For millennia, the human brain has been a largely unexplored frontier. Relative to the whole of human history, studying, understanding, and influencing human thought and consciousness is a radically new endeavor. Only in the twenty-first century has science truly begun to progress far enough into the field of neuroscience for effective neurotechnologies to begin to take shape.
The implications of neurotechnologies for society are vast. From pharmaceuticals that improve quality of life, to brain imaging that revolutionizes our conception of human consciousness, neurotechnologies stand to change our understanding of ourselves and harness the power of the brain and nervous system’s myriad functions to promote human thriving.
What are neurotechnologies?
Although the layperson might not be familiar with the term “neurotechnology,” in fact these emerging technologies already affect many people’s everyday lives. Neurotechnologies have become widespread in medical contexts, but other uses are on the horizon.
“Neurotechnology” refers to any technology that provides greater insight into brain or nervous system activity, or affects brain or nervous system function. Neurotechnology can be used purely for research purposes, such as experimental brain imaging to gather information about mental illness or sleep patterns. It can also be used in practical applications to influence the brain or nervous system; for example, in therapeutic or rehabilitative contexts.
How neurotechnology works
Broadly speaking, neurotechnology uses neural interfaces to read or write information into the central nervous system (CNS), the peripheral nervous system (PNS), or the autonomic nervous system (ANS). There are a number of methods to do this, both invasive and noninvasive.
Neurotechnologies fall into the following three categories:
- Neuromodulation technologies. These technologies use neural interfaces to stimulate nervous system structures. This is done in order to influence neural activity. For example, neuromodulation technologies are used in deep brain stimulation for reducing tremor in Parkinson’s disease; spinal cord stimulation for treating chronic pain; and more recently, they have been used to treat stroke victims by detecting biomarkers in the subject’s physical movement and delivering stimulation to the nervous system in order to modulate and improve neural activity associated with those movements.
- Neuroprostheses. Neuroprostheses act as “prosthetic” brain functions, in that they replace or restore sensory, motor, or cognitive functions that the subject has lost. Cochlear implants, which restore hearing in people with profound hearing loss, are perhaps the most prominent example of neuroprostheses in everyday life.
- Brain-machine interfaces (BMIs). These technologies read and/or write information into the brain, with the end result of enabling the subject to control external software, such as a brain-computer interface, or hardware, such as a robotic device. Not yet widely used in practical applications, these technologies hold potential for people with motor disabilities to control devices using their own neural activity.
How neurotechnology is being used
Neurotechnology is already being practically applied in the medical and wellness industries, with many future implications for other contexts including education, workplace management, national security, and even sports. The following are some of the most prominent uses of neurotechnologies today:
- Brain imaging: Brain imaging maps brain activity by recording magnetic fields produced by electrical activity within the brain. The most well-known type of brain imaging is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which is commonly used to identify brain tumors, developmental issues, strokes, and other conditions. However, it can also be used to map activity in the brain.
- Neurostimulation: Neurostimulation is a developing technology that stimulates the brain and nervous system in order to influence brain activity. Types of neurostimulation include transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses magnetic stimulation, transcranial direct current stimulation, which affects the brain through low electrical current, and low field magnetic stimulation, which uses pulsed electromagnetic stimulation. Neurostimulation is also common in the spinal cord, vagus nerve and the peripheral nerves.
- Neurodevices: This emerging technology monitors or regulates brain activity through the use of a neural implant. One example application is the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. This field is still mostly in the research phase, but it holds major potential for treating brain disorders.
Outside the field of neurotechnology, Pharmaceuticals are the most common form of neuro treatment in everyday life. They influence brain chemistry by modulating chemicals and hormones within the brain in situations where the subject’s brain does not produce normal amounts of these chemicals on its own. Pharmaceuticals can help treat mental conditions such as depression and anxiety. Cell therapies are another emerging field. Cell therapy seeks to use stem cells to induce the brain to produce new cells in order to heal brain damage or disorders.
Purposes, opportunities, and limitations of neurotechnologies
Research and development of neurotechnologies has the potential to change the human experience in multiple ways. These technologies could open a number of doors to enhanced mental and physical ability, once researchers are able to overcome neurotechnology’s current limitations.
The importance of researching and developing neurotechnologies
Currently, the greatest potential of neurotechnologies is in their ability to alleviate human suffering through enabling better treatments for mental and neurological disorders, movement disorders and sensory disorders. Innumerable people could benefit from treatments for as-yet unsolved neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease and multiple sclerosis, as well as psychiatric disorders like bipolar disorder and phobias.
Beyond medical applications, neurotechnologies have the potential to elevate human experience and functioning in other ways. For example, these technologies could enhance human learning ability, boost physical performance, and enable efficiencies like brain-controlled devices.
What doors could further neurotechnology development open?
In the future, neurotechnologies could potentially affect almost everyone in society at large. They could be used in applications like the following:
- Education: Neurotechnologies could open the doors to enhanced learning and cognition among students or trainees.
- Workplace: Work life could experience a paradigm shift, with neurotechnologies supporting enhanced learning, as well as efficiency.
- Military or national security: Neurotechnologies could help enhance physical abilities like coordination or motor skills in military applications.
- Sports: In addition to enhancing physical abilities, neurotechnologies could potentially monitor physical well-being.
- Consumer applications: Eventually, neurotechnologies could enable commercial devices, like phones, powered by mind control. Neurotechnologies could also potentially enable features like a thought-to-text writing function, or virtual and augmented reality devices assisted by brain control for purposes of entertainment.
Current limitations of neurotechnologies
Neuromodulation technology, neuroprostheses technology, and BMI technology currently only have the capability to gather data over time. There is very limited continuous sensing, with limited means of modifying stimulation to the nervous system as needed based on neurofeedback.
This means neurotechnologies are, as yet, unable to perform autonomously and in synthesis with brain signals. Further research and development is needed in order to create a smooth-running closed-loop system that allows the technology to read, write, and modify brain signals simultaneously.
Current developments in neurotechnology
In many ways, neurotechnology is still in its infancy. Yet there is already great potential to use these technologies to positively influence brain activity for a variety of reasons, from disorder treatment and management to accelerated learning.
Current capabilities of neurotechnology products
Although not a neurotechnology, pharmaceuticals are currently the most widely used therapy, with their ability to affect brain chemistry through blocking or stimulating the production of certain hormones that affect mood or cognition.
MRIs and other brain imaging technologies have provided researchers with important brain mapping information. These technologies are also used in clinical settings to measure brain activity based on blood flow or electromagnetic current.
Other neurotechnologies, such as neuromodulation technology, neuroprostheses technology, and BMI technology, have so far provided a rudimentary ability to read and write nervous system activity. However, these technologies require much development before they can be widely used in medical or other applications.
Neurotechnologies currently in development
Researchers are currently working on closed-loop neurotechnology systems that can treat neurological, psychiatric and movement disorders. These systems may be able to restore physical movement after an injury or disease of the brain, provide neuroprosthetics or implants to cure neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease, treat memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, and relieve psychiatric disorders that reduce quality of life.
Neurotechnology researchers are also focused on creating closed-loop technologies for general consumer applications. For example, next-generation neurotechnologies may be able to speed learning and information retention.
Current challenges in neurotechnology
Neurotechnologies with better sensor capabilities are currently in development. Better sensors are important for two reasons: they will have the ability to generate immediate neurofeedback, and they will facilitate better understanding of the downstream effects of stimulation. This will aid researchers in developing more accurate models of how information travels downstream.
In addition, stimulation technologies currently have limited spatial and temporal selectivity. Researchers are currently developing stimulation technologies that can instantly respond to neurofeedback and self-modify as needed.
Overall, researchers are modifying closed-loop neurotechnology systems to be more responsive and autonomous so they can work in tandem with the subject’s brain, responding to neurofeedback fluidly.
Unraveling the ethics of new neurotechnologies
Since neurotechnologies affect the brain—the center of human consciousness—considering ethical and legal questions around agency is paramount. The ethics and legality of neurotechnology still has far to go, and must be a prime consideration moving forward.
The ethics of neurotechnologies
Since neurotechnologies have to do with modifying human brain and nervous system activity, there are a number of ethical questions involved. In particular, potential subjects must be informed of the risks of neurotechnologies. Some neurotechnologies, such as intracranial electrode implantation—placing electrodes inside the skull in order to monitor seizures—hold a high risk for the subject.
It is essential that researchers and clinicians communicate transparently with subjects in order to create realistic expectations for studies and procedures. In addition, subjects must have a realistic understanding of the potential benefits of a study or procedure for themselves or others.
Finally, neurotechnologies have the potential to influence or change a person’s thought patterns or behavior, thus potentially influencing their essential identity. Neurotechnology researchers must weigh this potential to affect identity against the benefits of improved functioning or quality of life.
Legal implications of neurotechnologies
Safety and reliability are essential considerations when discussing the legal implications of neurotechnologies. Further research is needed in order to establish baseline parameters and expectations for minimal tissue damage, safe implementation techniques, and long-term safety in the use of neurotechnologies. It is also important to know if a device is performing as intended, and provide options to override the technology as needed. Researchers should be aware of these potential issues and consider them during product development.
In addition, data management is an important legal consideration in the neurotechnology field. There does not yet exist a standardized system for data security and privacy, such as guidelines for ownership of patient information, access to such data, and data sharing. Such a system needs to be developed in order to best stay in compliance with the law.
Do the benefits of neurotechnologies outweigh the risks?
Although neurotechnologies come with ethical and legal risks, many researchers believe their potential to improve quality of life for millions or billions around the globe indicates that the benefits are likely to outweigh the risks.
For instance, in 2014 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched its Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative on the basis that neurotechnologies have the potential to launch a “quantum leap” in the understanding of brain function and disease. The NIH states its belief that this could facilitate more effective treatments for neurological, mental, and even substance abuse disorders among the global population.
Enhancing humanity through neurotechnology
Neurotechnology holds incredible potential to improve many aspects of human life, from treating debilitating diseases to improving efficiency, learning potential, and even physical prowess. However, neurotechnologies are still a relatively young development, and much is yet unknown about their full capabilities, as well as the ethical, legal, and societal implications they may have for society going forward.
To learn more about neurotechnologies, how they work, their applications, and future possibilities, we invite you to read the IEEE Brain white paper “Future Neural Therapeutics.”
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