Augmentation of Brain Function: Facts, Fiction and Controversy

By Silvia Cardellino, Frontiers

Augmentation of brain function is no longer just a theme of science fiction. Due to advances in neural sciences, it has become a matter of reality that a person may consider at some point in life, for example as a treatment of a neurodegenerative disease. Currently, several approaches offer enhancements for sensory, motor and cognitive brain functions, as well as for mood and emotions. Such enhancements may be achieved pharmacologically, using brain implants for recordings, stimulation and drug delivery, by employing brain-machine interfaces, or even by ablation of certain brain areas.

This exciting area of research has been deeply explored with the Frontiers Research Topic “Augmentation of Brain Function: Facts, Fiction and Controversy”, hosted by Dr Mikhail Lebedev, Dr Ioan Opris and Dr Manuel Fernando Casanova in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience. We asked Dr Lebedev to tell us more about this topic.

How has this topic idea been developed?

“It all started with an invitation letter mailed from Frontiers to Dr. Opris. (Dr. Opris and I co-authored a Frontiers article, which probably prompted that invitation.) The timing was good because Dr. Opris and I were discussing an idea of editing a book.

As I work in the fields of primate neurophysiology and brain-machine interfaces (BMIs), and Dr. Opris studies the role of prefrontal cortex in executive control, we came up with an idea of organizing a research topic on “augmentation of brain function” – the theme which is close to our interests, but also general enough to be interesting to a broad readership. We thought the topic could cover various approaches to improving brain function in patients and healthy persons.

Until recently, the idea of brain augmentation was entertained mostly by science fiction. However, with the rapid development of neuroscience and related technological and medical fields, many of the science fiction themes are becoming real, such as reading out brain content, sending information to the brain, interconnecting different brains, adding artificial parts to the brain, etc. Judging from the publications in popular press, all these ideas and their technological implementations are of great interest to the public. So, we wanted to complement the existing scientific and popular literature with a collection of articles that would cover different approaches to brain augmentation – from BMIs and neuropharmacology to philosophy and ethical issues – and critically evaluate those methods.

To emphasize the critical aspect of the topic, I’ve added “facts, fiction and controversy” to the title. We invited Dr. Casanova, psychiatrist and neuroscientist, an expert in autism, to help us edit the topic. The three of us invited contributions from the scientists in relevant fields, and the topic began to develop.”

160 submissions until now, 3 volumes of E-books planned, more than 600,000 page views! What drove the success of this topic?

“Initially, we did not have a good idea of how many authors would agree to participate, but later realized that the percentage is relatively low: ~20% of the invited people. People may be busy, consider different journals more attractive for submitting their manuscripts, and in some cases skeptical of the open-access model where authors cover the publication costs. As I wanted to get a good number of authors to participate, I did several rounds of invitations, and eventually  approximately 200 authors signed up.

As we were getting more articles published and the research topic was becoming popular, all participants were becoming more enthusiastic about our undertaking. The major key to this success was, of course, the superb science from 600 authors who provided their insights on the issues of brain augmentation. I believe that all of them were satisfied with publishing in Frontiers, and judging by the citations to these publications, the readers were satisfied, as well. In addition to the authors, the reviewers (listed in the articles) worked hard to make sure the papers reach the state of perfection. Hopefully, our editing helped the authors and reviewer to reach consensus.”

More than 200 people agreed to contribute to your Research Topic upon invitation: it is indeed an impressive number! Moreover, you also received 15% spontaneous submissions from external people that discovered your Research Topic via its webpage. How did you decide that the topic was complete?

“We decided that the best approach would be to achieve comprehensive coverage of the topic rather than releasing it soon. Because of this, the work on the topic extended to several years. Because articles are published immediately after acceptance, this was acceptable to all authors; and hopefully they will benefit from the eventual publication of the e-books.

We were indeed pleased to have spontaneous submissions, which was yet another indication that the topic was well received by the readership. At a certain point, it became clear that we have sufficiently covered most of the agenda, so the topic is now closed. We will probably publish several papers that are currently under review by the end of the year, and then we will organize the materials as three eBooks.”

The final plan is to conclude with 3 eBooks collecting all the articles published within your Research Topic. At which stage is the topic now?

“We are practically done. Now, we will need some time to review the published papers, write the overview articles and decide how we compose the eBooks. I think we will be finished with all this work by the end of the year, and the eBooks will be released early next year.”

How was your experience as Topic Editor?

“The work on the topic was a great learning experience for me personally. Overall, I am a great supporter of Frontiers publishing model, including the interactive review and publication of the reviewers’ names in the article.

I had a great time collaborating with Drs Opris and Casanova whose contributions were invaluable, including editorial work, discussions of various issues, and solutions of many problems that we encountered. The support from the Editorial Office was superb, they responded to any question immediately and were extremely helpful. I enjoyed the process and highly recommend Frontiers for publishing research topics and conference proceedings.”

Congratulations on this highly successful Research Topic. We are looking forward to seeing the completed eBooks that will come out!