The brain watched during language learning

Learning a new language is a difficult task. It requires skills for memorizing new words, learning how to put those words together in a grammatical way, and integrating them with existing linguistic knowledge. In a new study from researchers at the Donders Institute and Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, these skills were observed through brain imaging as native speakers of Dutch learned an artificial miniature language ‘Alienese’.

Reuse grammatical characteristics

The major discovery was that the brain cares whether or not the grammatical properties of the new language (in this case, word order) resemble the grammatical properties of your native language. If they are similar, your brain uses its own grammar in learning the new language. And if the word order of the new language differs from your mother tongue, your brain needs to build a new grammatical repertoire. For the first time, researchers have shown that it helps the brain if it can reuse characteristics of our mother tongue when learning a new language.

Josa komi oku

Alienese consisted of a set of words like josa ‘woman’, komi ‘man’, and oku ‘to photograph’. These words could be combined in a particular order, which either did or did not conform for Dutch word order. For instance, both sentences Komi oku josa (man photograph woman) and Josa komi oku (woman man photograph) have the meaning “The man photographs the woman”. The former sentence conforms to Dutch word order (and English), but the latter does not. Participants read sentences with familiar and unfamiliar word orders accompanied by pictures depicting the meaning (see image).

Language brain network

When the unfamiliar word orders (josa komi oku) were repeated, brain activation increased within regions of the brain network known to be involved for your native language. Lead author of the study Kirsten Weber proposes, “The enhanced activity might reflect a brain mechanism to build and strengthen a neural network to process novel word order regularities.” When the familiar word order (komi oku josa) was repeated, brain activation decreased in language-related regions. “That we found suppressed activation on the other hand, supports our ideas that a known structure in a novel language quickly behaves like a structure in your native language. Processing a known structure is easier for the brain second time round. As a whole, our study shows that we seem to use the same brain areas for native and new language structures and that Alienese was in the process of being integrated into the participants existing language brain networks.”

Source: Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Anti-smartphones: Why inventors are making bare-bones (but stylish) devices

light phoneThe Light Phone, seen here, is about the size of a credit card, can last up to 20 days on a single charge and only makes phone calls. It’s among a small niche in the phone market that favours stylish design and purposefully lacks bells and whistles. (The Light Phone)

Published Tuesday, June 28, 2016 6:30AM EDT

For those who remember flip phones, there’s something undeniably nostalgic about the simple 90s-era technology. They only buzzed for calls and texts, were free of time-consuming apps and could end conversations with a satisfying snap.

The age of flip phones may be far gone, but a quiet revolution of “anti-smartphones” has recently emerged on the market, offering low-tech but stylish solutions to the purported stressors of modern digital life.

  • See spec details for each “anti-smartphone” below

Light Phone

The Light Phone is a credit-card sized phone that never beeps or vibrates unless someone calls. It is designed to be connected to a user’s primary smartphone and, through an app, forwards phone calls.

MP 01

The MP 01 by Punkt does a little bit more. The Swiss-made device can send and receive texts and phone calls and act as an alarm clock, but that’s it.


Then there’s the circular Runcible, made by Berkeley, Cali.-based company Monohm. Inventors are wary to call the palm-sized device a phone, since it connects to phone services via a separate Bluetooth device, and instead use the term “heirloom electronic.” Designed after the pocket watch, the Runcible still allows users to surf the web or use apps, but it‘s designed to be quiet and never interrupt users.

Throwback appeal

In an era when Apple unveils its newest iPhone models on a yearly basis, why opt for a phone without the latest bells and whistles? CTV technology analyst Carmi Levy says dumbed-down phones have a certain niche appeal, and they aren’t just attractive to elderly consumers anymore.

“Beyond the senior demographic, there’s a bit of a pushback against technology that’s too complex for its own good. And we’re seeing it at the fringes of the phone market in rising demand for simple phones that remind us of days gone by,” Levy told

Devices like Runcible, the Light Phone and MP 01 are directly marketed towards a younger demographic. Both Runcible and the Light Phone began as online crowd-funding initiatives, with backers given a device in return for financial support.

Levy says the phones are “ideal” for younger consumers looking to make a statement with their handheld device.

“There’s probably a small percentage of younger consumers out there who would absolutely love to have something that none of their friends or colleagues have,” Levy said.

“They’re not deliberately cheap, they’re not stripped down, they’re actual design statements … I think they’re just as fashionable as a pair of shoes or that coat that they bought.”

Gauging smartphone stress

The toll of smartphone usage on stress levels has been widely contested, and research on smartphone stress is still in its early stages. But some recent studies suggest that too much screen time could reduce sleep, impact work-life balance and negatively affect brain function.

At McGill University, researchers presented several studies that suggest that reliance on GPS programs – like Google Maps or Apple Maps – can negatively impact a user’s hippocampus, the part of the brain that helps people navigate using visual memory.

Researchers from Michigan State University found that people who checked their smartphones for work-related purposes after 9 p.m. were more tired and less alert at their jobs the next day. Researchers credited their findings to mental stimulation from smartphones that made it difficult for subjects to relax and fall asleep.

Levy insists these anti-smartphones won’t eclipse smartphone sales anytime soon, but he agrees that there’s a certain appeal to bare-bones tech.

“The promise of technology is that it’ll improve our lives, but sometimes we become enslaved to the technology because there’s so much going on,” he said. “A certain part of our brain is always looking for something that is perhaps simpler … and delivers as promised with fewer frustrations.”

Still, Levy says it’s too early to say whether these pared-down devices will take off, simply because they’re so new.

“These will never have mainstream appeal within any demographic within any consumer group, but the question is: is there enough demand? Do they have enough features to keep mainstream millennial consumers interested? And I think for that the question remains unanswered.”

As for the bygone flip phone, there’s some evidence that they aren’t totally extinct. According to recent figures from the International Data Corporation, a U.S. research firm, an additional two million “feature phones” – phones that simply make calls and texts – were sold in 2015 in the U.S., an increase from the previous year.

By the numbers


Light 3

HOW DESIGNERS DESCRIBE IT: “Unlike a basic flip phone, Light won’t allow you to text, email or anything, it is the most simple phone designed specifically to work with your existing smartphone.”

SIZE: 4.5 mm thick (advertised as “the world’s thinnest phone”)

COST: $100 USD

STAGE OF PRODUCTION: Available for pre-order with shipping beginning in the summer of 2016.

APPEAL: Clean design, fits inside wallet, can last 20 days on a single charge.

POSSIBLE DOWNSIDE: Doesn’t support texting,

COLOURS: White, and a black version called “Night” is in the works.



HOW DESIGNERS DESCRIBE IT: “Featuring a first-of-its-kind fully round screen and a palm-sized form factor, Runcible is modeled on devices humans have carried around with them and loved for hundreds or thousands of years: the pocket watch, the compact, the compass, the magical stone in your hand.”

SIZE: 2.5-inch display, fits in the palm of the hand.

COST: $399 to $599 USD, depending on the model

STAGE OF PRODUCTION: Available in fall of 2016, open for pre-order.

APPEAL: Wi-Fi-connectivity, unique wooden backing,

POSSIBLE DOWNSIDE: For those truly looking to disconnect, the allure of Internet connectivity may be a deal-breaker.

COLOURS: Dark grey plastic or wooden backings, including a “Sinker Redwood” salvaged from Mendocino, Cali.

MP 01

MP 01

HOW DESIGNERS DESCRIBE IT: “The Punkt. MP 01 is a stylish, well-crafted mobile phone which focuses on modern simplicity, inside and out. It makes phone calls and sends texts. That’s all.”

SIZE: 14.5 mm thick

COST: $295 USD

STAGE OF PRODUCTION: Available for sale.

APPEAL: “Bespoke ringtones” by Norwegian sound artist Kjetil Røst Nilsen, an alarm clock.

POSSIBLE DOWNSIDE: Users must acquaint themselves with the phone’s keypad shortcuts to access features such as call history, voicemail and hands-free mode.


Scientists Developed a Less-Invasive Technology to Deliver Drugs to Brain Injuries

It was just awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation.

Thanks to scientists at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP), we may be headed towards a new and less invasive way to treat traumatic brain injuries.

Publishing their work in Nature Communications, the team describes a new technology that provides an alternate way of sending drugs or nanoparticles to injured areas in the brain.

“We have found a peptide sequence of four amino acids, cysteine, alanine, glutamine, and lysine (CAQK), that recognizes injured brain tissue,” senior author Erkki Ruoslahti, a professor in SBP’s NCI-Designated Cancer Center, said in a press release. “This peptide could be used to deliver treatments that limit the extent of damage.”

According to the researchers, the current interventions for acute brain injury aim to stabilize the patient by maintaining blood flow and reducing intracranial pressure. However, there are no approved drugs to prevent the “cascade of events that cause secondary injury,” says postdoc researcher Aman Mann, and this can lead to continued damage of brain cells and blood vessels over the following hours or days after initial injury.

“Our goal was to find an alternative to directly injecting therapeutics into the brain, which is invasive and can add complications,” explained Ruoslahti.

“Using this peptide to deliver drugs means they could be administered intravenously, but still reach the site of injury in sufficient quantities to have an effect.”

The CAQK peptide works by binding to components of the meshwork surrounding the brain, called chondroitin sulfate proteoglycans (CSPGs) — CSPGs are involved in critical cell processes like cell growth and adhesion. Following brain injury, the amounts of these large proteins increase.

“Not only did we show that CAQK carries drug-sized molecules and nanoparticles to damaged areas in mouse models of acute brain injury, we also tested peptide binding to injured human brain samples and found the same selectivity,” said Mann.

In the research, the scientists conclude that their results “open up brain injuries for nanomedicine-based therapeutic approaches.”

Given the fact that about 2.5 million people in the US sustain brain injuries each year — largely due to car crashes, falls, and violence — this new technology could serve to benefit many.

The technology has already been licensed by a startup company, called AivoCode, and the company was recently awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to help along the development and commercialization of the new technology.

Plus, the technology’s benefits may even surpass brain injuries. The team is currently testing the applications of their findings on animal models to determine whether the success would translate over to other central nervous system (CNS) injuries, like spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis (MS).

Deep brain stimulation can improve Parkinson’s symptoms by 70%

AFP Relaxnews | 29 June, 2016 10:16

By stimulating the brains of Parkinson’s patients using electrodes, neurologists at France’s CHU Saint-Étienne University Hospital found that this surgical technique could improve motor performance by 70% and reduce medication-based treatment by 40 to 60%.

When medication is no longer sufficient to control tremors, deep brain stimulation is a new alternative available to patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Practiced since May 2015 at France’s CHU Saint-Étienne University Hospital, the technique appears to have proven results. Successfully operated patients saw motor performance improve by 70% and medication-based treatments reduce by 40 to 60%. The benefits of the operation were also found to remain for at least five years, with clear effects on patients’ quality of life.

The operation is carried out under general anesthetic. It involves inserting two temporary electrodes into a patient’s brain through a tiny opening in the cranium, targeting the subthalamic nucleus, which plays a major role in controlling movement. Small doses of electrical current are then delivered via the electrodes, which are connected to a unit placed under the skin to monitor effectiveness and unwanted side effects.

At the end of the operation, a definitive set of electrodes is implanted at sites found to give the best results in terms of treatment and side effects. Patients then remain in hospital for seven to ten days to fine-tune the stimulation system and adjust medication doses in relation to their needs.

Deep brain stimulation is generally offered after seven to eight years of disease progression, when patients reach advanced stages of the disease with motor fluctuations during the day.

This technique can be used to treat Parkinson’s disease, tremors, obsessive compulsive disorders and dystonia.

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system characterized by the destruction of neurons that produce dopamine. It mainly affects the motor system, with effects including slowness of movement, rigidity — which is often asymmetrical — and a resting tremor. Patients can also present a multitude of other symptoms (anxiety, depression, pain, etc.).

Current treatments for Parkinson’s disease can partially control motor symptoms but have no effect on other symptoms or on the disease’s progression and degenerative nature.

MIT robot researchers use TV, YouTube to teach computers human tendencies

Lead researcher Carl Vondrick says the technique could help a robot move fluidly through a living space, known in artificial intelligence studies as predictive vision

PHOTO: Image: Carl Vondrick/MIT CSAIL

Scientists at MIT wanted to see if they could create an algorithm that could mimic a human being’s intuition. PHOTO: Carl Vondrick/MIT CSAIL

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Remember the Jetsons’ robot maid, Rosie? Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers think her future real-life incarnations can learn a thing or two from Steve Carell and other sitcom stars.MIT says a computer that binge-watched YouTube videos and TV shows such as “The Office,” ”Big Bang Theory“ and ”Desperate Housewives“ learned how to predict whether the actors were about to hug, kiss, shake hands or slap high fives—advances that eventually could help the next generation of artificial intelligence function less clumsily.

“It could help a robot move more fluidly through your living space,” lead researcher Carl Vondrick told The Associated Press in an interview. “The robot won’t want to start pouring milk if it thinks you’re about to pull the glass away.”

Vondrick also sees potential health-care applications: “If you can predict that someone’s about to fall down or start a fire or hurt themselves, it might give you a few seconds’ advance notice to intervene.”

The findings—two years in the making at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory—will be presented at next week’s International Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition in Las Vegas.

Vondrick, a doctoral candidate focusing on computer vision and machine learning with grants from Google and the National Science Foundation, worked with MIT professor Antonio Torralba and Hamed Pirsiavash, now at the University of Maryland. The trio wanted to see if they could create an algorithm that could mimic a human being’s intuition in anticipating what will happen next after two people meet.

To refine what’s known in artificial intelligence studies as “predictive vision,” they needed to expose their machine-learning system to video showing humans greeting one another.

Cue what Vondrick acknowledges were “random videos off YouTube.” Six hundred hours of them, to be precise.

The researchers downloaded the videos and converted them into visual representations—a sort of numerical interpretation of pixels on a screen that the algorithm could read and search for complex patterns.

They then showed the computer clips from TV sitcoms it had never seen before—interactions between “Big Bang Theory” stars Jim Parsons (Sheldon Cooper) and Kaley Cuoco (Penny), for example—and asked the algorithm to predict one second later whether the two would hug, kiss, shake hands or high-five.

The computer got it right more than 43 per cent of the time. That may not sound like much, but it’s better than existing algorithms with a 36 per cent success rate. Humans make the right call 71 per cent of the time.

In a video trailer of the study that showed the algorithm blowing it on a clip from “The Office,” the researchers quipped: “So it’s not perfect … still a long way to go.”

That likely will involve even more binge-watching. Six hundred hours of video sounds like a lot, but it’s not really that much. By the time we’re 10 years old, we’ve logged nearly 60,000 hours of waking-hours experience.

“Humans are really good at predicting the immediate future,” Pirsiavash, the team member now based in Baltimore, said Wednesday. “To have robots interact with humans seamlessly, the robot should be able to reason about the immediate future of our actions.”

Martial Hebert, director of the robotics institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the MIT study, called it “an important work.”

“Some argue that prediction is a central part of (artificial) intelligence,” Hebert said. “If you have a robot that can predict, you can map a deeper and more complicated understanding of the environment around it.”

The researchers’ biggest relief? The computer did all the binge-watching.

“We never had to watch the videos,” Vondrick said.