Study Explores the Brain's Capacity to Learn

   (NIH) - 8/29/2014 - Learning is easier when it only requires nerve cells to rearrange existing patterns of activity than when the nerve cells have to generate new patterns, a study of monkeys has found. The scientists explored the brain’s capacity to learn through recordings of electrical activity of brain cell networks. The study was partly funded by the National Institutes of Health.
   “We looked into the brain and may have seen why it’s so hard to think outside the box,” said Aaron Batista, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a senior author of the study published in Nature, with Byron Yu, Ph.D., assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.
   The human brain contains nearly 86 billion neurons, which communicate through intricate networks of connections. Understanding how they work together during learning can be challenging. Batista and his colleagues combined two innovative technologies, brain-computer interfaces and machine learning, to study patterns of activity among neurons in monkey brains as the animals learned to use their thoughts to move a computer cursor.
   “This is a fundamental advance in understanding the neurobiological patterns that underlie the learning process,” said Theresa Cruz, Ph.D., a program official at the National Center for Medical Rehabilitations Research at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). “The findings may eventually lead to new treatments for stroke as well as other neurological disorders.”
   Brain-computer interfaces seek to turn thoughts into action. With small surgically implanted electrodes, researchers can simultaneously monitor the electrical activity of hundreds of neurons. A computer converts the signals into commands to move an external device, such as a robotic arm or a computer cursor. Brain-computer interfaces are being developed to help paralyzed patients as well as to study the function of healthy brains.
   “This evolving technology is a powerful tool for brain research,” said Daofen Chen, Ph.D., a program director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of NIH. “It helps scientists study the dynamics of brain circuits that may explain the neural basis of learning.”
   In this study, the research team used brain-computer interfaces in two animals to examine learning in the motor cortex, a part of the brain that controls movement. The firing patterns of the neurons they recorded were used to control a computer cursor. As the animals learned to move the cursor to a designated spot on the monitor, the computer used machine learning to map brain cell activity to cursor movement. Machine learning is a method of programming a computer to learn and constantly adjust its commands based on previous data or experience. In this case, it created a feedback loop between the animal and the computer, which improved the animal’s ability to use its thoughts to move the cursor.
   “Just as Netflix uses machine learning to predict the movies we’d like to watch, we used it to characterize the activity patterns that the brain produced during learning,” Yu said.
   At first, the scientists noticed that the ensemble of neurons recorded in each animal had a small set of natural, or favored, firing patterns that were used to move the cursor, which they called the “intrinsic manifold.” After determining the intrinsic manifold, the team reprogrammed the map between neural activity and cursor movement. For instance, if a firing pattern originally caused the cursor to move to the top of the screen, then the interface would move the cursor to the bottom. The team then observed whether the animals could learn to generate the appropriate neural activity patterns to compensate for the changes.
   “It’s as if we turned a computer mouse upside down in a person’s hand and asked him to click on an icon, except the mouse is entirely within the subject’s brain,” said Patrick Sadtler, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, who is the lead author of the study.
   The scientists discovered that the monkeys easily relearned how to move the cursor if they could use patterns within the intrinsic manifold in new ways. In contrast, learning was more difficult when the interface required patterns of neural activity that were outside of the intrinsic manifold.
   “It appears that the brain sets constraints on the speed with which we learn new things. Characterizing those constraints might enable us to predict which skills will be quicker to learn, and which might take longer,” Batista said. He and his colleagues speculated that, for humans, thinking outside the box requires more difficult changes in neural activity.
   This work was supported by grants from the NICHD (HD071686), NINDS (NS065065, NS076405), National Science Foundation (DGE-0549352), and the Burroughs Welcome Fund. 
   For more information on brain research, visit:
   Source: National Institutes of Health 

Lawsuit Challenges U.S. Deportation Policy

   WASHINGTON — 8/24/2014 - The American Civil Liberties Union, American Immigration Council, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and National Immigration Law Center today sued the federal government to challenge its policies denying a fair deportation process to mothers and children who have fled extreme violence, death threats, rape, and persecution in Central America and come to the United States seeking safety.
    The groups filed the case on behalf of mothers and children locked up at an isolated detention center in Artesia, New Mexico — hours from the nearest major metropolitan area. The complaint charges the Obama administration with enacting a new strong-arm policy to ensure rapid deportations by holding these mothers and their children to a nearly insurmountable and erroneous standard to prove their asylum claims, and by placing countless hurdles in front of them.
    "These mothers and their children have sought refuge in the United States after fleeing for their lives from threats of death and violence in their home countries," said Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project. "U.S. law guarantees them a fair opportunity to seek asylum. Yet, the government's policy violates that basic law and core American values — we do not send people who are seeking asylum back into harm's way. We should not sacrifice fairness for speed in life-or-death situations."
   According to the complaint, the Obama administration is violating long-established constitutional and statutory law by enacting policies that have:
  • Categorically prejudged asylum cases with a "detain-and-deport" policy, regardless of individual circumstances.
  • Drastically restricted communication with the outside world for the women and children held at the remote detention center, including communication with attorneys. If women got to make phone calls at all, they were cut off after three minutes when consulting with their attorneys. This makes it impossible to prepare for a hearing or get legal help. 
  • Given virtually no notice to detainees of critically important interviews used to determine the outcome of asylum requests. Mothers have no time to prepare, are rushed through their interviews, are cut off by officials throughout the process, and are forced to answer traumatic questions, including detailing instances of rape, while their children are listening.
  • Led to the intimidation and coercion of the women and children by immigration officers, including being screamed at for wanting to see a lawyer.
   "Fast-tracking the deportations of women and children from immigration detention is an assault on due process. There is no way that justice can be served when so many people are being rushed through the system without any real opportunity to assert claims for relief. What we are seeing in Artesia is nothing less than a sham process that values expediency over justice," said Melissa Crow, legal director of the American Immigration Council.
    The plaintiffs include:
  • A Honduran mother who fled repeated death threats in her home country to seek asylum in the United States with her two young children. The children's father was killed by a violent gang that then sent the mother and her children continuous death threats. When she went to the police they told her that they could not do anything to help her. It is common knowledge where she lived that the police are afraid of the gang and will do nothing to stop it.
  • A mother who fled El Salvador with her two children because of threats by the gang that controls the area where they lived. The gang stalked her 12-year-old child every time he left the house and threatened kidnapping. She fears that if the family returns to El Salvador, the gang will kill her son. Some police officers are known to be corrupt and influenced by gangs. The mother says she knows of people who have been killed by gang members after reporting them to police.
  • A mother who fled El Salvador with her 10-month-old son after rival gangs threatened to kill her and her baby. One gang tried to force the mother to become an informant on the activities of another gang, and when she refused, told her she had 48 hours to leave or be killed.
    "The women and children detained in Artesia have endured brutal murders of loved ones, rapes, death threats, and similar atrocities that no mother or child ever should have to endure, and our government is herding them through the asylum process like cattle," said Trina Realmuto, an attorney at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. "The deportation-mill in Artesia lacks even the most basic protections, like notice and the opportunity to be heard, that form the cornerstone of due process in this country."
    The lawsuit, M.S.P.C. v. Johnson, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Co-counsel in this case includes the law firms of Jenner & Block, and Van Der Hout, Brigagliano & Nightingale, LLP; and the ACLU of New Mexico, ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, and ACLU of the Nation's Capital.
    "Any mother will do whatever it takes to make sure her children are safe from harm's way," said Karen Tumlin, managing attorney for the National Immigration Law Center. "Our plaintiffs are no different: they have fled their homes to protect their children, only to find that the U.S. deportation system is intent upon placing them back in the dangerous situations they left. We are filing this lawsuit today to ensure that each mother is able to have her fair day in court, and that we are not sending children and their mothers back to violence or their deaths."
   The complaint is available at:

Survey: Small Businesses See Economic Rebound

   (Business Wire) - 8/14/2014 - More small business owners think we are in an economic rebound and are indicating a slight uptick in business activity since the April survey, but are more conservative in adding new products and services, according to the most recent Business Confidence Survey released by Insperity, Inc. (NYSE:NSP), a leading provider of human resources and business performance solutions for America’s best businesses. Slightly more than 41 percent now plan to add employees compared to 39 percent in April and 50 percent in January; 54 percent are maintaining current staffing levels versus 57 percent last quarter and 47 percent in January; and nearly 5 percent are planning layoffs, compared to 4 percent in April.
    Insperity also announced compensation metrics from its base of 5,300 small and medium-sized Workforce Optimization clients. Average compensation for the second quarter of 2014 increased 1.6 percent over the second quarter of 2013, while bonuses were down 3.2 percent compared to the 2013 period. Average commissions received by worksite employees reflected a decrease of 2.0 percent versus a 6.2 percent increase in the second quarter of 2013. Overtime pay was 10.6 percent of regular pay, above the 10 percent level that generally indicates a need for additional employees, and up from 9.4 percent in the second quarter of 2013.
    In the survey, 79 percent of respondents expect to meet or exceed the 2014 performance objectives they set in January, the same as in April but down from 92 percent in January; 21 percent expect to do worse in 2014, again matching the last survey but up sharply from 8 percent in January. Concerning the timing of an economic rebound, nearly 42 percent think one is currently in process versus 33 percent in April; 22 percent expect a rebound in the fourth quarter of 2014 or later, and 36 percent are unsure versus 44 percent in April.
    Concerning their current profit-generating activities, 71 percent list selling new accounts and 66 percent cite increased service to existing clients, nearly the same as last quarter for each. This was followed by 46 percent who indicate adding new services or products, and 29 percent list investing in new improvements, both of which were down from April.
    “Consensus for an economic rebound is building and overtime pay is now more than 10 percent. This would normally indicate a need for additional workers, but our latest survey reveals that business owners have not become aggressive in acting on that information,” said Paul J. Sarvadi, Insperity chairman and chief executive officer. “Small business may be awaiting further leading confirmation such as an increase in average commissions, which is remaining relatively low.”
    The list of short-term concerns shifted somewhat, with hiring the right people now listed by 50 percent of respondents, while the economy dropped to second at 48 percent. Rising health care costs was third at 47 percent, while controlling overall operational costs moved into fourth place at 44 percent, displacing government health care reform. Government expansion again topped the list of long-term concerns at 57 percent; potential tax increases came in at 51 percent; the federal deficit at 50 percent; and the economy at 42 percent.
    When asked about their pipelines for new business through 2014, 56 percent of survey respondents expected sales to increase, down from 60 percent in April and 66 percent in January; 33 percent anticipate no change versus 28 percent last quarter; 4 percent predict decreasing sales and 7 percent are unsure.
    The survey results show that 28 percent plan to increase employee compensation, down from 29 percent in April and 46 percent in January; 62 percent plan to maintain compensation at current levels, up from 60 percent last quarter and 43 percent in January; 1 percent again expect decreases; and 9 percent are unsure.
    Insperity conducted the survey July 8 – 10, 2014, of chief executive officers, chief financial officers and other executives in a variety of industries from its base of approximately 5,300 Workforce Optimization clients throughout the United States. The overall sampling error of the national survey is +/- 4.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.