One of the reasons why I am blogging about the brain here at the Broken Crown games site is the idea of being about to enhance character abilities by means of specific enhancements (in the game world) to brain function. In "Escaping Titan", this will take the form of Synapse Stimulant Implants (SSIs) that can stimulate brain areas to gain various physical and mental abilities beneficial to your character in the game.
There are four major abilities – the "Self-Buff" which enhances strength, speed, reflexes and physical movement – the "Healing" ability by which the player can heal faster, enhance stamina, and exercise control over their body – the "Mind Control" ability which allows authority over other persons/creatures by virtue of thought – and the "Atom Control" ability which exercises control over physical (inanimate) objects. Each of these enhancements and/or abilities will come via SSIs directed to portions of the brain which can manage or control the ability, and will result from stimulation of the neurons (brain cells) those appropriate brain areas.
In the months to come, this blog will discover the science behind the SSI effects by discussing each of the brain areas – both in terms of location and function – for each ability. However, for this month's blog I'd like to cover the more generic aspects of Brain Stimulation – what it is, what it does, (or might do) and what is the state of the art of brain stimulation in current neural science.
Brain stimulation could refer to any means of causing activity in the electrically and chemically operated cells of the brain, that is, neurons. Stimulation can be chemical, electrical, mechanical, etc., but for the most part, "brain stimulation" means applying an electrical signal to the brain and being able to detect a response via the various functions controlled by the brain. Brain stimulation is a popular subject in Science Fiction media; all of the really cool brain-to-computer interfaces and "bionic" devices require the ability to read-out the signals from individual neurons, but also to have a means of putting a signal back into the brain. Brain interfacing is really beyond the topic and length of this months' blog, so I'd like to direct readers' attention to some really neat articles on the state-of-the-art in brain implants by Dr. Tedd Roberts at his blog (http://teddysratlab.blogspot.com
). Scroll through the previous articles and watch for the latest article around Feb. 15th.
In the meantime, a lot of what we see in SF regarding brain stimulation takes one of two forms – prosthetic/artificial sensory input, or stimulation of the "pleasure center" in the brain. Michael Crichton's 1972 novel "The Terminal Man" told the story of a patient with violent episodes associated with epileptic seizures, and was treated by means of electrically stimulating wires implanted into a region of the brain that would provide a calming, pleasurable stimulus to counter his seizures and the violent tendencies. The story relies heavily on research from the 1960's which demonstrated that rats slight electrical current delivered to the hypothalamus and medial forebrain bundle was pleasurable, and that rats allowed to control their own stimulation would forego food and water – self-stimulating their brains until they died. Needless to say, the results for Crichton's character did not turn out as planned! Later, SF writer Larry Niven (as well as Spider Robinson) proposed that "wireheads" would be the addicts of the future, using prescribed or illegal brain stimulators in place of drugs.
The 1970's TV show "The Six Million Dollar Man" featured the other common type of brain stimulator in SF – namely fully integrated prosthetic limbs (and eyes and ears) that not only read brain signals for control of the "bionics" but also stimulated the brain to substitute for the senses of touch, sight and sound. While the ability to fully interface "bionics" with the brain is still a ways off, there are two current "prosthetic" devices designed to restore vision and hearing – the cochlear implant and the retinal implant. These devices do not interface directly with the brain, but rather rely on wires placed on the retina (for vision) or in the cochlea (for hearing) to stimulate the neurons that normally receive signals from the cells sensitive to light or sound. Thus for some diseases in which the problem is only at the very initial stages of the vision or hearing pathway, it is possible to stimulate neurons further down the pathway and restore a portion of normal function.
The science of brain stimulation really derives from the work of early neurosurgeons who wanted to make sure which brain areas were affected by injury and surgery. Dr. Wilder Penfield was a Canadian neurosurgeon of the mid 1900's, who pioneered surgical techniques for treating epilepsy. As part of each surgery, he applied small electrical currents to different brain areas and mapped out the results. This led to a lot of our current knowledge of what parts of the brain are responsible for memory, the senses, muscle movements, etc. The goal of today's neuroscientists who study and develop prosthetic devices is to use these "maps" to interface external devices – for sight, sound, memory, or even computer input – directly with the brain. We're not there yet – we have the limited interfaces, as mentioned above, but are far from fully interfaced with the brain.
However, I'd like to leave you on a more optimistic note with respect to brain stimulation. Parkinson's Disease is a disorder of the brain which interferes with the ability to voluntarily move muscles. Patients typically have "tremor" when they are not moving and "rigidity" when they try to move. The actor Michael J. Fox has a form of Parkinson's – check out his biography "Luck Man" for his story. Medication and surgery is of limited benefit, but a recent treatment using brain stimulation is bringing relief to thousands of patients in recent years. Deep Brain Stimulation utilizes stimulating wires in the thalamus, and delivers a fixed current to a region of the brain in which many of the neurons have been damaged by the disease. There is no specific signal generated, but the fixed frequency, low voltage stimulation triggers other neurons to overcome both tremor and rigidity, leading to greatly improved quality of life for these patients.
We know brain stimulation works in the outside world. In the next few months, we'll discuss ways to make it work for players in the world of Escaping Titan.
Until next time, keep using your brain, you might come up with some stimulating ideas!