Mind Reading and Mind Control Technologies Are Coming – Are We Ready?


Mind Control 1 973DA81D-E9E4-4F8A-829DBDDD07992188_source Credit: Alfred Pasieka Getty Images

” … What’s more, five minutes of monitoring electrical activity flowing through your brain, while you do nothing but let your mind wander, can reveal how your individual brain is wired.”

We need to figure out the ethical implications before they arrive

The ability to detect electrical activity in the brain through the scalp, and to control it, will soon transform medicine and change society in profound ways. Patterns of electrical activity in the brain can reveal a person’s cognition—normal and abnormal. New methods to stimulate specific brain circuits can treat neurological and mental illnesses and control behavior. In crossing this threshold of great promise, difficult ethical quandaries confront us.

MIND READING

The ability to interrogate and manipulate electrical activity in the human brain promises to do for the brain what biochemistry did for the body. When you go to the doctor, a chemical analysis of your blood is used to detect your body’s health and potential disease. Forewarned that your cholesterol level is high, and you are at risk of having a stroke, you can take action to avoid suffering one. Likewise, in experimental research destined to soon enter medical practice, just a few minutes of monitoring electrical activity in your brain using EEG and other methods can reveal not only neurological illness but also mental conditions like ADHD and schizophrenia. What’s more, five minutes of monitoring electrical activity flowing through your brain, while you do nothing but let your mind wander, can reveal how your individual brain is wired.

img_1013

Tapping into your wandering mind can measure your IQ, identify your cognitive strengths and weaknesses, perceive your personality and determine your aptitude for learning specific types of information. Electrical activity in a preschooler’s brain be used to can predict, for example, how well that child will be able to read when they go to school. As I recount in my new book, Electric Brain (BenBella, 2020), after having brainwaves in my idling mind recorded using EEG for only five minutes, neuropsychologist Chantel Prat at the University of Washington, in Seattle, pronounced that learning a foreign language would be difficult for me because of weak beta waves in a particular part of my cerebral cortex processing language. (Don’t ask me to speak German or Spanish, languages that I studied but never mastered.) How will this ability to know a person’s mind change education and career choices?

Neuroscientist Marcel Just and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University are using fMRI brain imaging to decipher what a person is thinking. By using machine learning to analyze complex patterns of activity in a person’s brain when they think of a specific number or object, read a sentence, experience a particular emotion or learn a new type of information, the researchers can read minds and know the person’s specific thoughts and emotions. “Nothing is more private than a thought,” Just says, but that privacy is no longer sacrosanct.

Armed with the ability to know what a person is thinking, scientists can do even more. They can predict what a person might do. Just and his team are able to tell if a person is contemplating suicide, simply by watching how the person’s brain responds to hearing words like “death” or “happiness.” As the tragic deaths of comedian Robin Williams and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain show, suicide often comes as a shock because people tend to conceal their thoughts of suicide, even from loved ones and therapists.

Such “brain hacking” to uncover that someone is thinking of suicide could be lifesaving. The technique applied to the Columbine high school mass murderers might have prevented the horror of two troubled teens slaughtering their classmates and teachers, as well as their own suicides. But this insight into suicidal ideation is gleaned by judging that the pattern of brain activity in an individual’s brain deviates from what is considered “normal” as defined as the average response from a large population. At what point do we remove a person from society because their brain activity deviates from what is considered normal?

MIND CONTROL

The ability to control electrical activity in brain circuits has the potential to do for brain disorders what electrical stimulation has accomplished in treating cardiac disorders. By beaming electrical or magnetic pulses through the scalp, and by implanting electrodes in the brain, researchers and doctors can treat a vast array of neurological and psychiatric disorders, from Parkinson’s disease to chronic depression.

img_0929-2

But the prospect of “mind control” frightens many, and brain stimulation to modify behavior and treat mental illness has a sordid history. In the 1970s neuropsychologist Robert Heath at Tulane University inserted electrodes into a homosexual man’s brain to “cure” him of his homosexual nature by stimulating his brain’s pleasure center. Spanish neuroscientist José Delgado used brain stimulation in monkeys, people and even a charging bull to understand how, at a neural circuit level, specific behaviors and functions are controlled—and to control them at will by pushing buttons on his radio-controlled device energizing electrodes implanted in the brain. Controlling movements, altering thoughts, evoking memories, rage and passion were all at Delgado’s fingertips. Delgado’s goal was to relieve the world of deviant behavior through brain stimulation and produce a “psychocivilized” society.

The prospect of controlling a person’s brain by electrical stimulation is disturbing for many, but current methods of treating mental and neurological disorders are woefully inadequate and far too blunt. Neurological and psychoactive drugs affect many different neural circuits in addition to the one targeted, causing wide-ranging side effects. Not only the brain but every cell in the body that interacts with the drugs, such as SSRIs for treating chronic depression, will be affected.

At present, drugs available for treating mental illness and neurological conditions are not always effective, and they are often prescribed in a trial-and-error manner. Psychosurgery, notoriously prefrontal lobotomy, also has a tragic history of abuse. Moreover, while any surgeon faces the prospect of losing the patient on the operating table, neurosurgeons face the unique risk of saving a patient’s life but losing the person. Surgical removal of brain tissue can leave patients with physical, cognitive, personality or mood dysfunctions by damaging healthy tissue, or failing to remove all the dysfunctional tissue. Electroconvulsive stimulation (ECT), to treat chronic depression and other mental illnesses, rocks the entire brain with seizure; in the wake of the electrical firestorm, the brain somehow resets itself, and many patients are helped, but not all, and sometimes there are debilitating side effects or the method fails to work.

Rather than blasting the whole brain with bolts of electricity or saturating it with drugs, it makes far more sense to stimulate the precise neural circuit that is malfunctioning. Following the success of deep brain stimulation in treating Parkinson’s disorder, doctors are now applying the same method to treat a wide range of neurological and psychiatric illnesses, from dystonia to OCD. But they are often doing so without the requisite scientific understanding of the disorder at a neural circuit level. This is especially so for mental illnesses, which are poorly represented in nonhuman animals used in research. How electrical stimulation is working to help these conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, is not fully understood. The necessary knowledge of where to put the electrodes or what strength and pattern of electrical stimulation to use is not always available. Such doctors are in effect doing experiments on their patients, but they are doing so because it helps.

Noninvasive means of modifying brainwaves and patterns of electrical activity in specific brain circuits, such as neurofeedback, rhythmic sound or flashing light, ultrasonic and magnetic stimulation through the scalp, can modify neural activity without implanting electrodes in the brain to treat neurological and mental illnesses and improve mood and cognition. The FDA approved treating depression by transcranial magnetic stimulation in 2008, and subsequently expanded approval for treating pain and migraine. Electrical current can be applied by an electrode on the scalp to stimulate or inhibit neurons from firing in appropriate brain regions.

The military is using this method to speed learning and enhance cognitive performance in pilots. The method is so simple, brain stimulation devices can be purchased over the internet or you can make one yourself from nine-volt batteries. But the DIY approach renders the user an experimental guinea pig.

New methods of precision brain stimulation are being developed. Electrical stimulation is notoriously imprecise, following the path of least resistance through brain tissue and stimulating neurons from distant regions of the brain that extend axons past the electrode. In experimental animals, very precise stimulation or inhibition of neuronal firing can be achieved by optogenetics. This method uses genetic engineering to insert light sensitive ion channels into specific neurons to control their firing very precisely using laser light beamed into the brain through a fiber-optic cable. Applied to humans, optogenetic stimulation could relieve many neurological and psychiatric disorders by precision control of specific neural circuits, but using this approach in people is not considered ethical.

CROSSING THE THRESHOLD

Against the historical backdrop of ethical lapses and concerns that curtailed brain stimulation research for mental illnesses decades ago, we are reaching a point where it will become unethical to deny people suffering from severe mental or neurological illness treatments by optogenetic or electrical stimulation of their brain, or to withhold diagnosing their conditions objectively by reading their brain’s electrical activity. The new capabilities of being able to directly monitor and manipulate the brain’s electrical activity raise daunting ethical questions from technology that has not existed previously. But the genie is out of the bottle. We better get to know her.

By R. Douglas Fields for The Scientific American

 

Tiny Nanoparticles Could Help Repair Damaged Brain And Nerve Cells


brain-quantum-1-download (1)

When our brains develop problems, such as degenerative diseases or epilepsy, some of the trouble can be electrical. As nerve signals involve electrically charged particles moving around, medics often try to treat associated problems using implanted electrodes. But this is a clumsy and difficult approach. A much better idea could be to implant tiny structures deep in the brain to act almost as miniature electricians. It may sound like science fiction, but it is moving fast towards reality.

Attilio Marino and colleagues at the Smart Bio-Interfaces group at the Italian Institute of Technology in Pontedera are striving to bring the idea to the clinic. They summarise progress in the field in a news and opinions article in Nano Today.brain_header

Nanomaterials are showing great potential in biomedicine since they can interact precisely with living systems down to the level of cells, subcellular structures and even individual molecules,” says Marino.

Marino is most interested in ‘piezoelectric‘ materials, which can convert mechanical stimulation into electrical energy, or vice-versa. He is exploring using ultrasound to mechanically stimulate nanoparticles into creating electrical signals that may fix problems with brain cells.

He points out that ultrasound offers a way to get a signal deep into brain tissue without using invasive electrodes, which can cause other problems including inflammation. Some researchers try to get round these difficulties using stimulation with light, but light cannot penetrate very deeply so ultrasound is a better option.

The field is still in its early days. Researchers are mainly studying the effects of piezoelectric nanoparticles on cultured cells rather than in animals or people, but the results are promising. Marino’s team, for example, shows that using ultrasound to stimulate nanoparticles embedded in nerve cells can increase the sprouting of new cell-signalling appendages called axons. This is exactly the kind of effect that may one day repair degenerative brain disease.

“We used barium titanate nanoparticles and confirmed the effect was specifically due to the piezoelectricity of our materials,” says Marino.

Other researchers are working with the ‘stem cells‘ that can develop into a wide range of mature types of cell needed by the body. Some are finding that piezoelectric nanomaterials can stimulate stem cells to begin their transformation into a variety of functional cell types.

A long road of safety studies, animal tests and eventual clinical trials lies ahead. But Marino is optimistic, he concludes: “The preliminary successes strongly encourage us that our research is a realistic approach for use in clinical practice in the near future.”


You can read the article for free for a limited time:

Marino, A., et al.: “Piezoelectric nanotransducers: The future of neural stimulation,” Nano Today (2017)

The Entrepreneur with the $100 Million Plan to Link Brains to Computers


keith-rankin-mit-header-compressor

Entrepreneur Bryan Johnson says he wanted to become very rich in order to do something great for humankind. Well …

Last year Johnson, founder of the online payments company Braintree, starting making news when he threw $100 million behind Kernel, a startup he founded to enhance human intelligence by developing brain implants capable of linking people’s thoughts to computers.

Johnson isn’t alone in believing that “neurotechnology” could be the next big thing. To many in Silicon Valley, the brain looks like an unconquered frontier whose importance dwarfs any achievement made in computing or the Web.

According to neuroscientists, several figures from the tech sector are currently scouring labs across the U.S. for technology that might fuse human and artificial intelligence. In addition to Johnson, Elon Musk has been teasing a project called “neural lace,” which he said at a 2016 conference will lead to “symbiosis with machines.” And Mark Zuckerberg declared in a 2015 Q&A that people will one day be able to share “full sensory and emotional experiences,” not just photos. Facebook has been hiring neuroscientists for an undisclosed project at Building 8, its secretive hardware division.

As these people see it, computing keeps achieving new heights, but our ability to interface with silicon is stuck in the keyboard era. Even when speaking to a computer program like Alexa or Siri, you can convey at most about 40 bits per second of information and only for short bursts. Compare that to data transfer records of a trillion bits per second along a fiber-optic cable.

“Ridiculously slow,” Musk complained.

But it turns out that connecting to the brain isn’t so easy. Six months after launching Kernel amid a media blitz, Johnson says he’s dropped his initial plans for a “memory implant,” switched scientific advisors, hired a new team, and decided to instead invest in developing a more general-purpose technology for recording and stimulating the brain using electrodes.

Johnson says the switch-up is part of trying something new. “If you look at the key contributing technologies of society, the ones with the most impact, like rockets, the Internet, biology—there was a transition point from academia to the private sector, and for the most part neuroscience hasn’t made that jump,” says Johnson. “The most critical element is timing, when is the right time to pursue this.”

Memory implants

After making a fortune selling Braintree to eBay for $800 million in 2013, Johnson, now 39, reportedly sought the advice of nearly 200 people on how to invest his new wealth. He settled on neurotechnology and, last August, he announced he’d create Kernel and build the first neural prosthetic for human intelligence enhancement.

But Johnson’s business plan was extremely vague; one scientist called it “metaphysical.” Kernel’s website was plastered with book-jacket-like endorsements from scientific celebrities including J. Craig Venter and Tim O’Reilly, extolling his “great” and “serious” commitment to understanding human intelligence, not to mention the impressive $100 million he later promised to invest in Kernel.

                                              

Bryan Johnson

The reality is that interfacing with the brain is tough: electronics irritate its tissue and stop working after a while, and no one will get brain surgery just in order to send an e-mail. What’s more, even if you can communicate with the brain, you might not know what it is saying.

“Billionaires entering the broader neurotechnology field are very optimistic and may overlook details of the problem, which is we are far away from meaningfully understanding the brain,” says Konrad Kording, a Northwestern University neuroscientist who has advised Johnson. “But neurotechnology allows you to work on the most interesting questions in the universe while potentially making money, and so that is exciting.”

Johnson’s persona is part buttoned-down Mormon missionary (he once was one), part hard-driving door-to-door credit-processing salesman (he was that too), but now, with his new wealth, he’s also taken on the mantle of a technology prophet. At a 2016 startup conference in Silicon Valley, he showed up with his hair unbrushed, wearing a T-shirt with holes in it, and gave a wide-ranging lecture on human tool use from prehistory into the present, arguing that now “our very existence is programmable” through biology and machine interfaces.

Kernel’s original technology was a memory prosthesis, developed by Theodore Berger of the University of Southern California, who until recently was also the company’s chief scientific officer. Berger’s technology (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies: Memory Implants”) is a way of recording memories of rats and monkeys, storing these patterns on a computer chip, and re-delivering them to the hippocampus. One version of the setup, Berger says, has been tested in a handful of human patients undergoing brain surgery for other reasons.

But a mere six months after starting Kernel, Berger is no longer part of the company, and memory implants are no longer part of Kernel’s near-term plans. Johnson and Berger both confirmed the separation.

Berger’s vision, according to several people, was too complex, too speculative, and too far from becoming a medical reality, while Johnson hoped to see a return on his investment sometime soon. “They have a new direction, but we’re still talking,” says Berger. “The basic reason is it was going to take too long. It’s one thing to think about this and quite another to do it.”

Johnson says he concluded that Berger’s work “is really interesting, but not an entry point” into a commercially viable business.

Brain interface

brain-quantum-1-download (1)

Read More: “Its’ All in Our Heads … “

By last November, Johnson was already exploring a pivot for his company, meeting with Christian Wentz, head of a small Cambridge startup, Kendall Research Systems, that sells equipment for recording in the neurons of mice and other animals. The company spun out of the laboratory of Edward Boyden, a professor at MIT who invents new ways of analyzing brain tissue.

In February, Johnson acquired Wentz’s company (for an undisclosed sum) and with it brought in a new team, including Wentz and Adam Marblestone, a noted theorist of both the limitations and possibilities of brain interfaces, who will become chief strategy officer. Both are former Boyden lab members, as are two other Kernel scientists, Caroline Moore-Kochlacs and Jake Bernstein.

Johnson says Kernel will now develop a “generalized human electrophysiology platform”—that is, a flexible way of measuring the electrical impulses from many neurons at once, and stimulating them, too. The eventual objective is to use such electronics to treat major diseases, like depression or Alzheimer’s. “It’s for clinical use,” he says. “We are a for-profit company.”

Wentz says as part of the acquisition he and Johnson agreed that much more R&D on brain interfaces will probably be needed. “We have a very sober view of what can and can’t be done,” Wentz says. “We are not naïve.” He calls Kernel’s effort a “15-year endeavor,” although he adds that “we want to do in that period what has been done in the last 100 years.”

With the pivot, Johnson is effectively jumping on an opportunity created by the Brain Initiative, an Obama-era project which plowed money into new schemes for recording neurons. That influx of cash has spurred the formation of several other startups, including Paradromics and Cortera, also developing novel hardware for collecting brain signals. As part of the government brain project, the defense R&D agency DARPA says it is close to announcing $60 million in contracts under a program to create a “high-fidelity” brain interface able to simultaneously record from one million neurons (the current record is about 200) and stimulate 100,000 at a time.

“It’s time for neuroscience to graduate from academia to a general neuroscience platform,” says Johnson. With such a technology “a whole range of new applications—a lot of white space—would open up.”

Johnson declined to describe the specifics of Kernel’s technological approach to connecting with the brain, as did Boyden and Wentz. However, the team members have been working on well-identified problems. Wentz has been involved with developing electronics for high-speed reading of data emitted by wireless implants. Already, the flow of information that can be collected from a mouse’s brain in real time outruns what a laptop computer can handle. The team also needs a way to interface with the human brain. Boyden’s lab has worked on several concepts to do so, including needle-shaped probes with tiny electrodes etched onto their surface. Another idea is to record neural activity by threading tiny optical fibers through the brain’s capillaries, an idea roughly similar to Musk’s neural lace.

More sophisticated means of reading and writing to the brain are seen as potential ways to treat psychiatric disorders. Under a concept that Boyden calls “brain coprocessors,” it may be possible to create closed-loop systems that detect certain brain signals—say, those associated with depression—and shock the brain to reverse them. Some surgeons and doctors funded by another DARPA program are in the early stages of determining whether serious mental conditions can be treated in this way (see “A Shocking Way to Fix the Brain”).

Boyden says Johnson’s $100 million makes a big difference to how he and his students view the entrepreneur’s goals. “A lot of neurotechnology has come and gone. But one thing is that it’s very expensive,” he says. “The inventing is expensive, the clinical work is expensive. It’s not easy. And here is someone putting money into the game.”