In a pilot human study, targeted brain stimulation, aided by artificial intelligence, has been demonstrated to increase brain function.

The researchers, from the University of Minnesota Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, believe the technology could be used in the very near future to help treat severe mental illness.

The study is the first to show that: i) a specific human mental function linked to mental illness can be reliably enhanced using precisely targeted electrical stimulation; ii) there are specific sub-parts of the brain structure that are particularly effective for improving cognitive function; and iii) a closed-loop algorithm used as a “controller” was twice as effective than stimulating at random times.

Interest in implantable technology, including brain chips and stimulation devices, has been growing in recent years, and a number of recent breakthroughs mean that such devices are no longer the stuff of science fiction. For example, the mRNA technology used in some of the new coronavirus vaccines is now being extended to allow the creation of mini “biological computers” that can monitor and medicate the body internally in real time.

Part of the funding for the new research comes from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and its SUBNETS program, which ostensibly aims to help service personnel and veterans deal with mental health issues. But whether the technology is used solely for benign purposes, or is repurposed for more sinister ones, remains to be seen.

AI brain stimulation to treat mental illness

brain stimulation
Billionaire Elon Musk has been a vocal champion of the integration of man and machine, with his Neuralink project

The findings come from a human study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston among 12 patients undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy. The procedure involves placing hundreds of tiny electrodes throughout the brain to record its activity and identify where seizures originate.

In this study, Alik Widge, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and member of the Medical Discovery Team on Addiction at the U of M Medical School, collaborated with Massachusetts General Hospital’s Sydney Cash, MD, PhD, an expert in epilepsy research; and Darin Dougherty, MD, an expert in clinical brain stimulation.

Together, they identified a brain region known as the “internal capsule” that improved patients’ mental function when stimulated with small amounts of electrical energy. This internal capsule is responsible for cognitive control, or the process of shifting from one thought pattern or behavior to another. In most mental illness, this process is impaired.

“An example might include a person with depression who just can’t get out of a ‘stuck’ negative thought. Because it is so central to mental illness, finding a way to improve it could be a powerful new way to treat those illnesses,” Widge said.

The team went on to develop algorithms, so that after applying the stimulation, they could track the abilities of the patients to control their thoughts. The method provided boosts of stimulation whenever the patients were doing worse on a laboratory test of cognitive control.

“This system can read brain activity, ‘decode’ from that when a patient is having difficulty, and apply a small burst of electrical stimulation to the brain to boost them past that difficulty,” Widge said. “The analogy I often use is an electric bike. When someone’s pedaling but having difficulty, the bike senses it and augments it. We’ve made the equivalent of that for human mental function.”

Some of the patients also suffered significant anxiety in addition to epilepsy. As a result of the brain stimulation administered, they reported that their anxiety got better, because they were more able to shift their thoughts away from their distress and focus on what they wanted.

Widge says that this suggests this method could be used to treat patients with severe and medication-resistant anxiety, depression or other disorders.

“This could be a totally new approach in treating mental illness. Instead of trying to suppress symptoms, we could give patients a tool that lets them take control of their own minds,” he said. “We could put them back in the driver’s seat and let them feel a new sense of agency.”

The research team is now preparing for clinical trials. Because the target for improving cognitive control is already approved by the Food and Drug Administration for deep brain stimulation, Widge says this research can be done with existing tools and devices, once a trial is formally approved. As a result, this technology could very quickly be used in medical treatment.

Implantable tech: what about autonomy and privacy?

The fact that one of the principal funders for this research is DARPA should give us some pause to reflect on its ultimate purpose and implications, as should similar research which has hit the headlines recently.

Recently we reported on a new neural interface designed by scientists in Korea that can deliver drugs to the brain remotely.

Researchers at the University of Dresden are also pioneering implantable tech that monitors your body in real time and could be used to send signals to doctors if abnormal activity is detected; for example, if a heart murmur is evident.

If the use of such technology becomes widespread, what will it mean for us as autonomous humans? Will we still be in control of ourselves, or will we surrender control in a way that might make it impossible to take back? Questions that were once restricted to science-fictions writers are now being realised as imminent concerns for all of us.

Can we maintain our control – and our humanity?

Only time will tell.

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