Wiring electronic devices directly into your brain may not sound like a very pleasant idea, but this is exactly what so many scientists around the world seem to be quite excited about. The reason is that, far from being your worst cyborg nightmare, brain implants – also called neuroprostheses – can do true miracles. Connected to the nervous system, these little chips can make the blind see, the deaf hear and even allow the paralysed to once again gain control over the physical world.
The principle is shared by most existing neuroprostheses. An external device captures sensory information no longer obtainable by biological means, converts it into a series of electrical signals interpretable by the brain and sends them to the implant, which in turn passes the information to the brain. That said, the implants can be either attached to some kind of nerve – like the optic or auditory – or directly to the required area of the cortex, in which case the signals can take a shortcut.
Argus II developed and commercialised by Second Sight is the only approved visual neuroprosthesis currently available on the market. The device is a retinal implant, designed to bypass the damaged biological eye photoreceptors in patients suffering from severe consequences of the condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. For now, the image reconstructed by Argus is only a low-resolution approximation of the real thing, but as technology continues to advance, the capacity of such implants can improve beyond imaginable.
The system follows the principle described above and consists of a video camera, a video processing unit (VPU), and the implant itself. Watch the animation below to see how it works.
While visual neuroprostheses are only beginning to gain impulse, nearly 300,000 people around the world already use brain implants to restore another sense, their hearing. Cochlear implant, the most widely used neuroprosthesis, is the only hope for thousands of people with an ear malfunction. Below is another video, which shows the reaction of a 2-year-old boy hearing his mother’s voice for the first time. For a detailed overview of how the implant works, watch this video.
Another application of neuroprosthetics promises to one day restore lost learning functions in humans. A study, published recently in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology by a group of researchers, led by the SPECS group at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, demonstrates how a chip implanted into the brain of a living rat can actually restore a disabled function of the cerebellum – the part of the brain heavily responsible for the acquisition of motor memories. Specifically, with its cerebellum anaesthetised, the rat was conditioned to the acquisition of an eye-blink response, thus successfully using the neuroprosthetic chip to regain a disabled learning function.
Today, brain implants are still in their infancy. However, this does not prevent scientists from envisioning implants that can give us perfect memory, night vision and instant thought access to information. There is a whole bunch of bioengineering obstacles that need to be addressed (HERE is one that has just been overcome) for brain implants to become safe and accepted in society, but our future already seems inevitably cybernetic.
Read this article to learn more about how neuroprosthetics will change the world.