by Alex Vikoulov [Posted September 9, 2019 10.30 am PST]
Researchers are blurring the distinction between brain and machine, designing nanoelectronics that look, interact, and feel like real neurons. Camouflaged in the brain, this neurotechnology could offer a better way to treat neurodenerative diseases or control prosthetics, interface with computers or even enhance cognitive abilities.
Electrodes implanted in the brain help alleviate symptoms like the intrusive tremors associated with Parkinson's disease but current probes face limitations due to their size and inflexibility. In a recent paper titled "Precision Electronic Medicine," published in Nature Biotechnology, Shaun Patel, a faculty member at the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, and Charles M. Lieber, the Joshua and Beth Friedman University Professor, argue that neurotechnology is on the cusp of a major renaissance. Throughout history, the most successful scientists have dimmed discipline lines to tackle problems larger than their individual fields.
"The next frontier is really the merging of human cognition with machines," says Patel. "Everything manifests in the brain fundamentally. All your thoughts, your perceptions, any type of disease." Researchers see mesh electronics as the foundation for these mind controlled technologies, also called cybernetics, a synthetic bridge between brain and machine. "Today, research focused at the interface between the nervous system and electronics is not only leading to advances in fundamental neuroscience, but also unlocking the potential of implants capable of cellular-level therapeutic targeting," write the authors in their paper.
Currently, 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. 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. Each electrode "looks like a pencil. It's big," according to 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, 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," says Patel. "In my own mind, I see this at the level of what started with the transistor or telecommunications."
The potential of course 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. Mesh electronics still have several major challenges to overcome: scaling up the number of implanted electrodes, processing the data influx those implants deliver, and feeding that information back into the system to enable live recalibration.
A few major technology companies are 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.
READ MORE: Harvard University: Neural Implants and the Future of Mind Control [SciTech Daily]
Keywords: cybernetics, mind control, mind-controlled prosthetic, nanoelectronics, neurotechnology, neural implants, neurodenerative diseases, cognitive abilities, brain implants, Precision Electronic Medicine, Nature Biotechnology, Shaun Patel, Medical School, Charles M. Lieber, human cognition, Deep Brain Stimulation, neurological disorder, mesh electronics, Neuralink, Facebook, Brian Johnson, Kernel
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