The human brain is the perfect analogy of the times we live in and the technological advancements we are making: even though the brain is so complex that we still don’t understand all of it, despite decades of dedicated research, the things we have made with our brains can now be used to shape the thing that made them.
The SHIFT 2018 track Amplified Humans discussed ways to transcend our physical limitations by technological means, and Dr Daniel Chao of Halo Neuroscience has developed a way to improve the performance of the human brain, not with nanotech but with something as traditional, and controversial, as electrical stimulation.
Dr Chao started his presentation by noting that the state-of-the-art treatment for many conditions is drugs: around 20 million people in the US are currently on anti-depressants, and drugs are frequently used to treat a variety of neurological conditions. Their regular use does not mean they are the best or perfect solutions, and to replace or supplement them, Chao proposes electrical therapy that can, for instance, help prevent epileptic seizures by predicting their occurrence, or improve the symptoms of Parkinson disease.
Besides treatment of neurological conditions, applications of this same technology can be used to improve the performance of a healthy brain. Traditionally, training your brain has meant crosswords or other puzzles that challenge the mind. In other words, maintaining or improving your brain’s performance is done by purposefully seeking something challenging enough to make your neurons buzz, keeping the neural pathways from decaying like rusty wiring cables.
For every action, there’s a pathway, and like the muscles in our body, they take time to build and regular use to maintain. Halo Neuroscience seeks to speed up that process. The solution, a device that looks much like an ordinary set of headphones, delivers neurostimulation to the motor cortex, the area of the brain in charge of movement.
You have probably heard that to learn a new move, you have to do it 10,000 times – imagine the possibilities when we can speed up the system that governs the connections between the brain and the body. The idea is to use a targeted electrical discharge of a specific frequency to improve plasticity, the brain’s inherent ability to reshape itself and create new neural pathways, resulting in a temporary state of hyperplasticity. So, put on a pair of headphones, listen to music for 20 minutes with a special set of headphones, and after this warm-up, your hyperplastic brain will only need 5000 repeats to connect the right cables.
While the method is applied here in a new way, electrical stimulation has been in clinical use for a long time, and not without controversy. Especially in the historical context of mental healthcare and with the popular culture image of 20th century horror and sci-fi movies, electrical therapy may not instantly sound like a stepping stone towards a brighter future. However, even an 18th century account by the multi-talented innovator Benjamin Franklin describes customers returning for repeated rounds of treatment.
Halo Neuroscience, in turn, is taking the technology to the next level by making it accessible. When neurostimulation is delivered through a wearable device and does not require a clinical setup and a visit to the hospital every single time, it may become a widely used alternative or supplement to existing treatments. In Dr Chao’s words, it could be a new era of better, and the treatment of medical conditions is only one half of it.
Enhancing the performance of healthy people with a traditionally clinical technology is taking the phenomenon outside the scope of healthcare and into the domain of the amplified human. It can be seen as just making training safer in sports like ballet or gymnastics, where the high amount of repetition frequently causes health problems like stress fractures for high-level athletes, or sports like figure skating and parkour where muscle fatigue makes each repetition more dangerous than the last. But like so many things in the information age, it is inevitably blurring the boundaries, redefining normals and challenging us with new kinds of questions.
Where is using neurostimulation OK? If it’s used in competitive sports, will it give an unfair advantage and become the new doping? Or is it a new way of balancing the genetic equation, allowing us to use our brains to take the next step in human evolution? As we move forward as an intelligent, technological species, we must discuss and adapt our existing norms to stay up to speed with the rapidly approaching future.