The Brain Forum 2015

A couple of weeks ago Alice Hazelton (Genetic Alliance UK) attended The Brain Forum 2015, a three-day event in Lausanne, Switzerland, that brought together world leaders in the fields of brain research, technology and healthcare to openly share their thoughts and discuss and debate challenges for the 21st Century.

The Brain Forum encompassed talks and panel debates to discuss technological solutions, medical devices and medications to enhance brain functions. The session that I was most looking forward to attending was ‘Brain enhancement and repair technologies’ and it was certainly not a disappointment but it got me thinking.

First up was Edward Boyden of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who told us of his team’s work on the development of genetically encoded reagents that, when targeted to specific cells, enable their physiology to be controlled via light. These optogenetic tools enable temporally precise control of neural electrical activity, cellular signalling, and other high-speed physiological processes using light. Using such tools to control and monitor the activities of individual neurons in living tissues allows us to precisely measure the effects of these manipulations in real time, bringing us closer to decoding exactly how the brain works. Furthermore they may be capable of serving therapeutic purposes for improving the health of human patients - enabling the restoration of lost senses, the control of aberrant or pathological neural dynamics, and the augmentation of neural circuit computation, through prosthetic means.

Next up was Grégoire Courtine of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, who showed us that his team has discovered how to control the limbs of a completely paralysed rat in real time to help it walk again. Electrical stimulation of the nervous system is known to help relieve neurological disorders at many levels – deep brain stimulation is used to treat tremors related to Parkinson’s disease. In Courtine’s lab, researchers studied rats whose spinal cords were completely severed so that no signals from the brain were able to reach the lower spinal cord. Here, they implanted flexible electrodes and sent electric currents through them to stimulate the spinal cord. Based on the direct relationship between the frequency of the electrical stimulation and the height at which the rat lifted its limbs, they were able to specifically design the electrical stimulation to adapt to the rat’s stride in anticipation of upcoming obstacles, such as barriers and stairs. Courtine and his colleagues are continuing their work and hope that one day their work could lead to more general therapy that could be implemented in rehabilitation programmes for people with spinal cord injuries and neuromotor impairments.

Last but not least was Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University and the Natal Institute, whose recent work in the field of neuroprosthetics made an appearance at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Nicolelis and his team helped to create a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton that allowed a quadriplegic child to deliver the kickoff in the opening ceremony. By focusing on ways to read people's brain waves the team were able to create an exoskeleton and use those signals to control the skeleton’s robotic limbs. To operate the exoskeleton, the person is helped into the suit and given a cap to wear that is fitted with electrodes to pick up their brain waves. These signals are passed to a computer where they are decoded and used to move the suit. Nicolelis hopes that eventually suits like this will be able to replace wheelchairs.

After three brilliant presentations I couldn’t help but wonder about the title of the session, ‘Brain enhancement and repair technologies’. Sure, ‘repair technologies’ defines each of the devices that the researchers showcased but in my mind and since the onset of the NERRI project, I’ve been used to thinking about ‘enhancement’ in terms of enhancing brain processes in healthy persons. When the chair asked each of the panel members about this, their responses seemed to be that we should be focusing on developing and using enhancement technologies for therapies, rather than purely for enhancement. I’m quite sure that no one would deny that therapies should be prioritised over developing technologies for use by healthy individuals but considering that most enhancing technologies arise from therapeutic work, it is necessary to consider society’s position with regards to this notion and this is why the NERRI project is so important.