Brain implants for neurodegeneration and brain injuries
If you think about the core things that make us human and define us as a species, our ability to communicate through spoken and written language, our facial expressions, gestures, voices, and other complex modes would be at the top of the list. These traits are also the reason that when someone loses the ability to speak, either temporarily or permanently, through a stroke, injury, or neurodegenerative disease, that we are especially heartbroken. It’s one thing to lose a loved one and not be able to communicate with them any longer, and it’s another thing entirely to have that loved one right in front of you but unable to express themselves. It is the desire for restoration of communication that has inspired interest in brain-computer interfaces.
The US government has been investing in brain-computer interfaces for decades. DARPA initially funded the development of the most advanced brain-computer interfaces in the world. The flagship program was Revolutionizing Prosthetics, started by Dr. Geoff Ling. While the program’s ultimate goal was to create a brain-controlled upper limb prosthesis for amputees, it spurred incredible progress in brain-computer interfaces. While sometimes a confusing label, Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) is really a catch-all term that captures the concept of signals coming from the brain (either directly interfacing with the brain or non-invasively) and controlling an external system — like a computer or a mechanical device.
The details of the Prosthetics program are well covered in history books and the work inspired several follow-on DARPA programs to extend the science and technology development. The Neural Engineering Systems Design (NESD) program was one of these, started by Dr. Philip Alvelda. The program’s purpose was to develop miniature neural interfaces that could directly interact with thousands of neurons simultaneously for robust two-way communication with the brain. Building on the demonstrated success of the existing prosthetics programs, this investment aimed to take these interfaces out of the lab and into accepted clinical use. There’s a big difference between a device that might be used for days at a time in controlled settings and a device that is permanently implanted and provides a decade or more of sustained use.
With long term investments, plus burgeoning investments through venture capital funds, there is every reason to believe that invasive BCI’s will see long-term clinical use in humans by 2025.