Scientists and governments have been interested in mind control for a long time. One of the most well known top secret operations by the CIA was MK Ultra, a series of projects that tow the line between questionably ethical and straight up illegal. MK Ultra sought to control people’s actions using hypnosis, sensory deprivation, torture, and drugs like LSD. The brain is resilient but highly susceptible to outside influence. When it comes to sensory deprivation for instance, researchers found a mark decrease in test subject’s mental capacity to do simple arithmetic and word association after only a few hours cut off from outside stimuli. They also report hallucinating strange lights and shapes, even after leaving the sensory deprivation chamber, their hallucinations persisted for a time. All that to say the brain is malleable. With the right chemical cocktail or stimulus, the activity in the brain can be altered, while LSD can makeyou trip balls, it can’t make you do someone’s bidding, MK Ultra produced a lot of fodder for your conspiracy loving uncle but never achieved mind control. So maybe drugs aren’t the answer, maybe neurotehcnology can help us hack into brains instead. Our growing understanding of how neural networks work is helping us manipulat ethe most complex netowrk of all, your mind. The brain is similar in structure to a computer network. Systems connect to systems, working together to perform tasks. If we can hack into the minds of others, then in theory, one could exercie control over their actions, at a basic level it doesn’t sound too comlex. in order to control the activity in an activity of the brain, you need to stimulate it with energy. Scientists are already using this direct injection method to treat some conditions such as parkinson’s disease. In that example, energy is driven to the Basal Ganglia region of the brain which is partially responsible for body movement, they are then able to restrict motion in a patient’s body. So this opens the door for more direct control over a person’s mind and therefore their actions. In fact, our tech is getting closer, in a 2013 demonstration a group of researchers proved that brain to brain communication and control was possible. One person sent their thoughts to a computer which was able to control the hand movement of someone else sitting nearly as kilometer away. So how’d they do that? Person A sat ina room wearing wahat’s called an Electroencaphalography Cap. This cap picked up brain signals and relayed them to a computer, the computer acted as an intermediary, interpreting the signals and translating them to electric impulses, which were then fired along to person B, who wore a swimming cap wired with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Coil, placed near the part of the brain responsible for hand motion. While all person A had to do was think about moving their hand, Person B’s hand started twitching. The tech still has a ways to go, the team found a wildly varying success rate between 25-83%, but it’s remarkable none the less.
In the sci fi film inception, they go 4 layers deep on a deadly raid to plant an idea in a rival ceo’s mind, but in neuroscience it’d be better to flip a switch. You are th master of your mind right? You make your own decisions and nothing can make you do anyuthing. But that migjt not be true in the future. Resrearchers in the university of Msssechusetts Medical school have managed to alter the behavior of nematodes by directly reprogramming one neuron. The nematode C elegans is a tiny roundworm that lives in soil, it crawls about moving its head from side to side to feel out its environment. But it has a very clever enemy. A carnivorous fungus that forms small loops like nooses, when the C elegens pokes its head through the noose it tightens breaking the cuticle and the fungus feasts on the insides. C elegans has developed the counter, there’s a small delay before the noose tightens and if they back away quicklywhile keeping their heads straight, they can escape. So when the nematode touched just behind the head, it will do exactly that, it won’t back uop this way if you touch it anywherre else, like on the tail or even the nose. Dr Mark Alkemis set out to see if he could quite literally reprogramm the worm’s behavior. C elegans is the only animal that has had it’s entire brain mapped, it’s only got 302 neurons making 7000 connections so it was the idea candidate for the first connectome. A connectome is the name for what a fully mapped neural network is. Because everything is plotted out the complete path of this defense against fungus is known from sensory neuron to inter neuron, to motor neuron, so dr. Aukema decided to see if changing how one of those neruons fired changed behavior. His team swapped out a neuron’s inhibitory channel with an excitatory one, now when the engineered C Elegans felt something behind it’s head, it no longer backed up, it pressed on while contracting it’s head. It would still fall victim to the noose though, rendering it’s survival mechanism moot. Changing how one little neuron worked, vcompletely changed behavior… while still keeping the rest of the worm’s brain stable and functioning. This has implications far beyond keeping fungus fed. The idea of a connectome has long been the subject of debate, detractors pointed to the nematode and said can you actually do anything with it? Because of that, mapping neurons of much larger brains like ours with our 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections seemed like a fool’s errand, it would be costly, time consuming and ultimately useless. Now however, its been shown that knowing exactly how behavior flows through the brain, means we can direct that flow. If we have a complete map of the human brain think of the implications, maybe we can write out behavioral disorders like ADHD or finally rewire that behavior that makes people do x. But until that day comes, you’ll just have to change hearts and minds the old fashioned way.
Brain hackers may soon be able to read your every thought, but then if your thoughts can be decoded, could they be altered? This neuroscientis and entrepreneur is pushing the boundries of brain manipulation that could turn amateurs into experts in a single day. We’d all love to be truly great at something, maybe a physicist like einstein, or an artist like picasso, or a great leader like Teddy roosevelt. Most of us will have to settle for simply good instead of incredible, but what if we could change that by hacking our mental software and giving ourselves capabilities we weren’t born with? Chris Perka is a neuroscientist engineer inventor and CEO of a neurotech startup company, its a workload that would crush most of us, but she handles it by getting them to a high performance high output brain state, it’s what athlete’s call “the zone”. Being in the zone is just focused attention and ability to not be distracted, it allows you to really develop perfection in any skill. Getting into the zone is a full time obsession for chris, her company’s developing a device she claims can train your brain to work like a highly skilled expert. An archer has a small band around his head with 4 sensors for sensing the brain’s electrical activity, we’re gonna look for the particular state leading up to the shot that is peak focus. Inside the archer’s brain, billions of neurons are firing, creating different waves of electricty, sdifferent states of mind have different frequencies of waves, when people are in the zone 2 frequencies dominate, alpha waves, which indicate a state of meditative concentration like those of the zen master and lower frequency theta waves which show extreme relaxiation. EEG theta activity and alpha activity, we see both of those increase just prior to taking the perfect shot. Chris brings in a group of amateurs if she coaxes the amateurs while in the same brain state as a professional archer. She monitors the brains electrical acitvity with sensors on the scalp, and as you move through different cognitive states and mental states the electronic frequencies of the brain will change and we can record thos ein real time and analyze them. Chris’s monitor records their brain waves, and a sensor lets them know when they’veachieved the same brain state as the professional. By the end of only 1 day of practice, chris hacked the mind of amateurs to shoot close to a professional level of expertise. We were able to demonstrate is a 230% increase in the speed and accuracy of marksmanship training. There’s no end to potential customers for the brain hacking device, a president who nees peak performance, or a special forces operative who’s split second choices make the difference between life and death. It gives you the ability to control your mind and your mental state, the ability to deal with even the most challenging enviromnets, and just by training you to control your brain you get this kind of metacognitive awareness that allows you to be much more resilient and adaptable to stressful situations. If we can hack into our own brains to amplify our talents, what’s stopping us from hacking the brains of other people, could one mind reprogram the reality of another.
What if we could reach inside a living brain and flipping a switch. MIT engineer, physicist, and neuroscientist Ed Boygen has spent his career figuring out how complex machines work, he’s now working on the most complex machine of all, the huamn brain. A cubic millimeter of brain tissue has 100,000 cells and there are a billion connections between them, these cells compute using electricity, and if all these little elctrical computers could be recorded, perturbed, controlled and analyzd then maybe we could understand how the brain computed in the same way computers were engineered to do all the things they do in our phone, internet so on. So if you have a complex system like a computer, a city, or the economy, or a brain, one of the ways you can figure out what’s going on is to put little inputs into the system and see what happens. It’s easy to test the components on a computer circuit board, but brain cells are trickeier, so ed set out to find a natural switch that can turn indiviudal neurons on or off, and he found one, swimming around in a puddle of pond water. This kind of algae has a light sensor, a little eyespot in the back of the algae, and basically these are little light activated proteins known as “opsins” that sit in the membranes of cells and serve as photosynthetic or photosensory protein and this is a molecule that converts light into a very specific change in electrical potential, the same kind that occurs in neurons when they’re active. Ed and his colleagues extracted from the algae the genetic code that produces these light sensitive opsins, they then inserted this gene into a virus that could splice it into the DNA of living brain cells. The neurons in the brain manufactured the protein, because now the genome has been incorporated into the nucleus of the cells, and then expressed as proteins all over the membranes on the boundries of those cells. As a virus instructs any infected neurons to build a light sensitive on/off switch, with these switches, any brain circuit from our senses to our emotional state and memories could be controlled with this, a laser developed at MIT whicvh would spit the laser light out into an array of optical fibers that we can use to enter information into the brain and to many different points that are distributed in a 3 dimensional pattern. The brain doesnt feel pain, so we can implant little probes in the brain to deliver light out the end of these probes and turn on or off parts of the brain just by pulsing a laser, turning the laser on and off very rapidly. Ed and his colleagues put the technology to trial with animal subjects, ed wirted his light sensitive switches into a mouse’s pleasure/reward brain circuits, we put an optical fiber into the brain so that it could deliver light to the cells, then we programmed a computer such that if a mouse poked its nose into a little sensor it’d get a opusle of blue light, each pulse activates the same pleasure reward circuits when it eats a piece of food or finds a mate, the mouse keeps poking it’s head into the hole, convinced that this simple action is the source of the reward. And so we found that mice would actually work with the light, they’d poke their nose in the little sensor say “hey that was interesting” and do it over and over, doing the task for another pulse of light. This tells us that brief activation with a pulse of light is enough to reinforce whatever the animal was doing whatever before. Ed has hacked the mind of a mouse and changed its behavior and he believes it wont be long before we are rerady to use the technique on the human brain. Humans have been hacking the brain for a long time, beer coffee, neurotechnologies where the main role is to do what the brain does, drugs and pharmaceuticals have been very helpful in treating brain disorders but if you think about the brain as a circuit, then the drug that does into the entire brain it will be intact as well as ones you want to fix, where our techns come into play, we can activate specific neurons with our tools. Ed’s technology could be a cure for the nearly 1 billion people who suffer from mental illeness by turning off only unhealthy cells, it would be a revolution in psychiatric medicine, and one day, it could give us all of complete control of the workings of our brains. The rewards for hacking into our brains could be momentous, mental diseases could be eliminated, we could unlock the highest levels of talent, and we cna truly understand what another person feels, but there is a dark side, we could be creating a future where no one is sure of who they are, no secrets could ever be safe, and where we might all lose our minds, to brain hackers.
Professor Ed Boyden at MIT is driving a whole new field of neuroscience. He used to be an electric engineer and found that the brain uses the exact same kinds of electrical pulses to compute and communicate that computers do, so if we could try to control those elements it would allow us to enter information into them in the same way you enter information into a computer circuit. He uses lasers to do exactly that. Do you want to learn Kung Fu like in the Matroix. He’s taken a light source and connected it directly into the mouse’s brain. Every time the mouse goes to the point, a pulese of light gets delivered to a very specificn point in the brain, and the point is placed deep in the brain where neurons immediate reward and pleasure and so on are thought to be reciding. Neurons in the brain don’t normally respond to light, so he found molecules that ddo, and put them into specific neurons. Turns out that Species like the green algae HAS to sense light in order to photosynthesize. It has an eyespot that senses light and converts light into electricty, and that allows it to navigate. If you zoom in on the eyespot, you’ll find proteins that when hit by light will generate little electrical pulses, which is what we need to control a neuron. Dr. Boyden has programmed a virus to travel to specific neurons in the brain and deposite the liught sensitive molecule, tiling the surface of the brain cells like solar panels. This turns those specific neurons and only those neurons into on/off switches activated by light. You’re taking genes from algae and putting them into the brain, which lets you control the brain using an electrical circuit, it’s pluged into the brain, which makes you effectively a cybord. We’re trying to deliver information into the brain so we can control it’s natural processes, we’ve been working on ways to go beyond just one light sourse, now we can light all over the brain in a 3d pattern, turning on and off the circuits that are involved with emotions, decision making, snesations and actions. We’re in the matrix now, is this the way learning new information will be in the future? Can we get a light show and immediately know calculus, or quantum physics, or Japanese?That’s s cience fiction, but for now it’s still useful, a billion poatients have some kind of brain disorder and many of them like MS alzeheimer, or traumatic brain injury, there is no treatment for those things. The past 20 years were all about biotechnology which didn’t really offer much of a solution, the 20 years before that were about pharmatechnology, which only treated the symptoms. Pharmaceutical drugs for treating parkinsons and epilepsy, but the problem is if you bathe the brain in a substance you’ll affect normal neurons as well as the bad neurons you want to fix, which causes side effects. In Epilepsy, imagine that we could turn off just a little piece of brain, just for the time of the seizure and block ot, then we won’t have side effects associated other than a small time frame, we hit the defective bit with light and ignore te rest of the brain. Introducing control into our brains, this is the absolute cutting edge, not just of the science but also of the ethical debate. We’re talking about introducing information into the most complex circuitry that there is, our own minds.