Dr. E.J. Chichilnisky: How the Brain Works, Curing Blindness & How to Navigate a Career Path

Dr. E.J. Chichilnisky: How the Brain Works, Curing Blindness & How to Navigate a Career Path

Dr. E.J. Chichilnisky (00:00:00)

  • Dr. E.J. Chichilnisky is a professor of neurosurgery, ophthalmology, and neuroscience at Stanford University.
  • He is a leading researcher in understanding visual perception and applying that knowledge to design neural prosthetics, or robotic eyes, to restore sight to the blind.
  • His research also explores using AI and machine learning to enhance human perception, memory, and cognition.
  • The brain encodes the world around us through neurons, creating visual images within our minds.
  • Dr. Chichilnisky explains how this process works in clear terms.
  • Dr. Chichilnisky's research focuses on developing robotic eyes that can allow blind people to see again.
  • These robotic eyes use AI and machine learning to interpret visual information and transmit it to the brain.
  • Dr. Chichilnisky shares his unique career path, which involved wandering through three different graduate programs and taking several years off to pursue dance.
  • He emphasizes that not everyone who is highly accomplished in their career always knew exactly what they wanted to do.
  • Dr. Chichilnisky's experiences and insights provide valuable tools that anyone can apply to their own life and pursuits.

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  • Dr. Chichilnisky is a neuroscientist who studies the brain and vision.
  • The brain is an incredibly complex organ, and we are still learning how it works.
  • The brain is responsible for everything from our thoughts and emotions to our movements and bodily functions.
  • The brain is divided into two hemispheres, the left and the right.
  • The left hemisphere is responsible for logical thinking, language, and mathematics.
  • The right hemisphere is responsible for creative thinking, emotions, and music.
  • The brain is constantly changing and adapting, and it is capable of learning new things throughout our lives.
  • Dr. Chichilnisky's research focuses on understanding how the brain processes visual information.
  • She is also working on developing new treatments for blindness.
  • Dr. Chichilnisky is passionate about science and education, and she is committed to sharing her knowledge with the public.
  • She believes that everyone should have access to accurate information about science and health.
  • Dr. Chichilnisky is an inspiration to us all, and her work is helping to improve the lives of people around the world.

Vision & Brain; Retina (00:06:06)

  • Vision is initiated in the retina, a sheet of neural tissue at the rear of the eye.
  • The retina captures light, transforms it into electrical signals, processes them, and sends visual information to the brain.
  • The brain assembles patterns of electrical activity from the retina into our visual experience.
  • The retina plays a crucial role in vision, as it captures and processes light before sending visual information to the brain.
  • Understanding the retina is essential for comprehending visual perception and restoring sight to those who have lost it.

Retina & Visual Processing (00:11:23)

  • The retina, the best-understood part of the brain, consists of three cell layers: photoreceptor cells, processing cells, and retinal ganglion cells.
  • Photoreceptor cells convert light into electrical signals, while processing cells extract features from the visual world.
  • Retinal ganglion cells transmit signals from the retina to the brain, creating 20 different representations of the visual world.
  • The brain combines these representations to form a cohesive sense of vision, extracting physical features from the environment for interaction.
  • Vision is fundamental to human existence, enabling interaction with the world, while rodents rely more on smell and whiskers.

Vision in Humans & Other Animals, Color (00:18:37)

  • The human retina creates a visual representation of the outside world that can be different from other species.
  • Mantis shrimp can see 60 to 100 different variations of each color that humans cannot see because their photoreceptors can detect subtle differences in red light.
  • Pit vipers can sense heat emissions with their eyes and other organs.
  • The human neuro retina extracts features from the visual world and recreates them, but it's not a complete representation of what's out there.
  • Humans only have three types of photoreceptor cells in their retinas, which limits their ability to capture wavelength information compared to other creatures.
  • TVs use only three primary colors (red, green, and blue) to create the entire richness of the visual experience.
  • Rodents have cells in their retinas that are sensitive to looming objects, which may help them avoid being hunted by birds.
  • Different species have different visual systems that reflect their specific biological niches and the things they need to look for in their environment.

Studying the Human Retina (00:23:01)

  • Dr. Chichilnisky's lab studies the electrical activity of retinal ganglion cells to understand how the retina functions normally and to develop methods to restore vision through electrical stimulation.
  • When a human retina becomes available for research, the lab team works non-stop for 48 hours to collect as much data as possible.
  • The retinas are obtained from brain-dead individuals whose organs are being donated through organizations like Donor Network West.
  • The retinas are cut into small pieces and placed in a custom-built electrophysiology recording and stimulation apparatus that allows for high-density recording and stimulation through 512 channels simultaneously.
  • By recording the electrical activity of retinal ganglion cells, researchers can understand how the retina functions normally and use the same apparatus to pass current through electrodes to activate ganglion cells directly without light, which helps in designing future methods for restoring vision through electrical stimulation of the retina.

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Cell Types (00:31:16)

  • Retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) cover the entire retina and each type extracts different features from the visual world.
  • Cell types are crucial for understanding how the brain works and consciousness.
  • Different RGC types have different morphology, gene expression, targets in the brain, and electrical properties.
  • 512 electrode technology allows simultaneous recording of hundreds of cells, making it easier to identify and separate different cell types.
  • Identifying cell types based on electrical features is important for developing devices to restore vision.

Determining Cell Function in Retina (00:36:00)

  • Researchers use electrodes to record electrical signals from retinal ganglion cells while showing them various visual stimuli to determine their function.
  • Different cell types respond to specific features in the visual world, such as increments of light, large or small targets, different wavelengths of light, or movement.
  • An unbiased flickering checkerboard pattern is used to efficiently sample many cells simultaneously and determine their types.
  • The retina is a highly evolved organ with about 20 different cell types, but we only have basic characterizations of seven of them.
  • The retina sends information to the brain through a small optic nerve, so all of the signals from the retina likely serve important functions for our visual behavior, well-being, or sleep.

Retinal Cell Types & Stimuli (00:43:39)

  • The retina, the best understood circuit in the nervous system, contains seven cell types that transmit visual information from the eye to the brain.
  • These seven cell types make up approximately 70% of all the neurons involved in vision.
  • Recent research has revealed the existence of 15 new cell types in the retina with unusual properties, some of which respond to specific shapes or patterns of light.
  • Understanding these new cell types is crucial for developing neuroengineering techniques to restore vision to the blind.

Retinal Prostheses, Implants (00:49:27)

  • The retina sends signals to the brain, and understanding these signals can lead to medical applications and advancements in neuroengineering.
  • Neuroengineering involves creating devices to enhance nervous system function, such as improving vision or providing enhanced memory.
  • Macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa cause blindness due to the loss of photoreceptor cells.
  • Electronic implants can bypass damaged retinal cells and directly stimulate retinal ganglion cells, allowing blind individuals to perceive visual sensations.
  • Current retinal implants fail to provide high-quality vision because they treat the retina as a simple grid of pixels, ignoring the different cell types and complex patterns of electrical activity they generate.
  • To restore vision effectively, retinal implants need to be designed based on the science of the retina's circuitry, recognizing and stimulating the distinct cell types separately.
  • Dr. Chichilnisky's lab is focused on developing an interface with the retina to restore vision by understanding how to stimulate and recognize cells in the retina and building a device that can communicate with these cells.

Artificial Retina, Augmenting Vision (01:00:25)

  • Dr. Chichilnisky's research focuses on developing an artificial retina to restore or enhance vision and explore the brain's response to artificial retinal stimulation.
  • The brain can process multiple sensory inputs simultaneously without interference, suggesting the potential for safe multitasking, such as reading text while driving, by harnessing different retinal cell types to process different visual information independently.
  • Visual augmentation, enabled by controlling parallel pathways in the retina, allows for streaming various visual information into the brain's high-bandwidth visual system.
  • Artificial retinas serve as research tools to understand how the brain receives visual information from different cell types, opening up the possibility of augmenting vision and creating new visual sensations.
  • The technologies used in artificial retinas can be applied to access different cell types in the brain.

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Neuroengineering, Neuroaugmentation & Specificity (01:07:12)

  • Dr. Chichilnisky believes the neural retina is the best place to understand how the brain works due to its well-known arrangement and cell types.
  • She conducted experiments on human and other retinas to record different cell types and understand how light transforms into electrical signals.
  • The challenge lies in developing neuroengineering tools that can stimulate specific retinal cell types in a way that mimics their normal activation patterns.
  • This could lead to the development of prosthetic devices that restore vision or augment human capabilities, such as enhancing perception of outlines, motion, or details.
  • Dr. Chichilnisky emphasizes the responsibility of scientists to use this knowledge ethically and thoughtfully for the benefit of humanity.

Building a Smart Device, AI (01:17:01)

  • The retina is the best place to start building a smart device because it is easily accessible and well-understood.
  • A smart device should be able to:
    • Record electrical activity to identify cells and cell types in the circuit.
    • Stimulate and record to calibrate the stimulation.
    • Use AI to learn about the tissue and represent visual images in the pattern of activity of the cells.
  • AI is a helpful engineering tool that can capture what the device normally does and execute it.

Neural Prosthesis, Paralysis; Specificity (01:20:02)

  • Electric shock therapy is still used for depression despite its crude nature because it effectively resets the brain and releases neurotransmitters. However, it lacks specificity and is comparable to rebooting a computer.
  • Neural prostheses, such as spinal cord stimulators, are showing promise in restoring movement to paralyzed individuals.
  • Understanding neural circuits and developing specific hardware is crucial for more targeted interventions and augmentation of human senses.
  • The National Institutes of Health focuses on restoring human senses rather than augmenting them, blurring the line between restoration and enhancement.
  • Many cameras are sensitive to infrared light and can provide some infrared vision without an infrared filter.
  • As technology advances and devices are built to restore sensations, augmentation becomes a natural next step.

Neurodegeneration; Adult Neuroplasticity; Implant Specificity (01:25:21)

  • The neural retina, an extension of the brain, offers insights into neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.
  • The brain's plasticity allows it to adapt and learn through gradual adjustments to sensory experiences.
  • Spike timing-dependent plasticity enables neurons to adjust their connections based on signal timing.
  • The brain's neural code can be gradually taught to comprehend signals from electronic implants through incremental adjustments.
  • Realistic and incremental approaches are crucial for understanding brain function and developing effective augmenting devices.
  • Early electrode stimulation experiments, while significant, lacked precision and sophistication.
  • Smart electronic implants should be developed to sense their surroundings and adapt their activity patterns, reducing the burden on the brain to adapt to simple devices.
  • Advances in science, technology, and AI should be harnessed to create smarter implants that communicate effectively with the brain.

Career Journey, Music & Dance, Neuroscience (01:34:00)

  • Dr. Chichilnisky's path to becoming a neuroscientist was not linear, as she initially studied math at Princeton before pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience, inspired by her undergraduate professor, Don Ready, and her Ph.D. advisor, Brian Wandell.
  • She emphasizes that successful individuals often don't have a clear plan from the beginning and encourages exploration of different paths to find the right fit.
  • Dr. Chichilnisky highlights the importance of dance as a universal human activity and its potential role as an early form of language, preceding spoken language.
  • She stresses the significance of her expertise in retinal research, which has positioned her as one of the few individuals capable of translating scientific understanding into practical technology to restore vision.

Self-Understanding, Coffee; Self-Love, Meditation & Yoga (01:42:55)

  • Chichilnisky believes in self-exploration and knowing one's taste.
  • She is goal-directed and approaches problems with precision.
  • Chichilnisky makes decisions based on feelings rather than thoughts.
  • She emphasizes the importance of self-knowledge, being oneself, and self-love.
  • Chichilnisky meditates informally with coffee in the morning and practices Ashtanga Yoga for physical, spiritual, and meditative benefits.

Body Signals & Decisions; Beauty (01:47:50)

  • Dr. Chichilnisky describes the feeling of being on the right path as "ease," a whole-body experience that can be observed through body language and physical cues.
  • Dr. Chichilnisky believes that recognizing the feeling of ease is crucial for staying on the right path.
  • Some aspects of human experience, such as personal energy or the beauty of art, should be appreciated without scientific explanation.
  • Dr. Chichilnisky's research focuses on restoring vision to the blind and developing neuroengineering technologies to enhance brain function.
  • Dr. Chichilnisky's career path involved exploring different fields while cultivating an intuitive sense of beauty and taste.
  • Dr. Chichilnisky's work combines scientific exploration with a mission to serve humanity.

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