Decades ago American neuroscientist Karl Lashley went looking for the elusive engram: the trace of memory. Where precisely, he wanted to know, was the safe deposit box that held each memory in the brain? Was there a specific spot in the cortex that stored this precious data and kept it ready for retrieval at a moment’s notice?
To find out, he trained rats to complete a maze, drawing them to the end with a food reward. Then—science being science—he methodically snipped out discrete parts of the animals’ cortical tissue and, once healed, had them run the maze again. The aim was to see if, by process of elimination, he could discover which piece of a rat’s brain held the memory of the correct path. What he found was surprising: No matter which part he surgically removed (or destroyed by lesion), the rats still found the food. What mattered wasn’t where he cut, but rather how much. And indeed, the rodents could lose a substantial portion of their gray matter and still complete the maze, once it was learned.
Among his many conclusions: Memory isn’t held in any one storage locker of neurons; in a sense, it is both nowhere and everywhere, distributed across the brain in untold ways.
Lashley was right, it turns out, and a little wrong: We know from functional MRI studies, among other tests, that memory does have a regional component, too. But the idea that memory is a phenomenally complex collective function remains with us today.
Indeed, its complexity—and difficulty to pinpoint or characterize—speaks to how “alive” memory is. Our memories are what make us who we are. “The study of human memory is the closest one can get to a systematic study of the human soul,” writes Gabriel Radvansky, a professor at Notre Dame who has authored textbooks on memory. Caltech professor Ralph Adolphs frames it another way in a fascinating article entitled “The Unsolved Problems of Neuroscience”: “Memory may be the ability to predict the future by learning.”
This is where a big challenge for deep learning comes in, a topic on which my colleague Roger Parloff wrote about eloquently and insightfully in Fortune’s October 1 issue. Ultimately, deep learning will enable us to solve riddles of biology and well-being that may now seem just out of reach—including the sad problem of failing memory as we age.
Today, though, let us use the power of our memories to remember those who have served and fallen in the name of country and duty. Honor Veteran’s Day.
More news below.
President-elect Trump should expect a cyber attack in his first 100 days. Cyber threats are simply a reality of the digital era and few targets are quite as tantalizing for hackers and data thieves as the federal government—especially in the heady days of a new a administration, says the research group Forrester. The firm says that such an attack would be likely for any new president, and that Hillary Clinton would have faced the exact same issue. "The momentum of winning the election gives new presidents the public sponsorship to follow through on key initiatives of their campaigns. However, the 45th president will lose that momentum coming into office by finding themselves facing a cybersecurity incident," wrote Forrester in a report. While it's unclear where such a strike would take place, healthcare organizations around the country have been common victims, and data housed by the Department of Health and Human Services could prove vulnerable. Trump asserted the need to beef up cybersecurity measures in the government during his presidential campaign. (Healthcare IT News)
Inadequately cleaned medical devices could be causing unnecessary illness. A new report from the ECRI Institute says that medical device manufacturers and healthcare providers must do a better job of, respectively, explaining and enforcing proper cleaning standards in order to prevent unnecessary infections and device malfunctions. The problem is widespread enough that it encompasses all sorts of devices, ranging from the endoscopes that are used to observe the inside of the human body to to drills used to make holes in bones. When these devices are inadequately cleaned, leftover tissue fragments can wind up wreaking havoc on the next patients they're used on. (Modern Healthcare)
The biological villain in Alzheimer's could be used to fight cancer. Amyloid, a protein which produces the kind of plaque that spreads in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, could actually wind up being used to do some good, hope researchers at the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology in Belgium. Scientists were able to create a molecule called vascin that produces amyloid plaque and inhibits VEGFR2, a receptor that's helps fuel cancer. The (very preliminary) results were encouraging in a melanoma tumor model, with vascin reducing tumor growth while not showing intrinsic toxicity to other, healthy cells. (Science)
FDA approves Gilead hep B drug Vemlidy, but with a warning. Biotech giant Gilead announced on Thursday that the Food and Drug Administration has approved Vemlidy for the treatment of hepatitis B. But regulators also slapped a black box warning onto the treatment due to the risk of kidney failure and other adverse events. Gilead is known for its flagship hepatitis C franchise, including the HCV cures Sovaldi and Harvoni; but hepatitis B afflicts somewhere between 850,000 to 2.2 million Americans, too, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Bristol-Myers' Opdivo gets a much-needed win in stomach cancer. Bristol-Myers Squibb took a body blow in October when its star next-gen cancer immunotherapy drug Opdivo failed to prove more effective than standard chemotherapy in advanced lung cancer patients (a bar that its main rival, Merck's Keytruda, was able to successfully clear). But BMS unveiled some far more promising late-stage trial data on Thursday, announcing that Opdivo had shown a survival benefit in gastric cancer patients who can't receive chemotherapy or don't respond to it. That could be a big deal if Opdivo eventually wins U.S. approval for treating stomach cancer, which has a huge global market and is one of the deadliest cancers out there, before its competitors Keytruda and Roche's Tecentriq. (Fortune)
Sanofi and MannKind reach an agreement to end their inhaled insulin collaboration. MannKind's inhaled insulin product Afrezza has die-hard supporters who still believe that the embattled (sales-wise) product will eventually take off. Sanofi ditched its collaboration with MannKind after a lackluster Afrezza launch, and this week decided to forgive its remaining debt to the French pharma giant. That has some of Afrezza's defenders looking on the bright side, arguing that relief will allow MannKind to concentrate more on marketing. But skeptics like The Street's Adam Feuerstein don't see much of an upside, noting that the sales have remained consistently flat. (The Street)
THE BIG PICTURE
Will a Trump presidency be a boon for biopharma M&A? With the transition from the Obama administration to a Donald Trump White House now officially underway, healthcare and biopharma stocks have been booming. The industry now clearly expects that a Trump administration won't have nearly as much focus on drug pricing as a Hillary Clinton administration would have. And the optimism could also set off a massive drive in biopharma M&As. Deals in the space occurred at a record pace last year but have been significantly more anemic in 2016 given the massive backlash to high drug prices. That's kept firms sitting on the sidelines in the wake of uncertainty that's now been vanquished thanks to Trump's upset victory. (Fortune)
Obamacare enrollment blasts off on heels of Trump victory. It appears that for all of Obamacare's ongoing woes, there's still a pretty high demand for health insurance coverage. And that demand spiked substantially in the wake of Trump's election, with more than 100,000 customers signing up through the Healthcare.gov website on Wednesday alone (that kind of massive surge usually doesn't happen until the very end of the open enrollment period, which started at the beginning of the month). The health law's fate is unclear right now; Trump has slammed Obamacare consistently on the campaign trail and Congressional Republicans, who have made it their number one target for elimination, have already vowed to dismantle the law as soon as Trump takes office. But the reality is that there are 20 million people covered through various Obamacare provisions. And it seems that many are trying to ensure their coverage for next year before it potentially goes away. (Fortune)
Could Brexit lead a key regulator to leave the U.K.? Before Trump's victory, there was another political earthquake that shocked the world: the U.K.'s decision to leave the European Union. A number of industries have warned that Brexit could lead to a massive drain of talent and business centers from London. And biopharma execs like British pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline CEO Sir Andrew Witty warn that it would be equally disruptive if the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the main drug regulator for the EU, were to leave the U.K. and head to a different European city. A number of countries have been gunning to provide a new home to the EMA, including Sweden and France. (Bloomberg)
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