The Future of Brain Implants

What would you give for a retinal chip that let you see in the dark or for a next-generation cochlear implant that let you hear any conversation in a noisy restaurant, no matter how loud? Or for a memory chip, wired directly into your brain’s hippocampus, that gave you perfect recall of everything you read? Or for an implanted interface with the Internet that automatically translated a clearly articulated silent thought (“the French sun king”) into an online search that digested the relevant Wikipedia page and projected a summary directly into your brain?

Science fiction? Perhaps not for very much longer. Brain implants today are where laser eye surgery was several decades ago. They are not risk-free and make sense only for a narrowly defined set of patients—but they are a sign of things to come.

Unlike pacemakers, dental crowns or implantable insulin pumps, neuroprosthetics—devices that restore or supplement the mind’s capacities with electronics inserted directly into the nervous system—change how we perceive the world and move through it. For better or worse, these devices become part of who we are.

Neuroprosthetics aren’t new. They have been around commercially for three decades, in the form of the cochlear implants used in the ears (the outer reaches of the nervous system) of more than 300,000 hearing-impaired people around the world. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first retinal implant, made by the company Second Sight.

Both technologies exploit the same principle: An external device, either a microphone or a video camera, captures sounds or images and processes them, using the results to drive a set of electrodes that stimulate either the auditory or the optic nerve, approximating the naturally occurring output from the ear or the eye.

Brain implants today are where laser eye surgery was several decades ago, fraught with risk, applicable only to a narrowly defined set of patients – but a sign of things to come. NYU Professor of Psychology Gary Marcus discusses on Lunch Break. Photo: Getty

Brain implants today are where laser eye surgery was several decades ago, fraught with risk, applicable only to a narrowly defined set of patients – but a sign of things to come. NYU Professor of Psychology Gary Marcus discusses on Lunch Break. Photo: Getty

Another type of now-common implant, used by thousands of Parkinson’s patients around the world, sends electrical pulses deep into the brain proper, activating some of the pathways involved in motor control. A thin electrode is inserted into the brain through a small opening in the skull; it is connected by a wire that runs to a battery pack underneath the skin. The effect is to reduce or even eliminate the tremors and rigid movement that are such prominent symptoms of Parkinson’s (though, unfortunately, the device doesn’t halt the progression of the disease itself). Experimental trials are now under way to test the efficacy of such “deep brain stimulation” for treating other disorders as well.

Electrical stimulation can also improve some forms of memory, as the neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried and his colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, showed in a 2012 article in the New England Journal of Medicine. Using a setup akin to a videogame, seven patients were taught to navigate a virtual city environment with a joystick, picking up passengers and delivering them to specific stores. Appropriate electrical stimulation to the brain during the game increased their speed and accuracy in accomplishing the task.

But not all brain implants work by directly stimulating the brain. Some work instead by reading the brain’s signals—to interpret, for example, the intentions of a paralyzed user. Eventually, neuroprosthetic systems might try to do both, reading a user’s desires, performing an action like a Web search and then sending the results directly back to the brain.

How close are we to having such wondrous devices? To begin with, scientists, doctors and engineers need to figure out safer and more reliable ways of inserting probes into people’s brains. For now, the only option is to drill small burr-holes through the skull and to insert long, thin electrodes—like pencil leads—until they reach their destinations deep inside the brain. This risks infection, since the wires extend through the skin, and bleeding inside the brain, which could be devastating or even fatal.

External devices, like the brainwave-reading skull cap made by the company NeuroSky (marketed to the public as “having applications for wellness, education and entertainment”), have none of these risks. But because their sensors are so far removed from individual neurons, they are also far less effective. They are like Keystone Kops trying to eavesdrop on a single conversation from outside a giant football stadium.

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Full article available at Online Wall Street Journal.

Credit: illustration by Getty.

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