Blog: Back to Basics—What is Neurotechnology?

By
Emily Einhorn
February 27, 2020

The word “neurotechnology” is being dropped with increasing frequency in the science and tech community. Between the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2016, the use of the word “neurotechnology” within scientific papers increased 7 fold. The neurotechnology industry has grown to a 9 billion market valuation with a healthy 15% growth rate predicted in the coming decade. But how is neurotechnology really defined? What can it do and what are its limits? What are the true functions and formats of the neurotechnologies behind all the tech buzz hype? 

Neurotechnology has been defined as “the set of methods and instruments that allow a direct connection between technical devices and the nervous system” (Fuentes, Hidalgo, & Yuste, 2019) or any technology that directly interfaces with the functioning of the brain. These technologies take on a variety of forms and functions. They may, for instance, be developed as bio-chemical injections or physical devices; they may be applied noninvasively as headbands or implanted surgically into the skull; they may be used to alter neurological function, to monitor neurological function, or to extend neurological function to control external devices. 

Yet, these technical descriptions do not always provide a clear understanding of how neurotechnologies are used in practice. Without a strong public understanding of what neurotechnologies are and what they can do, it becomes difficult to have an inclusive discussion about their risks, benefits, and potential impacts on society. To follow is a look at the neurotechnologies that exist today, which we have categorized by three different functions: those that alter, extend, and monitor brain function.  

Altering Brain Function

Neurotechnologies can be used to regulate certain aspects of brain function. A popular neurotechnological method that alters brain activity is deep brain stimulation (DBS). DBS is most commonly applied as a treatment for Parkinson’s Disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects movement.  A device is implanted beneath the skull and is connected to an external device used to modulate the treatment. The device delivers electrical currents to stimulate the connection between the neurons that control motor function, or body movements. This can help reduce tremors and stiffness usually associated with Parkinsons. Other methods to alter brain function have been marketed for nonmedical purposes. Externally wearable neurotechnologies, such as the Oasis Pro device, use low level electrical currents to  modulate mood, improve sleep, or enhance focus. The effectiveness of these mass marketed technologies remain under some review. 

Current neurology research suggests that more direct manipulation of brain activity will be possible in the future. In Rafael Yuste's Lab at Columbia University, scientists successfully compelled mice to perform a licking behavior by using a neurotechnology mechanism that controls the activation of specific brain cells. With this technology, researchers "wrote" a specific neural code and fed it into a mouse’s brain, thus altering its behavior in predicted ways. While there is no neurotechnology equivalent for human brains as of yet, this experiment indicates that brain function can be altered with extremely high precision. This  enables elements of a subject’s brain activity and resulting behaviors  to be controlled externally by another entity.

Extending Brain Function 

This next type of neurotechnology works in reverse of the previous category. Rather than using a neurotechnology device to control the brain function of a subject, this category of neurotechnology enables brain function to control an external device. For example, at Brown Institute for Brain Science, a parapalegic woman was able to control the movement of a robotic arm by thinking about the action she wished to accomplish. Her neural activity directed the robotic arm to pick up a cup of coffee and lift it to her mouth for a sip. There are a wide variety of external devices that  could potentially be controlled through a neurotechnology including a prosthetic limb, the mouse of a computer, or the actions of a video game character. Many neurotechnologies are used by individuals without speech to answer questions by mentally directing a computer mouse at  “yes” or “no". 

Brain activity within one subject can even be extended to connect with other individuals. Scientists at Rice University embarked on a project in 2019 to facilitate human-to-human brain connections. This group of scientists are developing wearable neurotechnology with the capability to transfer visual images from one subject to another at the speed of thought. This means the device will have to decode neural activity from one subject’s mind and transfer it into the visual cortex of another subject’s mind within one twentieth of a second. 

Monitoring Brain Function

In addition to altering and extending brain function, neurotechnologies can monitor brain activity. These technologies do not require active thinking to guide an external device and they do not alter the functioning of the brain. Rather, they passively monitor brain function and record data, which can be analyzed to provide insights into brain activity. An example of this type of neurotechnology are EEG headbands, which can extract various cognitive insights by tracking the electrical  impulses that brain cells use to communicate with one another. This variety of neurotechnology was controversially used within some schools to monitor student’s attentiveness. Depending on the subject’s level of focus, a different color lights up on the head band. While a blue light indicates that the wearer is distracted, a red light means they are focused. In addition to monitoring students’ focus level, these headbands also collect brain data for analysis. BrainCo, the Massachusetts based company that produces these devices has a secondary mission: to build a massive database of brain data collected through their devices, then to synthesize that data into valuable information about the human brain. 

A variety of wearable brain monitoring neurotechnologies are sold on consumer markets. Companies like Emotiv and Neurable sell headbands that can record brain activity with EEG. Both of these companies also produce software programs that enable individuals to analyze their own brain data. Technologies like this, which are used to monitor brain activity and collect brain data are the most common and accessible neurotechnologies today.

Neurotechnology, AI, and Beyond

The above examples are only the beginning of neurotechnology’s potential. In the years to come, neurotechnological capabilities across all three categories will be further enhanced by the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI). As AI becomes increasingly popular within the realms of science and technology, some neurotechnologies are beginning to utilize machine intelligence to expedite certain processes. In cases where neurotechnology is used to alter brain function, implanted devices can be imbued with semi autonomous attributes that could, for example, perceive a downturn in mood and consequently trigger an electrical stimulation treatment independently. When neurotechnology is used to extend the brain’s control to an external device, AI can help reduce the lag between the subject thinking of an action and the action being performed. In such instances, predictive algorithms could allow the device to intuit the intentions of the subject. 

These kinds of technologies are still in their early stages, but are on the path to becoming realities within the next few decades. More imminently, AI can be used to comb through the vast amounts of data generated from the brain activity recorded by neurotechnologies. The use of AI within these contexts has the potential to glean endless insights about the inner workings of the mind;  from low level inferences about personality, to high level inferences about intentions and consciousness, to population-wide insights about human behavior.

Each of these neurotechnology categories, particularly when paired with AI, bring new potentials for medical advancement and increased self-understanding for humanity. Further developments within neurotechnology and AI will bring big scientific and societal changes; changes that certainly merit public consideration and input. Broadening civic understanding of these critical topics is the first step towards responsible and inclusive innovation.