is a shape of a tiny area of nerves that changes when we see an image. The pointy part of the diagram below shows the area of focus where the nerves respond the most and the dented area represents the area that we mostly ignore when encountering an image. In other words, as we pay more attention to a specific area, we automatically pay less attention to other areas.

A diagram of the Mexican Hat.
Image from

We had the opportunity to interview Dr. Ward about the research for the better understanding of the concepts. Dr. Ward elaborated more on the activity of the tiny neurons in our brains in patterns, which matches with a shape of sombrero (similar to the Mexican hat shape). Listen to the explanation of their research in the following podcast.

Podcast credit: Kang Zhihao

Why did they choose the Mexican hat equation particularly to explain how we perceive the randomness of things? It is because it is a most suitable way to describe the aspects of brain activity and the pairing of the neurons and to calculate how we perceive sights around us. In the video below, Dr. Ward describes how a form of wave  of neural activity exist in our brain that varies according to the level of activity based on the activity of our senses.

Video Credit: Huanxin Zhang,

What can we do with the information from this research? The important findings of this study may help us to construct a model that has a similar level of intelligence that a real brain consists. Also, the mathematics can be applied to recreate brain simulations possibly in the future, but the real brain still outlasts the machines. The answer to the question that was asked in the beginning, is that in order for us to hear the tree that falls in the middle of the forest depends on how high can the Mexican hat of our brain be.

-Group 5: Aaron yen, Zhihao Kang, Huanxin Zhang, Victoria Park 

Video credit:

o Pattern Dynamics of Reaction Diffusion Equation: ak0amay Published on Oct 10, 2015 o Brain model: Growing a Brain Pattern: Particle Skull, Published on Jul 9, 2014 o What Are Brain Waves?: MinuteEarth, Published on Nov 7, 2017 o The brain waves when noised involved: Relaxing White Noise, Published on Feb 10, 2015 o Brain patterns in math: École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Published on Jun 12, 2017 Thanks to Dr. Janet Ochola and Dr. Andrew Trites for guidance and advice during the project. Thanks to Dr. Priscilla Greenwood for the insight and Dr. Lawrence Ward for the explanations.

Audio credit:

The background musics are public domain and licensed from


Tackling Cancer: Organogels to the Rescue

“Cancer” —  a word that brings fear among the public because ‘incurable’ is what first comes to mind. Drug industries and researchers have spent countless hours to develop a cure against this fatal disease. However, due to rapid advancements in science, what if we are inching closer towards a solution on eliminating cancer? Would that put the public more at ease? To this day, only a handful of cancers are curable such as prostate cancer, thyroid cancer, testicular cancer, and breast cancer. A recently discovered structure called an organogel offers an attractive approach in helping to combat cancer.

Source: Image of organogel, provided by Dr. Roy van der Meel

What are organogels?

Organogels act as a delivery system that carry drug particles, protect the drug particles, and make their way to cancer cells where it releases the drug contents. Drugs often contain small particles that bind and interfere with proteins made by virus and cancer cells. These particles are called small interfering ribonucleic acid (siRNA). RNA is present in all living cells where it has a role in controlling protein synthesis. Upon binding of siRNA to its target (cancer cells/viruses), the production of harmful proteins from cancer cells in our body will be stopped. Preventing harmful protein production will prevent cancer from forming in our bodies and eventually killing cancer cells. This is the general basis of how pharmaceutical drugs work.

We had the chance to interview Dr. Roy Van der Meel, a postdoctoral research fellow at UBC. In his research, Dr. Van der Meel and his colleagues showed that the use of organogels is very efficient against harmful cells. He found that organogels were able to locate and bind to cancer cells, and successfully release its contents. To learn more about this technique and its impact in the world, view the video below.


What makes organogels so special?

What sets the organogel technique apart from others is that organogels are able to bind to deep tissues within our bodies that are difficult to access. Furthermore, use of organogels contain less severe side effects compared to other methods such as chemotherapy , radiotherapy and surgery. Organogels are biodegradable. This means the body is able to successfully break down the components of the organogel, which minimizes the amount of harm on the body.

Even though this technique has many advantages, there are a few challenges and limitations that accompany it. The small interfering RNA (siRNA)  can be easily damaged by physiological factors in the body which makes it difficult to successfully deliver siRNA to the targeted tissue. Furthermore, injection of organogels is minimally invasive but can have side effects such as short lifetime of siRNA, low renewal efficiency of siRNA, and harming body tissues.

Moving forward into the future

The discoveries and findings in the study provide a basis for the technique of organogels, which still has room to grow. The newly developed technique provides a platform for future research on cancer therapy. Listen to the podcast below to find out more on how this technique can be implemented in the future!

Source: BenSound

Group 1: Aron Ha, Simranjit Singh, Cyndi Yan, Yuuki Shibutani

Do periods really sync between women?

Many people in society still shy away from talking about a women’s menstrual cycle, aka periods. Even though there is a general awkwardness around talks about periods, there are some really cool facts about them too. Besides being the by-product of a woman not getting pregnant, there has been an on-going theory that women’s cycles can actually synchronize with one another.

Menstrual cycle start date. Photo Credit: Unknown


Why did people originally assume that women’s menstrual cycles synchronize with one another over time? To answer this question, one needs to consider the pheromones that women release. It was originally believed that women give off pheromones and when women are in one another’s presence, these pheromones cause their periods to synchronize.

Women embracing. Photo Credit: Unknown

Another reason people may have believed this is due to a study conducted in 1971, which is further explained in the video below. This study claimed that menstrual cycle synchronization was in fact real and that collected data supported this. Unfortunately, when more scientists tried to replicate this experiment in the future, they were not able to get the same results.

YouTube Preview Image

After hearing this, many people wonder if menstrual cycle synchronization is just a myth or a fact about the female reproductive system. Based on a more recent study conducted at the University of Oxford, the synchronization of periods is in fact a myth. The study was conducted using an app called Clue to collect data regarding participants cycles. Furthermore, 360 women participated in the study and 273 pairs of women had differing menstrual cycle times compared to one another. Based on this data, the researchers concluded that women’s periods do not sync with one another, proving the age-old myth wrong.

Why do some people continue to claim their periods are in sync? According to the study, women’s cycles are different time lengths compared to one another and this can result in an overlap of two women’s cycles at a certain time. This random overlapping may be the reason people still believe their periods become in-sync with one another.

Even though periods don’t really sync with one another, the theory of it was really neat. It would have been awesome to have someone binge-eat chocolate with me!

Author: Moneek Gill

Why is there an Opioid Crisis?

I’m sure many of you have heard about the opioid crisis from your friends or on the news, but some of you, like me, may not know exactly how it started and why it became an epidemic.

In 2016, there were about 42,249 opioid overdoses in the United States and about 2,800 opioid-related deaths in Canada. British Columbia is the epicenter of the crisis in Canada with more than 1,400 deaths from drug overdoses last year, and about 81% involved fentanyl.

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Source: Government of Canada

Opioids are natural and synthetic chemicals that act on opioid receptors in your brain and body, and it is often prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain.  Opioid receptors are located in reward centers of the brain and in areas that control pain. When opioids bind to these receptors, it inhibits pain and it can create intense feelings of euphoria. This is what makes them so addictive. Furthermore, our body builds tolerance to it pretty quickly, so it takes more of the drug to deal with the same amount of pain. This can be physically and psychologically demanding and can lead to feelings of withdrawal.

In the 1990s, doctors started prescribing more painkillers to try to treat pain. With the opioid epidemic, it was thought that many people who took the drug that was prescribe, started to take more of it. When pills became expensive and hard to get, they looked for other alternatives such as heroin which is more readily available. The addiction can become deadly because opioid receptors are not only located in areas that control pain and emotion, but in areas that control breathing as well. When they block signalling there, it can slow down and even stop breathing.

naloxone opioid overdose treatment naloxone graphic

Source: Anaheim Lighthouse- Graphics Maya Doe-Simkins

However, we do have some ways to counteract opioids such as the use of naloxone. Naloxone can bind to opioid receptors without causing any unusual effects. It works quite well because it binds to opioid receptors more strongly than the overdosed drug, so it can flood your system and prevent it from binding. However, it has to be given immediately because it doesn’t take long after an overdose to cause you to stop breathing. It’s especially true if you take fentanyl, a stronger synthetic opioid.

Amount of fentanyl it takes to kill a person

Source: CBC News

Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and it can be added into heroin and other opioids. Furthermore, fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin and breathing it can kill you.

Source: CBC News

Although I don’t use opioids, I do take tylenol when I am sick, which is a non-opioid pain medication that produce moderate feelings of euphoria. And trust me, it is a very good feeling when you are feeling ill. Therefore, I can see why opioids can be very addicting to those who are in substantial pain.

However, currently, doctors are trying to prescribe fewer opioids, and researchers are trying to find and develop opioids that can kill pain without all the negative effects associated to it.

Source: MSNBC

– Tammy Tang