How far can we tinker with the human brain?
MANILA, Philippines – In the 1980s, brain implants are nothing but a crazy dream of science fiction writers like William Gibson who wrote "Johnny Mnemonic," a story of a data trafficker who underwent surgery to have data stored in his head.
Fast forward to present times, it is slowly becoming a reality. The question is: how far should science go in tinkering with the human brain?
A panel of scientists discussed some of the latest brain machines being developed and the possibility of going further in this type of research during one of the talks at the 2014 World Science Festival held in New York City, from May 28 to June 1.
Some of the technologies presented during the discussion were a robotic arm connected to a microchip implanted on the brain, a brain chip that could help the blind see, and the so called “neural dusts.”
Using robotic arm to drink coffee
Cathy Hutchinson, 60, has been paralyzed and unable to speak for 11 years due to stroke.
But in 2012, by just thinking, Hutchinson was able to get a bottle of coffee and drink it using an external robotic arm.
The technology, called “BrainGate2” is a hairbrush-like tiny sensor implanted in the brain is linked to a computer which translates electric impulses to commands, such as grabbing a bottle of coffee.
Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at the New York University even tried to make “bop-bop” sounds as an analogy for electric impulses on the brain as he discussed with the moderator, NPR journalist Robert Krulwich.
Marcus said, the electric signals in the brain are so complex, a leftward movement may “sound” different from a rightward movement.
While the technology may still take years before it can be perfected for practical use, pioneer of this research, John Donoghue of Brown University said there are still much about how the brain works that scientists have not fully understood.
Donoghue explained, even Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) of the brain is similar to listening to a crowd behind closed doors. While we want to listen to one or two conversations within the crowd, what we’re trying to do is to listen to all the conversations in the crowd at the same time.
Math to help the blind see
Meanwhile, Cornell University neuroscientist Sheila Nirenberg, presented how a type of brain prosthetics her team developed was able to mimic how the retina (a part of the eye) works and send the information to the brain to interpret the image.
Nirenberg said, “We did it with math.”
What Nirenberg and her team did was to replace the circuitry of the retina with a series of equations that serves as the codebook for the images. After the image passes through the math, the retina will produce electric impulses that helps identify and visualize the image.
She said that what makes her research challenging is that it’s difficult to understand how the brain recognizes images, even as the movement of the image changes what the person sees, and still able to tell what it sees.
“You can think of it as a symphony… You would think you need to understand how each one plays, like okay, he’s on violin, I get it… To understand how all the players are working on, we need to understand the interplay… how each players interact with each other,” Marcus said.
Nirenberg said that the brain may just be “a big math problem.”
An engineer from the University of California Berkeley, Michel Maharbiz, talked about another type of brain implant called “neural dusts.”
The brain is not a hospitable place for foreign objects placed inside for a lifetime, Maharbiz said. The idea is to minimize the device to make it last longer inside the brain, and that is the kind of design his team proposed in their study – ultra miniature versions of neuroprosthetic for the brain.
The discussion also generated a lot of interesting questions from the audience, as well as from those who watched remotely via livestreaming. Special livestreaming events were organized in Canada and the Philippines.
While research on brain machines are leaps and bounds away from what was imagined in the past, the reality remains that there is still a long way to go.
“We're so far from understanding the basis of consciousness...We dont know how to define the problem in those kinds of terms. I could give an answer, but I'd be making it up,” Marcus said, answering some questions after the panel discussion.
The talk titled “Cells to Silicon: Your Brain in 2050” was one of the two discussions streamed live at The Mind Museum in Taguig City on May 30 and 31. The other one titled “Designer Genes: Fashioning our Biological Future” is about DNA research and alteration.
After the livestream, audience at The Mind Museum stayed a bit longer to discuss some of the points and topics presented.
One of the questions was about how much farther can science go in terms of brain-machine research.
Staff members from The Mind Museum replied by saying that for as long as there is someone who continues to ask questions – and ask the right questions – science will not stop.
This is the second year The Mind Museum has partnered with the US Embassy to gather students and science enthusiasts to watch and participate at the World Science Festival. – Rappler.com