Space & Innovation

Hack Your Brain to Improve Your Health

A new breed of neuro-hacker is finding ways to capture and manipulate brainwaves to improve health.

The next frontier for the tech sector is the human brain. A new breed of neuro-hacker is finding ways to capture and manipulate brainwaves to improve health, with potential to help the severely handicapped.

A number of the innovations were on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where computer scientists and biomedical experts showcased ways to tap into and use brain signals.

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The "mind control" headband unveiled by startup BrainCo effectively hacks into brain signals with a range of possible applications -- from helping to improve attention spans, to detecting disease, controlling smart home appliances or even a prosthetic device.

The device "translates your brainwaves into electronic signals," said the Boston-based firm's Zenchuan Lei.

Mind Meld! Top Brain-Controlled Techs

At CES, BrainCo demonstrated how a person could use the headband to manipulate a prosthetic hand -- a potential life-changer for those paralyzed or missing limbs.

"These signals can be used to control objects like a prosthetic hand," Lei said. "You can turn the lights on or off just by focusing on that."

The device designed by scientists from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology employs "neuro feedback," a means of allowing people to control their brain waves for various purposes. It is expected to be sold later this year for less than $150.

Lei suggested the device could also help people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder because "it teaches you to enhance your focus and concentration."

First Human Brain-To-Brain Mind Meld Achieved

A similar project on display from New York-based OpenBCI (which stands for open-source brain-computer interface) seeks to create a platform for applications of the technology in health care, education or other fields.

OpenBCI uses a 3D-printed helmet which captures brainwaves from various sectors of the brain.

"This can be used to help people with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease) or quadriplegics communicate," said OpenBCI chief executive Conor Russomanno.

The technology also offers a potential for so-called "neuro-marketing" which tests new products and services on the basis of sensory and cognitive response.

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South Korean startup Looxid Labs unveiled a headset that tracks both brainwaves and eye movements, claiming this provides more accurate insights into the mind.

"No other device that I'm aware of combines these things," said Looxid chief business officer Alex Chang.

With the headset attached to a computer, "you can roll your eyes to scroll the mouse, and click on a button by blinking," Chang said.

The headset is being launched in July as a developer kit, with scope to build applications for controlling physical or virtual objects, communicating, analyzing a user's mood or mental health, or verifying their identity.

"We also see this as having potential in gaming because you can control things with your eye," Chang said. "When you concentrate you can stop the bullets."

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He added that for neuro-marketing applications, "we can show someone an ad and we can see where the eyes are focused. We can scan emotions and understand how someone is responding."

Other exhibitors at CES demonstrated wearable devices that block pain signals to the brain, as an alternative to medications with side effects for people who suffer from debilitating pain.

Mind Meld! Top Brain-Controlled Techs

The neuro-feedback technique is being applied as a meditation aid by Canadian-based Interaxon and its Muse headband.

Muse uses sensors on the forehead and behind the ears to measure brain signals, and advise users how to improve their meditation technique.

The coaching app helps people achieve a level of consistency in their meditation efforts.

"It's like going to the gym. The muscle doesn't get stronger unless you do it over and over again. It's the same with your brain," said Muse marketing manager Tracy Newsom-Rosenthal at the CES show.

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One startup at CES was showcasing a technique to deliver pleasure signals to the brain via music, by triggering the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.

The hand-held device from Florida-based Nervana allows users to plug in a music player into the $299 device and get the pleasurable signals delivered by its headphones.

"We send a signal into the vagus nerve which produces dopamine, and that relaxes you," CEO Ami Brannon told AFP on the show floor. "Some people describe the sensation as euphoric."

First Human Brain-To-Brain Mind Meld Achieved

But Brannon said the technique "is not really hacking the brain."

"We access the central nervous system and it just tickles the nerve to remind the brain to release dopamine," she said. "People who practice yoga or meditation can already do this."

A new movement is underway that appeals to a group people unsatisfied with limits of their natural-born bodies. We're not talking plastic surgery here; we're talking bio-hacking. Bio-hackers are mainly interested in augmenting or improving their own biology or the biology of another living organism through the use of biotechnology and genetic engineering. The tools of the trade, once relegated to scientific laboratories, have come down in cost significantly, making do-it-yourself bioengineering and garage-based DNA sequencing available to anyone. Bio-hackers are fundamentally interested in altering the human condition -- usually for the better. We take a look at 10 extreme and not-so-extreme examples.

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Biohacker

Tim Cannon

, known as the “DIY Cyborg,” implanted a Circadia 1.0 computer chip, which is the size of a smartphone, under the skin of his forearm. The chip monitors his vital signs, then transmits the data in real-time to his Android device via Bluetooth. The device is capable of, say, sending him a text when he’s getting a fever and then determining which factors are causing the fever.

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Dutch journalist

Rene Shoemaker

implanted a near-field communication (NFC) chip -- roughly the size of a grain of rice -- in his hand to make it possible to enter buildings, log onto his PC instead of typing a password, and pay for goods. He was also in talks with a global IT security firm to experiment ways to use the chip in his hand to install malware on unsuspecting smartphones.

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Artist

Anthony Antonellis

embedded a radio frequency identification (RFID) under his skin, between his thumb and index finger, to upload new GIFs onto the chip from his smartphone. The images are viewable only by cellphone; if he or others swipe a cell phone over his skin, they'll be able to get a glimpse of the digital tattoo.

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Amal Graafstra

, known as one of the first DIY RFID implantees in the world, has chips implanted in both of his hands. As a result, he can unlock doors, turn on lights and log into his computer just by swiping a hand. Graafstra also started

Dangerous Things

, an online store, where bio-hackers can purchase supplies for embedding technology into their own lives, and by lives, we mean "skin."

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Dave Asprey

, Silicon investor and technology entrepreneur, spent $300,000 to hack his own biology. He set out to discover ways to manipulate his own biology and IQ. He used a variety of supplements and neuro-feedback training to upgrade his brain by more than 20 IQ points. He also lowered his biological age while learning to sleep more efficiently in less time. He biohacked his way toward losing weight without using exercise and invented Bulletproof Coffee, a coffee mixed with butter. Asprey is also the inventor of FATWater, a beverage infused with fat to allegedly help burn fat.

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Two California biohackers,

Gabriel Licina and Jeffrey Tibbetts

, created an eyedrop made primarily of Chlorin e6, derived from a deep-sea bioluminescent fish. They claim the drops help them make out people over 160 feet away in complete darkness.

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Sara Gottfried

, MD, biohacker and author of “The Hormone Cure,” claims that anyone can biohack their hormones. She reportedly hacked her growth hormone (GH), which is the hormone that helps children grow taller as they age and impacts fat breakdown, cellular growth, muscle mass and protein synthesis in adults. Since studies have shown that decreased levels of GH can increase fat and lower energy, Gottfried set out to naturally raise her GH levels with exercise, specifically high-intensity interval training. With this type of exercise, also known as burst training, she increased her GH levels 53 percent, compared to her levels pre-burst training, over a six-week period. Gottfried incorporated a combination of other strategies as well, including cutting out excess sugar in her diet, taking melatonin supplements, increasing her sleep to at least eight hours per night and reducing stress through yoga.

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Steve Mann

, regarded as the world’s first cyborg, invented the Eyetap Digital Glass, which he now always wears. Mann allegedly augmented his vision, ability to capture and process images and make decisions by wearing the digital glasses.

Anthony Evans

and his team created

glow-in-the-dark plants

by synthetically cross-breeding Arabidopsis and marine bioluminescent bacteria. The biohackers assembled the genes virtually using a software called genetic compiler and sent the gene specs to DNA assembling companies to build the actual DNA. The team imported the genes by using bacteria Agrobacterium tumefaciens.

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Biohackers from two California groups -- Counter Culture Labs (Oakland) and BioCurious (Sunnyvale) -- have engineered brewer's yeast to produce casein, a milk protein. The protein is mixed with water and vegan oil to make Vegan Milk. The milk is then turned into cheese using standard cheese-making methods.

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