Neuroscience and MedTech – Past, Present and Future

Neuroscience is a broad field which has evolved tremendously throughout the years in an attempt to decipher the mysteries of the human brain. Its beginning can be traced back to the times of ancient Egypt, where manuscripts have been found detailing symptoms and management techniques of brain injuries [1]. More information about the workings of the human brain began to be accumulated in the 18th century, starting with the discovery of the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani that electrical signals are being used as a means of communication between neurons. Later, in 1837, the first neuron was described by J. E. Purkinje and in 1862 Paul Broca identified the brain area involved in speech production [2].

The 20th century represented a very prolific period for the development of Neuroscience, as new studying and visualisation techniques have emerged, such as the EEG (electroencephalography) for measuring the electrical activity of the brain, the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) for observing the internal anatomy of the brain and for mapping brain activity of certain regions [2]. All these technical advances potentiated the activity of researchers and neuroscientists, allowing them to gain a better understanding of the human brain.

The branches of study that fall within the realm of Neuroscience are numerous and highly varied, given the multitude of perspectives that are required to gain a comprehensive understanding of the workings of the brain. The most basic sub-domain – Neuroanatomy – deals with the macro- and micro-organisation of the human nervous system while the more complex area of Neurophysiology analyses the neuroendocrinology, the electrical signals of the brain and maps its functions. At the intersection of Neuroscience and Psychology or Psychiatry lie the areas of Behavioural and Cognitive Neurosciences, dealing with aspects of the brain that are important in mental disorders and in mental processes related to cognition, such as language employment. Shifting the focus towards a more microscopic perspective, the sub-domains of Developmental and Molecular Neuroscience aim to describe the cellular basis, as well as the physical and chemical mechanisms that underlie the development and functioning of the brain. In addition, Neurology and Neurosurgery are the medical specialties which use the theoretical knowledge that has been gathered about the nervous system in clinical practice to diagnose and treat various pathological conditions affecting the brain or the spinal cord [3].

The rapid pace of our society’s evolution, with technology being introduced in most aspects of our lives, dictates the directions in which the field of Neuroscience is heading, such as the emergence of brain-computer interfaces, conscious augmentation and artificial intelligence.

Brain-computer interfaces are systems that acquire brain signals and after analysing them, they convert these signals into commands for a device that is responsible for carrying out the action [4]. The brain-computer interfaces are currently envisaged as a potential tool for people with mobility issues, such as muscular dystrophy, but the technology will surely be used more ambitiously, beyond the clinical need, as more information is accumulated related to its efficacy and safety. Conscious augmentation has been mostly described in relation to cognitive enhancement, which particularly relates to memory and decision making improvement [5].

Artificial intelligence proves to be an immensely helpful tool when analysing the brain and how it functions, as it can extract useful information and patterns from a huge amount of data that would be too difficult for researchers to analyse by themselves [6]. In addition, using artificial neural networks to make models of the actual neural networks in the brain, allows computational neuroscientists to understand brain input and output and how biological data is handled in the brain to shape our perception of the world around us.

Although these are all extraordinary technological and scientific advances, their implementation into our daily lives proves to be difficult, considering the numerous ethical questions arising which need to be resolved. The focus of these ethical issues is particularly placed upon the access to these enhancing technologies and whether it should be available to the general population or to the segment of population which will be able to afford it only. Additionally, in terms of cognitive enhancement, there is a debate around whether it should be used exclusively by people with cognitive disabilities in order to ensure equity, or it should be widely available, providing people with a sense of equality.

Finally, the impact of technology in the development of our society is obvious, as it shaped the field of Neuroscience into the form that we see nowadays. It paved the way for new discoveries and innovative approaches to understanding the intricate functioning principles of the human brain and mind, and it will continue to do so in the coming decades.

References

  1. Sanchez, G., & Burridge, A. (2007). Decision making in head injury management in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, Neurosurgical Focus FOC, 23(1), 1-9. Retrieved Sep 23, 2020, from https://thejns.org/focus/view/journals/neurosurg-focus/23/1/foc-07_07_e5.xml
  2. A (Very) Brief History of Neuroscience » Brain World. (2020). Retrieved 23 September 2020, from https://brainworldmagazine.com/a-very-brief-history-of-neuroscience/
  3. What are some different areas of neuroscience?. (2020). Retrieved 24 September 2020, from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/neuro/conditioninfo/areas
  4. Shih, J. J., Krusienski, D. J., & Wolpaw, J. R. (2012). Brain-computer interfaces in medicine. Mayo Clinic proceedings, 87(3), 268–279. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2011.12.008
  5. Cinel, C., Valeriani, D., & Poli, R. (2019). Neurotechnologies for Human Cognitive Augmentation: Current State of the Art and Future Prospects. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 13, 13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00013
  6. How AI and neuroscience drive each other forwards. (2020). Retrieved 24 September 2020, from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02212-4

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