Neuron News

BASIC for the Brain

Experimental demonstrations of apparent computer control of a living brain is largely based on the software’s ability (and the ability of the corresponding human programmer) to train itself to identify specific, repeatable brain signals and tag these with specific, observed motions of the living test subject. [ READ MORE ] So, the monkey’s arm moves to the left, and a certain picture of brain activity is recorded. The monkey’s arm moves to the left again, and a similar brain activity pattern is again mapped.

There must be a connection, right?

Next, the computer is connected to a robotic arm to simulate the monkey’s arm. The computer records a certain brain activity that was previously tagged when the monkey moved its arm to the left … so, the computer tells the robotic motors to move the simulating arm to the left.

Voilà! Computer control between a monkey’s brain and a robotic arm.

Certainly, this is a magnificent neurotechnological feat, but the experiment is entirely based on a previously mapped out look-up table. There is very little information about the fundamental behavior of the monkey’s active neuron network, which may or may not behave in precisely reproducible ways each time its arm moves to the left.

What if a neuron in the recorded activity dies? Well, the monkey can presumably still move its arm around, but the specific network pattern of electrical activity might change and might not match the look-up table stored in the computer’s memory. The computer might nix the new recorded signal that occurs when the monkey moves its arm to the left because the software code doesn’t understand how the network adapts at a fundamental level.

Developing software that tries to understand the neuron-computer interface at a more basic level is the goal of Lakshminarayan Srinivasan at MIT. This work is essentially the starting point of writing an all-purpose BASIC neurological language for the brain.

The general idea is building a software language that looks at a broader swath of brain activity and links neural action with its probable relation to a specific motor task. This provides for flexibility in the software communication so that it won’t lock up and give the user the Blue Screen of Death just because one neuron didn’t fire the same way it did last week.

So far, Srinivasan’s work is entirely based on simulations, and is currently being expanded to test with interfaces to living test subjects. So, it will be very interesting to watch the results of these new developments to discover if this programming approach is compatible with talking directly with our neuron networks.

I would like to emphasize here that I in no way want to discount the significance and the importance of the successes of “Bionic Monkey” research to date. These new techniques are absolutely critical and very exciting. But, we must be clear that this does not yet reach the notion of a pure neuron-computer interface. There is still a long way to go in continuing the advances of neurotechnology to discover the deeper understanding of neuron network function… and this long road is still very exciting!

“Standardizing the Brain-Machine Interface” :: IEEE Spectrum Online :: April 2008 :: [ READ ]

Srinivasan, L., Eden, U.T., Mitter, S.K, and Brown, E.N. “General purpose filter design for neural prosthetic devices,” Journal of Neurophysiology, 98:2456-2475. [ READ ]

Also take a look at the earlier work…

“Bionic Monkeys!” :: Discover Magazine Blog :: May 29, 2008 :: [ READ ]

“Mind Over Matter: Monkey Feeds Itself Using Its Brain” ::ScienceDaily.com :: May 28, 2008 :: [ READ ]

Sticking things into Your Brain Really Hurts

The future of neurotechnology–or, the successful integration of the human brain with fabricated computing devices–is awfully dependent on poking sharp objects into the brain. This is quite invasive, and the human body certainly does not like foreign objects sticking into its soft tissue.

A polymer group at the University of Michigan is currently working on solutions to making neuro-probes a little softer to our neural mush in our head. By developing specialized polymer coatings for neural implants, they hope to minimize the neuronal damage cause by the implant. Even if localized scar tissue is inevitable, they are working on ways to electrically communicate across the scar layer to allow the implant to continue its electrical function.

“Growing Neural Implants” :: MIT Technology Review :: July 16, 2008 :: [ READ ]

Optical Tweezers Guide Neuronal Growth

In one of the many proverbial past lives of this author, I worked on research to help advance the technology of optical tweezers. In particular, I worked with my research group at Illinois Wesleyan University in collaboration with the University of Chicago to develop the first holographic optical element that patterned a laser beam into a pre-defined organization of focused spots, each of which successfully trapped microscopic particles. This work on Holographic Optical Traps (HOTs) actually lead to the commercialization of the technology at Arryx, Inc.

The beauty of the creation of optical traps with focused laser light is that if the correct wavelength is selected, then biological material–in particular, neurons–won’t absorb the light, heat up and die. They can, however, still feel the forces resulting from the changing electromagnetic field as the laser beam focuses and de-focuses through the cell.

So, neurons are interconnected by complicated networks. There is some sort of structural pattern to this network, albeit the specifics of this structure remain unknown and not well understood. But, if we want to create devices that integrate networked neurons on computer chips, then we might want to be able to have a high degree of control in patterning the cells’ positions so they network together such that they may communicate in powerful ways, yet also connect efficiently to pre-fabricated electrodes through which a computer might actually record and control their electrical activity.

An optical tweezer as a non-invasive, but fully patternable positioning device is then certainly an intriguing tool that could prove quite useful in the future field of neurotechnology. A research group at St. Andrews University has recently tested a simple line optical tweezer and is currently studying its affects on how it might direct the growth cones of developing neurons.

The fundamental mechanism of how the cells react to the focused laser light is not yet known, but there is an observed interaction. The current observation is that the forces resulting from the focusing and defocusing laser light is providing a torque force on the filopedia–the tiny protrusions that guide the growth cones of a neuron’s axon–and direct them to line up with the path of the line optical trap.

Check out this exciting research, and envision how it can someday be quite influential in the capabilities of neurotechnologies. We’ll be closing watching the developments here from Neuron News.

“Lasers guide neuron growth” :: optics.org :: July 21, 2008 :: [ READ ]

“Guided neuronal growth using optical line traps” D. J. Carnegie, D. J. Stevenson, M. Mazilu, F. Gunn-Moore, and K. Dholakia, Optics Express Volume 16, Issue 14, pp. 10507-10517 (2008) :: [ READ THE ABSTRACT ], which includes a link to read the full text of the research article.

Human v2.0 and the Singularity

It’s already 2029 and the unthinkable has happened. Human beings are drastically altered into a new existence; a new species because of profound technological advances of computing power, which now equals that of the human brain. Welcome to The Singularity.

It’s not clear if this prediction is a good thing or a bad thing. What do you think? First broadcast nearly two years ago, the BBC produced a hyper-dramatic review of the run-up to this potential event. As technological developments continue to inch forward into brain-computer interfacing as well as advanced understandings of brain function, it is important to consider the possible ramifications of these developments. This is where the ethics of neurotechnology comes into play. However, we must be entirely reasonable about these considerations, and unfortunately this BBC broadcast is a bit–OK, it’s nearly obnoxiously–fear-mongering about where we might be headed.

(My wife–who is a huge Harry Potter fan–also questions their contract rights with using the theme music!)

In particular, let’s assume for the moment that computing “power” (however this might be defined) does match that of the “power” of the human brain. The projection of the Singularity Event is that this will somehow directly lead to a fundamental change in the human being… a Human v2.0, if you will. Hopefully, our global society will complete a thorough beta test before releasing the final upgrade to the general public!

But, there really is an enormous leap in this assumption of change. If we see computing power resemble computational abilities of humans, then why would this necessarily change us? It certainly could change us fundamentally, but the only way for this to occur is to also have the technology to integrate the human brain with a computer.

Precisely fabricated computer chips and mushes of neuron networks are different. And, they are different at basic, fundamental levels. We can pretend to make software look like neuron networks, but the software is only processed by computer chips. There really is no comparison to how each computational entity functions. So, fully interconnecting the two so that one might fundamentally change the other is a non-trivial task–to say the least–and may even be fundamentally impossible.

Although the following episode feeds a bit too much on the fear of what could happen to humanity with the ultimate success of neurotechnology, it still should be considered and reviewed for a better understanding of how to approach the developments.

Human v2.0 :: BBC Horizons Science & Nature :: October 24, 2006 :: [ VIEW ]

How Neurophilosophy Might Help Neurotechnology

The following posting is inspiring a brand new Topic Category for Neuron News that will cover Neurophilosophy. This area of discovery might be hard pressed to call itself “scientific,” and therefore at first glance might seem to be not so useful to technological developments involving integration with the brain.

However, a full interconnection between the computer chip and the brain will require a full understanding of brain function… and we certainly are very far from this goal. We are still somehow distinguishing the “mind” and our “consciousness” as a separate entity from the guts of our brain. You know, it just seems like there is something more; something greater in our heads than just a bundle of electrically active cells. But, when you look inside, there really just is a bundle of electrically active cells connected together in a very complicated way.

Our sense of the “mind” must come from this complex interconnection. So, just as looking deeply from the bottom up in order to discover how the complex bundle outputs the “mind” seems to be entirely reasonably, at this point in our severe lack of understanding, there is no reason why not to also look deeply from the top down in order to discover the wildly vast conscious behaviors of the “mind” and how that might relate to the electrical bundles.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist who is now affiliated with the Indiana University School of Medicine, had a stroke on the morning of December 10, 1996. She underwent surgery to remove a major blood clot, and is fortunate to have recovered from the trauma and is alive and well today.

The extraordinary aspect of her story, however, is that Dr. Bolte Taylor had a thorough understanding of the brain at the time of her stroke. While her brain vessels were exploding in her head, she experienced a entirely alien and altering state of consciousness… but, she could relate this experience to a real understanding of brain function. Although zoning in and out of “la-la land’, she could later recollect the specifics of what she was literally experiencing during her brain malfunction. This is absolutely invaluable insight into gaining a better understanding of how our brain function.

Dr. Bolte Taylor also realizes the importance of her ability to contribute valuable information, and is currently communicating to the world her personal experience. Although a little dramatic, her presentation to TED.com is certainly very worth the 18 minutes viewing time, and it might even be a little inspiring. If anything, there is real information here… at least in the form of a potential leap in a future deeper understanding of brain function — from the top down. (And neurotechnological developments needs all of the further understandings of brain function that they can get!)

Jill Bolte Taylor’s Powerful Stroke of Insight talk on TED.com [ LINK ]

Neuron News Likes Music, too

This posting is certainly a diversion from our typical reviews, but this author is always listing to music (mostly jazz) in the background while reading and writing about neurotechnology. So, in a small way, music is a critical element to Neuron News… and music most definitely has interesting and intimate interactions with ones’ brain activity (read more).

A British recording label call Neuroscience Recordings is a young label producing electronica / trance music. Although jazz is our favorite background, sometimes when it’s extraordinarily late and we’re trying to push on with work, a strong trance-like beat is a perfect combination for a late night quite office and hyper-productivity.

So, pull out your favorite neuroscience textbook or Neuron News blog posting, pump through some new tracks from Neuroscience Recordings and let your brain groove all night.

This little musical discovery is also thanks to Vaughan from MindHacks.

Last updated May 25, 2020