An Introduction to Neurotechnology
2014- Rio De Janeiro
Juliano Pinto, a 29 year-old paraplegic, made the first kick of the FIFA world cup using a brain-controlled robotic exoskeleton. The brain child of a team of 150 neuroscientists led by Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, the mind-controlled robotic suit served as validation for the remarkable progress made so far in the field of neurotechnology while also giving a glimpse into future applications and developments.
But first, what is neurotechnology?
Simply put, neurotechnology = neuroscience + technology. It is the interdisciplinary field involving a whole range of disciplines including: computer science, neuroscience, psychology, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, etc..
Regardless of what background you are coming from, there is a good chance that you can find a role in this industry that matches your skill set.
I like to divide neurotechnology into 3 distinct sectors.
1. Understanding the Brain
Jeff Lichtman, a professor at Harvard University, once said, “If understanding everything you needed to know about the brain was a mile, we have walked 3 inches.”
We have quite a lot of work to do in understanding the brain, but fortunately, we have several methods to understand the brain at multiple levels, including EEG, MRI, fMRI, DTI, TMS, etc..
EEGs employ the use of electrodes to record electrical activity from groups of neurons while MRI and fMRI employ the use of imaging techniques and magnetic fields to analyze structure and function of different areas of the brain.
These imaging techniques are one facet of neurotechnology that helps us understand more about the human brain.
2. Restoring Brain Functions
Although our knowledge about the brain is fairly limited, that’s not to discount all the decades of research and progress that has been made so far. In fact, many neurological and psychiatric disorders such as Parkinson’s, Depression, ADHD, etc.. have been studies at length, and several treatments for them have entered the commercial market.
However, many treatments exist in the form of drugs or pills that alter the chemical composition of the brain, inducing several unintended side effects. Neurotechnology, however, offers a novel perspective in treating these diseases in the form of brain stimulation.
For example, a Swedish company by the name of Flow Neuroscience is developing a wearable device that is intended to reduce symptoms of depression by providing stimulation to the left frontal lobe. According to research on their website, depression is associated with low activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Wearing the headset provides gentle electrical stimulation to that region through the use of tDCS(transcranial direct current stimulation) which has been clinically proven to reduce overall depression.
The example of Juliano Pinto kicking the soccer ball at the Fifa World Cup is another case of neurotechnology being used for rehabilitation and treatment. Several people suffer from stoke and as a result, end up being partially if not completely paralyzed. With the development of neuroprosthetics, we can bypass part of the neural circuitry that is not responding anymore and still connect the central nervous system to the peripheral nervous system to preserve mobility in patients like Juliano Pinto. Of course, there is way more to neuroprosthetics than just “bypassing the neural circuit,” but my goal here is to give you the gist of the applications of neurotechnology.
3. Augmenting Existing Brain Functions
This is arguably the coolest sector of neurotechnology, in my opinion. A brain-computer interface is any technological/electrical device that can be interfaced with the brain. It can be a keyboard, mouse, drone, car, prosthetic limb, light bulb, …you get the point.
With a little bit of imagination, the applications for BCIs are quite remarkable, which opens up a lot of opportunities in the commercial space and private industry.
Here are some companies that are already capitalizing on this opportunity:
A thin headband costing around $300, Muse by Interaxon is a device aimed at assisting individuals with mindfulness and meditation. Employing the use of EEG technology, the device plays rainforest sounds and bird chirps when the user is in a state of relaxation and relative calmness. The goal, as funny as it may sound, is to get the most amount of bird chirps, indicating a more relaxed mental state.
Halo Neuroscience developed a wearable headband of sorts that is meant to increase skill acquisition for any task that requires physical repetitions. Any task that requires movement like playing a sport or playing an instrument involves the use of the motor cortex in the brain. By wearing the headband for twenty minutes prior to starting the physical task, electrical stimulations will be sent to the motor cortex inducing a state of hyper-plasticity for the next hour or so. This state of hyper-plasticity primes the motor cortex to make and enforce neural connections more easily, meaning you essentially speed up the rate at which you can acquire new physical tasks. For athletes, this translates into getting more out of each rep, and that can put them at an advantage over all their competitors, especially when we we are looking at any way to optimize performance.
So What’s Next?
Neurotechnology is still in a stage of infancy. Only recently have we acquired enough data and enough computational power in our devices to actually build meaningful products, so expect a big surge in new endeavors within the next decade.
Neurotechnology or anything related to the brain for that matter is also notorious for not delivering on time. Although the computation side of things is moving at a fast paced, the biological understanding of the brain is yet to catch up, so don’t be disappointed if Facebook, Google, or Nerualink don’t deliver on their products in time.
Last but not most definitely not least, neurotechnology is perhaps the most intimate form of technology we have right now. With that comes a big uncertainty regarding privacy of data and autonomy, which is something we definitely need to sort out before these products hit the market at a big scale.
I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want is Facebook knowing exactly what I am thinking.
Anyway, I think neurotechnology, on net, will be more beneficial than harmful for our society, and I think we just need to establish a strong framework and a set of guidelines for it to be used within.