Thursday, 08 April 2021 05:22

Can a Chip Make Us Smarter?

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?

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

startups to track

1. 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.

2. USB for Your Brain

Doctorsand researchers trying to decode the mysteries of the mind often try to track 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.

3. Sleep on It

Or with it, actually. 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.

By Pallabi Munsi, Reporter, and Charu Sudan Kasturi, Senior Editor  (