Cyborgs—a term we often encounter in sci-fi movies. We’ve heard it in “The Terminator” and “RoboCop” series, which portrayed how technology can produce cyborgs or cybernetic organisms.
Cyborgs are beings that have both organic and biomechatronic body parts. In “RoboCop,” the protagonist Alex Murphy maintained his head, heart, and lungs. But he lost all of his other body parts. To remedy the situation, the so-called “cyborg enforcement unit” used brain implants to integrate cybernetic components to the deceased police officer’s body, thus making him an improved law enforcement agent.
Is such a thing possible in real life? Thanks to brain implants, it is. To better understand how brain implants work, let’s define what they are first.
What Is a Brain Implant?
Brain or human implants, also known as “neural implants,” are technological mechanisms that connect directly to a subject’s brain, often set on the brain’s surface or attached to the brain’s cortex. These devices are commonly used in vagus nerve stimulation, deep brain stimulation, and mind-controlled prostheses.
Since brain implants interact with neurons, brain cells communicate with them via electrical impulses. The neural activities are then intercepted and interpreted by researchers to observe and study patterns, allowing them (theoretically) to make cybernetic parts function as the subject’s original body parts would.
To some, the concept may sound like science fiction or a plot for a Hollywood film. But, we are not that far from making the scenario into reality. Soon, the ability to read and edit a person’s thought process will become ordinary.
Brain Implants: A Brief History
One of the first researchers to show how electrical impulses in the brain can direct actions was Roberts Bartholomew. The American neurosurgeon proved that the human mind could be manipulated by electrical stimulation. From there, the concept of brain implants was born.
One of the earliest brain implant uses was seen in Southern Spain in the summer of 1963. A bull ready to attack a bullfighter suddenly, out of nowhere, stops charging and simply wanders away. The reason? The bull had a brain implant on its caudate nucleus. The implant, when switched on, instantly controlled the bull’s actions.
Brain Implants: Where Are We Today?
At present, brain implants are used to treat several diseases like Parkinson’s. It is also used to rehabilitate a person’s body following an injury. Some use it to improve their memory and communicate with their prosthetic limbs.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Department of Defense are funneling millions of dollars to fund various research about the nervous system and how sophisticated methods can be used to develop more uses of the technology.
Elon Musk, a known technocrat and proponent of brain implants, recently announced that his company Neuralink would soon launch brain implants. Musk previously showed the brain-machine interfaces they were working on to the public. The goal is to start implanting devices into paralyzed humans so they can control computers.
Using flexible threads of electrodes, Neuralink and Musk aim to transfer “high volumes of data” with less damage to the brain. While they are not yet in the human testing phase, Musk claims this can happen within a year. In a sitdown interview with Joe Rogen, Musk shared that “… we have a chance of putting a link in someone and having them be healthy and restoring some functionality that they’ve lost.”
Long-Term Brain Implants
Musk is not the only one hard at work in producing brain implants. Researchers from Duke University, New York University, and Northwestern University are also working on implanting an ultrathin, flexible neural interface with thousands of electrodes that can remain in use for over six years, into a human brain. These developments bring them closer to allowing brain implants to last within the human body for a lifetime. Published in Science Translational Medicine, the researchers are positive that they can achieve their goal of developing a visual prosthetic that can interact with the brain, affording restored vision for those with damaged optic nerves.
Other startups working on brain implants include Paradromics and Synchron.
What Does the Future Hold for Brain Implants?
While several researchers are hard at work to develop brain implants that help the blind see, the deaf hear, and the paralyzed regain mobility, some issues must be addressed. Organizations and researchers must carefully avoid potential problems, such as brain scarring and corroding.
While most of them are working to address mostly medical issues, they also have to consider the possibility of abuse of the technology for nonmedical applications. Once people believe that brain implants can make them “better,” they would be willing to pay for these, and there lie concerns about ethics and morality. Where do we draw the line?
Brain implants, like any other emerging technology, can be impressive and revolutionary, but they can also be problematic. Like RoboCop, who had a blatant disregard for humanity, we must ensure that humans with brain implants won’t turn out the same.