Dial H for Happiness: How Neuroengineering May Change Your Brain

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March 26, 2009 | 41,861 views

Sci-Fi author Philip K. Dick wrote of a world in which people could select their moods every day on a “Penfield mood organ.” We're a long way from building that device, but there are already machines that can alter your brain.

One example is a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) machine. When held to your head, it can affect areas of the brain within a few centimeters of the surface. TMS doesn't reach the deeper regions of the brain, but there are a lot of important and interesting areas in the cortex where TMS delivers its current. Clinicians use it to treat migraines and depression, though it can impact much more such as creativity, risk-taking and concentration.

TMS has been around for barely 20 years, and shows enormous potential for certain types of neural conditions.

“Neuroengineering” raises a number of ethical issues, especially considering that scientists are already working on a version of a TMS machine that is an affordable, wearable unit. It could go into much wider use in regular therapy offices, or even at home, allowing people to “hack” their own brains.

For an in-depth look at this fascinating subject, click the link to the Wired Magazine article below.
Neuroengineering is a fascinating, relatively new field and one that, as the name implies, involves the use of engineering techniques to alter your brain.

While much remains to be discovered about your brain’s complex workings, it’s known that neurons in your brain are specialized cells that produce brief spikes of voltage in their outer membranes. Each neuron in your brain’s cortex receives input from as many as 10,000 other neurons,

Yet, neurons are able to communicate even though they are not physically connected. This communication happens across a tiny empty space called a synapse, and it is largely the patterns of formation and fading of these synapse connections that form our ability to learn and function.

If you are able to change the pattern of your brain’s synapses, you can alter your very mind, and this is what neuroengineers attempt to do, often using artificial devices.

Neuroengineering is Already Widespread

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is already approved to treat depression in Canada and Israel, and is available as a research procedure in the United States. It uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in your brain, typically to treat depression but also for other conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder.

But as the Wired article pointed out, TMS may one day be used not for health purposes, but to provoke changes in mood, such as improving creativity or concentration. Neuroengineers are already envisioning “affordable, wearable units that could go into much wider use in regular therapy offices, or even at home.”

So it’s not a stretch to say that one day people could have access to brain stimulation machines right in their own homes, and use them to give their mood or confidence a quick boost.

Another type of neuroengineering already in use is deep-brain stimulation, which has become a routine treatment for Parkinson‘s disease. Scientists are also testing it as a way to treat a growing number of other disorders, including epilepsy, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The procedure involves a thin electrode surgically implanted into your brain, stimulating neurons in areas affected by disease. The voltage is controlled by a power pack implanted in the patient‘s chest.

Experiments on rats have found that this type of electrical stimulation of the brain seems to drive the production of new memories and new brain cells, and it’s even being considered as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

Are There Any Risks?

Using electrodes or electromagnetic coils to manipulate the way your brain cells communicate is no doubt a novel form of medicine. But it is not without risks. The long-term implications of interfering with the workings of your brain are completely unknown, and even in the short term there is the issue of being exposed to strong electromagnetic fields.

With deep-brain stimulation, however, serious risks have already been reported and include:

• Bleeding in the brain
• Seizure
• Infection
• Delirium

• Unwanted mood changes, such as mania, panic attacks and depression
• Movement and speech disorders
• Lightheadedness, dizziness and insomnia
And while the side effects of TMS have so far been mild, such as headache, lightheadedness or tingling in facial muscles, in rare cases seizure, mania and hearing problems have also been reported.

There are Natural Ways to Alter Your Brain and Mood

The field of neuroengineering brings up the surreal and slightly disturbing image of people walking around hooked up to electrical devices that control their innermost emotions and thoughts. Scientists have been trying to come up with such devices  -- and have certainly developed more than a handful of drugs -- to do just that for decades.

But if you’re looking to improve your mood, increase your memory, enhance your alertness or otherwise “hack your brain” to feel happier, you should know that there are natural ways to do so, and they carry no risks of side effects whatsoever.

What are they?

1. Exercise. More than 20 percent of your body’s blood and oxygen go directly to your brain, and exercise increases this flow, not only improving your mood but also your brain power.

2. Eat a healthy diet, including limiting sugar. Your brain uses roughly 20 percent of your daily calories, so make sure they count.

3. Get plenty of animal-based omega-3 fat, such as krill oil. Omega-3 fats help keep the dopamine levels in your brain high, increase neuronal growth in the frontal cortex of your brain, and increase cerebral circulation. They also impact your mood.

In one study, participants with lower blood levels of omega-3s were more likely to have symptoms of depression and a more negative outlook, according to accepted tests for depression, impulsiveness, and personality. Those with higher blood levels demonstrated the opposite emotional states.

4. Take control of your emotions. Unresolved negative emotions and thoughts are often caused by a disruption in your body’s subtle energy system. You can use the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to clear out emotional blockages from your system, thus restoring your mind and body's balance.

5. Stimulate your mind. Playing board games, taking a class at a community college, traveling and engaging in other tasks that challenge and stimulate your brain can all boost your brain functioning.

6. Get enough sleep. Sleep is essential for brain function and also assists your brain in flagging unrelated ideas and memories, forging connections that increase your creativity.

7. Get out in the sun. Sunshine is essential for optimizing your vitamin D levels, and seniors with low levels of vitamin D are more than TWICE as likely to be cognitively impaired as their peers with optimal levels. People who are cognitively impaired are more likely to develop dementia and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease, so make sure your vitamin D levels are in the healthy range.

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