I’m sitting in a Sussex cottage, wearing a rubber swimming cap dotted with wires and electrodes. On a laptop in front of me, a constantly shifting wash of coloured graphics portrays the activity in my brain. It’s a neat party trick, but it is also a Pandora’s box: across the world, scientists are using this kind of technology to prise open our minds, to fathom our voting preferences, our guilty thoughts, our shopping desires, even the words we are thinking. Already their activities are stealthily changing our world.
I’m the guest of Dr David Lewis, a British neuropsychologist who uses electronic brain-scanning to help brands see which of their marketing strategies best snare our interest. His Sussex University-based company, the Mind Lab, uses equipment that monitors electrical activity in the brain, and is currently investigating how to refine people’s enjoyment of video games. This is definitely the least contentious end of the market.
Amid all the scientific gadgetry and research, sceptics argue that brain-reading systems are not yet sufficiently developed to be of real use in any field. But in fact, that doesn’t matter: the prospects are far too tantalising. Companies are already marketing the technology as a way to penetrate the last frontier of exploration – the space between our ears. Lawyers, military chiefs, advertisers and politicians are eagerly buying. Welcome to the world of brainjacking, where science fiction is happening now.
By manipulating the magnetization of a liquid solution, the researchers have for the first time coaxed magnetic and non-magnetic materials to form intricate nano-structures. The resulting structures can be “fixed,” meaning they can be permanently linked together. This raises the possibility of using these structures as basic building blocks for such diverse applications as advanced optics, cloaking devices, data storage and bioengineering.
Changing the levels of magnetization of the fluid controls how the particles are attracted to or repelled by each other. By appropriately tuning these interactions, the magnetic and non-magnetic particles form around each other much like a snowflake forms around a microscopic dust particle.
“We have demonstrated that subtle changes in the magnetization of a fluid can create an environment where a mixture of different particles will self-assemble into complex superstructures,” said Randall Erb, fourth-year graduate student. He performed these experiments in conjunction with another graduate student Hui Son, in the laboratory of Benjamin Yellen, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and lead member of the research team.
And it’s a unique collaboration between chemists and neuroscientists that led to the discovery of a remarkable new way to use light to activate brain circuits with nanoparticles.
Ben Strowbridge, an associate professor in the neurosciences department in the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and Clemens Burda, an associate professor in chemistry, say it’s rare in science that people from very different fields get together and do something that is both useful and that no one had thought of before. But that is exactly what they’ve done.
By using semiconductor nanoparticles as tiny solar cells, the scientists can excite neurons in single cells or groups of cells with infrared light. This eliminates the need for the complex wiring by embedding the light-activated nanoparticles directly into the tissue. This method allows for a more controlled reaction and closely replicates the sophisticated focal patterns created by natural stimuli.
The electrodes used in previous nerve stimulations don’t accurately recreate spatial patterns created by the stimuli and also have potential damaging side effects.
“There are many different things you’d want to stimulate neurons for-injury, severed or damaged nerve to restore function- and right now you have to put a wire in there, and then connect that to some control system. It is both very invasive and a difficult thing to do,” says Strowbridge.
IIn principle, the researchers should be able to implant these nanoparticles next to the nerve, eliminating the requirement for wired connections. They can then use light to activate the particles.
Be very careful what you think about Shania Twain. Not only is she a national hero in her homeland of Canada, she’s popular in America too, with the bestselling country album of all time to her name. Now, new technology developed by scientists in Toronto enables Canadians to detect how you feel about their favourite singer – without you even saying a word.
A team of researchers from the University of Toronto has developed a brain-scanning headset that can detect a person’s preferences, with an accuracy of 80%. The headset is fitted with fibre-optic cables that emit infrared light at around the same frequency as a typical TV remote control.
This harmless radiation is beamed into the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with decision-making. Here it is scattered by blood vessels, and the reflections are picked up by sensors on the headband. By measuring the amount of oxygen in the blood, researchers can decode brain activity and determine whether a person prefers Twain’s country pop to, say, the crooning of Céline Dion.
An electrode implanted into the brain of a man who is unable to move or communicate has enabled him to use a speech synthesizer to produce vowel sounds as he thinks them.
The work could one day help similar patients to produce whole sentences using signals from their brains, say the researchers.
Frank Guenther of Boston University in Massachusetts and his colleagues worked with a patient who has locked-in syndrome, a condition in which patients are almost completely paralysed — often able to move only their eyelids — but still fully conscious.
Research are finding that rerouting nerve signals in primates may be surprisingly easy
DailyTech previously covered how monkeys had been wired with brain probes to a mechanical arm, which they learned to control. Now another experiment has taken such concepts, much farther, reversing paralysis in monkeys through neuron implantation.
Eberhard Fetz, a professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Washington, led the research. The researchers began by paralyzing the nerves leading to the monkeys’ arms. They then placed a single wire on a neuron in the monkeys’ neural cortexes. From there they routed the signal to a single neuron implanted in the monkeys’ arm muscles. The computer detected a specific firing pattern in the brain neuron and would then signal the neuron in the arm.
The electric “re-routing” working surprisingly well and the monkeys regained control of their wrists. Their new capability was assessed by a simple video game. The game was controlled by the monkeys’ wrist motions. By moving their wrists, they could move a cursor onscreen and by moving it to a box on the side, they could earn a reward. With the incentive of the reward the monkeys soon learned to move their wrists, even though the motor cortex neuron was selected at random.
Chet Moritz, a senior research fellow at the University of Washington and coauthor of the researchers’ paper states, “We found, remarkably, that nearly every neuron that we tested in the brain could be used to control this type of stimulation. Even neurons which were unrelated to the movement of the wrist before the nerve block could be brought under control and co-opted.”
Using a computerized connector between the brain and muscles in the body, scientists have been able to restore movement to paralyzed limbs. A group of neuroscientists report in Nature today that they used a brain-computer interface to join the motor cortex of an ape to the muscles in its wrist. After scientists paralyzed the ape’s arm temporarily, it was still able to make its wrist move my sending electrical impulses directly from its brain to the muscles, bypassing the damaged nerves in between. The study has profound implications for people whose nerves have been severed or damaged, leaving them paralyzed.
California-based NeuroSky Inc. showed off the new headset — named Mindset — at the Tokyo Game Show, the industry’s biggest exhibition which opened near the Japanese capital Thursday.
The Mindset monitors whether the player is focused or relaxed and accordingly moves the character on a personal computer.
“We brought this to the game show as a new interface, a new platform for game creators,” NeuroSky managing director Kikuo Ito told AFP.
Children’s games using the system will hit the US market next year, Ito said.
“We are exploring the use of brain waves in the game industry because games are fun and so close to people,” he said.
“Once people get used to the idea of using brain waves for various applications, I hope we will see various products using this technology,” he said.
In distance learning courses, for example, teachers could monitor whether students were attentive, Ito said.
Train drivers and motorists could use it to judge their stress levels and alertness, Ito added.
Managing power networks in the future may involve a little more brain power than it does today, if researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology succeed in a new project that involves literally tapping brain cells grown on networks of electrodes.
The Missouri S&T group, working with researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology, plans to use the brain power to develop a new method for tracking and managing the constantly changing levels of power supply and demand.
Led by Dr. Ganesh Kumar Venayagamoorthy, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, the researchers will use living neural networks composed of thousands of brain cells from laboratory rats to control simulated power grids in the lab. From those studies, the researchers hope to create a “biologically inspired” computer program to manage and control complex power grids in Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria and elsewhere.
“We want to develop a totally new architecture than what exists today,” says Venayagamoorthy, who also directs the Real-Time Power and Intelligent Systems Laboratory at Missouri S&T. “Power systems control is very complex, and the brain is a very flexible, very adaptable network. The brain is really good at handling uncertainties.”
Venayagamoorthy hopes to develop a system that is “inspired by the brain but not a replica. Nobody really understands completely how the brain works.”
The research is funded through a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation.
The Missouri S&T team will work with researchers at Georgia Tech’s Laboratory for Neuroengineering, where the living neural networks have been developed and are housed and studied. A high-bandwidth Internet2 connection will connect those brain cells over 600 miles to Venayagamoorthy’s Real-Time Power and Intelligent Systems Laboratory. Missouri S&T researchers will transmit signals from that lab in Rolla, Mo., to the brain cells in the Atlanta lab, and will train those brain cells to recognize voltage signals and other information from Missouri S&T’s real-time simulator.
Venayagamoorthy’s lab is capable of simulating a power grid the size of Nigeria’s, or a portion of the combined New England and New York grid in the United States.