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Future of Brain Science: Studying Brain in the Wild

Imagine wearing devices that monitor and analyse your brain activity as you go about your daily life. It sounds scary and a potential privacy nightmare. Yet, this very technology, if used ethically, could unlock the mysteries of the brain, offering answers to questions we’ve long sought.

This post is also available in Dutch.

This article is the first of the Donders Wonders summer series. During summer we will post four biweekly articles to dive into the future of brain science from four different angles, perfect for reading poolside.

Rapid advances in wireless technology, micro-electromechanical systems, cloud computing, and signal processing have propelled neuro-technology forward. These innovations have led to portable electroencephalography (EEG) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) devices for wireless brain activity monitoring, resting-state fMRI and diffusion tensor imaging for brain connectivity, and VR and AR environments simulating real-world conditions. These technologies allow researchers to study the brain in naturalistic settings, freeing it from the constraints of the lab. But why is studying the brain in its natural environment so crucial?

Brain in the wild v/s Brain in the lab.

In lab settings, animal movements are restricted by wired setups and small enclosures. Brain activity is studied during simple tasks like moving to get food, with limited sensory, social, and cognitive stimuli. This controlled environment leads to a reductionist approach, focusing on specific brain regions. Such studies have been successful in decoding basic brain functions; for example, they revealed that a rat’s hippocampus has “place cells” that encode their location on a 2D map of the enclosure. These studies establish that one of the primary roles of the hippocampus is spatial navigation.

In the wild or in more naturalistic settings, animals are free to move around unrestricted. Their brains are treated with a variety of sensory stimuli and social interactions.  Experiments in such setups are aimed to study the brain and the behavior of animals as they go through their everyday lives without focusing on a specific task. Recent studies of bats in their natural environment have shown that the place cells of their hippocampus also track other bats’ locations on a much larger 3D map, spanning several kilometers. For these studies, tiny wireless neural logging devices equipped with various sensors like ultrasonic microphone, motion sensor, altimeter, and GPS were used. Thus, the hippocampus, once thought to be solely for navigation, also plays a crucial role in social interactions. This shows that in controlled lab settings, a brain region can appear to perform a specific task, but in naturalistic settings, the same brain region can reveal its broader and more complex functions. 

The use case.

Neuroscience has long aimed to understand individual differences in brain structure and functions within the same species. This can provide insights into processes like human cognitive aging and the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s which need to account for how such diseases progress differently in individual brains. At the core of this research is studying how the gene-environment interactions over time affect the development of an animal’s brain over its lifespan. The hippocampus, where neurons continue to be produced in adulthood, exemplifies this interaction, as unique experiences shape its development differently for each individual.

Lab experiments are typically short and limit the study of long-term animal-environment interactions. In contrast, naturalistic settings, with the right technology, can allow the study of brain and behavior development over an animal’s entire lifespan. Researchers under the Dutch Brain Interface Initiative plan to establish a Naturalistic-behavior lab to study rat brains in naturalistic environments throughout their lives.

Conclusion.

Neuroscience experiments in lab environments have led to significant breakthroughs. However, limiting these experiments to controlled setups may restrict our ability to decode the brain in action while it performs its natural, evolved functions. Theories from naturalistic studies are more relevant to us as we live in a highly multi-modal environment with a lot of social interactions. Such research is currently being introduced to animal subjects like rats, bats, and monkeys. When applied to humans, extreme care must be taken to protect privacy and ensure ethical standards.

Author: Siddharth Chaturvedi
Buddy: Elena Markantonakis
Editor: Francesca Alba
Translator: Eline de Boer
Editor translation: Lucas Geelen

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