ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
It has long been a preoccupation of neuroscientists to capture images of our thoughts as they're formed. Well, technology is helping to make that a reality. Faster computer processors and advances in brain imaging allow researchers greater insight into how thoughts and actions unfold in our heads.
Well, now a musician best known for his work with the Grateful Dead is getting in on the action. He's using these same technologies to turn the inside of his mind into a light show for his band. NPR's Steve Henn explains.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: There's really no delicate way of putting this, but most deadheads weren't into that scene for just the music.
MICKEY HART: Half a brain's a good brain. Half a brain's a good brain.
HENN: So when I got a call offering me a chance to peer inside drummer Mickey Hart's brain during one of his concerts, the idea had a certain loopy appeal.
HART: But it's totally captivating, and I feel very high when I do it.
HENN: Hart was a percussionist for the Dead for more than 20 years, and on his upcoming concert tour, he's donning a goofy black cap studded with electrodes. The cap and the data from Hart's brain will drive his concert's light show.
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HART: The light show is the brain. I mean, that's everything, you know, a bunch of a screens, and my brain was like 40 feet high, and I was just looking at it and watching it fire. And you see, you know, the colors moving and the different rhythm patterns and realizing that's me.
HENN: Working with researchers at the University of California San Francisco, Hart's bandmates kind of arbitrarily assigned musical notes to specific kinds of brainwaves and have sprinkled those sounds throughout their songs. But Mickey Hart's interest in brain science goes back to the '80s.
His grandmother had dementia. For years she didn't seem to recognize him. And then...
HART: I played my drum for her, and she spoke my name.
HENN: Hart became convinced that music could be a powerful therapy. Eventually that interest led him to Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at UCSF.
HART: So he's developed a technology, and his lab has, that allows me to see my brain in real time and to hear the electrical stimuli of the brain.
HENN: For Hart, this idea of processing data in real time was important because he wanted to jam with his own brain.
HART: Well, I want to be dynamic with it. I want to have a conversation. I want to (unintelligible), be in sync.
HENN: Obviously this isn't science, it's rock 'n' roll, but Adam Gazzaley says the technology Hart's using in his light show and concerts could actually have benefits in the lab.
ADAM GAZZALEY: What we do in the lab and what most scientists do in the lab is collect the data and then they do something, you know, known as post-processing, where we analyze it for months and figure out what's going on. Here what we're doing is - as best we can is showing the data in real time, as it's being generated.
HENN: To make that happen, Gazzaley hooked Mickey Hart's goofy black cap studded with electrodes to some of the fastest graphical computer processors in the world. And this got him thinking about how he could use similar techniques in his own lab.
GAZZALEY: Because if we had better real-time data from the brain, then we could use it for example in neurofeedback experiments.
HENN: Earlier this week, Gazzaley published a paper in Nature that demonstrated using a brain training video game for a month could enhance the abilities of older people to concentrate and multitask. As the players got better at the game, the game got harder.
GAZZALEY: What we want to do is feed the brain data directly into the game mechanics so that the game essentially knows what's going on in your brain in real time and could push on the different processes.
HENN: Gazzaley is designing similar experiments using music. In the past, these tasks and the experiments would get harder as players got better. So if you were able to match a specific beat, the next rhythm would be more complicated. But beating out a rhythm is actually triggered by a chain of events in your mind.
GAZZALEY: You have to sensory-process the information. You have to do something known as a sensory motor transformation and motor planning. Then you actually have the motor act itself.
HENN: If something goes wrong, if you miss a beat, it could be any one of those neurological functions breaking down.
GAZZALEY: But if we could directly target the different processes, almost like a surgeon, we could go and really sculpt how the brain works and maybe get better improvement.
HENN: That vision is a long way and many experiments from becoming a reality. And these experiments could fail. But Gazzaley says if they work, Mickey Hart's light show and those fast computer processors he's using to power it will deserve a big chunk of the credit. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.
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SIEGEL: This is NPR News.