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The Big Future: Can we build a better brain?

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How will the future change the human brain? This week's Big Future takes a look at a new wave of neurological techniques that directly alter the brain's electrical patterns, correcting seizures and movement disorders. Some doctors are even experimenting with using it to treat depression. Could the same technology be used to correct more fundamental mental properties like attention span? We're still early in the research, but there are already plenty of projects aiming to give human beings greater control over the inner workings of the brain.

Big Future: The Brain

100,000 people are already living with neural implants

The most promising technology, deep brain stimulation, is already in use across the world to treat Parkinson's symptoms and dystonia using a single wire surgically implanted in the brain. The same devices can also fight back pain by dropping the wire into the right part of the spine. It's a thoroughly tested method, even if the current applications are limited.

Big Future: The Brain

You might not even need surgery

Another method is transcranial simulation, which applies current to the brain from outside the scalp. Research shows that it boosts a patient's memory and concentration, but results in poorer performance on automatic tasks like writing.

Big Future: The Brain

The effects can be turned on and off, like flipping a switch

We change our neurochemistry all the time, whether with pharmaceuticals, naturally occurring hormones or drugs like alcohol and caffeine. But electrical intervention is different, in part because it can be turned on and off so easily. That means you could turn on the attention-enhancing stimulator for just long enough to finish studying for your final — that is, once we figure out enough about the brain to know where it is and how to stimulate it.