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About this section

Emotions, cognition and our senses make each of us human.

This section provides you with concise updates on how advances in brain science (neurons) biotechnology (genes) and IT (bits) are creating new tools to enhance human mental and physical performance.

Among the disciplines coalescing in the field of neurotechnology: genetic engineering, pharmaceuticals, psychology, cellular implantation, physical augmentation, electronic stimulation, and nanotechnology.

Up for discussion and analysis in Brain Waves: the political, economic, ethical, and social forces that will shape the future of one of the most important and fascinating stories of the coming decades.


About this editor

Zack Lynch mugshot
Zack Lynch is an evolutionary biologist, enterprise software marketer, and economic geographer, who has worked over the past decade to understand how technology and society coevolve. In this endeavor he has investigated self-organizing behavior of leaf cutter ants at Finca la Selva, taught classes at UCLA's Anderson School of Business on scenario planning, and analyzed sustainable agriculture at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.

Inspired by these ventures he wrote a master's thesis on how communication technologies will impact human settlement patterns over the next 100 years. This led him to spend several years as VP of Marketing at enterprise software companies - Maxager and Steelwedge.

He is currently writing a book on Neurotechnology and Society. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.



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BRAIN WAVES: neurons, bits & genes

By Zack Lynch


Posted Monday, March 31, 2003

American Academy of Neurology Meeting

The annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology is taking place this week in Hawaii.  Among all the talks, this one on Tuesday looks particularly interesting:

  • Single Case Reports: Windows to Brain Function--David S. Zee, MD, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland

Next year it will be held in SF, CA. Thanks Richard.



Sensoceuticals and Super Tasters

Substantial variation in taste sensitivity exists in humans. Understanding taste's relationship to diet and other behaviors like smoking will have important implications for human health.

Taste plays a crucial role in food choice, allowing people to identify beneficial foods those with high caloric value (typically sweet) from foods likely to be toxic (usually bitter).  Breakthroughs in taste research began in 1931 when Science published the finding that many individuals are unable to taste the compound, phenylthiocarbamide (PTC), a relatively bitter compound. It turns out that one-fourth Americans cannot taste PTC.

Companies like IFF (International Flavor and Fragrances) have been focused on developing "better" tasting food for years while start-ups like Senomyx are working on products that block bitter tastes in coffee, make low-sodium snacks taste salty, and block unpleasant odors. 

Although these don't come close to the new experiences that are on the horizon, but continued research by sensory scientists should lead to the development of new taste specific sensoceuticals in the coming years.  At the very least this might mean better tasting MREs.




Posted Friday, March 28, 2003

Neurowarfare: A Non-lethal Second Chance?

Chemical and biological weapons treaties rightly ban deadly agents like VX, mustard gas and anthrax.  These same treaties also ban any research on non-lethal agents, a consequence that governments might want to consider reviewing.

The cost of the Iraq War and reconstruction will easily top $500B. This fiscal cost does not even begin to address the mental and physical toll on civilians, soldiers and families.  If the goal is regime change, not mass killing and destruction, shouldn't coalition forces use every resource at their disposal to achieve this goal? What would happen if research money flowed into developing effective sleeping agents, instead of targeted bombs that kill?

A 24 hour sleep-inducing fog over Baghdad could save countless lives and save hundreds of billions of dollars.  Think about it.  Put Baghdad to sleep.  Storm the city, deal with radically less resistance, tie soldier's up, and walk out the Iraqi regime relatively unharmed (and I do mean for both sides).  A valuable side effect of this strategy would be that Iraqi troops, who might have gas masks to protect themselves but who are also embedding themselves throughout the civilian population, would stand out among sleeping Iraqi civilians.  Obviously, this is a ridiculously simplified example, but point is there.

This type of scenario won't happen in this war, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't in the future.  Unfortunately, this scenario is not even being discussed or considered.  Last year the Rand Corporation delivered a 2015 technology forecast to the National Intelligence Council which informs the US military and government agencies on emerging technologies.  A glaring omission in this report was any mention of developments occurring in neurotechnology.

The development of non-lethal weapons is far less advanced than lethal weapons as was seen last October when Russian special forces used "sleeping agents" to quell a terrorist attack. War is horrible, but wouldn't it be a step in the right direction if we began to see the proliferation of non-lethal weapons instead of the deadly weapons used today? 

Clearly what I am proposing will cause alarm, but a significant public conversation around this subject might yield some important insights and potentially save countless lives in the years to come.




Posted Thursday, March 27, 2003

Biochips, Brain Imaging and Behavior

Just as the Information Revolution has been driven by increasingly powerful microprocessors, the coming Biological Revolution will be driven by a "whole biochip" that enables consistent control over biological analysis and production.  This whole biochip will contain currently disparate and still developing technologies, making possible the inexpensive analysis of the three most important levels of biological analysis: DNA, RNA and proteins.

The convergence of information acquired from the whole biochip and advanced brain imaging technology will provide the resolution needed to develop new tools to influence human behavior. By combining data on cellular biochemical processes with information on the specific location of neuron interactions a robust understanding of how the human brain operates will emerge.

This information will represent a profound leap in our understanding of how each individual’s brain works giving rise to a whole new class of what today are referred to as neuropsychopharmaceuticals.  Tomorrow these neuroceuticals, as they will be called, will drive societal change.




Posted Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Protein Chips and My Wife

My wife can attest to the Economist's just released technology report detailing the difficulties of developing a protein chip.  Three years ago she left a UCSF/Stanford's Doctoral program in Neuroscience with a post-doc friend to start a protein chip company, Aspira Biosystems.

Protein chips promise to accurately and inexpensively capture and identify proteins, just as gene chips now enable reliable and efficient genetic analysis.  The development of effective protein chips is a critical link in the development of personalized medicine.

Designing a protein chip is not easy, requiring expertise from a wide variety of disciplines including, protein chemistry, materials science and surface chemistry.  As the article poignantly declares, "a protein chip is to a gene chip what a supercomputer is to a calculator."

DNA is simpler to analyze than proteins for several reasons:

  • DNA has four building blocks, proteins have 20 amino acid building blocks
  • Genes code for the one purpose of producing proteins, proteins serve multiple purposes as enzymes, receptors, signaling agents
  • The genome is a relatively well-defined collection of about 40,000 genes, but the proteome is a loose collection of millions of proteins at different stages of change

Aspira's competitive advantage stems from their abilty to generate capture arrays with predictable specificity.  Thanks to incredible dedication and continued private and public funding, Aspira is poised to leap to the forefront of the burgeoning protein chip market. 

Obviously, I may be a bit biased on this topic.




Posted Tuesday, March 25, 2003

New Brain Area Rewards Uncertainty

Why do we take risks?  Why do we gamble?  A brilliant piece of research reported in this week's Science describes a newly found population of dopaminergic neurons that appear to reward uncertainty; the activity of these neurons increases as the delivery of reward becomes less certain. 

The authors propose that the activation of these dopamine neurons by uncertainty mobilizes attention, motivates risk-seeking behavior, and promotes learning about relationships between stimuli and consequences. 

This new information is sure to add another piece of the puzzle for the decision theorists who continue to strive to integrate emotional and cognitive influences on choice and human behavior, a truly important and complex endeavour.




Posted Monday, March 24, 2003

Barriers to Drug Delivery

This month's Scientific American describes many of problems faced in getting pharmaceuticals to their intended targets throughout our bodies. Delivering neuropsychopharmaceuticals to our brain remains even more of a problem.

Drug delivery to our brain can occur through several methods: orally (pills), gaseous/inhaled, intramuscularly (skin patch), intravenously, and neural injection.  The method used greatly influences the amount of the drug that is required for the same effect to be observed.  For example, a single dose of an amphetamine creates the same effect but requires hugely different volumes depending on the method of delivery:

  • 1000 micrograms if ingested orally
  • 100 micrograms if injected or inhaled
  • 10 micrograms if injected in the cerebral spinal fluid
  • 1 microgram if injected onto the neuron

The primary delivery limiters are the digestive system and the blood brain barrier.  Many effective treatments for mental illnesses have been kept off the market due to the inability to safely deliver therapeutic chemicals whose large molecular sizes makes it impossible for them to pass the blood brain barrier. 

Neural chips may play a role in effectively delivery, but the cultural "acceptability barrier" of implanting chips into our brains will likely remain the largest obstacle to adoption on wide scale for some time to come.  It is one thing if you are deaf and get a cochlear implant, it is another to be willing to go through a surgical procedure if you are a bit anxious or occasionally depressed.  The likely pathway will depend on the pay-off for the patient.  One thing is for sure, more effective drug delivery systems will require new partnerships and new techniques to make precise delivery possible.




Posted Friday, March 21, 2003

Emotions and Neurotechnology

What are emotions? There exists broad contention across disciplines as to what constitutes our emotions.

Physiological and cognitive psychologists view emotions as existing within the individual.  More interpersonally oriented social psychologists and cultural anthropologists view emotions as being created among people. Within the field of neuroscience there is also debate about the biochemical nature of emotions and location of emotions in the brain.

In Looking for Spinoza, Antonio Damasio's third book on the subject, he categorizes emotions as follows:

  • Background emotions: influences of basic metabolic, reflex and regulatory processes
  • Primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, surprise, disgust, joy and happiness--shared by all human societies
  • Social emotions: sympathy, embarassment, shame, guilt, pride, jealousy, envy, gratitude, admiration and contempt

Emotions influence our interpretations of events, giving a slant to our thinking, self-reflection and recollection.  In this respect, emotions play a primary role in our economic, political and social lives.

From an evolutionary perspective, emotions have been honed over millions of years by natural selection to be trigger-happy. In today's modern society we can see that emotions are far from perfectly designed systems.  For example, anger, sadness and depression are mostly counterproductive in a world that has over six billion humans.

Advancing neurotechnology will provide individuals with new tools to modulate, control and change their emotions at an ever-increasing level of accuracy and extent, having a profound influence on how society organizes itself. I will continue to pay special attention to the emotional implications of neurotechnology.




Posted Thursday, March 20, 2003

Sensoceuticals to Restore Hearing Loss

To date, media attention across the emerging field of neurotechnology has primarily focused on neural prosthetics that are electro-mechanical in nature.

For example, to help the hearing impaired, cochlear implants have been developed that translate sound waves collected via a tiny microphone into electrical impulses. Most people with profound deafness have lost the ability to translate the acoustic energy of sound into the electrical signals carried to the brain by the 30,000 fibers of the auditory nerve.  Cochlear implants bypass the external and middle ears by using electrical stimulation of electrodes implanted in the cochlea to reintroduce the signals carried by auditory nerve fibers to the brain.

As exciting and important as electro-mechanical advances like this are, they represent just one type of neurotechnology that will be developed in the coming years to restore and enhance human sensory systems, such as hearing. 

Sensoceuticals, sensory-specific biopharmaceuticals, use a different approach to restore and enhance human sensory systems.  Sensoceuticals leverage the natural regenerative capacity of our genes, proteins, and neurons to re-grow damaged sensory tissues and extend sensation capacity.

For example, sensoceuticals for hearing will be able to prevent and restore hearing loss. Current research indicates that the inner ear can be protected from the irreversible effects of noise damage using sensoceuticals. This will be an important breakthrough for soldiers who, due to the complexity of the today’s battlefield, can’t wear earplugs to protect their ears.

For those people who already have substantial hearing loss, researchers are also optimizing compounds that antagonize specific cell cycle proteins resulting in new cell division or proliferation. Most exciting is that these newly dividing cells have the capacity to become replacement auditory hair cells, restoring hearing loss for the deaf or partially deaf.

As the field of neurotechnology evolves it will be interesting to see how the developments occurring “from the inside” begin to mingle and compete for funding resources with advances coming “from the outside.”




Posted Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Growing Your Nervous System Vineyard

In the case of epilepsy, severing nerves in the brain can help restore mental health.  To solve most nervous system ailments, cutting nerves is the exception, not the norm for regaining function.

Recent advances in nano-material science have made significant strides in reconnecting nerves in the peripheral nervous system. Until now the standard approach to repairing damaged nerves as been to take a nerve from one part of the body and move it to the damaged section.  The downside here is obvious; there is one less nerve somewhere else in your body.

The new approach uses tube-like polymer substrates structures that act as a bridge to guide the nerve growth.  These structures, made of biodegradable polymer films have nano-patterned grooves that guide neurons so they grow in the right direction. This technique is similar in spirit to how viticulturists guide the grape vine growth that makes all the fine wine.  Perhaps in time, similiar techniques might be used to help regrow damaged tissue in our brains.




Posted Tuesday, March 18, 2003

The Brain Imaging Bottleneck

Current brain imaging technologies constrain our ability to understand how the brain functions. To develop next-generation cogniceuticals we will need to move beyond today's three brain imaging technologies to the level of neuron and intra-neuron scanning.

fMRI's (functional magnetic resonance imaging) have a resolution limit of about a cubic millimeter, this volume can still contain tens of thousands of neurons. PET (positron emission tomography) scans are more accurate in determining where in the brain neurons are being activated but have poor temporal resolution, while EEG's (electro-encephalogram) are more accurate in precisely timing events, they are unable to track important biochemical attributes.

Update 5/20: Current brain imaging still provides only a crude snapshot of brain activity.  Neural processes are thought to occur on a 0.1 millimeter scale in 100 milliseconds (msec), but the spatial and temporal resolution of a typical scanner is only 3 millimeters and about two seconds.


 




Posted Monday, March 17, 2003

Cogniceuticals to Enhance Memory

Advancing research powered by a tremendous market opportunity promises to help solve a number of memory related problems such as mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia and Parkinson's.  Although current technologies are still in their infancy, the continued focus on enhancing human cognition will only grow in importance, especially as life spans get longer.

The potential to use cogniceuticals to accelerate learning and knowledge acquisition makes the market for the technologies extensive.  The development of effective cogniceuticals may provide individuals and organizations a new way to achieve competitive advantage in the coming decades.




Posted Friday, March 14, 2003

What About Mental Health Expectancy?

Life expectancy just topped 77 Years in the US.  This should be no surprise.  For over 150 years life expectancy has continued to rise at the steady pace of an additional 3 months per year.

Living physically longer does not mean living in better mental health.  Mental health expectancy is the number of years that an individual can successfully perform mental functions, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships, and the ability to cope with adversity. 

Five of the ten leading causes of disability worldwide (major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, alcohol use and obsessive compulsive disorders) are mental problems. They are as relevant in developing countries as they are in rich ones, and all predictions are that there will be a dramatic increase in mental problems in the coming years.  Developing tools to help solve these problems will be a major focus of neurotechnology.




Posted Thursday, March 13, 2003

World's First Brain Prosthesis?   Nope.

Today's hype surrounding the "revealing" of the world's first neural prosthesis for the hippocampus is just that, hype.  It's nice to keep the public informed about developments in neurotechnology.  This research shows promise, but this is far from the first brain prosthesis.



Buildings that Soothe the Mind

Why is art such a conspicuous feature of all societies? Why are certain sights and sounds more pleasing than others?  Although most people believe that artistic tastes are entirely dependent on cultural influences, there is a small group of neuroscientists who are searching for more innate reasons. 

Neuroaesthetics is attemping to understand how art and architecture arouse aesthetic experience by starting from the basis of emotional and sensory experience.  The movement is young, but in time may provide some interesting suggestion on how to design more soothing hospitals and intellectually arousing schools.  It's all about the Look and Feel.




Posted Wednesday, March 12, 2003

When will the Feds Mandate Brain Scans?

Bush administration officials announced today a plan to commit $1 billion to perform DNA testing on convicted felons, including those who claim to be innocent.  Results will be held in a national DNA database. 10 years ago it would have been technologically and fiscally impossible for a program like this to be imagined.

As brain imaging technologies have become more accurate in their spatial and temporal resolution they are already beginning to provide a new window into an individual's cognitive and emotional judgement.  Although hard to believe today, there will come a time when a national Brain Scan database gets announced.  The real question is when, and how this neuroethical issue will impact our cognitive liberty.




Posted Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Brain Waves: Neurons, Bits & Genes

A brief introduction to what I'll be covering here (as well as in a forthcoming book):

The field of neurotechnology, the focus of this blog, encompasses numerous emerging technologies that will improve quality of life, cure disease and alleviate suffering. Neurotechnology also has the potential to redefine competitive advantage, restructure patterns of global production and make possible new modes of artistic expression.

Groundbreaking advances in brain science (neurons), information technology (bits) and bioengineering (genes) have major implications for those researching the central nervous system and have us poised on the cusp of a thrilling new wave of innovation that I'll be chronicling and commenting on here.

Up for discussion and analysis: the political, economic, ethical, and social forces that will shape the future of what will be one of the most important and fascinating stories of the coming decades.

To receive Brain Waves daily by email, subscribe on the right. Also, please feel free to alert me to interesting articles, recent research, upcoming events, etc.




Posted Monday, March 10, 2003

What Gets a Soldier Killed?

The average U.S. soldier outside of Iraq today carries 160 lbs of gear. DARPA, the open government agency that brought us the Internet and is now gestating bleeding-edge research to enhance solider performance, is trying to change this through a program called "Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation."

Just as Arpanet was once a government-only technology, many of the neurotechnology breakthroughs being developed by DARPA today will in time find their way into everyday use.

Other programs worth checking out: Augmented Cognition, Metabolic Dominance, Continuous Assisted Performance, and Persistence in Combat.




Posted Sunday, March 9, 2003

Peanuts Can Decrease Mental Health

If a fragment of a peanut could kill you, wouldn't you feel a bit traumatized?

For the estimated 1.5 million Americans allergic to peanuts help is on the way.  Immunologists have developed a new drug, TNX-901, that alters an individual's sensitivity to peanuts from a half a peanut to over eight in some patients.  

Peanuts are tough to avoid in daily life as peanut oil is used in everything from gravy to pie crusts. Allergic reactions can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, hives, and breathing problems. Along with reducing these physical ailments, TNX-901, will reduce the mental trauma induced before each meal for peanut allergy sufferers.

Four years ago, the Surgeon General issued its first official report stating that mental health is fundamental to physical well-being.  The truth is that they are inextricably intertwined. 



Brain Awareness Week: March 10-16

The Society for Neuroscience is promoting Brain Awareness Week with partnering institutions across the world.  It comes complete with K-12 education materials, an international Brain Bee contest, and even promotional tchotskis.




Posted Friday, March 7, 2003

Biocompetitive Advantage

Provigil, short for "promotes vigilance," was approved by the FDA in 1998 for the treatment of narcolepsy, a condition in which people fall asleep uncontrollably. 

Provigil apparently has the ability to keep people awake and alert for hours, or even days without the side effects — the buzz and jitteriness, or the risk of addiction — of coffee or amphetamines.  

It is an interesting example of how individuals and companies might leverage early neurotechnology for their competitive advantage. 




Posted Thursday, March 6, 2003

Brain's Boundaries: Want a New Accent?

How many ways can our brains be molded?  Researchers at Oxford believe they have zeroed in on the brain region involved in foreign accent syndrome, which causes patients' accents to shift suddenly.

Listen to a recent example of an English woman reporter who has foreign accent syndrome: before and after

The first known case was reported in 1941 and involved a Norwegian woman who was ostracized when she developed what her neighbors thought was a German accent after she recovered from shrapnel injuries. 




Posted Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Neuroethics: The Battle for Your Mind

In Ronald Bailey's The Battle for Your Brain he challenges eight objections to enhancing human performance with neurotechnology.

He debunks the claims that neurological enhancements:

  1. Permanently change the brain
  2. Are anti-egalitarian
  3. Are self-defeating
  4. Are difficult to refuse
  5. Undermine good character
  6. Undermine personal responsibility
  7. Enforce dubious norms
  8. Make us inauthentic

"In the 1960s many states outlawed the birth control pill, on the grounds that it would be too disruptive to society. Yet Americans, eager to take control of their reproductive lives, managed to roll back those laws, and no one believes that the pill could be re-outlawed today." 

Neuroethics is a topic that needs to be watched closely, our cognitive liberty is at stake.




Posted Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Navy Seals to See with Their Tongues

It turns out that the tongue is the ideal interface through which to obtain additional information about the environment. 

U.S Navy Seals are currently in the exploration phase of testing a device that will help them "see" in soupy-water environments.  The plastic oral retainer device is connected to a infrared camera that transmits information to the tongue via 100 different microscopic metal points.  This seems to be enough information to be able to navigate successfully in a 3-D environment. 

Unlike every other part of the body the tongue has no dead layers of skin, the saliva conducts electricity well, requiring only 3% of the voltage of normal skin.  According to one prototype user, "it feels like pop rocks candy."




Posted Monday, March 3, 2003

What is Neurotechnology?

Neurotechnology is the set of tools that influence the human central nervous system, especially the brain, to achieve a desired effect.  The Economist defines neurotechnology as any "technology that makes it possible to manipulate the brain."

Instruments and techniques that are used to in developing neurotechnology include -- brain imaging systems (fMRI, PET, EEG), biochips (DNA microarrays, protein chips, RNA chips), genetic engineering techniques, cellular implantation, electronic stimulation

Products of neurotechnology include -- pharmaceuticals (psychopharmaceuticals), psychological conditioning, neurofeedback, magnetic stimulation

Technological trends making neurotechnology possible -- nanotechnology, information technology, biotechnology, neuroscience



Lucky Day for those 33 year olds out there: 03/03/03





Found your way down here on the page and looking for more? Check out our archives.



Copyright 2003 Zack Lynch. All rights reserved. Terms of use


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