Brain Implant Technology Has the Potential to Change Lives


Source: Neuralink/YouTube

Neuralink Corporation, a California company, is working on a wireless brain interface. The technology is generally referred to as Brain-Computer Interface or BCI. Neuralink posted a video recently, testing its BCI prototype implanted in a macaque monkey. The device allows the monkey to play a video game (“Pong”) hands-free, using its implanted brain device. Once proven safe and effective, the potential for this technology is enormous. Imagine a paraplegic being able to use a BCI to mentally control a pointer to use a phone or computer or to drive a mechanical wheelchair. For those with limited physical ability, this BCI breakthrough could result in new control and independence.

Another idea presented by Neuralink is to develop a wireless implant that connects areas in the motor cortex with other implants placed along the spinal cord. Neuralink has teased the concept that these devices will one day enable wireless connectivity around severed or damaged spinal cord, with the potential for a paralyzed patient to regain physical movement. These are bold goals with many positive implications. However, this bio-cybernetic technology has not been fully tested, not yet established as safe and viable, nor approved. This is for the future. Carefully protected and ethical research with animals and human subjects must continue before we consider wider use of brain implant technologies.

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Other companies are also working on brain implants. Science Corp is a company created by one of the co-founders of Neuralink—also working on biotech prostheses. The first major project is the Scientific Eye, an artificial bio-connected prosthetic eye for the blind, which combines “optogenetic gene therapy” with a special, bioengineered eye implant. Biocybernetics combines biology with engineering. In the case of the Scientific Eye, gene therapy produces new proteins in the optic nerve, which combine with a bioengineered artificial retina. Science Corp researchers predict that genetically altered proteins in the optic nerve will respond to signals from an implanted cybernetic retina, ultimately sending information to the visual cortex to restore sight. This device is in the research stage, and preliminary work with animal subjects continues.

Blackrock Neurotech, of Salt Lake City, developed an early BCI – the “NeuroPort Array” – by implanting razor-thin silicon chips containing microelectrode filaments. BrainGate, an American research collaboration, used the NeuroPort Array (the only FDA-cleared BCI platform) implanted in patients with paralysis. The California Institute of Technology reported using these BCIs to record brain signals to initiate movement, which in turn controlled robotic devices. Such inventions could result in life-changing applications for paralyzed patients.

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Recently, Edward Chang, a neurosurgeon at the University of California-San Francisco, used a high-density electrode to allow a patient to decode words from their brain activity. As reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, the case involved a 36-year-old man whose stroke left him unable to speak. An electrode array was surgically implanted in his brain, and the man was able to form words on a screen, allowing communication. This amazing clinical result was accomplished with a cross-section of new technologies; 1) using the mapping of neurons associated with vocal cord movements, 2) training a deep learning model to accurately classify neural signals into words, and 3) output the resulting words onto a computer screen.

These recent results are just the early “baby steps” – next steps require innovation, and well-regulated, ethical clinical research trials. This technology has the potential for new treatments of a wide range of conditions, from paralysis, to blindness, spinal cord injuries, strokes or other disorders.

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If you could ever access encyclopedic, global data wirelessly—not using your device or memory, but rather accessing information beamed in from outside our heads—what would this do to our behavior? What if we had a personal AI assistant occupying the background of our thoughts? Having our brains “connected” with the digital world brings both positive opportunities as well as dark possibilities for mind control and censorship. We must consider the ethical challenges of ever connecting ourselves with the digital cloud and social media “meta-verse”. It is exciting to see BCI technology being realized and used to treat some of the most challenging conditions, such as blindness and paralysis. It is also time to consider the very interesting consequences of how BCIs will be used in the not too distant future. The potential is huge and the possibilities almost endless.


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