# Category Archives: Science in News

## 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 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Spontaneous_symmetry_breaking#/media/File:Mexican_hat_potential_polar.svg

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, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHORreeISC4&feature=youtu.be

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 y.qq.com

## 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.

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.

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.

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

Video

## Stephen Hawking and the ALS disease

Dr Stephen Hawking Physics professor and author at Cambridge University

Less than a week ago, beloved cosmologist and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, science’s brightest star, died at the age of 76 in the morning on Mar.14. His brilliance and persistence has inspired people around the world. People who are not specialist in physics may have not heard of his four laws of black hole mechanics or the Hawking radiation, but often have heard of his courageous story and lifelong battle with the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis disease (ALS).

While studying at Oxford, the young Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with ALS – a disease that causes death of neurons and gradually paralyses voluntary muscles – at the age of 21, in 1963. The doctor gave him a life expectancy of less than three years, but Stephen Hawking have defied the odds and coped with the daunting disease for over half a century. He spent 30 years as mathematics professors at the University of Cambridge, published the world-renowned The Universe in a Nutshell and A Briefer History of Time, which introduced cutting edge findings in theoretical physics to millions of readers. While Lou Gehrig and other people that suffer from ALS usually succumb in less than ten years, why has Hawking beat the odds and lived with the formidable disease?

Illustration of a normal nerve structure (left) and an ALS affected nerve cell (right)

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a highly variable disorder and can be classified a few different ways: by where the motor neuron is first affected, and by how fast the disease progresses. Hawking was an outlier, the neurons that control the diaphragm and swallowing muscle are not severely deteriorated, that means breathing muscle functions properly, malnutrition and dehydration which are often found in other cases would not be seen on Hawking.

The disorder progression also tends to be slower in people with onset at less than 40 years old, the reason behind this remains unknown. Hawking’s case is very similar to juvenile amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which progresses very slowly and have a life expectancy of more than 30 years. And like his mind, Hawking’s illness seems to be singular. Hawking’s longevity is partly due to the excellent care that he received, and more importantly – the biology of his form of the neurodegenerative disease. Stephen Hawking’s case is a unique example of the variability of the disease, he not only gives hope to patient who also suffer from the ALS disease, but also inspires millions for his determination to fight against the odds.

Stephen Hawking’s contribution to physics and cosmology will live in the annals of science forever.