UCSF opens virtual brain lab

Researchers at UCSF's Mission Bay campus are opening a new window into the human brain with a virtual lab.
March 4, 2014 9:28:58 PM PST
Researchers at UCSF's Mission Bay campus are opening a new window into the human brain. It's an interactive lab that could soon be used to understand and even treat a variety of conditions.

On the day we visited the system was being road tested by a celebrity supporter of the research -- Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.

"I'm in training with my own brain waves, getting in sync with them," says Hart as he drums along to videogame projected in front of him.

The lab is the brain child, so to speak, of Adam Gazzaley, M.D., Ph.D., who specializes in combining biofeedback with videogames, to both probe and train the brain.

"What we can do is see someone's brain while they interact with one of our games, in real time," says Gazzaley.

Outfitted with 3D goggles and a helmet wired with sensors, Hart keeps rhythm while blasting asteroids in a virtual world. Behind the scenes, computers employing powerful GPU processors from Santa Clara based NVIDIA turn Hart's brain waves into a graphic display projected on a huge monitor.

"This is the front part of Mickey's brain where his attention is generated," explains Gazzaley. "Then you have the visual areas in the back that are recording what he's seeing."

The technology is dubbed, Glass Brain. According to Gazzaley, it's the first step in creating a system that could someday help treat disorders ranging Alzheimer's to Autism.

"I think we're entering a new stage in medicine where therapeutics are not fully directed at molecules like drugs, but that high-tech software and hardware can be used to build healthier brains," Gazzaley believes.

He envisions interactive games that can track activity in the brain and adjust the challenges to help strengthen or repair the neural pathways. For Hart, there's the hope that the music inside his brain will help unlock secrets that could change the way science understands the human mind, and perhaps how we understand our own human potential.

"It's life, it's everything," says Hart as he chants along with his own drumming. "A happy brain's a good brain!"

The Gazzaley lab is also working with popular consumer gaming platforms. Their goal is to eventually develop affordable brain training systems that patients can use at home.

Written and produced by Tim Didion