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Brain researcher L.D. Lord
Oxford University neuroscientist Louis-David Lord discusses the effect of psychedelic drugs on the brain during the CNS 2018 conference at the University of Washington;. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

What’s the best way to fine-tune brain stimulation to stop tremors? How do brain-wave patterns shift as we grow up? Can psychedelic drugs reverse the descent into depression? Such questions are being addressed in Seattle this week during a conference that blends big data and brain science.

“We bring numbers to the game, with quantitative methods and computer modeling to understand brain data,” Emory University’s Astrid Prinz, president of the Organization for Computational Neurosciences, told GeekWire.

About 500 brain experts from 29 countries are attending the group’s annual meeting, CNS 2018, which has been jointly organized by the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the University of Washington.

The pace of brain discoveries is accelerating — in part because of mega-projects such as the federally backed BRAIN Initiative, and in part because the Allen Institute and other laboratories are generating huge sets of data relating to brain activity as well as the genetics of the brain.

Someone’s got to make sense of all those data sets, and that’s where computational neuroscience plays its part. CNS 2018’s attendees focus on the data analysis, statistics, computational modeling and the theoretical implications of brain studies.

Prinz stressed that the number-crunchers don’t dwell on their data in isolation.

“Forgive the pun, but it’s a no-brainer that they work with experimenters,” she said.

One of the big justifications for computer modeling of brain activity is that the models can suggest new directions for future experimental work, she said.

Take deep brain stimulation, for example: DBS therapy, which involves shooting electrical impulses into specific brain nuclei, can calm the tremors that are associated with Parkinson’s disease and other neurological conditions. But therapists would love to be able to improve the efficacy of the impulses.

“The circuits generating the tremors are still relatively poorly understood,” said Oxford University’s Benoit Duchet. To remedy that, he and his colleagues are trying to develop more accurate computer models to describe the mechanism behind DBS, and identify beneficial tweaks to the technique.

Meanwhile, researchers from Harvard Medical School are analyzing a huge database of brain readings collected from brain electrodes that have been implanted in children to control seizures. The computer models resulting from those readings could shed light on how brain circuits mature.

And then there are the magic mushrooms.

In one experiment, researchers administered a single moderate dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, to patients who were severely depressed and resistant to other forms of treatment.

“A week later, a majority of them were actually in remission. … It’s a very exciting starting point,” Oxford neuroscientist Louis-David Lord said.

Listen: Psychologist puts together a playlist for magic mushroom trips

A different experiment took advantage of functional MRI brain scans to document how psilocybin changed brain activity. The psychedelic drug reduced the activity of brain circuits that specialize in directing intentional resources toward a specific task, Lord said. Meanwhile, circuits that facilitate synchronization of different brain regions became more active.

The fMRI analysis suggests that the dose of psilocybin may have provided “a bit of a reset” for a depressed person who’s in a rut, Lord told GeekWire. But more analysis, and further experiments, will be required.

Lord emphasized that the patients in such studies are closely monitored for the signs of negative effects from a psychedelic episode. He knew of only one patient who experienced “a really bad trip,” and that patient quickly got the help that was needed.

“There’s a certain kind of stigma with these studies,” Lord acknowledged. “But that’s changing.”

CNS 2018 continues through Wednesday at the Allen Institute and other workshop locales.

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