Brain-computer interfaces are devices that allow for direct communication between the brain and external devices, such as computers or prosthetics. As significant investments flow into R&D, cutting-edge companies are gearing up for human trials. These trials aim to showcase and fine-tune the potential of these interfaces to treat conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and depression.
While these technologies’ immediate use is for treating conditions, they also have the potential to access vast information at unprecedented speeds. As it stands today, the field not only aims to aid recovery, but also enhance existing cognitive functions. These goals introduce various ethical and social considerations, including:
- Consent and autonomy. How do we ensure that individuals fully understand the potential risks and benefits of interfacing directly with their brains? This is especially significant when considering patients with debilitating neurological conditions who might be desperate for a cure.
- Cognitive equity. Those who can afford these technologies might have cognitive advantages over those who cannot. As such, how can we ensure equal access and prevent a scenario where enhanced cognition is only available to the privileged?
- Identity and humanity. If our memories, thoughts and learning processes can be augmented or manipulated, what does that mean for human identity and our sense of self? At what point does augmentation challenge our notions of what it means to be human, and how do we navigate the potential loss of individuality in the pursuit of enhancement?
However, as we journey deeper into this field, it is essential that we have future-proof policies and regulations in place to ensure that brain-computer interfaces develop to prioritize our best interests.
Here is a glimpse into how such interfaces could potentially revolutionize our ability to remember and learn.
Artificial Hippocampal Systems Could Boost Memory and Learning
Today, we know that brain-computer interfaces have the potential to restore or augment the way our brains form and access memories.
A recent study found evidence to support the idea that both non-invasive and invasive brain-computer interfaces could enhance the human ability to memorize. The non-invasive methods that show the most promise include Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and Transcranial Electric Stimulation (TES). These are techniques that use magnetic fields and electric currents, respectively, to stimulate specific areas of the brain without surgery.
A classic study published in Neuroreport found that the advantages of both methods on short- and long-term memory can last for several weeks following the procedure.
In terms of invasive brain-computer interfaces that can improve our ability to remember and memorize, neuroprosthetics (devices that can be implanted in the brain to help improve its function) are gaining widespread attention thanks to companies like Neuralink and Blackrock Neurotech.
A landmark study on how the hippocampus works to help us encode long-term memories showed that machine learning techniques like deep neural networks could potentially encode and decode neural signals. This could pave the way for enhanced memory and learning processes in humans whose brains are hooked up to an artificial hippocampus.
For instance, the authors speculate that one day, through brain-computer interfaces, a person might simply “download” a new language into their brain without prior study.
Building on research that reveals similar memory encoding mechanisms across mammals, a study has successfully demonstrated that an artificial hippocampus can potentially enhance memory in rats.
In this study, the researchers used an electronic system that duplicates the neural signals associated with memory to replicate the brain function in rats associated with long-term learned behavior, even when the rats had been drugged to forget a task they had learned.
The researchers also showed that if a prosthetic device and its associated electrodes were implanted in animals with a normal, functioning hippocampus, the device could actually strengthen the memory being generated in the brain and enhance the memory capability of normal rats.
This suggests that with sufficient access to the neural coding of memories, a neural prosthesis capable of real-time identification and manipulation of the encoding process can potentially enhance cognitive processes.
Two decades ago, smartphones were considered science fiction and a luxury. Today, we are experiencing a similar sense of awe and wonder as we contemplate the potential of brain-computer interfaces. While it is impossible to predict exactly how this technology will evolve, all the pieces are in place for it to be transformative, and we may soon witness a future where superhuman memory is not just a fantasy, but an attainable reality. As we stand on the precipice of this new era, it is vital for society to actively participate in the conversation and shape the future of brain-computer interfacing.
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