Researchers race to perfect brain implants

BCIs are sparking interest among VC firms, even if the technology is still many brains away from being marketed toward the general public.

September 24, 2019

It’s a concept that could have been ripped out of a sci-fi novel: Labs are competing to develop brain implants, which could eventually be marketed to the general public.

Neurotechnology is the newest frontier

BrainGate develops brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) — known as Utah arrays — aimed at restoring mobility to people who have experienced paralysis, neurodegenerative disease, or limb loss. 

The Utah arrays — which are metal electrodes protruding from a silicon base — are surgically implanted in the brain’s motor cortex. BCIs record neural activity and translate it to command external actions like sending text messages, purchasing products online, and moving robotic arms to stack blocks. 

This technology could have nonmedical applications as well: For example, people could control devices or drive their cars using their brains.

And Silicon Valley wants in on this nascent neurotech 

Elon Musk’s Neuralink has received $158m in funding — $100m from Musk himself — to develop an implantable wireless system. 

Paradromics, which has raised $25m in funding, got a significant sum from the Pentagon, which became interested in BCIs when it discovered the robotic limbs it was developing for injured soldiers needed additional brain control. 

But BCIs aren’t ready for prime time

As sophisticated as BCIs are, the brain is a big thing to tackle. Each electrode can record between 1 and 4 neurons, which is… cute. But there are 100B neurons in the brain.

Many of these devices require open-brain surgery to implant. Over time, scar-tissue buildup impedes signal quality… and it’s possible the electrodes could dissolve or corrode. 

There are ethical questions as well: If BCIs became common, who would own the brain data, and how could they use it? Who is responsible if the brain implant doesn’t accurately translate the person’s intent? And would people with BCIs be vulnerable to third-party “brainjacking?”

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