Neurotech: A Primer
The year was 1893. Hans Berger, a young cavalry cadet in the German military, was thrown from his horse and nearly run over by a horse-drawn cannon. Many kilometers away, in the young man’s family home, his sister was suddenly consumed with an irrepressible certainty that something awful had happened to young Hans. So tormented was she that their father sent a telegram to the army to inquire about his son’s well-being.
“It was a case of spontaneous telepathy,” wrote Hans, “...as I contemplated certain death, I transmitted my thoughts, while my sister…acted as the receiver.”
Intrigued by this putative proof of paranormality, Hans enrolled in medical school and spent his career trying to confirm the phenomenon of telepathy. Although he never succeeded, along the way Dr. of psychiatry Hans Berger did discover rhythmic electrical patterns in the central nervous system—what we now understand as brainwaves. He also invented the first Electroencephalogram (EEG), earning him the honor of being the father of modern neurotechnology.
ENTER THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD OF NEUROTECHNOLOGY:
Fast forward to the year 2023. Today the field of neurotech encompasses a wide range of inventions designed to observe, record, repair, stimulate, modulate, and activate the human nervous system. Let’s have a quick look at some of the key areas:
Neuroimaging: The most commonly-known forms of neurotech are those used in medical imaging of the brain and central nervous system. These techniques and more enable observation and analysis of the structural and functional characteristics of the human nervous system, mapping of the areas of the brain involved in various processes, and diagnosis of neurological and psychological conditions.
• Electroencephalography (EEG): A cap equipped with electrodes records electrical impulses in the brain; used to diagnose epilepsy, traumatic brain damage, stroke, sleep disorders, and more.
• Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI): A magnetic field and radio waves create detailed structural images; can diagnose tumors, trauma, strokes, aneurysms, and other neurological issues.
• Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNRIS): Absorption level of light indicates changes in brain activity; used in monitoring of neurological conditions as well as learning and training experiments.
• Magnetoencephalography (MEG): Measures magnetic fields produced by brain electrical activity; Used to diagnose epilepsy and other seizures, and to map out brain regions and their function.
• Electromyography (EMG): Electrodes are inserted into muscles to measure electrical activity; Used to evaluate skeletal muscle function and the nerves that control them. (While not actually “imaging,” EMG is commonly used in both medical and consumer neurotech applications)
Neuroprosthetics: When someone experiences loss of sensory or motor function mechanical devices called neuroprostheses can help restore lost functions. A few common neuroprosthetic devices are:
• Cochlear implants: Vibration sensors and electrodes convert soundwaves into electrical signals that are delivered to the auditory cortex of the brain, helping to restore hearing.
• Retinal implants: Visual information from a camera or natural light processed through electrodes is delivered via electrical signals to the visual cortex of the brain, helping to restore vision.
• Haptic feedback interfaces: Motors and electrical pulses create vibration, resistance, force, and other tactile sensations for video games, virtual reality, training simulators, and prosthetic limbs.
Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs): A BCI is a technology system that enables signals to be transmitted between the brain and an external device, such as a computer screen or a robotic arm. These systems include an electrical signal capture device like an EEG cap or an electrode implanted in the brain, together with a computer interface that translates those signals into commands. Although still quite nascent in their development, BCIs today can already:
• Help quadriplegics or amputees move: The BCI translates motion signals of the brain into corresponding motion of a prosthetic limb, allowing users to control prosthetics with their minds.
• Restore communication to the mute: Those who have lost the ability to speak due to ALS or other problems can write rapidly on a computer screen, just by thinking the words inside their heads.
• Control physical objects remotely: Experimental BCIs allow researchers and enthusiasts to play video games, control motorized balls, and even fly drones, purely with mind power.
Neuromodulation: As scientists understand the brain better, they can use electrical or chemical stimulation to observe and modulate neuron activity. Some of the key techniques for this include:
• Deep brain stimulation: Electrodes and an electric pulse generator modulate relevant areas of the brain, improving motor control for those with Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders.
• Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation: An electromagnetic coil delivers magnetic pulses to specific brain areas; Improves chronic pain and behavior disorders; may also provide cognitive enhancement.
• Nerve stimulation: Implants or electrodes stimulate the vagus nerve, the spinal cord, and peripheral nerves to manage epilepsy, chronic pain, and depression.
• Optogenics: Modified genes create light-sensitive proteins that excite or inhibit neurons; Still in the animal research phase today, it may help with Parkinson’s, epilepsy, PTSD, memory, and learning.
Neurofeedback: Using various neuroimaging techniques, it is possible to monitor and analyze brain activity in real-time. This can be used for medical applications, to help understand and regulate symptoms of autism, PTSD, and epilepsy, as well as consumer applications such as monitoring sleep patterns, meditation support, and improving memory, attention, and learning.
Neurofeedback can be achieved through conventional medical neurotech, such as fMRI and EEG, but also through new consumer-grade devices, like visors, rings, and headsets. The latter are increasingly being used to help users gain insights over their neurological systems so that they can improve sleep, memory, and cognition.
A CAMBRIAN EXPLOSION OF NEUROTECH IS COMING
The consumer neurotech industry is currently estimated at about $14 billion dollars market value, and is expected to surpass $30 billion by 2030. As the technology becomes more mature and economically accessible, its use is expanding beyond healthcare to a number of alternate fields:
• Recreation: Virtual reality and Augmented reality startups are creating a much higher level of immersion with haptic feedback and other sensory stimulation for an incredibly realistic experience.
• Wellness: There are now many consumer grade devices to help you track your sleep, meditate, and modulate your emotions. Users say that it helps them improve their overall well-being.
• Performance enhancement: Many of those same devices can be used to track attention and monitor fatigue in the workplace, and to train your brain for improved concentration and learning.
• Advertising: Neurotech can decode users’ thoughts and emotions. Advertisers will soon recognize consumer sentiments in the metaverse, in order to personalize marketing communications.
There are, of course, obstacles to overcome before these new neurotech applications become ubiquitous. Some applications must pass a lengthy FDA approvals process. And we must determine as a society how much access we wish to give to our innermost thoughts, and at what cost.
However, on balance, it seems clear that the neurotech industry is on the cusp of offering normal human beings exceptional abilities that seemed not long ago to be mere science fiction.
In a sense, at least, we may finally even become capable of the telepathy that young Hans Berger began the search for some 130 years ago. Stay tuned.