Neuroscience might be taking over the world with data on brain connections and replica projects, as well as applying data onto digital software applications for use in clinical studies. Recent reports praise, dispute, and test how the study of neuroscience is claiming to ease addiction, build a computerized replica of the human brain, and even improve focus by 400 percent.
Scientists from the University of Massachusetts Medical School are applying neuroscience research to areas of the brain which concentrate on addiction. In an interview with Boston’s NPR news station, W.B.U.R., scientists explain how addiction effects areas of the brain that would “hard-wire” it into recognizing and supporting an addiction. Searching for the “neural roots of addiction,” these scientists apply techniques like meditation and technology to ward off symptoms of addiction.
Dr. Judson Brewer is an associate professor at the Medical School and director of research for the Center for Mindfulness Center located at the University. He states the “default mode network” or regions of the brain people “default to” become active when a person craves something like food, cigarettes, or alcohol. Dr. Brewer stated that quieting this area may help reduce cravings, particularly among those who practice mediation.
At the Center for Mindfulness, a participant named Mary Kate Farley-Dimino practices mediation to help her recover from an addiction, and to teach others how to apply it to their addiction too. She works with scientists who measure real-time brain activity through fMRI neuro-feedback technology while she is in a meditative state. Their findings suggest meditation “deactivates the part of the brain called the posterior cingulated cortex” which is responsible for cravings.
Dr. Brewer has input meditation techniques into a cell-phone application called Craving to Quit. It is a 21 day program with an electronic voice feature that talks to people about “daily breathing and meditation exercises” to help people overcome cravings. Brewer stated this method appeared to be more effective than other programs known to help people fight addiction.
Dr. Joesph DiFranza, a family doctor and Professor of Family Medicine at the University studies the brains of patients who smoke. Dr. DiFranza concurs that the same thing happens to a smoker in the brain as someone who is hungry. He stated doctors and scientists were unaware of how active the brain was when a craving appeared because most thought cravings were “cues.”
Dr. DiFranza also stated connections in the brain which light up during a craving can permanently change and cause the brain to support an addiction. He found connections starting from the anterior cingulate can alter connections to the frontal cortex where self-control is associated with the brain. He claims “two-thirds of the nerve fibers” which connect those parts of the brain can get lost and cause the brain to become hard-wired to an addiction.
These researchers conclude addiction is a disease and like any other disease, treatment will have to be individualized while taking into account how addiction rewires the brain entirely. Scientists believe treating people with an addiction is different than treating others with different diseases because a patient would have to continue treatment over time. Since addiction is “the disease that never really quits,” other factors must be taken into consideration as well, such as withdrawal.
Neuroscience might be taking over the world of addiction through brain scanning and possibly a cell-phone application, but it is also being applied to technology far more advanced than those. According to European neuroscientists, the Human Brain Project involving 113 European organizations and outside partners is controversial. Some neuroscientists believe the project is limiting for those who participate in the project under strict conditions with no transparency of governance. Furthermore, some neuroscientists believe the project carries limitations towards those who may want to work on projects outside the scope of what is designated for the Human Brain Project.
The European Commission (EC) is promising 1.19 billion Euros ($1.62 billion) toward the Human Brain Project over a course of 10 years. The project is an attempt to create a computer simulation of a human brain which would contain “trillions of synaptic connections between tens of billions of neurons.” Each connection would have a unique pattern of “genetic and electrical activity.” The fact that the Human Brain Project wants to synthesize the amount of data an average brain computes is complex, but according to Bio-IT World, to actually function the types of variations within the brain, including that associated with “different mental and psychological traits” may not be feasible.
Neuroscientists who are against the current draft of the project wrote a letter to the EC stating the project has an “overly narrow approach.” They question the overall science and management of the project, including stating the goals and implementation of the project, quality and efficiency of the implementation, and lack of flexibility governing the project which may lead to “substantial failure.”
The scientists list recommendations on the letter to the EC suggesting such requirements as members of the panel should be independent of the project, the review process should be transparent, and the EC should evaluate the core criteria of the project over time. They also list a recommendation on how funds should be allocated among organizations and researchers. Otherwise, those who signed the letter addressing these matters pledge not to partake in the funding by the EC.
In fact, the EC responded to the inquiries and concerns in another letter. The EC stated the concerns listed by the researchers are sufficient, particularly because no one person is familiar with a neuroscience project of this scope or endeavor. The EC stated their ambition, however, is to develop “new computing technologies,” adding that IT models with “cognitive and behavioral neuroscience” will be a key component in the development of neuroscience.
Other issues are addressed and given an informal response by the EC, but as of July 10, 2014, about 548 researchers have signed the original letter of inquiries and recommendations made to the EC.
Other ways neuroscience might be changing the world include video games and more cell-phone applications. Steven Kotler of Forbes Magazine stated in a report that “brain-hacking” is a way to world peace while Christian Jarrett of Wired Magazine reported a music software app claims to boost attention span by 400 percent through “neuroscience based music.”
Kotler stated he had written a blog on video games producing empathy and that a new study had been conducted which was similar to his theory. The study was performed by the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology at the University of Valencia. It utilized fMRI brain-imaging technology to show how neurological effects from “empathy,” or how one “put oneself in another person’s position” was effected by how one processes violence. Kotler stated the study found there is an overlap which causes circuits in the brain to be binary, or where one circuit shuts down according to either empathetic or violent tendencies.
Luis Moya Albiol had told Science Daily that empathy inhibiting violent tendencies can now be associated with more of a biological phenomenon than a social one. Albiol adds, “…stimulation of these neuronal circuits in one direction reduces their activity in the other.”
While most neurological studies are using brain-scanning technology, a company called Focus@Will is conducting a neurological study on focus using a computer software application for smart-phones. The company utilizes music in the software app. to reduce distractions through “phases sequences” which are neither too relaxing, nor too distracting. The company claims humans need time to focus from distracting environments and their music can help people focus. The app soothes parts of the limbic system in the brain responsible for distraction.
Jarrett is skeptical over the music app, however, stating the research and data are both sketchy. While Focus@Will claims the app keeps the brain in a “level of habituation” towards one’s surrounding environment with background music, Jarrett claims there are different approaches in deciding how one should focus. Jarrett uses a teacher and creative writer as an example, citing a teacher needs to focus on errors in text while a creative writer needs to focus on inspiration.
Jarett also reported that having vigilance over distraction is actually stressful and unrelated to “arousal levels.” He stated that other research findings have shown a person’s attention span tends to deplete over time and that the so-called “phases sequences” of the music app could further cause the brain to remain distracted. Furthermore, research from the 1970s has shown that music is a distraction to the brain, Jarrett concluded.
Whether neuroscience is being used to cure an addiction or build a synthetic brain, it has been and is currently being applied to technology which can further explain human tendencies and how the brain works. Neuroscience has made incredible progress over past years and will very probably continue to influence the worlds of both science and technology through various human studies and alternative projects.
By Liz Pimentel