The Future of Brain Implants Aims to Correct and Enhance Memory, Focus, Motor Functions and More

( [email protected] ) Mar 17, 2014 03:36 PM EDT
The Future of Brain Implants Aims to Correct and Enhance Memory, Focus, Motor Functions and More
The Future of Brain Implants Aims to Correct and Enhance Memory, Focus, Motor Functions and More. (Photo:

In 1984, William Gibson wrote about neuro augmentation in the best-selling cult classic Neuromancer. The novel described brain and organ implants that were quite far-fetched for the time, but 30 years later, might seem more realistic.

According to Dr. Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University, and Dr. Christof Koch, chief scientific officer of Seattle's Allen Institute for Brain Science, the future of brain implants will see augmentation to our senses, functions, and even mood and  thought.

"Brain implants today are where laser eye surgery was several decades ago." The team writes in a new article on the Wall Street Journal. "They are not risk-free and make sense only for a narrowly defined set of patients-but they are a sign of things to come."

Cochlear implants have been around for several decades, allowing those with hearing impairments to experience audio for the first time, and a retinal implant was just approved by the Food and Drug Administration last year. These types of devices aren't new, but researchers are discovering that much more is possible, thanks in part to new federal funding announced last year by President Barack Obama. And as recent as last week, Obama approved that funding to double from $100 million in 2014 to $200 million in 2015.

Currently there are several neural augmentation implants in the works by private and government companies. BrainGate allows the control of robotic devices through thought alone. The Pentagon is working on memory implants for U.S. soldiers. Two students at the University of California Berkley have developed "neural dust" that work as a wi-fi system of sorts, converting the brain's electrical signals into ultrasound patterns that can be read outside the brain.

An especially promising tool in modern neuro science is a technique call optogenetics that allows the direct manipulation of the brain's circuitry. Different colored lights can be used to precisely turn different parts of the brain on or off, allowing it to be played "like a piano." This technique has already helped develop retinal prosthetics for those suffering from adult-onset blindness.

All of these amazing developments are hindered by several factors, though. Scientists need to manage a way to implement these gadgets into the brain with minimal intrusion into the skull itself (which can cause infection and internal bleeding), compensate for the constant movement of the human body and the brain itself and solve the problem of providing enough power. Cell phone technology of even 10 years ago was laughable compared to what we have today, so these technical obstacles are certainly able to be overcome with the proper research and funding, but what about the possible risks involved with this level of meddling in the human brain?

The WSJ article addresses this issue well. "There will be failures and, as with many advances in medicine, there will be deaths. But anybody who thinks that the products won't sell is naive. Even now, some parents are willing to let their children take Adderall before a big exam. The chance to make a "superchild" (or at least one guaranteed to stay calm and attentive for hours on end during a big exam) will be too tempting for many."

But could these devices make us happier in the long run? Doctors Marcus and Koch admit that it's impossible to tell at this point, but show concern over the fact that those with augmentations might "outperform others in the everyday contest for jobs and mates, in science, on the athletic field and in armed conflict."