Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The future of sleep, via brain interfaces

Sleep is a naturally recurring state characterized by reduced or absent consciousness, relatively suspended sensory activity, and inactivity of nearly all voluntary muscles. Sleep is often thought to help conserve energy, but decreases metabolism only about 5–10%. Hibernating animals need to sleep despite the hypometabolism seen in hibernation, and must return from hypothermia to euthermia in order to sleep, making sleeping "energetically expensive."

Sleep remains one of the most poorly understood human biological functions, despite some recent strides in understanding the “social jetlag” of our internal clocks and the relationship between dreaming and depression. A new study finds that sleep may play a role in how we process emotionally-charged memories, which could have important implications in how we understand how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) works in the brain. Though researchers haven't quite reached a consensus on why we sleep, we do know that sleep helps our brains rebound after a long day. Also among its functions are sleep's ability to help consolidate memories, enhance cognitive function, and boost decision-making.
To see how sleep might affect how memories are processed, researchers showed participants 150 emotional images (like an open-mouthed shark) twice, separated by a 12-hour period. Half of the participants were shown the images in the morning, and then again at night. The other half were shown the images at night, and, after a full night's sleep, were presented with the second set of images. The team asked the participants about their subjective responses to the images, and looked at their brain activity with fMRI and EEG. The participants who slept between the two viewings reported a less pronounced reaction to the second set of images. The researchers saw that the reactivity of the amygdala -- a brain region important in emotion and stress -- was reduced during the second viewing in the participants who had slept. Electroencephalograms or EEGs verified that reduced levels of the stress neurochemical norepinephrine were linked to less emotional reactivity the following morning.

While we sleep, research indicates, the brain replays the patterns of activity it experienced during waking hours, allowing us to enter what one psychologist calls a neural virtual reality. A dream about something we’ve just learned seems to be a sign that the new knowledge has been processed effectively. In a 2010 study published in the journal Current Biology, researchers at Harvard Medical School reported that college students who dreamed about a computer maze task they had learned showed a 10-fold improvement in their ability to navigate the maze compared to participants who did not dream about the task.

Robert Stickgold, one of the Harvard researchers, suggests that studying right before bedtime or taking a nap following a study session in the afternoon might increase the odds of dreaming about the material. But some scientists are pushing the notion of enhancing learning through dreaming even further, asking sleepers to mentally practice skills while they slumber. In a pilot study published in The Sport Psychologist journal in 2010, University of Bern psychologist Daniel Erlacher instructed participants to dream about tossing coins into a cup. Those who successfully dreamed about the task showed significant improvement in their real-life coin-tossing abilities. Experiments like Erlacher’s raise the possibility that we could train ourselves to cultivate skills while we slumber.

Researchers working at MIT have successfully manipulated the content of a rat's dream by replaying an audio cue that was associated with the previous day's events, namely running through a maze (what else). The breakthrough furthers our understanding of how memory gets consolidated during sleep — but it also holds potential for the prospect of "dream engineering."
Looking ahead, the researchers believe that this simple example of dream engineering could open up the possibility of more extensive control of memory processing during sleep — and even the notion that selected memories could be either enhanced, blocked, or modified. The researchers are also aiming to develop new approaches to learning and behavioral therapy through similar kinds of cognitive manipulation.
The military has an interest in neural devices for several functions, as well as a interface for vehicles they hope to find a way to reduce post traumatic stress by way of a neural device. Advances in technology has improved to the point that a particular neuron which retains the memory of a person can trigger a sound or a electrical device. Only a matter of time until we can map the brain for images and thus trigger a stream of images in which we may be able to de-code dreams. It may be possible to tray to use a MRI and computer to correlate single thought and image to a data bank and retrieve images when ever the MRI pick up brain patterns.
For a conscious person to register a picture of a animal and to think back the same animal so that the computer can look through its data banks and present a picture on a screen, would be the next step in technology. The trouble is would every person have a same brain pattern for the same image of the same animal?. Also can these brain patterns be extracted from dreams? so that we can find the stream of images during sleep?
Humans are more drawn into a graphical representation of the data then just brain waves. It is still in the early stages where we can fly AR drones with our minds and control robots slowly. As we study sleep for its benefits and create devices for quality in sleep. There will be a broad range of ideas and technology that will connect neural-interfaces with brain states. These might include inception of ideas and learning through sleep to mind hacking and even hypnotic control.

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