Andrea Morris | Forbes Op-Ed | Source URL
One day soon you may be filling your lungs with crisp ocean air, your arms bathed in warm light as the sun sets over softly lapping waters and you may wonder, is this real? Or are scientists projecting holograms into my brain to create a vivid sensory experience that isn’t actually happening? A group of researchers at University of California, Berkeley are in the early stages of testing their ability to create, edit and scrub sensory experiences from our brains, both real-time and stored experiences–memories.
Using light to make us see what isn’t there.
Different sensory experiences show up in brain imaging as patterns of neurons firing in sequence. Neuroscientists are trying to reverse-engineer experiences by stimulating the neurons to excite the same neural patterns. At present, the steps to accomplish this are a little invasive. Scientists genetically modify neurons with photosensitive proteins so they can gingerly manipulate neurons using light. The process is known as optogenetics. Also, a metal head plate gets surgically implanted over the targeted area.
Then there’s the challenge of finding a way to bull’s-eye each individual, microscopic cell body without exciting neighboring neurons. Enter computer generated holography (CGH) to create three-dimensional floating light shapes. The diffracted light-forms are projected into the brain, sailing through a gossamer layer of brain tissue at the surface of the cortex and triggering just the right pattern and rhythm of neural activity to generate specific sensations and perceptions. The holograms can stimulate, edit and suppress patterns of neurons that correlate with the brain activity of actual experiences.
“The major advance is the ability to control neurons precisely in space and time,” says Nicolas Pégard, one of the first authors of a paper in Nature Neuroscience today. “In other words, to shoot the very specific sets of neurons you want to activate and do it at the characteristic scale and the speed at which they normally work.”
Development of the device required imagination and a confluence of emergent technologies. “This is the culmination of technologies that researchers have been working on for a while, but have been impossible to put together,” says another of the first authors, AlanMardinly. “We solved numerous technical problems at the same time to bring it all together and finally realize the potential of this technology.”
The team published a paper last year in the journal Nature Communications, dubbing their holographic brain modulator The 3D-SHOT: a three-dimensional scanless holographic optogenetics with temporal focusing.
What The 3D Shot could do for us.
The therapeutic potential for the device is exciting. From helping to restore sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, to reinstating sensation in patients with peripheral nerve damage and helping amputees control prosthetic limbs.
“This has great potential for neural prostheses, since it has the precision needed for the brain to interpret the pattern of activation,” says Mardinly. “If you can read and write the language of the brain, you can speak to it in its own language and it can interpret the message much better.” Mardinly is already thinking beyond therapeutic uses, towards augmenting human experience: “This is one of the first steps in a long road to develop a technology that could be a virtual brain implant with additional senses or enhanced senses.”
We’re still a ways off before you can plan your next staycation at a 3D Shot themed resort and spa. As of now, the researchers are testing a prototype in the visual, touch and motor areas of mice brains.
The mice are showing similar patterns of neural response correlating to sensory stimuli. The next step is training the mice so scientists can observe behavior changes that correspond to the stimulation. Studying behavioral cues is the best measure of success because you can’t ask a mouse if it’s experiencing the ripe, mushroomy taste of Limburger cheese as you flash holograms into its cortex.
The researchers plan to scale-up the device’s capacity to interpret and create from a broader terrain of brain matter while scaling-down the device to make it portable enough to slip inside a backpack.
They’re also working towards capturing neural patterns inside the brain with the goal of reproducing sensory experience and playing it back through holography.