Brain Power: The Future of Neural Implants
A Silicon Valley race is now afoot to develop neural implants as consumer products intended for brain enhancement.
Imagine the possibility of having some kind of chip implanted in your brain, one that, perhaps, allowed you to control devices purely by the power of your thought, or to access the internet, or that greatly improved your memory or concentration levels. It is the stuff of utopian science fiction and of ‘Frankenstein’ horror stories, depending on your viewpoint and, most likely, your culture.
Either way, it’s happening, slowly but surely. Brain or neural implants — technological devices connected directly to a biological brain — have, to date, typically been considered in the context of treating neurological diseases, or, as one Stanford University study last year perhaps ominously proposed, to treat impulsive behaviour.
But a Silicon Valley race is now afoot to develop them, ultimately, as consumer products intended for brain enhancement. Companies such as entrepreneur Bryan Johnson’s Kernel; Synchron (seed funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and preparing clinical trials of its Stentrode, the world’s first endovascular electrode array); and Elon Musk’s start-up Neuralink (developing implantable human-computer interfaces in the form of a kind of ‘neural lace’) are among the many now looking to fix, and then boost, the human brain.
It’s not just speculative work either. Prof Newton Howard of Oxford University has successfully prototyped a nanoscale artificial brain in the form of a high-bandwidth neural implant and the proprietary algorithms to run it. And last year findings were presented at the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, DC, revealing that a University of Southern California team has developed a ‘memory prosthesis’ brain implant said to boost performance in memory tests by 30 percent. If, that is, you don’t mind having electrodes implanted in your head.
“The biggest barrier to entry is that any implant will require putting electrodes directly into the brain, which might be appealing and worth the risk if it tackles a serious medical condition, but without that it’s another thing,” suggests Prof John Donoghue, director of the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva. “Getting a hi-fidelity signal without getting under the skull is going to be extremely difficult, and people who say it won’t be just don’t grasp the physics. But then sometimes we get over the ‘yuck’ factor. There are always people who will do what most of us wouldn’t. And, certainly, the idea of boosting cognitive ability has a scientific intrigue to it.”
Indeed, for all of the pioneering steps taken of late, don’t expect proven medical let alone consumer implants to be available too soon. After all, given the human brain’s immense and ever-changing complexity, our understanding of it is still rudimentary relative to the rest of our anatomy, and that’s before questions of interfacing, coding, immune reactions and other huge problems are solved.
This is why the science of brain implants today remains in its infancy. One implant - the first to work wirelessly - was tested in late 2016 and found to restore the movement in the legs of in rhesus monkeys, effective within weeks of receiving the debilitating injury. In another recent case - impressive for its human subject - BrainGate2, a system of pill-sized electrodes implanted in the brain’s motor cortex and into the arm, was used to restore movement to the arms and hands of a man who had been paralyzed in a bicycle accident eight years prior. The year before, a similar system, dubbed NeuroLife, was used to bypass an injured spinal cord to allow a patient to regain control of his hands.
“But the instances of people using thought to control action via implants are fascinating but misleading, since typically the implants are removed and can’t be said to have offered an improved quality of life. They’re fantastic proof of concept,” cautions Christof Koch, chief scientific officer for the Allen Institute of Brain Science in Seattle, and overseer of its $100m annual budget. He argues that the size of the development task, and the many questions it provokes, suggests that it will be at least one to two decades before even basic stimulation of the brain using electrodes can be done in a practical way with humans.
“The tech would need to be able to talk to individual nerve cells in the brain, which is some challenge. Even then, whether it could be augmented with a fine enough grain is another matter. And, who knows, perhaps there would be some cost: you get enhanced memory but an increased likelihood of seizures,” he says. “But, in principle, brain enhancement is possible, and the problems will eventually be overcome. The pushes to make it happen are there, from medicine, with the need to beat Alzheimer’s, for example, and from the military. Look at breast enhancement. That started out as purely medical, and it took a long while to go from first developments to consumer use. Now an estimated 10 percent of women in Los Angeles are said to have had breast augmentation.”
Feasibility, of course, does not determine whether we should. When the brain implant technology is more accessible and the invasive surgery required safer and more palatable, what of the ethical issues? Might an implanted brain be hackable? Would it be right that, at least initially, only a wealthy, risk-taking minority would have access to cognitive enhancement, creating a class of superior human?
“There is that kind of sci-fi scenario, but the fact is that I could prescribe a drug to enhance your cognitive abilities now, so I’m not sure any new ethical question will arise [from implants],” argues Andrew Jackson, professor of neural interfaces at Newcastle University’s Institute of Neuroscience, whose work focuses on the development of drawing pin-sized implants to restore injured nervous systems and, in a world first, to actually head off, rather than respond to, epileptic seizures.
“We have leg prostheses that are in many ways superior to the human leg and, being mechanical, are far easier to augment to the human body. But you don’t see people lining up to replace their legs,” he adds. “Ultimately, neuro technologies will come to be seen as just another tool that we’ll use, much as we’ve developed tools to improve so many other aspects of our lives.”
Indeed, Koch goes a step further. Yes, brain implants will accelerate inequality, he says. But they, as Elon Musk has also argued, will also be a necessity. “We have to go in this direction of using brain implants to enhance humans,” he says, “because we’re going to need to be able to compete with the rise of artificial intelligence (AI).” We will need, in a sense, to become more like AI ourselves to live in an AI world.