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Do search engines drive thoughts?

Let's see, who's sponsoring this conference? It's the guy who started out at Washington State University, then hooked up with this other guy from Harvard, and they started a software company ... oh yeah, billionaire Paul Allen. For a while there, it sounded as if Rutgers neuroscientist Gyorgy Buzsaki was having a senior moment. But he was actually making a point about the workings of the brain.

During his talk at the "Open Questions in Neuroscience" symposium, presented in Seattle by the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Buzsaki discussed the role of the hippocampus, which he said serves as the brain's "search engine" for data stored in the neocortex.

"You can do this 'search' in just 100 milliseconds," he told his audience at the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum, which is also funded by Allen.

Buzsaki's research focuses on how the brain does its search queries, over and over again, through electrical impulses known as theta oscillations. Though he didn't say it, I can imagine that those incessant waves of neural activity are what we build up into a stream of consciousness.

"If you have a mechanism to present the past and the future, then you can determine the 'now,'" Buzsaki said.

He and others theorize that the hippocampus' search algorithm originally developed to keep track of distances in the real world. As the brain became more complex, the same algorithm could be used to keep track of all the information that was building up in the gray matter. Could the hippocampus account for a lot of the mind's workings?b Right now, it's a mystery.

"I think it's fair to say we know close to nothing [about] how these neurons are wired to each other," Buzsaki said.

New tools, including the Allen Institute's brain atlases, could change that situation. Buzsaki doesn't think there are any conceptual obstacles to unraveling the hippocampus' secrets. "This is an issue of money only," one of his presentation slides read.

Is it?


Stay tuned for more from the "Open Questions in Neuroscience" symposium. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up via Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."