Science-fiction brain technology to become reality
Israeli and foreign researchers present developing technologies for the ill and disabled at the Presidential Conference.
DR. AMIR AMEDI lectures at Presidential Conference Photo: judy siegel-itzkovich
Helping the blind to “see” with their acute sense of hearing, treating
schizophrenia patients by electrically stimulating tissue deep in their head,
and giving the sense of feeling to those without limbs are all part of the wave
of the future in brain science.
Israeli and foreign researchers presented
these developing technologies at the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem’s
International Convention Center Wednesday.
Prof. Hagai Bergman of the
Hebrew University’s neurobiology department described growing progress in Israel
and the world in treating severe cases of Parkinson’s disease patients’ palsy by
surgically implanting a battery-operated neurostimulator similar to a heart
pacemaker to deliver electrical stimulation to specific parts of the brain that
This tiny device, available to suitable patients in the
basket of health services, blocks the abnormal nerve signals that cause the
severe shaking and other symptoms.
He noted that some 400 Israelis with
debilitating Parkinson’s – out of some 100,000 people worldwide – had already
undergone the surgery. But adjusting the system optimally was still not easy,
Bergman said, and therefore the next step would be “closed-loop” deep brain
stimulation (DBS) that would work automatically in reaction to brain
While Parkinson’s usually affects older people, schizophrenia –
the most severe psychiatric disease – can affect young people as
The same DBS is expected to help victims of schizophrenia once
studies on monkeys show the treatment is feasible and it progresses to clinical
trials, Bergman said.
He noted that researchers must be very careful, as
frontal lobotomies – a practice going back to the 19th century, in which people
with psychiatric and developmental diseases would have parts of their brains
removed surgically – had proved to be disastrous.
were a mistake and should not be tried again, but if a loved one had a severe
mental disorder, I would think about closed-loop DBS, which would be reversible
and adjustable, with minimal side effects. The technique is based on good animal
Swiss cognitive neuroscientist Prof. Olaf Blanke, who has
pioneered the neuroscientific study of human self-consciousness and
subjectivity, discussed how illusions could be induced in the brain to give a
person whose arm was amputated the feeling that it was still there and able to
Blanke showed how a person wearing computer-activated goggles
could be given missing senses through illusion.
Techniques that surgeons
use to perform operations by robot – i.e., moving robotic controls without the
surgeon’s hands ever entering the patient’s body – can be adapted to have the
patient operate artificial hands.
“It is so intuitive that the prosthesis
of a missing upper arm becomes like part of the body,” said Blanke, adding that
similar techniques enabled computer gamers to use avatars and feel they were
actually moving through artificial scenery.
Moderator Prof. Idan Segev of
the HU neurobiology department and Interdisciplinary Center for Neural
Computation hypothesized that at some future Presidential Conference, lecturers
could remain abroad and yet physically appear to be in Jerusalem, speaking and
answering questions through highly sophisticated videoconferencing.
Amir Amedi of HU’s Safra Brain Research Center showed how blind-from-birth people
could be taught to interpret sound signals even as facial expressions that they
could never see.
“We were always told the brain is a sensory-specific
machine with a visual or auditory cortex, thus implying that specific senses
cannot be restored” even if the physical problem were repaired. But now, brain
scientists believe there is a different organization of the brain, which is
flexible and could adapt. The brain, he explained, can see things that aren’t
“Maybe we can help blind people who would hear sounds or be
touched, causing the brain to create images as if they were
seen. Already, training the blind for 40 to 70 hours can make it possible
for them to ‘feel’ facial expressions from sounds and ‘rewire’ the brain,” Amedi
Nonetheless, Weizmann Institute of Science robotics expert Prof.
Shimon Ullman, who discussed artificial intelligence, cautioned that there were
dangers to the “superpowers” that could result from brain research.
day, we could ‘look into’ brains and know what people are thinking,” he said.
“This could lead to the invasion of privacy. These ethical issues must be
discussed and be brought out into the open.”