In the past few decades, humans have developed advanced technologies that produced major improvements in the quality of life, their survivability, or their performance in a job. However, computer scientists predict that within the next twenty years neural interfaces will be designed to not only increase the dynamic range of senses, but will also enhance memory and enable cyberthink, which is invisible communication with others. This technology will enable consistent and constant access to information when and where it is needed. The study on neural implants started early in 1970s by a Yale professor named Jose Manuel Rodriguez Delgado.
How Do Neural Implants Work?
Neural implants are technical systems that are mainly used to stimulate parts and structures of the nervous system with the aid of implanted electrical circuitry or record the electrical activity of nerve cells. As a result, this device enhances senses, physical movement, and memory. To restore cognitive function, a neural implant must gather data from one area of the brain, process this information correctly, and then deliver the resulting signal to another brain region, bypassing any damaged tissue. This process requires an understanding of how different brain regions communicate with each other and how this communication is modified as it travels through the brain in the form of electrochemical impulses.
“Neural implants, or prosthetics, are a class of devices that communicate with the nervous system. An electronics package in each device activates an array of tiny electrodes that interface directly with healthy neurons in the body.” (Friedlander, 2012) Neural implants are technical systems that are mainly used to stimulate parts and structures of the nervous system with the aid of implanted electrical circuitry or record the electrical activity of nerve cells. As a result, neural interfaces enable a two-way exchange of information with the nervous system. These connections can occur at multiple levels, including with peripheral nerves which is in the spinal cord, or with the brain. Brain implants are a specific kind of neural device placed on the surface or the cortex of the brain that create an interface between the nervous system and microchips in order to treat damaged parts of the brain or, in the future, to enhance its functionality.
Neural implants have been used to help people regain abilities that have been lost, to live a healthy life. In the article Neural devices that were implanted in the spinal cord were able to interfere and repair nerves in the spinal cord to provide bladder control for people with spinal cord injury. In addition, peripheral or spinal cord nerve interfaces is able to give amputees fine motor control over artificial limbs’ allowing people to walk and move like an average healthy human. The Forgotten Era of the Brain the Horgan says, “Brain stimulators have been implanted in more than 30,000 people suffering from Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders.” (Horgan, 2005).
Over the past decade, many paralyzed patients were able to regain control over their body parts. The neural devises connect to the nervous system that interferes with the motor cortex, allowing them to “reactivate”, which resulted in muscle contraction. However, not only do neural implants affect movement of the bladder, artificial limbs, or paralyzed body parts, they also repair brain damage that affects memory. In the Alzheimer’s trial, the device is placed into a region of the brain involved in learning and memory. Typically in Alzheimer’s patients, glucose metabolism decreases. The treatment has so far been tested with six patients with Alzheimer’s.
Is this Only for the Disabled?
In the past years many people had no choice other than to live with their fatal diseases or conditions. For example, many people who had neural damage in their occipital lobe are blind. However, thanks to neural implants, they no longer have to live their whole life blind. This technology was able to give many people the ability to regain control over their bladder, their senses, their limbs, and their memory. Not only is this beneficial for those who have fatal conditions but also towards average humans whom would like to enhance their senses.
Neural implants may help transform this society to a more advanced community physically and mentally. Those who were once blind will be able to see again and those who were once paralyzed will be able to move their muscles again. In addition those who had bad memory will be able to remember again. These brain chips will help people regain control over their body and brains. However, if average people had neural implants, the society would transform to a highly advanced and sophisticated society. Nevertheless, there is another side to the argument. Some people believe that these devices shouldn’t be used due to safety reasons such as infections or fatal brain damage. However, technology and research is still advancing. Therefore it is predicted that within the next few decades, neural implants will be safe for everyone who chooses to use them.
Elon Musk’s Neuralink, a neurotechnology company, revealed its plans to develop brain-reading technology over the next few years. One of the goals for Musk’s firm is to eventually implant microchip-devices into the brains of paralyzed people, allowing them to control smartphones and computers.
Although this Black Mirror-esque technology could hold potentially life-changing powers for those living with disabilities, according to Cognitive Psychologist Susan Schneider, it’s not such a great idea, and I can’t help but feel relieved, I’m with Schneider on this.
Musk, who’s also the Chief Executive of both Tesla and SpaceX, aims to make implanting AI in the brain as safe and commonplace as laser eye surgery. But, how would this work? In a video presented unveiled at the California Academy of Science, Musk said the implant would record information emitted by neurons in the brain.
The tiny processors will connect to your brain via tiny threads significantly thinner than a human hair (about 4 to 6 μm in width). These sensors will fit on the surface of your skull and then relay information to a wearable computer that sits behind your ear, called The Link. With this all in place, your brain can then connect to your iPhone via an app — we are truly living in the future and it’s terrifying.
In an op-ed for the Financial Times, Schneider argues that the project could amount to “suicide for the human mind.” Although Schneider says brain intelligence could be augmented with chips, “there will be a point at which you end your life. I call this horrific ‘brain drain.’”
According to Schneider, AI-based enhancements could be used to supplement neural activity, but if they go as far as replacing normally functioning neural tissue, at some point they may end a person’s life.
“The worry with a general merger with AI, in the more radical sense that Musk envisions, is the human brain is diminished or destroyed,” Schneider told TNW. “Furthermore, the self may depend on the brain and if the self’s survival over time requires that there be some sort of continuity in our lives — a continuity of memory and personality traits — radical changes may break the needed continuity.”
Schneider goes on to say: “The issue is also philosophical: What is the nature of the self or mind? If the mind is just the brain, a full merger with AI wouldn’t work. I suspect those advocating a mind-machine merger think the self is a program.”
While Schneider is skeptical of Musk’s plan to turn us into robots, she adds that replacing parts of the brain with a few chips “wouldn’t have a dire impact.” However, as the Philosopher Derek Parfit observed, it’s unclear where to draw the line. “Would it be at 15 per cent neural replacement? At 75 per cent? Any choice seems arbitrary,” Schneider said.
Musk isn’t the only person radicalizing the future of our brain’s. Ray Kurzweil, the futurist and Director of Engineering at Google, said he expects that we’ll be able to back our brains up to the cloud by 2045 — ultimately making us immortal.
"We shouldn’t fully invest our trust in the suggestion that humans can merge with AI. Instead, more research should be done around the possibilities and consequences of merging technology with the human brain." - Schneider
In the fight against cancer, surgery is often the first step for patients. However, once a tumor is surgically removed, inflammation impedes healing by suppressing antitumor immune cells which can result in the increase of cancer cells. Metastasis is responsible for 90 percent of all cancer deaths. Now there appears to be new hope in preventing tumors from growing and metastasizing, according to a recent article published in Science Translational Medicine.
The article reports how researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have a created a new way to deliver immunotherapy drugs directly to the surgery site where cancer may grow and spread. Their device promotes an immune response that fights metastasis. According to senior study author, Professor Michael Goldberg, PhD., “Even when an entire tumor has been removed, it is common for a small number of tumor cells to remain behind.” The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute states that “while half of all cancer patients undergo surgery aiming to cure the disease, 40 percent of such patients experience a recurrence of the disease within five years.”
Immunotherapy isn’t as effective because most patients either can’t tolerate its effects or it’s flushed out of the body before doing its job but this new method of drug delivery appears to be more effective because it is localized. Professor Goldberg added, “We reasoned that it would be easier to eliminate a small number of residual cancer cells by creating an ‘immunostimulatory’ environment than it would be to treat an intact primary tumor, which has many means of evading an immune system attack.”
Using mice inoculated with breast cancer, the researchers focused on a hydrogel (already approved by the FDA for use as a medical implants) infused with targeted immunotherapy drugs. They implanted the gel directly on the surgical site and found that the hydrogel released the drugs in a targeted and highly efficient manner, inhibiting cancer from growing and spreading during the healing process. Once the drugs were released, the gel dissolved in a 12-week period within the body. In comparison, mice that were treated with conventional therapies (intravenous drugs and weekly injections) did not have their lives prolonged whereas those mice treated with the gel infused with immunotherapy drugs did indeed survive.
Hydrogels are a class of highly elastic and hydrated materials which are used for diverse medical applications such as wound dressings, antimicrobial agents, drug delivery vehicles, tissue engineering, and as implant coatings, among other functions.
Researchers found that this particular hydrogel, which is made of a biopolymer hyaluronic acid, helped increase the number of T Cells, B Cells and Natural Killer cells, all active in fighting cancer. Looking beyond breast cancer, they expanded their experiments to include lung cancer and melanoma—which showed promise. They are now working with oncologists to determine next steps in expanding trials to humans.
However, Harvard researchers aren’t the only ones using hydrogels to combat cancer. In fact, Rice University developed the hydrogel drug delivery system and pioneered the development of multidomain peptide (MDP) hydrogels, which encourage cell growth and tissue repair. Their hydrogels however, are injected into the body as a liquid, turning semisolid and slowly degrading over time as they release immunotherapy drugs.
The combination of effective immunotherapy drugs with targeted delivery mechanisms like hydrogels are a potent new tool in the fight against cancer.
As the surgeons made their final incisions, “we observed a really striking thing,” Lieber said. With each heartbeat, the brain swelled almost a centimeter up through the opening. “A huge amount.”
The brain undulates every time blood flows and the body moves. But the degree of this shift confirmed Lieber’s long-held suspicions. For over a decade, the Joshua and Beth Friedman University Professor has dedicated his life and lab to designing smaller, more flexible electronic brain implants that could move with brain tissue instead of against it. His mesh electronics mimic the size, shape, and feel of real neurons, enabling his team to stably record, track and modulate individual neurons and circuits for up to a year or more.
Implanted neural devices already help alleviate symptoms like the intrusive tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease. But current probes face limitations due to their size and inflexibility. “The brain is squishy and these implants are rigid,” said Patel. About four years ago, when he discovered Lieber’s ultra-flexible alternatives, he saw the future of brain-machine interfaces.
In a recent perspective titled “Precision Electronic Medicine,” published in Nature Biotechnology, Patel and Lieber argue that neurotechnology is on the cusp of a major renaissance. Throughout history, scientists have blurred discipline lines to tackle problems larger than their individual fields. The Human Genome Project, for example, convened international teams of scientists to map human genes faster than otherwise possible.
“The next frontier is really the merging of human cognition with machines,” Patel said. He and Lieber see mesh electronics as the foundation for those machines, a way to design personalized electronic treatment for just about anything related to the brain.
“Everything manifests in the brain fundamentally. Everything. All your thoughts, your perceptions, any type of disease,” Patel said.
Scientists can pinpoint the general areas of the brain where decision-making, learning, and emotions originate, but tracing behaviors to specific neurons is still a challenge. Right now, when the brain’s complex circuitry starts to misbehave or degrade due to psychiatric illnesses like addiction or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, or even natural aging, patients have only two options for medical intervention: drugs or, when those fail, implanted electrodes.
Drugs like L-dopa can quiet the tremors that prevent someone with Parkinson’s from performing simple tasks like dressing and eating. But because drugs affect more than just their target, even common L-dopa side effects can be severe, ranging from nausea to depression to abnormal heart rhythms.
When drugs no longer work, FDA-approved electrodes can provide relief through Deep Brain Stimulation. Like a pace maker, a battery pack set beneath the clavicle sends automated electrical pulses to two brain implants. Lieber said each electrode “looks like a pencil. It’s big.”
During implantation, Parkinson’s patients are awake, so surgeons can calibrate the electrical pulses. Dial the electricity up, and the tremors calm. “Almost instantly, you can see the person regain control of their limbs,” Patel said. “It blows my mind.”
But, like with L-dopa, the large electrodes stimulate more than their intended targets, causing sometimes severe side effects like speech impediments. And, over time, the brain’s immune system treats the stiff implants as foreign objects: Neural immune cells (glia cells) engulf the perceived invader, displacing or even killing neurons and reducing the device’s ability to maintain treatment.
A traditional deep brain stimulation electrode (top panel) provokes an immune response in the brain while a mesh electronic interface (bottom panel) does not. The size and rigidity of the DBS electrode result in chronic inflammation causing glial scarring between brain tissue and electrode, degrading the neural interface. Mesh electronics evade the immune response due to cellular and sub-cellular features and bending stiffness resembling the brain itself. Credit: Shaun Patel and Charles Lieber
In contrast, Lieber’s mesh electronics provoke almost no immune response. With close, long-term proximity to the same neurons, the implants can collect robust data on how individual neurons communicate over time or, in the case of neurological disorders, fail to communicate. Eventually, such technology could track how specific neural subtypes talk, too, all of which could lead to a cleaner, more precise map of the brain’s communication network.
With higher resolution targets, future electrodes can act with greater precision, eliminating unwanted side effects. If that happens, Patel said, they could be tuned to treat any neurological disorder. And, unlike current electrodes, Lieber’s have already demonstrated a valuable trick of their own: They encourage neural migration, potentially guiding newborn neurons to damaged areas, like pockets created by stroke.
“The potential for it is outstanding,” Patel said. “In my own mind, I see this at the level of what started with the transistor or telecommunications.”
The potential reaches beyond therapeutics: Adaptive electrodes could provide heightened control over prosthetic or even paralyzed limbs. In time, they could act like neural substitutes, replacing damaged circuitry to re-establish broken communication networks and recalibrate based on live feedback. “If you could actually interact in a precise and long-term way and also provide feedback information,” Lieber said, “you could really communicate with the brain in the same way that the brain is communicating within itself.”
A few major technology companies are also eager to champion brain-machine interfaces. Some, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink, which plans to give paralyzed patients the power to work computers with their minds, are focused on assistive applications. Others have broader plans: Facebook wants people to text by imaging the words, and Brian Johnson’s Kernel hopes to enhance cognitive abilities.
During his postdoctoral studies, Patel saw how just a short pulse of electricity—no more than 500 milliseconds of stimulation—could control a person’s ability to make a safe or impulsive decision. After a little zap, subjects who almost always chose the risky bet, instead went with the safe option. “You would have no idea that it’s happened,” Patel said. “You’re unaware of it. It’s beyond your conscious awareness.”
Such power demands intense ethical scrutiny. For people struggling to combat addiction or obsessive-compulsive disorder, an external pulse regulator could significantly improve their quality of life. But, companies that operate those regulators could access their client’s most personal data—their thoughts. And, if enhanced learning and memory are for sale, who gets to buy a better brain? “One does need to be a little careful about the ethics involved if you’re trying to make a superhuman,” Lieber said. “Being able to help people is much more important to me at this time.”
Mesh electronics still have several major challenges to overcome: scaling up the number of implanted electrodes, processing the data flood those implants deliver, and feeding that information back into the system to enable live recalibration.