Tech News: Neurotech has inside track on enhancing brain function
LEARNING is enormously important since no person is born with the ability to function competently in a society with all the necessary knowledge and skills. In fact, our whole education system is based on this premise.
But learning is a tedious process that takes time, repetition, and hard work whether it is a student trying to master mathematics or an athlete training for the pole vault. Therefore, neuroscientists have over the years searched for ways of speeding up the learning process or making it more efficient and effective.
In 1999 the science fiction action film and winner of four Academy Awards, The Matrix, described a dystopian future in which humanity is unknowingly trapped inside a simulated reality created by intelligent machines, called the Matrix. In the simulated reality the characters are able to instantly acquire complex skills, knowledge and training such as practising kung fu or flying a helicopter by loading it directly into their brains.
For many years it has been the dream of neuroscientists to achieve efficient, scalable, standardised and fully automated learning as in The Matrix. Recent advances in neurosciences seem to suggest that technology could soon influence the way our brain functions.
Quantifying brain activity
For a long time, researchers have been trying to understand the mysteries of the mind and in particular the activity of neurons and the flow of blood in the brain. But until now, that required invasive procedures or even brain surgery. But recently the Los Angeles-based start-up Kernel has developed two new technologies that can be used as non-invasive brain recorders, called Flow and Flux.
Flux detects the magnetic fields created by collective activity of neutrons in the brain (ie, magnetic flux), while Flow detects cortical hemodynamics (the dynamics of blood flow), which is representative of neural activity. Both of these are important signals monitored by researchers and medical practitioners when working with the brain.
The aim of Kernel is to map a person’s neurome or quantify the cognition, emotions and behaviour – conscious and subconscious. The technology certainly has the capability to fundamentally transform brain research and could bring a new era of understanding, wellness and human improvement.
Any music student would affirm that it takes hundreds of hours of practice to learn one of the classical symphonies or concertos. But Berklee College of Music in Boston, US, made an important breakthrough by using headphones developed by Halo Neuroscience (acquired by the Swedish form Flow Neuroscience in February 2021). These specialised headphones use transcranial magnetic brain stimulation that advances cognitive performance and helps students to master a complex piece of music more efficiently and with much fewer repetitions and hours of practice.
According to published research, Halo’s neuropriming increased the performance of US Olympic athletes by more than 15 percent. It accelerated fine motor skill learning by 60 percent, increased multitasking performance and problem-solving ability respectively with 28 percent and 25 percent; and increased surgical skill of medical students by 30 percent.
Decoding the activity of the brain
Paris-based NextMind has developed a real-time brain-computer interface called Dev Kit that reads or decodes the brain’s response to what a person is looking at, and then does what the mind asks. As its promotion video shows, it could allow a DJ to control the equaliser (EQ) level with her mind, allowing her hands to stay free for the turntable.
A chip implanted in the brain
But Elon Musk and his brain-computer interface company Neuralink wants to go much further by implanting a chip in the brain to help people with neurological disorders. Musk reported on January 31 that a wireless chip was successfully implanted into a monkey’s brain, allowing it to play video games using only its mind. If Neuralink gets final approval, testing on humans will start later this year.
Last year, Musk also revealed that Neuralink is working on a chip that would be able to stream music directly to a listener’s brain – something that could revolutionise the music industry in future.
The future of neurotechnology
Certainly, there are risks to the use of neurotechnology. Chips do not last forever and may need replacing, which would entail another operation. But scientists believe they are on the right track. Neurotech’s applications in athletics with regard to the fine-tuning of practice sessions or mental preparation ahead of a major event, have already shown success.
In the years to come the role played by Neurotech would certainly become more important. If Halo’s music learning, Dev Kit’s mind control or Musk’s direct-to-brain downloads establish themselves as proven technologies, it is possible that it may be available on the shelves of well-known outlets in a few years’ time. The acquisition of knowledge and skill at broadband-like speeds across surgically implanted hardware as in The Matrix may just be within our reach.
Professor Louis C H Fourie is a technology strategist
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