Neurotech@Davis
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Neurotech@Davis

Neurotech 2.0: A Closer Look at Insai’s Neuromodulation Headband

Co-written by Sherin Lajevardi and Mateo Pitkin

You are taking an exam when you suddenly stumble upon a problem that you have no idea how to solve. You sit and stare at the paper as your mind races through all the possible formulas you have learned throughout the quarter until you finally remember the exact one you need. You may not know it, but your working memory played a key role in your ability to successfully retrieve the formula needed to solve this problem. Working memory is an essential part of our everyday lives, allowing us to recall information and solve complex problems. Formally, working memory is defined as the brain’s limited storage unit, retaining information for a short period of time while carrying out a mental operation or task; it’s what allows us to hold on to information just long enough for us to complete a short-term task.

What is working memory?

According to the Baddeley-Hitch model, working memory is often divided into 3 main components: the central executive, visuospatial sketchpad, and the phonological loop. To begin with, the central executive serves as a main command center and directs information to the visuospatial sketchpad and phonological loop subsystems. Similar to the ways in which a CEO manages a company, the central executive takes in information from various sources and decides which information is relevant and which is not. This allows the working memory to prioritize certain stimuli over others.

The next component of working memory is the visuospatial sketchpad. The visuospatial sketchpad plays a salient role in assessing the visual and spatial information in our environment. In other words, the visuospatial sketchpad allows our brain to track where we are with respect to other objects and visualize images in our minds.

The last component of working memory is the phonological loop which can be broken up into the phonological store and the articulatory control process. For example, when you are sitting in class and taking notes you often remember the last few words spoken by your professor and write these down on your paper. After a few seconds the words fade from your memory as your brain allows for new words to be processed and stored. This is your phonological store at play. On the other hand, your ability to rehearse and store this verbal information is due in part by an articulatory control process which acts as an inner voice that repeats and rehearses information from the phonological store. Overall, the 3 main components of working memory tie together to allow us to recall facts, solve complex problems, and retrieve information from our minds when needed.

Where is working memory represented in the brain?

Recognizing the intricacies of the human brain network has led to extensive scientific research looking at the location and physiology of where working memory actively takes place. It has been widely established that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the region in which working memory’s network primarily resided. According to Lara et. al (2015), single neurons within the PFC “maintain representations of task-relevant stimuli in working memory.” Lara et. al alluded to multiple studies in which, “subjects hold a stimulus across a delay lasting up to several seconds. Persistent elevated activity in the PFC has been observed in animal models as well as in humans performing these tasks.” Given many recent technological advancements, other interpretations of previously established evidence has been published pointing to the fact that the “ delay period activity in the PFC might be better understood not as a signature of memory storage per se, but as a top down signal that influences posterior sensory areas where the actual working memory representations are maintained.” This reveals that even though we have the empirical evidence, scientists today, are still fine-tuning and re-interpreting such findings; as in all science, nothing is definitive until it is significantly reliable and valid.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has served as a clinical research tool in both mapping brain area functions and modulating the neural processes within such functions. More specifically, TMS can directly modulate working memory while completing tasks that engage the PFC. TMS, being very safe and non-invasive, allows a researcher to now see the direct effects of stimulation to a given brain region, in this case the PFC. For example, “Koch et al. (2005) used a repetitive TMS (rTMS) approach to disambiguate the spatial distribution and reciprocal interactions of different regions of the parieto-frontal network in healthy human participants performing a spatial working memory task.” Koch stated, “... Cognitive coordination in tasks requiring integration of visual and spatial information may be mediated by functional coupling between parietal and frontal regions…” Koch et. al is only one of the many instances in which TMS has allowed for neuroscientists, neurophysiologists, and psychologists to under the underlying brain mechanisms which allow for humans’ working memory to exist.

Insai’s Neuromodulation Headband

A budding neurotechnology startup, Insai, has taken the concept of working memory to a new level, using what we know about the brain to develop innovative products that leverage technological advancements to give us never seen before access to the brain. Insai’s proprietary brain-computer interface aims to leverage the science behind EEG and TMS to create a closed loop neurostimulation device that can analyze and modulate cognitive functions (i.e. working memory, attention, etc…). Our cognitive abilities reside primarily in the neocortex, organized in structural clusters interconnecting with other networks. With 20 electrodes strategically placed around the dorsolateral, prefrontal, medial temporal, and posterior parietal regions, the headband’s EEG system will be able to analyze these cognitive performances at a high temporal resolution and in real time.

Anyone who has worked with EEG data will know that acquiring high quality data is only half the solution; interpreting the data provides a host of different challenges on its own. To tackle this, Insai is currently working on its own proprietary algorithm which will use ML models to decode mental states. The implications of this are quite significant since the user would be able to see how their cognitive performance changes throughout the day and how things like stress levels and emotions affect their ability to concentrate at the task at hand. Because the human brain also has a high degree of inter-subject variability, an ML algorithm that can adapt and learn patterns that are unique to the individual opens the door to a wide range of commercial and medical applications. Fully aware of the immense potential that is packed into their sleek headband, Insai also plans to make it’s decoding library open source for developers to make their own BCIs and push the boundaries of neurotechnology.

What really distinguishes Insai from other BCIs on the market, and what’s arguably their most impressive feature, is that their headband also functions as a closed-loop neurostimulation device. This would essentially give the user both “read” and “write” access to their brain, so to speak, instead of just the former which can be commonly found in low-cost BCIs like the Muse. In other words, not only will the user be able to analyze and interpret their cognitive data in real time using both the EEG and the decoding library, but they will also be able to use TMS to induce any change or effect they wish to elicit in their cognitive performance.

As one might be able to foresee, this noninvasive way of being able to modulate the brain to improve learning, memory, focus, and attention removes biological constraints we might be facing today. Insai is currently looking to introduce their device into the Esports industry; gamers spend vast chunks of time playing games that require intense concentration and focus. Being able to recognize when fatigue is setting in and modulating those networks to increase periods of time for which focus can be held can prove to be a game-changer for these individuals, no pun intended.

Citations

Lara AH, Wallis JD. The Role of Prefrontal Cortex in Working Memory: A Mini Review. Front Syst Neurosci. 2015 Dec 18;9:173. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2015.00173. PMID: 26733825; PMCID: PMC4683174.

Morgan HM, Jackson MC, van Koningsbruggen MG, Shapiro KL, Linden DE. Frontal and parietal theta burst TMS impairs working memory for visual-spatial conjunctions. Brain Stimul. 2013 Mar;6(2):122–9. doi: 10.1016/j.brs.2012.03.001. Epub 2012 Mar 19. PMID: 22483548; PMCID: PMC3605569.

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