This Breakthrough Will Launch A New World of Neural Implants
Every year, Elon Musk seems to grab the headlines by offering us a technology that’s lifted straight from science fiction. In 2020, he made one of his most eye-catching promises yet: a high-tech brain implant called Neuralink.
The jury is still out on Musk’s attempt to enter the world of bioimplants and neuroprosthetics. One of the many objections to Neuralink is the issue of power. Neuralink would run on an external battery located behind the ear, which could lead to a potential issue with overheating.
We understand these problems because bioelectronics is an established field. Neurostimulators have been authorized for medical use since 1997, with successful applications for conditions like Parkinson’s.
But still, that pesky problem remains – how to charge a bioimplant without overheating. And one research team may have made a breakthrough.
Magnetoelectric neurostimulation: reliable power, straight to your brain
Around the time Elon Musk was trending on Twitter, the neuroengineering team at Rice University was publishing a paper called “Magnetoelectric Materials for Miniature, Wireless Neural Stimulation at Therapeutic Frequencies“, which contained details of their exciting findings.
According to the paper, there are problems with all of the current solutions used in wirelessly charging implanted devices. For example, electromagnetic energy is absorbed by the body, while ultrasound waves are disrupted by impedance mismatches.
Their solution is magnetic energy, which is lossless when it passes through the body. The team has developed a thin magnetoelectric conductive material, which they use to coat a neurostimulator that’s roughly the size of a grain of rice. This device can be implanted anywhere – the research team tested it by implanting it subdermally on some rats.
The results show that their approach generates enough energy to deliver Deep Brain Stimulation, a technique that is used to treat Parkinson’s disease and other chronic illnesses. The hope is that these devices can now be used for more common conditions, such as depression, addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
What can you do with bioimplants?
Power is not the only issue in neuroengineering. There are other things to consider, such as the fundamental differences between electronic hardware and the human brain. According to biomedical expert Christopher Bettinger, “Your cellphone and your computer, for example, use electrons and pass them back and forth as the fundamental unit of information. Neurons, though, use ions like sodium and potassium. This matters because, to make a simple analogy, that means you need to translate the language.”
There’s also the very real danger of implanting a hard plastic device in soft organic tissue. A small device implanted in the brain could cause serious damage if it were to move even a millimeter or so.
But there’s also the ongoing issue of power. Even with a long-life battery, it’s impractical to implant a device that may only work for a few years. The holy grail of bioengineering is a reliable self-powering device, such as the one being developed at Rice University.
When these issues are addressed, the sky is the limit for bio-hacking. A report by McKinsey outlines some of the most exciting applications of implants.
Spinal damage repair
Spinal damage can result in electrical signals going missing between the brain and the lower part of the body. Doctors are already using treatments that involve external electrical stimulation, and this can help some patients perform functions that they had lost, including walking distances up to one kilometer. With the right technology, doctors could look at moving these devices closer to the spine.
Parkinson’s disease treatment
Parkinson’s disease is one of the main areas of focus in Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) research. The condition arises when there’s a deterioration in the neurons that produce dopamine. A brain implant can help to send these signals and control dopamine release, which would help to improve cognitive function. DBS is a clinically approved treatment for Parkinson’s.
Cardiovascular illness monitoring
One-quarter of patients who get a stent will experience renewed narrowing of arteries. A potential therapy for this is the smart stent, an IoT stent that monitors your blood flow from inside your veins. The device is implanted with a minor surgery and functions as a regular stent. But a smart stent also contains sensors and antennas, so doctors can retrieve information and monitor patients for potential cardiac issues.
Our retinal photosensors can degenerate over time, or due to conditions like retinitis pigmentosa. There are several implants that can help patients to recover their vision, at least to a partial degree, with some users regaining the ability to read. Longevity is one of the biggest issues with this kind of implant – with a sustainable source of power, patients might no longer need to have their implants replaced.
Digital pain management
Around 1 in 5 people suffer chronic pain, which can impact their lifestyle, derail their career, and lead to dangerous painkiller addictions. One way of relieving pain is neuromodulation – blocking or disrupting the pain signal before it reaches the brain. Smart implants can help users to control the level of stimulation to their nervous system, allowing them to control pain without using drugs.
Relieving Crohn’s Disease
Crohn’s Disease is a painful gastrointestinal condition that can affect the rest of the body. Doctors have had some success in treating this condition by stimulating the vagus nerve, which connects to many of the major internal organs. This treatment is already being tested with bioimplants, some of which are currently under FDA consideration.
Targeted mental health treatments
Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is one of the more controversial psychiatric options, and it is often reserved for the most severe cases. Neurostimulation works on the same principles as ECT, but works in a gentler and far more targeted way. Techniques like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) have been demonstrated to help with mood disorders, with no known side effects.
These are some examples of ways in which bioimplants can have a meaningful effect on people’s lives. Many of these therapies are already on the market, or are at the testing stage.
However, the biggest issue is longevity. If you have an implant, you’ll probably want to keep it for the rest of your life. You don’t want to get surgery every five years so they can change the battery. This is why Rice University’s magnetoelectric approach is so exciting.
The future of neuroprosthetics
Elon Musk looks likely to dominate the public conversation about neuroimplants and neuroprosthetics for some time. The conversation about Neuralink has included some wild claims, such as the ability to instantly learn new skills, as in The Matrix.
However, if the device is approved, the immediate applications look like they’ll be more focused on addressing medical issues. Early animal tests showed that mammals, including rats and apes, could control electronic devices using the implant. The hope is that quadriplegic people could use Neuralink to operate a smartphone or laptop.
Other companies are also rushing into this space. There has been some buzz about the work of iota Biosciences, a company that is working towards the smallest possible implants. Their platform is called Neural Dust, with devices no bigger than a grain of sand. These devices can stimulate nerves, gather data, or interact with other devices in the body. Neural Dust recharges using ultrasound, which is less effective than magnetoelectricity.
A company called Synchron has built a product that functions like Neuralink, but with a radically different approach. While Musk’s implant is connected directly to the brain, the Stentrode is a stent that sits within a vein. The insertion process is minimally invasive – a surgeon inserts the Stentrode directly into the jugular, and it travels to the primary motor cortex.
The Stentrode is not directly connected to the brain, so there’s less concern about neurological damage. However, it is close enough to the brain to detect electrical activity. As a result, users can use this device to control devices using only their thoughts. The first trial of Stentrode allowed two patients with ALS to email, text, and browse the internet.
Will there ever be a market for consumer neural implants? It’s hard to say. There’s no evidence yet that consumers would like to control their iPhone with thought alone, rather than with, say, their hands.
The other use case for neuroprosthetics is recording brain data. For this, there seem to be some viable non-invasive alternatives. EMOTIV is a headset that captures brain activity on the fly, which can then be used for recording and research. The EMOTIV device can also control certain devices – all without surgery.
So, for now, the main applications seem to be medical. However, as we’ve seen, this is an important and evolving market. Much of the technology has been around for some time, and has been waiting for a reliable source of power. If the researchers at Rice have found a solution, then we may be about to enter a new era of treatments.