Hacking your brain is just the beginning

Brains are getting smarter.

Feb 27 2015, 3:56pm

The human brain is the seat of all knowledge and experience, so it's something of an irony that we still don't know exactly how it all works. With around 86 billion neurons and trillions more synapses in the average human brain, the organ is staggeringly complex—far more so than any supercomputer.

But thanks to new technologies, scientists are quickly learning more about the intricacies of our gray matter, and many are already using this knowledge to expand and extend what our brains are capable of. This episode of GE's Invention Factory explores some of the most promising and—forgive the pun, mindblowing—advances in neuroscience and related fields.

Many of them come down to brain-computer interfaces—basically, hooking the brain up to a computer, either through external sensors or internal implants.

For starters, there's the controversial emerging science of neurofeedback, which uses electrodes placed on the outside of the brain in the form of a cap or individual stickers to measure electrical activity and convert it into a software response. It's been used in the past few years to control simple video games, not so much for entertainment purposes but for therapy, including treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As GE's Invention Factory shows, Red Bull is also using it to help train athletes to go beyond what they think are their innate physical limits during competitions. And similar techniques have been lately used for such stunts as controlling a physical motorized skateboard to piloting drones only using a person's brain activity.

Next up are brain implants, tiny computer chips inserted surgically directly into the brain itself. So far, they've been used mainly to help treat patients suffering from Parkinson's disease and other neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's and epilepsy.

But some scientists are now tinkering with brain implants that enable more physical pursuits, from controlling people's prosthetic limbs to ​restoring movement in paralyzed rats. Scientists say that the capabilities of brain implants are only in their infancy, and some of them envision a near-future where brain implants can even be installed in healthy people to connect them directly to the internet and improve memory] a la Black Mirror. The US military agency DARPA is already building such memory chips, and wants to develop implants that could be installed throughout a soldier's nervous system to provide advanced, on-the-spot healing of conditions from mental illness to arthritis.

Meanwhile, outside of brain-computer interfaces, other scientists are using laser lights to manipulate the brain. Scientists working in the field of optogenetics, which refers to creating light-sensitive neurons inside a person or animal's brain through genetic engineering, have been able to watch mice memories form in real-time and reprogram bad memories into good ones. Some researchers believe that these techniques, which are less invasive than physical implants, could be used to successfully treat addiction and other types of mental illness.

It's a common misconception that humans only use 10 percent of their brain capacity. In fact, such technologies as neuroimaging—or brain scans—have long ago shown that all portions of a healthy person's brain activate at various different times as we go about our days. However, it's clear that scientists are just beginning to understand the potential of purposefully manipulating the brain and connecting it to other technologies inside and outside the body through brain-computer interfaces.

In order to truly understand what this mashup of brainpower and computing power can ultimately achieve, we'll need to understand how the brain works independently of these technologies. Back in 2013, the US government launched a decade-long research program to do just this, to some skepticism. Whether or not that particular effort pans out, the future of brain science seems incomprehensibly vast.