The human brain is the most complex system in the known universe. It is imbued with enormous potential that we have yet to fully understand or to harness. But we’re making progress, for many good reasons.
By studying how the human brain functions and how it responds to stimuli, we can potentially train our minds for optimal performance and, perhaps, overcome physical disabilities or detect neurological abnormalities for treatment. We stand now on the cusp of what has been called ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’, a revolution that is growing out of the integration of the physical, digital and biological realms. The ability to directly connect electronic devices to the human organism in order to affect physical objects around us has the potential to drive change forward at an exponentially increasing pace. Our understanding of our limitations will be shattered, and new vistas will open up, as we explore the possibilities that arise when we bring minds, machines, and the material world together.
Put simply, we stand to reap enormous benefits if we can enlighten ourselves as to why and how we think and feel – to improve how we interact with and experience the world around us.
Today, innumerable such efforts proceed in specialised laboratories around the world, with a rather limited number of research subjects. But everyone’s brain is unique and changing in unique ways. The term neuroplasticity means that our brains change shape and function based on personal biological factors as well as our individual experiences in life. So we’re likely to gain commensurately greater insights from a broader participation in such studies.
And that’s where brain wearables come into the picture.
Enter: brain wearables
A market for brain wearables has promised to put neurotechnology into the hands of ordinary people. This is important because of the uniqueness of every brain; the greater the sample, the more robust the insights it yields.
Today these devices fall into two main categories. One uses electroencephalograms (EEGs) – essentially, surface brain wave activity – in a non-invasive, read-only mode, which can provide data on the wearer’s mental and emotional state. The other basic approach relies on transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), which sends electrical signals to the brain for neuro-priming, which is intended to promote “hyper-learning.”
I work in the EEG-related field of brain wearables, which offer a means to further our understanding of the human brain in a useful form factor and at a reasonable price point.
We are using brain wearables to conduct longitudinal studies over time in more than 120 countries to discern how different stimuli and situations affect different brains, helping us understand, for instance, how different people react to handling stress or how we can assist them in achieving optimal performance.
In practical terms, understanding and encouraging high performance is one focus of our work, which would have obvious benefits for athletes, soldiers, professionals, artists – nearly everyone, really. And the broadest possible application would be to gain a better understanding of how various stimuli – and our own, often very individual responses – affect our thoughts and feelings. The end result could be to inform an improved self-awareness and a better understanding of ourselves to mitigate irrational or unproductive behaviour.
Early detection possible
Ultimately, those of us in the brain wearables field would like to make progress on the early detection of neurological issues and overall brain health.
One in three people, of the more than seven billion on Earth, are affected by brain-related illnesses, including depression, anxiety, dementia, autism, attention-deficit disorder (ADD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), stroke or trauma. Apart from widespread human suffering, these disorders are estimated to cost the global economy some $2 trillion per year. In the U.S., specifically, an aging population has the potential for extended lives, for which quality-of-life will require healthy brains.
Brain health is also considered a key factor in many other bioinformatics advances. I think of it as a quintessential 21st century issue.
Staying ahead of potential pitfalls
Though I’m positively buoyant about the known and potential benefits of brain wearables, it is also our duty to be vigilant about the potential risks.
Data privacy and security are perennial concerns for everyone. These concerns are heightened when personal health-related matters are at stake. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) provides legal protections and it is up to technologists to ensure that data privacy and security protections are state of the art.
Currently we are careful to apply significant effort and care to user consent issues for participation in studies we conduct. The critical issue, in my view, is preserving individual choice and the personal integrity of every individual.
I have few real concerns at this stage, because “wearables” are just that; you can put them on or take them off and anonymising data in studies is standard practice. But if brain wearables or related technologies were to become embedded in the human body, there’s an obvious risk of abuse. Today, arguably, our thoughts and feelings are our own, but we know that chemical reactions govern these and thus they could be manipulated, leading to a loss of individuality.
Democratisation of technology
Our approach is the opposite of a dystopian use of brain monitoring technology. Our philosophy is to democratize technology and make tools such as brain wearables more affordable, easier to use. Our technology platform is based on open access software (e.g., extensible APIs), aimed at both broad uptake (if the market finds them useful), and the broadest possible base of innovation to benefit all. We want to avoid creating another aspect of a digital divide, with brain wearables available only to a few who can afford them. We believe this approach is in step with society’s shared values.
We work with partners across many domains and more than 120 countries, an open acknowledgement that we don’t have all the answers. The direction that brain wearables take is not up to us as pioneers in the field. It’s an open conversation. We simply want to position the technology and raise awareness for the greatest breadth and depth of potential contributions to the field. The more participants in brain wearable trials the more we learn about the behavior of the human brain and ways in which its health and optimal use can be encouraged.
Widespread adoption is the crux of our success. A broad and diverse dialogue on the issues of brain health and technology will enable the enhancement of healthy brains and detect signs of cognitive decline and disorders.