From literature to film, we see countless examples of what would happen if a human being were given limitless capabilities. It is usually the story of an ordinary man, who becomes extraordinary because he is given super powers, perhaps by accessing 100% of his brain, or due to mutant genetic changes. But what if we could make this real? What if we could become supra-intelligent, and understand the world better than any human currently does (or ever has)?
We can start by looking at the biology of the brain, and then shift our perspective to see how a limitless brain might be achieved. The brain is a very complex organ--one that is difficult to control and influence. And this is unfortunate, because the brain is a nest for many diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia. This poses a significant problem, as we can expect to have at least 65 million people living with these diseases in the EU, Japan, and the US by the end of 2020. Our science has made strides, but a significant improvement in treatment outcomes remains elusive.
We have been trying to treat brain diseases with drugs, psychiatry, and other approaches with limited outcomes so far, because brain biology is very complex. For example, if we look at electrical conduction in the brain, we know that in order to transmit information, we must travel through a neuron, and neurons must communicate with each other through synaptic connection.
This figure is a simplified picture of a synaptic connection. You can see a large number of biological pathways, and when you try to develop a drug, this drug will interact with one of these molecules and potentially with one of the pathways. Imagine this biological interaction in the brain where there are connections between billions of neurons, all actively communicating with each other.
Drugs are good in the sense that they allow us to interact at the scale of a neuron, but because the biology is complex, drugs do not always produce the results we want. So what if we look at the same neuron a different way? What if we shift our perspective?
If we look at the same neuron, but from a physics perspective, we don’t see biology anymore. We see electrical currents, we see capacitors, we see resistance, and we see electric wires. And as soon as you look at the neuron this way, it is quite easy to understand that by playing with physics, we can influence a neuron.
One example of this is Deep Brain Stimulation, which is used in some Parkinson's disease patients to help control motor symptoms. If you insert an electrode in the brain within the zone that is in charge of controlling muscles, and run a small current, patients are sometimes able to regain power over motion. This treatment is also used in epilepsy and other diseases.
There are also treatments that use external brain simulation, where light, magnetism, or electricity influence the brain from the outside, forming a physical field. This is used for neuropathic pain and is under development in many other therapeutic areas.
Additionally, we have social networks and tech tycoons trying to interface the brain with computers. This is partly in order to develop computer applications, but they are also studying healthcare applications to try and treat the diseases we have mentioned. .
So physics works, but just like drugs, there are limitations. First, we must think about scale: if we want to influence a neuron, we must be at the scale of a neuron. When you have an electrode in the brain it will touch a large number of neurons, but then it becomes impossible to activate or communicate with only one neuron. Similarly with a magnetic field, you can adjust its focus to give access to a small zone of the brain, but not to only one neuron.
Moreover, the brain is not something that is static. If we want to have a useful impact on the brain, we need to utilize precise action in time and space. And the brain is not linear; meaning it is not simply a conglomeration of distinct zones--it is a network. If we want to influence a disease, we must have access to the whole brain. We cannot imagine having a large impact on the brain by working in just one interface, or in one spot of the brain.
And finally, as humans we need something biologically compatible to be put inside of us. Consider the example of an electrode in the brain. First of all, the procedure is quite invasive, with a hole created in order to insert the electrode in the brain. Then you have a wire sticking out, which is a potential source for infections. And when we talk about compatibility, we must also consider sustainability. If this electrode is in the brain for too long, the body may think it is a strange body and begin to encapsulate the electrode, which causes it to lose efficacy.
So what do we do? We have drugs that can interact with the intimacy of biology, but biology is complex; and we have physics, which is much less influenced by the variability of biology, but is hard to control in terms of focus. So ideally, we need something that utilizes physics, but acts at the subcellular level; at the size of a drug. This object exists, and it is called nano.
Nanoparticles are very tiny objects, with unique physical properties. And we have made tremendous progress in the past few decades designing nanoparticles for healthcare. You can design a nanoparticle today that spins, cuts, glues, collects information, sends information, activates--almost anything you want from a physical standpoint, and at the subcellular level. Nano is at the right scale, much smaller than a neuron, and with that it becomes possible to influence individual neurons, or a network of neurons.
With nanoparticles, we can precisely capture information from a neuron and transmit it outside of the body to merge with another technology. Or, we can do the opposite, and activate a nanoparticle to influence a neuron and produce a physical effect. We can even utilize a large number of nanoparticles to be implanted as a network. This gives us access to the whole brain, with precise control over these biocompatible nanoparticles.
Today we have the necessary background and knowledge to design safe and sustainable nano, and more than hundreds of different nanoparticle designs have already been developed for healthcare. Imagine what we could do for dementia patients with these new approaches. And this is not a fantasy. I invite you to go to PubMed and look at how many projects are currently under development within this field.
So far we have discussed treating patients, curing patients, and repairing patients. But what if we push our perspective a little further? What if we go from repair, to improve? Because if we consider these same principles, but expanded, we could almost do this.
Consider again the electric conduction of the brain. What if, using nano, we were to reinstall conduction in a deficient neuron to bring it back to normal? Or, what if we start with a healthy neuron, and use nano to accelerate the conduction of electricity. Could we not think faster? Have faster conduction in the brain?
Now what if we were to use a network of nano in the brain, and give access to a completely different pathway of thinking? Could we not think different? And I mean this in a greater sense than our pop-culture understanding of thinking differently, but actually allowing our brain to process and think in a way that it has never done before. If we develop connections between parts of the brain that were not previously connected, perhaps we could develop new emotions, and new capabilities.
We could go from repair, to improve, to change--and experience the world in completely new ways. The possibilities here are limitless. So, if you were given the choice, would you take some nano?