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Cutting-edge research will include studies on psychedelic drugs, monkey brains, and rescue drones.

2023 promises to be a year of significant advancements in the field of neuroscience, according to Dr Pascal Belin, a neuroscientist at the Aix-Marseille University in France. As the primary investigator in the EU-funded COVOPRIM project, Dr. Belin and his team study the brains of primates to better understand their communication patterns. Using scans, they have discovered a remarkable similarity in the way human, marmoset, and macaque brains respond to the voices of other members of their species. In the coming year, the team plans to take their research to the next level by implanting electrodes in monkey brains to investigate this phenomenon at a cellular level.

The implications of this research are far-reaching, with the potential to help those who have lost the ability to speak due to brain injury or stroke, as well as for general human interaction with technology. ‘Soon, we’ll be able to interpret the activity of neurons in different regions of the brain very clearly. We’re already understanding better and better which region does what. Soon enough, we’ll be able to decode what someone is listening to simply by observing brain activity. We’ll also be able to elucidate what people are imagining without their thoughts being vocalised. It’s not quite the same as reading someone’s thoughts – it’s more about reconstructing what’s going on in the brain by interpreting the activity of neurons.

‘In time, our new knowledge will also be used to control machines. More and more progress is already being made in this area. There will be neural implants, the kind already fitted in some epileptic patients when they don’t respond to treatment, that can be strategically placed in the brain to enhance a person’s perception – much like a cochlear implant is used today in thousands of deaf people so they can hear – or to send impulses that command a computer. ‘It will mean people can express themselves without using a keyboard. A keyboard and pen are awkward crutches that have been necessary in our path towards technological innovation to allow us to convert verbal information in our brain into written words, but they won’t be necessary once your computer can read that information directly from your brain. Though I’m not a specialist in brain-computer interfaces, I believe this sort of innovation will be available in five to 10 years, not 40.’

According to Professor Gian Paolo Cimellaro, an engineer at the Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy, cities of the future will prioritize the safety of both residents and structures. As the leader of the EU-funded IDEAL DRONE project, Professor Cimellaro and his team have been working on the development of drones that can be used by firefighters to locate individuals trapped in burning buildings. He believes that the technology and techniques used to monitor and protect buildings and rescue civilians will see significant advancements in the coming years, making cities safer for all.

‘We’ll see huge change in the field of disaster resilience – both in the short- and medium-term. The advanced technologies we’ve been working on mean people can be tracked inside buildings and soon we’ll be able to do even better. For instance, rescue teams will wear exoskeletons – rugged suits that synchronise with their movement and give them protection and strength – so they can move heavy debris to get to survivors.

‘Climate change will put more pressure on infrastructures, meaning disasters will happen more frequently, so we’ll need to build greater resilience into all civilian infrastructure. Whenever there’s a disaster, such as a partial bridge collapse, functionality drops and there’s a recovery process. We’ll be minimising the downtime. To stick with the bridge example, the only way to know if a bridge is safe today is through visual inspection: the engineer looks at the deck and decides whether or not to replace a part. But soon, sensors will become cheaper and bridges will be covered in them. These will report back on levels of ageing. That way, when a problem is detected, it can be fixed before it becomes a crisis.

‘Eventually, we’ll have ‘‘super artificial intelligence’’, where a machine is smarter than the engineer and can inspect a structure and perform actions better than any human. For very long bridges, inspection will be done by drones equipped with robots that will collect multiple sets of information at the same time using high-resolution cameras, thermal cameras and laser scanners.’

Psychedelic drugs, when combined with specialized psychotherapy, have the potential to effectively treat chronic and difficult mental illnesses. Researchers in Europe and the US, such as Dr. Claudia Schwarz-Plaschg, are studying the neuroscience behind psychedelic experiences in order to develop new treatments for conditions like depression and trauma. Dr. Schwarz-Plaschg, who recently completed the EU-funded ReMedPsy project, is also investigating changing societal perceptions of these substances.

‘I envisage research into the benefits of psychedelics moving beyond mental-health issues such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction to include any condition where mind and body are integrated – from autism and dementia to obesity and pain disorders. I also anticipate more research into how psychedelics can enhance creativity and help with problem solving, as these substances are known to foster shifts in perspective.

‘In terms of risks, we also need more studies into the adverse effects of psychedelics. Bad trips happen and can be very destabilising. I expect we’ll see the broader conversation on drug decriminalisation and legalisation move forward in the next few years, and this will include psychedelics.

‘I also anticipate more research into the spiritual and religious benefits of these substances. We’re undergoing a spiritual crisis in western society. Psychedelics could play a role in helping people find deeper meaning in life again. I hope 2023 will enable me and other critical scholars to scrutinise how knowledge is created in this field. What impact does psychedelic research have on communities that have been using psychedelics for much longer than Western science? Are we extracting knowledge from Indigenous and underground communities without giving back?’

Air travel is a significant contributor to global warming and in order to address this, European researchers are investigating the potential of electric and hybrid engines to reduce the carbon footprint of jets. Today’s batteries are not yet advanced enough for commercial use, however, the head of research at Italian aircraft maker Tecnam, Fabio Russo, who is also the coordinator of the EU-funded H3PS project, believes that significant progress can only be made if airlines make concrete commitments to this technology.

‘Our company is putting resources and engineering into developing new technologies for both all-electric and hybrid aircraft. However, all-electric batteries work only in light aircraft with a flying time of around 20 or 30 minutes plus reserve, so clearly that’s unlikely to work for people wanting to fly even short-haul in commercial airliners.

‘Why are things not moving as fast as we’d like? Because, even though we see lots of press releases from airlines expressing their intention to be on a sustainable path, only rarely something tangible then happens. There is no progressive business model, no meaningful commitments when it comes to making pledges about purchases of cleaner aircraft. This does not help manufacturers to safely unlock huge investments. And this needs to change or else engineers, manufacturers and airlines will jeopardise their credibility.

‘Currently, a battery can no longer be used in aircraft once its performance drops below 90% because, at this point, the flight range becomes severely compromised and there’s an increased risk of the battery overheating. This means that after around 800 flight cycles – typically a few weeks of flying – the battery needs to be removed and a new one bought for likely many thousands of euros. And that’s just for a nine-passenger aircraft with very low range. This is too costly to make business sense, plus it’s environmentally wasteful. Over the next few years, I hope we find ways to make batteries last longer and allow them to be “overhauled”, meaning the airline would give its battery back to the manufacturer and get another with new cells. The old battery would then be sold to power other machines like consumer electronics or those used for energy storage.’

The issue of diminishing fresh-water supplies around the world is becoming increasingly pressing as populations grow and droughts worsen. To address this problem, scientists are exploring new ways to convert high-saline water from oceans into a form that can be used for domestic and industrial purposes. One example of this is Hydro Volta, a Belgium-based company that has developed a patented desalination technology through the EU-funded SonixED project. This technology is considered more environmentally friendly than current methods, as it requires less energy and fewer chemicals.

‘The world has an unlimited supply of seawater but it’s wasteful, expensive and harsh on the environment to desalinate water using traditional techniques. This is where Hydro Volta can help. Our technology makes the conversion of seawater to fresh water both cheaper and safer for the environment. All that’s left is for us to scale up our processes and get the message across to governments and industry that we can help them solve an important and growing problem. I’m confident that we’ll get this opportunity over the next few years.

‘I came to Belgium with my family as a survivor of the Syrian war 10 years ago. I was already working in the water-treatment industry in Syria, but I had to leave everything behind and start from scratch when I moved to Belgium, which was very difficult.

‘But two years after arriving, I met a man named Yousef Yousef who became my business partner and co-founder and, from the start, the Flemish government and the EU have believed in our project and supported us. I’m so thankful for the opportunity I have been given. Now all that’s left is for us to be get the chance to take our technology out into the world.’

by Paul Britton

Full-time CBG author covering everything from business to wellbeing news, in Cyprus. and abroad.

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