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The 2017 BNA Christmas Symposium on Brain Technologies

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The British Neuroscience Association’s (BNA) annual Christmas symposium is one of many events provided by the BNA to promote and enhance our understanding of Neuroscience in health and disease.

This year’s focus was on neurotechnologies and their place in society.

Neuroscience enthusiasts and specialists gathered in South Quay, London to explore advances ranging from nanomedicine to artificial minds. 

Man-machine interfaces

Amidst the breadth of topics discussed, several presentations stood out, the first being ‘Bionic limb reconstruction’ by Dario Farina. Dario is a professor of neurorehabilitation engineering at Imperial College London and his talk introduced the substitution of damaged or missing limbs for robotic ones. He explained how implantation of a chip into the brain and its connection with intramuscular tunnel magnetoresistance (TMR) and electromyography (EMG) sensors is used to establish a man-machine interface. Dario and his team decoded information from peripheral motor nerves and surgically re-routed them into healthy muscles. Muscles significantly amplify signal transmission thereby facilitating a high-quality feedback loop between spinal motor neurons and the bionic technology. Neural control of the prosthetic improves overall dexterity and provides a sense of embodiment. This reorganization of neural connectivity can also alleviate phantom limb pain. 

Learn more: Brain control of prosthetic limbs

Brain stimulation as a treatment

Additionally, Dr Aurore Thibaut, University of Liège, and Professor Tom Foltynie, UCL Institute of Neurology, explored the effects of brain stimulation techniques in two striking but separate presentations. Aurore researches neuromodulation with a strong focus on improving brain function and connectivity in individuals suffering from disorders of consciousness (DOCs), such as coma. She revealed consistent clinical improvements in recovery following trials of repeated transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) over the prefrontal cortex that were maintained at least one-week post-stimulation. tDCS modulates neural activity and, with long-term use, plasticity through weak non-invasive stimulation of target brain regions. Although further studies are necessary, Aurore emphasized inexpensiveness, ease of use and a lack of adverse effects as factors supporting this as an alternative to pharmacological treatment.

Read: Coma research

Tom Foltynie, by contrast, is a consultant neurologist specializing in motor disorders; his talk focused on deep brain stimulation (DBS) as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease. This approach involves electrode implantation into the subthalamic nucleus involved in motor control; stimulation of this region inhibits abnormal activity, decreasing tremors and off-target symptoms of drugs such as involuntary muscle movements. The efficacy of DBS treatment was confirmed with the introduction of a long-term patient of Tom’s. He gave a passionate narrative on its life-changing effects, emphasizing the importance of this technique for patients that are unresponsive to medication. 

Explore: Deep brain stimulation therapy for Parkinson's

Ethical considerations of brain technologies

Neurotechnological advances illustrate how neuroscience research is expanding our understanding of CNS disorders and developing our computing and engineering abilities in a way that we have never seen before. However, these advances also raise important ethical issues: does the risk of potential behavioral changes outweigh the benefit of DBS? What if healthy individuals - who can afford it - start wanting bionic limbs, would they be entitled to receive them?

In a closing panel discussion, led by the International Neuroethics Society, the importance of such ethical considerations and risk-benefit analysis was emphasized and addressed. Despite the advances in neurotechnology, could we be in danger of crossing a boundary between ‘organics’ and ‘mechanics’?