Wetware

Human and animal brains are being wired to computers

It sounds like something straight out of cyberpunk science fiction: monkeys controlling robot arms miles away through their brain waves; quadriplegics regaining some use of their limbs by merely thinking about moving them; silicon-based brain implants.

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Defense Advanced Rodent Project

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to use remote-controlled rodents to seek out mines, toxins and other hazards.

The idea is to literally program a rodent’s brain with neural algorithms — beamed from afar to tiny receptors embedded in the skull — commanding the animal to look for certain things.

A rodent that finds a gas might die, but not before its brain radios back a brain-wave code for it via a microscopic transmitter.

DARPA is also working on “augmented cognition,” which involves two-way communication between humans and computers.

“Suppose we are in the middle of a conversation and something occurs to you that you want to follow up on, so you issue a cognitive Post-it note,” says former DARPA manager Gary W. Strong, who is now a computer scientist at the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Foundation.

The “note” could be transmitted, stored and later recovered via brain waves picked up by an EEG headband attached to a computer, Strong explains.

— Gary H. Anthes

Work on such brain/computer interfaces (BCI) is going on in laboratories nationwide. The goal is systems that not only let people control computers merely by thinking, but that also may eventually allow direct communications between computers and the brain.

Research on BCI dates to the 1960s, when scientists found out that people had the ability to control portions of the electrical signals produced by their brains. These signals, or electroencephalograms (EEG), can be measured by sensors placed on the scalp.

Then, in the late 1990s, P. Hunter Peckham, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, created a BCI that allows quadriplegics to manipulate a cursor on a computer screen and even move their hands to manipulate objects such as forks by altering their EEGs and sending those signals to a computer.

In that system, there is no direct physical connection between computer and brain. But the ultimate goal is to enable information to flow between computer processors and brain cells. That requires researchers to understand how the brain works, so they can create communications chips that can be directly embedded in the brain.

It also requires that some physical method be developed to fuse those chips and processors with the brain itself. Researcher Philip Kennedy and neurosurgeon Roy Bakay at Emory University in Atlanta have developed implantable electrodes that are tiny glass cones with holes in them. Inside the cones are microscopically thin gold wires, electrodes, nerve tissue taken from the patient's leg and "tropic factors" that induce brain cells to grow into the cone. They have successfully fused these electrodes with the brain.

Even that is barely a first step for what Theodore Berger, professor of biomedical engineering at The University of Southern California in Los Angeles, envisions: a complete computer-based brain implant. To develop such technology, Berger and his team have been studying the brain's information-processing algorithms. He plans to hard-wire those algorithms onto microchips that can be implanted to supplement the brain's work.

The group has yet to completely understand the brain's algorithms, and there's still the nagging problem that microchips currently are far too big to be implanted in humans.

Meanwhile, BCI has some short-term benefits. For example, quadriplegics and other disabled people are able to control computers and their limbs using the technology. In the longer term, those with other disabilities and brain diseases could also benefit.

The technology could also have a place in the office - controlling computers via EEGs would free people's hands from the keyboard and mouse. And work on understanding how the brain does parallel processing could lead to more effective networks. Such networks could enable higher-quality wireless communications because parallel processing networks can more effectively filter out noise.

In the very long term, one can imagine silicon-based immortality, as chips and processors first supplement and then eventually replace an aging brain. Until then, we'll have to content ourselves with controlling our PCs with our thought waves.

Gralla is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at preston@gralla.com.

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Neural Prosthesis: Reading the Mind

Wetware: Human and animal brains are being wired to computers

Researchers at Caltech and Salt Lake City-based Bionic Technologies LLC are learning how to translate planned actions in the brain into equivalent robotic actions. Here, tiny electrodes are implanted in a fold in a parietal cortex, the region where intent to move is formed. Those signals are routed to a computer that can interpret the brain waves and send commands to move a robotic or paralyzed arm.

Source: California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, and Bionic Technologies LLC, Salt Lake City

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