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Prepare for Implant: The Potential Widespread Usage of Neural Implants

Written by Sara Santacruz ‘25

Edited by Samuel Lew ‘24

In the year 2016, a simple text is sent to a friend. It reads: “U just made history” [1]. The words on that screen were not typed out as a student might do on their way to class, they were instead sent by the neurons in the brain of Dennis Degray. Though he is paralyzed from the neck down, Degray is famous for his world-record typing speed - a feat accomplished with the support of the BrainGate team.


As of July 2022, only about 34 people have brain implants, assisting those suffering from loss of vision, hearing, and physical and mental function [2]. As a participant in the Stanford University BrainGate program, Degray underwent open-brain surgery to have pill-sized silicone probes inserted into his head. As DeGray thinks about lifting his arm and grabbing an object, the probes monitor neuron communication which sends the subsequent neuron signals to a computer that translates the imagined action into reality with the help of robotic limbs [3]. The amount of good the implant has done for Degray and others like him has inspired many in the field of neuro-engineering for not only medical purposes but also an entertainment tool for well-known entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk of Neuralink and Mark Zuckerberg of Meta to invest in.


While such implants have proved their usefulness for their owners, the technology is still developing and not without flaws. Degray underwent open brain surgery in order to have his implant, but this does not necessarily mean the device will serve him perfectly forever. The brain has its own response to a foreign object being directly inserted against it, which comes in the form of scar tissue [1]. Over time, this scar tissue will cause a build-up of damage on the electrons that allow the implant to read Degray’s neuron communication, which weakens the probe’s ability to pick up any signals [1]. Not only does the device’s ability to function pose a chance of being compromised, but so does the actual brain itself. Despite the small size of the device, biomedical engineer Max Hodak puts it best when he states “There's no free space in the brain. If you attempt to place anything inside the brain, no matter how small or flexible it is, you’re going to cause bleeding and damage. In some cases, this isn't a problem and it’s easy to clinically justify, but it will at least limit scaling and upgradability” [2]. In other words, while brain implants have shown their capability to change a person’s life for the better, it is important to acknowledge they also pose a very real risk of harming their user rather than helping.


Despite these serious negative repercussions that currently exist with neural implant insertion, the neuro-technology field continues to blossom with increased research and development for the amazing medical benefits the implants may provide. However, not all neural implant companies are solely focused on creating medical devices. There are some, such as Meta and Neuralink, which have additional long-term goals of producing a neural implant accessible to anyone in the world. Stanford neuroscientist Krishna Shenoy not only works for the Braingate team that produced Degray’s implant but is also a paid consultant for Neuralink [3]. When Neuralink was first established by Elon Musk in 2016, its head stated that the company’s goal was to “establish a high-throughput connection to human brains so that society could keep pace with artificial intelligence” [3]. That same year, Mark Zuckerberg of Meta announced their own version of a neural implant device in the form of a ‘non-invasive’ helmet meant to similarly read firing neurons and translate them into social media posts [3]. At this stage brain implants for the general public have been put on the back burner, with Meta dropping their idea entirely as the technology has not developed enough to make it feasible anytime soon. However, it remains a long-term goal for both companies.


Shenoy, who opposes non-medical implants being available to the public, faces what he calls a “paradox” [3] while working for both Neuralink and Braingate. While both groups are primarily concerned with producing medical devices within the near future, Neuralink hopes to use the successful batches as blueprints for products that can be used by anyone. What this presents to Shenoy are ethical dilemmas of economic inequality or what it truly means to have your brain connected to apps such as Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter [3]. For now, his work at Neuralink is just as fruitful as his work at Braingate for those with life-altering ailments as both companies strive to make a reliable device to bring back motor function and independence to those who have lost it.


While no noted physical damage has been caused to any patients with neural implants as a result of the device yet, there are some people who already face the impending risk of having a non-functional device stuck in their body. One such example includes Markus Möllmann-Bohle, who has a nerve-reading device implanted in his cheek [4]. The small implant helps him in a way similar to Degray. Though his motor function has not been compromised, the device assists him by removing chronic cluster headaches that sometimes last for hours each day [4]. Unfortunately, Möllmann-Bohle has been facing a countdown to the return of the pain since ATI, the company that produced the implant, officially shut down in 2019 after discovering their products were underperforming [4]. Although the market for neurotechnology has been predicted to expand 75% by 2026 [4], the number of neurotechnology companies dropping out or abandoning their products in a manner not dissimilar to Meta may also expand. While Meta dropped out before producing any tech, the determined Neuralink has made progress with monkeys playing Pong with their mind [3], and has the potential to create a product. Musk, however, has made incredibly bold claims about the functions of his device, including allowing paralyzed patients the ability to walk again, restoring sight to people who were born blind, or allowing anyone to save and replay their memories at any time [5]. It is hard to truly picture these claims coming to fruition, and their underperformance poses the same risk seen with Möllmann-Bohle’s implant.


While more recently, companies such as Meta and Neuralink are straying away from introducing their products to the general public this early, it seems to remain on the agenda as a long-term goal. Neural implants do have evidence solidifying their benefits for those who are paralyzed or otherwise dealing with the loss of mobility, but there appears to be no case for the benefits a neural implant brings to the average person. It is hard to present a strong argument in support of the importance and necessity of implants that allow you to post a Facebook status through your thoughts, especially when owning one includes an invasive and risky procedure that would be difficult to reverse. In fact, cases such as Möllmann-Bohle’s seem to support an argument against neural implants as entertainment tools. While implants have the potential to be life-changing for their users, they are incredibly complex devices that present serious complications should their companies fail or lose their funding, which are very real possibilities for any neural implant group. The research, funding, and overall focus of neural implant technology are most beneficial when they are dedicated to cases where the device serves a medical purpose rather than an entertainment purpose.

 

References

[1] Corbyn Z. Are brain implants the future of thinking? [Internet]. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media; 2019 [cited 2023Feb25]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/sep/22/brain-computer-interface-implants-neuralink-braingate-elon-musk

[2] Greengard S. Brain implants get real [Internet]. ACM. 2022 [cited 2023Feb25]. Available from: https://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2022/7/262069-brain-implants-get-real/fulltext

[3] Regalado A. Brain implants could be the next computer mouse [Internet]. MIT Technology Review. MIT Technology Review; 2021 [cited 2023Feb25]. Available from: https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/10/27/1036821/brain-computer-interface-implant-mouse/

[4] Drew L. Abandoned The human cost of neurotechnology failure [Internet]. Nature news. Nature Publishing Group; 2022 [cited 2023Feb25]. Available from: https://www.nature.com/immersive/d41586-022-03810-5/index.html

[5] Hamilton IA. The story of Neuralink: Elon Musk's AI brain-chip company where he had twins with a top executive [Internet]. Business Insider. Business Insider; 2022 [cited 2023Feb25]. Available from: https://www.businessinsider.com/neuralink-elon-musk-microchips-brains-ai-2021-2#elon-musk-also-says-that-in-the-long-term-neuralinks-chip-could-be-used-to-meld-human-consciousness-with-artificial-intelligence-though-experts-are-skeptical-of-this-15


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