Your Brain in 2050: Neural Implants and Robotic Limbs

Cathy Hutchinson suffered a brain-stem stroke that left her paralyzed and unable to speak. But 12 years later, a brain implant gave her the ability to move a robotic arm to pick up a bottle and drink from it, using her thoughts alone.

A video of Hutchinson using the robotic arm was shown at a talk here at the World Science Festival Thursday (May 29) entitled "Cells to Silicon: Your Brain in 2050," which explored the brain technology of the future. (You can watch webcasts of the festival talks on Live Science.)

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While scientists are a long way from being able to read people's innermost thoughts, brain-interface technology has advanced rapidly. Brain implants are becoming better at taking information from the brain by listening to the whispered conversations of neurons, and using it to control devices in the real world. Other implants can import information into the brain, to restore vision and other senses. [5 Crazy Technologies That Are Revolutionizing Biotech]

As the technology evolves, there may come a day when humans could have prosthetic bodies, or create a computer copy of their minds. These possibilities, however, raise questions about what it means to be human. Even so, first scientists must delve into understanding the brain for which much remains a mystery.

Downloading from the Brain

Hutchinson was using the BrainGate system, which was developed by researchers at Brown University, Stanford University, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Providence VA Medical Center.

In the BrainGate system, an M&M-size array of electrodes is implanted in the brain region that controls arm movements and records the tiny electrical signals from neurons so they can be amplified and decoded in order to control a robotic arm, said panelist John Donoghue, a neuroscientist at Brown University.

Simulating The Human Brain

The state-of-the-art prosthetics require a wire that plugs into the implant through a connector on the skull. Such a system is cumbersome, and may not function well for the patient's entire lifetime for a number of reasons, such as movement of the implant or scar tissue buildup.

What if there were a way to communicate with the brain wirelessly? That's a question panelist Michel Maharbiz, an electrical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, is exploring. He and his colleagues are developing microscopic sensors — known as neural dust — that could record the electrical signals from neurons. The neural dust system would use ultrasound to provide power and communication to the "dust" particles.

Such a system might allow scientists to record signals from thousands of neurons at once, painting a fuller picture of brain activity.