'The Fear Has Significantly Diminished': UCLA Neuroscientists Discuss Next Steps on Brain Chips

Francesca Billington

Francesca Billington is a freelance reporter. Prior to that, she was a general assignment reporter for dot.LA and has also reported for KCRW, the Santa Monica Daily Press and local publications in New Jersey. She graduated from Princeton in 2019 with a degree in anthropology.

'The Fear Has Significantly Diminished': UCLA Neuroscientists Discuss Next Steps on Brain Chips

Researchers are getting closer to using bionics to treat patients with memory loss and depression, but they'll have to address some crucial questions before it's commercialized. That's what three neurology UCLA researchers and professors said during the dot.LA Summit panel "Building the Bionic Human in L.A." hosted by managing editor Rachel Uranga.

Most of these concerns have to do with the ethics, safety and security of implanting brain chips, which are designed to stimulate memory functions for patients with Alzheimer's or inhibit them for patients with PTSD.

And they were skeptical about Neuralink founder Elon Musk's promises to quickly bring to market a device that interfaces with the brain that Musk says could ease depression or other ailments. The bottom line, they said, was that there's still a gap between the technology and what researchers know about the brain.

"What are the guarantees that we can provide for these devices? Can I guarantee it'll work on ten out of ten patients and if not, is it worth the risk associated with the implant?" said Fabien Scalzo, assistant professor of neurology and computer science at UCLA. "I think there are still a lot of questions regarding that."

Each of the panelists focus on a different aspect of bionic engineering at UCLA: Scalzo works with a team to produce the hardware that Nader Pouratian implants into the brain. Meanwhile, Nanthia Suthana examines its effects on the patient's neurological functions.

Pouratian, a professor and vice chair of neurology at UCLA's school of medicine, said brain stimulation devices evolved from cardiac pacemakers, the first of which were developed in the 1970s.

"It's the same idea," he said. "We've been using that technology for over two decades. It hasn't changed radically in that time until very recently."

Today, engineers, scientists and neurosurgeons are rallying around an industry that's seen rapid growth. Specifically, they're working to stimulate the brain with greater precision and listen to brain activity, similar to the way doctors listen to the heart. The other key component of development includes improving the patient experience. Think scaling down the size of these devices and making them both wireless and rechargeable.

"The fear of brain stimulators has significantly diminished," said Pouratian. "As we expand and understand that better and make it safer, I think we're going to see it much more commonly accepted and sought after."

The devices in development are largely geared toward helping people with ongoing conditions, but Pouratian said he could see a day when people use them cosmetically to enhance memory, for example. The prospect could potentially expand human potential but would raise a whole host of concerns including access and the possibility of these devices being hacked.

Suthana, a UCLA assistant professor of neurosurgery and bioengineering, said some of the fears you hear surrounding bionic solutions might be premature.

"We're not quite where people might think we are in terms of doing these nefarious things that people suggest or 'Black Mirror' likes to show in their shows," she said. "But it's still absolutely critical to think about these things before we go down this road."

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Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

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Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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PCH Driven: Director Jason Wise Talks Wine, Documentaries, and His New Indie Streaming Service SOMMTV

Jamie Williams
­Jamie Williams is the host of the “PCH Driven” podcast, a show about Southern California entrepreneurs, innovators and its driven leaders on their road to success. The series celebrates and reveals the wonders of the human spirit and explores the motivations behind what drives us.
Jason Wise holding wine glass
Image courtesy of Jason Wise

Jason Wise may still consider himself a little kid, but the 33-year-old filmmaker is building an IMDB page that rivals colleagues twice his age.

As the director behind SOMM, SOMM2, SOMM3, and the upcoming SOMM4, Wise has made a career producing award-winning documentary films that peer deep into the wine industry in Southern California and around the world.

On this episode of the PCH Driven podcast, he talks about life growing up in Cleveland as a horrible student, filmmaking, Los Angeles and his latest entrepreneurial endeavor: A streaming service called SOMMTV that features–what else?–documentaries about wine.

The conversation covers some serious ground, but the themes of wine and film work to anchor the discussion, and Wise dispenses bits of sage filmmaking advice.

“With a documentary you can just start filming right now,” he says. “That’s how SOMM came about. I got tossed into that world during the frustration of trying to make a different film, and I just started filming it, because no one could stop me because I was paying for it myself. That’s the thing with docs,” or “The good thing about SOMM is that you can explain it in one sentence: ‘The hardest test in the world is about wine, and you’ve never heard about it.’”

…Or at least maybe you hadn’t before he made his first film. Now with three SOMM documentaries under his belt, Wise is nearing completion of “SOMM4: Cup of Salvation,” which examines the history of wine’s relationship with religion. Wise says it’s “a wild film,” that spans multiple countries, the Vatican and even an active warzone. As he puts it, the idea is to show that “wine is about every subject,” rather than “every subject is about wine.”

For Wise, the transition to launching his own streaming service came out of his frustration with existing platforms holding too much power over the value of the content he produces.

“Do we want Netflix to tell us what our projects are worth or do we want the audience to do that?” he asks.

But unlike giants in the space, SOMMTV has adopted a gradual approach of just adding small bits of content as they develop. Without the need to license 500 or 1,000 hours of programming, Wise has been able to basically bootstrap SOMMTV and provide short form content and other more experimental offerings that typically get passed over by the Hulus and Disneys of the world.

So far, he says, the experiment is working, and now Wise is looking to raise some serious capital to keep up with the voracious appetites of his subscribers.

“Send those VCs my way,” Wise jokes.

Subscribe to PCH Driven on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, iHeart, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

dot.LA reporter David Shultz contributed to this report.