One handed morning coffee with an extra thumb. Credit: Dani Clode Design.

How many times have you said to yourself ‘if I only had an extra hand’? Well, it’s increasingly looking like that wish might come true. Scientists and engineers are exploring how extra fingers and arms might augment our biological design and abilities. Or how they might provide a way to recover partial motor function following an event like a stroke.

Over the last few years a handful of efforts have explored the integration of extra digits and even entire extra arms in a noninvasive way. This means that unlike (invasive) neural prosthesis intended to be surgically implanted in a patient…


Astrocyte neuroglial cells in the brain. Source: Getty Images.

When most people think about the brain they think about a huge interconnected network of neurons. Neurons are often called ‘brain cells’, and the two are used interchangeably. Neurons are, of course, critical cells in the makeup of the brain and play key roles in everything the brain is able to do. But it’s incorrect to think of neurons as the only cells in the brain. Or even the most important. In fact, neurons are actually only half the story. If you only considered neurons you’d be missing half the brain — quite literally.

Roughly speaking, there are 85 billion…


Professor Marcus Du Sautoy, University of Oxford. Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images.

The ‘Thinkers and Innovators’ series explores the science and philosophy of the brain and mind with some of the world’s foremost forward thinking experts. It also explores technologies used for studying and interfacing with the brain, as well as technologies motivated by the brain, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Marcus du Sautoy is Professor of Mathematics and the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. He is widely known for his work aimed at educating and popularizing science and mathematics to a general audience. He has written numerous popular books, including…


Figuring out how the brain works. Getty Images.

Your brain and mind make you who you are. And how they’re built is unique to you. That’s not a figure of speech, it’s the literal truth. The precise wiring of your brain — how your billions of neurons are connected — is different from everyone else.

Yet, despite this, interacting with other people and their own distinctive brains is an everyday occurrence. Understanding how the brain has evolved to communicate with other different brains — identifying universal computational rules and algorithms despite the diversity in how they’re wired up — has proven difficult to solve. Mathematics is providing the…


Getty Images.

This article is the first in a series that explores in a straight forward way the often not so straight forward inner workings of the brain and mind.

Everyone’s experienced it. Maybe it was in a dark forest on a camping trip. Or as a kid lying in bed. It’s dark, and you catch something out of the corner of your eyes, but you can’t really make it out. You immediately shift your gaze towards it to get a better look. But when you do, it disappears. It’s no longer there, it’s gone. All you see is darkness no matter…


Getty Images.

Identifying autism in toddlers is critical to beginning interventions early, and is associated with improved outcomes later in life. Soon, pediatricians and other health care providers will be able to install an app on their smartphone or tablet that is capable of analyzing the visual gaze of a toddler in order to determine if they may be on the autism spectrum. Eventually, parents and others will be able to download it onto their own mobile devices and do the screening themselves. …


True or False? Your brain has to assess risk and arrive at a decision. Getty Images.

How do you judge if something is factual? How do you make the decision to accept a statement as being true, versus it being misleading or flat out wrong? What are the calculations going on in your brain that lead to such a decision? And how do they determine who — and what — you trust? In today’s world, reliable information for some is the misinformation of others.

Your brain is constantly sampling its environment and evaluating risk. It has to combine real time sensory information and what it consumes with internal past experiences, biases, and lessons learned in order…


What happens to light when it hits the retinas in your eyes? Getty Images.

As you read these words, the retinas in your eyes are absorbing the light that makes up the patterns of letters and words, and your brain is then using that information to interpret their meaning, which in turn allows you to understand this article.

Light is made up of photons, little discrete packets of energy that travel through space as waves. Those photons interact with highly specialized neurons in your retinas called photoreceptors, and somehow, that light energy is converted from packets of energy into an electrical neural ‘language’ your brain can understand in the form of a neural-chemical signal…


Facing the uncertainties of long term space travel. Getty Images.

Over the next few years human exploration of our nearby solar system neighborhood may go from what was science fiction just a handful of years ago, to a new reality. A permanent human presence on the Moon, complete with an orbiting spaceship that shuttles astronauts to and from the lunar surface, will eventually become a launch pad for human missions to Mars. A new model of public-private-academic partnerships between NASA, well known companies such as SpaceX, but also many other ambitious companies, as well as research universities, will need to push the current limits of science and technology. …


When the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Getty Images.

In 1994 Carl Sagan wrote a book entitled ‘Pale Blue Dot’. In it, he explored the intellectual evolution of the human species, its place in the broader context of the cosmos, and where we might go in the future. The most well known and often quoted excerpt from the book is his description of earth and its inhabitants, inspired by a picture Voyager 1 took on February 14, 1990 as it looked back towards earth on its way to the outer fringes of our solar system from a distance of about 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers).

In the famous…

Gabriel A. Silva

Professor of Bioengineering and Neurosciences, University of California San Diego

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