Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.
Neuroengineers at Brown University have developed an implantable brain sensor that relays signals from specific parts of the brain: a “brain radio” converts neural signals into digital data and transmits them wirelessly. Researchers hope this device will eventually help people with paralysis control devices with their thoughts.
“This has features that are somewhat akin to a cell phone, except the conversation that is being sent out is the brain talking wirelessly,” said Arto Nurmikko, a professor of engineering at Brown who worked on the project.
The device uses a pill-sized electrode chip to send signals through electrical connections in a two-inch titanium “can”. Working with neurosurgeons, the team implanted this device into several pigs and monkeys, allowing scientists to observe the animals’ complex neural signals for the past 16 months.
After a two-hour charge, delivered wirelessly through the scalp via induction, the device can operate for more than six hours. Unlike current systems, which require the subject to be connected to cables, this wireless device allows freedom of movement. This is useful for studying the neural patterns of animals as they move about. Although the device is not yet approved for use in humans, however, the long-term goal for this technology is to help people with severe paralysis move assistive devices like robotic arms or computer cursors with the power of thought.
If you were one of those nerdy kids who tried to move things with the Force (not that I ever tried that, *ahem*) this might be the closest you’ll get. What would you do if you could control physical objects just by thinking at them? Moving a robotic arm. Operating an electronic device. Driving a vehicle. All in a neat little neural implant with a battery life to rival your iPhone.
The wireless capability makes the implications all the more intriguing. We’ve all heard of intelligent robots developed for exploration or work in hazardous environments. What if those devices could have a human operator, safely removed from the scene, guiding the robot with his or her mind? Imagine sitting in the International Space Station with your feet up, thinking the Mars Rover along its journey. In a more terrestrial application, you could safely clear a minefield or search for survivors in a collapsed building
The analogy of a “brain radio” or cell phone is intriguing. Would it be possible for two people with these devices to communicate with one another, a sort of electronically-assisted telepathy? If the chip can translate and relay neural impulses, it seems plausible. The obvious super-spy scenarios aside, this might offer a way for people with disorders like autism to communicate. At the very least, contained mental communication would spare us having to overhear all those tedious cell phone conversations on the subway!