Where We Came From

After our previous blog post, we received some detailed feedback from our peers, and we are so grateful for the guidance they've provided us as we bring our ideas from the 'idea mine' into our 'idea refinery'.

where we came from

Idea One

Our first idea was playing foreign language tapes to infants aged 0-12 months to increase the length of the critical period and keep the detection of foreign phonetics plastic as adults. This has been confirmed to be effective. A case study found that an adult who was only exposed to Chinese from age 0-6 months and then was adopted into a French-speaking family didn’t have an accent when learning Chinese later in life. This is a non-invasive method for increased flexibility in language fluency for adults.

Idea Two

Optogenetics was another idea we had to try and increase plasticity. However, it is extremely invasive and unethical because it involves removing the skull and placing a metal mesh on the brain and using light to reprogram cells. Current optogenetics is invasive because of the need to use visual spectrum light. We're not throwing away the idea though - we're considering the possibility of instead using infrared or another type of light to reprogram cells in a way that would mean not needing skull removal surgery. We would have to be careful about being unethical, but it is a step in the right direction.

Below are some of the comments made and our responses:

First, our Yes, and’s ...

In reference to our first idea:

Yes, and how often would these tapes be played?

This is a critical question to answer, and one that we hope to gain more insight into after speaking with an expert. Babies have the remarkable capacity to learn phonemes from any language during their lengthy critical period of extreme neuroplasticity, and our goal would be to expose them to phonemes from a variety of languages during this time. Research has shown that infants are capable of learning multiple languages at once during this period, and that the 'modules' associated with each language actually show significant overlap, indicating there is not really a 'limit' to how many languages a baby could learn without even any effort. To really capitalize off of the powerful nature of babies brains, we estimate that these tapes would need to be played for at least a few hours every day to the infant during this period, although this time period is still being determined.

Yes, and how would these languages be chosen?

While the parents would have input in this decision, the recordings would be curated from a variety of languages, most likely at least 3. However, we want to emphasize that our goal is not to have a baby fully learn a second or even third language, but rather to expose them to a variety of phonemes while they are still very young, so it is easier for them to learn new languages on their own later in life. In this sense, we would try to create recordings with as rich of a set of phonemes as possible, pulling from many diverse languages. This idea is not a one-and-done solution, but an investment in the future education of the baby.

In reference to our second idea:

Yes, and it will be interesting to see how you navigate the ethics of this and the efficacy

Neuroethics is tricky!

This is a key point that we are emphatically discussing in our group -- how can this possibly be safe, ethical, and effective? The idea to use infrared light is promising and makes this idea somewhat more ethical and non-invasive, but there are still questions regarding the efficacy of the genetic engineering required to make this solution a reality, as well as some serious ethical questions to tackle. How might a solution employing optogenetics actually improve plasticity and make learning new things easier for the adult brain? Is there a way to do this without having to modify or enhance neurons in some capacity to respond to infrared light? Aside from continued research, in order to tackle these questions we are reaching out to several experts in the ethics of this field, with the hopes of gaining a better perspective of where the cutting edge of this technology is currently and if it can actually be done in an ethical manner.

One other comment related to this suggested that we look into applying this specifically to neurodegenerative diseases. This is a great idea and one that we will consider more thoroughly after speaking with an expert.

Now onto our Yes, buts …

In reference to our first idea:

Yes, but is playing foreign language tapes a solution radical enough to be considered moonshot?

We believe that it is. To clarify, we will have to devise a clever way to curate the phonemes of a variety of languages into recordings, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be simply “foreign language tapes”. There is much room for innovation in the design and implementation of these recorded files. While there is similar research being done in related areas, as far as we can tell there is no service that is trying to expose babies to a wide variety of phonemes during their critical period, let alone something that can be widely distributed to parents in the form of a simple smartphone application or website. Oftentimes the most “moonshot” like problems have simple solutions, and these are the solutions that tend to be the most successful. We have plans to integrate complex machine learning models into deciding the pattern, frequency, and types of types played each night by utilizing vast open-sources corpuses to make this idea a reality, which we think makes it moonshot material.

In reference to optogenetics:

We received mostly similar responses, which all hit the very valid question that we need to address:

  • yes, but this is, as y'all said, extremely invasive and would possible have a low success rate based on the current technology we have.
  • Yes, but how can you make this an ethical solution?
  • Yes, but how can we ensure that this is a safe procedure?

Truthfully, we can never guarantee a safe procedure, however, we believe there are ways to make optogenetics less invasive. We think a way to make this a more ethical solution is to use a different frequency of light such as infrared, which can pass through the skull and hopefully work similarly to visual light. We still have a long way to go in terms of learning the science and efficacy of this technology, but theoretically if infrared was effective in passing through the skull and targeting specific neurons, we would not have to perform a craniectomy. This would make the process less invasive and, therefore, more ethical.

Yes, but how do you know light can change the molecular basis of neuroplasticity?

Optogenetics is a biological technique that uses light and genetic engineering to control neurons. Although there are known optogenetics applications on brain functional organization and behavior states, there are potential applications for therapeutics related to neurodegeneration and regeneration that are still being studied. In a recent study they found evidence that optogenetic stimulation induced neuroplasticity, as well as synaptic plasticity by long-term potentiation (LTP) of neurons in the hippocampus. This is significant and can be used in a variety of applications, such as recovered following SCI, which the study looked into. Because of this, we believe optogenetics can also be applicable to language learning.

Where We're Going

where we're going

It's time for us to leave the idea mine and enter our idea refinery. We believe our two ideas have survived their hazardous trips from the idea mine through the 'yes, and' and 'yes, but' stages of the moonshot process and have come out stronger on the other end.

Idea One

Our suggested procedure of playing foreign languages to babies to allow foreign phonemes to persist and for ease of growth of additional language modules in the brain seemed popular in our feedback, and although groups encouraged us to consider increasing the scope of the idea, we think we just understated our idea. The concept of placing the notion of these languages in the babies' minds from infancy to keep the native ability to speak all languages natively even at adult learning stages, is itself a moonshot. Our integration with complex language corpuses and well trained machine learning models for playback plans each night makes this idea feasible and heavily impactful without any invasive or unethical procedures at play.

Idea Two

Optogenetics scared a lot of our feedback groups - it's currently dangerous, invasive, and honestly not worth the related risk for the payoff of speaking more languages from the perspective of most people. Our hope of identifying new technologies to employ optogenetics on the human brain is what makes this a moonshot idea; we are really optimistic and eager to engage ideas of the utilization of infrared technology to avoid the need to perform surgeries on participants.

Wrapping It Up

We're looking forward to getting expert feedback on our ideas, and can't wait to see what they have to say in regards to our lingering questions before we dive head first into one of our two remaining ideas. We are hype to move our ideas through our refinery and keep things moving!  🔥🚀

Works Cited

  • Hernandez, Arturo, Ping Li, and Brian MacWhinney. "The emergence of competing modules in bilingualism." Trends in cognitive sciences 9.5 (2005): 220-225.
  • Ordaz, Josue D et al. “Optogenetics and its application in neural degeneration and regeneration.” Neural regeneration research vol. 12,8 (2017): 1197-1209. doi:10.4103/1673-5374.213532