In our previous article in this series we promised to speak about the militarization of neuroprosthetics. But, as we investigated the technology further, we realized this would have been premature. There needed to be more background information provided before we ventured on the militarization aspects of this technology.
For most, the field of neuroprosthetics is largely a mystery. The most famous of these devices is the pacemaker, invented in 1950. This long time lapse has allowed it to seep into the minds of the public. But there are many other devices coming into the market that most are not aware of.
What is a cyborg? The moment that any manufactured part is implanted in the human body to aid or replace a biological part, this person effectively becomes a cyborg. The pacemaker is the common device that we might think of but also hearing aids are another example of a device that enhances some natural function. Since neuroprosthetics is becoming a vast field, we will limit ourselves to some of the most promising and spectacular advances in this area. Neural prosthetics like the cochlear implant and the pacemaker have reached a level of maturity that does not require dramatic improvement. They are already doing their jobs well. However, there are areas where some neural implatns are only at their most rudimentary levels of sophistication. It is these that we will cover.
Retinal Implants (The Artificial Retina Project)
|Artificial Retina Project|
This artificial retina is to treat two diseases - Macular Degeneration and Retinitis Pigmentosa. If you are unacquainted with these diseases we will include two videos to explain them. If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link: http://bit.ly/mhpeSJ.
Here is another video from CBS news, which shows the actual device being worn. It has recently received permission for use in Europe and is still in the review stage in the United States. Right now, it is being used by by ten people in America. This device uses 16 electrodes. The Argus III is expected to have 240 electrodes which will greatly increase the accuracy and vision.
There are some prototypes that have reached 1,000 channels. A typical Intel CPU chip has about 200 connections. We would need 1,000 connections, one for each channel. Power is limiting factor in the number of channels. When one goes beyond 1,000 channels, it exceeds 1 milliwatt and this could overheat the tissue surrounding the implanted device. But research intends to extend these channels up to 10,000 channels. The higher the channels the better the communication. The latest building materials used to construct these implants is Parylene, which was invented by Union Carbide in 1954.
In vivo IPO (Intra Ocular Pressure) Measurement Device
Dr. Tai's team at Caltech is creating a device which will be implantable inside the eye, which will be able to measure the pressure in the eye of Glaucoma patients in real time. Right now, according to Dr. Tai, there is no totally accurate method of measuring the precise pressure of the eye. Of course this device would also add the benefit of being able to dynamically measure the changes in the pressure of the eye (this research has been published in an article in the Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems, Aug2010, Vol. 19 Issue 4, p721-734, titled Wireless Intraocular Pressure Sensing Using Microfabricated Minimally Invasive Flexible-Coiled LC Sensor Implant).
Live Neural Network on-a -chip
Another device that Dr. Tai is working on is a neural network inside a chip which could be implanted to repair parts of the brain. This device would be presuppose that stem cell research would be have achieved success in using stem cells to rebuild all different kinds of specialized cells, including neurons. This research is still far from complete. This artificial cavity has six terminals. The idea would be to place embryonic cells inside this cavity which would physically and mechanically trap the cells inside but allow the axions or neurites to come out through each of the six openings in the device. His results were published in 2003 and would permit researchers to replace the conventional technique using "...planar arrays of extracellular metal electrodes on which neural cultures are grown." Why replace this method? Because this method allows the neurons to move about freely, thus making it very difficult at a later time, to locate the precise neuron to repeat an experiment. So, for now, these devices would be used for the study of neurons, but in the future, they might be used to rebuild parts of the brain.
Spinal Cord Implants
In this area there is promising research. As the neural implants become more sophisticated, their potential will exponentially increase. Professor Mark Dallamore with three Ph.D.s, one in Philosophy of Medicine, Neuroscience and Neurophysics. He has formed a company named Neuroscience of Nerve Regeneration. We will quote from his website to allow him to explain his treatment in his own words.
...his team have developed a chip implant for paralysed patients to pick up instructions from the brain and transmit them to below the damaged area of the spinal cord. The nervous system is divided into the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS). The CNS consists of the spinal cord and the brain and the PNS is the nerves and ganglia that transmit information between the CNS and the rest of the body. Its main function is to connect the CNS to the limbs and organs. Spinal cord injuries can block the transmission of impulses through the CNS, but the PNS will still function normally. So bypassing the CNS, will allow patients to respond to instructions from the PNS and act accordingly. Professor Mark Dallamore has long had an interest in the PNS - first demonstrating successful nerve regeneration via the PNS in 2003. In 2007, he started to build a team to develop his research by building a chip implant system to treat paraplegia. He founded Neuroscience for Nerve Regeneration International to implement this development and research further medical advances.This is a totally new procedure. He will perform the first procedure in the last quarter of 2011 at the Nawaloka Hospital, Colombo, Sri Lanka where he is a neuroscientist.
To see a lecture on the next generation of neural implants by Dr. Yu-Chong Tai, director, Caltech Micro Machining Laboratory in the California Institute of Technology, presented in October 2010.. If you cannot see the embedded video here is the link: http://youtu.be/wcWfJvn7Sro.
Another lecture in this emerging field of Neuroprosthetics by Dr. Eric C. Leuthardt, from the University of Washington, will further explain what breakthroughs are happening in this area. Although this lecture and the one before it are lengthy, they do provide invaluable information for those who really wish to know the current state of this technology - its promises and its limitations. If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link: http://youtu.be/mFWnTONOvVo.
We include the last portion of the PBS series Secrets Of The Brain. If cannot see the embedded video, here is the link: http://bit.ly/kbvIbs.
In our next installment, we will cover how these neural implants are being militarized.