Nowadays, although human beings can “go up to nine days to capture the moon” and “go down to the five oceans to catch turtles”, little is known about the brain, an organ that weighs only 2% of the body’s total weight. In recent years, the global research on brain science can be said to be in full swing, and brain science researchers in my country are also showing their edge in this technological competition. From brain signal reading to mind control, brain science research is constantly breaking the boundaries of people’s thinking.
Interviewed guest: Zhu Junming, chief physician of neurosurgery at the Second Affiliated Hospital of Zhejiang University School of Medicine
The “Ultimate Frontier” of Life Sciences
Question: Among many scientific and technological fields, brain science is undoubtedly the most cutting-edge and cutting-edge one, and it is called the “ultimate frontier” of life sciences. So, what are the research scopes of brain science?
Answer: The research scope of brain science is very wide, mainly including four aspects: 1. Understanding the brain: including brain structure and function, brain nerve and network system, brain evolution and development, brain working methods and principles, etc. 2. Brain protection: It mainly includes aspects such as promoting brain development, preventing brain damage, treating brain diseases, and delaying brain aging. 3. Develop the brain: develop the unknown functions of the brain, improve the efficiency of the use of the brain, and simulate the function and working principle of the brain through brain-like research, especially the information processing mechanism of the human brain. 4. Create the brain: that is, through the construction of a brain simulation system, the development of a brain-type computer, and the creation of a virtual super brain based on numerical calculations.
Question: Nowadays, technologically developed countries and international organizations have already fully realized the importance of brain science research, and have successively launched “Brain Projects” with their own focus. Does my country also have such a “brain plan”? What are the main focus of my country’s “Brain Project”?
Answer: In 2013, the United States proposed the “Brain Research (BRAIN) Project by Promoting Innovative Neurotechnology” to explore the working mechanism of the human brain and develop treatments for incurable brain diseases. In the same year, the European Union launched the “Human Brain Project” to simulate brain functions through supercomputer technology to achieve artificial intelligence. In 2014, Japanese scientists launched a neuroscience research project, the Japanese “Brain/MINDS” (Brain/MINDS), which aims to gain new insights into human brain information processing and diseases by studying the neural networks of the advanced brain functions of primates .
Compared with the “Brain Project” of European and American countries and Japan, China’s “Brain Project” is more comprehensive. China’s “Brain Project” forms an overall layout of “one body and two wings” from three aspects: understanding the brain, protecting the brain and simulating the brain. Specifically, “one body” means to study the neural principles of brain cognition as the main body, for example, what is the nature of the brain, how the brain thinks, learns, and remembers, and so on. One of the “two wings” is the research and development of new methods for the diagnosis and treatment of brain diseases (such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism, etc.); the other wing is new brain-computer intelligence technologies, such as brain-computer interfaces .
Brain-computer interface, from science fiction to reality
Question: When watching sci-fi movies, there are often scenes: humans manipulate huge mechanical armors through their minds, or control mechanical prosthetic activities. As brain-computer interface technology makes these sci-fi scenes gradually become reality, the public has also begun to have a keen interest in the unreachable field of brain science. As a key technology to promote China’s “Brain Project”, what exactly is a brain-computer interface?
Answer: The brain-computer interface is a channel for direct communication and control between the human brain and a computer or other electronic equipment. The brain-computer interface bypasses the nerve and muscle tissue and directly connects the brain with the external world, allowing people to control external devices through “thoughts.”
Brain-computer interfaces can be divided into two categories: implantable and non-implantable. Although the former has certain surgical trauma and possible surgical complications, the EEG signals collected by it are far in terms of signal quality and stability. Far better than non-implantable brain-computer interfaces.
Question: In the medical field, what problems can brain-computer interfaces solve?
Answer: The more extensive and mature clinical application of brain-computer interface is cochlear implant. The cochlear implant converts sound into electrical signals, and restores or reconstructs the patient’s auditory function through the electrode system implanted in the body.
The realization of “mind control” through the brain-computer interface can help patients with high paraplegia, post-stroke hemiplegia, gradual freezing syndrome, etc., with the help of external equipment to rebuild the motor function of the limbs. The so-called “intentional control” is actually through implanting electrodes, collecting electrical signals from the brain nerves and decoding them, extracting the “intentions” and converting them into action instructions for external devices such as robotic arms. Last year, our brain-computer interface clinical translational research team at Zhejiang University successfully allowed a 72-year-old paraplegic patient to “mind control” the robotic arm to complete a series of actions such as shaking hands, drinking water, and playing mahjong on the computer.
In addition, the brain-computer interface can also be used for the treatment of diseases such as epilepsy, depression, and bulimia. We have a 15-year-old epilepsy patient. Before treatment, the patient would fall down during attacks 4 to 6 times a month, twitch his right hand 4 to 5 times a day, and could not go to school normally. We implant a deep electrical stimulator in the patient’s brain, which can automatically recognize the characteristic EEG signals of epilepsy. Once the epileptic seizure signal appears in the patient’s brain, the device immediately recognizes the signal and sends out electrical stimulation to eliminate the epileptic seizure in the bud. After 3 months of treatment, the patient’s fall completely disappeared during the attack, and only had transient numbness in his right hand 3 to 4 times a day. Now he can go to school like his peers again, and the parents are very satisfied.
The core of this technology is “Reactive Nerve Electrical Stimulation”. Only one device in the United States has been approved by the FDA. The technology developed by our team is at the leading level in China.
A long way to go, but the future can be expected
Question: What are the difficulties in the clinical application of brain-computer interface technology? What is the future development direction?
Answer: At present, the development of brain-computer interface technology is facing many bottlenecks. For example, our insufficient understanding of brain functions and working mechanisms directly affects the study of brain-computer interfaces. For another example, even implanted electrodes that are more advantageous for collecting EEG signals have a very limited collection range. At present, Musk’s brain-computer interface technology can only collect the firing signals of a few thousand nerve cells. Compared with the tens of billions of nerve cells in the human brain, it is nothing but a drop in the bucket. In addition, the poor biocompatibility of implanted electrodes may cause rejection reactions; how to achieve commercialization is a difficult point in the clinical application of brain-computer interfaces.
In the future, brain-computer interface technology has many areas worth exploring in terms of rehabilitation, early warning of diseases, and reconstruction of neurological functions.
Brain research has undergone tremendous changes in recent years. I believe that as humans’ understanding of the brain becomes deeper and deeper, it will no longer be an unattainable thing to give play to brain functions, diagnose and treat brain diseases, and simulate brain mechanisms.