The U.S Department of Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has posted online a project to develop a portable, wireless device with implantable probes for recording and stimulating brain activity. It is part of the Obama administration’s 2013 $100 million BRAIN initiative funding research for brain treatments.
Memory is a specific set of neuron connections and electric pulses. In theory, after enough data of these interconnections is collected by a brain implant and analyzed by a supercomputer, the exact combination that programs the brain to remember these memorized skills could be duplicated. It could be re-fed into an injured brain that has lost the memories or in sci-fi actions could be put into brains that never had them. Like human genomes have been mapped with DNA, brain neurons could be mapped in 3D.
DARPA’s brain implant initiative is not intended for memory like name recall, but is posed as a way to help injured service people get back “task-based motor skills” like how to tie shoes, drive the car and maybe run machines or fly planes. A sample injury that the implant could help is U.S. Army sergeant Thomas Green’s brain injury suffered in Iraq when a truck he was driving hit an explosive and flipped ten times. Afterwards, he could not remember how to brush his teeth or put on his shirt, sometimes forgot his girlfriend’s name or to pick her up. Since 2000, over 280,000 troops had such brain injuries, but most common are from vehicle crashes, falls and training injuries on bases.
Neuroprosthetics have existed for 30 years as in more than 300,000 cochlear implants worldwide in the ears of the hearing-impaired and the first retinal implant made by Second Sight approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2013. Brain control experiments have been successful using brain activity from one monkey to control the hand of a sedated other monkey.
Brain implants have major issues. As a person moves, the brain jiggles around in the skull. If the implant slips by even a millimeter, it may be worthless. The implant must be able to fit inside the skull and have enough energy to be recharged, similar to an electric toothbrush, at night through coils on the scalp. It must be nontoxic and biocompatible so it does not cause an immune reaction. Current effective brain-machine interfaces wired directly into the brain get their signals from small nerve cell groups, but devices that could listen to the same nerve cells very long have not been developed.
The responding proposals must specify the probes’ numbers, sizes, spacing, weights and power needs, the target brain areas, and surgical device implant procedures. Companies like Minneapolis-based Medtronic Inc., IBM and GE are the type who tend to bid on such projects. Medtronics already has an implanted device for Parkinson’s with wires that signal electrodes and stimulate the brain from skin under the upper chest. GE is exploring implantable devices; St. Jude Medical Inc. in Minneapolis and Boston Scientific Corp. in Massachusetts sell similar devices overseas which are yet to be U.S. approved.
Past DARPA projects have resulted in huge commercial successes like creating the Internet and stealth bombers. The effects on the world as we know it from possible future brain implants are unimaginable. School learning from books could be replaced. Foreign language knowledge and athletic skills could be instantaneous. More brains could function at genius level. Mental, emotional and social problems could be history.