Reverse-Engineering Brains, One Neuron At A Time

Most posts here are electrical or mechanical, with a few scattered hacks from other fields. Those who also keep up with advances in biomedical research may have noticed certain areas are starting to parallel the electronics we know. [Dr. Rajib Shubert] is in one such field, and picked up on the commonality as well. He thought it’d be interesting to bridge the two worlds by explaining his research using analogies familiar to the Hackaday audience. (Video also embedded below.)

He laid the foundation with a little background, establishing that we’ve been able to see individual static neurons for a while via microscope slides and such, and we’ve been able to see activity of the whole living brain via functional MRI. These methods gradually improved our understanding of neurons, and advances within the past few years have reached an intersection of those two points: [Dr. Shubert] and colleagues now have tools to peer inside a functional brain, teasing out how it works one neuron at a time.

[Dr. Shubert]’s talk makes analogies to electronics hardware, but we can also make a software analogy treating the brain as a highly optimized (and/or obfuscated) piece of code. Virus stamping a single cell under this analogy is like isolating a single function, seeing who calls it, and who it calls. This pairs well with optogenetics techniques, which can be seen as like modifying a function to see how it affects results in real time. It certainly puts a different meaning on the phrase “working with live code”!

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Shockingly, DARPA’s Brain Stimulator Might Not be Complete Nonsense

Where does your mind jump when you hear the mention of electroshock therapy? The use of electrical current to treat various medical conditions has a long and controversial history. Our fascination with the medical applications of electricity have produced everything from the most alarming of patent medicines to life-saving devices like pacemakers and the Automatic External Defibrillator.

The oldest reference I could find is the use of the torpedo fish to allegedly cure headaches, gout, and so on in 43 CE. Incidentally, Torpedo torpedo is an awesome species name.

Dosage: Apply live fish as needed to face? Source

Much more recently, there has been interest in transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). In essence, it’s a technique by which you pass an electrical current (typically about 2 milliamps) between strategically positioned electrodes on your head. The precise reason to do this is a bit unclear; different journal articles have suggested improvements in cognition, learning, and/or the potential treatment of various diseases.

I think most of us here spend a lot of time studying. The idea that a simple, noninvasive device can accelerate that is very attractive. We’ve covered a few people building their own such devices.

Unfortunately, what we want to be true is irrelevant. Superficially, this looks like a DARPA-funded panacea with no clearly established mechanism of action. Various commercial products are being sold that imply (but as usual, don’t directly state) that tDCS is useful for treating pretty much everything, with ample use of ‘testimonials’.

While tDCS can be prescribed by a physician in some countries to complement a stroke rehabilitation regime, for off-label purposes you may as well just go apply a fish to your face. Let’s dig into the literature and products that are out there and see if we can find the promise hiding amidst the hype.

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DARPA Plans To Begin Hacking Human Brains

So [DARPA] wants to start hacking human brains, With the help of the biomedical device center at the university of Texas in Dallas. This does sound a bit crazy but DARPA does crazy. Conspiracy theorists are going to have a field day with this one.

The initial plans to turn us all into mindless zombies seem to be shelved for now, however they are working on what they call Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT), which they explain means using the body’s nervous system to enhance and speed up the learning process. This could be achieved by using a process known as ‘synaptic plasticity‘ which opens and closes the brains synapses with electrical stimulation. They hope that by tuning the neural networks responsible for cognitive function it will enhance learning. Let’s just hope they don’t turn any humans into DARPA falling robots.

Hacklet 105 – More Mind and Brain Hacks

A mind is a terrible thing to waste – but an awesome thing to hack. We last visited brain hacks back in July of 2015. Things happen fast on Hackaday.io. Miss a couple of days, and you’ll miss a bunch of great new projects, including some awesome new biotech hacks. This week, we’re checking out some of the best new mind and brain hacks on Hackaday.io

We start with [Daniel Felipe Valencia V] and Brainmotic. Brainmotic is [Daniel’s] entry in the 2016 Hackaday Prize. Smart homes and the Internet of Things are huge buzzwords these days. [Daniel’s] project aims to meld this technology with electroencephalogram (EEG). Your mind will be able to control your home. This would be great for anyone, but it’s especially important for the handicapped. Brainmotic’s interface is using the open hardware OpenBCI as the brain interface. [Daniel’s] software and hardware will create a bridge between this interface and the user’s home.

 

biofeed1Next we have [Angeliki Beyko] with Serial / Wireless Brainwave Biofeedback. EEG used to be very expensive to implement. Things have gotten cheap enough that we now have brain controlled toys on the market. [Angeliki] is hacking these toys into useful biofeedback tools. These tools can be used to visualize, and even control the user’s state of mind. [Angeliki’s] weapon of choice is the MindFlex series of toys. With the help of a PunchThrouch LightBlue Bean she was able to get the EEG headsets talking on Bluetooth. A bit of fancy software on the PC side allows the brainwave signals relieved by the MindFlex to be interpreted as simple graphs. [Angeliki] even went on to create a Mind-Controlled Robotic Xylophone based on this project.

brainhelmetNext is [Stuart Longland] who hopes to protect brains with Improved Helmets. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is in the spotlight of medical technology these days. As bad as it may be, TBI is just one of several types of head and neck injuries one may sustain when in a bicycle or motorcycle accident. Technology exists to reduce injury, and is included with some new helmets. Many of these technologies, such as MIPS, are patented. [Stuart] is working to create a more accurate model of the head within the helmet, and the brain within the skull. From this data he intends to create a license free protection system which can be used with new helmets as well as retrofitted to existing hardware.

mindwaveFinally we have [Tom Meehan], whose entry in the 2016 Hackaday Prize is Train Your Brain with Neurofeedback. [Tom] is hoping to improve quality of life for people suffering from Epilepsy, Autism, ADHD, and other conditions with the use of neurofeedback. Like [Angeliki ] up above, [Tom] is hacking hardware from NeuroSky. In this case it’s the MindWave headset. [Tom’s] current goal is to pull data from the TAGM1 board inside the MindWave. Once he obtains EEG data, a Java application running on the PC side will allow him to display users EEG information. This is a brand new project with updates coming quickly – so it’s definitely one to watch!

If you want more mind hacking goodness, check out our freshly updated brain hacking project list! Did I miss your project? Don’t be shy, just drop me a message on Hackaday.io. That’s it for this week’s Hacklet, As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!

Hack Your Brain: the McCollough Effect

There is a fascinating brain reaction known as the McCollough Effect which is like side-loading malicious code through your eyeballs. Although this looks and smells like an optical illusion, the science would argue otherwise. What Celeste McCollough observed in 1965 can be described as a contingent aftereffect although we refer to this as “The McCollough Effect” due to McCollough being the first to recognize this phenomena. It’s something that can’t be unseen… sometimes affecting your vision for months!

I am not suggesting that you experience the McCollough Effect yourself. We’ll look at the phenomena of the McCollough Effect, and it can be understood without subjecting yourself to it. If you must experience the McCollough Effect you do so at your own risk (here it is presented as a video). But read on to understand what is happening before you take the plunge.

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Hacklet 56 – Brain Hacks

The brain is the most powerful – and least understood computer known to man. For these very reasons, working with the mind has long been an attraction for hackers, makers, and engineers. Everything from EEG to magnetic stimulus to actual implants have found their way into projects. This week’s Hacklet is about some of the best brain hacks on Hackaday.io!

teensy-bio[Paul Stoffregen], father of the Teensy, is hard at work on Biopotential Signal Library, his entry in the 2015 Hackaday Prize. [Paul] isn’t just hacking his own mind, he’s creating a library and reference design using the Teensy 3.1. This library will allow anyone to read electroencephalogram (EEG) signals without having to worry about line noise filtering, signal processing, and all the other details that make recording EEG signals hard. [Paul] is making this happen by having the Teensy’s cortex M4 processor perform interrupt driven acquisition and filtering in the background. This leaves the user’s Arduino sketch free to actually work with the data, rather than acquiring it. The initial hardware design will collect data from TI ADS129x chips, which are 24 bit ADCs with 4 or 8 simultaneous channels. [Paul] plans to add more chips to the library in the future.

 

bioxNext up is [Jae Choi] with Lucid Dream Communication Link. [Jae] hopes to create a link between the dream world and the real world. To do this, they are utilizing BioEXG, a device [Jae] designed to collect several types of biological signals. Data enters the system through several active probes. These probes use common pogo pins to make contact with the wearer’s skin. [Jae] says the active probes were able to read EEG signals even through their thick hair! Communication between dreams and the real world will be accomplished with eye movements. We haven’t heard from [Jae] in awhile – so we hope they aren’t caught in limbo!

bioloop[Qquuiinn] is working from a different angle to build bioloop, their entry in the 2015 Hackaday Prize. Rather than using EEG signals, [Qquuiinn] is going with Galvanic Skin Response (GSR). GSR is easy to measure compared to EEG signals. [Qquuiinn] is using an Arduino Pro Mini to perform all their signal acquisition and processing. This biofeedback signal has been used for decades by devices like polygraph “lie detector” machines. GSR values change as the sweat glands become active. It provides a window into a person’s psychological or physiological stress levels. [Qquuiinn] hopes bioloop will be useful both to individuals and to mental health professionals.

biomonitorFinally we have [Marcin Byczuk] with Biomonitor. Biomonitor can read both EEG and electrocardiogram (EKG) signals. Unlike the other projects on today’s Hacklet, Biomonitor is wireless. It uses a Bluetooth radio to transmit data to a nearby PC or smartphone. The main processor in Biomonitor is an 8 bit ATmega8L. Since the 8L isn’t up to a lot of signal processing, [Marcin] does much of his filtering the old fashioned way – in hardware. Carefully designed op-amp based active filters provide more than enough performance when measuring these types of signals. Biomonitor has already found it’s way into academia, being used in both the PalCom project, and brain-computer interface research.

If you want more brain hacking goodness, check out our brain hacking project list! Did I miss your project? Don’t be shy, just drop me a message on Hackaday.io. That’s it for this week’s Hacklet, As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!