Although at one point, “hack” referred to a creative solution to a tech problem, the term can apply to pretty much anything now. There are kitchen hacks, productivity hacks, personal finance hacks. Brain hacks, or neurohacks, are among the buzziest, though, thanks largely to the Silicon Valley techies who often swear by them as a way to boost their cognitive function, focus, and creativity. Mic asked a neuroscientist to explain neurohacking, which neurohacking methods are especially promising, which are mostly hype, and how to make neurohacking work for you.
First things first: Neurohacking, is a broad umbrella term that encompasses anything that involves “manipulating brain function or structure to improve one’s experience of the world,” says neuroscientist Don Vaughn of Santa Clara University and the University of California, Los Angeles. Like the other myriad forms of hacking, neurohacking uses an engineering approach, treating the brain as a piece of hardware that can be systematically modified and upgraded.
Neurohacking techniques can fall under a number of categories — here are a few of the most relevant ones, as well as the thinking behind them.
This involves applying an electric or magnetic field to certain regions of the brain in non-neurotypical people to make their activity more closely resemble that seen in a neurotypical brain. In 2008, the Food and Drug Administration approved transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) — a noninvasive form of brain stimulation which delivers magnetic pulses to the brain in a noninvasive manner — for major depression. Since then, the FDA has also approved TMS for pain associated with migraines with auras, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Established brain stimulation techniques (such as TMS or electroconvulsive therapy) performed by an expert provider, such as a psychiatrist or neuroscientist, are generally safe, Vaughn says.
This oneinvolves using a device that measures brain activity, such as an electroencephalogram (EEG) or a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. People with neuropsychological disorders receive feedback on their own brain activity — often in the form of images or sound — and focus on trying to make it more closely resemble the brain activity in a healthy person, Vaughn says. This could happen through changing their thought patterns, Vaughn says. Another possibility is that the feedback itself, or the person’s thoughts about the feedback, may somehow lead to a change in their brain’s wiring.
Reducing cognitive load
This means minimizing how much apps, devices, and other tech compete for your attention. Doing so can sharpen and sustain your focus, or what Vaughn refers to as your attention quotient (AQ). To boost his AQ, Vaughn listens to brown noise, which he likens to “white noise, but deeper.” (Think the low rush of a waterfall versus pure static.) He also chews gum, which he says provides an outlet for his restless “monkey mind” while still allowing him to focus on the task at hand.
Reducing cognitive load can also deepen your connection with others. Vaughn uses Voicea, an app based on an AI assistant that takes and store notes of meetings, whether over the phone or in-person, allowing him to focus solely on the conversation, not on recording it. “If we can quell those disruptions that occur because of the way work is done these days, it will allow us to focus and be more empathic with each other,” he says.
Tracking your sleep patterns and adjusting them accordingly. Every night, you go through around five or so stages of sleep, each one deeper than the last. “People are less groggy and make fewer errors when they wake up in a lighter stage of sleep,” Vaughn says. He uses Sleep Cycle, an app that tracks your sleep patterns based on your movements in bed to rouse you during your lightest sleep stage.
Microdosing is the routinely consumption of teensy doses of psychedelics like LSD, ecstasy, or magic mushrooms. Many who practice microdosing follow the regimen recommended by James Fadiman, psychologist and author of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys: a twentieth to a tenth of a regular dose, once every three days for about a month. While a regular dose may make you trip, a microdose has subtler effects, with someusers reporting, for instance, enhanced energy and focus, per The Cut.
These are OTC supplements or drugs taken to enhance cognitive function. They range from everyday caffeine and vitamin B12 (B12 deficiency has been associated with cognitive decline) to prescription drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy, as well as Provigil (modafinil), used to treat extreme drowsiness resulting from narcolepsy and other sleep disorder. (All three of these drugs promote wakefulness.) The science behind nootropic supplements in particular remains rather murky, though.
Does neurohacking work, though?
Vaughn finds microdosing, neurostimulation, and neurofeedback especially promising for neuropsychological disorders. Although studies suggest that larger doses of psychedelics could help with disorders such as PTSD and treatment-resistant major depression, there are few studies on microdosing psychedelics. “The little science that has been done…is mixed—perhaps slightly positive,” Vaughn says. “Microdosing is promising mainly because of anecdotal evidence.” Meanwhile, neurostimulation can be used noninvasively in some cases, and TMS has already received FDA approval for a handful of conditions. Neurofeedback is not only non-invasive, but offers immediate feedback, and studies suggest it could be effective for PTSD and addiction.
But it’s important to note that just because these methods could positively alter brain function in people with neuropsychological disorders, that “doesn’t mean it’s going to take a normal system and make it superhuman,” Vaughn says. “I think there are lots of small hacks to be done that could add up to something big,” rather than huge hacks that can vastly upgrade cognitive function, a la Limitless. Thanks to millions of years of evolution, the human brain is already pretty damn optimized. “I just don’t know how much more we can tweak it to make it better,” Vaughn says.
As far as enhancements for neurotypical brains, he says that “you’ll probably see a much greater improvement” from removing distractions in your environment to reduce cognitive load than say, increasing your B12 intake — which brings us to an important disclaimer about nootropic supplements in particular. As with all supplements, they aren’t FDA-regulated, meaning that companies that sell them don’t need to provide evidence that they’re safe or effective. Vaughn recommends trying nootropics that research has shown to be safe and effective, like B12or caffeine.
How can I start neurohacking?
As tempting as it is, adopting every neurohack under the sun is “not the answer,” Vaughn says. Remember, everyone is different. While your best friend may gush about how much her mood has improved since she began microdosing shrooms, your brain might not respond to microdosing—or maybe taking psychedelics just doesn’t align with your ethics.
Start by exploring different neurohacks, and of course, be skeptical of any product that makes outrageous claims. Since neurofeedback isn’t a common medical treatment, talk to your doctor about enrolling in academic studies on neurofeedback, or companies that offer it if you’re interested, Vaughn says. You should also talk to your doctor if you want to try brain stimulation. A doctor can prescribe you Adderall, Ritalin, or Provigil but only for their indicated medical uses, not for cognitive enhancement.
Ultimately, neurohacks are tools, Vaughn says. “You have to find the one that works for you.” If anything, taking this DIY approach to improving your brain function will leave you feeling empowered, a benefit that probably rivals anything a supplement or sleep tracking app could offer.
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At times I’m just too tired to explain how I’m feeling. (You might have noticed I write less often than I used to and that’s one of the reasons for it.) Sometimes there is a storm of emotions inside me which I realise are irrational but I can’t quell them. So to avoid saying anything that I would later regret, I find myself clamming up. But my face rarely gets the memo and goes into full on sulky mode. I’m so bored of this brain injury, I wish I could direct my anger at it and evict it from my head. Sadly it doesn’t work like that though.
At the time clamming up feels like the lesser of two evils. But maybe it isn’t.
My silence carries more weight than I intend it to. All I’m doing it trying to contain my poisonous tongue. Some people go quiet for dramatic effect, waiting for someone to ask “What’s wrong, you’ve hardly said a word today?” I guarantee you, that when you are struggling with a brain injury there is no such thing as dramatic effect.
Even when I’m trying to be mindful, holding my tongue is the best I can do. I might be sulking about my partner James having to work so much, and having less time with him. As he is the only one bringing in a income, I know I can’t begrudge him for being so conscientious. In fact, I know he would like nothing more than being able to work less, or even take early retirement. But currently neither are an option. So I try to remind myself of this and empathise with his position. And it works, but not for my brain injury. It just keeps complaining and dragging me down.
How silence leaves too many unanswered questions.
My grumpiness is too obvious, and I know it makes James feel guilty. But he has nothing to feel guilty about. He has been truly amazing the entire time. Superman hasn’t got a patch on this guy. If the world had more people like him in it, people wouldn’t need heaven.
But he still doubts himself as he can read my face. So eventually I manage to spill, but I start with a disclaimer: “I know I’m being stupid, and here’s the reason why it’s stupid …..blah,blah,blah…. but I can’t help it. I’m upset about ….x,y,z….. because…..”
This really does help the situation, it’s just a shame it takes me so long to be in a position where I can do it. James is getting used to my behaviour, but he is only human (although he’s as close to an angel as you can get.) When I am clamming up, his mind is running a million miles an hour, thinking of all the things I might be annoyed about. I do feel bad for torturing him like this as he doesn’t deserve it. So here’s a shout out for all the carers who some how put up with the nonsense some of us survivors put them through.
I’m tired and I’ve run out of words again so I’m going to leave it there. I think you get the point, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who is going through this.
Objective: To compare the effects of transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) with traditional Chinese acupuncture on upper-extremity (UE) function among patients with stroke.
Materials and Methods: Participants with subacute to chronic stroke who had moderate to severe UE functional impairment were randomly allocated to the TDCS or electro-acupuncture group, then underwent three weeks of physical therapy and occupational therapy, with 20 minutes of a-TDCS (2 mA) or electro-acupuncture applied during training once weekly. Primary outcome was determined using the Fugl-Meyer Assessment of motor recovery at 1-month follow-up.
Results: The 18 participants were allocated into two groups. Fugl-Meyer Assessment increased in both the TDCS and electroacupuncture groups (5.00±3.08, p=0.001 and 7.4±4.9, p=0.002, respectively). However, no difference was found between groups, and no significant difference was observed in grip strength and task specific performance in both groups.
Conclusion: The application of TDCS might provide benefits in recovering hand motor function among patients with subacute to chronic stroke but does not go beyond those of electro-acupuncture.
Background. Proprioception of fingers is essential for motor control. Reduced proprioception is common after stroke and is associated with longer hospitalization and reduced quality of life. Neural correlates of proprioception deficits after stroke remain incompletely understood, partly because of weaknesses of clinical proprioception assessments.
Objective. To examine the neural basis of finger proprioception deficits after stroke. We hypothesized that a model incorporating both neural injury and neural function of the somatosensory system is necessary for delineating proprioception deficits poststroke.
Methods. Finger proprioception was measured using a robot in 27 individuals with chronic unilateral stroke; measures of neural injury (damage to gray and white matter, including corticospinal and thalamocortical sensory tracts), neural function (activation of and connectivity of cortical sensorimotor areas), and clinical status (demographics and behavioral measures) were also assessed.
Results. Impairment in finger proprioception was present contralesionally in 67% and bilaterally in 56%. Robotic measures of proprioception deficits were more sensitive than standard scales and were specific to proprioception. Multivariable modeling found that contralesional proprioception deficits were best explained (r2 = 0.63; P = .0006) by a combination of neural function (connectivity between ipsilesional secondary somatosensory cortex and ipsilesional primary motor cortex) and neural injury (total sensory system injury).
Conclusions. Impairment of finger proprioception occurs frequently after stroke and is best measured using a quantitative device such as a robot. A model containing a measure of neural function plus a measure of neural injury best explained proprioception performance. These measurements might be useful in the development of novel neurorehabilitation therapies.
Background/Objective. We investigated interhemispheric interactions in stroke survivors by measuring transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)–evoked cortical coherence. We tested the effect of TMS on interhemispheric coherence during rest and active muscle contraction and compared coherence in stroke and older adults. We evaluated the relationships between interhemispheric coherence, paretic motor function, and the ipsilateral cortical silent period (iSP).
Methods. Participants with (n = 19) and without (n = 14) chronic stroke either rested or maintained a contraction of the ipsilateral hand muscle during simultaneous recordings of evoked responses to TMS of the ipsilesional/nondominant (i/ndM1) and contralesional/dominant (c/dM1) primary motor cortex with EEG and in the hand muscle with EMG. We calculated pre- and post-TMS interhemispheric beta coherence (15-30 Hz) between motor areas in both conditions and the iSP duration during the active condition.
Results. During active i/ndM1 TMS, interhemispheric coherence increased immediately following TMS in controls but not in stroke. Coherence during active cM1 TMS was greater than iM1 TMS in the stroke group. Coherence during active iM1 TMS was less in stroke participants and was negatively associated with measures of paretic arm motor function. Paretic iSP was longer compared with controls and negatively associated with clinical measures of manual dexterity. There was no relationship between coherence and. iSP for either group. No within- or between-group differences in coherence were observed at rest.
Conclusions. TMS-evoked cortical coherence during hand muscle activation can index interhemispheric interactions associated with poststroke motor function and potentially offer new insights into neural mechanisms influencing functional recovery.
Strokes often have a devastating impact on hands function. Now, Stanford researchers are collaborating on a vibrating glove that could improve hand function after a stroke.
The most obvious sign someone has survived a stroke is usually some trouble speaking or walking. But another challenge may have an even greater impact on someone’s daily life: Often, stroke survivors lose sensation and muscle control in one arm and hand, making it difficult to dress and feed themselves or handle everyday objects such as a toothbrush or door handle.
Now, researchers at Stanford are working on a novel therapy that could help more stroke survivors regain the ability to control their arms and hands—a vibrating glove that gently stimulates the wearer’s hand for several hours a day.
Caitlyn Seim, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford, began the project as a graduate student in human-centered computing at Georgia Tech in the hope that the glove’s stimulation could have some of the same impact as more traditional exercise programs. After developing a prototype, she approached Stanford colleagues Maarten Lansberg, MD, Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology, and Allison Okamura, Ph.D., a professor of mechanical engineering, in order to expand her efforts. With help from a Neuroscience:Translate grant from the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute at Stanford, the trio are working to improve on their prototype glove and bring the device closer to clinical testing.
“The concept behind it is that users wear the glove for a few hours each day during normal daily life—going to the supermarket or reading a book at home,” Seim said. “We are hoping that we can discover something that really helps stroke survivors.”
Reaching for new stroke treatments
Seim, Lansberg and Okamura’s goal is a tall order. Despite some individual success stories, the reality is that most stroke patients struggle to regain the ability to speak, move around and take good care of themselves.
“Stroke can affect patients in many ways, including causing problems with arm function, gait, vision, speech and cognition,” Lansberg said. Yet despite decades of research, “there are essentially no treatments that have been proven to help stroke patients recover these functions,” he added.
It was in that context that the three researchers independently started thinking about what they could do to improve the lives of people who have survived strokes. As the medical doctor in the bunch, Lansberg had already been treating stroke patients for years and has helped lead the Stanford Stroke Collaborative Action Network, or SCAN, another project of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute. Okamura, meanwhile, has focused much of her research on haptic, or touch-based, devices, and in the last few years her lab has spent more and more time thinking about how to use those devices to help stroke survivors.
“Rehabilitation engineering provides a unique opportunity for me to work directly with the patients who are affected by our research,” Okamura said. “The potential to translate the kind of technology relatively quickly to a commercial product that can reach a large number of stroke patients in need of therapy is also very exciting.”
For her part, Seim’s interest in stroke stems from an interest in wearable computing devices. Yet rather than build more virtual-reality goggles and smartwatches, Seim said she wants to apply wearable computing to the areas of health and accessibility—”areas which have some of the most compelling problems to me.”
Growing a new idea
With that ambition in mind, Seim built a vibrating glove prototype that she hoped would stimulate nerves and improve both sensation and function in stroke survivors’ hands and arms. After collecting some promising initial data, Seim reached out to the Stanford team.
“Stanford has SCAN and StrokeNet, along with a community of interdisciplinary engineering and computing research, so I reached out to Maarten, and he was very supportive,” Seim said.
Now, Seim, Lansberg and Okamura are revising the glove’s design to improve its function and to add elements for comfort and accessibility. Then, they’ll begin a new round of clinical tests at Stanford.
Long term, the hope is to build something that helps stroke survivors recover some of the functions they have lost in their hands and arms. And if initial tests work out, Lansberg said, it’s possible the same basic idea could be applied to treat other complications associated with stroke.
“The glove is an innovative idea that has shown some promise in pilot studies,” Lansberg said. “If proven beneficial for patients with impaired arm function, it is conceivable that variations of this type of therapy could be developed to treat, for example, patients with impaired gait.”
Neural processes interact with dynamic environments to generate adaptive functions.
Neural plasticity is differentially influenced by individual and context specific variables.
Targeted training enhances adaptive neuroplasticity across the lifespan.
Although neuroscience research has debunked the late 19th century claims suggesting that large portions of the brain are typically unused, recent evidence indicates that an enhanced understanding of neural plasticity may lead to greater insights related to the functional capacity of brains. Continuous and real-time neural modifications in concert with dynamic environmental contexts provide opportunities for targeted interventions for maintaining healthy brain functions throughout the lifespan. Neural design, however, is far from simplistic, requiring close consideration of context-specific and other relevant variables from both species and individual perspectives to determine the functional gains from increased and decreased markers of neuroplasticity. Caution must be taken in the interpretation of any measurable change in neurobiological responses or behavioral outcomes, as definitions of optimal functions are extremely complex. Even so, current behavioral neuroscience approaches offer unique opportunities to evaluate adaptive functions of various neural responses in an attempt to enhance the functional capacity of neural systems.
An investigational, non-invasive medical device shows promise as a possible treatment for spasticity in patients who have experienced a stroke, Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research scientists report.
Their study, published in Springer Nature’sBioelectronic Medicine, suggests that trans-spinal direct current stimulation and peripheral nerve direct current stimulation significantly reduced upper limb spasticity in participants who experienced a stroke.
Spasticity is a residual inability of the brain to control muscle tone. It increases muscle stiffness, which inhibits movement of the hands, arms, and legs; can affect the face and throat; and sometimes causes pain.
Efforts to treat upper limb spasticity have focused on intensive, repetitive, activity-dependent learning; however, it is common to experience residual spasticity despite aggressive therapy. When spasticity continues to worsen and causes pain, the standard-of-care is botox (botulinum toxin) injection, according to a media release from Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research.
“Spasticity is a persistent and common inhibitor of movement in patients with chronic stroke, and it has been a great hurdle as we continue to use intensive training to assist motor recovery,” says Bruce T. Volpe, MD, professor at the Feinstein Institutes and lead author of the paper, in the release.
“The surprise in these clinical results were the improved motor functions that apparently occurred with the focused treatment only of spasticity. We are eager to start a trial that couples motor training and anti-spasticity treatment.”
The treatment involves passing a direct electrical current across the spinal cord with a skin surface electrode, known as trans-spinal direct current stimulation (tsDCS), and adding a peripheral direct current stimulation (pDCS) in the paralyzed upper limb. There are additional benefits to patients when tsDCS is combined with pDCS.
Volpe, along with a team that includes Johanna Chang, MS, Alexandra Paget-Blanc, BS, and Maira Saul, MD, employed this device in patients with chronic stroke and hemiparesis to test whether treatment would decrease upper limb spasticity. The trial was a single-blind cross-over design study.
Twenty six participants were treated with five consecutive days of 20 minutes of active, paired tsDCS+pDCS. The participants received both active and sham stimulation conditions, but were not told the order of stimulation.
The device used in the trial was PathMaker Neurosystems Inc’s MyoRegulator, a non-invasive device designed to provide simultaneous, non-invasive stimulation intended to suppress hyperexcitable spinal neurons involved with spasticity.
The results demonstrated that the active treatment condition significantly reduced upper limb spasticity for up to five weeks and these patient responders saw significant improvements in motor function, the release explains.
[Source(s): Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, PR Newswire]