The Neuroscience of Superheroes
     or
    ...of human and superhuman
With great power comes great responsibility.
                                                                                -Spider-man (after Ben Parker)

With great power comes great modification of the central nervous system.
                                                                                -The thesis of this article.




Introduction
In the novel Lost World (a.k.a. Jurassic Park II), author Michael Crichton writes about the concept of parallel evolutionary developments.  It is difficult to fathom how organisms acquired several physically unrelated but behaviorally linked traits.  In the case of a bat (the example used in the text), the animal developed the ability to fly, to produce and hear ultra-sonic screeches, and to echo-locate prey (flying insects) through these sounds.

Similarly, comic book super heroes must have concordant changes to their central nervous system in order to be able to exploit these abilities to perform their super heroics.  As any X-Men reader knows, comics writers have consistently put forward the notion that many core characters are mutants, individuals who represent Homo superior, the next step in human evolution.  I'm no Stephen Jay Gould, so I'll just focus on individuals rather than the implications for the population.

While the vast majority of comic book super powers fall into the category of fantasy rather than science fiction, it is interesting to consider the consequences of such super powers.  Given my background in biology (specifically, neuroscience), my natural inclination is to hypothesize what changes in the central nervous system result from the acquisition and use of these super powers.  I know engineers who obsess over what it takes to make Iron Man's suit, so I think this is an under-reported obsession in the literature.


About this article
All powers discussed herein have example characters provided, sometimes used as test cases, and drawn (no pun intended) mainly from Marvel Comics (since that's where my comic readings were mainly, as opposed to DC or so-called independent publishers).  However, for the sake of avoiding the sticky area of exobiology, all cases below will assume that, aside from the super powers themselves, the individual has --at least as a starting point-- normal human physiology (i.e., no robots, no aliens, no hyper-evolved animals, no-cyborgs or beings with other artificial implants/peripherals*, no gods, no undead/vampires/sorcerers, and so on!).

Similarly excluded are abilities that, while above average, do not alter the possessor's CNS in ways significantly different from that found in the general population.  For example, while Dr. Strange's ability to memorize thousands of magic spells (meter and rhyme included) is very impressive, it is no different than a medical student's accumulation of a similar set of factoids... which, in fact, Dr. Stephen Strange demonstrated his ability to acquire in his previous career in medicine.  Likewise, Elektra's skills as a martial artist/assassin are, of course, truly remarkable, but they do not warrant comment in this article.

*There is a tremendous body of literature on brain-computer interfaces.  Whereas the rest of this page delves into fantasy, this area actually is the future.  If you are interested in this topic, by all means consult reliable sources for more info.


But seriously, folks...
Although there were many opportunities to approach this topic satirically, I did my best to graft my professional knowledge onto a former hobby as a purely intellectual exercise.  While there are a few spots in which I injected humorous bits, the fact that I wrote this piece at all is funny enough.  Enjoy.

Physical powers

Super strength
Example(s): Hulk, Abomination, Thing

CNS alterations:

It has been observed that many individuals with superhuman strength can willingly reduce the maximum force they exert, thereby pretending to have the same range of strength as the rest of the population.  This would imply that there is a tremendous number of small motor units available rather than a few massive ones, as the superhuman would otherwise not have a comparable degree of fine motor skills at the lower end of the strength scale (e.g., when threading a needle, etc.).  In the case of individuals with such an ability, one might expect to find an increase in the total number of CNS neurons devoted to muscle activation and coordination by a factor roughly proportional to the overall increase in strength above that of the normal population.  As a result, one might expect to find that the motor cortex of a super-strong individual might be either greatly expanded in size or far more dense.  The latter possibility is far more likely given that most individuals with this power have heads that are relatively puny (to borrow a favorite adjective from the Hulk's limited vocabulary).

Super speed
Example(s): Quicksilver, Speedball, the Flash

CNS alterations:

Several alterations to the CNS (most likely in conjunction with one another) would be required to grant a superhuman increase in speed.

One possible mechanism by which the CNS could accommodate the demands of this power would be to reconfigure itself for highly parallel processing.  Given that this style is mostly likely the norm in the present design of the CNS of ordinary humans, no major changes at the cellular levels would be required to achieve this particular style of processing.  Instead, what would be required are additional subcompartmentalizations devoted to functions.  This especially would begin to address the fact that, in addition to "track and field" feats of speed, super-speed heroes also have have the ability to demonstrate tremendous dexterity such as in, for example, dialing a telephone or changing into costume from their civilian clothes.  These extra co-processor compartments would facilitate the acceleration of function without loss of accuracy.

In addition to the purely kinetic component of superspeed, must also be a complimentary increase in reaction time (i.e., sensory motor integration).  This typically occurs at the level of sensory processing.  Thus, speedsters may be able to perceive high-frequency stimuli with super-human ease.  For example, some individuals in this category may perform feats such as mentally isolating subliminal images between individual frames in a film sequence, where a normal individual would fail to notice these elements.

Now, at the cellular level, a number of other changes most likely would also be required to achieve these ends.  For example, the maximum firing rate of neurons rarely, if ever, reaches the kilo- to megahertz frequency necessary to operate at the superhuman speeds depicted in many tales of superheroics.  Consequently, one might envision a radically different design featuring, for example, a greater resting potential (e.g., perhaps 200 mV?), broader internode distances created by Schwann cells of exaggerated proportions, and/or neurotransmission systems that facilitate transport across the synaptic cleft via molecular motors (e.g., rows of fanning cilia, etc.) rather than passive diffusion.

Curiously, the improvement in processing speed granted by the power does not typically grant superior intelligence.  That is, while mental processes are hastened, they typically arrive at the same conclusion (albeit much more rapidly) as would a normal individual.  This would almost certainly indicate that the modifications to the CNS in this area rely more on increasing the efficiency of transmission than on alterations in the existing architecture.


Expanded kinesthetic abilities
Example(s): Bullseye

CNS alterations:

While many superhumans (and even a few "normals") exhibit uncanny gymnastic skills, Bullseye represents a particular subcategory of this class in that he has the ability to direct projectiles (as opposed to himself) through the air toward a target, with invariably deadly precision.  While Bullseye is himself no slouch in the "bouncing across rooftops" category, it is his abilities with projectiles that warrant the greatest attention.

Such abilities would obviously require enhancements of three components: strength, speed, and accuracy.  What makes Bullseye so superhuman is that these abilities virtually exclusive to one another (i.e., Can one be strong and fast?  Speedy and precise?), and thus are rarely found together, even among many superheroes. The alterations to the CNS that would confer Bullseye's superhuman abilities would appear to be a more narrowly constrained version of those found in characters such as Quicksilver.

Note that Bullseye lacks this generalized superspeed such that one would suspect that accuracy (as his name would imply) is at the core of his talent.  Precise motor control may achieved through the coordination of neuronal activity in several systems (e.g., motor cortex, cerebellum, and spinal cord) and channel than activity toward the execution of a perfect movement, one beyond the

What is especially impressive about Bullseye's ability is that he apparently requires little to no practice and can deliver top performance spontaneously.  Contrast this with, say, an archer or shootist.  Top athletes typically require precise conditions and achieve their optimum performance only with careful aim.  Only rapid calculations and execution would the results accomplished by Bullseye, most likely through a subset of the modifications described above.


Shape-shifting (as opposed to Metamorphosis; see below)
Example(s): Mr. Fantastic, Plastic Man

CNS alterations:

Because there is no obvious decrease (quite the opposite, if anything!) in the degree of hand-eye coordination or response times in individuals with this ability, there must be a concordant increase in conductivity in (at the very least) the peripheral nerves.

One might also expect the somatotopic maps throughout the CNS (i.e., somatosensory cortex, thalamic relays, etc.) to be altered.  However, the relative arrangement of the body is generally maintained.  Thus, the hand is distal to the elbow even when the superhuman has adopted a spherical shape.  This would not alter the relative distribution of the representations of the body surface.  On the other hand, the proportions allocated to the respective representations are another matter.

Because an individual with this power may alter his/her form virtually without limit, it is conceivable that another body part could be made to conform to areas previously demanding larger representations in the somatosensory cortex.  For example, while the human ear typically has little role in picking up and manipulating physical objects, a shape-shifting individual might use his/hers to grasp something.  If this behavior was routinely exhibited, one could expect a concordant increase in the somatosensory representation of that part as well as any others similarly employed.


Metamorphosis
Example(s): Mystique, Megan (formerly of Excalibur)

CNS alterations:

The exact mechanism by which a individual may alter his or her form may be highly variable and depend on the nature of that individual's super power, not necessarily its effect.  That being said, there is likely some commonality in the CNS modifications that allow this ability to be effectively employed.

Specifically, a metamorph such as Mystique may take on the appearance of another individual so convincingly that even close associates of the displaced individual may not realize that they are dealing with a doppleganger.  Thus, an essential requirement of this ability is a very accurate and precise memory, one that absorbs an enormous details on a single pass.  This is somewhat akin to humanity's ability to acquire language in apparent defiance of the conventional constraints on learning and memory we come to expect.  Metamorphs may similarly possess a neural template by which information about their target may be similarly acquired, and this information is rapidly parsed, stored, and recalled.

Interestingly, this memory system crosses multiple modalities, with details about visual appearance, gait (walking style), and voice all stored with equal efficacy.  Further, these details can be mimicked without practice, unlike with a conventional actor, implying tremendous plasticity to accommodate these changes, particularly in size and shape.  If anything, Mystique in particular appears to possess an uncanny kinesthetic ability even in unfamiliar guises.  Contrast this with the characteristic clumsiness exhibited by adolescents following a growth spurt.

At the core of a metamorph's ability must lie tremendous plasticity in the aforementioned systems in order to accommodate the rapid and quite casual changes this power entails.  As the precise mechanisms of plasticity in the general population have yet to be sufficiently elucidated, it is difficult to speculate here as to how these might differ in metamorphs... although if one were to get a sample of his or her brain, wow!, what progress might be made!


Extra body parts: e.g., 4 arms, tail, body armor (scales, rock, etc.), etc.
Example(s): Angel, Nightcrawler (former/sometimes members of the X-Men)

CNS alterations:

As with those individuals with shape-shifting powers, the most obvious CNS alteration in an individual with additional body parts would be the concordant deviation from the conventional somatotopic map in the cortex as well as the various spinal and thalamic inputs en route to the cortex.  Of course, the exact configuration of said map would depend on 1) the proportion of the individual's lifetime (s)he has has the additional body part(s) (e.g., from birth, only after a recent exposure to a mutagen, etc.) and 2) the frequency with which this/these part/s is/are used in the motor and/or sensory realm.  That is, if these "new" parts represent appendages requiring manipulation through the motor system, then the motor cortex would also be altered proportional to the amount of use, fine motor control developed, etc.



Mobility

Flight
Example: Cannonball (former New Mutant, member of X-Force, etc.), Rogue, Human Torch

CNS alterations:

While flying might appear to be a dream power for a superhuman, it does present some problems to which the CNS must adapt.  The crux of this is that normal humans spend their lives mostly in two-dimensions.  While we certainly look up and down with regularity, the majority of our world exists in a two-dimensional plane parallel with the ground.  Thus, accommodating the ability to fly requires an individual's nervous system to make use of previously unimagined levels of vestibular input in two additional axes (pitch and roll; not just yaw).

Additionally, expanded spatial abilities must be developed in order to deal with this new, three-dimensional lifestyle.  "Place cells," those neurons encoding the concept of position, will most likely have additional inputs that further refine this understanding.  Naturally, the tracts facilitating communication between these sensory and cognitive areas would be expanded in individuals with this class of superpower as well.


Teleportation
Example(s): Nightcrawler (member of the X-Men... sometimes)

CNS alterations:

Here, again, a superpower allows situations in which spatial (dimensional) concepts deviate from their norm.  And in the case of teleportation, the method by which this ability is realized is as important as the result itself.  For that reason, the discussion of this ability is restricted to Nightcrawler.

When teleporting, Nightcrawler temporarily transports himself through another dimension before returning --in a different place-- to this one.  How exactly he opens (and closes?) these dimensional portals is still a mystery.  However, one of the constraints on his teleportation ability is that he must be able to visualize the location to which he is traveling.  This indicates that this power is grounded in a set of spatial and possibly mathematical abilities that calculate how far he must move in the intermediate dimension in order to travel the required distance in this one.  It is important to note that, while Nightcrawler states that he must "see" the destination, he can in fact make the journey based entirely on indirect measurements (e.g., he once transported inside of a hollowed-out mountain based on sonographic estimates by teammate Banshee).

It is very likely that the CNS alterations in Nightcrawler are very much like those in other superhumans who have the ability to fly.  Note that Nightcrawler is able to teleport himself in all six degrees of freedom, implying enhanced vestibular integration.  This supposition is supported by Nightcrawler's remarkable acrobatic talents, although it is unknown whether these are innate abilities or were instead developed through intensive practice.


Cognitive abilities

Heightened intelligence
Example(s): The Leader, Forge

CNS alterations:

On an anatomical level, it might be reasonable to expect to find additional, perhaps "original" anatomical structures.  Even the replication of existing structures, if properly "wired" to the rest of the CNS, would allow expanded parallel processing.  However, it is still more reasonable to expect altogether new structures, as this would mirror the pattern of escalation in cognitive abilities found in evolutionary history (e.g., the development of neocortex over --speaking both figuratively and anatomically-- the "reptilian" brain).

On a cellular level, one might also expect to find several additional changes.  For example, the ability to change synaptic weights would be modified such that new information is stored much more completely on the first pass.  Conversely, synaptic pruning would similarly have to be optimized such that the brain identifies the pathways responsible for the most advantageous behaviors and abilities, and protects them while selectively trimming less effective circuits.

A hypothetical mechanism that could facilitate such rapid changes might be self-testing and correction through internal feedback loops.  These would bypass, at least in part, the requirement that behavior be shaped through experience.  These loops might test the existing circuitry to develop the most effective alternate pathways in simple modular networks.  The smaller networks, with their enhanced processing power, might then be coupled to generate tremendous calculating abilities, as with distributed computer-based networks.


Telepathy/thought reading/psychic transfer
Example(s): Marvel Girl, Professor X, Psylocke, Rogue (all members of the X-Men at one time or another)

CNS alterations:

Unlike many other super powers on this page that are exaggerated forms of existing abilities, psychic abilities of this variety have a dubious existence in the real world.  Thus, it is unlikely that precursor components would be found in the present design of the CNS that might support such powers.  As such, entirely new structures would have to be created in the CNS to interpret these signals.  More importantly, sensory structures would have to be developed in order to receive psychic structures in the first place.  As improbable as these events might seem, other "thought readers" have been invented (fMRI scanners being the standout example), so who's to say what evolution might produce in the presence of, say, an increase in the background level of radiation on this planet?

One possible architecture that might yield this ability might be the addition of a second, largely independent neocortex.  This speculation is based on the assumption that consciousness (i.e., self-awareness) is based primarily --if not exclusively-- in the cortex.  However, psychological ailments such as multiple personality disorder and religious fundamentalism indicate that several "consciousnesses" may reside in a single brain.  As such, radical alterations of brain architecture may, in fact, be unnecessary.


Language acquisition & mastery
Example(s): Cypher (deceased New Mutant)

CNS alterations:

Language acquisition is easily the most thoroughly studied phenomena in the realm of cognitive neuroscience.  One of the most salient findings in this field is the critical period of language acquisition, the period during which language may be rapidly acquired.  This is typically open between the ages of two and five for basic language acquisition (i.e., if no language is acquired during this time, it is unlikely than any language will ever be mastered).  Beyond this time language is more difficult to acquire, and by the end of puberty a new language will likely never be truly mastered to the extend that grammar and accent will be indistinguishable from that of a native speaker.

Thus, one of the primary CNS modifications necessary to produce this ability would be to free up the biological blocks that cement this developmental window closed.  In the case of Cypher who is (well, was) in his mid-teens, the ability to rapidly acquire new languages continued unabated from the onset of his power in early adolescence (as is typical for mutants in the Marvel Universe) until his death several years later.  Whether constraints on his abilities later in life would have eventually presented themselves remains a mystery.

Another remarkable aspect of this fascinating ability was that Cypher could acquire new languages more rapidly even than young learners in the process of acquiring their first language (typically 15-20 words per day).  Cypher routinely appeared to grasp syntax and a rudimentary vocabulary of even alien and computer languages on his first encounter with them.  Consequently, it might be assumed that there are additional modifications of the learning and memory systems in his brain beyond a merely "suped-up" version of existing mechanisms.  However, because Cypher's unique abilities were restricted to his language systems, another alternative seems reasonable: that a unique architecture existed in this brain that facilitated the acquisition of language in an even more efficient manner than that performed on the normal human brain.  One can only hope that his brain was preserved in some form for future study!




Sensory abilities

Augmented/expanded senses (e.g., super hearing, smell, telescopic vision, etc.)
Example(s): Wolverine, Daredevil

CNS alterations:

Because this class of super powers could be regarded as extension of existing abilities, it is conceivable that the CNS could accommodate these changes through inherent plasticity alone (e.g., as in the case of the expanded spectral range of Geordi's visor on ST:tNG).  However, other systemic changes might also play a role.  For example, the unmodified CNS engages in a tremendous amount of parallel processing on levels ranging from the cellular to system-wide.  The parallel parvocellular and magnocellular pathways of the visual system epitomize this, with the former processing information about color and form, and the latter dealing with motion.  Similarly, enhanced senses may rely centrally on the addition of pathways not found (or found only in a more primitive form) in normal humans, perhaps conveying information that defies interpretation by the brains of conventional humans.  These modifications would be in addition to whatever modifications were almost certainly employed at the level of the sense organs (e.g., additional receptors, etc.).

Spider-sense
Example(s): Spider-man (duh!)

CNS alterations:

Spider-man's ability here warrants its own category, if for no other reason than the fact that I like Spidey.  While almost paranormal in its presentation, this is, in fact, not a form of prescience so much as an "early warning" system.  The advantage of this ability is in collapsing the time required for sensory integration, thus allowing our hero several additional milliseconds in which to act.  Given that there has never been any indication that Spiderman has additional sense organs, it must be presumed that the majority of physiological alterations related to this power reside in the CNS.

Presumably, this power is centered on an ability of the CNS to home in on particular minutia in the stream of sensory information, and to then weigh that information more carefully before passing it on to the appropriate brain regions.  Curiously, the stimuli that actually trigger this heightened sense of danger are seldom if ever passed on to the conscious mind. Thus, Spider-man is only made aware of the danger, but not its basis.  From an evolutionary perspective (and given that this is a newly-arisen mutation in the case of Peter Parker), this might be viewed as an intermediate form of a new ability, with inevitably refinements toward expanding this sense to a consciousness carrying a heightened awareness of one's surroundings.  Note that Spider-girl inherited this ability, so it is likely autosomal recessive!  Stay tuned TrueBelievers!


Additional senses (e.g., radar sense, etc.)
Example(s): Daredevil

CNS alterations:

Here again, structures CNS must be dedicated to the interpretation of this new sensory input.  However, Daredevil is a particularly interesting case in that, in addition to his radar sense and additionally expanded other senses, he is also blind.  The fact that he did not acquire these abilities nor did he go blind until he was in his teens also presents some interesting challenges in interpretation of this neuroscience questions as developmental concerns must be addressed as well.  Specifically, what plasticity existed in order for him to accommodate these new abilities?  The final and most dicey issue of all is the fact that Daredevil was also exposed to a mutagen in this same incident.  In addition to granting the aforementioned powers (and robbing him of his sight), it may also have bioactive properties that facilitated this transformation from "Olympic-level athlete" to superhero.

By whatever means it developed, the means by which Daredevil's radar sense is actualized externally is a mystery (ultrasonics are a possibility, given his heightened hearing), but internally this is perhaps not an especially complex ability.  The sensory input is likely very much like that of the auditory system (ignoring language) in that it is spectral.  The distance of objects in space and their movement might be determined via comparison of differential inputs as with the auditory system.  Daredevil's radar sense appears to operate in three dimensions, so it is probably that he has more than two sensory structures, although only two may be sufficient (e.g., owls have one ear offset from the vertical plane of the other and thereby accomplish the same feat).

While no previously unattempted mental processes are at work here, Daredevil does, however, require that additional brain regions be devoted to the processing of this sense.  Yet, whereas other individuals with superpowers had only gains in abilities, Daredevil actually lost his sight in the same accident that is believed to have granted him his other abilities (pardon the qualifiers; one cannot exclude the possibility that Daredevil's abilities were the result of an existing mutation which exhibited itself following this trauma.  This is a typical pattern with mutants).  In this particular case, the loss of visual input meant that a substantial portion of the brain was made available for takeover by other senses.  Coupled with whatever plasticity-modifying abilities were conferred by the purported mutagen, this opportunity may also have facilitated the expansion of other sensory inputs (i.e., in addition to his radar sense) to grant Daredevil an arsenal of tremendous sensory abilities.


Sensory integration
Example(s): Karnak (member of the Inhumans)

CNS alterations:

Karnak has the ability to divine the stress points of physical structures (including living beings).  Thus, he can target these points (usually with a karate chop) to maximum effect and destroy solid objects or knock an individual unconscious with what appears to be superhuman strength.  Given that his physical abilities are "only" in the range of an Olympic level athlete (as I'm sure he would be described in the Official Handbook...), this is a tremendous power.

While expanded sensory ranges (e.g., X-ray vision) might facilitate the detection of such stress points, it is doubtful that Karnak possesses these as he does not demonstrate them in contexts other than the specific detection of stresspoints.  Thus, it is reasonable to assume that this ability arises from the alteration of Karnak's basic brain architecture toward the integration of a peculiar category of sensory information.  These calculations most likely occur in the final stages of visual processing as opposed to primary visual cortex.  Note that this would go a ways toward explaining the size of Karnak's helmet: He very likely has a sizable brain beneath it!


Conclusions
Comic books are a fertile ground in which to run thought experiments wherein the boundaries of biological reality are pushed.  Although they are products of an entertainment industry, this "throw-away" genre is rich in ideas that can inspire thinking in academic areas and may offer imaginative solutions to the most frustrating problems in research.
--Excelsior and 'Nuff Said!

References/Links
The original encyclopedic sources of information on the people, places, and things in the Marvel Universe were published in print in the Marvel Superheroes role playing game and in the comic book series The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.  Several sites have since come into existence to fill the information void left in the absence of these publications.




All text copyright Professor Ale[X].  Characters and images copyright Marvel Comics.  Images lifted from the websites of various fanboys around the web (mainly those in the References/Links above).

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