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Showing entries tagged behavioral therapy.  Show all entries

October 23, 2011

Plugged In: The Brain-Computer Interface


Imagine playing your favorite video game and controlling it just through thought. Sounds impossible right? Actually this technology already exists and is currently being used for therapeutic purposes. This amazing technology is called neurofeedback. It works by measuring an individual's brain waves at different states of being through the use of an EEG and then trains the brain to emulate those waves present in the desired state of the individual.

However this technology is very specific to each individual due to the fact that different people engage in different areas of their brain when they are in a particular state of being. Therefore two people who are in the same state will most likely have brain waves that are different from one another due to the difference in the neuronal circuits themselves and the way in which the neurons fire within the individual brains. Essentially the level of specificity is due to the fact that no two people think alike.

This makes it extremely important to achieve baseline measurements of brain activity for each individual. These baseline measurements are necessary in order to determine what area of the brain is active at a particular state of being and at what frequency do the brain waves in that area need to be at in order to improve that person's state of being. Another way of thinking about it is looking at these scans in order to finding the part of the brain in which the neurons are not optimally synapsing or working together. From this it can determine which brain functions need to be targeted in order to improve a particular state of being.

All of this baseline information is used to calculate the frequency range that the individual's brain waves need to be in for optimal functioning. Once that information is plugged into the computer, the individual trains their brain to work at the frequency through the use of videogames. Sensors that measure brain waves are placed on the person's head above the area of the brain that needs to show improvement. These sensors are connected to a computer that measures the brain waves and controls the game accordingly. For example, if a person achieves the determined brain wave range a space ship will go faster however if they start to get out of the range the ship slows down. If they are no where near the correct range a black fog engulfs the ship until that brain frequency is achieved again. Without this repetitive training it is impossible to effectively alter the neural synapses that dictate the state of being a person is in.

It's easy to see how this incredible technology could help people with autism, ADD, or ADHD to focus, relax, and improve their daily functioning. Not surprisingly it can also be used to help improve the concentration and functioning of people with normal brain activity as well because this technique focuses on optimizing the way in which the neurons synapse. Essentially, this technology is used to condition and train the brain to function in a particular manner.

But this begs the question, why not use this technology to brainwash people or to train soldiers? For one this technology is highly specific to each individual; not everyone has the same brain waves and neural connectivity. Another huge problem is the fact that this technology requires a participant that is willing to do the exercises to train their brain to work in this particular way. If the person isn't willing to put in the practice, their brain won't emulate the desired wave patterns and frequencies.

The only potential way in which this technology may be used for brainwashing is if a general picture of the population's brain waves could be imaged at various states of being and placed into a generic video game. The characters in the game would only move when a particular brain wave range associated with a predetermined state of being was emulated in the player. Thus the population could essentially be brainwashed if the game was engaging enough for the participant to want to play repeatedly, the fact that the player is being brainwashed is unknown to him/her, and the sensors on their head were placed above the area in which the brain waves were being altered.

For this reason neurofeedback technology is highly regulated and restricted to mainly therapeutic purposes only. So while it is possible to play basic videogames with just your mind, the ultimate gaming experience is just out of reach due to the plasticity of the human brain and the ethical questions that lie within it.

All information was taken from:
http://www.isnr.org/uploads/1995%20Abarbanel.pdf
http://www.eeginfo.com
*videos, research papers, and articles from this site were used
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July 31, 2011

Synthetic Telepathy: The Army's Bold Plan


Many controversies on the table for neuroscience look at the emerging role of neuroscience, and how it will fit into our futures. This article by time magazine, '''The Army's Bold Plan to Turn Soldiers Into Telepaths''' hones in on the idea that the ways in which neuroscience could impact us are ever growing. Although at first neuroscience seems to find general roles in our emerging everyday lives, soon it will also fill in very specific corners and responsibilities; such as being used in the Army as a means of increasing our variability of weapons.

The article starts by bringing attention to the fact that the concepts associated with the future of neuroscience are just that- very futuristic. Many of the ways in which neuroscience and its findings could be applied to everyday life are concepts that have been talked about for generation but seem to be 'too far out' to be realistic and plausible. The foundations of these roles also need to be reestablished. For instance, the article points out that at first one might think a mind reading individual would be going through ones thoughts collecting memories and associations, when in fact the mind reader can be collecting information which will help protect him or help him protect a fellow solider. This idea is coined by the article as part of a U.S. Army project which is building "thought "helmets' (1).

The basis of synthetic telepathy is relying on research which is currently looking into which regions of the brain are responsible for the various processes of storing and processing thoughts. The overall goal of the US Army project would be to build a helmet which would be embedded with such technologies that can scan a brain similar to in the large scale fashion which are used for the research to identify these regions. The technology that would be embedded into the helmet would be able to carry out such functions as to be able to "target specific brain waves, translate them into words, and transmit those words wirelessly to a radio speaker or an ear piece worn by other soldiers" (1).

The idea and basis for the thought helmets and synthetic telepathy originated from the science fiction book Skylark of Space, a 1946 classic which was read by Elmar Schmeisser. The concepts and potential that neuroscience hold have been around forever, it is now taking the courage f individuals to speak up and realize that these ideas are plausible which is moving neuroscience both in a forward and controversial direction. Schmeisser began to progress with his idea of the thought helmet after a 2006 lecture when he realized the up and coming world of recording individual neurons and extracting signals from the surface of the brain. Although at first the army thought it to be hallucination that such an idea could work, they asked for evidence of its proof and Schmeisser and others are most definitely delivering results. After research results and new findings in the field, Schmeisser had won over many individuals and organizations and began working more in depth on the thought helmet for the Army.

Ultimately Schmeisser wanted to produce answers to big neuroscience questions which would in turn allow future researchers to capture complicate thoughts and ideas (1). He realized though that the rudimentary though helmet, capable of discerning commands, would be a valuable achievement and a step in the right direction to continue to gain supporters and funding for such a project. This point in the article paves way to where most neuroscience controversies come from- the ideas they are based on are as ever growing as the field. Many of the applications of neuroscience to real life open doors for more and more complex application to be found, and therein lies why the topics become so controversial.

Schmeisser himself points out that in actuality little is known about how the brain really functions, more so just about all the players that are present, contributing or not. "This project is attempting to make the scientific breakthrough that will have application for many things. If we can get at the black box we call the brain with the reduced dimensionality of speech, then we will have made a beginning to solving fundamental challenges in understanding how the brain works- and, with that, of understanding individuality" (1).

(1) http://discovermagazine.com/2011/apr/15-armys-bold-plan-turn-soldiers-into-telepaths
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Your Brain on Yoga: Better than an Antidepressant?


Depression [1] is a disease that afflicts millions of people and costs billions of dollars every year, and it is getting worse. One has to ask: besides the obesity epidemic, is our sedentary lifestyle contributing to a depression epidemic? Is exercise necessary for a healthy psyche? Can physical activity 'cure' depression?

In the last decade, a new kind of brain chemical has been discovered that plays a pivotal role in the healthy balance of the other chemicals in our brain. This chemical is called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) [2] and is discussed by Rassmusen, et al. in the article 'Evidence for a release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor from the brain during exercise.' BDNF has been found to regulate the maintenance, growth and survival of neurons; to influence learning and memory; is low in patients with Alzheimer's Disease and clinical depression; and affects body weight, energy homeostasis, and blood glucose levels. In addition, genetic mutations of the BDNF gene are associated, in both mice and humans, with the entire laundry list of metabolic syndrome problems. Where does BDNF come from in our brain? Why does it affect so many aspects of a healthy self? What can we do to 'balance' our brain chemicals without resorting to Prozac« or Abilify«, which we are beginning to find out are more like temporary bandaids for a much deeper problem of brain chemical imbalance and are only slightly better than a placebo [3]?

Recent studies have shown that exercise raises circulating BDNF levels. Exercise has been found to enhance BDNF transcription [4] in the brain and to effectuate brain uptake [5] of insulin-like growth factor 1, which is a necessary ingredient for increasing mRNA expression of BDNF. BDNF has also been shown to promote [6] the health of serotonin-responsive neurons and to interact with serotonin-producing genes. Instead of a prescription for an antidepressant, should doctors be prescribing 30 minutes a day at the gym? And what if the exercise had the added benefit of reducing stress? What if doctors prescribed yoga classes instead of Prozac«? Could we expect to see even more benefits than exercise alone: reduced stress, improved mood, thinner waistlines, less Type II diabetes, and better sex lives? If I was depressed and yoga could do any of those things, it would be enough to undepress me, BDNF levels aside.

Recent studies show that there is a positive correlation between yoga and circulating BDNF levels. In his master's thesis [7], NL Pan discovered that a form of yoga called Sudarshan Kriya yoga (SKY) increased serum BDNF level in patients that had high initial depression indices, and as an added bonus, reduced cortisol. This effect was determined to be independent of circadian rhythm levels. Other researchers have investigated the effect of yoga on depression with positive results (Pilkington, et al. [8], Javnbakht, et al. [9], Janakiramaiah, et al. [10]) but linking yoga to BDNF levels is a more recent finding.

As controversial as the idea sounds, maybe it is time for doctors to stop doing the easy thing by prescribing a pill and just tell patients to get off the couch and go to yoga class. And if patients don't believe their own doctor, while they are sitting on the couch they can just tune into Dr. Oz, our new national guru of all things health, who promotes exercise as a cure for many ills. I don't mean to trivialize the problem of depression, but the idea that it is we ourselves who are responsible for our health, even our mental health, should not be revolutionary or controversial. But depression is like a lot of things these days: someone else or something else is supposed to provide an easy fix.

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-leahy-phd/the-cost-of-depression_b_770805.html
[2] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1113/expphysiol.2009.048512/full
[3] http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2010/01/28/the-depressing-news-about-antidepressants.html
[4] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9795193
[5] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10751445
[6] http://www.nature.com/npp/journal/v33/n1/full/1301571a.html
[7] http://ethesys.lib.ncku.edu.tw/ETD-db/ETD-search/view_etd?URN=etd-0808107-104238
[8] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165032705002570
[9] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1744388109000048
[10] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165032799000798
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July 30, 2011

A Clockwork Character: Molding the Mozg


It is not hard to imagine a futuristic dystopian society. Constructing dystopias seems to be one of the main methods by which those of a sci-fi persuasion can offer poignant social commentary. However, some of these dystopias are far more horrific than others. One would be hard pressed to find a dystopia more controversial than the one presented in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (adapted from Anthony Burgess's novel of the same name); watching Alex DeLarge and his small gang of droogs terrorize futuristic Britain with "ultra-violence" is more than enough to make your insides squirm in revulsion. In perhaps the film's most infamous scene, Alex and his droogs beat a man so severely as to cripple him for life, and then proceed to rape his wife - all while happily singing "Singin' in the Rain". And yet there's hope for this futuristic Britain, a way to clean ultra-violence from the streets by rehabilitating those delinquent youths like Alex: an experimental aversion therapy called the Ludovico technique. If you were in charge of such a dystopia as the one depicted in A Clockwork Orange, where the fabric of society was being viciously ripped apart by rampant ultra-violence, wouldn't you be desperate for a way to stop it? And rather than just locking up criminals and social delinquents, wouldn't it be better if you could help those individuals by eradicating their anti-social behavior? Wouldn't this allow your dystopia to rapidly evolve into a utopia?

For those familiar with the film, we know that it's not just the use of ultra-violence that makes the film so controversial. Controversy also lies in the film's social commentary on morality and behavioral psychology, which is far too deep and expansive of a discussion for the scopes of this post. However, A Clockwork Orange does raise an interesting question (in fact, it raises many interesting questions): how close are scientists to understanding human behavior? Are they close enough to know which parts of the brain are responsible for certain behaviors? Are they close enough to actually control behavior?

The answer: yes. Scientists can switch social behaviors on and off as easily as flicking a light switch, at least in mice.

In an effort to understand what causes social-behavior deficits in humans, particularly those with social disorders like autism and schizophrenia, researchers from Stanford University are using pulses of light to toggle social behaviors on and off in mice. Led by Dr. Karl Deisseroth, researchers used optogenetics to test an established yet untested hypothesis about social dysfunction: that "elevation of in the ratio of cortical cellular excitation to inhibition (cellular E/I balance), for example through increased activity in excitatory neurons or reduction in inhibitory neuron function, could give rise to the social and cognitive deficits observed in diseases such as autism" (Yizhar et al, Nature, 2011). So, "when facing social stimulus people with social disorders experience an imbalance wherein too many excitatory nerves fire (or not enough inhibitory nerves fire) resulting in a kind of over-responsiveness" (Dillow, Popular Science). In order to test this theory, scientists used optogenetics to bioengineer excitatory and inhibitory nerve cells in the parts of the brain responsible for social function to fire on command. Specifically, the researchers looked at excitatory and inhibitory nerve cells in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in processes such as planning, execution, personality and social behavior. When compared to normal mice, the experimental mice exhibited no difference in their anxiety levels, their tendency to move around, or their curiosity about new objects. However, the experimental mice whose medial prefrontal cortex excitability had been optogenetically stimulated lost all interest in engaging with other mice. Their social behavior was largely abolished. Further, the brains of these mice showed the same gamma-oscillation pattern that is observed among many autistic and schizophrenic patients, meaning that this study could have implications in getting to the root of the behavior seen in those with social deficits, like those with autism. It's possible that this research could provide valuable information for finding a treatment for behavioral disorders like autism and schizophrenia.

Researchers at CalTech, too, have been altering mouse behavior. They have located the brain's trigger for aggression, a cluster of cells in the ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH), an area that previous studies have associated with sexual behavior. It's not so surprising that aggressive and sexual behavior stem from the same area of the brain (at least, it's not so surprising when considered in the context of A Clockwork Orange); they come from intermingled yet separate clusters of neurons in the VMH. By identifying these clusters of neurons in the VMH, scientists found that aggression is triggered by a specific tangle of neurons, which they could turn on and off in mice by using light (after making the region photosensitive via a process of inserting custom-made viruses carrying a modified piece of DNA into the brain). When the nerve cluster was excited, no matter what they put in the cage with the experimental mouse, the mouse would attack - be it another male mouse, a female mouse, or even a dummy mouse. The opposite also held true; when the nerve cluster was silenced, the experimental mouse was completely non-aggressive, even in the presence of a threatening male. And, because mice have cognitive function and physiology that is quite similar to ours, then perhaps aggression in humans, too, could be toggled on and off like a light switch.

These findings could have quite the positive potential for us humans. Not only does it allow us to better understand our own minds, but it could offer cures for behavioral disorders like autism and schizophrenia. And in the future, who knows? Maybe scientists will discover switches for other behavioral problems as well, such as anxiety or phobias or OCD or ADHD.

And yet, we shouldn't ignore the warnings provided to us through (albeit potentially paranoid) social commentary. Though A Clockwork Orange offers an extreme example of behavioral modification, it is still an example of behavioral modification nonetheless, and a real possibility of what could happen if scientific advancements are taken out of control and used to pursue corrupt political agendas. On what A Clockwork Orange is all about, Kubrick said the following: that it is "a social satire dealing with the question of whether behavioral psychology and psychological conditioning are dangerous new weapons for a totalitarian government to use to impose vast controls on its citizens and turn them into little more than robots." Again, extreme. We shouldn't live in a paranoid static state of fear that every scientific discovery made could lend itself to ultimately crippling humanity in some manner. The pursuit of knowledge should not be hindered by fear or ignorance; finding cures for behavioral disorders like autism and schizophrenia would be ultimately beneficial, and would help many people live better, more fulfilling lives. However, it should always by the obligation of the scientist to make sure that the truths they discover are not somehow corrupted to advance personal agendas, and to make sure that they educate the public as to their discoveries. To combine the words of Francis Bacon and Spider-man: knowledge is power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature10360.html
http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-07/scientists-switch-social-behaviors-and-mice-shedding-light-human-social-disorders
http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-07/caltech-researchers-find-switch-mouse-and-perhaps-human-aggression
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