Our brain controls what we think, feel, and do, but scientists have a limited capability to watch it at work outside the lab. National Geographic Emerging Explorer Tan Le hopes to change that while, in the process, fighting neurological disorders, enhancing learning, and even helping the disabled move things in the physical world with the power of the mind.
Emotiv Lifesciences, the company Le co-founded, produces portable, high-resolution EEG (electroencephalogram) brain-scanning headsets that Le hopes will open new windows on the complex functioning of our brain. On August 1, Emotiv unveiled Emotiv Insight, a faster, next-generation wireless brain scanner that collects real-time data on the wearer's thoughts and feelings and delivers it directly to a computer, phone, or other device through Android, iOS, OSX, Linux, and Windows platforms.
Le hopes the product, which costs $199, can further democratize brain research and help scientists gather more data. Using the EEG headsets, she says, people around the world can study brains under conditions and stimuli as varied as those we encounter in everyday life—because subjects can wear the headset while doing everyday tasks.
"The idea is to empower us all to understand more about ourselves," Le said. "That's really the mystery of the mind."
She added, "It's all very, very personal. Sure, there are some commonalities in the way the brain functions. But what we know now with epigenetics [the study of how the expression of heritable traits is modified by environmental influences] is that every learning experience, every activity we undertake, actually affects our [neural] networks. Your brain yesterday is different than your brain today."
An EEG records the electrical fluctuations in the brain and tracks changes in activity as neurons fire when you are engaged in a cognitive task. It's a time-tested process, but traditionally its use has been limited to the lab and a subset of people because it's relatively costly and time-consuming.
What's needed instead, Le stressed, is as much data as possible on as many brains as possible.
"Until recently there's not been any sort of concentrated effort to collect EEG recordings on well individuals, and that really is an essential part of any sort of background study into abnormalities," Le said. "It's a classic case of science being very skewed toward studying the problem set."
So if we're interested in epilepsy we study patients with epilepsy. If we're interested in Alzheimer's we study patients with Alzheimer's, Le noted.
But with no idea what the norm is, she added, correlations or features that appear in these brains may be present in non-afflicted people as well.
Emotiv hopes to help create a massive digital repository of brain-scan information, as well as a platform for sharing brain data with interested parties around the world. With that information, researchers could send out experiments online and collect data from a wide range of subjects who wear the headsets while performing all types of directed tasks.
"It used to be that you sat in your lab and worked kind of independently of other people," said Kevin Whittingstall, the Canada Research Chair in Neurovascular Coupling and a professor at the University of Sherbrooke. "What we've realized is that the brain is so complex we need to start grouping together data sets to paint a better picture."
"What I think is very promising with the Emotiv system is that the hardware remains constant," added Whittingstall, who has no connection to the project. "With one hospital using one EEG system and another using another system, the electrode positions might be different, for example, and it's hard to integrate the data." (Read "Beyond the Brain" from National Geographic magazine.)
Here are four applications of the portable brain scanners that Le says are already beginning to take shape:
1. Moving Things With the Mind
The EEG headset has helped paralyzed patients control an electric wheelchair and make music via computer using only the power of their minds, said Le.
"The hope is that it's going to be more of a democratizing force, so that whether you are able-bodied or not you're still going to be able to communicate and interact with your world in a meaningful way," Le said during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., for the National Geographic Explorers Symposium. "And we're starting to see the first signs of that."
When patients think of an action—verbalizing a word, for example—the headset can record the brain patterns for that action into a computer via a wireless connection. Then, when the wearer repeats the action, the computer can perform it—allowing or facilitating communication, for example, among those who had lost some or all of that ability.
"I think it speaks to the power of software and algorithms to decipher and interpret electrical signals from the brain," Le said. "When you can start to interpret what's going on in the brain, you can extract unique features that then can help you use them as a command to trigger different events in a device or an application on some sort of computing platform."
The human-machine interface can be used for things as trivial as playing a video game, or as life changing as operating a prosthetic limb—and today's achievements represent only the tip of the iceberg, said Le.
2. Diagnosing Disease
Le stresses that because we lack a large, easily accessible database of "normal" brain data, we're likely missing opportunities to identify and track the causes of brain ailments from their earliest stages—when intervention might be less dramatic and more successful.
"A lot of these conditions are developmental in nature, meaning that you don't get Alzheimer's [or autism] overnight," she said.
Historically, Whittingstall added, most of our information regarding brain function was obtained by studying how damage to one particular area was linked to a cognitive deficit, such as language or memory impairment.
"With EEG, we can now start to non-invasively map out brain function so it enables you to record data from many subjects and improves the statistical power to detect the tiniest differences between experimental conditions," he added.
Le hopes the headset will not only help identify neurological conditions and study their progressions in the ever-changing brain, but also enable intervention.
"The brain is plastic; it's very capable of change, so if it's going down a route that we don't want it to go down, then let's do something about it and fine-tune how we intervene based on feedback from the brain itself," she said. (Video: Visit the Brain Bank at Harvard.)
3. Making Learning Easier
With EEG technology becoming more affordable, scientists and citizens alike can get a more complete picture of how each individual brain operates in real-world situations, ranging from social interactions to studying to intense physical activity, said Le.
"People are more and more interested in quantifying their physical health, and I think we're going to start seeing people more interested in quantifying their cognitive, behavioral, and mental health," Le said.
This window on how the individual brain works could also inspire personally tailored applications to help it learn better. "The value to the individual is that you can start to put together some sort of productivity profile for yourself," said Le. "When am I optimized to do some sort of creative brainstorm work?" she added, as an example.
Whittingstall agreed that such learning boosts could be part of the near-term future. "If you can monitor the brain as someone learns a language, for example, you might correlate their ability to learn through changes in their brain waves," he said.
"However, being able to actually put your brain into that state that's optimized for learning might be further off," he cautioned. (Related: "How Your Brain Cleans Itself—Mystery Solved?")
4. Organizing Data by Thoughts and Emotions
Le suggests that brain-scan information could one day be used to help people organize the avalanche of data, videos, images, audio, and other media that is steadily mounting.
"The first time you view an image [of something you experienced], you're going to have a very strong visceral response because you are reliving that moment," she explained, pointing to the example of watching a video of your child taking her first steps.
Because such images can have a strong emotional cue, there may be a way to label them with some kind of personalized emotional tag based on a brain scan, Le suggests. The concept could allow each of us to build a library of cherished video or images that are organized not just by date or location, but also by the emotional descriptions of what each of them produce in our own brains.
All these applications, exciting as they seem, represent a technology that's still in its infancy—and no one knows where it may lead. "There's no way to tell what the killer app is," Le said.
"The biggest job is to try to get as many people excited about the technology as possible so they can play with it, work with it, and expand it in their own areas of interest and their own passions," she said. "Hopefully we can find some great innovations as a result."