Fall
2013
Remote-controlled Humans:
Manipulating the Brain and
Actions with a Push of a Button
Peter Jerome V. Paulino
WRIT 340 - Advanced Writing for Engineers
Fall 2013
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Peter Jerome V. Paulino
Writing 340 – Advanced Writing for Engineers
Professor Aubertin
October 18, 2013
Remote-controlled Humans: Manipulating the Brain and Actions with a Push of a Button
Like the CPU of a computer, the brain is the central processing center of the human body. The
brain is where all the decision-making happens and controls every action that our organs and
limbs do. It’s the main junction of all our functions, thoughts and, memories. The brain is made
up of network of neurons integrated and working together. A neuron communicates with its
neighboring neurons by electrical or chemical signaling [1]. Its constituency is essentially like
the motherboard providing the electrical connections by which the other components of the
system communicate. Therefore, this circuit connection can also be disrupted and manipulated
by external signals that will alter the activity of the brain [1]. This can create remote- controlled
human actions that are mind-boggling.
Introduction
Remote-controlled things are everywhere. Remote-controlled cars and helicopters can be
seen in the playground while remote-controlled robots and space-arms can be seen in space
floating around with the International Space Station assisting the astronauts. The idea and having
the power to control a complex entity with a push of a button is thrilling and fascinating.
Arguably, humans are the most complex and the smartest beings in the universe. Since
existence, humans have conquered the world with their complex solving problem skills and
innovative abilities. In reality, is it possible to control humans with a push of a button? Yes,
that’s the answer that the advancement of neuroscience is giving. The brain activity relies on
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connected and integrated interactions of neurons in the brain working like a circuit [1]. Every
single aspect of human emotion, behavior, sensation, and perception is regulated by brain
activity. Having the ability to stimulate brain function is therefore achievable and a very
powerful technology. This technology can be applied to medicine and treat different types of
neuromuscular diseases such as human motor skills disorder, epilepsy, and movement
dysfunctions associated with Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, traumatic brain injury,
stroke, etc.
Brain Stimulation with Electrodes
Electrode has been the main theme and technique used by neuroscientists to analyze and
manipulate brain activity for the past 10 years. Researchers have contributed to this field with
much precision and with much good intention. Studies have shown that brain stimulation is
capable of treating neurological disorders and brain injury and controlling information
processing in brain circuits [3]. Deep brain stimulation has been developed to treat neurological
diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. This procedure is only used for patients with symptoms of
neurological movement disorder that cannot be adequately controlled with medications. The
Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) is done by surgically implanting a neurostimulator that deliver
electrical stimulation to intended areas in the brain that control movement (see Fig. 1) [3]. The
DBS is considered to be cost-effective, offering a value for money profile comparable to other
well accepted health care technologies [2].
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Figure 1. A medical procedure of the embedment of the Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). Source:
Wikipedia
However, several limitations still pose significant challenges to implementing traditional
brain stimulation methods for treating diseases and controlling information processing in brain
circuits [3]. For example, DBS requires neurosurgery in order to implant electrodes and batteries
into the patients and pose severe risks and complications. To overcome the limitations, a lab in
Arizona State University has engineered an innovative technology which implements
transcranial pulsed ultrasound which remotely and directly stimulate brain circuits without
requiring surgery [3]. Furthermore, the study has shown this ultrasonic neuromodulation
approach confers a fine resolution and can exert its effects upon subcortical brain circuits deep
within the brain [3].
Math and the Brain
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Researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered that a region
in the brain activated when people are asked to solve mathematical problems is also triggered
when people use numbers and quantitative terms in normal and everyday conversation.
The team implies that their findings could lead to “mind-reading” devices that could allow a
person to communicate through passive thinking or even lead to neuroimplants that could read or
control a person’s thinking [4].
To research their findings, published in the Nature Communications journal, the
researchers used a brain monitoring method called “intracranial recording” on three subjects who
were being examined for potential surgical treatment for recurring, drug-resistant epileptic
seizures.
The procedure was done by temporarily detaching a part of the skull of the patient before
placing packets of electrodes directly against the surface of the brain [4]. Then, the patients were
monitored for about a week in the hospital while attached to the positioned electrodes which
gathered any electrical activity happening on the patient’s brain [4]. This allowed the researchers
to monitor the patient’s seizure and analyze precisely from what region of the brain they were
originating from.
The researchers emphasize that during this time, although mainly confined to a hospital
bed, the patients were able to live their everyday life [4]. They were free to eat, drink, think, talk
to friends and family, watch TV and most importantly were comfortable and pain free. This
technique allowed them to monitor the brain activity of the subjects in a normal condition and
when doing real-life activities, compared with the traditional methods of brain monitoring such
as fMRI, which takes place in a controlled and unnatural environment [4]. During this
experiment, the participants were asked to complete tests. These required true or false answers to
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basic mathematical questions like, “is it true that 3+3=7?” as well as episodic memory questions,
such as “is it true if I had soup for lunch?” Sometimes, the patients were asked to stare at a blank
screen in order to record and determine the resting-state of their brain [4].
Analysis of the results of the subject’s daily electrode activity revealed activation spikes
in the intraparietal sulcus which is the region of the brain that has an important role in attention
as well as hand and eye movement [4]. The researchers also indicated that this area of the brain
is involved in numerosity which they defined as the mathematical equivalent of literacy [4]. The
team discovered that every time the subject said a number or quantitative reference, such as
“some more” or “a lot”, this triggered the same electrical activity in neurons of the intraparietal
sulcus as when patients were doing mathematical computations [4]. After the brain activity
discovery, the researchers suggest that their results and findings open up the possibility of
developing mind-control or mind-control reading devices. They propose that a person that
became mute because of stroke may one day be able to communicate again through passive
thinking.
Human-to-human Brain Interface
Perhaps, the most innovative and successful technology that can lead to controlling the
information processes in the brain is the recent study done at the University of Washing ton.
Researchers have performed what they believe is the first noninvasive human-to-human brain
interface, with one researcher able to send a brain signal via the Internet to control the hand
motions of a fellow researcher. They used electrical brain recordings and created a magnetic
stimulation form, a subject sent a brain signal to another subject on the other side of the school’s
campus, causing the finger to move on a keyboard [5]. This is a prime example of the beginning
of a remote-controlled human.
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The techniques applied to this research are well-known and popular in the field of
neuroscience. They were Electroencephalography (EEG) which is commonly used by scientists
to record the brain activity in specific regions (see Fig. 2) and the Transcranial magnetic
stimulation which is a noninvasive method of delivering stimulation to the human brain to bring
out a response. The response depends on where the coil is positioned and for this experiment; it
was placed over the brain region which controls the person’s right hand [5]. The stimulation
convinced the brain that it needed to move the right hand by activating the neurons in that area
[5].
Figure 2. A patient on an Electroencephalography (EEG) which is used to record the brain
activity in specific regions of the brain. Source: Wisconsin University
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Researchers have done a brain-to-brain communication between two rats at Duke
University and other researchers have conducted it between a human and a rat at Harvard
University [5]. This is the first demonstration of human-to-human brain interfacing.
Researcher Andrea Stocco implied that the Internet has networked humans by connecting
computers, and now it can link humans by “connecting the brain” [5].
Optogenetics: Light-controlled Brain
Optogenetics as it name entails is the combination of genetics and optics to control welldefined events within specific cells of living tissues [6]. It includes the discovery and insertion
into cells of genes that confer light responsiveness; it also includes the associated technologies
for delivering light deep into organisms as freely moving mammals [6].
Optogenetics is very specific compared to the electrodes that were once used. Electrodes
tend control the whole region of a brain when it is activated while optogenetics can control
specific areas of the brain that will contribute to the accuracy of controlling human actions in the
future.
The first study done with optogenetics is with a mouse (see Fig. 3). A gene from an alga
was inserted to the mouse’s brain so they can response with light when activated. It was
shockingly evident that the mouse was moving freely during normal condition but when the light
was turned on, the mouse counter clockwise and its motor activity became remote-controlled [6].
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Figure 3. A laboratory mouse implanted with optogenetics. Source: University of Michigan
Optogenetics has been used to control behavior of primates. This is a major milestone
from the rat studies considering that humans are closely related to primates genetically [7]. The
study done in Stanford University showed that monkeys respond to the light appearing to the
screen faster when they had the optogenetic light inserted to their brain (about 0.20 milliseconds)
suggesting that optogenetics can alter the behavior and vision response of primates [7].
After some years of development, optogenetic tools are rapidly reaching labs and
universities all over the nation and are being applied to countless areas of biological and
neuroscience research. Questions that were unanswered about depression, learning & memory,
sleep, perception, etc. were addressed because of this technology. This proves that the techniques
of optogenetic truly go with everything neuroscience-related. A study done by Alexxai Kravitz
dealt specifically with Parkinson’s disease which affects the basal ganglia that other diseases also
influence such as movement disorders associated with Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive
compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and addiction [7]. Using light to precisely change the
activity of targeted neurons in the brain not only enhances our knowledge of how the brain
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functions but also opens door for new therapeutic techniques and strategies in treating disorders
[7].
The enthusiasm for optogenetics in neuroscience right now is strong. The hype
surrounding these techniques has sometimes been a fast ticket into known and high-impact
journals. Journals like the Cell, Nature, and Neuron which scientists have in their coffee table,
office, or living room have a very high chance of having optogenetics as a topic. However, the
field is quickly adapting and must soon reach a point where the researches that uses optogenetics
are valued entirely for the science quality and the significance of the questions that are
addressed.
Epileptic Treatment through Brain Control
Epilepsy seizures are caused by abnormal synchronization between brain regions and
may lead to consciousness disturbance [8]. The diagnosis of epilepsy is typically made based on
a description of the seizure and surrounding events. An electroencephalogram (EEG) can
somehow aid in locating the focus of the epileptic seizure [8]. However, even though the
mechanism of the spread is unclear, preventing this spread will help to control the seizure and
improve patients’ lives.
Amirkabir University researchers hypothesized that “controllability idea” which is the
idea of driving the final state of a complex system like the brain to a desired one may aid in
managing the behavior of brain as a biological network [8]. They utilized different neural
concepts and applied the “complex network controllability” which requires the location of
different driver nodes by using connectivity information such as the structural and anatomical
organization of the brain [8]. This vast brain connectivity network information can be obtained
from different neuroimaging techniques like diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) which is a type of
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magnetic resonance imaging technique (MRI). DTI derived directed graphs and images are
becoming increasingly available especially from clinical environments. The application of some
brain simulation methods like the Trans-cranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and Trans-cranial
Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS) with brain connectivity networks data can be used in order to
excite or inhibit the derived driver nodes by managing the brain’s abnormal states via driving
them to normal ones and prevent the spread of asynchrony (see Fig. 4) [8].
Figure 4: A patient undergoing a Trans-cranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) procedure.
Source: University of British Columbia
Conclusion
The 21st century is the era of the greatest advancements in the sciences. Neuroscience is
in the front line offering innovative technologies and mind-boggling techniques no one can ever
imagine. Truly, the brain is the most complex system in the universe and is the center of the
greatest entity of the universe—man. Manipulating the brain and controlling human actions has
never been this achievable with powerful techniques such as electrodes, ultrasounds,
optogenetics, etc. and this ability can lead to treatment of epilepsies and disabilities involving
motor dysfunctions. It’s really hard to imagine that we’re still in the early days with this
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technology. If this is a football game, we’re not even in the first quarter. Instead, we just got a
ticket to enter the stadium.
References
[1] NIH. (2013, March 20). “Brain Basics: Know Your Brain.”
Internet:http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/brain_basics/know_your_brain.htm [Oct. 1, 2013]
[2] Dams, J., et al. (June 28, 2013). “Cost-effectiveness of deep brain stimulation in patients with
Parkinson's disease.” Movement Disorder Society. 763-771. Available:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23576266 [Oct. 7, 2013].
[3] Armed with Science. (2010, September 1). “Remote Control of Brain Activity Using
Ultrasound.” Internet: http://science.dodlive.mil/2010/09/01/remote-control-of-brain-activityusing-ultrasound/
[Oct. 1, 2013].
[4] Dastjerdi, Mohammad., et al. (October 15, 2013). “Numerical processing in the human parietal
cortex during experimental and natural conditions.” Nature Communications. 110-125. Available:
http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2013/131015/ncomms3528/full/ncomms3528.html [Oct. 1,
2013].
[5] Washington. (August 27, 2013). “Researcher Controls Colleague’s motions in 1st Human
Brain to Brain Interface.” Internet: http://www.washington.edu/news/2013/08/27/researchercontrols-colleagues-motions-in-1st-human-brain-to-brain-interface/
[Oct. 7, 2013].
[6] Cobolt. (2010). “Laser for Optogenetics.” Internet: http://www.cobolt.se/optogenetics.html
[Oct. 7, 2013].
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[7] Kravitz, Alexxai, et al. (October 15, 2013). “Regulation of parkinsonian motor behaviours by
optogenetic control of basal ganglia circuitry.” Nature. 622-626. Available:
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v466/n7306/full/nature09159.html [Oct. 1, 2013].
[8] Bakouie, Fatemeh, et al. (December 12, 2013). "Managing epilecptic seizures by controlling
the brain driver nodes: a complex network view." Frontiers in bioengineering and
biotechnology. 1-2. Available:
http://www.readcube.com/articles/10.3389/fbioe.2013.00021?locale=en [Dec. 15, 2013].
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Remote-controlled Humans: Manipulating the Brain and