Although they sound like science fiction, neural implants are already being used to treat disease, improve memory, and communicate with prosthetic limbs. These devices are usually electrodes placed inside the body, via surgery or an injection, that can interact with neurons.
The nervous system controls more than our senses. It’s also in charge of our organ function and our respiratory, cardiovascular, and immune systems.
Neural implants are able to record the activity and patterns of neurons when they communicate. In some cases, those patterns can be forcibly altered using pulses of electricity that override native firing.
The brain implants market includes several segments based on type and application, such as deep brain stimulators, vagus nerve stimulators, and a series of use cases for spinal cord stimulation, chronic pain, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and others.
The US government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the sector, and independent research papers appear weekly in top journals. Gene Civillico, a neuroscientist at the US National Institutes of Health, said, “Anything that the nervous system does could be helped or healed by an electrically active intervention — if we knew how to do it.”
These are some of the latest advances in neural brain implants, and what they could mean for the development of the sector.
Deep Brain Stimulators
Deep brain stimulators (DBS) consist of electrodes that are surgically placed deep into the brain. From there, they can stimulate specific structures in order to reduce the symptoms caused by various brain-disease disorders.
Deep brain stimulators were first approved in 1997 for tremors. Since then, their use has been extended to Parkinson’s disease, tinnitus, epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and neuropathic pain. These electrodes are also being studied for Tourette’s syndrome and some psychiatric disorders.
An estimated 150,000 people have received a DBS implant globally. The treatment is minimally invasive and considered safe.
Vagus Nerve Stimulators
The vagus nerve is a sort of communication highway that connects most of our key organs to the brain stem. It plays a primary role in controlling and regulating several unconscious bodily functions, such as digestion, sleep, heart rate, and immune response.
Neural implants that manipulate the vagus nerve have been used to treat heart failure, stroke, Crohn’s disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and migraines, among others.
Recent research has also shown that stimulating the nerve directly via one of its branches in the ear can help increase its level of activity and slow the onset of age-related changes. Scientists and experts recommend the use of vagal nerve stimulation as a path to healthier aging.
Epidural stimulation refers to the stimulation of the spinal cord, and its exploration has already shown incredible results.
People with lower-body paralysis have been able to move, stand, and even walk short distances thanks to the aid of implants. Neuromodulation research has also helped people with amputations control robotic hands, arms, and legs using just their thoughts. In some cases, robotic limbs could, thanks to implants in the brain or in the extremity above the amputation, give people a sense of what they were touching.
Similar treatments have also been successfully used to enhance people’s memories and allow quadriplegic individuals to operate computers and type sentences using their thoughts. And implants have been able to correct neural communications between the eyes and brain, helping people with severe vision loss see again.
Neuralink, an American neurotechnology company founded by Elon Musk and others, is actively working on the future of brain interfaces.
Their devices bring new promise to people with paralysis, blindness, deafness, and memory issues. The technology is a starting point for a new kind of brain interface — one that can increase the channels of communication with the brain, potentially treating a wide range of neurological disorders.
Neuralink’s product is called Link. Link can connect with thousands of neurons in the brain, record their activity, and process the signals in real-time. There are several potential future applications for the product, such as restoring motor and sensory function and treating neurological disorders.
One of its first uses will be to give people with severe spinal cord injury the ability to control computers and mobile devices using their brains. First, they will be able to control a virtual mouse. Later, as patients get more practice and Link’s algorithms develop, they will be able to use keyboards and game controllers.
The Future of Brain Implants
At the moment, companies like Neuralink are only focused on developing medical devices that can improve people’s quality of life. Eventually, however, they might expand into powerful and safe non-medical applications.
The development of brain technology is constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s technically possible. Electrodes are getting smaller, becoming capable of doing more things more efficiently.
For example, some teams are already working on dust-size brain implants made of nanoelectronic thread that can climb nerves like a vine and record activity, as well as meshes made from silicon nanowires that can be injected into the body as a liquid and harden once inside it.
These therapies are generally non-invasive as they can be done using electrodes or magnetic coils outside the skin. However, even though there are some technical challenges, the main reason why brain implants are not widespread is that we don’t fully understand the physiology of neural circuits yet.
The global brain implants market in 2019 was valued at over $370 million and expected to reach $750 million by 2027, with North America projected to hold a dominant position.
Neuralink is expected to begin human trials this year, while Facebook has also expressed interest in telepathic typing. Several companies are already actively working with implants to help patients with Parkinson’s disease and tremors. Other major contributors to the market include Boston Scientific, Medtronic, St. Jude Medical, Nevro Corporation, and NDI Medical LLC.
Once we gain more insight into how neurons communicate and what effect they have on the body, it’ll be hard to stop the advancement of these nano miracle workers.
About the Author
Yisela Alvarez Trentini is an Anthropologist + User Experience / Human-Computer Interaction Designer with an interest in emerging technologies, social robotics, and VR/AR.