The Human Brain, the Least Understood and Most Exciting Organ
Paul survived a car crash but was paralyzed because of a spinal cord injury. In the hospital, doctors inserted an implant into his brain and another implant to the end of his spine. The two implants were connected and formed a channel to communicate the brain signals to the lower part of the spinal cord that is still functional. Paul was able to walk again.
The above is an imagined story, but it may well happen in the future. Neuroscientists and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk are experimenting with new approaches to repair damaged neural connections currently considered untreatable.
The Seven Revolutions in Healthcare That Will Impact Your Life – Part 3
The brain is the final frontier
“If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.” – Lyall Watson, scientist and author
The human brain has been called the last frontier, because its complexity makes it challenging even for experts to comprehend all facets of its operations. In the past 20 years, our understanding of the brain has been revolutionized. Advances have been made in pharmaceutical therapy, cognitive enhancement, and neural implants. Many new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches are at late clinical stages and expected to be ready for practical application in a few years. We are not far from witnessing our lives being changed by the power of neuroscience.
In 2013, then US President Barack Obama announced the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative to address what Obama called one of the grand challenges of the 21st century. The BRAIN initiative accelerated the development of tools, methods, and infrastructure in neuroscience research. At the same time, other countries also initiated other brain projects, such as the Japanese Brain/MINDS project, the European Human Brain Project, and other similar projects in China, Isreal, Australia, etc.
Revolutionary advances have been achieved in brain science in the last two decades. Genetic testing is increasingly used in the diagnoses of neurological disorders. The brain mapping project is developing a free online database for trillions of neural connections in mouse and human brains. Scientists have realized that our brain changes continuously, well into adulthood. The invention of optogenetics has made it possible for scientists to manipulate activity in live neurons with molecular specificity and millisecond precision.
The Future of Early Diagnosis for Alzheimer’s – image or digital?
“Digital is where the future is going to go, digital diagnostics will be increasingly coming into play in the field of Alzheimer’s disease.” – Dr. Dennis Chan, neurologist, and researcher at University College London
Dementia affects 50 million people worldwide and is the leading cause of disability and dependency among the elderly. Alzheimer’s disease contributes to around 60-70 percent of all dementia cases. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s. Currently, medications (including the newly approved aducanumab) are used to alleviate the symptoms of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, which means that early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s provides a better outcome of disease control. However, early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is a challenge because of the secretive preclinical stage, when pathological changes in the brain begin long before any visible symptoms. The answer to this dilemma is to change the current passive diagnosis model (patients go to doctors to get diagnosed only when they have symptoms) to a proactive approach that can detect the initial changes, according to Dr. Dennis Chan, a neurologist and researcher at University College London.
The gold standard for diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is a PET scan, a functional image made using radioactive substances. However, PET is both expensive and not easily accessible. The use of digital biomarkers has been identified as a promising innovative method of detecting and managing Alzheimer’s disease. Digital biomarkers are medical data collected through wearable devices and smartphones. One of the devices, Altoida, uses gamified memory tests and augmented reality technology to detect mild cognitive impairments. Already FDA-approved, scientists hope that Altoida will become an Alzheimer’s screening and monitoring tool. Another group of digital biomarkers consists of passively collected data from wearable devices. In 2019, Eli Lilly, Evidation Health, and Apple jointly conducted a study to show that certain motor skills, such as reading, typing, and keystroke tasks, were performed more slowly in patients with mild cognitive impairment and dementia.
Digital diagnostics is not without drawbacks. Data privacy and trustworthiness will be crucial for the success of digital diagnostics. Dr. Chan is convinced that digitalization is the future for early dementia diagnosis.
Magic mushrooms become the most promising mental drug candidates
Mental health is an essential part of a person’s well-being. A wide range of mental health conditions can affect one’s mood, thinking, and behavior. Mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions. In the US, more than half of the population will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lifetime. Mental health medications reduce symptoms, but normally have to be taken over a long period and do not work in some of the patients. During the last few decades, there have been few improvements in the development of drugs to treat mental disorders.
Over the last two years, psychedelics – mind-altering substances that can cause visual or acoustic hallucinations – have opened the gateway to one of the most promising revolutions in mental healthcare. Two of these psychedelic substances are already in the late clinical trial stage. MDMA, also called Ecstasy, a psychoactive drug mainly used for recreational purposes, is currently being tested in phase 3 clinical trials for post-traumatic stress disorder. Psilocybin, the natural compound found in “magic mushrooms”, is being administered in a phase 2 trial to around 80 patients with major depressive disorder. Both psychedelics were granted approval by the FDA as a Breakthrough Therapy to accelerate trials of treatments for mental illnesses.
What in 2019 was merely a buzzword for investors [psychedelics] became a full-fledged industry boasting over 25 public companies, including six (and counting) that list their stock in the Nasdaq.- Yahoo! Finance
The blurry line between computers and biology
Natural brain boosters such as coffee or a good night’s sleep are familiar to us. New technologies, especially those that can merge our minds with computers, are taking brain-boosting to a whole new level that may be difficult for us to comprehend.
Classic brain-boosting devices work through either magnetic or electrical stimulation. They can be used in treating mental illnesses, such as depression, or dementia. The Two techniques for non-invasive brain stimulation have already been introduced to the UK healthcare system. Brain-boosting devices can also enhance cognitive performance in healthy people. Other than improving memory, reaction time, and other specific cognitive skills, they are also found to induce happiness, improve motor skills, and support mathematics learning.
These trends in neurotechnology indicate that in the future, the nervous system can not only be repaired and augmented, but its capabilities can even be expanded. There are already more than 20 startup companies targeting brain-machine interfaces, implantable devices, and neuro-prosthetics. One such company is Neuralink, founded by Elon Musk and others. Neuralink aims to connect humans and computers by building a brain-machine interface system. By doing so, it will help paralyzed people regain function and help us to understand neuro-disorders. In April 2021, Neuralink enabled a monkey to play video games using only its mind. The company is likely to initiate human trials in the near future.
“In the long term, it is possible to restore full-body motion [for people with spinal cord injuries].” – Elon Musk
The digital afterlife – preserve consciousness on a computer
Humans are fascinated with the afterlife. Given the rapid development of computing power and deep learning capability, preserving one’s consciousness on a computer seems like a task that could happen not far in the future. The human brain has a hundred billion neurons. Each of these neurons can have up to 15,000 connections with other neurons. Even if one day quantum computing will have the power to simulate a hundred billion neurons with all of their interconnections, we will still face another hurdle. The artificial neurons and connections are all identical, while in the human brain, each neuron and its connections are unique. It is not impossible to replicate every neuron and every connection exactly like they are. But it could be a task that will take many decades to accomplish. However, even if we should one day manage to “live” through a simulation of our brain in a Matrix-like virtual world, would that constitute true consciousness, or would it simply be a computer imitating our behavior?
We would like to hear your thoughts on what the future of brain science will be. Search “Future of healthcare” on the Supertrends Pro app and make your prediction for the following:
© 2021 Supertrends
 Hennessy, J. The Brain: The Final Frontier? Stanford Magazine, November/December 2014, https://stanfordmag.org/contents/the-brain-the-final-frontier
 The impact of the NIH BRAIN Initiative. Nat Methods 15, 839 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41592-018-0210-0
 Calderone Julia, 10 Big Ideas in 10 Years of Brain Science, Scientific American, November 6, 2014, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/10-big-ideas-in-10-years-of-brain-science/
 Davies, N., Data Evolution in Alzheimer Disease: Is the Future Digital? NeurologyLive. December 2020, (3);7. https://www.neurologylive.com/view/data-evolution-in-alzheimer-disease-is-the-future-digital-
 Chan, D. Digital diagnostics for early dementia. June 26, 2021, Future of Healthcare (Webinar). NewScientistLive. https://app.konf.co/event/sJ0Vy6Kn/session/4509
 Learn about mental health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, January 26, 2018. https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm
 Natan Ponieman, B. Psychedelics Research FYI: Every Clinical Trial Underway Right Now Involving Public And Private Companies. Yahoo! Finance. July 7, 2021. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/psychedelics-research-fyi-every-clinical-175057984.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAMyj6t9vvyqeErbMhaVFF9toLbC9cBs80E-t29uBcCEIWncgrnZ5QCYDTj5ybHe5ZudXlsgZ-_rXXDITdpfD8CcrMvZawl2jIcrhccsGiTLWT1AXdTB_9thYm0Hz6VPbWpCBggs30nd87KNz4P9Hv84WB6YvQAtOQCXugAf8PS0x
 Davis, N. Brain boosting: Should we enhance cognitive performance? June 26, 2021, Future of Healthcare (Webinar). NewScientistLive. https://app.konf.co/event/sJ0Vy6Kn/session/4501
 Zhavoronkov, A. Elon Musk’s Big Neuralink Paper: Should We Prepare For The Digital Afterlife? Forbes. June 17, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexzhavoronkov/2021/06/17/elon-musks-big-neuralink-paper-should-we-prepare-for-the-digital-afterlife/