Creating super intelligence or enhancing the brains of patients with neurological disorders through brain augmentation is currently a hot topic in both scientific literature and the media. This is a remarkable development because just a decade or two ago the idea of brain augmentation was reserved for science fiction. But with the rapid development of neuroscience and related technological and medical fields, many of the past decade’s science fiction themes – such as reading out brain content, sending information to the brain, inter-connecting different brains and adding artificial parts to the brain – are becoming real.
Broadly speaking, the themes of brain augmentation can be divided into three categories: firstly, approaches that involve recording and decoding brain activity, secondly, approaches that include various ways to stimulate the brain, and finally, futuristic and philosophical considerations around the topic.
So how close are we to brain augmentation approaches that may help in the treatment of neurological and mental conditions, such as paralysis, sensory, motor and cognitive disabilities, or Parkinson’s disease, or to creating super intelligence and enhancing productivity in healthy people who want to excel in their performance?
Recently, more than 600 authors contributed almost 150 research articles investigating brain augmentation – on everything from brain-machine interfaces, neuro-stimulators, the application of neuro-pharmacology and ethical and philosophical considerations around brain enhancement that may seem relatively unimportant today, but given the rapid development of this field, they will become very real and practical in the near future.
The editors of this Research Topic—The augmentation of brain function: facts, fiction and controversy published in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience—Dr Mikhail Lebedev, from Duke University in the United States, Dr Ioan Opris at the University of Miami School of Medicine and Dr Manuel Casanova at the University of Louisville, also in the U.S. are proud of this comprehensive collection of articles which raise key themes directly related to practical issues around brain enhancement – particularly pertaining to public health.
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Indeed, Dr Opris says that the strength of research is in the synergy of collaboration, “Sharing each other’s research is like polishing a diamond and providing new faces to shine”, a sentiment echoed by Dr Casanova, “Research findings need to be communicated in order to be relevant. Personally, communicating our findings forces me to better understand my own results and become critical of them. Sharing my research pushes me to establish a different frame of mind as a writer one that includes other researchers and even lay people.”
One original research paper, Donor/recipient enhancement of memory in rat hippocampus by Dr Sam Deadwyler from the U.S. Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winstom-Salem, New Carolina and his colleagues describes a donor-recipient memory transfer. In this stunning experiment, a donor rat was required to perform a behavioral task requiring memorization. They then decoded the memory content from the hippocampus of the donor rat and, using electrical micro-stimulation, transferred it to the hippocampus of another rat. After the donor rat’s neural activity was processed by a multiple-input multiple-output model, and delivered to the recipient’s brain, the recipient rat successfully reproduced the task behavior.
The authors say that their research provides the basis for utilizing extracted appropriate neural information from one brain to induce, recover, or enhance memory related processing in the brain of another subject and that the results provide important insight for extending donor/recipient procedures to functions performed by other brain regions and other behavioral endpoints, and eventually to similar circumstances involving humans.
In another paper, Transcranial direct current stimulation: five important issues we aren’t discussing (but probably should be), around Dr. Jared Horvath from the University of Melbourne in Australia, discusses several important issues related to the use of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)—constant, low current delivered to the brain area of interest via electrodes on the scalp—as a cognitive enhancement approach. It was originally developed to help patients with brain injuries or psychiatric conditions like a major depressive disorder.
Dr Horvath and his colleagues outline a number of important experimental and technical issues associated with tDCS that they say are simply not being discussed in any meaningful manner. These include the need for an individualized, patient by patient approach to tDCS, the importance of proper controls in tDCS studies, such as sham stimulation and blinding, the interference of motor and cognitive activities with the tDCS effects and changes in electric current related to hair thickness and electrode attachments methods. They argue that if the field of tDCS is to avoid becoming a footnote in the annals of neuro-scientific research it’s time to collectively acknowledge well-known shortcomings and use these issues to guide further research and exploration and well as more comprehensive protocols.
A third paper of the 149 submitted explores something that we all love – sleep! In the paper Sleep for cognitive enhancement, Dr Susanne Diekelmann from the Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavioral Neurobiology at the University of Tubingen in Germany reviews enhancing the potential of sleep for such cognitive functions as attention, language, reasoning, decision making, learning and memory. The article discusses the role of sleep in memory consolidation and the acquisition of new memories after sleep, the role of sleep-specific brain oscillations in these processes and neurotransmitters involved.
Dr Diekelmann suggests that memory processing during sleep can be augmented by cueing memory reactivation with olfactory and auditory cues, electrically inducing sleep-specific brain oscillations, and modulating specific neurotransmitter systems pharmacologically.
At the end of the day, Dr Lebedev says this Research Topic would not have been possible elsewhere, “It was only because of Frontiers publishing model that we were able to compile this collection of articles from the best experts in several disciplines. As far as I can tell, all of our 629 authors enjoyed working with Frontiers, and everybody is looking forward to this research topic published as three eBook volumes: one devoted to decoding of brain signals, the other to neurostimulation approaches to augmentation of brain function, and the third one on futuristic ideas and ethical issues. Judging from the number of page views (more than 700,000 at the moment), this research topic evoked significant interest in our open-access readership, in both the scientific community and the general public. The number of citations is constantly growing for these articles, so hopefully they will be of great educational and scientific value for students, researchers, health care practitioners, and people interested in studies of the brain”.