As the relationship between humans and machines moves ever closer, technology is beginning to have far-reaching effects on the chemistry of the brain.
What happens when you make humans smarter with superior hardware, software and sensors? Judging by the Cybermen in the TV series 'Doctor Who', it causes lack of empathy and a penchant for world-domination. On the other hand, 'The Six Million Dollar Man' (a 1970s TV staple) was a sort of superhero who used his bionic enhancements to fight the baddies.
Surgically attaching electronic circuits to living tissue remains tricky, but you could argue, as philosopher Andy Clark does in 'Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension', that our deepening relationship with smartphones and other personal computing devices makes semi-cyborgs of us all. We can navigate by satellite, broadcast to our friends like practical telepathy, and access any information at the touch of a button to make perfect decisions based on the best data. If only we weren't so busy posting updates on Facebook and playing Angry Birds...
Scientists armed with brain scanners are publishing initial evidence of what these external 'brain prostheses' are doing to our internal circuitry. Our brains change all the time, whether we are having a conversation or reading a book; the interesting question is whether they are changing in a different and meaningful new way.
Internet addiction disorder (IAD), for instance, is now a serious mental health problem - certainly in China. Sufferers are unable to control their use of the Internet, leading to "distress and functional impairments of general life such as academic performance, social interaction, occupational interest and behavioral problems", to quote from a recent paper by Fuchun Lin, Yan Zhou, and colleagues from the Jiao Tong University Medical School in Shanghai in the PLOS One journal.
When they compared the structural brain scans of 17 Internet-addicted teenagers with those of 16 non-addicted teenagers, the Chinese scientists discovered that the Internet addicts had damage to the white matter in the orbito-frontal cortex similar to that found in alcoholics and drug addicts. (Grey matter does the brain's information processing, while white matter acts as a relay for coordinating communication between processing centres.) The orbito-frontal cortex plays a critical role in emotional processing and addiction-related phenomena such as craving, compulsive-repetitive behaviors and bad decision-making.
Before we conclude that the human race is going to hell in online hand baskets, these results could equally imply that individuals with pre-existing problems and damaged brains find the Internet peculiarly addictive.
Use it or lose it?
A more mainstream worry arises from the 'use it or lose it' line of reasoning. Four years ago, Eleanor Maguire of University College London (UCL) showed that London cabbies who learn routes around London by 'Doing the Knowledge' rather than using GPS, have a larger hippocampus (a structure important for memory and spatial orientation) than non-taxi drivers. In 2010, a study led by Veronique Bohbot at McGill University in Canada on non-professional drivers also produced brain-scan evidence to suggest that depending on GPS for navigation can reduce the activity and size of the hippocampus.
Yet there are indications that cognitively extending ourselves into the virtual world could be making us smarter in ways that we do not yet understand. One example is the recent study into Facebook friends by UCL researchers Ryota Kanai, Bahador Bahrami, Rebecca Roylance and Geraint Rees, funded by the Wellcome Trust. They have been looking at structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of 125 UCL students to see whether the brains of those with lots of Facebook friends are different from those with lots of real-world friends.
Humans have always lived in social groups that include close relatives and wider circles of friends. Our health and wellbeing, such as whether we are lonely or not, are greatly influenced by these networks. For successful interactions, we not only need to understand social signals at a surface level but to form a deeper understanding of other people's mental states. The UCL researchers wanted to find out if there was any basis for concerns that the more we socialise in a superficial way online, the more we damage our ability to empathize and engage offline.
Their paper, published in October 2011 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, showed, in common with studies of real-world 'social networks, that students with a small inner circle of Facebook friends had a small outer circle, implying they were using Facebook simply as an extension to their existing networks. But the researchers also found that the larger the Facebook-friend-count, the greater the amount of grey matter in certain brain regions.
Brainy social networking
One region is a structure associated with processing memory and emotional responses called the amygdala, which was also found to be bigger in people with lots of real-world friends in 2010 by Kevin Bickart and colleagues at the Boston University School of Medicine in America.
Three other regions - the right superior temporal sulcus, the left entorhinal cortex and the middle temporal gyrus - were specifically correlated with the number of Facebook friends. The first two play a role in our ability to process basic social signals such as gaze and body movements of others. The entorhinal cortex is linked to memory and navigation. Something new appears to be going on here.
"While the brain has specialised areas, the specialisation is not absolute," explains Rees, director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience & Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL. "There is a many-to-one mapping." If a functional MRI scan picks up a flash of activation in someone's insular cortex when they hear an iPhone ring, for example, you cannot conclude that that person desires an iPhone. The same holds for structural MRI studies.
What the UCL results suggest, Rees says, is that the right superior temporal sulcus, the left entorhinal cortex and the middle temporal gyrus might be involved in providing the cognitive capacity to build and maintain large online social networks in human society. Whether the relationship between brain structure and social network participation arises over time or whether individuals with a specific brain structure are predisposed to acquire more friends than others, is yet to be determined.
The next task is to see if these three brain areas are activated when people are involved in specific social behaviours and whether the areas are more active in people with lots of Facebook friends.
Whether what's going on is good or bad for human health and happiness is difficult to tell, says Rees. "First we need to understand what is changing in the brain, we then need to compare that with changes associated with other types of brain plasticity or social experience and we need to understand those mechanisms. Only then would we be in a position to make any kind of judgment."
Tetris for the genomic age
Meanwhile, extending the machinery of our minds in other ways is producing more immediately measurable results. Human brains are good at solving problems involving visual pattern matching and spatial reasoning that even the most powerful computers struggle with. Now that such problems can be embedded into online games, crowds of human players can apply their billions of combined brain petaflops for universal benefit.
Players of an online protein-folding computer game called FoldIt made headlines a couple of years ago when they took just three weeks to work out the 3D structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from an Aids-like virus whose structure had eluded scientists for a decade. Discovering the exact shape of such enzymes, which are critical to how the HIV virus spreads, means scientists can design drugs to deactivate them.
FoldIt's developers at the University of Washington have now updated the game so players can create brand new enzymes. Already this year players have generated a possible enzyme to accelerate the reaction used in the production of the cholesterol medication lovastatin by 2,000 per cent.
Phylo, invented by J'r'me Waldisp'hl and Mathieu Blanchette at the School of Computer Science at McGill University, is a game for everyone. Phylo helps solve a fundamental problem in modern biology - Multiple Sequence Alignment (MSA), which is about lining up similar sequences of DNA in genes common to many species. If a DNA sequence is conserved across many species, it is likely that it plays an important role in the ultimate function of that particular gene.
Exhaustively searching for similar alignments on genome-scale problems exceeds the capacity of even the most powerful computer clusters, so heuristic algorithms based on simple rules are used as a first pass. Phylo is a way of improving the alignment of any remaining regions of the MSA that still have a low confidence score (i.e. that are likely to be misaligned) using the skills that make humans good at Tetris. Because the scientific problem is decoupled from the game, even non-expert users can produce valuable solutions. A mobile version of Phylo is under development.
Since Phylo's launch in 2010, more than 350,000 solutions have been submitted from more than 12,000 registered players. Results published this March showed that these solutions improved the accuracy of up to 70 per cent of the alignment blocks considered compared to what was calculated by MULTIZ, the algorithm used by the University of California in Santa Cruz, which owns the genome database.
"Our goal is to build a bridge from the scientific community to the gaming community, so any scientist could use Phylo to help align genomic sequences," says Waldisp'hl. "Phylo opens up the possibility for people to dig into their own genomes and to decipher their own origins," he predicts. Now that sounds very smart indeed. *