Hack your brain

Re-engineered human brains could be in our future, researchers say

Research is limited right now. Scientists are measuring the activity of only 100 neurons or so at a time, which means that while a monkey can use its head to play Space Invaders it still needs to use its hands to play a more complicated game such as the maze-like Pac-Man, according to Marcus.

Marcus's own research involves the brain scanning technology, which pinpoints the areas of the brain that light up in response to visual stimuli or other triggers. His work analyzing Alzheimer's disease illustrates some of the dangers that might accompany any attempt to re-engineer the human brain.

When we're not doing anything, our brains switch to a default mode, which appears to have major importance and perhaps has something to do with memory. The parts of the brain most involved in this default mode are also the ones most affected in the brains of people suffering from Alzheimer's, according to Marcus.

This seems to indicate that in some humans, the normal functioning of the brain is damaging itself, and is something that has to be considered when performing any future "mind hacks," Marcus said.

"When you're not working on some other task these [brain areas] go up in activity," Marcus explained in an interview after the panel discussion. "The second you go off-task, these start doing some work. We don't know exactly what this work is but it must be really important because the brain works really hard to turn on these areas. But these are the exact same areas that show damage in Alzheimer's disease. It's as if the activity in these neurons is leading to some sort of damage."

With the brain being vulnerable to its own actions, mind hackers have to be careful if they "target some part of the brain that's really open to intervention because it's known to be highly plastic," he said.

Beyond the potential for physical damage, all this stuff raises ethical questions as well, panelists said. Some perfectly healthy college kids like to use Adderall, a drug that treats attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, as a stimulant to improve their focus and help them study and take tests, Pescovitz said. Some employers use random drug tests to make sure workers aren't hooked on illegal narcotics -- what if companies start testing employees to make sure they're on drugs, Pescovitz asked. Will this create a neural divide?

"One of the ethical issues it raises is the divide between the people who can afford it and those who can't," Hannay said.

On the plus side, "these tools can be helpful to bridge neural divides," particularly for people with conditions like dyslexia, said Alvaro Fernandez.

Fernandez runs Sharp Brains, a Web site that provides information on tools used to improve cognitive function. These tools can be as simple as brain teasers. But Fernandez predicts a burgeoning industry in mind improvement that will rival the physical fitness business.

What does it mean for you? Probably not much for now, but Pescovitz looks forward to the day when businesses have brain fitness centers for their employees, complete with vending machines loaded with pharmaceuticals and kiosks that zap your mind with magnetic waves. Goodbye, Starbucks, hello Skynet.

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