Monday, December 15, 2014

7 steps to a brain implant

It would be a stunning achievement in biotechnology.

There's a chance it might even silence the nigh omnipresent protests from those claiming biotech "robs us of our humanity," stealing away our chances to either walk in the woods in sandals or barefoot upon thalassic beaches.


That opinion might change if brain implants could return hearing to the deaf, sight to the visually impaired, or movement to someone bound to a bed or chair. Work has been going on for many years now on how to bring such implants about and BBC Future has provided a 7-step list of considerations in creating just such devices.

-Know the route. We need to know the brain. Fortunately, our understanding of the most essential and complex of human organs is increasing. Just where an implant goes in the brain will be determined by the implant's end goal. Is it to restore motor function? Is it to compensate for stroke damage? Begin with the end in mind.

-Crack the code. In order for implants or any other biotechnology to work, we must comprehend just how signals are sent, received, and understood by the brain. This is tricky to say the least. What are the algorithms? So not only do we need to know the brain but we need to speak its language.

-Train it. The article mentions work with a retinal implant and determining how the brain receives and understands information from the eyes. The biotech device will need to be "trained" on how to contribute to this process through a set of practical experiences. I see this as a sort of calibration routine, not unlike what one might need to enact with cameras or timing devices.

-Infiltrate the brain. The fact that electrodes cause scarring and tissue damage has been a hurdle for biotech. There's also that pesky human immune system that likes to attack foreign objects. The trick with implants will be to construct them so that they do not cause such irritation or incite such attacks. One possibility? Hydrogels.

-Light. Another option is to stimulate neurons with pulses of light. The article describes a process I had not read about before called "optogenetics." It's been done with retinal implants and it involves communicating with neurons behind the eye with short flashes of light that kick the "meatstuff" into action.

-Power. How will these devices run without power? Another concern is that if they are running on electrical power, what if it heats to a point that the temperature is damaging the surrounding tissue (again we're back to that question)? One thought right now is a tiny antenna that can receive wireless charging through the skin. It's a work in progress.

-Hacking the senses. Now here's the really sexy stuff. I have described using implants to help those who are in physical need. There is, of course, also the potential for augmenting senses that already work just fine, making them better. There is already a journalist in London who has hacked his hearing aid so that he can actually hear WiFi signals. It's not all that far of a leap to then imagine super-enhanced hearing. That's not at the top of my list, but it's a start and I'll take it.

That's right. Sign me up for an implant. I'll undergo surgery. No problem. Of course I have my own objectives and the implant must meet or exceed them. After all it is my brain and I feel like I should be in control of it. Any technology that helps me do that is a benefit in my opinion. I want to be smarter, I want process information faster, and I don't want to feel pain.

Because pain sucks.

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