Newly installed public-policy and media wunderkind Chris Hayes, who now runs MSNBC's prime time news and commentary show, says that managing climate change is humanity's biggest social, intellectual, and economic challenge since the industrial revolution and our embrace of the digital world. I think Mr. Hayes is on the mark -- but there's another hyper-challenge. It's what literary critics might call a meta issue: getting a much better handle on how the human brain works, how we can fix it when it becomes hobbled by Parkinson's and a whole host of other maladies is part of the emerging neuroscience dynamic. And there is a bigger question still: how can we turbo-charge human brainpower in a time strained by humongous problem-solving imperatives?
This is the second of a four-part series I'll write over the course of the summer about Obama's new brain mapping initiative, its nexus to local neuromedicine, some bio-computational mavens and an emerging set of T-Town pioneers and entrepreneurs. While it hasn't gotten a lot of attention and falls far short of the funding secured by, say, the Apollo program, the brain mapping initiative -- if it yields even a fraction of what some are imagining -- will transform our lives as we've known them.
Mind Wide Open
In 2004, I read a fascinating book by science and tech writer Steven Johnson, a passionate explicator of the interface between technology, science history, societal change, and "connectivity." Mind Wide Open, Johnson's 2004 book, was a rich salad: part research and part intro to brain/neuroscience history. Mind was also an audacious personal journey by Johnson: he exposed himself directly -- as a participant/patient -- to early-stage brain scanning technologies and the then new, much more advanced functional magnetic resonance imaging technologies (fMRI).
While it was way back in 2004, Johnson's book, for some of us, was a lucid, unexpected exploration of the practical world of neuroscience. And in some ways, it was a prescient storyboard: how can we make our brains "plastic," improve our memory, augment our capacity to learn new things, and add that little tiny spark to our intellectual agility when we are in a consequential conversation?
Trip to a "Neuro Lounge"
After reading my first UTW article on the president's brain mapping project, an old TU friend called me to say that he and his business/counseling practice partner were smack dab in the middle of what we could call the retail/field end of the still-emerging brain scanning realm. Phillip White is an experienced, licensed psychiatric social worker/counselor, former student body president at University of Tulsa, college baseball star, and longtime friend. He and Steve Chamberlin -- a licensed professional counselor and a pioneer neural and biofeedback practitioner in Tulsa -- have created something of a storefront facility for doing some of the work that transfixed me in Johnson's book. White and Chamberlin gave me, over the course of a long coffee and an extended conversation on everyday brain scanning, its tight connection to biofeedback/neural-systems and the increasing practical utility of these techniques. The pair also handed off a briefing book packed with peer-reviewed articles on neural-scanning and biofeedback and the family of brain scan technologies they employ. And we talked briefly about their ongoing connection to a cadre of local physicians and medicine pros who they interact with here in town.
Another old TU buddy joined us at the coffee conversation. This guy -- I'll call him Jeff -- has been a close friend over the course of my entire adult life. He's an extremely bright person and a former TU football player. Jeff decided that he wanted to explore the non-invasive, neuroscanning and biofeedback practices that White and Chamberlin had talked about in our coffee meet-up. So the duo scheduled a session for him, in part to meet his curiosity, but also to offer a tangible demonstration for me of what ground-level neuro work looked like.
Jeff and I arrived at the Phil-and-Steve shop on 15th Street one afternoon last week. Chamberlin got busy straightaway by getting Jeff to use an alcohol-dampened rag to clean his forehead, scalp and earlobes. He then attached electrodes and other items which would allow Chamberlin to monitor 19 pickup points simultaneously on Jeff's brain without using invasive probes. What followed was basically a data collection stage in which Chamberlin used the sensors connected to Jeff's brain to build a neural function data set. In the second stage of the process, Chamberlin used his machine to compare Jeff's brain on a variety of metrics to a large set of benchmark "brains" that are at the core of everyday neuroanalytics.
What Chamberlin told Jeff about his preliminary findings was fascinating. He asked if Jeff had ever had a mild or middling head injury, and Jeff indicated that he had been struck on the head on a number of occasions. He then asked about his general health and told him that some of the other information that Jeff provided was very consistent with what he saw in a range of top-down, multicolored brain maps that the machine produced as a consequence of the analysis process. Chamberlin suggested that maybe one appropriate course of action, given what he was seeing in the map images, might be around of biofeedback sessions with Jeff. He suggested doing an introductory biofeedback session while Jeff was still hooked up to the scanning device.
After clearing the session, Chamberlin showed us a kind of interactive roller coaster animation. Appearing with the roller coaster was a metric bar, and Jeff's task was to raise that bar as high as he could using his thoughts. Over the course of the next 20 minutes, Jeff did so with a good result -- his score moved higher and higher as he reported he felt more focused than he been in several days -- days hobbled by a weeklong bout with seasonal allergies.
The Quantified Self
We may soon enter a deeply-entangled period in American medicine -- some call it the "Quantified Self" revolution. Imagine being routinely tethered to an array of biosensors and remote-sensing gear, together with smartphones, to continuously track blood pressure, heart rate, even blood chemistry, including a set of simple brain metrics that will also be sampled and recorded. Imagine further having an interactive, vibrant connection to healthcare counselors, your doctors, and to nutrition and fitness consultants tied into this data sea -- all part of a revolutionary health care plan. If you're interested in this fascinating arena, you might want to read Emily Singer's now slightly-dated, 2011 cover piece for MIT's Technology Review magazine on the subject.
What will daily life be like when it's possible to scan your brain on a nearly daily basis and compare it with the functionality of a group of peers? Or to use neural biofeedback to get up to speed before that next big project review or big boss interaction?
More in a few weeks.
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