How does technology engage with the brain?

From diagnosis
to human-computer

The brain is an irreplaceable and essential organ. Today, scientists consider it to be the place of cognition, feeling, language, movement control and respiration as well as personality. However, its systematic exploration only started about 170 years ago. At the beginning of functional brain research, which went beyond the mere anatomic description, there were cases of people with brain injuries. Early neurologists realized that these medical case studies offered insights into the functionality of the brain: the patients showed different symptoms depending on which area in the brain was damaged. Only later it became possible to study the brain in more detail when technologies paved the way to look at the undamaged brain.

Since then, an entirely new scientific branch has emerged, which concentrates on the understanding of the brain and the nerve cells of humans and animals: the neurosciences. For this purpose, the so-called neurotechnology was indispensable. Looking closer at the concept, it includes technologies that serve research purposes as well as those that are used for diagnostic and therapeutic ends. In those fields where scientific insights are used for the benefit of patients, e.g. in neurology, neurosurgery and psychiatry, work would be unimaginable without technologies like computer tomography (CT scans), electroencephalography (EEG), psychotropic drugs and functional magnetic resonance tomography (fMRT). Scientists distinguish neurotechnology into neuroimaging and bio-medical applications that interact directly with the brain. The first are often diagnostic methods that have revolutionized the detecting of diseases like cancer, stroke or epilepsy.

The fMRI (functional magnetic resonance tomography) is a widespread method of visualizing brain activity.

The second applications engage directly with the physiology of the brain – via chemical or physical processes. Besides pharmacology, electric stimulation is one of the most effective methods. The insight that electricity is playing a key role in transmitting information in neurons can be traced back to the work of Luigi Galvani in the 18th century. It laid the foundations of electrophysiology. With the advancements in electro-engineering, knowledge about the transmission of electricity in nerve cells became more detailed. In the middle of the 19th century, Julius Bernstein discovered the action potential, which forms the basis for measuring neuronal activity today. Early medical methods used electric shocks that were applied externally like the electroconvulsive shock treatment (ECT) that was developed in 1938 and is still used today. In the 1970s, Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) – (also called »Hirnschrittmacher« (brain pacemaker) in German) – was developed as a therapeutic option for movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease. The development was possible because of increasingly accurate neurosurgical operations like the stereotactic surgery, a better understanding of the brain and the extensive basic research with laboratory animals. Today, around 85,000 patients are living with such an implant in their brains. It stimulates certain spots in the deeper layers of the organ with low currents to countervail neurological diseases.

In the last 20 years, scientists developed prostheses that can rebuild functions in the neuronal system by using electric stimulation. The cochlea implant is a particularly established method to restore hearing. But there is more: DBS is used to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, technologies like retina implants are authorized medical products and protheses that can be controlled by the brain are in an advanced state of development. Although cognitive and affective disorders have been treated with psychotropic drugs so far, so-called electro-pharmaceuticals are on the rise: even depressions could possibly be treated with DBS. 

In the last years, research about methods of magnetic stimulation as well as interfaces which connect the brain and the computer gained steam. The latter have the potential to give back the capacity to act to people who cannot move their bodies anymore.

Soon, paralyzed
people will be able to write
by the power of
their thoughts alone.

Deep brain stimulation: More than 80,000 people worldwide are treated with these implants.

Some of these electrical technologies interfere deeply with the structures of the nerve and need surgery to be implanted. However, the brain to most people is a very vulnerable organ, as it appears to be the place of many of the features that humans consider to be essential for their self-definition. Manipulation and surgical interventions in the brain raise concerne on possible far-reaching consequences for the psyche of the patients. Thus, it is no wonder that applications placed directly in the brain must overcome many ethical obstacles to be accepted by patients. Unethical research with humans in the middle of the 20th century, especially in early psychosurgery and the application of lobotomy, had discredited the research on the human brain – and suspiciousness is still very common. On the other hand, these technologies create exaggerated hopes of curing diseases and fantasies about the future, that increase the danger of malpractice.

Today, scientists work on making these methods safer, easier, more effective and persistent. In addition, new technologies like optogenetics emerge, which connect genetics and electrophysiology. The development of brain-machine-interfaces constantly advances, so that these mechanisms can adapt therapy to the state of the brain by using feedback loops. We want to attend and discuss these developments at our events by inviting scientists and the public to express and exchange their concerns and wishes – so that the mistakes of the past do not repeat themselves.

Further Readings:
An article on the history of deep brain stimulation
Here you can find more information about neuroimplants by author Thomas Stieglitz
This article summarizes the history of brain research
A short definition of neurotechnology
On this website you will find detailed information about current technologies
A text about the discovery of the action potential

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