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Pieter Roelfsema

Reading and writing the mind with brain implants

Scientists are continuously improving methods to read out brain activity and adjust or control it with brain stimulation techniques. Researchers at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience believe that these advances will lead to many new possibilities to restore brain functions that got lost or impaired as a result of an accident or disease. In the more distant future, similar technologies might also be applied to the healthy brain. According to the researchers, it is important to start considering all the consequences of such developments for our society. They explain their position in a paper that was published on 2 May in the leading journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Technology has already reached a stage in which electrodes on electronic chips that are implanted into the brain can read the ongoing activity of specific brain areas. This technique allows, for instance, that patients with paralysis control a robotic arm or computer cursor directly with their ‘thoughts’. The reverse is also possible: with similar electronic chips, information can be directly transmitted to either the peripheral nerves or the brain. Cochlear prosthesis, for instance, use this principle to let people with impaired hearing hear again, while stimulation of deep brain areas can relieve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

advanced neurotechnology

The neurotechnological applications that exist today primarily act on relatively simple brain mechanisms and the precision with which they read and write information from and to the brain is limited. However, as our knowledge of more complex brain mechanism increases and techniques to read from and write to the brain become more sophisticated, the possibilities for more advanced neurotechnology will rapidly increase as well. Progress will likely first improve the efficiency of therapeutic neuroprostheses, but sooner or later, technologies will also be considered that aim to enhance the capacities of the healthy brain. Along these lines, neuroprostheses that create direct connections between the brain and the internet, or that facilitate entirely new forms of communication based directly on brain activity are not inconceivable. In their publication, the researchers discuss both the great potential of novel neurotechnologies and their possible implications for important issues like mental privacy and human identity.

Image is retrieved from Pixabay

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Pieter Roelfsema

Roelfsema Group

The Vision and Cognition group is led by Dr. Pieter Roelfsema, also director of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience. Research of this group is directed at understanding cortical mechanisms of visual perception, memory and plasticity. One of our goals is to create a visual cortical prosthesis to restore vision in blind people.

 

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Denys/Willuhn Group

Neuromodulation & Behavior

This pre-clinical research group headed by Ingo Willuhn is embedded in a larger clinical research team at the AMC department of Psychiatry. The group is driven by the question: “How do we control our behavior?”. Specifically, the Neuromodulation and Behavior group is interested in the neurobiology of compulsive behavior and in mechanisms through which actions become automatic with a focus on basal ganglia function and dopamine signaling. Furthermore, the group studies the effects of deep-brain stimulation (DBS) on brain and behavior.

What is compulsivity? Compulsivity is behavior that is out of control, behavior we perform despite not wanting to perform it or despite its negative outcome. Compulsive behavior is performed persistently, repetitively, and inflexibly. But how does compulsivity develop? What is its neurobiological basis? To answer these questions, we investigate different aspects of compulsivity (e.g., automation of behavior, cognitive (in-)flexibility) and measure/modulate neuronal activity in the brain simultaneously.

Compulsivity is a core feature in several neuropsychiatric disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and drug addiction. In otherwise therapy-resistant patients of such disorders, DBS has been effective. However, our understanding of the mechanisms of action of DBS is still limited. Therefore, we aim to investigate how DBS affects compulsivity and what the neurobiological basis of these effects is.

Our group has a strong collaborative relationship to the Department of Psychiatry at the Amsterdam Medical Center (AMC) lead by Damiaan Denys and therefore has close ties with clinicians and clinical researchers, providing optimal conditions for a translational and multidisciplinary approach. Specifically, we translate clinical findings from studies in humans into relevant animal models, and vice versa we aim to apply our conclusions in the clinical setting. At the very core of our research is the study of rodent behavior. On one hand, we test compulsive behavior itself by using behavioral, (e.g., signal attenuation, schedule-induced polydipsia), pharmacological (drug self-administration), and genetic (SAPAP3-KO mice) animal models. On the other hand, we study “normal’ behavioral faculties such as habit formation, response flexibility, emotion, and cognition (e.g., elevated plus maze, operant chambers) that may contribute to compulsivity when dysregulated. We combine behavioral testing with state-of-the-art research tools including diverse methods for brain stimulation (e.g., DBS, chemogenetics, optogenetics), neurochemical measurements (e.g., microdialysis, fast-scan cyclic voltammetry), calcium imaging (implantable miniaturized microscopes), and electrophysiological recordings (e.g., single-unit activity, local field potentials (LFPs)). Furthermore, we use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in rodents to detect the effects of drugs and DBS throughout the brain.

 

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