20 January 2007

We Are All Cyborgs Now--Neural/Electronic Interface

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have made progress in creating a brain-to-chip interface, which should eventually allow people to regain brain control over regions of the brain or body lost due to disease or injury. Mental control over advanced prostheses and remote devices is also brought closer by these discoveries. (psychokinesis, anyone?)
The central feature of the proposed interface is the ability to create transplantable living nervous tissue already coupled to electrodes. Like an extension cord, of sorts, the non-electrode end of the lab-grown nervous tissue could integrate with a patient’s nerve, relaying the signals to and from the electrode side, in turn connected to an electronic device.

This system may one day be able to return function to people who have been paralyzed by a spinal-cord injury, lost a limb, or in other ways. "Whether it is a prosthetic device or a disabled body function, the mind could regain control," says Smith.

To create the interface, the team used a newly developed process of stretch growth of nerve fibers called axons, previously pioneered in Smith’s lab. Two adjacent plates of neurons are grown in a bioreactor. Axons sprout out to connect the neuron populations on each plate. The plates are then slowly pulled apart over a series of days, aided by a precise computer-controlled motor system, until they reached a desired length.

For the interface, one of the plates is an electrical microchip. Because Smith and his team have shown that stretch-grown axons can transmit active electrical signals, they propose that the nervous-tissue interface - through the microchip - could detect and record real-time signals conducted down the nerve and stimulate the sensory signals back through the axons.

The researchers have already shown that the stretch-grown axons can be implanted into rat spinal cord and continue to grow. Since feeding electronic signals to growing nerves can train them to perform "lost" functions, this combining of growing nerves with interfaced neurochips holds many possibilities. If you add the right stem cells and growth factors to the mix, you may be able to do restorative wonders to the central nervous system.

Restoring control of muscles to the previously paralyzed, and restoring control of parts of the brain previously lost to injury or disease, is just the first step. The next step is brain:electronic interface for controlling prosthetic actuators, and actuators that are completely separate from the body.

It is not difficult to imagine thought control over a look-alike robot, that can be sent as a proxy to conduct business, give lectures, or other more intriguing possibilities. Likewise, controlling a remote robot that looks exactly like someone else would allow someone to leave a long trail of false clues.

This really is a "Brave New World" that we are entering.

Hat tip Medgadget.

Update: A PBS video discusses the issue of brain interface using nano-wires. The PBS "anchors" are irritating and infantile, but the interviews with scientists and researchers are fascinating.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check out http://kurzweilai.net for similar news stories. Posthumanism has tantalizing properties. When we're all part machine, racial differences won't seem so obvious. It'll now be a matter of programming.

Thursday, 01 February, 2007  

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