Natalie Portman, neuroscientist

Every once in a while, you run across celebrity profiles that attempt to demonstrate that not all celebrities are as dumb as fenceposts. You’ll read about the fact that, for example, Brad Pitt is deeply engaged by architecture, or that David Duchovny almost finished his literature PhD, or that Christy Turlington studied Eastern philosophy at NYU.

But I think I’ve just stumbled upon the single most impressive bit of celebuscholarship yet: “Frontal Lobe Activation during Object Permanence: Data from Near-Infrared Spectroscopy”. In this paper — published in a 2001 issue of the journal NeuroImage — a group of scientists conducted a pioneering bit of brain-scanning. They took a bunch of infants and used near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) to try and probe their mental activity during “object permanence” tests.

Object permanence is, of course, our ability to know that an object still exists even after it’s been hidden from sight. Theorists have argued for years about precisely when an infant develops this ability. The advent of brain-scanning techniques in the 90s offered tantalizing glimpses into mental activity; but it was always hard to scan the brains of infants because most brain-scanning takes place in MRI tubes — and it’s impossible to get an infant to hold its head still inside a tube while subjecting it to funky little mental tasks. (Actually, it’s pretty much impossible to get an infant into a tube without it totally freaking out, let alone holding its head still.)

So the group of scientists in NeuroImage decided to try NIRS instead. NIRS is very cool new technology: Basically, you put a bunch of near-infrared lights up against your head and shine them directly down into the skull. The light penetrates a few millimeters, much the way that if you hold a flashlight flat against your hand you can see the light penetrating your skin. Since your frontal cortex is quite close to the surface of the skull, the near-infrared light actually hits it and bounces off. It’s possible to scan the reflected light and infer how much blood activity — and thus mental activity — is taking place inside the frontal cortex, on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis.

But here’s the thing: Since all you’re doing is strapping a bunch of little lights to somebody’s skull, it would be — the NeuroImage team theorized — possible to finally peer into the brains of small infants. And sure enough, it worked! They produced the first functional images of infant brains, cracking open a glimpse at the emergence of “object permance” in a baby’s brain. As they concluded in their paper:

NIRS is a harmless, noninvasive technique that uses no ionizing radiation or contrast agents, does not require the subject to be lying quietly in a scanner, and makes no noise. Therefore, NIRS is particularly well suited to repeated use in neuroimaging studies of infants and children.

Who was on this crack team of scientists? It was led by Jerome Kagan — a Harvard professor who is a pioneer in infant developmental psychology — but it also included Thomas Gaudette, Kathryn A. Walz, David A. Boas … and the Harvard grad student Natalie Hershlag.

Natalie Hershlag, of course, is better known as Natalie Portman.

I have to say, that’s pretty awesome. An Academy-Award-nominated actress who is also a brain scientist. You can download a copy of the paper here if you want.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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