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Brain implants: break-through solution or Black Mirror nightmare?

Written by Science, Science & Tech

The concept of texting through your brain seems like it should feature in sci-fi flicks and dystopic Margaret Atwood novels. Sure, over the past decade human beings have created AI butlers, robotic gyrating strippers, magic mirrors that analyse users’ dermatological health – but Dennis Degray’s brain implant invention sounds like a plotline in an episode of Black Mirror. You can now send text messages from the neurons of one mind to a telephone in another.

Unlike Charlie Brooker’s dystopic series, this new technological advancement is not for all humans to hungrily consume and rely on (yet). This is a solution for people whose minds function normally, but who are physically handicapped and have lost bodily connection. This could be due to limb loss, a neurodegenerative disease such as spinal muscular atrophy, or paralysis.

“If you were physically handicapped and had the implant, with the power of your mind you could go online shopping, move a robotic limb, and type on a screen.”

Degray has been developing his ‘Utah array’ as part of the BrainGate programme, which funds research in the US to develop neurotechnology. After a decade of living with paralysis from the neck down after an accident, Degray decided to create a neurological technical device to restore communication. He developed two small silicon squares with metal electrodes that are implanted into the motor cortex of the brain, which then records neuron activity and translates into external action. If you were physically handicapped and had the implant, with the power of your mind you could go online shopping, move a robotic limb, and type on a screen. This is completely revolutionary for someone who has been limited in their movements for decades – or their whole life.

The question is, how viable is this ‘brain job’ as a long-term solution to neurological problems? The reality is, like many technological inventions in the 21st century, there is still a way to go in terms of development. The Utah array typically has 100 electrodes, and each electrode records from between one and four neurons. This means that the activities are fairly limited. Another issue is that the system is not wireless – so unless you have access to the decoding computer with a research team working 24/7, you are pretty stuck. Also, like all good things, it will not last forever. The brain’s response to the device is to build-up scar tissue which will eventually lead to a decline in the signal of the electrodes.

However problematic the device may be, Degray’s pioneering invention has launched a whole array of research from other entrepreneurs and start-ups, with even Elon Musk (CEO of electric car company Tesla, for those living under a rock) starting to develop his own implant. Musk’s implant claims to have ten times more electrodes than Degray’s device, and that ten could be implanted per person.

Although none of the companies state that they see non-medical applications in the short term, surely this progression is the inevitable next step. So, what’s next? Brain-controlled typing in every classroom? Brain-to-brain communication in your next Monday meeting? Only time will tell.

Last modified: 13th October 2019

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