Matrix 2021: Is Neurotech ‘the One’ That’ll Save Us?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
OZY dives into the latest cutting-edge research and inventions in neurotechnology, exploring how they could make us smarter and improve our quality of life … yet also pose troubling new ethical dilemmas.
By Pallabi Munsi and Charu Sudan Kasturi
If limbs, kidneys and lungs are instruments constituting the body’s orchestra, the brain is its conductor, the difference between cacophony and symphony. But what if technology could quietly, almost surreptitiously, influence the way our brain functions, as The Matrix predicted two decades ago? Today’s Sunday Magazine dives into the latest cutting-edge research and inventions in neurotechnology, exploring how they could make us smarter and improve our quality of life … yet also pose troubling new ethical dilemmas. Ready to pop the red pill?
get smarter … and happier
Singing Steroids. It takes hundreds of hours of practice and sparks of creative genius to make great music. But will it in the future? Berklee College of Music is using headphones developed by Halo Neuroscience (acquired in February by Swedish firm Flow Neuroscience) that use brain stimulation to help students cut the painful part of art-making and get straight to the magic. The headphones help students, for example, master a guitar piece with fewer repetitions and practice more efficiently. Meanwhile, Elon Musk is plotting his next big move: streaming music straight into your brain. Read more on OZY.
Mind Games. What if your mind could act like a gaming joystick? That’s the emerging world of neurogaming. But mind-controlled games are about more than just making the experience hands-free. A group of scientists led by a professor at Finland’s Aalto University are developing video games designed specifically to treat depression. In the game, players solve challenges that are designed to come with a therapeutic benefit. They believe that neurogaming could soon reach a stage where it might help detect conditions such as Alzheimer’s, ADHD or schizophrenia. Instead of visiting a psychiatrist, you could just play a game.
Training the Next Top Gun. Like the naval aviators in the Tom Cruise classic, the U.S. Air Force feels the need … the need for speed. At least when it comes to teaching. With approximately 10 percent fewer pilots than it needs, the U.S. Air Force now aims to accelerate its aviator training program by plugging hi-tech electrodes into ears. The Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio is testing earbuds designed to use the latest advances in neuroscience to help pilots concentrate more than would otherwise be possible.
Gut Instinct. Scientists have long known that people thought to be wiser are less likely to feel lonely. But new research shows there’s a biological component to just how wise or lonely we are: the diversity of microbes in our gut. It’s a new wrinkle to the surging gut health trend. Turns out that a greater variety of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes in our gut goes hand in hand with the ability to make smart decisions associated with wisdom and to end up less lonely.
Ignore Small Setbacks. It’s something we’ve all been taught growing up. Now researchers at the University of Miami have proven that holding onto a petty, negative event can influence your long-term mental wellbeing. So try to forget — even if you can’t forgive. Without the advantages of neurotech research, our elders had it right.
making our lives better
Speech Within Reach … for Everyone. Throughout history, those who couldn’t speak were disadvantaged, even stigmatized. Now scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, have developed technology that for the first time allows them to translate brain signals into entire sentences; before they could translate individual words but couldn’t string them together. Electrodes record brain activity, and combined with the movement of the tongue, lips, jaw and larynx, the device offers up data that a deep-learning algorithm can translate into sentences.
Safer Brain Surgeries. Nearly 24,000 adults in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancerous tumors of the brain and spinal cord this year. Many of them require surgeries. New techniques known as nerve fiber-guided tractography and TumorGlow are helping surgeons target brain tumors more accurately than has been possible. The first helps avoid the brain’s language and motor areas with colorful 3D mapping, while TumorGlow spotlights tumor cells by infusing them with a fluorescent dye.
A Cure for Insomnia? If you are an insomniac, you know the struggle. You might have tried meditation apps and hypnosis and gulped down melatonin or other sleep aids. Nothing seems to work. As pandemic-induced sleeplessness has soared, a growing number of companies are developing devices using electrostimulation to cure insomnia, offering an approach that allows users to avoid or minimize medication. The scientific evidence backing this approach is thin so far. But the growing demand for these devices is a reminder of the nightmare that is sleeplessness. Read more on OZY.
Reversing Alzheimer’s? A growing body of research over the past decade suggests that electromagnetic waves can help reverse memory loss and other effects of conditions like Alzheimer’s. A headset bombards the brain with electromagnetic pulses that activate nerve cells, bringing cognitive decline to a halt in some patients in a small clinical trial while improving cognition in others. If the approach succeeds with larger patient samples, it could offer the most pathbreaking step yet toward conquering Alzheimer’s — a disease afflicting 6 million Americans, with the number expected to double by 2050.
Zombie Genes. They live after we die. New research shows some genes in the brain actually become more active in the hours after our death. That has implications for researchers exploring whether brain cells from dead bodies can be used to devise treatments for autism, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and other diseases.
Mini Brains. Scientists have now started developing test tube brains to use in experiments on new drugs and their efficacy against diseases. These “mini-brains” are pinhead-sized collections of brain cells grown from a sample of human hair or skin.
Privacy Lessons From Chile. New brain tech accumulates all of your personal data. But what about your privacy? Last year, Chile’s Parliament adopted a “neuro-rights” bill to ensure data of citizens collected through neurotech gets the same status as donated organs — misusing it or trafficking in it is punishable by law. It’s the first such legislation in the world, at the front of a movement spearheaded by Spanish neuroscientist Dr. Rafael Yuste at Columbia University. But given the breakneck pace at which neurotech is advancing, Chile might have offered us a window into the future.
Is It You … or the Machine? When a device plugged into your brain is helping you deal with depression, are you responsible for your behavior toward others, or is the machine in charge? Those questions of agency and identity have already begun to emerge in research with patients using neurotech advances for mental health treatment. It also raises thorny questions for criminal law: Should you or the machine be held responsible for your actions?
Augmentation Arms Race. With the U.S. Air Force adopting neurotechnology to make smarter pilots, it’s likely only a matter of time before the field becomes the latest theater for an arms race. China’s People’s Liberation Army is already investing in brain science research to optimize soldier performance on the battlefield, as are Russia and Australia.
Are You Being Brainwashed? In the crudest way possible. When devices read our brain signals, the flow of information can in theory occur both ways, such as a video game that responds to your mood and thoughts by changing, say, the weather, the music or the types of challenges. So while your mind is playing a video game, are your brain cells also being manipulated in some way? We don’t know yet. The worry is that it’ll be too late by the time we do know — and a generation will already have had their brains scrambled by Grand Theft Auto VII.
faces of neurotech
Future of Sports Coaching? A magician with the soccer ball, Lionel Messi leaves defenders flat-footed as he dribbles around them before shooting surreal goals. And he has done all of that predominantly with his left foot. Now imagine if he had the same skills and control with his weaker right foot. That’s the biology-defying future for sports that Israeli neuroscientist Konstantin Sonkin is conjuring. He has developed an artificial intelligence platform that helps athletes train their “mind muscles” in a way that helps them overcome physical limitations. His technology has already worked in a trial with a Russian soccer team. Next up? Basketball. Read more on OZY.
Hip-Hopping Fish. After two decades as Australia’s pioneering female DJ and music producer, Rebecca Poulsen made the unlikely leap to neuroscience. And she’s shown she’s no fish out of water. In fact, her path-breaking new research shows that zebrafish brains light up when they hear music, seemingly even recognizing different beats and notes in MC Hammer’s classic song ‘U Can’t Touch This.’
Battle Tumors, Battle Terror. Oshiorenoya Agabi is taking on both killer threats — and might be on his way to victory. The Nigerian neurotech entrepreneur who speaks five languages has developed a modem-sized device that can sniff out explosives in public spaces and diseases, including malignant tumors in humans. The theoretical physicist believes his discovery could enhance airport security. And global aviation giants like Airbus have caught the scent of Agabi’s research and are stepping up to partner with him.
Cooking Success. For generations, we’ve been taught that the brain has 100 billion cells or neurons. Then Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel decided to test that, mashing together four donated brains, taking a sample, measuring the neurons and then scaling up that number. The result? We now know the brain has 14 billion fewer neurons than previously thought — though still more proportionately than other animals. And fittingly for someone whose discovery emerged from a neuron soup, Herculano-Houzel is convinced the large size of our brains is the result of our ancestors learning to cook, a process that releases metabolic energy from food.
startups to track
BrainQ. When Israeli geophysicist Yaron Segal’s son was born with familial dysautonomia, a rare disorder of the autonomic nervous system, he decided it was time for a career change. Partnering with two friends, Segal’s startup, BrainQ, has developed a device that promises to revolutionize the treatment of brain disorders by identifying neural damage early and then getting an algorithm to devise a personalized treatment for traumatic brain injuries or strokes. It has also developed an electromagnetic, wave-based therapy for stroke patients that in a recent small study helped reduce disability.
USB for Your Brain. Doctors and researchers trying to decode the mysteries of the mind often try to tap into the activity of neurons and the flow of blood in the brain. But until now, that required invasive procedures and in some cases, brain surgery. Los Angeles-based startup Kernel has devised two technologies that serve as non-invasive brain recorders — inventions that attracted $53 million in funding last year. If the technology truly works, it could fundamentally transform brain research.
Sleep on It. Or with it. French startup Dreem started off as a dorm-room idea but is now promising one of the most talked-about innovations in sleep science. You wear their device, it tracks your sleep and emits subtle sounds at precise moments to help you sleep better. With more than $60 million in funding, investors are betting on this dream staying sweet.