An artist's impression of the 'brainpower-boosting' helmet. Photo: Handout

Helmets being developed in China are claimed to stimulate the brain, help people perform complex tasks, boost the memory and regulate abnormal emotions to alleviate anxiety.

The new helmets set to be trialled next year will not only help protect the head, but use artificial intelligence to monitor and regulate brain waves. This will give users a sharp mind, according to a team of researchers at the the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Advanced Technology in Shenzhen.

Some are asking if these novel helmets, equipped with a brain function enhancement system that sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, actually make your life easier or turn out to be a tool for some covert form of mind control.

Wei Pengfei, the head of the team developing the headwear, said children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and people suffering depression, aphasia, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease can benefit from wearing one.

Wei’s areas of study include the subcortical neural coding mechanisms for signal processing using optogenetics as well as vivo electrophysiological and optical recording, according to his CV on the institute’s website.

Wei Pengfei has a PhD in neuroscience. Photo: Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology

He said the helmets used a mix of surgically-implanted deep-brain stimulation technologies that first emerged in the 1960s and well-rounded electroencephalogram feedback and brain-computer interface technologies in the neuroscience field.

As a form of non-invasive stimulation and regulation method, the brain function enhancement system is built inside a light helmet using flexible electrode sensors that have highly complicated algorithms to identify and keep watch on brain waves when the user is dealing with different tasks or feeling distressed.

“When abnormal waves are detected or they last for a prolonged period, electrodes inside the helmet can release weak current pulses to reach specific cerebral areas and cortexes of the brain to alter its waves and thus regulate the active state of its neurons,” said Wei, who added that since brain tissue was very complex, his team devoted a great deal of time building a computer model capable of determining the target area and parameters for stimulation using AI technologies.

The algorithm can “read” a user’s brain in real time and calculate stimulation parameters for precise and personalized intervention. The team has trialled the helmets on rodents and primates.

Wei claimed the use of the helmets would not be limited to patients only, stressing their experiments showed that volunteers who wore them for about 15 minutes outperformed their peers without helmets in memorizing random letters and numbers. He did, however, admit that large-scale, double-blind experiments among people of different genders and age groups were needed to ascertain if the benefits had helmets.

As for concerns about any mind control, he said those fears belonged to the realm of “hysteria and alarmism” and added that no brain or neuro-scientist would take it seriously.

Local papers in the bourgeoning southern tech hub of Shenzhen where Wei’s team is based also reported that hospitals and clinics there would start trialling the helmets next year, pending approval by the relevant drug and public health authorities.

Wei is also said to be in talks with local companies to monetize his research and launch the brainpower-boosting helmets for non-medical, supplementary aids, aiming at students struggling to pass exams or those whose jobs involve intensive thinking.

If such products prove to be marketable, the profit could be mind-boggling, said a member of Wei’s team. “I’d like to wear one when I’m working on the second generation of the helmets,” he joked.

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