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Brave Neuro World

Using drugs to neuroenhance memory and mental stamina engenders new controversies -- and new words

3 min read
We live in an information society. What’s the next form of human society? The neuro-society.
--Zack Lynch & Byron Laursen, The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World

In April 2009, the journal Nature published the results of a poll that asked people whether they were using beta blockers and drugs like Ritalin—not for their original medical purposes but to boost their brain power. Of the 1400 people from 60 countries who responded, one in five—an eyebrow-raising proportion—reported they had done so. About 80 percent said that healthy adults should be able to take such drugs for nonmedical purposes.

These surprising results touched off a flurry of off- and online harrumphing and tut-tutting, which one scientist dismissed as mere neurogossip. The mental, physical, legal, and ethical pros and cons have, of course, been well debated over the past year or so, but all this talk about brain boosting has also generated a tidy collection of new words and phrases (such as brain boosting). The use of pharmaceuticals to enhance memory, focus, and mental stamina in healthy brains is known generally as cognitive enhancement; the pharmaceuticals themselves are often called cognitive enhancers.

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This Implant Turns Brain Waves Into Words

A brain-computer interface deciphers commands intended for the vocal tract

10 min read
A man using an interface, looking at a screen with words on it.

A paralyzed man who hasn’t spoken in 15 years uses a brain-computer interface that decodes his intended speech, one word at a time.

University of California, San Francisco

A computer screen shows the question “Would you like some water?” Underneath, three dots blink, followed by words that appear, one at a time: “No I am not thirsty.”

It was brain activity that made those words materialize—the brain of a man who has not spoken for more than 15 years, ever since a stroke damaged the connection between his brain and the rest of his body, leaving him mostly paralyzed. He has used many other technologies to communicate; most recently, he used a pointer attached to his baseball cap to tap out words on a touchscreen, a method that was effective but slow. He volunteered for my research group’s clinical trial at the University of California, San Francisco in hopes of pioneering a faster method. So far, he has used the brain-to-text system only during research sessions, but he wants to help develop the technology into something that people like himself could use in their everyday lives.

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