Hack your brain

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

Your mind: it's just another piece of hardware. Make sure you download the latest patch and upgrade to the newest operating system.

That, in so many words, is the fate of humankind described by David Pescovitz, co-editor of the BoingBoing.net blog and research director with the Institute for the Future.

We've long used caffeine and various other drugs to alter our states of mind. But those are "really blunt instruments" compared with the future technology that advances in neuroscience will bring, Pescovitz said Tuesday as he moderated a panel discussion on the "future of mind hacks" at the O'Reilly ETech conference on emerging technology.

"In the near future, these technologies will be available to us to help us take control of our own minds, to alter our own minds -- to bring a DIY hacker mentality to your own head," Pescovitz said.

The details on how this will work are fuzzy at best. Pescovitz referred to the members of his panel as being much smarter than himself, and they were a bit more cautious in describing advances that might lead to enhancements of the human brain.

"We always want to better ourselves. And we're always looking for shortcuts, easier ways to achieve our end goal," said Timo Hannay, the head of Web publishing of the Nature Publishing Group who used to work as a neurophysiologist studying the molecular mechanisms of memory.

Side effects are inevitable, though, particularly if what we use to alter our brains comes in pill form, he said.

"When you take a shortcut, there's almost bound to be some kind of adverse side effect or aftereffect," Hannay said. "It's very likely when you get significant enhancements, there will always be things balancing those."

But the most drastic enhancements discussed won't come in pill form but through reconfiguring the brain's so-called "hardware and software."

Current research has enabled non-human primates to play the old video game Space Invaders using nothing but their own thoughts, said Daniel Marcus, director of the Neuroinformatics Research Group at Washington University School of Medicine.

Scientists measure the activity of neurons while a monkey plays Space Invaders with a joystick, and then connect the monkey's brain signals to a device that performs the functions of a joystick without requiring any physical manipulation.

"Eventually, you can take the joystick away and the monkey learns to control the video game using its own neural signals," Marcus said.

The Space Invaders experiment has been performed in at least one human trial, Marcus said in an interview after the panel discussion. Marcus isn't involved in this research himself but is excited about its potential.

"I think it has a lot of potential for quadriplegics," Marcus said. "They just want to have some sort of interaction with their environment, to be able to feed themselves, to type something into a computer and communicate. That really seems realistic to me. The idea of being able to fully control a body is a long ways off, but these are steps in that direction."

In a separate project, one brain-controlled gaming system is already being demoed, with mixed results.

Marcus doubts we'll all be cyborgs 50 years from now, but says even healthy people might benefit from some sort of brain interface that connects to -- well, something.

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