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How To Get Smarter: Start With The Brain Itself

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This is a writeup of a recent interesting article in Kanebridgenews (Global Insights from the Wall Street Journal) entitled “How To Get Smarter:  Start with the Brain Itself”.  This article is truly on the frontier of neuroscience, where researchers are inventing devices to upgrade our minds.

On the frontier of neuroscience, researchers are inventing devices to upgrade our minds.

Enhancing the neurotechnology of learning
No one has yet deciphered the brain signals that encode a complex thought, turn an idea into words or make a lasting memory. But powerful clues are emerging to drive the neurotechnology of learning, scientists say.

On the frontier of neuroscience, researchers are inventing devices to enhance learning abilities, from wearable nerve stimulators that boost mental focus to headsets for wireless brain-to-brain communication.

Improving the brain’s capacity for learning
By listening to the electric whispers of thought, some scientists are discovering how to help neurons reinforce what we learn. Others are devising ways to improve the brain’s capacity for learning by expanding our natural range of senses to encompass other wavelengths of light or electromagnetic frequencies.

At the same time, education experts are working to understand how classroom education and other experiences affect brain development. They are tracking cognitive changes among 11,000 young people for a decade through the largest long-term study of childhood brain development ever conducted in the U.S.


Brain-computer interfaces
New brain-computer interfaces, like those under development by Elon Musk’s Neuralink and others, promise to transform learning by increasing the number of high-speed communication links within the brain. Most, though, require brain surgery, limiting their use among healthy children and adults.

Advances in the neurotechnology of learning
These promise to alter how the brain functions, and ultimately our sense of self, scientists say. Brain stimulation techniques, for example, can trigger changes in demeanor and character traits, sometimes leading to changes in a sense of personal identity, according to a new review of brain monitoring technology in the journal APL Bioengineering.


Linking Minds
Imagine a world where students see not just eye-to-eye with their teachers, but mind to mind. A wireless headset that can share information between one brain and another may begin preclinical testing in the coming months, scientists say.

Transfer of neural activity in one brain to another brain
In an $18 million Defense Department project, scientists led by Rice University neuro-engineer Jacob Robinson are combining advanced optical physics, nanotechnology, magnetic stimulation and genetic engineering in a wearable system that uses light to decode neural activity in one brain and magnetic fields to encode that activity in another brain.  Dr. Robinson states that you would be able to think a word or think about an image and have that image directly and almost immediately transfer to someone.

Classroom of the mind
Linked brains could one day convene a classroom of the mind. Scientists at University of California, Berkeley, and the U.S. Institute for Molecular Manufacturing have predicted that within 20 or 30 years such noninvasive neural links could lead to an “internet of thoughts” that connect neurons to vast cloud-computing networks in real time, providing access to supercomputing storage, processing capabilities and artificial intelligence systems.  Dr. Robinson says that he can see a day when people will be connecting to their brains in the workplace and in the classroom, even in social situations.


Boosting Memory
To strengthen memory, bioengineers are experimenting with brain implants that boost our ability to learn, by catching and correcting the mistakes the brain can make as it encodes new information.

Boosting performance on simple memory tests
In recent tests, researchers at Wake Forest and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, led by Dr. neuroscientist Robert Hampson at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., found that their surgically implanted experimental device could boost performance on simple memory tests by up to 37%. They tested the system on 15 volunteers who already had electrodes surgically implanted in various parts of their brains, including the hippocampus, as part of a brain-mapping procedure to treat severe epilepsy.

A real-life thinking cap
The ultimate goal is a wireless memory prosthesis that could be worn like a real-life thinking cap by anyone seeking to learn something new, from veterans recovering from traumatic brain injuries to the elderly suffering from Alzheimer’s disease to students cramming for final exams. That may still be decades away.  Memory is essential to our cognitive function. It allows us to create the narrative of our lives.

Testing experimental implants in the temporal cortex
Hoping to improve learning abilities, several research groups are testing experimental implants in the temporal cortex, an area involved in recalling words, and in a densely packed cluster of neurons shaped like a sea horse called the hippocampus, which serves as a switchboard for learning and recalling information.

Correctly encoding memories
As the volunteers studied images of plants, animals and landscapes, the implant continuously monitored their brain activity. Whenever it detected brain cells misfiring during memory formation, it played the signal of a properly functioning neuron. That seemed to override the errant signal and ensure that the memory of the image being observed was encoded correctly, the scientists say.  According to Dong Song, a biomedical engineer at USC and a co-author of the study, it is almost like having a better version of you that teaches you, when you have low memory function, to have better memory function.

Enhancing one of the brain’s highest functions
For now, the device offers persuasive evidence that scientists can enhance one of the brain’s highest functions—the ability to store and recall memories. It is the first time scientists have been able to identify a patient’s own brain cell code or pattern for memory and, in essence, “write in” that code to make existing memory work better, Darpa officials say.


Energizing Thought
Think of a pacemaker for the mind that amplifies learning abilities
Learn a new language in months instead of years
Darpa-funded researchers are finding ways to boost brain power by energizing key nerves with micro-pulses of electricity. Once it becomes practical, someone wearing a tiny electrode or a special appliance while they study might become fluent in a new language in months instead of years.

The role of the vagus nerve
Researchers have targeted the vagus nerve, which runs from the neck to the abdomen and helps control mood, immune responses, digestion and heart rate, and the trigeminal nerve, which transmits sensory information to the face and jaw.

A trickle of electrical current applied to these critical nerve fibers can spark the release of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as acetylcholine, dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, that strengthen synaptic connections to make learning more efficient, scientists researching the technique say. These can enhance our ability to pay attention, detect and understand patterns, remember instructions, and organize new information.


Treating injury or ailments
According to Justin Williams, a Darpa-funded neuro-engineer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is studying how nerve stimulation can impact learning,  if we can make these treatments less and less invasive while making sure we are engaging the nerves, we can start to move beyond just doing this for people who have injury or ailments.


Gaming the Brain
Jan L. Plass, an expert on digital learning at New York University and co-author of “Handbook of Game-based Learning,” sees the future of cognitive enhancement in a flurry of smashed avocados, a hungry octopus and a flock of fickle aliens.   These are all characters in three experimental mobile games that Dr. Plass is creating with developmental psychologists, neuroscientists and education specialists at NYU, City University of New York and the University of California at Santa Barbara.


“The games are based on our understanding of how the brain works”
Meant for children aged four and older, the free games are designed to improve cognitive skills, including working memory, concentration and mental flexibility. They are a product of a four-year project funded by the Education Department. The research that went into their design effectiveness is documented in eight peer-reviewed scientific papers.

The games, though, are still an experiment in progress. To determine whether or not they actually do improve brain functions, the scientists plan to assess them by testing children before and after playing the games using a standard set of cognitive tests developed by the National Institutes of Health.


Monitoring Pupils
Researchers are eyeing the brain for a real-time readout of boredom, inattention, focus and concentration.

Monitoring Brain Chemistry
Scientists at Baylor College of Medicine can detect minute changes in the muscles that dilate the pupil of the eye by using a camera with infrared and ultraviolet filters. It is a noninvasive and painless way to monitor brain chemistry in an effort to one day improve learning conditions on demand.

Pupil-based biosensor
Almost any system designed to improve memory, attention or other neural learning states needs a way to track neurotransmitters inside the brain. This pupil-based biosensor promises to offer critical feedback for experimental devices meant to prime for new knowledge, like those designed to energize the vagus and trigeminal nerves with micro-pulses of electricity. So far, the pupil sensor experiments have been limited to studies with laboratory animals and a few volunteers with severe neurocognitive disabilities.   Baylor neuroscientist Matthew James McGinley, who is researching the pupil-based biosensor, says that, if you had a really sensitive readout of the dynamics of the pupil, you could have a measurement of whether people are paying attention or engaged.  When perfected, this sensor could be incorporated into contact lenses or virtual reality goggles, the scientists say. In many labs, bioengineers are already working on experimental contact lenses that can monitor a wearer’s biomarkers and health indicators.


We hope you have enjoyed our writeup of the article “How To Get Smarter:  Start with the Brain Itself”.  We would love to hear your thoughts about it, so please leave us a comment on the website.


Brain games can be found under the heading “Brain Games”, by clicking any of the published blogs in the pages listed for the following categories:
“Brain Games For Children”
“Brain Games for Adults”
“Brain Games for Seniors”
“Advanced Brain Training”
“Optimal Brain Health”

In addition, if you want to search for a particular blog, enter its title in the Search bar in the blog roll which appears during blog viewing.



Comments (2) on "How To Get Smarter: Start With The Brain Itself"

  1. There is a lot going on in this field. I have been researching about what Elon Musk has been doing through Neuralink. And I even saw a live stream some time ago in which he inserted a chip into a pigs brain. There are many advantages to having this type of technology around. But it’s also scary if it lands into the hands of people that want to take advantage of others.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Abel.  Yes, I agree that this should definitely not get into the hands of people who want to take advantage of others, but think of the benefits for humanity that this type of research can yield!

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