In the last decade, the number of people living with brain-machine interfaces has nearly doubled, in part thanks to substantial progress in making such implants more usable for people with disabilities. The newer devices have greater flexibility, a more natural appearance, and advanced sensing capabilities that expand the range of behaviors they can control.
If you look at videos of people using brain-controlled wheelchairs or quadriplegic patients controlling a robot arm with their thoughts, you will wonder: how does this work? Why do people with serious neurologic disorders appear to have such a strong sense of empowerment and control? Since the first non-invasive brain implant was implanted in a human in 2003, progress has been made. So, how do these research technologies today work?
The Human Brain
The human brain is easily the most sophisticated organ in our body – its intricate wiring, high-speed processing, and wide-ranging skills mean it’s the one that is most important to our survival. It’s also one of the most complex systems we’ve ever built and one that is constantly evolving.
As you can imagine, this level of complexity means that the nervous system is prone to certain imperfections. The brain has evolved to be a very robust and resilient device, but those protective features can mean that damage can be difficult to repair.
For example, the brain’s ability to easily heal itself makes it difficult to repair damage to the nervous system, and that makes it difficult to create a lasting solution to brain damage.
In the last decade, the world has witnessed a revolution in the way we think about the human brain and its capabilities. The tools we now have for enhancing our cognitive abilities are astounding: from brain-computer interfaces that allow us to control devices with our thoughts to brain-scanning sessions that allow us to see and control the world around us.
Brain implants have been performed with a great deal of success over the past decade. The first successful brain implant came in the form of a cochlear implant, which was implanted in 2005. Since then, the number of brain implants has increased significantly, with some studies showing that up to 65 percent of the population will eventually be brain-implanted. Since the introduction of the cochlear implant, surgeons have been able to implant hearing devices in much smaller areas of the brain, and the technology has moved on to other areas.
Ten years ago, before a brain implant could restore your memory, you had to be hospitalized and put on a respirator. At the same time, doctors monitored your brain’s electrical activity, and implanted electrodes were surgically implanted in your brain.
Today, you can have the same kind of technology implanted in your head, so if you get in a car accident or are diagnosed with epilepsy, you could be implanted with electrodes that provide a direct, real-time feed of your brain’s electrical activity. This technology can be used for a variety of conditions, including those treated by deep brain stimulation, and it’s already being used to restore memory in some patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
Let’s check out the following advancement of these implants:
- Back in the mid-nineties, a company called Cyberkinetics demonstrated that it could simultaneously stimulate the nerves of one arm and arm and create an apparent hand movement in the corresponding real arm. This was a major achievement, but it was still limited by the fact that the brain had to be stimulated in order to control the movements.
- Ten years after Cyberkinetics’ demonstration, another company called BrainGate demonstrated it could implant neuroprosthetic devices into the brains of monkeys and allow the animals to control a robotic arm by moving their thoughts. The implants were also able to record electrical activity from nerve cells in the brain and send signals to the prosthesis.
These are just two examples of companies that have implanted brain implants, but the advent of the technology used is proving that we can expect more about this implant as it will advance in the years to come.
The story of brain implants is a long and intriguing one. For a long time, they were the stuff of science fiction, but recently, scientists have begun exploring their possibilities and even successfully implanting brain implants into rats and primates.
The second decade of the 21st century has brought about a number of advancements in brain-machine interfaces, or BMIs. Neuroscientists have been able to develop implantable devices that can perform sophisticated tasks that are typically thought to be impossible: controlling a prosthetic arm, controlling a computer, or even detecting and responding to a seizure.