Converging Technologies for Physiological Selfregulation

Alan T. Pope, NASA Langley Research Center, and Olafur S. Palsson, Mindspire, LLC

The biofeedback training method is an effective health-enhancement technique, which exemplifies the integration of biotechnology and information technology with the reinforcement principles of cognitive science. Adding nanotechnology to this mix will enable researchers to explore the extent to which physiological self-regulation can be made more specific and even molecular, and it may lead to a entire new class of effective health-enhancing and health-optimizing technologies.


Physiological Self-Regulation Training

Biofeedback is a well-established and scientifically validated method to treat a variety of health problems and normalize or enhance human physiological functioning. It consists of placing sensors on the body to measure biological activity, and enabling patients to self-correct their physiological activity by showing them on a computer screen (typically in the form of dynamic graphs) what is going on inside their bodies.

Biofeedback means "the feeding back of information to the individual about change in a physiological system." It implies that the subject is continuously, or discontinuously, informed about change in a particular physiological system under study. The information is believed to act as a reinforcer for further changes in either the same or the opposite direction. As a result of instrumental learning, a physiological response may come under "instructional" or "volitional" control as a function of the feedback of information. (Hugdahl 1995, 39)

When patients are able to observe the moment-to-moment changes in their physiological activity in this way, they can learn over time to control various body functions that are usually outside of conscious control, such as heart rate, muscle tension, or blood flow in the skin:

According to a basic premise in biofeedback applications, if an individual is given information about biological processes, and changes in their level, then the person can learn to regulate this activity. Therefore, with appropriate conditioning and training techniques, an individual can presumably learn to control body processes that were long considered to be automatic and not subject to voluntary regulation. (Andreassi 2000, 365)

Biofeedback has been used for forty years with considerable success in the treatment of various health problems, such as migraine headaches, hypertension, and muscle aches and pains. More recently, biofeedback training has been used to enhance performance in a number of occupations and sports activities (Norris and Currieri 1999). At NASA Langley Research Center, work in physiological self-regulation is directed at reducing human error in aviation:

Our work has focused on a number of areas with the goal of improving cognitive resource management, including that of physiological self-regulation reported here. Other areas include adaptive task allocation, adaptive interfaces, hazardous unawareness modeling, cognitive awareness training, and stress-counter-response training. (Prinzel, Pope, and Freeman 2002, p. 196)

Intrasomatic Biofeedback: A New Frontier

The exclusive reliance upon sensing of physiological functions from the surface of the body has limited biofeedback's specificity in targeting the physiological processes that underlie human performance and the physiological dysregulation implicated in several disorders. Biofeedback technology has yet to incorporate recent advances in biotechnology, including nanoscale biosensors, perhaps because biofeedback research and practice is dominated by a focus on traditional and proven training protocols rather than on biotechnology.

As a result of the development of new analytical tools capable of probing the world of the nanometer, it is becoming increasingly possible to characterize the chemical and mechanical properties of cells (including processes such as cell division and locomotion) and to measure properties of single molecules. These capabilities complement (and largely supplant) the ensemble average techniques presently used in the life sciences. (Roco and Bainbridge 2001, 7)

Current biofeedback technology still mostly detects, processes, and feeds back to trainees broad signals from sensors on the skin. Such surface sensors are only suited for providing summary information about broad functional characteristics of the organism, like overall autonomic functioning, summative brain activity in a large portion of the cortex, or activity levels of large masses of striated muscle.

Nanoscale technologies, specifically nanoscale biosensor technology, hold the potential for realtime sensing and feedback of internal bodily processes that are the origins or precursors of the physiological signals sensed on the skin surface by current biofeedback technology. Intrasomatic signals, closer to the physiological source of the body activity of interest than surface-detectable signals, could be used for more targeted and precise feedback conditioning of physiological functions and physiological dysregulation. They could also be used to dynamically feed back to patients the consequences and benefits of exercises and practices, or warnings of hazardous alterations in physiology, in order to provide education as well as motivation for adhering to prescribed behavioral treatment regimens. Furthermore, the presence of such small intrasomatic sensors could enable physicians or surveillance computers to titrate or fine-tune the treatment of a patient's disorder (such as medication flow-rate) in ways otherwise not possible.

Early work by Hefferline, Keenan, and Harford (1959) demonstrated that covert physiological responses could be conditioned by attaching consequences, in a traditional psychological reinforcement paradigm, to the production of the responses without the trainee's conscious, deliberate effort to control the responses. Most biofeedback training successes do indeed operate without the necessity for the trainee to be able to articulate the exact nature of the efforts they employ in the learning process, and sometimes without them even trying to consciously control the process. Nevertheless, an additional application of feedback of nanoscale biosensed parameters may be to inform the trainee of the results of his/her overt efforts to facilitate management of a physiological function. An example would be the moment-to-moment feedback of blood oxygenation level or oxygen/CO2 balance in respiration training for hyperventilation in panic disorder (Ley 1987).

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