DMT affects human consciousness by significantly altering the brain’s electrical activity

Analysis revealed that DMT significantly altered electrical activity in the brain, characterised by a marked drop off in alpha waves and an increase in delta and theta waves. Red circle shows an increase in the lower frequency delta and theta waves (Credit: Chris Timmermann)

Scientists have peered inside the brain to show how taking DMT affects human consciousness by significantly altering the brain’s electrical activity.

DMT (or dimethyltryptamine) is one of the main psychoactive constituents in ayahuasca, the psychedelic brew traditionally made from vines and leaves of the Amazon rainforest. The drink is typically prepared as part of a shamanic ceremony and associated with unusual and vivid visions or hallucinations.

The latest study is the first to show how the potent psychedelic changes our waking brain waves – with researchers comparing its powerful effects to ‘dreaming while awake’.

The work, led by researchers from the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London and published today in the journal Scientific Reports, may help to explain why people taking DMT and ayahuasca experience intense visual imagery and immersive ‘waking-dream’ like experiences.

DMT is a naturally occurring chemical found in miniscule amounts in the human brain but also in larger amounts in a number of plant species around the world.

Accounts from people who have taken DMT report intense visual hallucinations often accompanied by strong emotional experiences and even ‘breakthroughs’ into what users describe as an alternate reality or dimension.

It’s clear these people are completely immersed in their experience – it’s like daydreaming only far more vivid and immersive, it’s like dreaming but with your eyes open  Christopher TImmermannCentre for Psychedelic Research

But scientists are interested in using the powerful psychoactive compound for research as it produces relatively short but intense psychedelic experiences, providing a window for collecting data on brain activity when consciousness is profoundly altered.

In the latest study, the Imperial team captured EEG measures from healthy participants in a clinical setting, in a placebo-controlled design.

A total of 13 participants were given an intravenous infusion of DMT at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Imperial Clinical Research Facility. Volunteers were fitted with caps with electrodes to measure the brain’s electrical activity, before, during and after their infusion, with the peak of the psychedelic experience lasting around 10 minutes.

Analysis revealed that DMT significantly altered electrical activity in the brain, characterised by a marked drop off in alpha waves – the human brain’s dominant electrical rhythm when we are awake. They also found a short-lived increase in brainwaves typically associated with dreaming, namely, theta waves.

‘Chaotic’ brain activity

In addition to changes in the types of brainwaves, they also found that, overall, brain activity became more chaotic and less predictable – the opposite to what is seen in states of reduced consciousness, such as in deep sleep or under general anaesthesia.

“The changes in brain activity that accompany DMT are slightly different from what we see with other psychedelics, such as psilocybin or LSD, where we see mainly only reductions in brainwaves,” said lead author Christopher Timmermann, from the Centre for Psychedelic Research.

“Here we saw an emergent rhythm that was present during the most intense part of the experience, suggesting an emerging order amidst the otherwise chaotic patterns of brain activity.

“From the altered brainwaves and participants’ reports, it’s clear these people are completely immersed in their experience – it’s like daydreaming only far more vivid and immersive, it’s like dreaming but with your eyes open.”

Research with DMT may yield important insights into the relationship between brain activity and consciousness, and this small study is a first step along that road  Dr Robin Carhart-HarrisCentre for Psychedelic Research

Mr Timmermann explains that while it’s unclear as to whether DMT may have any clinical potential at this stage, the group hopes to take the work further by delivering a continuous infusion of DMT to extend the window of the psychedelic experience and collect more data.

The team says future studies could include more sophisticated measurements of brain activity, such as fMRI, to show which regions and networks of the brain are affected by DMT. They believe the visual cortex, the large area towards the back of the brain, is likely to be involved.

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, head of Centre for Psychedelic Research, said: “DMT is a particularly intriguing psychedelic. The visual vividness and depth of immersion produced by high-doses of the substance seems to be on a scale above what is reported with more widely studied psychedelics such as psilocybin or ‘magic mushrooms’.

“It’s hard to capture and communicate what it is like for people experiencing DMT but likening it to dreaming while awake or a near-death experience is useful.

“Our sense it that research with DMT may yield important insights into the relationship between brain activity and consciousness, and this small study is a first step along that road.”

Learn more: Ayahuasca compound changes brainwaves to vivid ‘waking-dream’ state


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Can AI predict what different cars will do by classifing the social personalities of drivers?

2 Lane-merge example – detecting altruistic vs. egoistic behavior (image credit MIT CSAIL)

Self-driving cars are coming. But for all their fancy sensors and intricate data-crunching abilities, even the most cutting-edge cars lack something that (almost) every 16-year-old with a learner’s permit has: social awareness.

While autonomous technologies have improved substantially, they still ultimately view the drivers around them as obstacles made up of ones and zeros, rather than human beings with specific intentions, motivations and personalities.

But recently a team led by researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has been exploring whether self-driving cars can be programmed to classify the social personalities of other drivers, so that they can better predict what different cars will do – and, therefore, be able to drive more safely among them.

In a new paper, the scientists integrated tools from social psychology to classify driving behavior with respect to how selfish or selfless a particular driver is.

Specifically, they used something called Social Value Orientation (SVO), which represents the degree to which someone is selfish (“egoistic”) versus altruistic or cooperative (“prosocial”). The system then estimates drivers’ SVOs to create real-time driving trajectories for self-driving cars.

Testing their algorithm on the tasks of merging lanes and making unprotected left turns, the team showed that they could better predict the behavior of other cars by a factor of 25 percent. For example, in the left-turn simulations their car knew to wait when the approaching car had a more egoistic driver, and to then make the turn when the other car was more prosocial.

While not yet robust enough to be implemented on real roads, the system could have some intriguing use cases, and not just for the cars that drive themselves. Say you’re a human driving along and a car suddenly enters your blind spot – the system could give you a warning in the rear-view mirror that the car has an aggressive driver, allowing you to adjust accordingly. It could also allow self-driving cars to actually learn to exhibit more human-like behavior that will be easier for human drivers to understand.

“Working with and around humans means figuring out their intentions to better understand their behavior,” says graduate student Wilko Schwarting, who was lead author on the new paper that will be published this week in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). “People’s tendencies to be collaborative or competitive often spills over into how they behave as drivers. In this paper we sought to understand if this was something we could actually quantify.”

Schwarting’s co-authors include MIT professors Sertac Karaman and Daniela Rus, as well as research scientist Alyssa Pierson and former CSAIL postdoctoral associate Javier Alonso-Mora.

Trafficking in human emotion

A central issue with today’s self-driving cars is that they’re programmed to assume that all humans act the same way. This means that, among other things, they’re quite conservative in their decision-making at four-way stops and other intersections.

While this caution reduces the chance of fatal accidents, it also creates bottlenecks that can be frustrating for other drivers, not to mention hard for them to understand. (This may be why the majority of traffic incidents have involved getting rear-ended by impatient drivers.)

“Creating more human-like behavior in autonomous vehicles (AVs) is fundamental for the safety of passengers and surrounding vehicles, since behaving in a predictable manner enables humans to understand and appropriately respond to the AV’s actions,” says Schwarting.

To try to expand the car’s social awareness, the CSAIL team combined methods from social psychology with game theory, a theoretical framework for conceiving social situations among competing players.

The team modeled road scenarios where each driver tried to maximize their own utility and analyzed their “best responses” given the decisions of all other agents. Based on that small snippet of motion from other cars, the team’s algorithm could then predict the surrounding cars’ behavior as cooperative, altruistic, or egoistic — grouping the first two as “prosocial.” People’s scores for these qualities rest on a continuum with respect to how much a person demonstrates care for themselves versus care for others.

In the merging and left-turn scenarios, the two outcome options were to either let somebody merge into your lane (“prosocial”) or not (“egoistic”). The team’s results showed that, not surprisingly, merging cars are deemed more competitive than non-merging cars.

The system was trained to try to better understand when it’s appropriate to exhibit different behaviors. For example, even the most deferential of human drivers knows that certain types of actions – like making a lane change in heavy traffic – require a moment of being more assertive and decisive.

For the next phase of the research, the team plans to work to apply their model to pedestrians, bicycles and other agents in driving environments. In addition, they will be investigating other robotic systems acting among humans, such as household robots, and integrating SVO into their prediction and decision-making algorithms. Pierson says that the ability to estimate SVO distributions directly from observed motion instead of in laboratory conditions will be important for fields far beyond autonomous driving.

“By modeling driving personalities and incorporating the models mathematically using the SVO in the decision-making module of a robot car, this work opens the door to safer and more seamless road-sharing between human-driven and robot-driven cars,” says Rus.

Learn more: Predicting people’s driving personalities


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Fighting malnutrition with microparticles and micronutrients

MIT engineers have developed a way to encapsulate nutrients in a biocompatible polymer, making it easier to use them to fortify foods.
Image: Second Bay Studios

New strategy for encapsulating nutrients makes it easier to fortify foods with iron and vitamin A.

About 2 billion people around the world suffer from deficiencies of key micronutrients such as iron and vitamin A. Two million children die from these deficiencies every year, and people who don’t get enough of these nutrients can develop blindness, anemia, and cognitive impairments.

MIT researchers have now developed a new way to fortify staple foods with these micronutrients by encapsulating them in a biocompatible polymer that prevents the nutrients from being degraded during storage or cooking. In a small clinical trial, they showed that women who ate bread fortified with encapsulated iron were able to absorb iron from the food.

“We are really excited that our team has been able to develop this unique nutrient-delivery system that has the potential to help billions of people in the developing world, and taken it all the way from inception to human clinical trials,” says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

The researchers now hope to run clinical trials in developing nations where micronutrient deficiencies are common.

Langer and Ana Jaklenec, a research scientist at the Koch Institute, are the senior authors of the study, which appears today in Science Translational Medicine. The paper’s lead authors are former MIT postdocs Aaron Anselmo and Xian Xu, and ETH Zurich graduate student Simone Buerkli.

Protecting nutrients

Lack of vitamin A is the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness, and it can also impair immunity, making children more susceptible to diseases such as measles. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia and also impairs cognitive development in children, contributing to a “cycle of poverty,” Jaklenec says.

“These children don’t do well in school because of their poor health, and when they grow up, they may have difficulties finding a job, so their kids are also living in poverty and often without access to education,” she says.

The MIT team, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, set out to develop new technology that could help with efforts to fortify foods with essential micronutrients. Fortification has proven successful in the past with iodized salt, for example, and offers a way to incorporate nutrients in a way that doesn’t require people to change their eating habits.

“What’s been shown to be effective for food fortification is staple foods, something that’s in the household and people use every day,” Jaklenec says. “Everyone eats salt or flour, so you don’t need to change anything in their everyday practices.”

However, simply adding vitamin A or iron to foods doesn’t work well. Vitamin A is very sensitive to heat and can be degraded during cooking, and iron can bind to other molecules in food, giving the food a metallic taste. To overcome that, the MIT team set out to find a way to encapsulate micronutrients in a material that would protect them from being broken down or interacting with other molecules, and then release them after being consumed.

The researchers tested about 50 different polymers and settled on one known as BMC. This polymer is currently used in dietary supplements, and in the United States it is classified as “generally regarded as safe.”

Using this polymer, the researchers showed that they could encapsulate 11 different micronutrients, including zinc, vitamin B2, niacin, biotin, and vitamin C, as well as iron and vitamin A. They also demonstrated that they could encapsulate combinations of up to four of the micronutrients together.

Tests in the lab showed that the encapsulated micronutrients were unharmed after being boiled for two hours. The encapsulation also protected nutrients from ultraviolet light and from oxidizing chemicals, such as polyphenols, found in fruits and vegetables. When the particles were exposed to very acidic conditions (pH 1.5, typical of the pH in the stomach), the polymer become soluble and the micronutrients were released.

In tests in mice, the researchers showed that particles broke down in the stomach, as expected, and the cargo traveled to the small intestine, where it can be absorbed.

Iron boost

After the successful animal tests, the researchers decided to test the encapsulated micronutrients in human subjects. The trial was led by Michael Zimmerman, a professor of health sciences and technology at ETH Zurich who studies nutrition and food fortification.

In their first trial, the researchers incorporated encapsulated iron sulfate into maize porridge, a corn-derived product common in developing world, and mixed the maize with a vegetable sauce. In that initial study, they found that people who ate the fortified maize — female university students in Switzerland, most of whom were anemic — did not absorb as much iron as the researchers hoped they would. The amount of iron absorbed was a little less than half of what was absorbed by subjects who consumed iron sulfate that was not encapsulated.

After that, the researchers decided to reformulate the particles and found that if they boosted the percentage of iron sulfate in the particles from 3 percent to about 18 percent, they could achieve iron absorption rates very similar to the percentage for unencapsulated iron sulfate. In that second trial, also conducted at ETH, they mixed the encapsulated iron into flour and then used it to bake bread.

“Reformulation of the microparticles was possible because our platform was tunable and amenable to large-scale manufacturing approaches,” Anselmo says. “This allowed us to improve our formulation based on the feedback from the first trial.”

The next step, Jaklenec says, is to try a similar study in a country where many people experience micronutrient deficiencies. The researchers are now working on gaining regulatory approval from the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives. They are also working on identifying other foods that would be useful to fortify, and on scaling up their manufacturing process so they can produce large quantities of the powdered micronutrients.

Learn more: Microparticles could help fight malnutrition


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AI agents can adopt human design strategies to solve problems

Trusses represent complex design challenges for engineers. Researchers are investigating how artificial intelligence (AI) agents can partner with humans to construct effective new designs that are better than those developed by humans or AI alone. CREDIT Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering

AI agents imitate engineers to construct effective new designs using visual cues like humans do

Trained AI agents can adopt human design strategies to solve problems, according to findings published in the ASME Journal of Mechanical Design.

Big design problems require creative and exploratory decision making, a skill in which humans excel. When engineers use artificial intelligence (AI), they have traditionally applied it to a problem within a defined set of rules rather than having it generally follow human strategies to create something new. This novel research considers an AI framework that learns human design strategies through observation of human data to generate new designs without explicit goal information, bias, or guidance.

The study was co-authored by Jonathan Cagan, professor of mechanical engineering and interim dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering, Ayush Raina, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon, and Chris McComb, an assistant professor of engineering design at the Pennsylvania State University.

“The AI is not just mimicking or regurgitating solutions that already exist,” said Cagan. “It’s learning how people solve a specific type of problem and creating new design solutions from scratch.” How good can AI be? “The answer is quite good.”

The study focuses on truss problems because they represent complex engineering design challenges. Commonly seen in bridges, a truss is an assembly of rods forming a complete structure. The AI agents were trained to observe the progression in design modification sequences that had been followed in creating a truss based on the same visual information that engineers use–pixels on a screen–but without further context. When it was the agents’ turn to design, they imagined design progressions that were similar to those used by humans and then generated design moves to realize them. The researchers emphasized visualization in the process because vision is an integral part of how humans perceive the world and go about solving problems.

The framework was made up of multiple deep neural networks which worked together in a prediction-based situation. Using a neural network, the AI looked through a set of five sequential images and predicted the next design using the information it gathered from these images.

“We were trying to have the agents create designs similar to how humans do it, imitating the process they use: how they look at the design, how they take the next action, and then create a new design, step by step,” said Raina.

The researchers tested the AI agents on similar problems and found that on average, they performed better than humans. Yet, this success came without many of the advantages humans have available when they are solving problems. Unlike humans, the agents were not working with a specific goal (like making something lightweight) and did not receive feedback on how well they were doing. Instead, they only used the vision-based human strategy techniques they had been trained to use.

“It’s tempting to think that this AI will replace engineers, but that’s simply not true,” said McComb. “Instead, it can fundamentally change how engineers work. If we can offload boring, time-consuming tasks to an AI, like we did in the work, then we free engineers up to think big and solve problems creatively.”

Learn more: AI learns to design


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Medical researchers can help when society is rejecting facts

Janet Robishaw, Ph.D., senior author, senior associate dean for research, and chair of the Department of Biomedical Science in FAU’s Schmidt College of Medicine, and a member of the FAU Brain Institute (I-BRAIN). (Photo by Alex Dolce)

One study says coffee is good for you, while another study says that it’s not. They’re both right, within context. This dichotomy together with an environment of distrust spurred by anecdotes, fake news, and to a large extent, social media, has created a skeptical and misinformed public.

As a result, researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine and collaborators say society is rejecting the facts. Now more than ever, medical researchers must help the public understand the rigorous process of science, which has been around for thousands of years. In return, the public has to pay attention, realize that one size doesn’t fit all, and understand that the answers are not just black or white. Lives are depending on it.

In an article published in the American Journal of Medicine the researchers highlight opportunities for academic institutions to achieve and maintain research integrity, which encompasses accountability for all scientific and financial issues, including human subjects’ and animal protections, investigator accountability, grant submission, design, conduct, analyses, and interpretation of findings, oversight of colleagues and students, environmental health and safety, among others. Research integrity focuses on the many positive attributes that should be sought and maintained by academic institutions as well as their faculty, staff, and trainees. This includes transparency, rigor, and reproducibility.

The best way for medical researchers to meet this challenge is by continuing to ensure integrity, rigor, reproducibility and replication of their science and to earn the public’s trust by being morally responsible and completely free of any influences. Medical researchers have a passion for truth and discovery, therefore, integrity and trust are essential attributes.

“The reason that the public has lost trust and confidence in science is multifaceted and complicated,” said Janet Robishaw, Ph.D., senior author, senior associate dean for research, and chair of the Department of Biomedical Science in FAU’s Schmidt College of Medicine, and a member of the FAU Brain Institute (I-BRAIN), one of the University’s four research pillars. “One of the main reasons is anecdotal stories, which can be very powerful, and are being given too much weight. There’s so much news coming out from so many sources including social media. That’s why it’s imperative for the public to discern an anecdote from scientific results in a peer-reviewed journal. This is how the premise that vaccinations cause autism evolved along with fabricated results that pushed the anti-vaccination movement.”

Robishaw and corresponding author Charles H. Hennekens, M.D., Dr.PH, first Sir Richard Doll Professor and senior academic advisor in FAU’s Schmidt College of Medicine, stress that research integrity starts with investigators who share the guiding principles of honesty, openness, and accountability and who provide scientific and ethical mentorship to their trainees. As researchers compete for increasingly limited resources and face growing challenges with evolving technologies, broad consensus is required across the research enterprise, including funding agencies, medical journals as well as all academic institutions, to address these increasingly major clinical, ethical and legal challenges.

“Our common goal should be to return public trust in our research enterprise, which has done so much good for so many,” said Robishaw. “The more we can do as scientists to promote our guiding principles of rigor, transparency, honesty and reproducibility and to provide the best evidence possible and get people to understand them, the greater the likelihood that they will listen to the message and follow it.”

Among the opportunities the authors provide for enhancing research integrity include identifying the best benchmarking practices, establishing a research compliance infrastructure and implementing a quality assurance plan. These priorities should include assessing the research climate, developing policies and responsibilities for ethics investigations, and providing a process for resolution of formal disputes. In addition, establishing lists of independent experts to conduct periodic reviews of institutional procedures could be helpful. Reinforcing existing regulatory policies that include emails regarding grant routing and regulatory policies, and providing both formal and informal training to faculty, staff, and trainees are other suggestions the authors provide.

“We should not allow research misconduct committed by a very small minority of researchers to detract from the growing focus on efforts to improve the overall quality of the research process carried out by the vast majority,” said Hennekens. “I continue to believe that the overwhelming majority of researchers strive for and achieve scientific excellence and research integrity.”

In conclusion, the authors, which include David L. DeMets, Ph.D., professor emeritus, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public HealthSarah K. Wood, M.D., senior associate dean for medical education, and Phillip Boiselle, M.D., dean, both in FAU’s Schmidt College of Medicine, emphasize that research integrity requires synchronicity and collaboration between as well as within all academic institutions.

“If we fail to maintain research integrity we will lose public trust and it will lead to avoidable consequences of substantial penalties, financial and otherwise, adverse publicity and reputational damage,” said Robishaw. “Scientists must strive to self-regulate and earn public trust to advance health.”



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