Neurotechnology is any technology which allows us to understand the brain, consciousness and thought processes. Neural networks, on the other hand, are the merger of this biological intelligence with machine intelligence. It is usually referencing the connection between the human brain and computers. The relationship between neurotechnology and neural networks is expanding away from one-directional activity (brain to computer), towards bi-directional activity. This allows for messages to be sent from the computer directly to your brain.
Currently there are many technologies which operate under neurotechnology. Some of the major ones are:
- Magnetoencephalography is a functional neuroimaging technique for mapping brain activity by recording magnetic fields produced by electrical currents occurring naturally in the brain, using very sensitive magnetometers. Arrays of SQUIDs (superconducting quantum interference devices) are the most common magnetometer.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is used for scanning the brain for topological and landmark structure in the brain, but can also be used for imaging activation in the brain. It is a cornerstone technology in studying the mind, especially with the advent of functional MRI (fMRI). Functional MRI measures the oxygen levels in the brain upon activation (higher oxygen content = neural activation). Also it allows researchers to understand what loci are responsible for activation under a given stimulus.
- Computed tomography (CT) is another technology used for scanning the brain. It has been used since the 1970s and is another tool used by neuroscientists to track brain structure and activation. While many of the functions of CT scans are now done using MRI, CT can still be used as the mode by which brain activation and brain injury are detected.
- Positron emission tomography (PET) is another imaging technology that aids researchers. Instead of using magnetic resonance or X-rays, PET scans rely on positron emitting markers. They are bound to a biologically relevant marker such as glucose. The more activation in the brain the more that region requires nutrients. Therefore higher activation appears more brightly on an image of the brain.
Researchers have begun looking at uses for stem cells in the brain. These recently have been found in a few loci. A large number of studies are being done to determine if this form of therapy could be used in a large scale. Experiments in neurotechnology have successfully used stem cells in the brains of children. These children suffered from injuries in gestation. Additionally elderly people with degenerative diseases in order to induce the brain to produce new cells. Also to make more connections between neurons.
Low Field Magnetic Stimulation:
Stimulation with low-intensity magnetic fields is currently under study for depression at Harvard Medical School, and has previously been explored by Bell. It has FDA approval for treatment of depression. It is also being researched for other applications such as autism. One issue is that no two brains are alike and stimulation can cause either polarization or depolarization.
Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation:
Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a form of neurostimulation which uses constant, low current delivered via electrodes placed on the scalp. The mechanisms underlying tDCS effects are still incompletely understood, but recent advances in neurotechnology allowing for in vivo assessment of brain electric activity during tDCS promise to advance understanding of these mechanisms. Research into using tDCS on healthy adults have demonstrated that tDCS can increase cognitive performance on a variety of tasks. It depends on the area of the brain being stimulated.
- Neurodevices are any devices used to monitor or regulate brain activity. Currently there are a few available for clinical use as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease. The most common neurotechnology devices are deep brain stimulators (DBS) that are used to give electrical stimulation to areas stricken by inactivity. Parkinson’s disease is known to be caused by an inactivation of the basal ganglia (nuclei) and recently DBS has become the more preferred form of treatment for Parkinson’s disease.
- Neuromodulation is a relatively new field that combines the use of neurodevices and neurochemistry. The basis of this field is that the brain can be regulated using a number of different factors (metabolic, electrical stimulation, physiological).Additionally all these can be modulated by devices implanted in the neural network.
Neurotechnologies Transforming Brain Health & Brain Enhancement:
- Big Data enhanced diagnostics and treatments: As the costs of computing power, cloud accessibility and hardware sensors dwindle, brain health systems can leverage measurements taken from a far broader swath of the population than ever before possible
- Real-time Neuromonitoring: A good number of companies, including Medtronic, Neuropace and St. Jude Medical, are developing systems. These can actively monitor brain activity and respond in real-time with appropriate treatments.
- Neurosensor-based vehicle operator system: Systems employing neural detection devices to monitor vehicle operator alertness (or a lackthereof) and take preventative measures with driver stimulation or vehicle autopilot/ shutdown systems are described by multiple patents.
- Cognitive Training Videogames: Software applications accessible online and via mobile devices include gaming systems that target specific cognitive and/or emotional systems of the brain.
- Wearables: Wearables are being designed to improve not just physical health but mental well-being also. Meditation apps in tandem with consumer EEGs like InteraXon’s Muse aim to help users build concentration and self-regulation skills.
- Brain-responsive Computing System: A recent study by Microsoft finds that 68% of early tech adopters and 67% of heavy social media users really have to concentrate hard to stay focused on tasks. So large tech companies are patenting systems to improve productivity and worker output, for example by using EEG signals.
- New neurotechnologies have always garnered the appeal of governments. Right from lie detection technology and virtual reality to rehabilitation and understanding the psyche. Due to the Iraq War and War on Terror, American soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are reported to have percentages up to 12% with PTSD.
- Cognitive liberty refers to a suggested right to self-determination of individuals. Main reason was to control their own mental processes, cognition, and consciousness. It includes use of various neurotechnologies and psychoactive substances. This perceived right is relevant for reformation and development of associated laws.
- Current improvements such as “brain fingerprinting” or lie detection using EEG or fMRI could give rise to a set fixture of loci/emotional relationships in the brain, although these technologies are still years away from full application.
- A new version of DBS is under investigation and has developed into the novel field, optogenetics. Optogenetics is the combination of deep brain stimulation with fiber optics and gene therapy. Essentially, the fiber optic cables are designed to light up under electrical stimulation. Additionally a protein would be added to a neuron via gene therapy to excite it under light stimuli.
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