Saturday, December 5, 2009

Brain Guard

Just started a subscription to Harper's, one of my favorite magazines. The first issue is bulging with vibrant reads, but one piece really nailed me. A snippet about three computer scientists at the University of Washington introduced me to the concept of "neurosecurity," the critical work of protecting patients with devices like prosthetic-limb systems.

Neurosecurity works to ensure that physicians could connect wirelessly to adjust settings for a robotic limb but that hackers could not de-rail signals and interrupt the person while she's walking or driving. An additional concern is confidentiality, making sure that hackers could not "read" what a limb is typing or anticipate movements the person might be about to make. Security also has to be in place for systems that work inside the brain (used for diseases like Parkinson's). It's crucial that unwelcome outsiders not have access to these systems to prevent results like brain cell death or manipulation and even elimination of memories.

Neurosecurity is an astounding concept to me! We need to have guards to make sure that misguided, evil people don't enter our neural systems and cause harm! That we even need such protection baffles me, but there are humans who would try horrible interruptions. Harper's cites creeps who have posted flashing animations on epilepsy support websites, causing patients to have seizures.

Why would someone do this? What could possibly motivate a person capable of learning complex computer tasks to do something so despicable? What in the human makeup allows this to occur? What neural paths have been trampled or convoluted enough to even let thoughts of such actions occur?

Course the world deals with questions like these daily and we'll ever know precisely why some folks use their gifts for good and some for evil. But I'd love to participate in neurosecurity work. I'd love to be one of the computer geeks in Seattle whose daily focus is protecting a veteran returning from the Irag war minus a limb. I'd love to sit before my computer and program walls that would keep evil away from a person suffering from the chronic pain of fistulizing Crohn's disease. I'd love to report for duty each day, knowing my efforts would minimize the terror of seizure that faces a seven-year-old epileptic.

These neuroscientists are, I'm thinking, our Supermen and Superwomen. They're zooming around in a realm that we can hardly even imagine...a realm where memory boards and wireless wizardry can turn a thought into an act of climbing stairs. They're churning up binary magic to bring serenity from chaos deep in the brain. I'm grateful that they're thinking darkly, that they're projecting dire attacks on their own creations, before someone else does and wreaks havoc on patients. Really valuable and amazing work.

Defender of Neural Systems: now that's a title I'd love to have!

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