January 23, 2024
With the rapid growth of artificial intelligence, neurotechnology—an established field that combines with neuroscience to unravel the secrets of the brain—is undergoing a renaissance that is opening up apparently endless possibilities. This topic poses a number of ethical and practical challenges, ranging from the viability of applications like brain injury repair to the limits of human-machine integration. As a result, the debate over ideas like neuro-rights is becoming more and more heated.
Neurotechnology’s ethical bounds will surely be an ongoing subject of discussion for many years to come. Imagine getting up in the morning with the intention of eating waffles for breakfast, only to have your thoughts activate a notice on your phone that suggests a healthier option. Though it might sound like something from science fiction, neurotechnology has the ability to bring many of these possibilities to reality in the near future.
What is Neurotechnology?
Neurotechnology encompasses an array of technologies aimed at exploring and understanding the brain including its functions as well as techniques to modify, restore or enhance its operations. This field has been, in existence for quite some time, with electroencephalography (EEG) tracing a century. However recent years have witnessed advancements in the realm of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans used for brain imaging. Researchers have successfully utilised this method to pinpoint regions of the brain that become active or inactive during tasks.
Since then, neurotechnology has advanced into previously unnoticed regions. These include the creation of drugs to treat mental illnesses like depression, sleeplessness, or attention deficit disorder, as well as innovations in neurological rehabilitation following stroke and cochlear implant technology for auditory restoration. This is only the beginning of what neurotechnology can do, as we shall see when we delve deeper.
Neurotechnology Methods and Techniques
Neurotechnology employs a variety of methods to both monitor and influence brain activity. These techniques range from non-invasive approaches, which interact with the brain externally, to invasive methods that involve surgical implantation of electrodes.
For recording brain activity, several techniques are utilised:
- Electroencephalogram (EEG), the most time-honoured non-invasive method, captures the brain’s electrical activity through electrodes placed on the scalp.
- Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tracks brain activity by detecting variations in blood flow, offering high-resolution insights, albeit at a higher cost.
- Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) uses handheld sensors on the scalp, though it provides lower resolution compared to fMRI.
- The implantation of microneedles, an invasive method, entails placing tiny electrodes into the cerebral cortex, yielding very clear signals from a limited area.
When it comes to brain stimulation techniques, these are the most commonly used:
- Transcranial electrical stimulation (tES), a non-invasive approach, involves applying small currents to scalp electrodes to stimulate certain brain functions.
- Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) operates on a similar principle, using magnetic pulses via coils on the scalp to generate electrical currents in the brain, thus influencing neuron communication. It’s been used to enhance perception, learning, and memory.
- Focused ultrasound (FUS) is another non-invasive method, using focused infrared light pulses to target specific brain areas, potentially through the eyes or nose.
- Deep brain stimulation (DBS) involves surgical implantation of electrodes that act as neurostimulators, showing success in alleviating symptoms of conditions like Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy.
Neurotechnology is closely linked with cognitive technologies, a field highlighted by Deloitte as encompassing artificial intelligence derived technologies capable of performing tasks traditionally done by humans. Examples include artificial vision, machine learning, deep learning, natural language processing, and robotic process automation.
Specifically, insights into brain function are instrumental in developing artificial neural networks. For instance, machine vision, a type of cognitive technology, can be used to discern a person’s emotions through facial expression analysis. Furthermore, the application of these technologies is set to advance the field of neurodidactics, enhancing educational methods and learning processes.
The Latest Applications of Neurotechnology
Here’s a look at some of the latest advancements in neurotechnology:
This involves teaching individuals to regulate their central nervous functions, like heart rate, using real-time EEG or fMRI techniques.
With a deeper understanding of the nervous system, both behavioural and molecular neuropharmacology are making strides in developing more effective medications.
These innovative devices can substitute for lost motor, sensory, or cognitive functions due to injuries or illnesses.
Brain-computer interfaces are crucial in creating new sensors and prosthetics, facilitating the real-time transmission and reception of signals.
A fusion of neurotechnology, genetics, and optogenetics is enabling the activation or deactivation of specific genes in neural tissues through targeted light.
Neurotechnology is progressing at an astonishing pace, often venturing into what feels like the territory of science fiction. A notable instance is the concept of augmented capabilities, where senses and mental abilities are enhanced to near-superhero levels. Additionally, the development of brain-brain interfaces is underway. These interfaces could potentially convert thoughts, sensations, or impulses into digital signals transferable to another individual, nudging us closer to what might be considered telepathy.
Recent Breakthroughs in Neurotechnology
Currently, major neurotechnology initiatives are being spearheaded by large tech corporations. In 2016, Elon Musk, the billionaire behind Tesla and SpaceX, launched Neuralink. This venture focuses on creating an implantable brain-machine interface. The concept involves painless surgery to insert ultra-thin wires, approximately five microns in diameter, into the cerebral cortex for data acquisition and transmission.
Within the same year, Kernel unveiled a prototype of a non-invasive brain interface that utilises near-infrared spectroscopy. This prototype, currently a helmet, can potentially detect various mental states like moods. Tech behemoths like Facebook and Google are not far behind, as they too are venturing into developing their neurotechnology projects.
The Ethical Boundaries of Neurotechnology
Neurotechnology primarily aims to monitor internal brain activity and, eventually, to manipulate its functions. However, ethical concerns arise at the prospect of such technology evolving to the point where it could potentially read or even control an individual’s thoughts and emotions.
As highlighted by Scientific American, alongside neurotechnology’s advancement, there is a growing need for the development of neurorights. In a future where private entities might access the extensive data generated by neurotechnological devices, these rights would be crucial in safeguarding personal information. They would also address potential risks, such as epigenetic changes, neuropsychiatric issues, or the misuse of this technology for biohacking purposes.
Published on 23-01-2024