The Future of Medicine: “Hacking” Neurological Disorders

brain-scan_530Officially, it’s known as “neurohacking” – a method of biohacking that seeks to manipulate or interfere with the structure and/or function of neurons and the central nervous system to improve or repair the human brain. In recent years, scientists and researchers have been looking at how Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) could be used for just such a purpose. And the results are encouraging, indicating that the technology could be used to correct for neurological disorders.

The key in this research has to do with the subthalamic nucleus (STN) – a component of the basal ganglia control system that is interconnected to the motor areas of the brain. Researchers initially hit upon the STN as a site for stimulation when studying monkeys with artificially induced movement disorders. When adding electrical stimulation to this center, the result was a complete elimination of debilitating tremors and involuntary movements.

DIY biohacker Anthony Johnson – aka. “Cyber AJ” – also recently released a dramatic video where he showed the effects of DBS on himself. As a Parkison’s sufferer, Johnson was able to demonstrate how the applications of a mild electrical stimulus from his Medtronic DBS to the STN region of his brain completely eliminated the tremors he has had to deal with ever since he was diagnosed.


But in spite of these positive returns, tests on humans have been slow-going and somewhat inconclusive. Basically, scientists have been unable to conclude why stimulating the STN would eliminate tremors, as the function of this region of the brain is still somewhat of a mystery. What’s more, they also determined that putting electrodes in any number of surrounding brain nuclei, or passing fiber tracts, seems to have similar beneficial effects.

In truth, when dealing with people who suffer from neurological disorders, any form of stimulation is likely to have a positive effect. Whether it is Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Tourettes, Autism, Aspergers, or neurological damage, electrical stimulation is likely to produce moments of lucidity, greater recall, and more focused attention. Good news for some, but until such time as we know how and in what ways the treatment needs to happen, lasting treatment will be difficult.

brain-activityLuckily, research conducted by the Movement Disorders Group at Oxford University, led by Peter Brown, has provided some degree of progress in this field. Since DBS was first discovered, they have been busily recording activity through what is essentially a brain-computer interface (BCI) in the hopes of amassing meaningful data from the brain as it undergoes stimulation moment-by-moment.

For starters, it is known that the symptoms of Parkinson’s and other such disorders fluctuate continuously and any form of smart control needs to be fast to be effective. Hence, DBS modules need to be responsive, and not simply left on all the time. Hence, in addition to their being electrodes that can provide helpful stimulus, there also need to be sensors that can detect when the brain is behaving erratically.

neuronsHere too, it was the Oxford group that came up with a solution. Rather than simply implanting more junk into the brain – expensive and potentially dangerous – Brown and his colleagues realized that the stimulation electrodes themselves can be used to take readings from the local areas of the brain and send signals to the DBS device to respond.

By combining BCI with DBS – lot of acronyms, I know! – the Oxford group and those like them have come away with many ideas for improvements, and are working towards an age where a one-size-fits-all DBS system will be replaced with a new series of personalized implants.

tcdsIn the meantime, a number of recreational possibilities also exist that do not involve electrodes in the brain. The tDCS headband is one example, a headset that provides transcranial direct current stimulation to the brain without the need for neurosurgery or any kind of brain implant. In addition to restoring neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to be flexible and enable learning and growth – it has also been demonstrated to promote deeper sleep and greater awareness in users.

But it is in the field of personalized medical implants, the kinds that can correct for neurological disorders, that the real potential really exists. In the long-run, such neurological prosthesis could not only going to lead to the elimination of everything from mental illness to learning disabilities, they would also be the first step towards true and lasting brain enhancement.

transhuman3It is a staple of both science fiction and futurism that merging the human brain with artificial components and processors is central to the dream of transhumanism. By making our brains smarter, faster, and correcting for any troubling hiccups that might otherwise slow us down, we would effectively be playing with an entirely new deck. And what we would be capable of inventing and producing would be beyond anything we currently have at our disposal.

Sources: Extremetech.com, (2)

More Top Stories of 2012

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With 2012 now officially behind us, and more and more stories trickling into this humble bloggers account about what was accomplished therein, it seems that the time is ripe for another list of breakthroughs, first, and achievements that made the news during the previous year!

Last time, I listed what I saw as the top 12, only to find that there were several others, some of which I actually wrote about, that didn’t make the cut. How foolish of me! And so, to remedy this and possibly cover stories that I neglected to cover the first time around, I have produced another list of the top stories from 2012.

And much like last time, I have listed them according to alphabetical order, since I couldn’t possibly assign them numbers based on importance.

Abortion Study:
anti-abortion-pushAbortion has always been a contentious issue, with one side arguing for the rights of the unborn while the other argues in favor of women’s right to control her own body and reproduction. And as it happens, 2012 saw the publication of the first longitudinal study of what happens to women who are denied this right.

The UC San Francisco research team, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), studied nearly 1,000 women from diverse backgrounds across the U.S. over several years. All of these subjects were women had sought out abortions but been denied access for one reason or another. What they discovered was that these women were more likely to slip below the poverty line, be unemployed, remain in abusive relationships, and suffer from hyper stress. What this ongoing study demonstrates is that abortion is an economic issue for women, with dire consequences for those denied them.

Autism Reversed:
mice
2012 was an especially significant year in medical advances thanks to a team at McGill University in Montreal announced that they’ve successfully reversed the symptoms of autism in mice. Using mice with autism-like symptoms caused by a genetic mutation, the researchers figured out how to administer a protein that reversed the symptoms.

Naturally, this development is a step in the long process of understanding a disorder which remains largely misunderstood. In addition, it may, in time, lead to the development of a gene therapy that will prevent autism from being triggered in children and even weed it out of parent’s genetic code, ensuring that their children will be immune.

Commercial Space Travel:
virgin_galacticIt has long been the dream of financiers, captains of industry and enthusiasts to create commercial space travel; a means for the average person to go into space, the moon, and even beyond. And all at a reasonable price! This dream is still the subject of speculation and fantasy, but 2012 was a year of firsts that made it seem that much closer.

For starters, Virgin Galactic, the brain-child of Richard Branson, began flight tests on SpaceShipTwo, the rocket ship that will take people into orbit. Then came Reaction Engines Limited with the proposed design for the hypersonic aerospace engine. And finally, there was the creation of Golden Spike, a company made up largely of former astronauts, who want to make commercial flight to the moon a go by 2020.

Electricity-Creating Virus:
M13_virusA breakthrough virus named M13 made news in 2012 for being the first ever virus that could turn physical activity into electricity. The key is what is known as the “piezoelectric effect,” which happens when certain materials like crystals (or viruses) emit a small amount of power when squeezed. Created by a  team of scientists at the Berkeley Lab, this genetically engineered M13 viruses was able to emit enough electricity to power a small LED screen, but poses no threat to humans. One day, all devices could be powered through the simple act of typing or walking, and buildings could be powered by absorbing people’s activity.

Encyclopedia of DNA (ENCODE):
encodeThe publication of the human genome back in the late 90’s was a major breakthrough for genetics and medical science. And in 2012, another breakthrough was achieved by researchers at USC with the publication of ENCODE – The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements Project. Unlike the previous project, these researchers were able not only to catalog the human genome’s various parts, but what those components actually do.

Among the initiative’s many findings was that so-called “junk DNA” – outlier DNA sequences that do not encode for protein sequences – are not junk at all, and are in fact responsible for such things as gene regulation, disease onset, and even human height. These findings will go a long way towards developing gene therapy, biotechnology that seeks to create artificial DNA and self-assembling structures, and even cloning.

Face Transplant:
FaceTransplant_6062012 was also the year that the first full-face transplant was ever conducted. The recipient in question was a man named Richard Norris, a man who lost significant portions of his face from a gunshot accident back in 1997. And after years of attempted reconstructive surgeries, doctors working out of the University of Maryland Medical Center performed a procedure that gave Mr. Norris a has face, teeth, tongue, and a completely new set of jaws.

Not only that, but within days of the surgery, Norris was able to move his facial muscle and jaw. Combined with the nature of the surgery itself, this is not short of unprecedented, and could mean a new age in which severe accident victims and veterans are able to recover fully from physical traumas and live perfectly normal, happy lives.

The Higgs Boson Discovered:
higgs_boson
I can’t believe I didn’t include this story last time, as it is possibly the biggest story of 2012, and perhaps one of the biggest stories since the millennium! 2012 will forever go down in history as the year that the Higgs Boson was discovered. After some 40 years of ongoing research, and fears that it would never be discovered, the last missing piece of The Standard Model of particle physics was found.

Not only does the existence of the Higgs Boson confirm that the Standard Model is valid, it also helps explain how other elementary particles get their mass. This will herald a new step in the advance of particle and the quantum physics, and could lead to the development of quantum computing, quantum generators, and a greater understand of the universe itself.

High-Tech Condom:
condom1Using a revolutionary nano-fabrication process known as electrospinning, researchers at the University of Washington have produced the world’s first female condom that not only prevents pregnancy and protects against HIV, but also evaporates after use. In addition, the manufacturing method used is a step in the direction of viable nanotechnology. Score one for safe sex, public health, and a waste free future permeated by tiny machines and smart materials! That’s a big score card…

Infinite Capacity Wireless:
vortex-radio-waves-348x1962012 was also the year that it was proven that it could be possible to boost the capacity of wireless communication infinitely. The discovery was first made by Bo Thide of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics and some Italian colleagues in Venice, and then confirmed by a team of American and Israeli researchers who used the technique to transmit data at a rate of 2.5 terabytes a second.

Conventional radio signals are transmitted on a flat plane, but Thide twisted the transmitting and receiving antennae into the shape of corkscrew. By adding another dimension to the mix, the technique added a lot of extra bandwidth. As a result, the problem of bandwidth crunches might be a thing of the past, not to mention problems of slow download/upload.

Google Neural Net:
googleneuralnetwork1
Another first and definitely one of the biggest headlines of 2012, far as I was concerned. So why I forgot to include it last time is beyond me! For generations scientists have contemplating the idea of AI and wondered how and where the first leap might be made from basic computing towards true machine intelligence. And as it turns out, Google X Labs, the same place where Project Glass was conceived, seems to have accomplished just that.

The accomplishment came when the labs created a neural network based on sixteen core processors and a connectome with a billion connections. The network accomplished its first task by studying millions of images on Youtube and then demonstrating the ability to differentiate between the faces of cats and humans. This act of independent reasoning that went beyond mere image recognition, and is a major step towards the achievement of a fully-functional artificial intelligence.

Stem cell mammal:
stem_cellsFor the first time in history, researchers at Kyoto University created a mouse by using eggs derived from stem cells alone. The achievement once again shows the remarkable possibilities presented by regenerative technologies like stem cells, while raising pressing ethical questions about the potential for human births in which parents might not be required.

Water in the Solar System:
titan_lakes2012 was also the year that an unprecedented amount of discoveries were made in our solar system. In addition to all the interesting revelations made by the Curiosity Rover, a number of probes discovered water on Europa, Mercury, Titan, and other Saturnalian moons. Usually, this comes in the form of water saturated with hydrocarbons, as was evident on Titan, but the discoveries remain monumental.

In addition to Titan’s methane lakes and Nile-like river, ice and organic molecules were discovered near the poles of Mercury. Evidence of water was found on Mars, indicating the existence of rivers and oceans at one time, and the Cassini space probe confirmed that Enceladus has its own oceans. All of this bodes well for the future of space exploration and colonization, where domestic sources of water may be used for hydrogen cells, hydroponics and even drinking water.

World’s First Tractor Beam:
tractor_beamIn another interesting first, NASA scientists demonstrated in 2012 that another staple technology from Star Trek may be realizable. Yes, in addition to the warp drive, scientists scientists David Ruffner and David Grier demonstrated that a tractor beam may also be realizable in the not-too-distant future. And given the 100 Year Starship Project and other desires to commit to space exploration, such a device could come in mighty handy!

Using a prototype optical beam to pull a small sphere of silica (30 micrometers) suspended in water, Grier and Ruffner pioneered the use of a Bessel beam, a long-established concept, to pull an object of discernible size and mass around. Naturally, NASA hopes to create a more high-powered version of the technology for use on space craft down the road.

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Thank you once more for attending this symposium on technological breakthroughs during the year of 2012! It was a good year, wouldn’t you say? And barring the advent of killer robots sometime in the near future that unleash a nuclear holocaust on us and force us all to work as slaves, I think people will look back on these developments in a positive light.

Yes, assuming humanity can keep its wits about itself and ensure the ethical application of all we’ve accomplished, 2012 may be seen as a turning point, where incurable diseases became preventable, AI’s became realizable, and limitless communications, super-fast computations, paper-thin flexible devices, green technology, commercial spaceflight, and Solar planet colonization all became truly viable.

Source: extremetech.com, IO9.com