The brain plays a vital role in almost all aspects of physiology. It controls balance, movement, thoughts, emotions, organ function, coordination, speech, hearing, nerves, and so much more. Therefore, the brain has been a focal point of research into many conditions. Scientists and researchers have found various ways to treat areas of the brain to improve health conditions and to also use the brain as a tool to reduce the symptoms of various conditions. One interesting area of research has been into the use of brain implants. So, what are brain implants, how are they currently used, and what plans are there for the future uses of brain implants?
What Are Brain Implants?
Also known as brain chips or neural implants, brain implants are used to stimulate certain aspects of the nervous system, says Human Enhancement: Brain Chips. Studies of the use of neural implants first began in the 1970s by Jose Manuel Rodriguez Delgado, a Yale professor. These implants work by stimulating structures within the nervous system using implanted electrical circuitry. This can stimulate senses, improve physical function, and enhance memory. Brain implants are inserted by drilling through the skull and positioning in the part of the brain that controls the affected area of a patient's body. The implants are attached to electrodes that are attached to a battery that is surgically implanted under the skin.
An Overview of Deep Brain Stimulation
Deep brain stimulation, or DBS, is the term used to describe what the brain implants do once inserted into the body. The Mayo Clinic describes how electrodes are implanted into specific parts of the brain depending on the condition and symptoms that the brain implants are intended to improve. These send electrical impulses that bypass damaged tissue and regulate any abnormal impulses. Alternatively, the impulses are directed to affect certain chemicals or cells in the brain. Deep brain stimulation is now an established treatment for people suffering from movement disorders and those suffering from some psychiatric conditions. It is also approved to treat seizures for those who have epilepsy that has been difficult to treat. At this time, the use of deep brain stimulation as a treatment method is reserved for those who cannot get control of their symptoms with medications.
What Has Deep Brain Stimulation Been Used to Treat So Far?
Although there is research into the many potential uses of brain implants and deep brain stimulation, there are certain conditions on which scientists have focused their attention and have proven results of the effectiveness of using brain implants. These conditions include:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Essential tremor
There have been excellent results from the studies into using brain implants for these conditions, with many sufferers seeing significant improvements in many aspects of their condition thanks to a reduction of their symptoms. This has inspired scientists to extend their research into other conditions they believe will improve through the use of deep brain stimulation. Some of the conditions on which scientists are now focusing their attention to include:
- Multiple sclerosis
- Chronic pain
- Stroke recovery
- Huntington’s disease
- Traumatic brain injury
- Tourette syndrome
The Risks of Deep Brain Stimulation
Deep brain stimulation is considered minimally invasive and safe. However, there are some risks attached to this procedure. Some of these include:
- Bleeding in the brain
- Misplacement of the leads
- Heart problems
Improving the Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease was one of the initial areas of research for scientists. They found that using this treatment method reduced many of the most common but debilitating symptoms of those suffering from Parkinson’s disease. These included improvements in balance, coordination, tremors, neck movements, and walking. However, scientists are now looking at ways of adapting their methods to make further improvements to the lives of those with Parkinson’s disease.
Memory-Boosting Brain Implants
One of the major areas of research regarding the future uses of brain implants is the possibility of memory boosting, says NBC News. This is a subject on which many scientists from around the world are currently working. In early 2018, two separate teams of researchers reported positive results in memory-boosting following the implantation of brain implants. One of the teams was led by Dr. Robert Hampson, a neuroscientist at the Wake Forest School of Medicine. He described their results as a major breakthrough in demonstrating the possibility of using brain implants to restore memory function in humans.
The research, which is being funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aims to discover ways that brain implants can improve the lives of American soldiers who have suffered a traumatic brain injury. However, the research is an important step towards using brain implants for a variety of purposes, including improving the cognitive abilities of those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. It could also help to reduce the mental decline that is a natural part of the aging process.
The leader of the other team is Dr. Michael Kahana, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. He has described how the research will help them to decode the brain and harness data. Kahana and his team have also had positive results, as 15 percent of their subjects had improved memory test results following being fitted with a brain implant. There were some ethical concerns about fitting people with brain implants just to test if it would improve memory function because of the potential risks involved. However, both teams sidestepped this issue by conducting their research using people suffering from epilepsy who were already set to receive a brain implant.
The Possibility of Speech Synthesizers
The research into the potential uses of brain implants has also extended into speech. Scientists believe that it is possible to use brain implants as speech synthesizers. This would make a huge difference to the lives of those who have lost the ability to speak or have a serious speech impediment of some kind. According to Technology Review, the research focuses on using brain implants to decode people’s thoughts. The artificial neural networks can then turn these thoughts into intelligible speech.
Thanks to the use of MRI scanning, scientists have known for decades that specific parts of the brain are activated during speech or when listening to others. The problem for researchers has been discovering a way to translate the thoughts into words. A team of researchers from Columbia University is responsible for developing a system that combines a speech synthesizer with deep learning. They used people already scheduled to receive implants for epilepsy to conduct their research. The researchers recorded the brain activity of the volunteers while they were listening to sentences. Based on brain activity, artificial intelligence then decodes the volunteer’s thoughts. A speech synthesizer then verbalizes the thoughts in a robotic voice.
The results were that the robotic voice was correct and understandable 75 percent of the time. The downside of this technology is that it is not something that can become widely used at this time. It involves decoding the brain of each individual separately, so the technology needs setting up with each person, and this takes time. However, it is a huge step towards the use of brain implants to help those who can no longer communicate because of paralysis or other health conditions. This is something on which researchers are continuing to work.
Advancements in Fine-Tuning the Mind with Brain Implants
One of the biggest advancements in the use of brain implants is that they can now target and fine-tune specific areas of the brain, The Kavli Foundation interviewed several neuroscientists to discuss the potential future uses of brain implants. One of the interviewees was Brian Litt, the Director of the Center for Neuroengineering and Therapeutics at the University of Pennsylvania. His area of interest is creating flexible electrodes and implantable devices to identify and suppress seizures in epilepsy sufferers. He is also interested in the use of cloud computing with brain implants.
According to Litt, research and advancements now mean that they can treat specific parts of the brain rather than treating the brain as a whole. This means that they can now fine tune the process to treat one specific symptom or target just one area of the body. He also notes that there is still ongoing work to identify the functions of different nerves, develop better implants, and find non-surgical ways of fitting implants and batteries
Another specialist interviewed was Jose Carmena, a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Neuroscience at the University of California-Berkeley. He is also a co-director at the Center for Neural Engineering and Prostheses at the University of California- San Francisco. One of his main areas of research has been the implantation of microsensors, a method which he has co-developed. He is also an investigator for the SUBNETS project.
Carmena highlights how they can now use technologies such as light to target specific parts of the brain, but that this is done by injecting a virus that modifies specific cells, and this is still problematic. Carmena has said that such advancements have only been possible because of new technology and the findings of ongoing research. This has allowed them to target different areas of the brain to help people who are suffering from problems with their muscle and motion control. He notes that it has been particularly helpful in treating those who are paralyzed by injury.
The Use of Living Tissue
Scientists are also looking at ways that they can make brain implants less invasive and reduce some of the risks of using them to treat symptoms of debilitating conditions. One way they believe they can do this is to use live tissue instead of synthetic wires. Kacy Cullen is an associate professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania, says Neo.Life. Cullen is one of the researchers who is currently working on creating live tissue implants. He is using tissue engineering to create three-dimensional threads of brain cells that are intended for use as living electrodes. The benefits of using these are that they are gentler and that they will connect with the living tissue in the brain rather than injuring the brain tissue.
Are All Uses of Brain Implants Good?
It is possible that not all uses of brain implants will result in good outcomes and many may not be considered ethical. The Daily Mail reported how brain implants currently used to treat Parkinson’s disease have the potential to become commercial and for companies to use them to steal people’s memories and blackmail them. According to their report, experts believe that there is the possibility of this happening as soon as 2038. It is believed that this would happen in stages. There is already ongoing research into how memories are formed, and it is believed that there is the possibility of recording and enhancing memories within five years. In ten years, it is possible that companies could buy memory boosting implants, and they could harvest and control memories by 2038.
Brain Implants - The Final Verdict
Scientists have already proved that brain implants can have a positive impact on the lives of people suffering from a wide range of conditions as they improve the severity of many of their symptoms. The signs are that there are many more potential uses of brain implants to treat even more conditions, and this is something on which scientists are continuing to work. In the future, brain implants could also be used to control various brain functions. However, there is the possibility of this technology being misused, and this is something that scientists and those in authoritative roles will have to watch and manage with care in the future. Providing these ethical issues are well managed, brain implants could change the lives of millions of families across the globe.
Written by Liz Flynn
Read more posts by Liz Flynn