Being able to control machines with your mind is no longer in the realm of science fiction.
Several companies are vying to develop brain implants that would allow people to do just that – and one of them is being led by Elon Musk, the richest man in the world.
The billionaire CEO of Neuralink (and of Twitter, SpaceX and Tesla) said this week he expects the startup to start testing its brain-computer interface on patients in six months.
So how advanced are these devices and what do they promise?
“The Future of Communication”
Stephen Hawking famously said that brain-computer interfaces that allow thoughts to be streamed wirelessly to external devices are the future of communication.
The English physicist and cosmologist was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) when he was just 21, and a brain-computer interface was in his best interest.
ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that causes gradual muscle deterioration, leading to difficulty swallowing, speaking, and eventually breathing.
Because of the illness, Hawking had little control over his muscles, so he famously used a Speech Generating Device (SGD) to speak through an Intel-designed computer.
The software used by the computer moved a cursor across a keyboard, which Hawking could stop with a twitch of his cheek once he reached the letter or word he wanted. Hawking used a supplemental speech synthesizer that read the sentence once approved or completed by the software.
Synchron’s “Stentrode” stent-like brain implant
Technology has come a long way for Hawking, but scientists continue to dream of more sophisticated brain-computer interfaces.
Hawking died in 2018, two years before the world’s first brain-computer interface was implanted in a patient: the Stentrode, made by Synchron, an Australian-born, New York-based company.
The Stentrode interface – a stent-like brain implant – has been recognized by the US Food and Drug Administration Designation “breakthrough device”. in 2020 and a year later, Synchron became the first company to receive FDA approval to conduct clinical trials with a computer-based brain implant.
The promise and hope of synchronous technology is clinically motivated, with its primary goal being to bring independence to people who have lost their physical independence.
How does a brain-computer interface work?
The stentrode interface is a matchstick-sized, web-like device with electrodes implanted in the brain, capable of picking up signals that allow the user to control external systems.
Synchron describes the Stentrode as a Bluetooth device that allows you to control your computer with your mind, allowing people with severe paralysis to perform tasks like writing, texting, email, shopping and online banking through direct thinking to carry out – and without having to open brain surgery.
The device does not need to be drilled into the skull as it is simply pushed up through the jugular vein and into the brain. It uses blood vessels as a highway into the brain and laces the insides of them with electrodes that can record activity from the brain’s motor cortex, an area whose main function is to generate signals to control the body’s movement.
Patients are thus able to use their brain impulses to control digital devices without the need for a touch screen, mouse, keyboard or voice activation technology.
How are these brain signals translated?
The team of scientists had to examine the neural signals captured by the Stentrode device while the participants performed certain movements – or thought about performing those movements – in order to later interpret them and translate them into computer-friendly language.
Until now, just a handful of people received the stentrode implant, but Wired reported in August that Synchron has a goal of implanting the device in 15 patients by the end of 2022.
The first patient to try Synchron’s brain-computer interface was a man named Graham Felstead; the second person was Philip O’Keeffe. Like Hawkings, both men suffer from ALS.
“This is a new horizon. It really is,” O’Keeffe said in an interview with the economist “A direct connection between your brain and your computer is just another step in the path of human evolution.”
Synchron is currently conducting a clinical study funded by the National Institutes of Health to evaluate the safety of the stentrode and examine its effectiveness in patients with severe paralysis.
Synchron hopes this technology will also enable the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the nervous system, including Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, depression and hypertension.