Imagine being able to play a song on your computer just by thinking of its title. Or transmitting your thoughts to a friend over the internet without uttering a word. Scientists have now invented a ‘sewing machine’ capable of stitching electrodes into the brain, which may one day help to make such things a reality.
Brain-computer interfaces are a mainstay of science fiction. In recent years, rudimentary forms of this technology have been used to help paralysed people move prosthetic limbs. However, the technology is yet to make the jump across to everyday use.
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Our brains contain some 86 billion nerve cells (‘neurons’), and a sophisticated brain computer would need to read the electrical signals of individual cells – requiring millions or even billions of electrodes. Current devices are just too unwieldy and inaccurate to make this possible, and inserting them can cause damage and inflammation in the brain.
The new ‘sewing machine’ device, created by a team of scientists at the University of California, is capable of rapidly, precisely implanting polymer electrodes. It automatically positions itself over the desired brain region and inserts the thin, flexible electrodes one by one using a fine needle. Once each electrode is implanted, the needle is retracted and moved to the next insertion site. It’s capable of inserting an electrode every few seconds.
So far, the team has demonstrated the technology in rats by removing a piece of the skull to expose the brain and then implanting electrode arrays in a region known to receive all of the sensory input from the body called the ‘somatosensory cortex’. The researchers were able to record the brain activity in four of these rodents.
The research, revealed in an as yet unpublished academic paper, appears to have connections to Neuralink – a secretive neurotechnology company that was co-founded by SpaceX and Tesla billionaire Elon Musk in 2016.
It’s likely to be a while before this technology is scaled up to testing in humans: the device is reported to have caused some tissue damage in the rats. But it could represent a step towards a world where our brains have a direct link to our gadgets.