Building better brains?

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: Our Brains, Our Futures / View Guide

Directions for teachers:

Ask students to read the introduction of the online Science News articleThree visions of the future, inspired by neuroscience’s past and present.” Ask them to review all fictional neurotechnology vignettes in the article and choose one to focus on. Students should read the vignette and answer the first and second sets of questions, then partner with a classmate who chose a different vignette. Each pair should discuss answers to the first two sets of questions and answer the third question set together. A version of the story, “Our brains, our futures,” appears in the March 13, 2021 issue of Science News.

As an optional extension, have students submit their answer to the final question to SNHS@societyforscience.org.

This story is part of a series that celebrates Science News’ upcoming 100th anniversary by highlighting some of the biggest advances in science over the last century. For more on the history and future of neuroscience, and to see the rest of the series as it appears, visit Science News’ Century of Science site at www.sciencenews.org/century

For additional information about ethical considerations involving neurotechnology, refer to the online Science News article “Can privacy coexist with technology that read and changes brain activity?” A version of the story, “Inside your head,” appears in the February 13, 2021 issue of Science News.

Want to make it a virtual lesson? Post the online Science News article “Three visions of the future, inspired by neuroscience’s past and present,” to your virtual classroom and use the questions to discuss the article with your class.

Defining neuroscience

1. What is neuroscience and when did it become generally recognized as a science?

Neuroscience is the study of the brain and nervous system. It was recognized as an official science field in the 1960s.

2. What is neurotechnology? Give an example from the article.  

Neurotechnology is the set of methods and instruments that are used to collect and study neuron and neural connected pathway data from the brain or more broadly in the nervous system. Surgically implanted electrodes used to tweak brain activity are an example.

3. What role do you think neurotechnology plays in the progress of neuroscience as a field?

Neuroscience relies heavily on technology that collects, modulates and stores brain activity data. Advances in the field of neuroscience depend on advances in neurotechnology that help scientists probe the brain better or differently.

Thinking critically

1. Can you think of a movie, television show or book that exemplifies a real or fictional advance in neuroscience? Discuss what neurotechnology was used, and talk about how its use made you feel. Were there aspects of the technology that seemed exciting or interesting? What about scary or intimidating?

Student answers will vary, but students may mention examples of memories being wiped clean, implanted ideas or brain trickery to create virtual worlds from movies such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Inception or The Matrix.

2. Based on currently available neurotechnology and the vignettes in the article that highlight possible future advances, how likely do you think it is that your example could become a reality if it isn’t already? Explain.

Student answers will vary, but students should discuss how related or unrelated their example is from the already existing neurotechnology and the vignettes highlighted in the Science News article.

3. What are some current or potential future benefits of neurotechnology, according to the Science News article? List some benefits of your neurotechnology example.

Scientists can record nerve cell activity and use brain mapping to guide treatments of disorders including as Parkinson’s disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. Electrodes implanted in the brain help control sporadic movements associated with seizures and Tourette’s syndrome. Eventually, individuals may be able to have their brains mapped to precisely tailor treatments for various disorders. Student answers about their own example will vary.

4. What are the main ethical concerns about current and future advances in neurotechnology, according to the Science News article? Does your neurotechnology example raise any ethical concerns? Explain.

Privacy, autonomy and fairness are the main ethical concerns of advances in neurotechnology. Who should have access to brain data and for what purposes should it be used are major ethical concerns. If policies and regulations are not put in place, then further advances in technology may allow companies to access brain data without people’s knowledge or consent. Student answers about their own example will vary.

Moving forward

1. What role should the public have in shaping how neurotechnology is created and used?

Student answers will vary, but may include thoughts about rights that individuals have to privacy, etc.

2. Brainstorm one possible solution for handling the privacy violations that might arise with advancements of neurotechnology in the future.

Student answers will vary. One solution, for example, could be suggesting the creation of guidelines or policies for scientists, engineers, governments and private companies.

3. What would you like to tell the scientists working in this field? Send your thoughts to SNHS@societyforscience.org.

Student answers will vary, but we’d love to hear back from your students!

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