Neurotech and business opportunity

This article is summarized from The Standard Podcast, Neurotech EP1: 84 billion brain cells, business opportunity | Executive Espresso EP.363

The interview in this episode was conducted by Ken Nakarin Wanakijpaibul. The guests are as follows:

  1. Dr. Jirawat Tangpanitanon (Dr. Tew), CEO & co-founder of Quantum Technology Foundation (Thailand) or QTFT
  2. Dr. Sirawaj Itthipuripat (Dr. Sean), Director of Nx Neuroscience Center for Research and Innovation of King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi

What is Neuroscience? Why you need to know?

Neuroscience is the study of how the nervous system develops and how the brain impacts to human behavior. For example, to study about how human concentration change, what mechanisms does it have, how can human concentrates on what is bothering them by using empirical data from brain waves.

According to Dr. Sean, this science is important to everyone because we all have brains, so the results of these studies have a direct impact on us. We can apply the study results in healthcare industry as Thailand is entering an aging society. The most common problem in the elderly is Alzheimer’s disease.

Statistics show that 1 in 3 elderly people are at risk of developing Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) which may cause Alzheimer’s disease. This disease might interfere with your daily life, so you need to know its cause and how to deal with it in order to change your lifestyle to prevent cognitive impairment. In case you have to take care of older persons with MCI, a good understanding of the disease can help you take care of them well.

Another problem that is very common in today’s society is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) of childhood. It is recently found much more due to the use of multimodal media. Children with ADHD may have trouble paying attention and staying focused on something. If you understand what interferes with the mechanisms of the brain so that it causes such disorder, you will be able to prevent and treat it better.

In Dr. Tew’s opinion, this science is interesting because the human brain differentiates humans from other animals. This understanding unlocks potential and evolution of human to go one step further. It can extend beyond medicine to other fields e.g. labor usage, professional services. In the future, it may combine with metaverse to create various gadgets.

As you may see in many news, humans have always had imagines about expanding this approach. For example, Elon Musk has tried to embed wireless chip in the brain aiming to expand the human and machine interface. Or as shown in “Black Mirror”, a Netflix series, in the future humans may become able to change their perceptions or extract a certain memory from the brain.

The two experts discussed that difficulty of this science is the idea processing, decisions or perceptions. The nervous system conducts very complex intercellular communication. Single brain cell cannot trigger anything but it can work when a group of cells are networked together. For the experiment to reach the point, it does not rely on only technology, but it needs to combine the capabilities of AI and neuroscience to guide developing models to work like the brain as much as possible.

Image by: freepik.com

In people’s imagination, the experiment of Elon Musk regarding Brain Computer Interface (BCI) to directly connect between human brain waves and a computer is expected to have the ability to read and write the data between the computer and the human brain. However, in this case, writing data is probably more difficult than reading data.

In terms of machines, it has to learn to modify the structure of the material (Just like recording data on a tape, CD, or phonograph record). Likewise, in neuroscience terms, plasticity is a matter of alteration in the network structure in the brain.

At the cellular level, there is a gap between two neurons called a synapse. When two neurons come close to each other, communication takes place in this gap and a memory is generated. Synapses are very complex, so it is difficult to write something on human memory. However, activating the brain is possible because it only changes the state of the brain. Changing human memory by making them to forget it may be possible, but writing something on the memory might be a very difficult task for today’s knowledge and technology.

Simple explanation of how does the brain work

According to Dr. Sean, the smallest functional unit of the nervous system is the neuron. Neurons are joined together but not like a net. Between two cells, there is a small pocket of space which is the synapse. It is to pass messages to communicate between cells. In human vision, for example, the brain turns the light into electrical signals to stimulate and communicate with each other and the stimulus signal causes visual perception.

Human perception is caused by converting various signals into electrical signals like this. Human neural networks are connected in an RC circuit with circulating electricity. Smart people have faster signal transmission but it also depends on the specific selection of information that enters the brain for processing.

The persistent strengthening of the activated synapses between neurons is called long-term potentiation which can alter the strength between brain cell connections. If this strength is maintained, a memory can be formed.

Memory and emotion are related to each other. For example, fear is an emotion that greatly contributes to the survival of human. It helps people beware of danger. Fear is linked to the memory, making people to decide whether to stop, fight, or escape. Anyway, if fear is linked too much to the memory, people might become Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events.

There are also examples of memories linked to satisfaction and happiness. These memories stimulate people to something more, or to do something again, as applied in the Reward System.

Recent development of neuroscience

Dr. Tew explained as follows: there are many different types of technology to capture brain waves. For example, using electric current to measure single cell by craniotomy to implant electrodes to record the rapid and numerous signals emitted by neurons. After recording the electrical signals, machine learning is used to read the signal value and interpret how each cell works and responds to which stimulus.

This is the traditional method that was done with animals. Multi-electrode arrays technology was developed later with several electrodes are present on a chip. This technology enables brain wave measurement from multiple cells at the same time.

Currently, there are many other techniques, such as calcium-imaging with craniotomy and virus injection. The injected viruses contain proteins that alter the chemical structure of the brain to enable neurons to respond to fluorescence. This calcium imaging can be used to monitor the electrical activity in hundreds of neurons.

Today’s technology has reached the optogenetics, a biological technique for using light to control cells. There was an experiment of using light to control the brain of mice and making it turn left and right. Researchers have been able to do this for ten years, but when they try to do the experiment in other animals, such as monkeys, it becomes more difficult because the virus used in mice doesn’t work well in monkeys. The control by this optogenetics is only a behavioral control and it is still unable to alter the memory.

In addition to invasive brain activity measurement, there is also non-invasive measurement like electroencephalography (EEG). It is a measurement of brain waves which does not require a surgery. Normally, electrical impulses in cells also rise to the skull, so EEG can measure the brain’s electrical activity directly. However, the measurement results are not the same as the invasive method because the signal contains a lot of noise.

There are two main types of noise: external noise from outside the brain, such as device or the environment, and internal noise occurring between the neurons, known as neuronal noise, which is a random fluctuation. Scientists are interested in the meaning of this random internal noise and they wonder if meditation could reduce this noise or not. It is found that when humans focus on each thing, it can reduce the noise.

Another widely used measurement is MRI, which measures the change in oxygen supply to the brain. This is different from EEG which measures electrical signal. Both methods have different pros and cons. Electric currents are more sensitive, but it must be measured one centimeter apart, so the measure area is rougher. On the other hand, the measurement area in MRI is more precise, but it takes more time to measure oxygen. Currently, some researchers use both methods in parallel.

How to apply neuroscience knowledge in business

According to Dr. Tew, understanding of neuroscience can enable executives to reach consumers on a much deeper level. BCI technology provides direct access to the human mind, for example;

  • When doing works that need concentration like using machines or driving, if various performance indexes are integrated, people can work more safely. For example, using eye sensors to know if the driver is getting sleepy or not, if yes, the system can switch to auto pilot mode, turn on wake-up music, or send notification to the control center.
  • Checking athlete performance by monitoring whether the athlete’s brain is in good status or not, in order to promote training.
  • In case of metaverse, service providers who apply BCI technology in their devices can understand what their users are thinking.
  • Owners of real estate projects are able to know whether residents are happy to live in their projects or not. Instead of using the traditional questionnaire to make a survey, they can evaluate directly from the residents’ brains.
  • Using Internet of Brains (IoB) technology, which is currently under research by Japan and other countries. With this technology, everything can be connected through the internet by converting brain signals to internet signals, and then communicate through brain waves.

In the future, devices may all be connected together. AI that measures human brain with non-invasive measurement contains a lot of noise, so it needs to use ML (Machine Learning) to convert various signals before reading and using them. Now there are many devices linking and working together like smartphones and smartwatches. In the future, there should be more devices linking like this.

Dr. Sean added that there is also a technology called Closed Loop BCI, which records neural activity in real time to decide when to stimulate the brain directly or indirectly. This can help people monitor their state directly. You can use ML to interpret your feeling at that moment and process to inform what state you are, for example, you are under pressure, or sleepy, then it can let you hear your heartbeat as an indicator to stimulate you. Therefore, you can manage yourselves to become more alert or less pressure and you will be able to perform work at your best.

It can also be used to measure engagement. Now BCI headbands are under trial process. These headbands can read brain waves and connect to a program that analyzes whether the interlocutors are recognizing the same thing by analyzing the brain waves that send electrical signals in the same way. It can be applied to check activity engagement, understanding of communication, and understanding in learning things.

Moreover, EEG and eye tracking can also be used to collect data for analysis in terms of behavioral economics.

Neuroscience in both government and business sectors of Thailand

Dr. Sean commented that the government is now supporting for research funding, especially on the topics related to this field that can be utilized more in medicine or industries. In addition, organizations in Thailand are doing research with other global centers by focusing on healthcare.

As for business sectors, many businesses are becoming more interested in neuroscience, such as businesses that focus on well-being because it is directly related to livelihood, human thoughts and emotions.

According to both experts, if we can combine neuroscience knowledge with various technologies, and make it become really useful, many business sectors will be more interested. However, it depends on how to think about it and make it become useful, for example, applying neuroscience in boosting concentration, stimulating the cerebellum aiming to enhance the exercise, and stimulating the brain to slow down aging, or improving behavior.