The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

January 26, 2023

Major breakthrough in understanding how the brain perceives art

The great diversity of artwork in the world, from masterpieces to pieces of crap, has long defied the ability of science to reasonably explain how the human mind discriminates between them. It can’t simply be a matter of associative learning. That fails to explain how you can immediately recognize whether some completely novel work you’ve never seen before is great (or not, as the case may be). Now researchers at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and Columbia University in New York have proposed a new model for the neural mechanisms underlying perceived aesthetic value. Imaging the brains of six women in fMRI scanners shown 1,000 images of artwork and asked to judge them, the researchers discovered that the process is brain-wide. Neuroaesthetic choice starts in the visual cortex, goes through the medial prefrontal cortex, extends into other parts of the brain, and ends in “Ahhh!” Nature Communications

New policy at AAAS bans ChatGPT

We asked ChatGPT to define the goals of scientific publication policies, and it said they exist to ensure that the research is of high quality, conducted ethically, and meets the standards of the field—and it added that the policies may also aim “to prevent plagiarism and other forms of scientific misconduct.” Seems reasonable to us, but ironically, to AAAS, quoting that answer is itself a form of plagiarism and scientific misconduct. In his lead editorial this week, AAAS Editor in Chief H. Holden Thorp announced a new policy that states, “ChatGPT (or any other AI tools) cannot be used in the work, nor can figures, images, or graphics be the products of such tools. And an AI program cannot be an author.” Since AAAS has great influence over other scientific publishers, we imagine this decision will be somewhat bellwether. So we asked ChatGPT for a comment, and it said: “I do not have information on the AAAS’s specific publication policy regarding the use of ChatGPT or other language models. However, I can tell you that generally when it comes to AI models, research and publications are expected to follow the same ethical principles as any other research.” Way to go, Chatbot… As they go low, you go high! Science

A wearable cardiac ultrasound imager

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have developed a new wearable ultrasound device that can continuously and visually monitor cardiac function in real time—something that could improve health outcomes broadly by allowing doctors to assess people’s cardiovascular health as outpatients, monitor sports athletes during training, or enhance the ability to detect cardiac dysfunction in hospital critical care units or during surgeries. “The implications of this technology go far beyond imaging the heart,” the researchers write, “as it can be generalized to image other deep tissues, such as the inferior vena cava, abdominal aorta, spine, and liver.” Nature

An exploded view of the new wearable cardiac imager schematic. Nature

The secrets of sexual touch

A circuit exists between the brain and the skin in mice, humans, and other mammals whereby we detect sensual touch during social behavior, including sex, process the pleasure of it in our brains, and respond accordingly. However science has never identified the precise nerve cells underlying the skin that do that thing just the way you like—at least not until now. Researchers at Columbia University in New York have demonstrated that in mice a type of cell known as a Mrgprb4 neurons is what’s critical for specific sensual touch-related social behaviors and signaling rewards to the brain. “This work points toward the therapeutic potential of peripheral manipulations for enhancing intact or impaired social reward systems, including sexual dysfunction, or simulating social reward during periods of isolation,” they write. Cell

Targeting neuropathic pain during sleep

People who suffer from difficult-to-treat neuropathic pain don’t all experience it the same way. They may not feel pain at all—it could be tingling, numbness, burning, or feathery tickles. But one thing they do have in common: an itch they cannot scratch. Now a new study by researchers at Columbia University in New York suggests that neuropathic pain could be alleviated via treatment during your sleep with time-controlled pain treatments. Selectively inhibiting a connected set of neurons called the PB–aNB–S1 circuit in mice during sleep and awake periods, “we find that neuronal inhibition during the rest phase or NREM sleep is maximally effective in achieving sustained pain relief, even in mice with established chronic neuropathic pain,” the researchers write. Nature Neuroscience

Absurd self-confidence could conceal a hidden ignorance

People with the strongest attitudes toward science, be they positive or negative, tend to be filled with self-confidence over how well they understand it, according to researchers at the University of Bath in England. But after conducting a survey of 2,000 people focused on genetic modification (GM) technology, they discovered that this self-confidence can be grossly exaggerated. People who held the strongest positive views of GM technology believed they understood how it worked, and that turned out to be true. But people who were strongly against the technology tended to understand it very little. Nevertheless they had an absurdly unwarranted belief that they did get it, had faith in their understanding, and strongly opposed it. The work shows the more confidently someone thinks they understand something, the stronger they will accept or reject it—even if they haven’t the faintest clue what they’re talking about. PLOS Biology