Hack your brain

Re-engineered human brains could be in our future, researchers say

Your mind: it's just another piece of hardware. Make sure to download the latest patch for its operating system. That's the fate of humankind described by some researchers.

Your mind: it's just another piece of hardware. Make sure you download the latest patch and upgrade to the newest operating system.

That, in so many words, is the fate of humankind described by David Pescovitz, co-editor of the BoingBoing.net blog and research director with the Institute for the Future

We've long used caffeine and various other drugs to alter our states of mind. But those are "really blunt instruments" compared with the future technology that advances in neuroscience will bring, Pescovitz said Tuesday as he moderated a panel discussion on the "future of mind hacks" at the O’Reilly ETech conference on emerging technology in San Diego.

"In the near future, these technologies will be available to us to help us take control of our own minds, to alter our own minds – to bring a DIY hacker mentality to your own head," Pescovitz said.

The details on how this will work are fuzzy at best. Pescovitz referred to the members of his panel as being much smarter than himself, and they were a bit more cautious in describing advances that might lead to enhancements of the human brain.

"We always want to better ourselves. And we're always looking for shortcuts, easier ways to achieve our end goal," said Timo Hannay, the head of Web publishing of the Nature Publishing Group who used to work as a neurophysiologist studying the molecular mechanisms of memory.

Side effects are inevitable, though, particularly if what we use to alter our brains comes in pill form, he said.

"When you take a shortcut, there’s almost bound to be some kind of adverse side effect or aftereffect," Hannay said. "It's very likely when you get significant enhancements, there will always be things balancing those."

But the most drastic enhancements discussed Tuesday won't come in pill form but through reconfiguring the brain's so-called "hardware and software."

Current research has enabled non-human primates to play the old video game Space Invaders using nothing but their own thoughts, said Daniel Marcus, director of the Neuroinformatics Research Group at Washington University School of Medicine.

Scientists measure the activity of neurons while a monkey plays Space Invaders with a joystick, and then connect the monkey's brain signals to a device that performs the functions of a joystick without requiring any physical manipulation.

"Eventually, you can take the joystick away and the monkey learns to control the video game using its own neural signals," Marcus said.

The Space Invaders experiment has been performed in at least one human trial, Marcus said in an interview after the panel discussion. Marcus isn't involved in this research himself but is excited about its potential.

"I think it has a lot of potential for quadriplegics," Marcus said. "They just want to have some sort of interaction with their environment, to be able to feed themselves, to type something into a computer and communicate. That really seems realistic to me. The idea of being able to fully control a body is a long ways off, but these are steps in that direction."

In a separate project, one brain-controlled gaming system is already being demoed, with mixed results.

Marcus doubts we'll all be cyborgs 50 years from now, but says even healthy people might benefit from some sort of brain interface that connects to – well, something.

Research is limited right now. Scientists are measuring the activity of only 100 neurons or so at a time, which means that while a monkey can use its head to play Space Invaders it still needs to use its hands to play a more complicated game such as the maze-like Pac-Man, according to Marcus.

Marcus's own research involves the brain scanning technology fMRI, which pinpoints the areas of the brain that light up in response to visual stimuli or other triggers. His work analyzing Alzheimer's disease illustrates some of the dangers that might accompany any attempt to re-engineer the human brain.

When we're not doing anything, our brains switch to a default mode, which appears to have major importance and perhaps has something to do with memory. The parts of the brain most involved in this default mode are also the ones most affected in the brains of people suffering from Alzheimer's, according to Marcus.

This seems to indicate that in some humans, the normal functioning of the brain is damaging itself, and is something that has to be considered when performing any future "mind hacks," Marcus said.

"When you're not working on some other task these [brain areas] go up in activity," Marcus explained in an interview after the panel discussion. "The second you go off-task, these start doing some work. We don't know exactly what this work is but it must be really important because the brain works really hard to turn on these areas. But these are the exact same areas that show damage in Alzheimer's disease. It's as if the activity in these neurons is leading to some sort of damage."

With the brain being vulnerable to its own actions, mind hackers have to be careful if they "target some part of the brain that's really open to intervention because it's known to be highly plastic," he said.

Beyond the potential for physical damage, all this stuff raises ethical questions as well, panelists said. Some perfectly healthy college kids like to use Adderall, a drug that treats attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, as a stimulant to improve their focus and help them study and take tests, Pescovitz said. Some employers use random drug tests to make sure workers aren't hooked on illegal narcotics – what if companies start testing employees to make sure they're on drugs, Pescovitz asked. Will this create a neural divide?

"One of the ethical issues it raises is the divide between the people who can afford it and those who can't," Hannay said.

On the plus side, "these tools can be helpful to bridge neural divides," particularly for people with conditions like dyslexia, said Alvaro Fernandez.

Fernandez runs Sharp Brains, a Web site that provides information on tools used to improve cognitive function. These tools can be as simple as brain teasers. But Fernandez predicts a burgeoning industry in mind improvement that will rival the physical fitness business.

What does it mean for you? Probably not much for now, but Pescovitz looks forward to the day when businesses have brain fitness centers for their employees, complete with vending machines loaded with pharmaceuticals and kiosks that zap your mind with magnetic waves. Goodbye, Starbucks, hello Skynet

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