If, one day, technology evolves to a point where people will be able to use brain waves to manipulate physical objects, humanity will be able to trace that development to a certain date in October 2013, or close enough. October 15 is the date President Shimon Peres will hand over a check for $1 million to the most innovative brain technology presentation, to be awarded to one of the 10 finalists who will be presenting at the first-ever International Brain Technology Conference, Braintech 2013.
The Global B.R.A.I.N. (Breakthrough Research And Innovation in Neurotechnology) contest, which was announced last year, is an international R&D award for breakthroughs in the field of brain technology, said Miri Polachek, executive director, Israel Brain Technologies. “We got over 70 applications from around the world, from which 10 finalists were chosen, mostly from the US and Israel. The technologies include a variety of applications, many of them designed to help patients suffering from diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.”
The award ceremony will be the highlight of the two-day Braintech event in Tel Aviv, where presentations and discussions on all things brain — from neuroscience to DNA to behavioral sciences to drugs — will be on the agenda. Highlighted will be the field of neurotechnology, which many scientists believe will be an area of strong growth in the coming years as researchers close in on how to manipulate the brain to treat diseases like depression and Alzheimer’s, and change our daily lives through Brain Machine Interfaces and Brain-like Computing. Among the speakers will be Nobel laureate professors Eric Kandel, Daniel Kahneman and Bert Sakmann.
Braintech is being sponsored by an organization called Israel Brain Technologies, established last year after prompting by Peres. Speaking at last year’s High-Tech Industry Association event, Peres introduced IBT, saying that “there is no doubt that brain research in the next decade will revolutionize our lives and impact such major domains as medicine, education, computing, and the human mind, to name but some. Israel is well-positioned to assume a leadership role in the emerging neurotechnology industry that promises to make the world a better place.”
The brain, he said, “has allowed us to create artificial brains, but not to explore our own brains.We have to learn more about ourselves, about how we make our choices in life.”
Among the finalists in the competition: Dr. Hagai Bergman, who has developed an improved adaptive deep brain stimulation technique to treat Parkinson’s disease and other basal ganglia disorders including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders and schizophrenia; Dr. Itzhak Fried, for his brain pacemaker to treat memory impairment in early Alzheimer’s disease and other memory disorders; the BrainGate Team, led by Dr. John Donoghue, for development and first demonstrations of a neural interface system being used by people with paralysis to provide direct brain control of communication devices, computers, and robotic limbs to restore functions performed by the arm and hand; and a company called Nano-Retina, which has developed an artificial retina that uses natural mechanisms of the eye to convey images to the brain, thereby restoring vision to persons blinded by retinal diseases.
Brain research has become a priority in both Israel and the US over the past year. At last June’s Presidential Conference, Hebrew University announced the establishment of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC) with a special exhibition on brain research, including therapeutic approaches for Alzheimer’s disease, research in computer vision, innovations in MRI imaging, and blood-brain barrier research. Inspired by Israel’s example, the U.S. last April inaugurated the “BRAIN” (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, to advance brain research in America.
While most of the projects in the B.R.A.I.N. contest are concerned with health, there’s a lot more brain research going on — some of which will be on display at Brainihack, an event preceding Braintech that will feature projects that go far beyond attempting to cure diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Among the projects: The Emotional DJ, an automatic DJ that plays songs based on your emotional state; Brainimator, software which lets you control a stick animation using the brain; a device to map your brain response to different kinds of music and learn which music is the most soothing and which is the most invigorating; and a truly Star Trek-like “mind meld,” in which participants will attempt to “create some kind of basic mind collaboration,” such as moving a ball using with a collective mind effort. “The harder we think the further the ball will move,” proponents of the experiment said.
It’s just a small sampling of what could be possible once the mysteries of the brain are revealed by researchers, said Polachek. “We can use brain research to enhance the human-machine interface in many areas — gaming, automotive, even incorporating the brain technology in computers to make them smarter. We could use brain research to better understand criminals, for example, and help lower the crime rate.”
Israel is at the forefront of much of this development, she said. “We have a lot of pharma research and biotech development here. A recent report by analysts at McKinsey & Company shows that Israel has great potential in areas like brain communication technology, brain stimulation devices for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and brain machine technology interfaces. These are areas Israel will lead in, I believe.”