Next Big Thing

Three Bleeding-Edge Neuroscience Frontiers May 13, 2016

As some scientists build larger and larger telescopes to probe the immensity of the universe around us, others are turning inward to observe what is happening inside our brains. The significance of ability for us to contemplate our own minds was not lost on the great scientists Carl Sagan, “We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.”

It may be ironic that we are just now becoming more aware of our brains, learning more about how they work and how to understand them.

There is a global movement to unravel our conscious thoughts. And, as a species, we are paying more than just lip service to this. As a society, we are putting our money where out mouths are. For example, the United States and the European Union have both announced long-term programs to study the human brain. Combined, these initiatives will pour more than US$2 billion into neuroscience research over the next decade.

Why the sudden influx of funding? Many researchers feel that they are on now of the cusp of making huge breakthroughs in understanding and manipulating the brain. Not only that, but research into how nature’s supercomputer works helps engineers design more advanced computers of their own. These breakthroughs are expected to lead to better treatments for mental disorders while helping functioning citizens get more from the five pounds of gray matter they drag around with themselves every day.

Many of these breakthroughs are expected to happen in three major areas: brain imaging, neuromorphic chips and brain-machine-body interfaces.

Brain imaging

Every year the resolution of imaging techniques improves as even more new techniques are developed. For example, when researchers developed tracers that would bind to the β-amyloid proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease, the use of positron emission tomography (PET) surged. This allowed PET scans to detect the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

The use of fMRI, which can detect changes in blood flow, is being used to trace the neural networks involved in cognitive function. This allows doctors to diagnose neurodegenerative diseases and assess treatments or therapies.

By combining fMRI scans with optogenetic techniques, specific neurons can be activated in order to track neuronal activity in real time. By literally watching our throughts travel through our brains, we are able to understand how these patterns move and flow to create every interaction from basic feelings and the advanced thinking that sent us to the Moon and dreamed up Angry Birds.

Neuromorphic Hardware

A new wave of computer systems that function in similar ways as neurons and the neural circuits in the brain are in rapid development. This new breed of microchip works similar to a neural network: sensing, processing and sharing information simultaneously. This allows them to quickly recognize patterns that conventional microchips take millions of cycles to calculate literally.

These chips are “blurring the boundary between silicon and biological systems,” according to Qualcomm’s chief technology officer, Matthew Grob.

Not only are they able to integrate images and sounds, but “anything that can be sensed. Your body’s physical response to medication, the changing mood of the person you are talking to on the phone or your Roomba noticing that the room needs to be cleaned up after your party the night before.”

Brain-machine-body interfaces

Anyone who has fat-fingered an embarrassing text message knows that there has to be a better way to interface with today’s technology. While game consoles like the Playstation allow us to take a step back and interact through gestures, other technologies are giving us more direct paths to our brains. One example is the UCLA exoskeleton that directly stimulated the spine of Mark Pollock, allowing him to walk for the first time since he was paralyzed in 2010. This approach allowed him to walk on his own, voluntarily controlling his leg muscles through a mind brain-machine interface (BMI).

DARPA, which is unsurpassed in funding cutting-edge technology and prosthesis for injured veterans, recently demonstrated a mind-controlled prosthetic hand that provided the wearer with a sense of touch. The mind-controlled hand would relay feedback from torque sensors back to the sensory cortex of the brain giving the volunteer a near natural sensation “as if his own hand was being touched.”

Another group of researchers at the University of Washington even established a telepathic link between two volunteers a mile apart via a computer feedback system connected to an EEG . Volunteers played a game of 20 questions and were able to accurately “sense” the answers of the other person, demonstrating definitively that not only are researchers getting closer to the Holy Grail of understanding how to read the human mind, they are able to start writing messages back into it!

Noosphere Ventures has been excitedly following the advancements in neurotechnologies and its world-changing applications for years. There is unlimited potential for these technologies to improve the quality of life for medical patients with movement disorders or enhance the life of able-bodied people everywhere. Continue following our blog to see how future developments in neuroscience and technology will continue to create a better world for all of its citizens.