Maryam Shanechi Makes Mind Reading Machines by Zainab Mavani

Have you ever wanted to be able to read minds? Or even control them? Maryam Shanechi’s ground-breaking work in the field of brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) may just make that dream a reality.

Communication between brain cells is how we control almost everything, particularly our movement. It is also how we perceive things, how we form thoughts, and how we choose to respond to the world around us. It is this brain cell chatter that Shanechi’s work taps into – her work on decoding the signals sent between brain cells aims to eventually enable her to manipulate them for the better.

Shanechi has spent her career designing computer algorithms that enable a machine to read brain signals. Her work on monkeys was successful in understanding the messages sent from the motor parts of the monkey brain, and was able to predict the monkey’s next movements. Not only is Shanechi working on trying to understand what the brain is saying, but in a recently published paper, her team presented a way to decode brain signals even faster than regular BMIs do. When brain cells want to talk to each other, they send out a signal. Shanechi and her team managed to decode this signal much faster than current standard machines can. They were also able to get much more accurate recordings.

But what is a brain-machine interface? Brain cells talk to each other using very small amounts of electricity, and BMI’s harness this by reading the levels of electrical activity and use a computer to decode the messages. Importantly, this process can work the other way, too. Scientists can use the BMI to send signals in the form of electricity to the brain cells, and because the machine is using the same electrical language as the cells, the cells understand the input and can process the information they receive. The result? The animal or person which all of this is happening to can see or experience whatever the scientist wants them to.

So how did Maryam Shanechi end up working with BMIs? Her passion for physics and maths, along with her desire to want to physically build solutions to problems, led her to start studying electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. It wasn’t until Shanechi watched a video of a computer being able to predict a rat’s movements that she made the move over to neuroscience. Here, she offers a unique perspective from her previous field of expertise, and through her work, Shanechi could help tackle some of the biggest illnesses the world currently faces, including depression.

Shanechi’s next project using BMIs sounds like something straight out of the future – she wants to alter mood by affecting neuron communication. In particular, the focus is on neuropsychiatric diseases – illnesses that affect a person’s brain and behaviour. These include common mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, which are incredibly prevalent across the UK, with 19.7% of people showing symptoms for either illness. Mood modulating BMIs present a new treatment option that is more tailored to the person than current drugs are, as the machine can read the brain signals and decide what electrical pattern to reply with, in order to reduce the symptoms. However, there are some problems with this innovative idea becoming a reality soon, such as the fact that neuroscientists are still trying to understand the circuits involved in emotion and mood. Unlike motor systems, which have clear circuits that scientists have already mapped out, it is believed that emotional states are the result of a lot of different brain areas talking to each other. Figuring out these pathways will be the next major step in the project before we get any mind-altering technology. Even so, the future for BMIs is looking bright; and very soon, we could be treating neuropsychiatric diseases in a much more futuristic way.



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