Would You Put a Brain Chip in Your Brain?
Neural implants are something out of a sci-fi movie: a brain chip inserted into your skull to enhance your cognitive and physical abilities, but at the risk of your consciousness being controlled. Many years from now (or a few), neural implants won’t just be technological concepts in science fiction, but will eventually make their way into our daily lives. As of now, they have been used to treat diseases, reduce symptoms of brain and spinal-based injuries, and ease emotional traumas.
What are neural implants?
Neural implants are devices that are inserted into a person’s body, usually by injection or surgery, that allow the implant to interact with neurons. Neurons are responsible for carrying information, or neurotransmitters, throughout the human body across synapses, which are little spaces between neurons. You can think of them as your personalized messengers. How you think, act, and feel depends on how neurons work in your body. The most basic functions of a neuron are to receive signals, integrate incoming signals, and communicate and pass signals to larger cells.
A neural implant works by contacting and sending different electric signals to neurons, altering them to communicate differently. Neurons are part of the human body’s central nervous system, which controls our five senses and other involuntary functions, like our inflammatory and immune systems. In simpler terms, neural implants work by sending signals to neurons, causing neurons to be able to perform specific tasks the implant wants them to do.
Who is doing research on it?
A lot, a lot, of people are doing research on it. DARPA, short for the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, is a research and development agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, responsible for the development of emerging technology. The agency, along with UCLA, researched targeted brain stimulation to help veterans who are suffering from PTSD and depression. The federal government isn’t the only entity conducting research on neural implants; several private corporations have also gotten a head start on researching how neural implants could potentially change patients’ lives. Synchron, a brain data transfer company, is another example. The company’s total funding for 2021 reached $52 million USD, and also secured a $10 million grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH). Synchron focuses on minimally invasive brain implants, which allow patients with paralysis to control their functional independence through the implants. Synchron has secured approval for its device design from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). With neural implants becoming more and more common in the medical industry, we can only expect more entities to do research in this sector. The Human Brain/Cloud Interface research states that:
“The Internet comprises a decentralized global system that serves humanity’s collective effort to generate, process, and store data, most of which is handled by the rapidly expanding cloud. A stable, secure, real-time system may allow for interfacing the cloud with the human brain.”
What is Neuralink?
The most famous company that’s conducting research on neural implants is probably Neuralink, an American neurotechnology company co-founded by Elon Musk. The Neuralink chip is a device that processes and transmits neural signals that could then be relayed to a computer or phone. Neuralink hopes that in the future, the technology will allow a person to control computer functions like typing, texting, and moving a mouse with their thoughts. The company’s ultimate goal is to create a common interface for the human brain and computers, allowing humans to interact with digital devices using only their brains.
Human clinical testing has never been conducted, and on March 2022, U.S. regulators rejected Musk’s application to start human clinical trials. The FDA reported numerous concerns regarding Neuralink’s human trial application. Some of their concerns include the following:
- The “neural lace” that forms the chip implant could potentially migrate to the brain’s soft tissue
- Questions regarding whether or not the implant could be safely removed without damaging the brain’s tissue
- The device could overheat
- The implanted battery could fail
Neuralink has to increase its safety and efficacy methods before it can acquire approval from the FDA for human trials.
Are there similar technologies?
Yes, there are. Microchips and chip implants are hardly the news of the century; they have been around since 1998, but it wasn't until the past decade that the technology became commercially available. Implants not only treat and alleviate pain but also mitigate stress in our everyday lives. In 2014, a news story broke about how Dr. Stuart Meloy, a physician and co-founder of Advanced Interventional Pain Management, created a device that would send pleasure signals into a person’s body with a push of a button. The Orgasmatron, patented by Dr. Stuart Meloy, was born originally to treat patients suffering from chronic pain and illnesses. Dr. Meloy’s electronic implant would send out slow and continuous electric impulses to the patient to alleviate chronic pain. However, a patient reported side effects of feeling pleasurable sensations from the electric pulses after installing the implant. Recognizing the potential of the technology, Dr. Meloy began exploring its use for treating sexual dysfunction in both men and women. Although hundreds of his fitted patients have reported experiencing pleasurable side effects, the patients’ main usages were still mainly for pain management. The device was never officially used to only treat sexual dysfunction, since implanting it specifically to treat sexual dysfunction would be a breach of regulations.
Another example would be Patrick Paumen. In 2019, this 37-year-old had a contactless payment chip injected into his hand, right under his skin. The implant in Patrick’s hand can be used as a form of contactless payment. The chip is completely safe, has regulatory approval, and does not need battery charging or a power source. This technology was created by a British-Polish firm, Walletmor, a company that specializes in implantable payment chips. Walletmore uses a technology called near-field communication, or NFC, the contactless payment system that’s installed in most smartphones. Another form of technology used could be based on radio-frequency identification, or RFID, which is similar to the chips found in debit and credit cards. This idea isn’t new, and the first RFID microchip was implanted inside Professor Kevin Warwick back in 1998, but it has only begun to gain popularity in the past decade.
Benefits and risks of a human chip implant
The benefits of a human chip implant are countless in the medical industry. The most established clinical treatment is called deep-brain stimulation, or DBS. The FDA first approved the use of DBS in 1997 to treat tremors in clinical trials. Since then, an estimated 150,000 people globally have implemented a DBS chip in their bodies. Deep-brain stimulation has also been approved for treatments such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. While DBS has proven to be effective against certain illnesses, using it to treat mental disorders like depression, PTSD, and addiction has been inconclusive. Alik Widge, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, proposed the idea that mental illnesses stem from a set of brain circuits that can be manipulated with a specific type of electrical stimulation that can bring relief to patients.
There are also potential risks to consider if regulations are not placed. Not only do neural implants have the potential to migrate into the soft tissue of the brain, but it also has the potential to significantly reduce the life of the brain or the implant itself. Deep brain stimulation also has risks, despite how successful it has been. Patients may experience device malfunction, a 1% risk of brain hemorrhage, including stroke, or worsening mental and emotional health, just to name a few.
What are the ethical considerations?
Neural implants pose significant health risks and are also major concerns for ethical and moral considerations. There is a lack of clinical studies and sufficient evidence to support the long-term usage of DBS and brain stimulation research. Problems vary from acquiring consent in implanting and removing neural chips to not knowing the long-term effects of brain stimulation on the human brain. Researchers have also brought up heavier potential risks concerning end-of-life situations, potential enhancement of human capabilities beyond normal levels, mental and identity changes, and property of the individual’s thoughts, memories, and information.
Current research and development
While there are numerous ongoing research and development regarding neural implants, other non-neural treatments like epidural stimulation have offered relief to patients with spine-related injuries. The treatment has allowed patients with lower-body paralysis to move, stand, and even walk. This therapy involves implanting a small device over the coating of the spinal cord and producing electrical currents to the lower part of the spinal cord that was not able to otherwise communicate with the upper part of the spinal cord.
There is also research pertaining to mind-controlled prosthetics, which allows amputees to control robotic arms, hands, or legs by simply using their thoughts. These prostheses can also provide sensory feedback to the amputee’s brain, allowing them to feel the texture of what the robotic limbs are touching. This new technology, called neuromusculoskeletal prostheses, is designed to connect to the user’s nerves, muscles, and skeletons.
Among the front-runners is a company called Axoft, a company developing brain implants that can treat neurological conditions like cerebral palsy to enable communication. Founded in 2021, it has already raised $8 million USD in seed funding that could potentially change millions of lives.
Future for neural implants
While there are active developments and experiments in neural implants, there is still a long way to go for them to be medically and commercially available and accepted. Aside from regulation compliances and ethical considerations, researchers would still need a more in-depth understanding of how neural circuits work and how neural implants could impact the human body. While some treatments like DBS have proven effective, the devices can only get us so far.
Neural implants could transform the entire medical industry and how people live. For some people, it already is. Breakthrough research and clinical trials have proven brain chips are not just for science fiction, but rather a grounded reality for enhancing patients’ lives.
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