Neurotech@Davis
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Neurotech@Davis

Neurodiversity: Are We All On The Same Wavelength?

100 Billion Neurons. Trillions of Synapses. All in One Brain.

What’s normal when it comes to the brain? The short answer: it’s hard to say.

Although every human brain shares a common physical architecture, each individual brain has its own unique wiring of neurons and synapses shaped by our thoughts, feelings and behavior. With the sheer number of possible combinations between the neurons and the synapses, it is no surprise that no two brains are alike.

The Trend in Neuroscience and Psychology

Although decades of research have yielded important discoveries in both of these fields, one major piece of criticism most critics have is that most researchers and subjects are W.E.I.R.D (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic). In fact, over 75% of cognitive neuroscience research has been conducted in the U.S. or Europe, with many of the subjects being university students.

In addition, like most areas of science, it is no secret that neuroscience and psychology have traditionally been male-dominated fields. While this has been changing lately, it has certainly affected the data that has been collected, leaving women severely underrepresented. Moreover, a large percentage of studies don’t even report the gender of their subjects, especially when it comes to experiments involving mice or rats, so even if females were included in the pool of participants, it is impossible to quantify their proportion relative to their male counterparts.

While there is no robust finding in the difference between male and female brains, a recent study suggested that the frontal lobes, which are involved in planning and decision making, are larger in females while areas such as the parietal lobe and amygdala, (spatial processing and fear/anger respectively), are larger in males.

That’s not to say that women make better decisions and men are better at navigating and are more aggressive, but in order to find out what these differences mean, we need a representative sample to begin with!

From a global perspective, it’s easy to see why such a narrow population could lead to problems. Probing into the neurobiology and cognitive functions of just one subset of the populations will inevitably build biases not only in our understanding of the brain, but also the kinds of treatments and products that we build.

The Solution

We need to look at the brains of all kinds of people. Children. Women. Those with different sexual orientations. People in the Middle East, Asian, Africa, and Latin America. You get the gist…

Unfortunately, many of the research labs are not located in those regions, and they not are not the most accessible to that demographic.

Sapien Labs — Neurodiversity Brain Project

Sapien Labs is a neurotech company that aims to build the most comprehensive database of the brain, collecting data from over 40,000 individuals across 4 different continents using EEG recordings and information about demographics, lifestyle, and technology use.

Adopting the Emotiv EEG headset, Sapien Labs is able to deploy their studies to the most remote corners of the world, even those that don’t have access to running water or electricity. This relatively low-cost, dry-electrode system is completely wireless and bluetooth enabled, mitigating a lot of the challenges researches would typically face when conducting studies in rural areas.

Moreover, with such equipment, Sapien Labs doesn’t need to rely on their personnel to travel the world collecting data. The Neurolab Program, launched by Sapien Labs as part of the Human Brain Diversity Project, equips researchers in Asian, Africa and Latin America who are working in adjacent fields such as public health and nutrition with necessary tools and training to contribute to the project by running EEG studies.

The Ultimate Goal

Sapien Labs aims to take all of this data that they collect over the next five years and compile it into a neuro-database of sorts. Because this data is only useful if it can be accessed by multiple researchers across the world, Sapien Labs intends to make this database open-source as well.

Academia is notorious for being rigid with technology. Different scientists use different platforms and software to analyze their data, making cross-platform collaboration impossible. As a result, there is a whole trove of research and data that is just sitting there because its just technologically compatible with what other labs are doing.

With an open-source, central database that consists of EEG recordings from over 40,000 brains, the “democratization” of neuroscience data could yield new insights and findings that might challenge our initial understandings shaped by a narrow subject population.

Concerns Regarding Privacy

Making a database that is so extensive openly accessible to the public can come with big risks, especially since the brain is such an intimate organ. It’s practically the seat of our identity. Even leaving out personally identifiable details can leave individuals at risk of being identified, and I am yet to see a solution that addresses all of these concerns be implemented.

However, I think a global platform for analysis and data collection is a step in the right direction. By collecting data from all over the world and making it available online in a central database, we would be opening the doors to a whole new method of looking at the human brain, one that might allow us to better understand our differences and build a comprehensive prototypical model.

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