Are brain implants the future of thinking?

Brain-computer interface technology is moving fast and Silicon Valley is moving in. Will we all soon be typing with our minds?

By Zoë Corbyn | The Guardian

Almost two years ago, Dennis Degray sent an unusual text message to his friend. “You are holding in your hand the very first text message ever sent from the neurons of one mind to the mobile device of another,” he recalls it read. “U just made history.”

 Illustration by James Melaugh.

Degray, 66, has been paralysed from the collarbones down since an unlucky fall over a decade ago. He was able to send the message because in 2016 he had two tiny squares of silicon with protruding metal electrodes surgically implanted in his motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement. These record the activity in his neurons for translation into external action. By imagining moving a joystick with his hand, he is able to move a cursor to select letters on a screen. With the power of his mind, he has also bought products on Amazon and moved a robotic arm to stack blocks.

Degray has been implanted with these devices, known as Utah arrays, because he is a participant in the BrainGate program, a long-running multi-institution research effort in the US to develop and test novel neurotechnology aimed at restoring communication, mobility and independence in people whose minds are fine but who have lost bodily connection due to paralysis, limb loss or neurodegenerative disease.

But while the Utah array has proved that brain implants are feasible, the technology has a long way to go. Degray had open brain surgery to place his. The system is not wireless – a socket protrudes from his skull through which wires take the signal to computers for decoding by machine-learning algorithms. The tasks that can be done and how well they can be executed are limited because the system only records from a few dozen to a couple of hundred neurons out of an estimated 88bn in the brain (each electrode typically records from between one and four neurons).

And it is unlikely to last forever. Scar tissue, the brain’s response to the damage caused by inserting the device, gradually builds up on the electrodes, leading to a progressive decline in signal quality. And when the research sessions – which take place twice a week for Degray in his living facility in Palo Alto, California – come to an end, it will be disconnected and Degray’s telepathic powers cease to be.


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September 2019