Frontiers of Neuroscience: Neurohacking and Neuromorphics

neural-network-consciousness-downloading-640x353It is one of the hallmarks of our rapidly accelerating times: looking at the state of technology, how it is increasingly being merged with our biology, and contemplating the ultimate leap of merging mind and machinery. The concept has been popular for many decades now, and with experimental procedures showing promise, neuroscience being used to inspire the next great leap in computing, and the advance of biomedicine and bionics, it seems like just a matter of time before people can “hack” their neurology too.

Take Kevin Tracey, a researcher working for the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y., as an example. Back in 1998, he began conducting experiments to show that an interface existed between the immune and nervous system. Building on ten years worth of research, he was able to show how inflammation – which is associated with rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease – can be fought by administering electrical stimulu, in the right doses, to the vagus nerve cluster.

Brain-ScanIn so doing, he demonstrated that the nervous system was like a computer terminal through which you could deliver commands to stop a problem, like acute inflammation, before it starts, or repair a body after it gets sick.  His work also seemed to indicate that electricity delivered to the vagus nerve in just the right intensity and at precise intervals could reproduce a drug’s therapeutic reaction, but with greater effectiveness, minimal health risks, and at a fraction of the cost of “biologic” pharmaceuticals.

Paul Frenette, a stem-cell researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, is another example. After discovering the link between the nervous system and prostate tumors, he and his colleagues created SetPoint –  a startup dedicated to finding ways to manipulate neural input to delay the growth of tumors. These and other efforts are part of the growing field of bioelectronics, where researchers are creating implants that can communicate directly with the nervous system in order to try to fight everything from cancer to the common cold.

human-hippocampus-640x353Impressive as this may seem, bioelectronics are just part of the growing discussion about neurohacking. In addition to the leaps and bounds being made in the field of brain-to-computer interfacing (and brain-to-brain interfacing), that would allow people to control machinery and share thoughts across vast distances, there is also a field of neurosurgery that is seeking to use the miracle material of graphene to solve some of the most challenging issues in their field.

Given graphene’s rather amazing properties, this should not come as much of a surprise. In addition to being incredibly thin, lightweight, and light-sensitive (it’s able to absorb light in both the UV and IR range) graphene also a very high surface area (2630 square meters per gram) which leads to remarkable conductivity. It also has the ability to bind or bioconjugate with various modifier molecules, and hence transform its behavior. 

brainscan_MRIAlready, it is being considered as a possible alternative to copper wires to break the energy efficiency barrier in computing, and even useful in quantum computing. But in the field of neurosurgery, where researchers are looking to develop materials that can bridge and even stimulate nerves. And in a story featured in latest issue of Neurosurgery, the authors suggest thatgraphene may be ideal as an electroactive scaffold when configured as a three-dimensional porous structure.

That might be a preferable solution when compared with other currently vogue ideas like using liquid metal alloys as bridges. Thanks to Samsung’s recent research into using graphene in their portable devices, it has also been shown to make an ideal E-field stimulator. And recent experiments on mice in Korea showed that a flexible, transparent, graphene skin could be used as a electrical field stimulator to treat cerebral hypoperfusion by stimulating blood flow through the brain.

Neuromorphic-chip-640x353And what look at the frontiers of neuroscience would be complete without mentioning neuromorphic engineering? Whereas neurohacking and neurosurgery are looking for ways to merge technology with the human brain to combat disease and improve its health, NE is looking to the human brain to create computational technology with improved functionality. The result thus far has been a wide range of neuromorphic chips and components, such as memristors and neuristors.

However, as a whole, the field has yet to define for itself a clear path forward. That may be about to change thanks to Jennifer Hasler and a team of researchers at Georgia Tech, who recently published a roadmap to the future of neuromorphic engineering with the end goal of creating the human-brain equivalent of processing. This consisted of Hasler sorting through the many different approaches for the ultimate embodiment of neurons in silico and come up with the technology that she thinks is the way forward.

neuromorphic-chip-fpaaHer answer is not digital simulation, but rather the lesser known technology of FPAAs (Field-Programmable Analog Arrays). FPAAs are similar to digital FPGAs (Field-Programmable Gate Arrays), but also include reconfigurable analog elements. They have been around on the sidelines for a few years, but they have been used primarily as so-called “analog glue logic” in system integration. In short, they would handle a variety of analog functions that don’t fit on a traditional integrated circuit.

Hasler outlines an approach where desktop neuromorphic systems will use System on a Chip (SoC) approaches to emulate billions of low-power neuron-like elements that compute using learning synapses. Each synapse has an adjustable strength associated with it and is modeled using just a single transistor. Her own design for an FPAA board houses hundreds of thousands of programmable parameters which enable systems-level computing on a scale that dwarfs other FPAA designs.

neuromorphic_revolutionAt the moment, she predicts that human brain-equivalent systems will require a reduction in power usage to the point where they are consuming just one-eights of what digital supercomputers that are currently used to simulate neuromorphic systems require. Her own design can account for a four-fold reduction in power usage, but the rest is going to have to come from somewhere else – possibly through the use of better materials (i.e. graphene or one of its derivatives).

Hasler also forecasts that using soon to be available 10nm processes, a desktop system with human-like processing power that consumes just 50 watts of electricity may eventually be a reality. These will likely take the form of chips with millions of neuron-like skeletons connected by billion of synapses firing to push each other over the edge, and who’s to say what they will be capable of accomplishing or what other breakthroughs they will make possible?

posthuman-evolutionIn the end, neuromorphic chips and technology are merely one half of the equation. In the grand scheme of things, the aim of all of this research is not only produce technology that can ensure better biology, but technology inspired by biology to create better machinery. The end result of this, according to some, is a world in which biology and technology increasingly resemble each other, to the point that they is barely a distinction to be made and they can be merged.

Charles Darwin would roll over in his grave!

Sources:,, (2),

Year-End Health News: Anti-Aging and Artificial Hearts

medtechHere we have two more stories from last year that I find I can’t move on without posting about them. And considering just how relevant they are to the field of biomedicine, there was no way I could let them go unheeded. Not only are developments such as these likely to save lives, they are also part of a much-anticipated era where mortality will be a nuisance rather than an inevitability.

The first story comes to us from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia and the Harvard Medical School, where a joint effort achieved a major step towards the dream of clinical immortality. In the course of experimenting on mice, the researchers managed to reverse the effects of aging in mice using an approach that restores communication between a cell’s mitochondria and nucleus.

MitochondriaMitochondria are the power supply for a cell, generating the energy required for key biological functions. When communication breaks down between mitochondria and the cell’s control center (the nucleus), the effects of aging accelerate. Led by David Sinclair, a professor from UNSW Medicine at Harvard Medical School, the team found that by restoring this molecular communication, aging could not only be slowed, but reversed.

Responsible for this breakdown is a decline of the chemical Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide (or NAD). By increasing amounts of a compound used by the cell to produce NAD, Professor Sinclair found that he and his team could quickly repair mitochondrial function. Key indicators of aging, such as insulin resistance, inflammation and muscle wasting, showed extensive improvement.

labmiceIn fact, the researchers found that the tissue of two-year-old mice given the NAD-producing compound for just one week resembled that of six-month-old mice. They said that this is comparable to a 60-year-old human converting to a 20-year-old in these specific areas. As Dr Nigel Turner, an ARC Future Fellow from UNSW’s Department of Pharmacology and co-author of the team’s research paper, said:

It was shocking how quickly it happened. If the compound is administered early enough in the aging process, in just a week, the muscles of the older mice were indistinguishable from the younger animals.

The technique has implications for treating cancer, type 2 diabetes, muscle wasting, inflammatory and mitochondrial diseases as well as anti-aging. Sinclair and his team are now looking at the longer-term outcomes of the NAD-producing compound in mice and how it affects them as a whole. And with the researchers hoping to begin human clinical trials in 2014, some major medical breakthroughs could be just around the corner.

carmat_artificialheartIn another interesting medical story, back in mid-December, a 75 year-old man in Paris became the  recipient of the world’s first Carmat bioprosthetic artificial heart. Now technically, artificial hearts have been in use since the 1980’s. But what sets this particular heart apart, according to its inventor – cardiac surgeon Alain Carpentier – is the Carmat is the first artificial heart to be self-regulating.

In this case, self-regulating refers to the Carmat’s ability to speed or slow its flow rate based on the patient’s physiological needs. For example, if they’re performing a vigorous physical activity, the heart will respond by beating faster. This is made possible via “multiple miniature embedded sensors” and proprietary algorithms running on its integrated microprocessor. Power comes from an external lithium-ion battery pack worn by the patient, and a fuel cell is in the works.

carmat_2Most other artificial hearts beat at a constant unchanging rate, which means that patients either have to avoid too much activity, or risk becoming exhausted quickly. In the course of its human trials, it will be judged based on its ability to keep patients with heart failure alive for a month, but the final version is being designed to operate for five years.

The current lone recipient is reported to be recuperating in intensive care at Paris’ Georges Pompidou European Hospital, where he is awake and carrying on conversations. “We are delighted with this first implant, although it is premature to draw conclusions given that a single implant has been performed and that we are in the early postoperative phase,” says Carmat CEO Marcello Conviti.

medical-technologyAccording to a Reuters report, although the Carmat is similar in size to a natural adult human heart, it’s is somewhat larger and almost three times as heavy – weighing in at approximately 900 grams (2 lb). It should therefore fit inside 86 percent of men, but only 20 percent of women. That said, the company has stated that a smaller model could be made in time.

In the meantime, it’s still a matter of making sure the self-regulating bioprosthetic actually works and prolongs the life of patients who are in the final stages of heart failure. Assuming the trials go well, the Carmat is expected to be available within the European Union by early 2015, priced at between 140,000 and 180,000 euros, which works out to $190,000 – $250,000 US.

See what I mean? From anti-aging to artificial organs, the war on death proceeds apace. Some will naturally wonder if that’s a war meant to be fought, or an inevitably worth mitigating. Good questions, and one’s which we can expect to address at length as the 21st century progresses…

Sources:,, (2),,

The Future of Medicine: The Spleen-On-A-Chip

spleen_on_a_chipSepsis, a full-body inflammatory state caused by infection, is a notorious killer, being both deadly and difficult to treat. As it stands, doctors use broad-spectrum antibiotics that have only a limited chance of success, and a misdiagnosis can cost a patient vital time. For military personnel serving overseas, where conditions are difficult and medical treatment not always readily available, it is a particular problem.

Hence why DARPA has been keen on finding new treatment options and contracted the Wyss Institute at Harvard University to the tune of $9.25 million to find it for them. Their solution: the “Spleen-on-a-Chip” – a blood-cleaning device that acts much like a kidney dialysis machine. Blood goes out through one vein, and back through another, but the real key is the magnetic nano-beads coated in a protein that binds to bacteria, fungi, parasites, and some toxins.

bloodstreamWith these impurities coated in microscopic metal beats, the blood then flows through micro-channels in the device where a magnet pulls the pathogens free, leaving the blood clean. The technique also takes out dead pathogens (killed by antibiotics) that can also cause inflammations, if there are enough of them. In this way, it not only removes the cause of sepsis, but one of the common side-effects of conventional treatment.

Don Ingber, director of Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, described the benefits of their Spleen-on-a-chip:

The idea with this therapy is that you could use it right away without knowing the type of infection. You can remove pathogens and infections without triggering that whole cascade that gets worse and worse.

Since it mimics the effects of a real spleen, many have taken to calling it a “biospleen”, indicating that it is a genuine biomimetic  device. At the present time, Ingber and his associates are testing it on rats, with the hope of expanding their trials to larger animals, like pigs. But given the limits of their funding, Ingder estimates that it will be a good five years before  a serviceable model is available to the public.

blood_vialsBy that time, however, the biospleen may be just one of several organs-on-a-chip available for purchase. The Wyss Institute is hardly alone in developing biomimetics, and their spleen is just on of many devices they are working on. Ingber and his associates are currently working on the lung-on-a-chip and a gut-on-a-chip, devices that are able to oxygenate blood and process food into useable energy.

These latter devices will come in very handy for people with emphysema or other respiratory diseases, and people suffering from digestive problems or stomach cancer. And while larger aim, says Ingber, is to raise the effectiveness of drug testing and improve understanding of how the body reacts to disease, the potential is far more astounding. Within a few decades, we may be capable of getting our hands on machines that can compensate for any kind of limitation imposed by disease or our biology.

It’s a biomimetic future, people – technology imitating biology for the sake of creating enhanced biology.