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This is Your Brain on Neurotechnology

Colorful brain

Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin’s Press, July 2009). Neurotechnology is the emerging science of brain imaging and other new tools for both understanding and influencing our brains.

This well-received and well-written book was conceived as a work of popular science “to broaden the conversation” on what Lynch characterizes as the coming neurosociety. Lynch looks at how neurotechnology will impact the financial markets, law enforcement, politics, advertising and marketing, artistic expression, warfare, and even the nature of human spirituality.

The book has received accolades in the mainstream press (including Jane Pauly, at NBC) and from tech figures like Vint Cerf at Google.

Lynch is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company.

He earned an M.A in economic geography, and a double B.S. in evolutionary biology and environmental science with high honors from UCLA. His master’s thesis examined how the Internet transforms communications and commerce.

You can follow Zack on Twitter at @neurorev

h+: You characterize the Neuro Revolution as the next revolution after the agricultural, industrial, and information revolutions. Others have characterized the Nanotechnology Revolution (for example, the ability to assemble goods at the molecular level) as such a paradigm-shattering period. Do you see a relationship between these two upcoming “revolutions?”

ZACK LYNCH: Nanotechnology is an enabling technology that will fundamentally drive progress in the neurotech sector. What makes this fundamentally unique, and why the neurotechnology revolution is so profoundly important, is that we are directing our informational and nano technologies at an entirely new domain of human progress: tools for the human mind.

We’ve spent human history — the past several thousand years as I said in the book — developing tools to improve our physical world. Now we are focused on developing tools that will take our wisdom, knowledge, and capital to develop tools that will improve our inner domain. Nanotechnology will be used to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of drugs, devices, diagnostics, and brain imaging technologies.

h+: You describe a number of emerging neurotechnologies in your book, fMRI being somewhat the granddaddy of the Neuro Revolution. Where should the smart investor be watching for the next fMRI?

ZL: Physics and biochemistry labs. The latest trend in imaging is combined systems –- fMRI and a whole host of other imaging technologies. One of the issues with fMRI is that it’s not very good at temporal resolution. What we’re trying to do is marry multiple types of imaging technologies to get more refined spatial and temporal resolution in our imaging systems. GE, Philips, and Siemens are developing these combined systems.

h+: Neurotechnology seems like it’s an emerging market.

ZL: It’s actually a relatively mature market if you consider first generation neurotechnologies. Last year, companies involved in neurotechnology generated about 140 billion dollars in revenue. This includes drugs, medical and neurological devices, and diagnostics for neurological diseases, psychiatric illness, and nervous system injuries. One of the hallmark characteristics of each technological revolution is that when a technology is developed for one purpose — let’s say for the purpose of creating treatments for brain or nervous system illnesses — you then begin to see it in a wide variety of different endeavors far beyond it’s original intended use.

Imagine a 65-year-old programmer living in San Francisco competing with a 25-year-old in Mumbai. Neither one knows whether the other is using cognitive-enabling drugs.

Who would have thought 10 years ago that we would be using imaging technologies to improve the effectiveness of marketing and advertising? Who would have thought that we would be on the cusp of developing truth detection technologies? Who would have thought that these technologies would be used to understand and perhaps help traders improve their profitability?

What we’re seeing across law enforcement, the arts, marketing, entertainment, and warfare is what is means to be human. These technologies are penetrating a wide variety of different endeavors across human society. That — in and of itself — highlights the fact that we are witnessing the very early stages of a Neuro Revolution.

h+: Supercomputers are now faster at leveraging trading positions than humans (this is creating a quite a controversy on Wall Street). What role do you see for human neurofinance and neuroeconomics in the financial markets as artificial intelligence continues to gain more sophistication?

ZL: The technology of each previous revolution is required for the succeeding revolution. We couldn’t have had the industrial revolution without the agricultural revolution, because we wouldn’t have had the specialization of labor that was required for humans to have the wealth and time to be able to develop industrial technologies. We couldn’t have had information technologies prior to industrial technology. In the same way, we couldn’t have had neurotechnology without the development of information technology – and without its continued development. These are enabling technologies that will continue to develop, and that will support the evolution of more sophisticated neurotechnologies.

If we’re talking about specific technologies that will be available to financial traders, one will be neurosoftware applications that will help retrain the brain of financial traders to reduce the human tendency to overestimate. That will require a quite sophisticated understanding of the human neurobiology of decision making. That — in and of itself –will require computational models that are just beginning to be worked out.

h+: So you envision that humans will still be in the loop as decision makers rather than supercomputers making sophisticated trading decisions?

Right. When things like trading become completely automated over time it’s because they’re based on models. However, the models don’t capture all the elements of our world. And part of what drives financial markets — which is what I try to get across in the chapter "Finance with Feelings" – is human emotions.

So theoretically, if you have a financial market where there are no human actors, then computers will be making the decisions. In reality, however, human emotions will sway the market. We need to figure out how to work with those emotions to understand how they actually influence the financial markets, and then leverage them. Emotions are very sophisticated computational algorithms that have been developed through hundreds of millions of years of evolution. They allow us to cut through a tremendous amount of information and give us instantaneous feedback on what we should be doing.

h+: You compare the Neuro Revolution to Copernicus’s heliocentric notion of the universe as a game changer that will "bring about new ideas of human spirituality that will forever reshape our understanding of humanity’s role and place in the universe." This is akin to what Darwin did in the 19th Century with his theory of evolution. What roadblocks do you see to the societal acceptance of the science of something so fundamental as religious belief?

ZL: In the chapter on neurotheology, I try to tackle the question "Where is God?"

Copernicus’s heliocentric notion of the universe and Darwin’s theory of evolution transformed how humans look at themselves in the cosmos, as well as here on Earth. I believe that advances in brain imaging technology, in addition to neurostimulation technology, can potentially help reveal a new neurospiritual tradition in the coming decades.

Now, will this come without protest? No. Will this be readily adopted? No. But given the history of how breakthrough technologies have changed our perceptions of our place in the universe, I believe that using neurotechnology and diving deeper into the human brain, we will come to understand the neurobiology of spiritual experiences. This isn’t to say that God exists within our brains. I’m not saying one way or another, because I don’t know. But given history, I’m putting the odds from my perspective that we’re going to trip over and discover something that will yet again change how we look at ourselves and our place in the universe.

Through neurotechnology we can possibly accelerate peoples’ senses of themselves and their relationship to their higher being.

h+: Sex drove the development of both the videotape markets and the Internet as a commercial entity. Your book only has one specific mention of sex, and yet the application of neuroscience and neurotechnology has great potential to enhance human sexuality. What role do you envision that sex will play in the evolution and marketing of the Neuro Revolution?

ZL: (pause) Isn’t it sort of obvious? (laughter) It’s not necessarily a major driving force, but sex is an extraordinarily important component of human behavior – if not the fundamental component along with eating – and neurotechnologies will be developed (and they are being developed) to treat people that can’t fully appreciate and experience sex. These same technologies will be used by others to improve their sexual experiences. And this doesn’t just include drugs, it includes neurostimulation devices.

h+: You describe both oxytocin (important to human bonding) and dopamine as "emoticeuticals" that will likely have a big impact on a future neurosociety. Will these become FDA-regulated drugs like the antidepressants of today?

ZL: The FDA is already involved. But the reality is that we live in a highly complex, global economy. If an individual group or a company can develop safe and effective neurotechnology outside the United States, and it then becomes popular and it’s used and creates a competitive advantage for an individual or a company or an entire country, then those technologies will seep back into other countries where perhaps they haven’t been legalized.

h+ You also mention the example of Adderall and Ritalin as cognitive performance-enabling drugs that are being used at the universities. Such drugs, and others like them, have the potential to make students more and more competitive. Do you think that such drugs and upcoming related technology, if used at the national level, could result in something like a neurotechnology arms race?

ZL: Like any new set of tools, the set of emerging neurotechnology tools can be used for both good and bad purposes. Today there are college students, Wall Street financiers, software programmers, and even poker players who are using cognitive-enabling drugs to improve their competitive performance.

There is a whole host of ethical, legal, and societal issues with taking drugs generally developed to treat an illness and then using them to help normal humans. There are issues of safety. There are issues of fairness. There are issues of health. And there are issues of coercion. And the reality is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. For example, there are over 100 compounds in clinical development right now focused on treating some form of memory loss. And we expect a small handful of these over the next decade to improve memory in normal humans. So you can imagine the inherent coercive force that will emerge as those treatments become developed. Imagine a 65-year-old programmer living in San Francisco and she’s competing with a 25-year-old in Mumbai, India. Neither one knows whether the other is using one of these cognitive-enabling drugs.

And it’s not just drugs; there are neurodevices in development that will be able to improve memory and speed learning. What we’re going to see is what I call "neuro competition." This is the next form of competition that individuals and businesses and nations will adapt to gain competitive advantage –- except this will be a neuro advantage. Just as companies today compete for a competitive advantage in information technology –- whether it’s the latest social software, the latest IT backbone, the latest servers, or the latest customer relationship management systems –- they will use neurotechnologies to improve their competitive positioning.

The new neurotechnologies will come in multiple forms. They will come not just as drugs to improve one’s competitive performance, or emotional performance, or physical stamina, but they will also come in emotion-sensing technologies… and one of the really hard questions moving forward is: where does this all go? This was a major reason for writing the book — to begin to spark a broad public dialog around the societal implications of where this technology might go, and how might we begin to have a conversation around what regulatory options that we might want to start discussing.

h+: Do you see a resurgence of research into substances like LSD as part of the Neuro Revolution?

ZL: There will be continued research into psychoactive substances, although probably not here in the United States. We’ve got to take into consideration the fact that neuroscientific research is just beginning to emerge in a relatively strong fashion in other countries. It’s very sophisticated science –- it’s the cutting edge of science. So, while the U.S. and Europe have been leading this basic research in previous decades, emerging companies are coming up from developing nations like China, India, and Brazil where they are starting to develop their own relatively strong neuroscience programs.

h+: You close the book with the idea that a "perception shift" will result from the widespread adoption and application of neurotechnology. What exactly is the role for your Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) in making this come about? And putting on your futurist hat, how quickly do you see this shift occurring?

ZL: NIO is specifically focused — at this point in history — on accelerating the development of treatments for the two billion people worldwide that currently suffer from a neurological disease, psychiatric illness, or nervous system injury. We’re trying to drive this forward by working with the U.S. Congress on a national neurotechnology initiative. This will be a new billion dollar Federal R&D program aimed at accelerating transitional neuroscience. A bill was introduced into Congress in March of this year. It would supply 40 million dollars to fund research into the ethical, legal, and societal implications of advancing neuroscience.

And when does the perception shift happen? Most likely the 2030s.