Your 21st Century Brain

Part of the Brain: The Inside Story exhibition.

The more we learn about the human brain, the more we will have the ability to change it. Knowing how our brains work will give us exciting--and sometimes unsettling--new choices. We could repair our brains if things go wrong. We could even improve our brains, if we so chose. In fact, many of these new technologies are much further along than you might expect. New drugs are being developed that could someday eliminate pain, reduce the need for sleep, control appetite and obesity, improve memory, increase creativity, and prevent aging.

How it Works

Millions of people suffer from brain damage caused by strokes, Alzheimer's disease, and other disorders. Repairing their damaged brains could restore their minds, benefiting millions. The same techniques, however, could also be used to improve healthy people's brains, which raises a number of ethical issues.

Suppose researchers created an artificial hippocampus or stem-cell treatment that could restore memory for stroke patients. What if healthy people used them too, and then had super-memory? Should that be illegal? What if some countries banned these drugs and others didn't? Or what if many of these treatments were so expensive that only wealthy people would be able to afford them, thickening the dividing line between the "haves" and the "have-nots"? These questions may soon become impossible to ignore.

Here are some of the latest advancements in rebuilding the human brain:

Brain-Computer Interfaces

Brain implants have been used by thousands of people to monitor brain activity during epileptic seizures. But some volunteers have also let researchers use their implants to observe their brains as they talked, moved their hands, and so on. When connected to a computer, the implants could be used to move animated hands, or even decode words the volunteers were silently thinking. Several devices that connect people's brains to computers have already been developed for medical use. What else can be done with brain-computer interfaces?

Deep Brain Stimulation

Normally, a brain region is activated by signals from other neurons. But neurons can also be stimulated electrically. How is this done? Who may benefit?

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

Stimulating your brain electrically can change how you feel, think, and move--and you don't need surgery to do it. Using powerful magnets, doctors can stimulate your brain electronically, without surgery, and without touching neurons directly at all. How does this work?