7 remarkable technologies shaping the future of the brain

The brain is the most enigmatic structure in the universe. But every now and then, the brain malfunctions. And just like Humpty Dumpty, we struggle to put it back together again…at least not to its previous level of complex organisation. But we are remarkably ingenious creatures, obviously because we possess great brains, and we are ever-inventing brilliant schemes to fix the brain (or at least our brains are). And we, or our brains, often conjure up unthinkable technologies (pardon the intended pun!) Over the years this blog has tried to keep up with these improbable schemes, and you can check the veracity of this claim by looking up two of my very old blog posts on this:

6 exciting neuroscience discoveries that will shape neurology

 10 remarkable breakthroughs that will change neurology.

But the developments keep rolling in, so here are 7 remarkable technologies shaping the future of the brain.

Artificial neurones

What if you could just replace your damaged nerves with spare neurones-just as you would replace a faulty spark plug in your car (OK, wrong analogy for many people I know). Well, this may not be a fantasy for too long. This comes from a piece in Popular Science titled Artificial neurones could replace some real ones in your brain. The article says “Swedish researchers have developed a synthetic neuron that is able to communicate chemically with organic neurones, which could change the neural pathways and better treat neurological disorders”. This is just understandable enough for most people and I will go no further. But if you desire the hard science version, with references to biomimetic neurones, (or is it neurons?), you may check out the original study in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics ; it does come with a slightly shorter and less convoluted, but totally undecipherable title, An organic electronic biomimetic neuron enables auto-regulated neuromodulation. I will stick to the Popular Science version.

Brain 22. Affen Aljfe on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/142299342@N06/32794072623 http://www.modup.net/

Bionic memory

One major disorder everyone fears is dementia. The concept of forgetting, not just your experiences but family, friends, and eventually yourself, is frightening. But what if you could rely on an electronic memory. A start in this direction was a report that researchers have built a nano memory cell that mimics the way humans lay down memory. At 10,000 sizes smaller than a human hair, such an external memory will surely prove useful. But just take a breath and imagine what it will be like to be incapable of forgetting! Solomon Shereshevsky on my mind. Some way to go yet. This story is sourced from the website Mashable but the research itself is published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials with the, again, cryptic title Donor‐induced performance tuning of amorphous SrTiO3 memristive nanodevices: multistate resistive switching and mechanical tunability. Stick to the translated version in Mashable.

Artificial-intelligence-503593_1920. Many Wonderful Artists on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/alansimpsonme/34715802120

Memory implants

Most people do not want extraordinary memories and would just want to access the ones they have laid down. Some of these are however buried so deep in the crypts of their brains, they have become inaccessible. Again, technology may have something to promise them. And this comes in the form of a memory boosting brain implant. This device, developed by US Defence scientists, can detect how we retrieve memory, and predict when this will fail, and kick in to action to save the day. A sort of brain pacemaker you may say. The potential benefit is in head injury, but we can all do with a little help every now and then, when the ‘uhms’ and the ‘aahs’ kick in. This piece comes from Science Alert but the original article is on the website of the Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), and it is titled Targeted Electrical Stimulation of the Brain Shows Promise as a Memory Aid. Not a bad one this time.

Machine Learning & Artificial Intelligence. Mike MacKenzie on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikemacmarketing/42271822770 www.vpnsrus.com

Neural prosthetics

Another technology promising to help memory is neural prosthetics. These serve to directly send our short-term memories into long-term storage, bypassing the hippocampus when it is too defective to do the job properly. This comes from a piece in Science Daily titled Scientists to bypass brain damage by re-encoding memories. What the prosthesis does is “to bypass a damaged hippocampal section and provide the next region with the correctly translated memory”. In effect it will make the hippocampus redundant. I’m sure the hippocampus does other things apart from encode memories… but we don’t want to think of that now.

Artificial Intelligence – Resembling Human Brain. Deepak Pal on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/158301585@N08/43267970922

Thought-evoked movements

Imagine being able to move a robotic limb by just thinking about it. No, not telepathy, but with your brain wired to the limb. This is what a prosthetic technology promises for people with brain damage who are unable to move. The prosthetic is implanted in the part of the brain that initiates our intention to move. The source for this story comes from USC News, and it is titled Neural prosthetic device yields fluid motions by robotic arm. In the example cited in the piece, the surgeons “implanted a pair of small electrode arrays in two parts of the posterior parietal cortex-one that controls reach and another that controls grasp“. You have to see the robotic arm in action. Sci-fi is becoming reality in a brain lab near you soon.

3D Brain Sculpture STL model. Misanthropic one on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/22902505@N05/14780918556

Behavioural remote control

Press a button and alter behaviour. Exciting and scary at the same time. But this is what chemogenetics promises, or threatens, depending on your point of view. This one comes from a piece on the website Neuroscience News titled Chemogenetics technique turns mouse behaviour on and off. The technique “achieves remote control by introducing a synthetic brain chemical messenger system that integrates with the workings of naturally-occurring systems”. ‘Integrate’ feels a tad extreme, almost like being assimilated by the Borg. But I suppose it will be no worse than the antipsychotics and sedatives we currently use to control the behaviour of people with schizophrenia and addictive disorders. It surely looks like it has potential, at least in mice for now.

artificial-intelligence-2167835_1280. Many Wonderful Artisits on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/alansimpsonme/34752491210

Cognitive enhancement

This technology goes beyond just increasing the ability to preserve or retrieve memory. It sets out to make the brain smarter. This piece comes from The Atlantic and is titled Why cognitive enhancement is in your future (and your past). The technology is transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) of the deeper reaches of the brain, using electrodes to send small and painless electrical currents. The currents are thought to increase neuroplasticity, and this enables neurons (or perhaps neurones?) to form the connections necessary for learning.

Brains. Neil Conway on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/neilconway/3792906411

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It is mind-boggling enough just thinking that people out there are thinking of stuff like these! But it is equally reassuring that the future of the brain is bright.

Why does dystonia fascinate and challenge neurology?

Dystonia is probably the most nebulous of neurological terms. Neurologists use the term for a vast array of neurological diseases. Dystonia also crops up as part of many complex neurological syndromes. Worse still, neurologists also use the name dystonia as a symptom. All quite confusing and perplexing for the lay observer.

Public Domain, Link
Public Domain, Link

No wonder dystonia defies simple definitions. Take the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) definition which labels dystonia as “a disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions that cause slow repetitive movements or abnormal postures“. Then compare it with the NHS Choices definition which sees dystonia as “a medical term for a range of movement disorders that cause muscle spasms and contractions“. We must accept the flexibility of dystonia as both a disorder, and a range of disorders. The defining feature of dystonia however is simple enough-abnormal muscle postures and contractions.

By Katomin at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
By Katomin at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The complexity in the definition is just a tip of the iceberg of the things that neurologists find fascinating about dystonia. Here are 5 big reasons why dystonia excites and challenges neurologists.

1. Dystonia is a very visible disorder

Rogers Hartmann at TEDxSMU from tedxsmu on Vimeo.

The abnormal postures that typify dystonia are observable, and the neurologist can describe and define the disorder (or disorders!). This is not the case with many neurological disorders such as migraine, which rely entirely on a history, or epilepsy, which rely heavily on eyewitness accounts. The abnormal postures in dystonia are often very dramatic, and sometimes literally defy description. To help ‘decode’ complex dystonia, neurologists often make video recordings of their patients and send to dystonia experts. And dystonia experts present their own video recordings at neurology conferences, to teach the less initiated of course, but also to flaunt their well-earned expertise.

2. Dystonia is both hereditary and acquired

Von James Heilman, MD - Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9445214
Von James Heilman, MDEigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9445214

Many types of dystonia are hereditary. Myoclonus-dystonia and dopa-responsive dystonia (DRD) for example are caused by well-defined genetic mutations. Dystonia is however also frequently acquired, for example as an adverse effect of antidepressant, antipsychotic, and anti-epileptic drugs. Neurologists go to great lengths to sort out what type of dystonia their patients have, bristling with anticipation that the next genetic blood test they send off will clinch the diagnosis. It doesn’t seem to matter that this is often hope trumping experience.

3. Dystonia manifests in a multitude of ways

By Henry Vandyke Carter - Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See "Book" section below)Bartleby.com: Gray's Anatomy, Plate 1194, Public Domain, Link
By Henry Vandyke CarterHenry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See “Book” section below)Bartleby.com: Gray’s Anatomy, Plate 1194, Public Domain, Link

Dystonia may be localised such as with blepharospasm (excessive eyelid twitching), hemifacial spasm, Meige’s syndrome, and cervical dystonia (torticollis). At the same time, dystonia may be generalised as in Wilson’s disease, neuroferritinopathy, and neuroacanthocytosis. Dystonic symptoms often manifest spontaneously, but they may only be task-specific such as in writers cramp and musician’s dystonia. A further way dystonia crops up is as an ally of other movement disorders, as we see with dystonic tremor.

4. Dystonia is a rapidly evolving field

Bootstrap DNA by Charles Jencks, 2003. Mira66 on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/21804434@N02/3707633630
Bootstrap DNA by Charles Jencks, 2003. Mira66 on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/21804434@N02/3707633630

Unlike some neurological specialities that are stuck with age-old diseases, dystonia experts regularly describe new dystonia syndromes and genetic mutations, filling up an already crowded taxonomy. An example is the ever-expanding genetic mutations that cause primary dystonia, starting from DYT 1 to DYT 21, and still counting. The field of non-genetic dystonia is also expanding with new disorders such as Watchmaker’s dystonia. Well-established dystonia syndromes also surprise neurologists by manifesting in completely unexpected ways. Recent examples of these new phenotypes are foot drop dystonia resulting from parkin (PARK2) mutation. Neurologists also get excited when they come across known, but rare, presentations of dystonic syndromes such as this recent report on feeding dystonia in chorea-acanthocytosis. 

5. Treatments of dystonia are proliferating

Drugs. Daniel Foster on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/danielfoster/15097483625
Drugs. Daniel Foster on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/danielfoster/15097483625

Just as the types of dystonia are burgeoning, so are the treatments. Some interventions are novel, and some have a feel of ‘back to the future’. A few recent examples are treatment of isolated dystonia with zolpidem and selective peripheral denervation for cervical dystonia. Enough to keep the dystonia researchers busy, and to keep their patients feeling valued. Old school treatment such as botulinum toxin however maintain their pride of place. 

Human Genome. Richard Ricciardi on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ricricciardi/11622986115
Human Genome. Richard Ricciardi on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ricricciardi/11622986115

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For more on dystonia syndromes and treatment, check out:

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Dystonia is a hydra; why not get a concise handle by exploring the dystonia topics in neurochecklists  

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