Mind control using sound waves? We ask a scientist how it works.

Oxford University's Antoine Jerusalem explains the art of ultrasound neuromodulation.

At the moment, non-invasive neuromodulation – changing brain activity without the use of surgery – looks poised to usher in a new era of healthcare. Breakthroughs could include the better management of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, reducing the pain of migraines or even reversing cognitive disorders caused by brain injury.


But what happens if this technique for altering our brain waves escapes regulation and falls into the wrong hands? Imagine a dictatorial regime with access to the tricks and tools to change the way its citizens think or behave.

That's the ethical battleground that Antoine Jerusalem, a professor of engineering science at Oxford University, finds himself in as he researches the potential of ultrasound technology to tackle neurological diseases and disorders.

In this interview, conducted as part of the World Economic Forum's annual gathering in the Middle East of scientists, government and business, he tells us more about this growing field of research.

Controlling the brain with sound waves: how does it work?

Well, to get straight to the science, the principle of non-invasive neuromodulation is to focus ultrasound waves into a region in the brain so that they all gather in a small spot. Then hopefully, given the right set of parameters, this can change the activity of the neurons.

If you want to get rid of neurons that have gone wild, for example in epilepsy, then you might want to crank up the energy to essentially kill them. But if you want to selectively promote or block the neuronal activity, you need to fine-tune your ultrasound waves carefully.

In other words, there's a difference between ultrasound stimulation used for removing tissue, and ultrasound neuromodulation, which is aimed at controlling neuronal activity without damaging the tissue.

Ultrasound neuromodulation is something that definitely works, but that we still don't understand.

 Antoine Jérusalem is a professor of engineering science at Oxford University


What social good can come of it?

The current buzzwords are Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, as well as traumatic brain injuries. But scientists are also looking at the spinal cord and peripheral nervous systems. As far as I am concerned, since the brain is the de facto centre of decision for so many processes, any of them could be targeted.

Is it safe?

When attempting to 'control' neuronal activity by providing minute mechanical vibrations to a region of the brain, it's important that the focus of the ultrasound, frequency and amplitude are properly tuned, or the brain can potentially be damaged. The point is that we still don't know how to tune all of this; and if I were to exaggerate a bit, I could say that our current approach is not that far off from fiddling around with the settings on a radio until we hear the right station.

One of the many difficulties is to know for sure that we are indeed controllingneurons with these sound waves, as opposed to damaging them. The truth is that we still don't know how the process works. And if you don't know how it works, you don't know how much is "too much".

What are the biggest ethical challenges?

The potential of this technique is huge - by that I mean the sheer number of applications, as well as the ethical use.

From a biological perspective, it's similar to drugs. It can cure you, it can get you addicted, and it can kill you. It's all about staying within a given set of rules. From an ethical perspective, the world is changing so fast that it's difficult to assess what will be acceptable tomorrow that is not today.

I am also convinced that human nature is such that if something can be done, it will be done. The question is by whom. I would rather have a fair society leading the dance than some rogue state without any respect for human or animal life. If we want to lead that dance 10 years from now, we need to start researching today.

How dystopian could it get?

I can see the day coming where a scientist will be able to control what a person sees in their mind's eye, by sending the right waves to the right place in their brain. My guess is that most objections will be similar to those we hear today about subliminal messages in advertisements, only much more vehement.

This technology is not without its risks of misuse. It could be a revolutionary healthcare technology for the sick, or a perfect controlling tool with which the ruthless control the weak. This time though, the control would be literal.

What can we do to safeguard its potential?

I am not going to argue that scientists are all wise and knowledgeable when it comes to what should and should not be done. Some of us will go as far as we can get away with. But that's human nature, and not unique to scientists.

Either way, our job is to find something that is beneficial to humanity. And if you find a way to make somebody better, then you most likely also know how to do the contrary. The goal is to make sure that regulation prevents the latter, without impeding the former. I believe that this is the role of regulators. And I think that the European Union, where I work, is quite good at this.

Another role of politicians should be to provide a communication platform to explain the long vision of any given area of research. And it can be too early, or not a good idea, and the final decision might very well be to stop it. But in the long term, the public should have the potential benefits of a new technology explained to them in plain words, which is something that scientists are not necessarily good at.

Politicians should remember that if we don't do it, then somebody somewhere will do it anyway…potentially unregulated.

Reprinted with permission of World Economic Forum. Read the original article here.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Are people getting smarter or dumber? Yes.

The Flynn effect shows people have gotten smarter, but some research claims those IQ gains are regressing. Can both be right?

Surprising Science
  • Many countries made incredible gains in IQ scores during the 20th century, averaging three IQ points per decade.
  • Studies out of Europe have shown a reversal of this trend.
  • Such declines are not universal, and researchers remain unsure of what is causing them.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists turn nuclear waste into diamond batteries

They'll reportedly last for thousands of years. This technology may someday power spacecraft, satellites, high-flying drones, and pacemakers.

Woman looking at a diamond.
popular

Nuclear energy is carbon free, which makes it an attractive and practical alternative to fossil fuels, as it doesn't contribute to global warming. We also have the infrastructure for it already in place. It's nuclear waste that makes fission bad for the environment. And it lasts for so long, some isotopes for thousands of years. Nuclear fuel is comprised of ceramic pellets of uranium-235 placed within metal rods. After fission takes place, two radioactive isotopes are left over: cesium-137 and strontium-90.

Keep reading Show less

Want to forge stronger social bonds? Bring beer.

New research shows that a healthy supply of locally-sourced beer helped maintain Wari civilization for 500 years.

Culture & Religion
  • A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
  • Civilizations throughout the ancient world used alcoholic drinks to signify kinship, hospitality, and social cohesion.
  • The researchers hope their findings will remind us of the importance in reaffirming social institutions and sharing cultural practices — even if over coffee or tea.

Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

Keep reading Show less