The brain is an incredible, complex organ. Every year researchers reveal new information on how the brain functions and how neural circuits operate. And each new discovery presents a new opportunity to make life easier for thousands or even millions of people.The emerging field of brain–machine interface (BMI), or brain–computer interface (BCI), is just one area of neuroscience that shows great promise. BMI refers to types of neurotechnology that create a direct, artificial link between the brain and external devices, allowing users to, say, control the movement of a prosthetic limb or a computer cursor just by thinking about it.
While researchers have made incredible strides toward making BMI a reality, there is still much to learn and a number of challenges to overcome. Having just published a white paper titled “Future Neural Therapeutics: Technology Roadmap White Paper,” IEEE urges readers to learn as much as they can about current and upcoming developments in neuroscience and their extraordinary potential to change lives.
Opportunities and risks of brain–computer interface
While there have been some BMI breakthroughs in recent years, the concept is still in its infancy. BCI technology will require considerably more research before the more sophisticated practical applications can hit the market. In the meantime, researchers dream of ways in which BMI can make the impossible possible while staying ever mindful of the risks and ethical concerns involved.
As the field of neuroscience expands, so do the realistic possibilities for BMI. Here are just a few broad opportunities for BMI that have already seen initial testing or are at least achievable in theory.
- Brain research: One of the exciting aspects of BMI is its potential to unlock the secrets of the brain. Researchers are already developing the means to read and “decode” neural activity. The more we’re able to read and understand neural activity, the more it will refuel the advancement of BMI technology.
- Biofeedback systems: There has been some speculation that BMI could potentially serve as a means of monitoring one’s health, enabling greater awareness of stress and fatigue levels, for example, to help inform healthier decisions.
- Mobility and motor functions: Whether by enabling a connection between the brain and prosthetics or a connection between the brain and paralyzed limbs, there are a number of ways BMI technology can either restore or enable mobility and motor functions for people with amputated limbs or tetraplegia.
- Sensory or cognitive functions: In addition to restoring motor function, BMI could go a step further to simulate or enable tactile feedback. Some BMI research is also targeting the possibility of improving faculty with language, memory, or focus.
While the implications of BCI technology are exciting, it’s important to approach its advancement as prudently and intelligently as possible. As with any new technology, BMI involves inherent risks that researchers, developers, and society at large must consider as BMI becomes more prevalent.
- Design flaws: One of the greatest challenges to BMI is how to create a piece of technology that straddles the worlds of design and function. Researchers and developers must explore a number of variables, including the size of the device, variations in patient anatomy, and the biocompatibility of the material, to get BMI efforts just right.
- Privacy concerns: Just as advertising companies have monetized data collected from Internet users’ browsing habits, so could these companies discover a way to collect and monetize data from BMI systems. As BMI technology becomes more sophisticated, individuals and municipalities must determine whether this is an acceptable outcome and how it should be regulated.
- Overreliance: Convenience is a double-edged sword. While BMI could broadly expand human potential, it’s easy to see how an overreliance on certain technology could have net-negative effects. For example, relying too much on brain-controlled systems could have a negative impact on bodily health.
- Malfunction: Though any new technology will doubtless undergo considerable testing and scrutiny, one can’t discount the possibility of BMI devices malfunctioning in ways that can damage the nervous system. Whatever form BMI technology takes, it must be minimally invasive and be proven safe for the vast majority of users.
Developments in brain–machine interface projects
Though some of the most exciting applications for BCI technology still lie ahead, there’s already been considerable progress, with several BMI technologies currently available. These projects are laying the groundwork for even more profound neurotechnology developments in the future.
NeuroPace’s implanted responsive neurostimulator (RNS) device
Medical technology company NeuroPace recently developed the RNS System to help treat epilepsy. Similar to a pacemaker, which monitors and responds to heart rhythms, the RNS System is the first device of its kind that can monitor and respond to brain activity, ultimately preventing seizures. The RNS System has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for therapeutic use.
NeuroSigma’s trigeminal nerve stimulation (TNS) device
Life sciences company NeuroSigma has also developed an FDA-approved BMI device. As the name suggests, the TNS device stimulates the trigeminal nerve to affect mood, attention, and decision-making. It has already proven effective in the treatment of pediatric attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Synchron Medical’s Neuroprosthesis
Bioelectronics company Synchron Medical is developing a motor neuroprosthesis, a fully-implantable brain-computer interface that is designed to restore functional independence in patients with paralysis.
Neurable’s BMI virtual reality (VR) game
Of course, BMI has a number of implications for entertainment as well. In 2017, start-up Neurable developed the world’s first brain-controlled VR game, enabling players to control the action via a electroencephalography (EEG) headset that detects brain activity instead of a controller.
NextMind’s wearable brain-sensing device
Start-up NextMind has garnered considerable attention for creating an EEG headset that can record activity in the brain and use machine learning to translate said activity into commands within a digital environment. Applications include VR gaming and hands-free interaction with other forms of digital technology.
Paths to the nonsurgical future of brain–machine interfaces
Since brain surgery comes with inherent risks, it stands to reason that any popular BCI technologies would have to be minimally invasive—or better yet, be completely nonsurgical. To make BCI more competitive with pharmaceuticals and other traditional therapies, researchers are looking for ways to make BCI as attractive to potential users as possible. Here are just a few of the paths that may eventually lead to nonsurgical BCI.
Computers have come a long way in just a few decades, decreasing in size while becoming exponentially more sophisticated. As this trend continues, it won’t be long before BCI devices become small enough to implant or even inject into the body without any of the risks traditionally associated with surgery.
Two surgeries are riskier than one. In addition to being very small, it’s important for implanted devices to use very little power so they don’t end up needing to be replaced through additional surgeries later on. It’s better to have one self-sustaining device that can last throughout a recipient’s life.
One of the problems with surgically implanting a device is that said device may prove to be incompatible with the body—especially in the long term. Continued research into biocompatible materials could unlock the key to BCI devices that better integrate with human biology, reducing the risk of the body rejecting a device.
One of the main impediments to nonsurgical BCI research is that surgically implanted devices are currently more effective than nonsurgical devices. For example, noninvasive electrodes such as EEG provide less signal information than the more invasive BCI deep brain-recording electrodes. Still, there could be a way for noninvasive technology to close the effectiveness gap or at least to become sophisticated enough to serve the intended purpose without the need of surgery.
Top brain–computer interface projects
With profound implications for everything from improving mobility to entertainment, the advancement of BMI technology is a key goal for many public and private institutions. The drive to make BMI technology safe, effective, and desirable is already underway, with a number of exciting projects currently in the works.
Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) Program
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the government agency perhaps best known for its role in developing an early version of the Internet, launched its N3 program in 2018. A collaboration of six renowned research organizations, the N3 program is pursing a multifaceted approach to the development of wearable, nonsurgical BMI technologies.
Research and development efforts under the N3 program include the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory’s optical system intended to record from the brain and the Battelle Memorial Institute’s interface system intended to enable bidirectional communication to and from the brain.
Neuralink’s BMI research
Founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Neuralink Corporation is developing technology aimed at creating symbiosis between the human brain and artificial intelligence. Neuralink’s project involves the implantation of threadlike electrodes that can detect neural signals in the brain and may one day enable wearers to interact with computers just by thinking.
Paradromics’ brain-reading chip
Technology company Paradromics is also operating on the forefront of BMI technology. With funding from the US Department of Defense’s Neural Engineering System Design program, the company is developing its Neural Input–Output Bus, which will use thousands of microwires to read neural activity and perhaps someday help stroke victims regain the ability to speak.
Cyberkinetics’ work in cyberkinetics
One exciting application for BMI is the possibility to restore mobility or motor functions to people who have lost limbs or have been paralyzed. Cybernetics, a start-up with roots in Brown University’s Department of Neuroscience, has already made great strides in that arena. The company’s BrainGate system can “decode” the brain’s intent to move a limb, and early clinical research shows patients exerting intuitive control over prosthetics.
Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering’s work across neuroscience
The Wyss Center is a multi-disciplinary group working to develop devices and therapies for a broad range of unmet medical needs. They combine new approaches in neurobiology, neuroimaging and neurotechnology to reveal unique insights into the mechanisms underlying the dynamics of the brain and the treatment of disease. Current work is in areas such as epilepsy, stroke, Parkinson’s disease and dementia.
Expanding the potential of the human brain
BMI opens numerous frontiers for the treatment of countless impairments and disorders, from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder to motor impairments. Dozens of companies and research institutions have already developed impressive feats of BMI technology, and next-generation devices are poised to redefine the relationship between the brain and the body’s nervous system.
But before technology can realize the full potential of BMI technology, there are still many challenges to address. There’s much left to learn about brain functions and the nervous system; there are many design limitations to be overcome; and there are many ethical matters to debate. However, these challenges are solvable. IEEE invites everyone to read the latest version of “Future Neural Therapeutics: Technology Roadmap White Paper” and participate in the conversations and research efforts surrounding burgeoning BMI technologies.
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