Neurostimulation Caps: “Fitbit For Your Brain”
The power of Sherbit depends on the quality of information it has available to it — so the potential uses of the platform will expand as ‘wearable’ technologies become more capable and widespread. Many people don’t realize that their phone already shares many of the functions of a Fitbit, so they’ll be able to immediately see a lot of interesting fitness tracking data when they download the Sherbit beta. But as more dimensions of our lives are gradually connected to the internet, we will be able to discover more penetrating insights into our habits and behaviors; toward this end, Barcelona-based Neuroelectrics is developing a ‘smart cap’ that promises to be a “Fitbit for your brain.”
Last month, Neuroelectrics was named winner of the Bupa Startup Stage at Wired Health 2015 — the company claimed that their ‘Neuroelectrics Cap’ can help treat patients suffering from a wide range of neurological conditions, from stroke recovery to epilepsy and severe depression. The smart caps are equipped with accelerometers and wireless sensors for recording EEG — electroencephalography — a method of recording the electrical activity of the brain by attaching small electrodes to the scalp. Billions of neurons maintain the brain’s electrical charge — these neurons are ‘polarized’ (charged) by proteins that pump ions across the neurons’ membranes. Similar charges repel each other; when many ions are pushed out of many neurons at once, a cascade of ions is pushed out of neighboring neurons, propagating a wave. When the wave of ions reaches the electrodes, they push or pull electrons on the metal: EEG measures the resulting change in voltage in the metal, generating an oscillating waveform (like this one). By observing the EEG signal, physicians can monitor patients with epilepsy or track the depth of anesthesia — and researchers can learn if there are biological similarities between people diagnosed with ADHD, or gain deeper insight into different phases of sleep.
Neuroelectrics’ WIRED Health Talk
The Neuroelectrics Cap isn’t the only “home” EEG system; Interaxon’s Muse is a “brain-sensing headband” with similar sensors, combined with ‘brain training’ software for improving focus and concentration. But in comparison to the Muse’s ‘passive’ sensors, Neuroelectrics’ “Fitbit” moniker is a bit disingenuous; the Neuroelectrics Cap is not just a ‘tracker’ — its electrodes are ‘active,’ designed to ‘stimulate’ nerve membranes in the brain. The theory behind “transcranial direct current stimulation” (tDCS) is that a weak direct current alters the nerve membranes’ electrical potential; depending on the polarity of the current, it is easier or harder for neurons in a circuit to fire. By positioning the electrodes in specific arrangements (called “montages“) and at particular currents, some researchers claim that tDCS can treat depression and autism, cure addictions, accelerate recovery from brain injury, and perform other lesser miracles, like sharpening memory, reasoning, and motor skills. The Neuroelectrics website highlights two specific use cases: treating neuropathic pain caused by a lesion or disease of the nervous system, and improving mathematical abilities in children with dyscalculia.
So, how does it work? Well, nobody really knows. In an interview with the Economist, Felipe Fregni, director of the Laboratory of Neuromodulation at Harvard Medical School, said: “The more science you know, the more confused you can become of what really is the effect of tDCS.” In an Oxford University study last year, researchers set up two groups — one of people who were confident in their ability to solve mathematical problems, and another of people who were anxious and uncertain in dealing with numbers. When treated with tDCS — exposed to constant, low current hundreds of times weaker than electroconvulsive shocks — the ‘anxious’ group improved their reaction time and indicated lower levels of stress. However, with the same treatment, the ‘confident’ group had longer reaction times, and showed no reduction in stress. Said Dr. Roi Cohen Kadosh, a Neuroelectrics advisor who led the Oxford study, “If you can get exactly the opposite results with a different population, that shows DIY brain hackers and companies marketing stimulation to improve gaming or other abilities are not on the right track. We need to understand how the brain works in different people.”
Because of the incredible diversity and variation in human neurology, it is unclear whether a simple ‘one-size-fits-all’ consumer option for ‘brain hacking’ is realistic today. Dr. Kadosh’s comments point to the fact that, as the Economist put it, “the technology [may] look as though it is doing nothing when in fact it has real but opposing effects in different people.” Last year, Jared Horvath, a neuroscientist at the University of Melbourne, published a meta-analysis of two hundred tDCS studies that were effectively replicated using control groups; he found that, of the papers which claimed to have discovered beneficial effects on problem solving, learning, memory, arithmetic, and so on, tDCS had no significant effect on any of these outcomes. Horvath pointed out that many papers measured twenty or more potential ‘positive’ outcomes of brain stimulation, but only demonstrated a weak correlation on one or two outcomes: “But in the title and abstract, that’s all they talk about. No one mentions the tons of effects that tDCS didn’t have an impact on but that technically it should have if it is doing what the researcher thinks it is.” And if the purported benefits of tDCS can persist for weeks, then there may be other, less-beneficial, long-term effects that are currently unknown. Users may place electrodes incorrectly, stimulating the wrong part of their brain — or they may reverse the polarity of the current, achieving the opposite outcome of what they intended. Meanwhile, there remain unanswered questions about how brain stimulation platforms will be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and similar agencies.
In any case, it’s clear we still don’t know enough about the brain to make fair characterizations about so-called ‘brain hacking’ and its future implications. Safe and unobtrusive ‘consumer’ EEG devices could provide troves of useful data for clinical researchers and the ‘Quantified Self’ community — and they have already demonstrated promising applications in gaming and brain-computer interfaces. However, as to be expected, these devices will also raise major privacy and security concerns: in a recent study presented at the USENIX Security Symposium, researchers were able to deduce the digits of PIN numbers, birth months, and areas of residence from EEG device-wearing test subjects, by displaying ‘trigger’ images of ATM machines, debit cards, people, and maps. Cheap EEG devices like Emotiv and Neurosky have ‘app stores’ where users can download third-party applications that use the device API to access the raw EEG signal — the security researchers asked, not unreasonably, whether “a potential malicious attacker could write ‘brain spyware’ to harvest private information from the user” during an on-boarding or ‘calibration’ process. Mario Frank, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley, suggested that in five to ten years these devices may be commonplace in many homes — to remotely control household electronics with the mind, for example. We’re not quite there yet, but you can be sure that secure access and control of your data will remain a key issue in the future.
Originally published at www.sherbit.io.