Cognitive upgrade: The next disruption frontier?

Many significant advances are happening in the world of neuroscience thanks to technology.

by Roberto Ascione

Cognitive upgrade: The next disruption frontier?
Cognitive upgrade: The next disruption frontier?

The much acclaimed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has contributed massively to the world of science. As you well know, Hawking also suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and besides being severely handicapped, a tracheotomy in 1985 robbed him of the power of speech.
Currently he relies on a tiny IR sensor that detects twitches in his cheek muscle and transforms the output into speech – albeit in a time-consuming manner. Could he benefit from the exponential advances of technology?

In 2011, tech startup Neurovigil worked with Hawking to test its iBrain device in the hopes of allowing him to communicate through brainwaves alone.
Through an EEG headset, the device would monitor his brainwaves and via the proprietary SPEARS algorithm formulated by the iBrain inventor, Dr Philip Low from Stanford University, the device would interpret brainwave activity and transmit commands back to a computer.
This premise was based on the concept of mirror neurons (here is a previous post of mine on the power of mirror neurons) whereby Hawking was asked to imagine performing a specific action.
Although he could not physically perform that action, the motor cortex in his brain could still issue the command and generate electrical waves in his brain. Dr Low’s algorithm would then translate these thoughts into signals.
Sadly, after various tests, they were unable to get a strong enough brain signal from Hawking for the device to function well.

Although the iBrain did not live up to its promise as an augmented communication device for the famed astrophysicist, it is currently being used to monitor brainwave activity in patients with autism, depression and sleep apnea. Also, it is being regarded as a revolutionary new way to monitor drug trials through brain-wave analysis.
Given iBrain’s portability, patients need not make trips to the hospital just for the testing procedure. Instead they could use the device to record their brain-wave patterns while going about their daily tasks.
The data collected is then analyzed by researchers who determine whether a drug is working effecively or not. The US Military department is also looking into the device to see its potential in helping  soldiers with PTSD or traumatic brain injury.

Just like the iBrain, several other noteworthy advances are happening in the world of neurotech – which sits at the crossroads of neuroscience and technology.
It is no news that cognitive decline is a natural consequence of aging where multi-tasking becomes more difficult and processing speed (the brain’s ability to react to stimuli) gradually slows. Yet studies show that this may not be an irreversible path – if you start engaging your brain in productive ways, forcing it to repeatedly polish declining skills, those skills can get significantly sharper.  Some notable entries in this space include NeuroNation and Lumosity, both of which seek to improve cognition based on scientific research in neruoscience and cognitive psychology.

The ground breaking work done by Dr Adam Gazzaley, founding director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at UCSF, and Principal Investigator at Neuroscape Lab, a cognitive neuroscience lab, is fascinating. His most recent studies explore how we might be able to enhance our cognitive abilities via specially designed video games, neuro-feedback and transcranial electric stimulation (tES).  Gazzaley believes that if a video game taxes several different mental capabilities simultaneously, learning to resolve the “interference” produced by multi-tasking is akin to a session at the gym – for the brain. In Project: Evo, which has since moved out of Dr Gazzaley’s lab and is now part of a company called Akili Labs, trials are being conducted to test whether their bespoke games can be used as a tool to detect the early onset of Alzheimer’s and other conditions such as ADHD.
No doubt there are many critics who remain unconvinced in the absence of sufficient scientific data to back up claims about the correlation between gaming and cognitive health, but even in their skepticism, these experts have not dismissed brain training altogether.

I recently came across this wearable that sits at the intersection of sci-fi and fantasy. It is called Thync, a new technology that promises to allow its users to define and refine their moods on demand. Thync is probably the first wearable technology that actively does something to you rather than merely passively track your activities or vital signs. It works via neurosignalling or calculated stimulation, where contact electrodes are placed along the orbital ridge and the base of the neck, and the stimulus applied through electricity. The forehead and neck piece generate impulses which are controlled by the program on the Thync smartphone app. Neurons are actively stimulated in these two sensitive areas and result in mood shifts which Thync calls “vibes”. There are currently two sets of vibes available – namely the calm vibe (promoting relaxation) and the energy vibe (producing alertness).

Thync’s co-founders, CEO Isy Goldwasser and CSO Dr. Jamie Tyler, explains that their product is rooted in real science where tests have been performed on thousands of internal and external subjects and early adopters of Thync. Although it is still awaiting FDA approval, the fact that it won the Best at CES 2015 Award for “Cool Tech” is enough to have many sit up and pay attention.

Naturally the ethics community is having a field day with Thync and asking questions such as: What are the ethics behind battery operated cognitive enhancement? Is brain boosting fair? Will it create a social divide where the only wealthy can afford a cognitive upgrade and leave the rest behind? While it may not be physiologically addictive (unlike mood-enhancer pharmaceuticals), might it become psychologically addictive?

All good questions. At the end of the day, neurotech is showing great promise for the future. Yet at the same time, with great power comes great responsibility. There needs to be clear guidelines from regulatory bodies to ensure that the safety and privacy of users are constantly being safeguarded. With available options such as moods on demand or brain boosts at the push of a button, users also need to be extra discerning when it comes to applying technology and avoid the path of abuse.

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