Noise of the Neurons


By Priyal Sakhuja

Imagine sitting in a classroom at school or with your friends at lunch, trying to go about your normal day-to-day activities, but you can’t seem to focus. Your mind doesn’t let you. You start to zone out and you wind up staring into the distance. This could happen numerous times a day and you might not even realize it. Externally, it may seem like nothing happened, but if only you could hear your brain, the noise of the neurons might tell you something quite different.

The abnormal electrical discharges would actually tell you that the person is having a seizure.  But how is it possible to hear the sound of a neuron? Josef Parvizi, a Stanford neuroscientist and epilepsy specialist, collaborated with his colleague Chris Chafe, a music researcher at Stanford, to develop the brain stethoscope. This device could could convert brain waves and their electrical discharges into an audio recording of what’s going on inside the brain. Unlike grand mal seizures, which cause convulsions, this type of petit mal seizure is more subtle, and thus, the brain stethoscope allows one to gain a deeper insight into the activities of the brain (Slack, 2014).

So how does it work? The stethoscope detects brain wave activity using a pair of wearable electrodes that sense electrical emissions from the neurons beneath them. The signals chosen by Chafe are then converted to sounds that are similar to the tone of a human voice. The “singing” of neurons that is heard allows one to identify the presence and intensity of seizure activity. A more intensified and disoriented noise is often identifiable during a seizure, while the end of a seizure is characterized by slower and deeper noises, depicting a “tired” brain.  

It’s truly amazing to see the advancements being made by medical science today and the leaps scientists are taking to achieve the unimaginable. It is, in fact, inventions such as these that will allow medical knowledge to spread to even the rural areas of India, where seizures are often undetected. Until now, the only reliable way to learn whether one was having a seizure was to administer an electroencephalogram (EEG), which converts electrical activity to waveforms that are then interpreted by doctors. But for many people in India, this is not a viable option. However, the brain stethoscope will soon become a popular alternative for even the most untrained people to listen to brain activity and determine whether a seizure is occurring. These noises of the neurons may actually bring us another step further to unraveling the mystery of seizures.

References:

Slack, Gordy. (2014, March 28). “Hearing a Seizure’s Song.” Discover. Available:

           http://discovermagazine.com/2014/may/6-symphony-for-a-seizure

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