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HealthThe blind will "see", the paralyzed will "feel" - with a chip...

The blind will “see”, the paralyzed will “feel” – with a chip in the brain

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chip in the brain – A fundamental problem – we do not know where and how thoughts are stored in the brain

Chips in the brain will help blind people “see” and paralyzed people feel again. Technology can also make telepathy between people possible, writes Deutsche Welle. What are brain-computer interfaces?

“The future will be strange” – the prophetic words of Elon Musk were spoken by him in 2020, while explaining the possible application of brain implants developed by his neurotechnology company Neuralink.

For the past 7 years, she has been working on a computer chip that is implanted in the human brain. From there, he monitors the activity of thousands of neurons. The chip, which is thought to be a “brain-computer interface” (BCI), consists of a tiny probe containing more than 3,000 electrodes attached to flexible threads, each thinner than a human hair.

Musk’s idea is to connect the brain to computers so that information and memories can be retrieved from the depths of consciousness. As well as using this technology to treat conditions such as blindness and paralysis, the businessman has ambitions to use Neuralink to achieve telepathy between people. According to the tech mogul, this will help humanity prevail in the war with artificial intelligence. He also announced that he wanted the technology to give people “supervision”.

Science fiction or reality?

Are at least some of these bold intentions feasible? The short answer is no.

ʺWe can’t read people’s minds. The amount of information we can decode from the brain is very limited, says Giacomo Valle, a neuroengineer at the University of Chicago in the US.

Juan Alvaro Gallego, a brain-computer interface researcher at Imperial College London, UK, agrees. “The fundamental problem is that we don’t actually know where and how thoughts are stored in the brain. We can’t read thoughts if we don’t understand the neurology behind them,” he explained to DW.

Musk first introduced the technology in 2019 using a pig with a Neuralink chip implanted in its brain and a video of a monkey mind-controlling a ping pong video game.

But the potential of the brain-computer interface goes far beyond animals playing computer games. Gallego says the technology was first developed to help paralyzed people with spinal cord injuries or those suffering from conditions like Locked-In Syndrome. With it, the patient is fully conscious, but cannot move any part of his body except the eyes. If we could turn the internal communication of these patients into a computer language, it would change a lot of things, Gallego points out.

In fact, the brain-computer interface does not record the thoughts themselves, but rather sends signals to the body to make a certain movement, for example with a finger, hand or foot, or to open the mouth in order to make a sound. The scientists also demonstrated that they can read the motor cortex’s intention to spell a given letter, Gallego says.

The paralyzed will be able to feel again

Another breakthrough was publicly displayed in 2016, when then-US President Barack Obama shook Nathan Copeland’s robotic hand. The man paralyzed after a car accident felt Obama’s handshake as if the two had touched skin to skin.

Instead of using electrodes to record from the brain and interpret planned movements, the brain is stimulated with weak currents to induce sensation, Gallego explains. A brain-computer interface was implanted in Copeland’s brain to improve the functioning of a damaged part of his nervous system. The device, made by a Neuralink competitor, was inserted into his sensory cortex and connected to sensors on the ends of his robotic arm.

ʺThese technologies have been around for a while. “Deep brain stimulation has been used to help hundreds of thousands with Parkinson’s disease since the 1990s,” Gallego added.

Brain surgery for everyone?

So far, brain-computer interfaces are only used in special, exceptional cases, and Neuralink’s technology has only been tested on animals. All clinical applications are still at the development stage and have not entered clinical practice, explains neuroengineer Giacomo Valle.

Last year, Neuralink tried to get approval from federal regulators to test the technology on humans, but authorities rejected the request because of serious safety concerns. The company’s device consists of 96 tiny, flexible probes that are placed separately from each other in the brain.

Doubts about safety are not at all unfounded, since even if the invasive procedure is successful, the risks of infection or immune rejection of the device remain long after implantation. Musk’s company is expected to renew its request later this year.

The birth of neuroethics

Valle also points out that the brain-computer interface raises “various ethical issues.” This technology also marks the beginning of a completely new field – neuroethics. It is here that discussions begin to resemble science fiction. But in the end, the role of science fiction is just that – to prepare the world for what may appear in the future.

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