Marine biologist Tierney Thys, inventor Tan Le, and forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni delve into the inner workings of our brains to figure out the science behind nature's health effects, and how we can enhance those benefits.
Tan Le wants us to put our heads together and transform brain research. Her ideas and innovations may help detect brain problems earlier, enable better learning, and accelerate research to unlock new treatments for neurological disorders. The company she co-founded, Emotiv Lifesciences, pioneers first-of-its-kind portable EEG technology, a new brain-computer interface, and a platform for sharing crucial brain data globally.
"Neurological impairments like depression, schizophrenia, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, epilepsy, autism, ADHD, traumatic brain injuries, and the effects of stroke will probably touch someone you care about," Le says. "But despite technologies that have allowed us to image, measure, and observe the brain for many decades, we haven't made a big dent in understanding it."
Le says to ramp up that understanding, the more brains the better. "I want to empower as many people as possible to participate in brain research by making it easier and more affordable. Instead of limiting research to institutions that can afford hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in imaging machines, I want to democratize brain research through accessible technology that fosters innovation at the grassroots level."
Collecting brain data is a slowgoing, labor-intensive, cost-prohibitive process. As a result, most brains aren't studied until they are broken. "It's a classic case of only looking at bad apples," Le observes. "That's why we don't have a good baseline on healthy, normally functioning brains. Without that, it's impossible to chart the progression of neurological impairments over time. You don't just wake up one day with dementia or Alzheimer's; these conditions are developmental. Even when a problem triggers the need to collect data, it's reviewed by a specialist and filed away. There's no central repository allowing information to be shared across a multitude of researchers worldwide."
Le aims to change that by launching a "bioinformatics platform for distributed research," enabling massive amounts of brain data to be collected and shared for the first time. Researchers will send experiments out over the Internet. Participants complete designated tasks while wearing the EEG headset that Le's organization created to record brain activity. Data is then uploaded into the cloud, where it can be accessed and studied.
"Any researcher can collect data from hundreds or thousands of participants within days," says Le. "In the past, getting just a hundred people through a study was a huge undertaking requiring several months. Now scientists will be able to compare their patients to a far-reaching general population and draw more meaningful inferences. This platform could accelerate research at a scale and pace we never imagined a few years ago."
Large-scale participation is made possible by Le's completely portable, multichannel, high-resolution EEG system. The headset connects wirelessly to most PCs and has sensors that pick up electric signals produced by the brain; it can detect the wearer's thoughts, feelings, and expressions. The device has been distributed to more than 90 countries, and a broad cross-section of people is now familiar with using it.
Wearing the headset endows you with seemingly superhuman powers. A computer interface reads your brainwaves, allowing you to move objects with your mind. Think hard enough about turning left and your electric wheelchair obeys. Concentrate on pushing a square across a computer screen and watch it go. Patients rendered speechless from strokes may visualize words on a screen and communicate. Le says research experiments are tracking brain activity as people use mind power, not their fingers, to do everything from play video games to operate electronics.
With feedback on how your brain is functioning, you might hone how fast and well you learn. "You could chart brain development as you master a new physical skill or learn a new language. It could help someone with learning difficulties become more focused or guide athletes toward peak performance," Le says. "If your family has a history of dementia, tracking your brain provides valuable metrics for predicting your personal risk. If your child's temporal lobe auditory response isn't performing well and may affect her capacity for language development and balance, you can start to correct for that. It's all part of being able to understand ourselves better."
"I want to leverage the creativity of researchers across mathematics, statistics, data mining, computer science, biology, medicine, and the public at large," Le says. "The brain is the cornerstone of virtually every facet of our lives. I wish we knew more."
Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is a Member of the Faculty at The Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, where she teaches in the Environmental Studies program. She received her undergraduate degree in Biology from Brown University (1976) and her PhD in Forest Ecology from the University of Washington (1983). Her research is focused on the ecology of tropical and temperate forest canopies, particularly the role that canopy-dwelling plants play in forests at the ecosystem level. She carries out field research in Washington State and in Monteverde, Costa Rica with the support of the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society.
She has published two books and over 55 scientific articles in scientific journals in the area of forest canopy ecology and forest ecosystem ecology. Nalini has presented a number of endowed lectures at academic institutions around the country.
In 1994, she co-founded and is President of the International Canopy Network, a non-profit organization that fosters communication among researchers, educators, and conservationists concerned with forest canopies. She spends a great deal of energy on public outreach to the general public, children, and policy-makers on matters concerning forest canopies and forest conservation. She has appeared in numerous television documentaries, and was most recently featured as a canopy scientist in the National Geographic television special on tropical forest canopies, titled "Heroes of the High Frontier", which won the Emmy Award for Best Documentary Film of 2001. A new project she initiated involves the creation of a multi-disciplinary Forest Canopy Walkway project on The Evergreen State College campus. In 2001, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship to pursue her interests in communication of forest canopy research results to non-scientists with collaborations of artists, musicians, physicians, sports figures, and religious leaders.
Nalini splits a single faculty position at Evergreen with her husband, Jack Longino, who studies tropical insect biodiversity. They have two children, Gus and Erika, who accompany them on research trips to the tropics.
Tierney Thys, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, is a marine biologist with a doctorate in biomechanics. She has worked with Earle and studies Mola molas (giant sunfish) in addition to her work with Sea Studios Foundation, a documentary film company.