The Alzheimer’s Association recently reported that one out of eight baby boomers is expected to get Alzheimer’s disease, creating a total of 10 million victims. This staggering prediction underscores the need for brain health and augmentation, a new market that tech players are fortunately beginning to enter.
Just as it is possible to go to work out one’s body in the gym, it is also possible to buy computer software to work out one’s brain. Software programs now on the market include Nintendo’s “Brain Age” and Posit Science’s Brain Fitness Programs. Indeed, consulting firm Sharpbrains reports that the market for these products more than doubled between 2005 and 2007 to US$225 million, and health insurers like Humana are offering brain fitness programs to Medicare members at a discounted price.
Such programs won’t cure Alzheimer’s, of course, but other members of the tech community are working on projects that might help scientists beat the disease. Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s Allen Institute for Brain Science mapped an entire mouse brain in 2006, detailing more than 21,000 genes at the cellular level. This provided scientists — free of charge — with a level of data previously unavailable. Allen researchers will conduct additional work charting gene activity in the developing mouse brain, and last week the company announced that they are working on mapping the human brain.
Turning Thoughts Into Speech
“This new atlas holds promise for furthering understanding of human developmental disorders such as autism and other age-associated conditions including schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, it is likely to uncover new opportunities for therapeutic intervention, as genes that are important for healthy brain development and maintenance may be helpful in slowing progress of degenerative diseases … and repairing brain tissue already damaged by injury or disease,” according to the Institute.
A leader from the tech community is driving the brain mapping project, and that should come as no surprise. It’s taken for granted in computer science that if you want to learn how something operates, mapping and reverse engineering is helpful. Allen’s brain project is looking to apply those methods to the human operating system. However, not all brain-driven tech is looking to fix a disease. Some are striving to make it easier to cope with disability.
For instance, Michael Callahan of Ambient recently demonstrated a device called “Audeo” that allows voiceless telephone calls. Although originally designed to allow people with disabilities to express their thoughts, someday soon everyone could have the ability to chat on the phone using a device that turns one’s thoughts into speech. This would be a blessing for those assailed by other people’s conversations, but it may bring up new privacy issues that make today’s battles look like child’s play. And the advances don’t end with speech.
More Opportunities for Innovators
In January, Miguel A. L. Nicolelis, M.D., Ph.D., announced that his team completed the first steps toward a brain machine interface that might make it possible for paralyzed people to walk by directing devices with their thoughts. The team’s monkey, in North Carolina, demonstrated the power of the technology when she used her brain signals to make a robot in Japan walk.
This technology is thrilling and its applications are not limited to the disabled. As a consumer application, it would be fun to make a robot move around using our thoughts and, as a military application, it could help soldiers access places they wouldn’t venture themselves.
Now that baby boomers are facing problems associated with aging, everyone will be more focused on solutions. This should help those who are struggling and provide new markets and more opportunity for innovators in the technology community.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.