TED Conversations

Lauren Bayer

Student, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

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Will mind-reading eventually become a reality and what are the implications for humanity?

This week in my bioelectricity class, we learned about using electrical stimulation to mimic the electrical signals of the body. The nervous system uses electrical signals as it performs its tasks of communicating, processing information, storing memories, etc. As we learn more about the language of the nervous system, we can use advanced technology to “speak” to the body and get it to perform tasks that the body's nervous system might not be able to do. Neural prosthetics, for instance, provide electrical stimulation to the nerves that are connected to muscles, allowing those muscles which were paralyzed to move again.
As we learn more information about the “language” of the nervous system, science has begun to correlate certain actions or stimuli with specific frequencies and behavioral patterns of electrical activity in the brain. For example, many scientists studying the visual system look at firing rate patterns in the visual cortex of the brain and use the data to predict the images that are being seen.
Ultimately this reverse correlation process might be able to be applied to all parts of the brain, including memory.
This led me to wonder, do you think that there will ever be a time where we will literally be able to read people's brains? If we can one day understand how the brain processes every bit of information – then theoretically we should be able to measure the electrical activity from the deep layers of the brain and be able to predict what the person is thinking. And also in the reverse direction – what would happen if we could ever be able to use electrical stimulation to “insert” memories into people's brains?
Do you think this technology could be useful for treating patients with dementia who have lost their memories – in which patients could create a “back-up” file of their own memories in case they ever start to lose it? What implications would such technology have on humanity? And do you see ways in which it could be detrimental/beneficial?

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    Apr 19 2013: Hey Lauren,

    New advancements in neurotechnology seem to be introduced on a daily basis, and it's really exciting to see how the field continues to develop.

    There are a lot of different applications and developments that we could reasonably imagine could begin to be addressed by neurotechnology. For example, let's consider mind-reading. The mechanisms behind the function of the mind are so unknown that I'm not sure if it's even feasible to move technology in the direction of mind-reading - at least, as we imagine it now. I'm sure that a number of paradigms governing how we understand the function of the brain are prone to being radically changed sometime in the near future (in a manner somewhat similar to how the advent of special relativity theory influenced the understanding of physics). I say this mostly because so little is known about the mapping of the brain.

    Speaking of which - have you heard about the BRAIN initiative? There's a lot of interest in mapping the brain - which could impact the way in which we imagine neurotechnological applications.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/18/science/project-seeks-to-build-map-of-human-brain.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
    There's a similar project just getting off the ground in Europe.

    Inevitably, though, I think the use of electrical stimulation in neurotechnology will lead to really important medical advances. Andres Lozano (see the link below) very recently did a TEDx talk (at CalTech!) in which he discussed the recent advances of high-precision deep-brain stimulation and its implications for the treatment of Parkinson's disease.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/andres_lozano_parkinson_s_depression_and_the_switch_that_might_turn_them_off.html

    I hope that you find the links as inspiring as I did.
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      Apr 21 2013: Hi Osaze!
      thanks so much for sharing that ted talk with me - it was really interesting! I think it highlights just how powerful brain stimulation is, and show's how our level of functioning in day to day life is very dependent on the electrical activity of our brains. This in some ways, shows the importance of understanding the "language" of the brain as I stated earlier, and what all of its electrical signals means. If we understand the electrical signal completely, then I think in some ways the treatment of deep brain stimulation is even more powerful.

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