Uploading to the Brain
While scientists are investigating how to make it possible for neurons to speak to the robotic limbs in the outside world, other scientists are working in the opposite direction, developing biomedical implants that can take the outside information — which people would normally sense through their eyes and ears — and bring it into the brain. [Bionic Humans: Top 10 Technologies]
Although they're still far from making futuristic cyborgs with enhanced vision and hearing, scientists have made great progress in developing these so-called neuroprosthetics, which include cochlear implants to restore hearing in deaf people and bionic eyes to reconstruct vision for the blind.
Sheila Nirenberg, another researcher on the panel and a professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, is working on developing artificial retinas to treat blindness in people with retinal damage. The goal is to make a chip that not only transfers outside information to the brain, but does so with the high-definition quality of real retinas.
When light enters the eyes and hits the photoreceptor cells on the retina, the information it carries is converted by these cells into electrical impulses that are then carried to the brain. But each image has a pattern, and as such, the electrical impulses from the retina are in the form of patterns or codes.
Having deciphered the neural codes of the retinal cells, researchers have been able to make a tiny chip that produces and sends to the brain the same electrical pattern that the retina would, while bypassing damaged retinal cells, Nirenberg said. Their approach has been successful in mice, and the researchers are testing the technique on primates before it's used in people.
Closing in on the brain
In the future, there could be a day when the brain could control an entirely robotic body, or perceive the world through artificial senses. It's less likely, however, that scientists could ever faithfully reconstruct the brain in a computer, said panelist Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist and science writer at NYU. But if they could, it might not be "you" anymore, Marcus said.
The technology of today, no matter how impressive, is still far from uncovering the mysteries of the brain, the panelists said. Scientists may be able to zero in on one single neuron, and interpret the activity of a large ensemble of neurons, but they still don't know much about what happens in the middle, between the firings of one neuron and the symphony of the brain that makes up humans' conscious experience.
"That middle ground is the great new adventure for brain sciences in the next 50 years," Donoghue said.
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