Implanting “Wi-Fi” in the Human Brain Could Cure Paralysis Forever
The marriage of cutting-edge technology and medicine has been one of the most important areas of growth for humankind, allowing us to live far longer and healthier lives. But it’s also been one of the most controversial areas of human development, as artificial intelligence and robotics continue to change the way we manipulate natural biological processes. For the most part, these kinds of developments are embraced, for their benefits far outweigh whatever potential drawbacks they may present – such as the implementation of highly functioning robots that can execute complicated surgery with far more precision than humans. Sometimes, the developments are a little freaky, and their introduction into mainstream medicine are harder to embrace. Take the case of chimeras – human-animal embryos used to study disease and other biological ailments.
Last week (November 10), another scientific medical breakthrough involving non-human animals and technology was announced, this time involving WiFi and brain implants. The ailment in question is paralysis, and scientists seem to have developed a means of allowing a primate suffering from a paralyzed leg the ability to regain the ability to move the damaged limb. According to BBC, a rhemus monkey who suffered a spinal-cord injury was implanted with a chip capable of reading “the spikes of electrical activity that are the instructions for moving the legs,” which was then sent to a computer. That computer then “deciphered the messages and sent instructions to an implant in the monkey’s spine to electrically stimulate the appropriate nerves.”
Particularly exciting about this news is that “experts said the technology could be ready for human trials within a decade,” a development that could change the way we treat paralysis and give millions suffering from spinal-cord injuries a chance at a more normal life, even the ability to walk again. It may sound revolutionary, but a lot of the technology involved is actually already being used elsewhere in the medical field, making its development well within reach. “The technology used to stimulate the spinal cord is the same as that used in deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson’s disease, so it would not be a technological leap to doing the same tests in patients,” says the BBC report. Some adaptations still need to be made, however, to adapt the technology to the way humans walk, but many are saying that science is on our side. The BBC reports similar uses of this “WiFi” technology in other medical cases, including the use of brainwaves to control a robotic arm; electrical stimulation of the spine, which allowed four paralyzed people stand up; and an implant in the brain of a paralyzed man who was then able to play a video game.
On November 13, NPR’s Jon Hamilton reported on “minibrains,” or “tiny clusters of brain cells grown in a lab dish” that are helping to foster new treatment models for diseases like Alzheimer’s and Zika. Though not involved with computers, per se, the advancements are nonetheless promising news in the world of neuroscience and, as Hamilton reports, could be a serious game-changer. “What makes these lab-grown structures so useful is that they replicate part of the cell diversity and connectivity of the human brain,” he explains. Perhaps, one day in the not-so-distant future, researchers will be able to develop a way of implementing minibrains and brain “WiFi”….
The entire study cited by BBC can be read at the Nature scientific journal.