Why I’m a Health Scientist: Susan Boehnke
Dr. Susan Boehnke’s work is the stuff of science fiction no longer: the study, recording, and even modification of brain and behaviour through cutting-edge technology.
As director of the NeuroTech Micro-Credential Program and Associate Professor in the DBMS and the Centre for Neuroscience Studies at Queen’s University, Dr. Boehnke’s work is helping shape the future of neurotechnology, an emerging growth industry that applies brain sensing, imaging or modulating technologies to solve real world problems.
In Why I’m a Health Scientist, she discusses the game-changing potential – and pitfalls – of neurotechnology, her newly-launched Neurotech Micro-credential Program, and the power of discovery research.
If I had to describe my research to a stranger, I would tell them… I study the brain and how it produces behaviour. I record from it directly using neurotechnology, look at its output by measuring behaviour, or monitor its state by measuring biomarkers found in blood or cerebrospinal fluid. Sometimes I try to modify it. I also spend some time thinking about the ethics of developments in neurotechnology, such as use of neurotechnology to decode speech directly from brain activity.
One thing my mother always told me that still inspires my work is…. ‘don’t let the negative few override the positive many’. Research is tough. You have to celebrate every win, however small.
Neurotech has the potential to… provide game-changing therapies for neurological disorders. For example, non-invasive neurostimulation as a targeted way of treating severe depression. Drugs are the primary mode of treatment right now. I think in the near future you'll go into a clinic for individualized neurostimulation sessions, or maybe even do transcranial direct current stimulation at home. This kind of non-invasive neurostimulation is really advancing.
One problem neurotech could solve in our lifetime is … helping us connect with AI. This may still be decades away, but Elon Musk has claimed this is one of his goals for his start-up Neuralink. I would never have thought that possible some years ago. But there have been so many developments involving neurotechnology combined with machine-learning algorithms, which is a kind of an AI … where neuroscientists have been able to, in some ways, decode thoughts. At some point, it's really just decoding speech – or intended speech – but increasingly it's looking like they're going to be able to figure out the patterns in the brain that may predict people's intentions with some accuracy. It won't be perfect – and that's what makes it dangerous – but the idea will be that you could have some form of an implant that would allow you to at least converse with an AI or guide it, and this could certainly increase productivity in ways I don't think I can quite imagine yet.
Research has the power to … truly inspire students. My goal is to get more undergraduates to engage in discovery research so they can experience that feeling of excitement when they discover something new.
The ethical issues around neurotechnology… raise big questions. For example, do we really want to be in a world where we feel the pressure to go through an invasive procedure to implant electrodes so that we can control our phone with our thoughts? Because if that's made available, I can tell you there are thousands of people that would jump at the opportunity to do that. And what if it actually gives people an advantage but is only accessible to the very wealthy? So, there's a concern about unequal distribution of resources. We need to make sure that the benefits of neurotechnology are available to everyone – not just certain segments of society. Neurotechnology and AI are revolutionizing society, creating a world where humans and machines are deeply interconnected. The big question that we are trying to answer is: How will we ensure this leads to a fair, just and healthy society for all? This is the idea behind our CFREF initiative with York University, Connected Minds: Neural and Machine Systems for a Healthy, Just Society.
The next step in our microcredentials program is… continuing work with Queen’s Office of Professional Development & Educational Scholarship on three more courses, including Neuro- entrepreneurship and Neuroethical Considerations in Neurotech. Our microcredential graduates may not all be classically-trained health scientists – they may be doing work in the public or private sector. It doesn't matter where the work is being done; we’re giving them the fundamentals to apply themselves in this rapidly expanding area. Our learners may also be patients who simply want to better understand how neurotechnology may help them.
Learn more in this feature about Queen’s new Neurotech Micro-credential Program, a partnership with Western University through its Western Institute for Neuroscience, York, and Nipissing Universities to foster hands-on skills using a variety of neurotechnologies.
Why I’m a Health Scientist is an ongoing series exploring our researchers' personalities, motivations, and inspirations.
Susan Boehnke: Publications and Projects