Let's get one incredible fact out of the way: There is a woman living today who can move a mechanical arm, separate from her almost-entirely paralyzed body, to grab a drink and lift it to her lips. This is thanks to her neurons firing, and a chip, implanted in her brain, receiving those signals.
One more thing: What researchers say they know about the human brain, in total, is about the equivalent of what a foreigner might be able to discern about a country's politics by examining that country out of an airplane window.
That's to say, neuroscience can accomplish incredible things. But it has a long way to go in term of understanding the full workings of the human brain.
What can we expect in terms of innovations based on their research in the next, say, 35 years? That was the topic of a discussion at New York City's Hunter College Thursday night as part of the World Science Festival. Host Robert Krulwich, a longtime reporter who's perhaps best known as one of the silvery voices behind the Radiolab podcast, asked a panel of researchers and neuroscientists how, based on current research and the trajectory of neuroscience, we might expect innovations in terms of the human brain to logically progress. These are their predictions.
1. Brain implants will be more popular.
The woman with the small implant that reads signals from about 100 of her neurons firing has a significant downside to this to live with: There's a hole in her skull that needs to remain open so wires and an antenna can communicate her brain's signal with external computers.
"This is where we are now," says John Donoghue, a neuroscientist and professor at Brown University. But as chips get smaller, and the ability to transmit signals over WiFi and other methods become more efficient, so as to not let off too much heat. No, you're not alone if this image triggers memories of those "This Is Your Brain on Drugs" commercials, it could be possible to seal up the brain once an implant is positioned, which would be a tremendous advance.
2. We will have WiFi in brains.
Currently, tiny micro-chips that are being developed to not only be implanted in the brain, but have a long lifespan in there, without needing a cord to the outside world. They are called "brain drops" and "neural dust." This is research Berkeley professor Michel M. Maharbiz is working on. He says the goal is "finding a way to talk to, and more specifically record from, very tiny things on order of the size of a neuron." That communication could be sonogram waves, or it could be through something like wireless Internet.
3. The blind will see.
Well, hopefully. This is according to research and intense mathematical work by Sheila Nirenberg, a professor and "neuroprostheticist" at Weill Cornell Medical College. She explained Thursday that in many cases of bindness, if the photoreceptors die, the output cells generally still remain. "So if you could send them the same code, vision could remain," she said. So, she devised a mathematical system to mimic what the whole retina does, to send the whole output to the brain. So far, it seems to work.
4. Scientists will identify more "Jennifer Aniston" cells.
The entire panel agreed that while neuroscience knows some very specific things about how certain areas of the human brain function, there's still a tremendous lot of mystery surrounding the brain as a whole.
For instance, neurologists joke amongst themselves about something called the "Jennifer Aniston cell," because once a portion of a neuron of an epileptic patient responded to images of Jennifer Aniston, and nothing else. Meaning, a human being--and maybe any of us who have ever thought about Jennifer Aniston--has a microscopic portion of her brain dedicated exclusively to the former Friends star.
Scary, huh? Let's just hope we also have War and Peace cells.
"There are some cells that we know precisely how they respond," said Gary Marcus, a professor in New York University's psychology department.
Expect more specific areas of the brain to be identified in the near future.
5. They might be able to erase memories.
At one point during the discussion Marabitz mentioned very briefly a DARPA project that could "replace certain memory circuitry." Useful...or disturbing?
6. What won't happen? Downloading your consciousness to live forever in a machine.
This is where the neuroscientists start to admit there's a limit--for now, and the foreseeable future--to what they can do. But it certainly is an interesting thought-experiment.
7. Another bummer: We won't be able to accurately re-create an individual brain.
Marabitz noted that due to the sensitivity of the brain, it's physically impossible today to create a copy without harming it in some--or many--ways. Still, the panel had fun tossing around the idea of ethical recreation of consciousness.
"I can make a wax dummy of you, but it's not you. I could copy your neurons one for one and have a dummy of your brain...but I still think it's a copy, like a clone or a twin, not you," Marcus said. Ah, that consciousness hurdle.
The scientists agreed that science is too far from understanding the basis of consciousness to consider recreating it. Marcus continued: "We don't know how to define the consciousness problem, because we don't even know what we'd be simulating."