TechMatters is a semi-regular column exploring the intersection between tech and our lives, why it matters, and how it’s helping to improve our quality and vitality of life.
Here, we will profile new startups and products that have a vested interest in the betterment of life on a physical, emotional, and humanitarian level.
Many medical mysteries continue to baffle researchers. As such, scientists and startups alike continue to leverage technology to combat a wide variety of diseases and disorders. From aiming to make life easier for kids with Cerebral Palsy to developing an app to protect people’s hearing and using artificial intelligence (AI) to treat cancer, technology continues to make a positive impact in the medical sector.
While researchers are making bold progress, many global medical challenges still exist. Three areas that could benefit from major technological breakthroughs include brain decoding, dementia treatment, and developing a universal flu vaccine.
Decoding the Brain’s Deepest Mysteries
Neuroscientists are continually striving to understand the deep, complex workings of the billions of neurons in the human brain. This life-sustaining organ pretty much controls everything a person does. From walking and talking, to smiling, thinking, and even breathing, the brain performs thousands of functions every day.
There is still so much to learn about this vital part of the human body, and researchers are making some exciting neurological advances.
For instance, a team at the University of California, San Francisco is developing a system that would enable people to send text messages via brain signals. Led by Dr. Edward Chang, the group recorded the brains of five epileptic patients during brain surgery.
In the effort, patients on the operating table spoke phrases from a list. Then the team fed those signals into a computer model of the human vocal system and it produced synthesized speech.
Although the words were only partially intelligible, the endeavor demonstrates a technological ability to leverage neural pathways and generate speech. Specifically, electrodes placed on the brain’s surface “listened” for nerves firing as they prompted vocal organs to move.
“We are tapping into the parts of the brain that control these movements—we are trying to decode movements, rather than speech directly,” Chang said in a statement reported by MIT Review.
Developed further, this cutting-edge technology might help give a voice to those who are paralyzed or otherwise unable to speak. Overall, by decoding some of the brain’s hidden mysteries, maybe scientists could find a cure for debilitating diseases like Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and more.
Over 5.8 million Americans are reportedly living with Alzheimer’s disease. This number is projected to increase to over 14 million by 2050. Alarmingly, Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and there is no cure.
This degenerative neurological disorder and other forms of dementia rob sufferers of their memories and devastate their families. Though more work needs to be done, technological strides have addressed patient safety, early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, and more.
Many people who have some form of dementia wander away from home. In searching for a solution to this dangerous problem, a Harvard undergrad student developed a wearable device to alert caregivers when a dementia patient attempts to get out of bed.
Furthermore, in looking for a way to provide early intervention, a researcher used an AI algorithm to detect Alzheimer’s years before it could otherwise be diagnosed.
According to the Mayo Clinic, current Alzheimer’s research also involves finding ways to reduce brain inflammation, trying to keep tau proteins from tangling in the brain, studying insulin resistance, and more.
Overall, researchers should continue to focus on understanding dementia and developing medicines and treatments to prevent or slow its progression. Hopefully, one day, technological advances can finally stop the debilitating effects of the disease.
Developing a Universal Flu Vaccine
Seasonal and other manageable strains of flu can be deadly for some high-risk groups like adults over the age of 65, children under the age of two, and people with weakened immune systems.
However, a flu pandemic could kill masses of people of all ages. Four influenza pandemics have occurred in the last 100 years, with the most lethal claiming 50 million lives in 1918.
The rapidly spreading nature of this kind of global outbreak is terrifying. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Pandemics happen when new (novel) influenza A viruses emerge which are able to infect people easily and spread from person to person in an efficient and sustained way.”
The emergence of a new pandemic influenza virus is problematic for several reasons. First, most people aren’t immune to new strains. Second, illness can occur in multiple “waves,” several months apart. Third, when multiple people get sick at one time, numerous absences impact schools, churches, and businesses. And finally, large numbers of people need medical care at the same time. As such, hospitals and clinics can become overloaded.
Unfortunately, seasonal flu vaccines do not protect against pandemic flu. The CDC reportedly has a stockpile of pre-pandemic vaccines to guard against influenza A viruses that have pandemic potential. However, none of them are guaranteed to treat any random new strain effectively. Therefore, it could take months to develop a viable pandemic influenza vaccine. Unfortunately, many people could die during the wait.
Therefore, it’s critical for researchers to develop a universal flu vaccine that protects against mild strains as well as strains of pandemic proportions. Millions of lives might depend on it.