Let’s Start Hacking Brains

Biohacking Science
Let’s Start Hacking Brains
Photo: Moran Cerf
Photography by Moran Cerf

Moran Cerf worked at a security company, breaking into banks’ networks to expose flaws. Now he’s a professor of neuroscience and business at Northwestern University, and he looks at brain research in much the same way. You have to break in. And to do so, you need two things: To understand the code the system runs on and to find a vulnerability.

Typically, some kind of sensor is the vulnerability, the thing that grants you access to what’s going on inside. The code, Cerf says, could be one of several things, depending on what you’re trying to learn. In some cases, it’s the DNA. In others, it could be the sound of synapses firing. Once you have the ability to listen in, you can compare the response of the brain to stimuli from the world.

Cerf was speaking on November 5 at Hacking the Human Body: New Context Conference, where Joi Ito, co-founder of Digital Garage and director of the MIT Media Lab, invited scientists and entrepreneurs to discuss, well, hacking the human body, from stepping up brain imaging to leveraging music for rehab or athletic performance to advanced prosthetics.

Talks were broad and rangy, conceptual and not always well defined. But from a Maker perspective, that’s just right: It’s a frontier that’s touchy to explore. But it’s one where home-built gadgets can play an important role.

Cerf, for example, has worked with people who had electrodes implanted in their brain to track decision making. He did it with a box he built. On the front, two light-up buttons wait for a curious finger. The subject is told to press one or the other, as often as he or she likes. When pressed, the buttons light up for three seconds, and screech an alarm if they’re pressed again before they go out.

Photo: Moran Cerf

But here’s the trick: The computer that controls the lights (which is wired to your brain) can see that your brain is about to make a decision slightly before it does. It can’t tell what decision you’re going to make, only that you are about to. And it lights up the buttons before you press them, leading to much confusion and consternation among the participants.

“The idea is that decisions seem to us like they are ‘made by us’ and we control their parameters and understand the process,” Cerf wrote in an email. “But the reality is that ‘we’ (as in, the conscious part of our brain) are usually the last part to be involved, and the part that is not the most reliable, and certainly not the full aspect of the choice. We do, however, come up with an ‘interpretation’ of the decision and the total feeling that it was entirely us who made it.”

Illustration and caption from: Cerf, Moran and Michael MacKay. 2011.
Illustration and caption courtesy of Moran Cerf and Michael MacKay. 2011. “Studying Consciousness Using Direct Recording From Single Neurons in the Human Brain.” In Research and Perspective in Neuroscience, edited by Stanislas Dehaene and Yves Christien, 133-146. Springer. The subject is faced with two buttons. At the start of a trial, he/she is allowed to choose at will which button to press when he/she feels the urge to do so. On pressing the button, it lights up. In some trials a button lights up prior to the subject pushing it, based on the decoding of the urge to press the button. (b) Selected neurons show an increasing rate of activity until a threshold is reached at which the subject feels the urge to move, but before motor initiation. (c) For the initial trials, this activity of neurons predicting volition was decoded until capable of accurately decoding the subjects’ choice prior to the conscious urge to move. Once the threshold of 75% accuracy was reached, we inserted a condition in which we used this information to light the predicted button up prior to the subject feeling of urge to press it. After a number of trials, the success of the decoder started to reduce as the neuron altered its activity, presumably in response to being decoded.

That decision gap is potentially very powerful. When you’re sleeping, your conscious self is less active, and thus you’re more open to suggestion. If we can tell when the brain is ready to make a decision, we can bombard the sleeper with stimuli at that point, so long as it’s not so overt that it wakes you. Send a waft of cigarette smoke, followed by a waft of ammonia or rotten egg, and the sleeper will crave fewer cigarettes, as Anat Arzi discovered in her study in the Journal of Neuroscience, “Olfactory Aversive Conditioning During Sleep Reduces Cigarette-Smoking Behavior.”

Maybe you don’t have — or don’t know anyone who has — electrodes placed in their brain. (It’s usually to track a medical condition over the short term.) But there are still experiments, and more all the time, that can leverage biology and neuroscience in clever ways. Cerf also made a device that blocks your vision with opaque goggles. When you inhale (as measured by an air-flow sensor in your nose) the goggles clear up for a second. He made some poor student wear this thing for 10 days, and at the end, the kid’s ocular lobe activated upon smells rather than just sights.

And there are non-invasive devices that gather information from brains. Ariel Garten of Interaxon showed off her company’s brain sensing headband, Muse. It’s designed as a “wellness device” and a meditation aid, but the point is, it reads an output from the brain, and you can use that to practice meditating, but also to get creative with the open SDK. And OpenBCI is currently running a Kickstarter for a new and improved brain computer interface headset.

The point is, we’ve now got the tools to build some cool brain experiments. Interaxon paired the Muse with a chair on a cable so that it levitates when you meditate. But we want to hear more — what’s a brain hack that you’d like to try? Tell us in the comments.

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Nathan Hurst is an editor at Make. He loves anything having to do with science or bicycling. He tweets as @nathanbhurst.

View more articles by Nathan Hurst


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