Computer chips aren’t just for your laptop and phone anymore. Doctors are implanting these technologies in our brains to restore sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf.
Soon, they could give people super senses and radically improved memory and focus.
“Brain implants today are where laser eye surgery was several decades ago,” write Gary Marcus, an NYU professor of psychology, and Christof Koch, chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, in a recent essay for The Wall Street Journal.
Brain implants, also called neuroprosthetics, are used to restore hearing and vision loss, but as our technology and brain knowledge improve, the applications will become almost infinite.
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,” Marcus and Koch say.
Here’s an overview of what brain implants do and how they might be used to create superhumans.
What Brain Implants Already Do
More than 300,000 people already use a brain implant called a cochlear implant. This common neuroprosthetic replaces the malfunctioning ear to restore hearing for certain deaf people.
It captures sound with a microphone and then stimulates the auditory nerve through electrodes, allowing the brain to approximate hearing.
This isn’t exactly like normal hearing, but it gives a deaf person the ability to perceive sound and helps them identify speech. In this video, a deaf woman hears herself laugh for the first time after her implant is turned on:
Thousands of Parkinson’s patients use a neuroprosthetic to lessen tremors and rigid movement.
A small electrode runs from a pacemaker-like battery pack underneath their skin (batteries need to be replaced every two to three years) through a small hole in their skull, where it stimulates pathways in the brain that help control motion. When this electrical stimulation happens, it helps reduce, and can even eliminate, Parkinson’s symptoms, although it doesn’t stop the disease from getting worse.
Last year the FDA approved a retinal implant that will restore the ability to perceive shapes and motion for people blinded by advanced retinitis pigmentosa, the late stage of a genetic condition that causes a gradual vision loss in about 1 in 4,000 people in the U.S.
The device, made by Second Sight, involves 60 electrodes that make up a “retinal prosthesis.” A small video camera and processing unit mounted on a set of glasses transmit data wirelessly to the electrodes in the retina.
What Brain Implants Could Do In The Future
The implants above are used to restore function lost to disease, but they could be used to enhance function, too. Eventually, neuroprosthetics will do the things of science fiction — quick learning, memory processing, language translation, night vision, and more.
Make Us Better At Maths And Navigation
Research already shows that brain stimulation from external electrodes can help people learn maths faster.
In a small study that used internal electrodes and deep brain stimulation, people were able to learn and remember routes through a city better. They even demonstrated improved spatial ability, and were better at figuring out shortcuts that could help them along the way.
‘Matrix’-Like Automatic Learning
Improvements to the technology above could recreate “The Matrix.”
In that movie, Keanu Reeves’ character, Neo, learns kung fu by downloading “practice” from a computer. Impossible as that seems, it’s likely that when neuroscientists eventually learn how practicing a skill changes and reshapes the brain, it might be possible to use neurocompilers to input the results of a year of training into the brain all at once.
Restoring Memories And Improving Mood
Allen Institute for Brain Science
Connections in a mouse brain.
Already, the military is experimenting with brain implants that will help soldiers improve memories damaged by traumatic injuries.
The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on two projects under the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, a neuroscience project announced last year by President Obama.
For the first of those two projects, SUBNETS, researchers are trying to use neuroprosthetics and electric currents to cure PTSD, depression, and pain.
The second project, called RAM, aims to develop an implantable device that could restore memory loss and repair brain damage by using electrodes to stimulate neural tissue.
Enhancing Focus, Alertness, And Energy
Once brain functions can be restored, the next step could be to use the same mechanisms to enhance them — including giving humans better memory, focus, mood, and alertness.
“Even now, some parents are willing to let their children take Adderall before a big exam,” Marcus and Koch point out. “The chance to make a ‘superchild’ (or at least one guaranteed to stay calm and attentive for hours on end during a big exam) will be too tempting for many.”
Controlling Robots With Our Minds
In 2011, a paralysed woman named Cathy Hutchinson picked up a bottle of coffee and took a drink. The amazing thing? She did it using a robot arm controlled by a sensor in her brain. The sensor read her neural activity and told the arm what to do.
Currently, controlling a robot in the way that Cathy Hutchinson does is “cumbersome and laborious, like steering a massive barge or an out-of-alignment car.”
Scientists have a lot more to learn about the brain, but Marcus and Koch think that by 2100 we’ll think of a question and search the Internet for the answer — without speaking or typing a word.
Enhancing Our Senses
Every medical implant above could be turned into an enhancement implant. Current prosthetics can help a blind person regain vision — in the future implants would let someone see in the dark, or have zooming vision that lets them read words from 150 feet away.
We are already developing contacts that can zoom. Combined with implants, we could control them with the brain, allowing us enhance the zoom at will and eventually be able to search the Web for information on what we see.
At some point, anyone with the desire for augmented abilities and the resources to pay for them might be able to buy a mental edge.
Technological And Ethical Hurdles
Drilling holes in the skull to implant electrodes is risky, difficult, and potentially damaging to extremely important areas of the brain — not to mention scary. Even the implants are dangerous. The brain doesn’t like to sit still inside the skull, so today’s implants easily slip out of place.
Implants need to made of nontoxic materials that won’t cause our bodies to reject them as foreign, and they need to be tiny and rechargeable (perhaps graphene will help). The neuroprosthetics of today are comparable to mobile phones of 20 years ago — when they were still “the size of shoeboxes.”
Improve Understanding Of The Brain
More important, our understanding of the brain is still rudimentary in many ways. We may understand most of how vision works, but our understanding of memory has a long way to go.
“The next challenge will be to interpret the complex information from the 100 billion tiny nerve cells that make up the brain,” the authors say.
There are several projects underway in the U.S. and Europe to develop a better fundamental understanding of the brain, including the Human Connectome Project, the aforementioned BRAIN Initiative, and the Human Brain Project.
Get People On Board
But the real sticking point in applying these new technologies could be people themselves. Americans just aren’t yet ready for it.
According to a recent survey, 72% of the U.S. population is not interested in a brain implant that could improve memory or mental capacity, and 53% of people think it will be a change for the worse if most people wear implants that provide them with information about the surrounding world.
That hesitation can’t stop what’s already in motion. Early adopters like “biohackers” — people who modify their bodies with chips they implant themselves — are already buying RFID chips to inject under the skin using a syringe at home and using supplements, smart drugs, and engineered brain states to improve mental abilities.
Marcus and Koch write “the real question isn’t so much whether something like this can be done but how and when.”
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