Category Archives: human enhancement

Neural (brain) implants and hype (long read)

There was a big splash a few weeks ago when it was announced that Neuralink’s (Elon Musk company) brain implant had been surgically inserted into its first human patient.

Getting approval

David Tuffley, senior lecturer in Applied Ethics & CyberSecurity at Griffith University (Australia), provides a good overview of the road Neuralink took to getting FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) approval for human clinical trials in his May 29, 2023 essay for The Conversation, Note: Links have been removed,

Since its founding in 2016, Elon Musk’s neurotechnology company Neuralink has had the ambitious mission to build a next-generation brain implant with at least 100 times more brain connections than devices currently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The company has now reached a significant milestone, having received FDA approval to begin human trials. So what were the issues keeping the technology in the pre-clinical trial phase for as long as it was? And have these concerns been addressed?

Neuralink is making a Class III medical device known as a brain-computer interface (BCI). The device connects the brain to an external computer via a Bluetooth signal, enabling continuous communication back and forth.

The device itself is a coin-sized unit called a Link. It’s implanted within a small disk-shaped cutout in the skull using a precision surgical robot. The robot splices a thousand tiny threads from the Link to certain neurons in the brain. [emphasis mine] Each thread is about a quarter the diameter of a human hair.

The company says the device could enable precise control of prosthetic limbs, giving amputees natural motor skills. It could revolutionise treatment for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and spinal cord injuries. It also shows some promise for potential treatment of obesity, autism, depression, schizophrenia and tinnitus.

Several other neurotechnology companies and researchers have already developed BCI technologies that have helped people with limited mobility regain movement and complete daily tasks.

In February 2021, Musk said Neuralink was working with the FDA to secure permission to start initial human trials later that year. But human trials didn’t commence in 2021.

Then, in March 2022, Neuralink made a further application to the FDA to establish its readiness to begin humans trials.

One year and three months later, on May 25 2023, Neuralink finally received FDA approval for its first human clinical trial. Given how hard Neuralink has pushed for permission to begin, we can assume it will begin very soon. [emphasis mine]

The approval has come less than six months after the US Office of the Inspector General launched an investigation into Neuralink over potential animal welfare violations. [emphasis mine]

In accessible language, Tuffley goes on to discuss the FDA’s specific technical issues with implants and how they were addressed in his May 29, 2023 essay.

More about how Neuralink’s implant works and some concerns

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) journalist Andrew Chang offers an almost 13 minute video, “Neuralink brain chip’s first human patient. How does it work?” Chang is a little overenthused for my taste but he offers some good information about neural implants, along with informative graphics in his presentation.

So, Tuffley was right about Neuralink getting ready quickly for human clinical trials as you can guess from the title of Chang’s CBC video.

Jennifer Korn announced that recruitment had started in her September 20, 2023 article for CNN (Cable News Network), Note: Links have been removed,

Elon Musk’s controversial biotechnology startup Neuralink opened up recruitment for its first human clinical trial Tuesday, according to a company blog.

After receiving approval from an independent review board, Neuralink is set to begin offering brain implants to paralysis patients as part of the PRIME Study, the company said. PRIME, short for Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface, is being carried out to evaluate both the safety and functionality of the implant.

Trial patients will have a chip surgically placed in the part of the brain that controls the intention to move. The chip, installed by a robot, will then record and send brain signals to an app, with the initial goal being “to grant people the ability to control a computer cursor or keyboard using their thoughts alone,” the company wrote.

Those with quadriplegia [sometimes known as tetraplegia] due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) may qualify for the six-year-long study – 18 months of at-home and clinic visits followed by follow-up visits over five years. Interested people can sign up in the patient registry on Neuralink’s website.

Musk has been working on Neuralink’s goal of using implants to connect the human brain to a computer for five years, but the company so far has only tested on animals. The company also faced scrutiny after a monkey died in project testing in 2022 as part of efforts to get the animal to play Pong, one of the first video games.

I mentioned three Reuters investigative journalists who were reporting on Neuralink’s animal abuse allegations (emphasized in Tuffley’s essay) in a July 7, 2023 posting, “Global dialogue on the ethics of neurotechnology on July 13, 2023 led by UNESCO.” Later that year, Neuralink was cleared by the US Department of Agriculture (see September 24,, 2023 article by Mahnoor Jehangir for BNN Breaking).

Plus, Neuralink was being investigated over more allegations according to a February 9, 2023 article by Rachel Levy for Reuters, this time regarding hazardous pathogens,

The U.S. Department of Transportation said on Thursday it is investigating Elon Musk’s brain-implant company Neuralink over the potentially illegal movement of hazardous pathogens.

A Department of Transportation spokesperson told Reuters about the probe after the Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine (PCRM), an animal-welfare advocacy group,wrote to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, opens new tab earlier on Thursday to alert it of records it obtained on the matter.

PCRM said it obtained emails and other documents that suggest unsafe packaging and movement of implants removed from the brains of monkeys. These implants may have carried infectious diseases in violation of federal law, PCRM said.

There’s an update about the hazardous materials in the next section. Spoiler alert, the company got fined.

Neuralink’s first human implant

A January 30, 2024 article (Associated Press with files from Reuters) on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) online news webspace heralded the latest about Neurlink’s human clinical trials,

The first human patient received an implant from Elon Musk’s computer-brain interface company Neuralink over the weekend, the billionaire says.

In a post Monday [January 29, 2024] on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Musk said that the patient received the implant the day prior and was “recovering well.” He added that “initial results show promising neuron spike detection.”

Spikes are activity by neurons, which the National Institutes of Health describe as cells that use electrical and chemical signals to send information around the brain and to the body.

The billionaire, who owns X and co-founded Neuralink, did not provide additional details about the patient.

When Neuralink announced in September [2023] that it would begin recruiting people, the company said it was searching for individuals with quadriplegia due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Neuralink reposted Musk’s Monday [January 29, 2024] post on X, but did not publish any additional statements acknowledging the human implant. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press or Reuters on Tuesday [January 30, 2024].

In a separate Monday [January 29, 2024] post on X, Musk said that the first Neuralink product is called “Telepathy” — which, he said, will enable users to control their phones or computers “just by thinking.” He said initial users would be those who have lost use of their limbs.

The startup’s PRIME Study is a trial for its wireless brain-computer interface to evaluate the safety of the implant and surgical robot.

Now for the hazardous materials, January 30, 2024 article, Note: A link has been removed,

Earlier this month [January 2024], a Reuters investigation found that Neuralink was fined for violating U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) rules regarding the movement of hazardous materials. During inspections of the company’s facilities in Texas and California in February 2023, DOT investigators found the company had failed to register itself as a transporter of hazardous material.

They also found improper packaging of hazardous waste, including the flammable liquid Xylene. Xylene can cause headaches, dizziness, confusion, loss of muscle co-ordination and even death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The records do not say why Neuralink would need to transport hazardous materials or whether any harm resulted from the violations.

Skeptical thoughts about Elon Musk and Neuralink

Earlier this month (February 2024), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) published an article by health reporters, Jim Reed and Joe McFadden, that highlights the history of brain implants, the possibilities, and notes some of Elon Musk’s more outrageous claims for Neuralink’s brain implants,

Elon Musk is no stranger to bold claims – from his plans to colonise Mars to his dreams of building transport links underneath our biggest cities. This week the world’s richest man said his Neuralink division had successfully implanted its first wireless brain chip into a human.

Is he right when he says this technology could – in the long term – save the human race itself?

Sticking electrodes into brain tissue is really nothing new.

In the 1960s and 70s electrical stimulation was used to trigger or suppress aggressive behaviour in cats. By the early 2000s monkeys were being trained to move a cursor around a computer screen using just their thoughts.

“It’s nothing novel, but implantable technology takes a long time to mature, and reach a stage where companies have all the pieces of the puzzle, and can really start to put them together,” says Anne Vanhoestenberghe, professor of active implantable medical devices, at King’s College London.

Neuralink is one of a growing number of companies and university departments attempting to refine and ultimately commercialise this technology. The focus, at least to start with, is on paralysis and the treatment of complex neurological conditions.

Reed and McFadden’s February 2024 BBC article describes a few of the other brain implant efforts, Note: Links have been removed,

One of its [Neuralink’s] main rivals, a start-up called Synchron backed by funding from investment firms controlled by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, has already implanted its stent-like device into 10 patients.

Back in December 2021, Philip O’Keefe, a 62-year old Australian who lives with a form of motor neurone disease, composed the first tweet using just his thoughts to control a cursor.

And researchers at Lausanne University in Switzerland have shown it is possible for a paralysed man to walk again by implanting multiple devices to bypass damage caused by a cycling accident.

In a research paper published this year, they demonstrated a signal could be beamed down from a device in his brain to a second device implanted at the base of his spine, which could then trigger his limbs to move.

Some people living with spinal injuries are sceptical about the sudden interest in this new kind of technology.

“These breakthroughs get announced time and time again and don’t seem to be getting any further along,” says Glyn Hayes, who was paralysed in a motorbike accident in 2017, and now runs public affairs for the Spinal Injuries Association.

If I could have anything back, it wouldn’t be the ability to walk. It would be putting more money into a way of removing nerve pain, for example, or ways to improve bowel, bladder and sexual function.” [emphasis mine]

Musk, however, is focused on something far more grand for Neuralink implants, from Reed and McFadden’s February 2024 BBC article, Note: A link has been removed,

But for Elon Musk, “solving” brain and spinal injuries is just the first step for Neuralink.

The longer-term goal is “human/AI symbiosis” [emphasis mine], something he describes as “species-level important”.

Musk himself has already talked about a future where his device could allow people to communicate with a phone or computer “faster than a speed typist or auctioneer”.

In the past, he has even said saving and replaying memories may be possible, although he recognised “this is sounding increasingly like a Black Mirror episode.”

One of the experts quoted in Reed and McFadden’s February 2024 BBC article asks a pointed question,

… “At the moment, I’m struggling to see an application that a consumer would benefit from, where they would take the risk of invasive surgery,” says Prof Vanhoestenberghe.

“You’ve got to ask yourself, would you risk brain surgery just to be able to order a pizza on your phone?”

Rae Hodge’s February 11, 2024 article about Elon Musk and his hyped up Neuralink implant for Salon is worth reading in its entirety but for those who don’t have the time or need a little persuading, here are a few excerpts, Note 1: This is a warning; Hodge provides more detail about the animal cruelty allegations; Note 2: Links have been removed,

Elon Musk’s controversial brain-computer interface (BCI) tech, Neuralink, has supposedly been implanted in its first recipient — and as much as I want to see progress for treatment of paralysis and neurodegenerative disease, I’m not celebrating. I bet the neuroscientists he reportedly drove out of the company aren’t either, especially not after seeing the gruesome torture of test monkeys and apparent cover-up that paved the way for this moment. 

All of which is an ethics horror show on its own. But the timing of Musk’s overhyped implant announcement gives it an additional insulting subtext. Football players are currently in a battle for their lives against concussion-based brain diseases that plague autopsy reports of former NFL players. And Musk’s boast of false hope came just two weeks before living players take the field in the biggest and most brutal game of the year. [2024 Super Bowl LVIII]

ESPN’s Kevin Seifert reports neuro-damage is up this year as “players suffered a total of 52 concussions from the start of training camp to the beginning of the regular season. The combined total of 213 preseason and regular season concussions was 14% higher than 2021 but within range of the three-year average from 2018 to 2020 (203).”

I’m a big fan of body-tech: pacemakers, 3D-printed hips and prosthetic limbs that allow you to wear your wedding ring again after 17 years. Same for brain chips. But BCI is the slow-moving front of body-tech development for good reason. The brain is too understudied. Consequences of the wrong move are dire. Overpromising marketable results on profit-driven timelines — on the backs of such a small community of researchers in a relatively new field — would be either idiotic or fiendish. 

Brown University’s research in the sector goes back to the 1990s. Since the emergence of a floodgate-opening 2002 study and the first implant in 2004 by med-tech company BrainGate, more promising results have inspired broader investment into careful research. But BrainGate’s clinical trials started back in 2009, and as noted by Business Insider’s Hilary Brueck, are expected to continue until 2038 — with only 15 participants who have devices installed. 

Anne Vanhoestenberghe is a professor of active implantable medical devices at King’s College London. In a recent release, she cautioned against the kind of hype peddled by Musk.

“Whilst there are a few other companies already using their devices in humans and the neuroscience community have made remarkable achievements with those devices, the potential benefits are still significantly limited by technology,” she said. “Developing and validating core technology for long term use in humans takes time and we need more investments to ensure we do the work that will underpin the next generation of BCIs.” 

Neuralink is a metal coin in your head that connects to something as flimsy as an app. And we’ve seen how Elon treats those. We’ve also seen corporate goons steal a veteran’s prosthetic legs — and companies turn brain surgeons and dentists into repo-men by having them yank anti-epilepsy chips out of people’s skulls, and dentures out of their mouths. 

“I think we have a chance with Neuralink to restore full-body functionality to someone who has a spinal cord injury,” Musk said at a 2023 tech summit, adding that the chip could possibly “make up for whatever lost capacity somebody has.”

Maybe BCI can. But only in the careful hands of scientists who don’t have Musk squawking “go faster!” over their shoulders. His greedy frustration with the speed of BCI science is telling, as is the animal cruelty it reportedly prompted.

There have been other examples of Musk’s grandiosity. Notably, David Lee expressed skepticism about hyperloop in his August 13, 2013 article for BBC news online

Is Elon Musk’s Hyperloop just a pipe dream?

Much like the pun in the headline, the bright idea of transporting people using some kind of vacuum-like tube is neither new nor imaginative.

There was Robert Goddard, considered the “father of modern rocket propulsion”, who claimed in 1909 that his vacuum system could suck passengers from Boston to New York at 1,200mph.

And then there were Soviet plans for an amphibious monorail  – mooted in 1934  – in which two long pods would start their journey attached to a metal track before flying off the end and slipping into the water like a two-fingered Kit Kat dropped into some tea.

So ever since inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk hit the world’s media with his plans for the Hyperloop, a healthy dose of scepticism has been in the air.

“This is by no means a new idea,” says Rod Muttram, formerly of Bombardier Transportation and Railtrack.

“It has been previously suggested as a possible transatlantic transport system. The only novel feature I see is the proposal to put the tubes above existing roads.”

Here’s the latest I’ve found on hyperloop, from the Hyperloop Wikipedia entry,

As of 2024, some companies continued to pursue technology development under the hyperloop moniker, however, one of the biggest, well funded players, Hyperloop One, declared bankruptcy and ceased operations in 2023.[15]

Musk is impatient and impulsive as noted in a September 12, 2023 posting by Mike Masnick on Techdirt, Note: A link has been removed,

The Batshit Crazy Story Of The Day Elon Musk Decided To Personally Rip Servers Out Of A Sacramento Data Center

Back on Christmas Eve [December 24, 2022] of last year there were some reports that Elon Musk was in the process of shutting down Twitter’s Sacramento data center. In that article, a number of ex-Twitter employees were quoted about how much work it would be to do that cleanly, noting that there’s a ton of stuff hardcoded in Twitter code referring to that data center (hold that thought).

That same day, Elon tweeted out that he had “disconnected one of the more sensitive server racks.”

Masnick follows with a story of reckless behaviour from someone who should have known better.

Ethics of implants—where to look for more information

While Musk doesn’t use the term when he describes a “human/AI symbiosis” (presumably by way of a neural implant), he’s talking about a cyborg. Here’s a 2018 paper, which looks at some of the implications,

Do you want to be a cyborg? The moderating effect of ethics on neural implant acceptance by Eva Reinares-Lara, Cristina Olarte-Pascual, and Jorge Pelegrín-Borondo. Computers in Human Behavior Volume 85, August 2018, Pages 43-53 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2018.03.032

This paper is open access.

Getting back to Neuralink, I have two blog posts that discuss the company and the ethics of brain implants from way back in 2021.

First, there’s Jazzy Benes’ March 1, 2021 posting on the Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics blog. It stands out as it includes a discussion of the disabled community’s issues, Note: Links have been removed,

In the heart of Silicon Valley we are constantly enticed by the newest technological advances. With the big influencers Grimes [a Canadian musician and the mother of three children with Elon Musk] and Lil Uzi Vert publicly announcing their willingness to become experimental subjects for Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain implantation device, we are left wondering if future technology will actually give us “the knowledge of the Gods.” Is it part of the natural order for humans to become omniscient beings? Who will have access to the devices? What other ethical considerations must be discussed before releasing such technology to the public?

A significant issue that arises from developing technologies for the disabled community is the assumption that disabled persons desire the abilities of what some abled individuals may define as “normal.” Individuals with disabilities may object to technologies intended to make them fit an able-bodied norm. “Normal” is relative to each individual, and it could be potentially harmful to use a deficit view of disability, which means judging a disability as a deficiency. However, this is not to say that all disabled individuals will reject a technology that may enhance their abilities. Instead, I believe it is a consideration that must be recognized when developing technologies for the disabled community, and it can only be addressed through communication with disabled persons. As a result, I believe this is a conversation that must be had with the community for whom the technology is developed–disabled persons.

With technologies that aim to address disabilities, we walk a fine line between therapeutics and enhancement. Though not the first neural implant medical device, the Link may have been the first BCI system openly discussed for its potential transhumanism uses, such as “enhanced cognitive abilities, memory storage and retrieval, gaming, telepathy, and even symbiosis with machines.” …

Benes also discusses transhumanism, privacy issues, and consent issues. It’s a thoughtful reading experience.

Second is a July 9, 2021 posting by anonymous on the University of California at Berkeley School of Information blog which provides more insight into privacy and other issues associated with data collection (and introduced me to the concept of decisional interference),

As the development of microchips furthers and advances in neuroscience occur, the possibility for seamless brain-machine interfaces, where a device decodes inputs from the user’s brain to perform functions, becomes more of a reality. These various forms of these technologies already exist. However, technological advances have made implantable and portable devices possible. Imagine a future where humans don’t need to talk to each other, but rather can transmit their thoughts directly to another person. This idea is the eventual goal of Elon Musk, the founder of Neuralink. Currently, Neuralink is one of the main companies involved in the advancement of this type of technology. Analysis of the Neuralink’s technology and their overall mission statement provide an interesting insight into the future of this type of human-computer interface and the potential privacy and ethical concerns with this technology.

As this technology further develops, several privacy and ethical concerns come into question. To begin, using Solove’s Taxonomy as a privacy framework, many areas of potential harm are revealed. In the realm of information collection, there is much risk. Brain-computer interfaces, depending on where they are implanted, could have access to people’s most private thoughts and emotions. This information would need to be transmitted to another device for processing. The collection of this information by companies such as advertisers would represent a major breach of privacy. Additionally, there is risk to the user from information processing. These devices must work concurrently with other devices and often wirelessly. Given the widespread importance of cloud computing in much of today’s technology, offloading information from these devices to the cloud would be likely. Having the data stored in a database puts the user at the risk of secondary use if proper privacy policies are not implemented. The trove of information stored within the information collected from the brain is vast. These datasets could be combined with existing databases such as browsing history on Google to provide third parties with unimaginable context on individuals. Lastly, there is risk for information dissemination, more specifically, exposure. The information collected and processed by these devices would need to be stored digitally. Keeping such private information, even if anonymized, would be a huge potential for harm, as the contents of the information may in itself be re-identifiable to a specific individual. Lastly there is risk for invasions such as decisional interference. Brain-machine interfaces would not only be able to read information in the brain but also write information. This would allow the device to make potential emotional changes in its users, which be a major example of decisional interference. …

For the most recent Neuralink and brain implant ethics piece, there’s this February 14, 2024 essay on The Conversation, which, unusually, for this publication was solicited by the editors, Note: Links have been removed,

In January 2024, Musk announced that Neuralink implanted its first chip in a human subject’s brain. The Conversation reached out to two scholars at the University of Washington School of Medicine – Nancy Jecker, a bioethicst, and Andrew Ko, a neurosurgeon who implants brain chip devices – for their thoughts on the ethics of this new horizon in neuroscience.

Information about the implant, however, is scarce, aside from a brochure aimed at recruiting trial subjects. Neuralink did not register at ClinicalTrials.gov, as is customary, and required by some academic journals. [all emphases mine]

Some scientists are troubled by this lack of transparency. Sharing information about clinical trials is important because it helps other investigators learn about areas related to their research and can improve patient care. Academic journals can also be biased toward positive results, preventing researchers from learning from unsuccessful experiments.

Fellows at the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank, have warned that Musk’s brand of “science by press release, while increasingly common, is not science. [emphases mine]” They advise against relying on someone with a huge financial stake in a research outcome to function as the sole source of information.

When scientific research is funded by government agencies or philanthropic groups, its aim is to promote the public good. Neuralink, on the other hand, embodies a private equity model [emphasis mine], which is becoming more common in science. Firms pooling funds from private investors to back science breakthroughs may strive to do good, but they also strive to maximize profits, which can conflict with patients’ best interests.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated animal cruelty at Neuralink, according to a Reuters report, after employees accused the company of rushing tests and botching procedures on test animals in a race for results. The agency’s inspection found no breaches, according to a letter from the USDA secretary to lawmakers, which Reuters reviewed. However, the secretary did note an “adverse surgical event” in 2019 that Neuralink had self-reported.

In a separate incident also reported by Reuters, the Department of Transportation fined Neuralink for violating rules about transporting hazardous materials, including a flammable liquid.

…the possibility that the device could be increasingly shown to be helpful for people with disabilities, but become unavailable due to loss of research funding. For patients whose access to a device is tied to a research study, the prospect of losing access after the study ends can be devastating. [emphasis mine] This raises thorny questions about whether it is ever ethical to provide early access to breakthrough medical interventions prior to their receiving full FDA approval.

Not registering a clinical trial would seem to suggest there won’t be much oversight. As for Musk’s “science by press release” activities, I hope those will be treated with more skepticism by mainstream media although that seems unlikely given the current situation with journalism (more about that in a future post).

As for the issues associated with private equity models for science research and the problem of losing access to devices after a clinical trial is ended, my April 5, 2022 posting, “Going blind when your neural implant company flirts with bankruptcy (long read)” offers some cautionary tales, in addition to being the most comprehensive piece I’ve published on ethics and brain implants.

My July 17, 2023 posting, “Unveiling the Neurotechnology Landscape: Scientific Advancements, Innovations and Major Trends—a UNESCO report” offers a brief overview of the international scene.

Communicating thoughts by means of brain implants?

The Australian military announced mind-controlled robots in Spring 2023 (see my June 13, 2023 posting) and, recently, scientists at Duke University (North Carolina, US) have announced research that may allow people who are unable to speak to communicate their thoughts, from a November 6, 2023 news item on ScienceDaily,

A speech prosthetic developed by a collaborative team of Duke neuroscientists, neurosurgeons, and engineers can translate a person’s brain signals into what they’re trying to say.

Appearing Nov. 6 [2023] in the journal Nature Communications, the new technology might one day help people unable to talk due to neurological disorders regain the ability to communicate through a brain-computer interface.

One more plastic brain for this blog,

Caption: A device no bigger than a postage stamp (dotted portion within white band) packs 128 microscopic sensors that can translate brain cell activity into what someone intends to say. Credit: Dan Vahaba/Duke University

A November 6, 2023 Duke University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail, Note: Links have been removed,

“There are many patients who suffer from debilitating motor disorders, like ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) or locked-in syndrome, that can impair their ability to speak,” said Gregory Cogan, Ph.D., a professor of neurology at Duke University’s School of Medicine and one of the lead researchers involved in the project. “But the current tools available to allow them to communicate are generally very slow and cumbersome.”

Imagine listening to an audiobook at half-speed. That’s the best speech decoding rate currently available, which clocks in at about 78 words per minute. People, however, speak around 150 words per minute.

The lag between spoken and decoded speech rates is partially due the relatively few brain activity sensors that can be fused onto a paper-thin piece of material that lays atop the surface of the brain. Fewer sensors provide less decipherable information to decode.

To improve on past limitations, Cogan teamed up with fellow Duke Institute for Brain Sciences faculty member Jonathan Viventi, Ph.D., whose biomedical engineering lab specializes in making high-density, ultra-thin, and flexible brain sensors.

For this project, Viventi and his team packed an impressive 256 microscopic brain sensors onto a postage stamp-sized piece of flexible, medical-grade plastic. Neurons just a grain of sand apart can have wildly different activity patterns when coordinating speech, so it’s necessary to distinguish signals from neighboring brain cells to help make accurate predictions about intended speech.

After fabricating the new implant, Cogan and Viventi teamed up with several Duke University Hospital neurosurgeons, including Derek Southwell, M.D., Ph.D., Nandan Lad, M.D., Ph.D., and Allan Friedman, M.D., who helped recruit four patients to test the implants. The experiment required the researchers to place the device temporarily in patients who were undergoing brain surgery for some other condition, such as  treating Parkinson’s disease or having a tumor removed. Time was limited for Cogan and his team to test drive their device in the OR.

“I like to compare it to a NASCAR pit crew,” Cogan said. “We don’t want to add any extra time to the operating procedure, so we had to be in and out within 15 minutes. As soon as the surgeon and the medical team said ‘Go!’ we rushed into action and the patient performed the task.”

The task was a simple listen-and-repeat activity. Participants heard a series of nonsense words, like “ava,” “kug,” or “vip,” and then spoke each one aloud. The device recorded activity from each patient’s speech motor cortex as it coordinated nearly 100 muscles that move the lips, tongue, jaw, and larynx.

Afterwards, Suseendrakumar Duraivel, the first author of the new report and a biomedical engineering graduate student at Duke, took the neural and speech data from the surgery suite and fed it into a machine learning algorithm to see how accurately it could predict what sound was being made, based only on the brain activity recordings.

For some sounds and participants, like /g/ in the word “gak,”  the decoder got it right 84% of the time when it was the first sound in a string of three that made up a given nonsense word.

Accuracy dropped, though, as the decoder parsed out sounds in the middle or at the end of a nonsense word. It also struggled if two sounds were similar, like /p/ and /b/.

Overall, the decoder was accurate 40% of the time. That may seem like a humble test score, but it was quite impressive given that similar brain-to-speech technical feats require hours or days-worth of data to draw from. The speech decoding algorithm Duraivel used, however, was working with only 90 seconds of spoken data from the 15-minute test.

Duraivel and his mentors are excited about making a cordless version of the device with a recent $2.4M grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“We’re now developing the same kind of recording devices, but without any wires,” Cogan said. “You’d be able to move around, and you wouldn’t have to be tied to an electrical outlet, which is really exciting.”

While their work is encouraging, there’s still a long way to go for Viventi and Cogan’s speech prosthetic to hit the shelves anytime soon.

“We’re at the point where it’s still much slower than natural speech,” Viventi said in a recent Duke Magazine piece about the technology, “but you can see the trajectory where you might be able to get there.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

High-resolution neural recordings improve the accuracy of speech decoding by Suseendrakumar Duraivel, Shervin Rahimpour, Chia-Han Chiang, Michael Trumpis, Charles Wang, Katrina Barth, Stephen C. Harward, Shivanand P. Lad, Allan H. Friedman, Derek G. Southwell, Saurabh R. Sinha, Jonathan Viventi & Gregory B. Cogan. Nature Communications volume 14, Article number: 6938 (2023) DO: Ihttps://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-023-42555-1 Published: 06 November 2023

This paper is open access.

“Injectable tissue prosthesis coupled with closed-loop bioelectronic system” for damaged muscle/nerve regeneration and robot-assisted rehabilitation

A fascinating new use for hyaluronic acid (usually discussed in relation to cosmetic wrinkle-reduction) has been found according to a November 1, 2023 news item on ScienceDaily.

In a recent publication in the journal Nature, researchers from the Institute of Basic Science (IBS) in South Korea have made significant strides in biomaterial technology and rehabilitation medicine. They’ve developed a novel approach to healing muscle injury by employing “injectable tissue prosthesis” in the form of conductive hydrogels and combining it with a robot-assisted rehabilitation system.

Let’s imagine you are swimming in the ocean. A giant shark approaches and bites a huge chunk of meat out of your thigh, resulting in a complete loss of motor/sensor function in your leg.

If left untreated, such severe muscle damage would result in permanent loss of function and disability.

How on Earth will you be able to recover from this kind of injury?

Traditional rehabilitation methods for these kinds of muscle injuries have long sought an efficient closed-loop gait rehabilitation system that merges lightweight exoskeletons and wearable/implantable devices.

Such assistive prosthetic system is required to aid the patients through the process of recovering sensory and motor functions linked to nerve and muscle damage.

Unfortunately, the mechanical properties and rigid nature of existing electronic materials render them incompatible with soft tissues.

This leads to friction and potential inflammation, stalling patient rehabilitation.

To overcome these limitations, the IBS researchers turned to a material commonly used as a wrinkle-smoothing filler, called hyaluronic acid.

A November 2, 2023 Institute of Basic Science (IBS) press release (also on EurekAlert but published November 1, 2023), which originated the news item, explains how hyaluronic acid helps in tissue rehabilitation and regeneration,

Using this substance [hyaluronic acid], an injectable hydrogel was developed for “tissue prostheses”, which can temporarily fill the gap of the missing muscle/nerve tissues while it regenerates. The injectable nature of this material gives it a significant advantage over traditional bioelectronic devices, which are unsuitable for narrow, deep, or small areas, and necessitate invasive surgeries.

Thanks to its highly “tissue-like” properties, this hydrogel seamlessly interfaces with biological tissues and can be easily administered to hard-to-reach body areas without surgery. The reversible and irreversible crosslinks within the hydrogel adapt to high shear stress during injection, ensuring excellent mechanical stability. This hydrogel also incorporates gold nanoparticles, which gives it decent electrical properties. Its conductive nature allows for the effective transmission of electrophysiological signals between the two ends of injured tissues. In addition, the hydrogel is biodegrdable, meaning that the patients do not need to get surgery again.

With mechanical properties akin to natural tissues, exceptional tissue adhesion, and injectable characteristics, researchers believe this material offers a novel approach to rehabilitation.

Next, the researchers put this novel idea to the test in rodent models. To simulate volumetric muscle loss injury, a large chunk of muscle has been removed from the hind legs of these animals. By injecting the hydrogel and implanting the two kinds of stretchable tissue-interfacing devices for electrical sensing and stimulation, the researchers were able to improve the gait in the “injured” rodents. The hydrogel prosthetics were combined with robot assistance, guided by muscle electromyography signals. Together, the two helped enhance the animal’s gait without nerve stimulation. Furthermore, muscle tissue regeneration was effectively improved over the long term after the conductive hydrogel was used to fill muscle damage.

The injectable conductive hydrogel developed in this study excels in electrophysiological signal recording and stimulation performance, offering the potential to expand its applications. It presents a fresh approach to the field of bioelectronic devices and holds promise as a soft tissue prosthesis for rehabilitation support.

Emphasizing the significance of the research, Professor SHIN Mikyung notes, “We’ve created an injectable, mechanically tough, and electrically conductive soft tissue prosthesis ideal for addressing severe muscle damage requiring neuromusculoskeletal rehabilitation. The development of this injectable hydrogel, utilizing a novel cross-linking method, is a notable achievement. We believe it will be applicable not only in muscles and peripheral nerves but also in various organs like the brain and heart.”

Professor SON Donghee added, “In this study, the closed-loop gait rehabilitation system entailing tough injectable hydrogel and stretchable and self-healing sensors could significantly enhance the rehabilitation prospects for patients with neurological and musculoskeletal challenges. It could also play a vital role in precise diagnosis and treatment across various organs in the human body.”

The research team is currently pursuing further studies to develop new materials for nerve and muscle tissue regeneration that can be implanted in a minimally invasive manner. They are also exploring the potential for recovery in various tissue damages through the injection of the conductive hydrogel, eliminating the need for open surgery.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Injectable tissue prosthesis for instantaneous closed-loop rehabilitation by Subin Jin, Heewon Choi, Duhwan Seong, Chang-Lim You, Jong-Sun Kang, Seunghyok Rho, Won Bo Lee, Donghee Son & Mikyung Shin. Nature volume 623, pages 58–65 (2023) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06628-x Published: 01 November 2023 Issue Date: 02 November 2023

This paper is behind a paywall.

Reversing lower limb paralysis

This regenerative treatment is at a very early stage, which means the Swiss researchers have tried it on mice as you can see in the following video (runtime: 2 mins. 15 secs.). Towards the end of the video, researcher Grégoire Courtine cautions there are many hurdles before this could be used in humans, if ever,

A September 22, 2023 Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) press release (also on EurekAlert but published September 21, 2023) by Emmanuel Barraud, describes the work in more detail,

When the spinal cords of mice and humans are partially damaged, the initial paralysis is followed by the extensive, spontaneous recovery of motor function. However, after a complete spinal cord injury, this natural repair of the spinal cord doesn’t occur and there is no recovery. Meaningful recovery after severe injuries requires strategies that promote the regeneration of nerve fibers, but the requisite conditions for these strategies to successfully restore motor function have remained elusive.

“Five years ago, we demonstrated that nerve fibers can be regenerated across anatomically complete spinal cord injuries,” says Mark Anderson, a senior author of the study. “But we also realized this wasn’t enough to restore motor function, as the new fibers failed to connect to the right places on the other side of the lesion.” Anderson is the director of Central Nervous System Regeneration at .NeuroRestore and a scientist at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering.

Working in tandem with peers at UCLA [University of California at Los Angeles] and Harvard Medical School, the scientists used state-of-the-art equipment at EPFL’s Campus Biotech facilities in Geneva to run in-depth analyses and identity which type of neuron is involved in natural spinal-cord repair after partial spinal cord injury. “Our observations using single-cell nuclear RNA sequencing not only exposed the specific axons that must regenerate, but also revealed that these axons must reconnect to their natural targets to restore motor function,” says Jordan Squair, the study’s first author. The team’s findings appear in the 22 September 2023 issue of Science.

Towards a combination of approaches

Their discovery informed the design of a multipronged gene therapy. The scientists activated growth programs in the identified neurons in mice to regenerate their nerve fibers, upregulated specific proteins to support the neurons’ growth through the lesion core, and administered guidance molecules to attract the regenerating nerve fibers to their natural targets below the injury. “We were inspired by nature when we designed a therapeutic strategy that replicates the spinal-cord repair mechanisms occurring spontaneously after partial injuries,” says Squair.

Mice with anatomically complete spinal cord injuries regained the ability to walk, exhibiting gait patterns that resembled those quantified in mice that resumed walking naturally after partial injuries. This observation revealed a previously unknown condition for regenerative therapies to be successful in restoring motor function after neurotrauma. “We expect that our gene therapy will act synergistically with our other procedures involving electrical stimulation of the spinal cord,” says Grégoire Courtine, a senior author of the study who also heads .NeuroRestore together with Jocelyne Bloch. “We believe a complete solution for treating spinal cord injury will require both approaches – gene therapy to regrow relevant nerve fibers, and spinal stimulation to maximize the ability of both these fibers and the spinal cord below the injury to produce movement.”

While many obstacles must still be overcome before this gene therapy can be applied in humans, the scientists have taken the first steps towards developing the technology necessary to achieve this feat in the years to come.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Recovery of walking after paralysis by regenerating characterized neurons to their natural target region by Jordan W. Squair, Marco Milano, Alexandra de Coucy, Matthieu Gautier, Michael A. Skinnider, Nicholas D. James, Newton Cho, Anna Lasne, Claudia Kathe,Thomas H. Hutson, Steven Ceto, Laetitia Baud, Katia Galan, Viviana Aureli, Achilleas Laskaratos, Quentin Barraud, Timothy J. Deming, Richie E. Kohman, Bernard L. Schneider, Zhigang He, Jocelyne Bloch, Michael V. Sofroniew, Gregoire Courtine, and Mark A. Anderson. Science 21 Sep 2023 Vol 381, Issue 6664 pp. 1338-1345 DOI: 10.1126/science.adi641

This paper is behind a paywall.

This March 25, 2015 posting, “Spinal cords, brains, implants, and remote control,” features some research from EPFL researchers whose names you might recognize from this posting’s research paper.

Mentioned in the press release, the Swiss research centre website for NeuroRestore is here.

XoMotion, an exoskeleton developed in Canada causes commotion

I first stumbled across these researchers in 2016 when their project was known as “Wearable Lower Limb Anthropomorphic Exoskeleton (WLLAE).” In my January 20, 2016 posting, “#BCTECH: being at the Summit (Jan. 18-19, 2016),” an event put on by the province of British Columbia (BC, Canada) and the BC Innovation Council (BCIC), I visited a number of booths and talks at the #BC TECH Summit and had this to say about WLLAE,

“The Wearable Lower Limb Anthropomorphic Exoskeleton (WLLAE) – a lightweight, battery-operated and ergonomic robotic system to help those with mobility issues improve their lives. The exoskeleton features joints and links that correspond to those of a human body and sync with motion. SFU has designed, manufactured and tested a proof-of-concept prototype and the current version can mimic all the motions of hip joints.” The researchers (Siamak Arzanpour and Edward Park) pointed out that the ability to mimic all the motions of the hip is a big difference between their system and others which only allow the leg to move forward or back. They rushed the last couple of months to get this system ready for the Summit. In fact, they received their patent for the system the night before (Jan. 17, 2016) the Summit opened.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any pictures of WLLAE yet and the proof-of-concept version may differ significantly from the final version. This system could be used to help people regain movement (paralysis/frail seniors) and I believe there’s a possibility it could be used to enhance human performance (soldiers/athletes). The researchers still have some significant hoops to jump before getting to the human clinical trial stage. They need to refine their apparatus, ensure that it can be safely operated, and further develop the interface between human and machine. I believe WLLAE is considered a neuroprosthetic device. While it’s not a fake leg or arm, it enables movement (prosthetic) and it operates on brain waves (neuro). It’s a very exciting area of research, consequently, there’s a lot of international competition. [ETA January 3, 2024: I’m pretty sure I got the neuroprosthetic part wrong]

Time moved on and there was a name change and then there was this November 10, 2023 article by Jeremy Hainsworth for the Vancouver is Awesome website,

Vancouver-based fashion designer Chloe Angus thought she’d be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life after being diagnosed with an inoperable benign tumour in her spinal cord in 2015, resulting in permanent loss of mobility in her legs.

Now, however, she’s been using a state-of-the-art robotic exoskeleton known as XoMotion that can help physically disabled people self-balance, walk, sidestep, climb stairs and crouch.

“The first time I walked with the exoskeleton was a jaw-dropping experience,” said Angus. “After all these years, the exoskeleton let me stand up and walk on my own without falling. I felt like myself again.”

She added the exoskeleton has the potential to completely change the world for people with motion disabilities.

XoMotion is the result of a decade of research and the product of a Simon Fraser University spinoff company, Human in Motion Robotics (HMR) Inc. It’s the brainchild of professors Siamak Arzanpour and Edward Park.

Arzanpour and Park, both researchers in the Burnaby-based university’s School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering, began work on the device in 2014. They had a vision to enhance exoskeleton technology and empower individuals with mobility challenges to have more options for movement.

“We felt that there was an immediate need to help people with motion disabilities to walk again, with a full range of motion. At the time, exoskeletons could only walk forward. That was the only motion possible,” Arzanpour said.

A November 15, 2023 article (with an embedded video) by Amy Judd & Alissa Thibault for Global News (television) highlights Alexander’s story,

SFU professors Siamak Arzanpour and Edward Park wanted to help people with motion disabilities to walk freely, naturally and independently.

The exoskeleton [XoMotion] is now the most advanced of its kind in the world.

Chloe Angus, who lost her mobility in her legs in 2015, now works for the team.

She said the exoskeleton makes her feel like herself again.

She was diagnosed with an inoperable benign tumor in her spinal cord in 2015 which resulted in a sudden and permanent loss of mobility in her legs. At the time, doctors told Angus that she would need a wheelchair to move for the rest of her life.

Now she is part of the project and defying all odds.

“After all these years, the exoskeleton let me stand up and walk on my own without falling. I felt like myself again.”

There’s a bit more information in the November 8, 2023 Simon Fraser University (SFU) news release (which has the same embedded video as the Global News article) by Ray Sharma,

The state-of-the-art robotic exoskeleton known as XoMotion is the result of a decade of research and the product of an SFU spin off company, Human in Motion Robotics (HMR) Inc. The company has recently garnered millions in investment, an overseas partnership and a suite of new offices in Vancouver.

XoMotion allows individuals with mobility challenges to stand up and walk on their own, without additional support. When in use, XoMotion maintains its stability and simultaneously encompasses all the ranges of motion and degrees of freedom needed for users to self-balance, walk, sidestep, climb stairs, crouch, and more. 

Sensors within the lower-limb exoskeleton mimic the human body’s sense of logic to identify structures along the path, and in-turn, generate a fully balanced motion.

SFU professors Siamak Arzanpour and Edward Park, both researchers in the School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering, began work on the device in 2014 with a vision to enhance exoskeleton technology and empower individuals with mobility challenges to have more options for movement. 

“We felt that there was an immediate need to help people with motion disabilities to walk again, with a full range of motion. At the time, exoskeletons could only walk forward. That was the only motion possible,” says Arzanpour. 

The SFU professors, who first met in 2001 as graduate students at the University of Toronto, co-founded HMR in 2016, bringing together a group of students, end-users, therapists, and organizations to build upon the exoskeleton. Currently, 70 per cent of HMR employees are SFU graduates. 

In recent years, HMR has garnered multiple streams of investment, including a contract with Innovative Solutions Canada, and $10 million in funding during their Series A round in May, including an $8 million investment and strategic partnership from Beno TNR, a prominent Korean technology investment firm.

I decided to bring the embedded video here, it runs a little over 2 mins.,

You can find the Human in Robotics (HMR) website here.

FrogHeart’s 2023 comes to an end as 2024 comes into view

My personal theme for this last year (2023) and for the coming year was and is: catching up. On the plus side, my 2023 backlog (roughly six months) to be published was whittled down considerably. On the minus side, I start 2024 with a backlog of two to three months.

2023 on this blog had a lot in common with 2022 (see my December 31, 2022 posting), which may be due to what’s going on in the world of emerging science and technology or to my personal interests or possibly a bit of both. On to 2023 and a further blurring of boundaries:

Energy, computing and the environment

The argument against paper is that it uses up resources, it’s polluting, it’s affecting the environment, etc. Somehow the part where electricity which underpins so much of our ‘smart’ society does the same thing is left out of the discussion.

Neuromorphic (brainlike) computing and lower energy

Before launching into the stories about lowering energy usage, here’s an October 16, 2023 posting “The cost of building ChatGPT” that gives you some idea of the consequences of our insatiable desire for more computing and more ‘smart’ devices,

In its latest environmental report, Microsoft disclosed that its global water consumption spiked 34% from 2021 to 2022 (to nearly 1.7 billion gallons , or more than 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools), a sharp increase compared to previous years that outside researchers tie to its AI research. [emphases mine]

“It’s fair to say the majority of the growth is due to AI,” including “its heavy investment in generative AI and partnership with OpenAI,” said Shaolei Ren, [emphasis mine] a researcher at the University of California, Riverside who has been trying to calculate the environmental impact of generative AI products such as ChatGPT.

Why it matters: Microsoft’s five WDM [West Des Moines in Iowa] data centers — the “epicenter for advancing AI” — represent more than $5 billion in investments in the last 15 years.

Yes, but: They consumed as much as 11.5 million gallons of water a month for cooling, or about 6% of WDM’s total usage during peak summer usage during the last two years, according to information from West Des Moines Water Works.

The focus is AI but it doesn’t take long to realize that all computing has energy and environmental costs. I have more about Ren’s work and about water shortages in the “The cost of building ChatGPT” posting.

This next posting would usually be included with my other art/sci postings but it touches on the issues. My October 13, 2023 posting about Toronto’s Art/Sci Salon events, in particular, there’s the Streaming Carbon Footprint event (just scroll down to the appropriate subhead). For the interested, I also found this 2022 paper “The Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media:; Problems, Calculations, Solutions” co-authored by one of the artist/researchers (Laura U. Marks, philosopher and scholar of new media and film at Simon Fraser University) who presented at the Toronto event.

I’m late to the party; Thomas Daigle posted a January 2, 2020 article about energy use and our appetite for computing and ‘smart’ devices for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s online news,

For those of us binge-watching TV shows, installing new smartphone apps or sharing family photos on social media over the holidays, it may seem like an abstract predicament.

The gigabytes of data we’re using — although invisible — come at a significant cost to the environment. Some experts say it rivals that of the airline industry. 

And as more smart devices rely on data to operate (think internet-connected refrigerators or self-driving cars), their electricity demands are set to skyrocket.

“We are using an immense amount of energy to drive this data revolution,” said Jane Kearns, an environment and technology expert at MaRS Discovery District, an innovation hub in Toronto.

“It has real implications for our climate.”

Some good news

Researchers are working on ways to lower the energy and environmental costs, here’s a sampling of 2023 posts with an emphasis on brainlike computing that attest to it,

If there’s an industry that can make neuromorphic computing and energy savings sexy, it’s the automotive indusry,

On the energy front,

Most people are familiar with nuclear fission and some its attendant issues. There is an alternative nuclear energy, fusion, which is considered ‘green’ or greener anyway. General Fusion is a local (Vancouver area) company focused on developing fusion energy, alongside competitors from all over the planet.

Part of what makes fusion energy attractive is that salt water or sea water can be used in its production and, according to that December posting, there are other applications for salt water power,

More encouraging developments in environmental science

Again, this is a selection. You’ll find a number of nano cellulose research projects and a couple of seaweed projects (seaweed research seems to be of increasing interest).

All by myself (neuromorphic engineering)

Neuromorphic computing is a subset of neuromorphic engineering and I stumbled across an article that outlines the similarities and differences. My ‘summary’ of the main points and a link to the original article can be found here,

Oops! I did it again. More AI panic

I included an overview of the various ‘recent’ panics (in my May 25, 2023 posting below) along with a few other posts about concerning developments but it’s not all doom and gloom..

Governments have realized that regulation might be a good idea. The European Union has a n AI act, the UK held an AI Safety Summit in November 2023, the US has been discussing AI regulation with its various hearings, and there’s impending legislation in Canada (see professor and lawyer Michael Geist’s blog for more).

A long time coming, a nanomedicine comeuppance

Paolo Macchiarini is now infamous for his untested, dangerous approach to medicine. Like a lot of people, I was fooled too as you can see in my August 2, 2011 posting, “Body parts nano style,”

In early July 2011, there were reports of a new kind of transplant involving a body part made of a biocomposite. Andemariam Teklesenbet Beyene underwent a trachea transplant that required an artificial windpipe crafted by UK experts then flown to Sweden where Beyene’s stem cells were used to coat the windpipe before being transplanted into his body.

It is an extraordinary story not least because Beyene, a patient in a Swedish hospital planning to return to Eritrea after his PhD studies in Iceland, illustrates the international cooperation that made the transplant possible.

The scaffolding material for the artificial windpipe was developed by Professor Alex Seifalian at the University College London in a landmark piece of nanotechnology-enabled tissue engineering. …

Five years later I stumbled across problems with Macchiarini’s work as outlined in my April 19, 2016 posting, “Macchiarini controversy and synthetic trachea transplants (part 1 of 2)” and my other April 19, 2016 posting, “Macchiarini controversy and synthetic trachea transplants (part 2 of 2)“.

This year, Gretchen Vogel (whose work was featured in my 2016 posts) has written a June 21, 2023 update about the Macchiarini affair for Science magazine, Note: Links have been removed,

Surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, who was once hailed as a pioneer of stem cell medicine, was found guilty of gross assault against three of his patients today and sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison by an appeals court in Stockholm. The ruling comes a year after a Swedish district court found Macchiarini guilty of bodily harm in two of the cases and gave him a suspended sentence. After both the prosecution and Macchiarini appealed that ruling, the Svea Court of Appeal heard the case in April and May. Today’s ruling from the five-judge panel is largely a win for the prosecution—it had asked for a 5-year sentence whereas Macchiarini’s lawyer urged the appeals court to acquit him of all charges.

Macchiarini performed experimental surgeries on the three patients in 2011 and 2012 while working at the renowned Karolinska Institute. He implanted synthetic windpipes seeded with stem cells from the patients’ own bone marrow, with the hope the cells would multiply over time and provide an enduring replacement. All three patients died when the implants failed. One patient died suddenly when the implant caused massive bleeding just 4 months after it was implanted; the two others survived for 2.5 and nearly 5 years, respectively, but suffered painful and debilitating complications before their deaths.

In the ruling released today, the appeals judges disagreed with the district court’s decision that the first two patients were treated under “emergency” conditions. Both patients could have survived for a significant length of time without the surgeries, they said. The third case was an “emergency,” the court ruled, but the treatment was still indefensible because by then Macchiarini was well aware of the problems with the technique. (One patient had already died and the other had suffered severe complications.)

A fictionalized tv series ( part of the Dr. Death anthology series) based on Macchiarini’s deceptions and a Dr. Death documentary are being broadcast/streamed in the US during January 2024. These come on the heels of a November 2023 Macchiarini documentary also broadcast/streamed on US television.

Dr. Death (anthology), based on the previews I’ve seen, is heavily US-centric, which is to be expected since Adam Ciralsky is involved in the production. Ciralsky wrote an exposé about Macchiarini for Vanity Fair published in 2016 (also featured in my 2016 postings). From a December 20, 2023 article by Julie Miller for Vanity Fair, Note: A link has been removed,

Seven years ago [2016], world-renowned surgeon Paolo Macchiarini was the subject of an ongoing Vanity Fair investigation. He had seduced award-winning NBC producer Benita Alexander while she was making a special about him, proposed, and promised her a wedding officiated by Pope Francis and attended by political A-listers. It was only after her designer wedding gown was made that Alexander learned Macchiarini was still married to his wife, and seemingly had no association with the famous names on their guest list.

Vanity Fair contributor Adam Ciralsky was in the midst of reporting the story for this magazine in the fall of 2015 when he turned to Dr. Ronald Schouten, a Harvard psychiatry professor. Ciralsky sought expert insight into the kind of fabulist who would invent and engage in such an audacious lie.

“I laid out the story to him, and he said, ‘Anybody who does this in their private life engages in the same conduct in their professional life,” recalls Ciralsky, in a phone call with Vanity Fair. “I think you ought to take a hard look at his CVs.”

That was the turning point in the story for Ciralsky, a former CIA lawyer who soon learned that Macchiarini was more dangerous as a surgeon than a suitor. …

Here’s a link to Ciralsky’s original article, which I described this way, from my April 19, 2016 posting (part 2 of the Macchiarini controversy),

For some bizarre frosting on this disturbing cake (see part 1 of the Macchiarini controversy and synthetic trachea transplants for the medical science aspects), a January 5, 2016 Vanity Fair article by Adam Ciralsky documents Macchiarini’s courtship of an NBC ([US] National Broadcasting Corporation) news producer who was preparing a documentary about him and his work.

[from Ciralsky’s article]

“Macchiarini, 57, is a magnet for superlatives. He is commonly referred to as “world-renowned” and a “super-surgeon.” He is credited with medical miracles, including the world’s first synthetic organ transplant, which involved fashioning a trachea, or windpipe, out of plastic and then coating it with a patient’s own stem cells. That feat, in 2011, appeared to solve two of medicine’s more intractable problems—organ rejection and the lack of donor organs—and brought with it major media exposure for Macchiarini and his employer, Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute, home of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Macchiarini was now planning another first: a synthetic-trachea transplant on a child, a two-year-old Korean-Canadian girl named Hannah Warren, who had spent her entire life in a Seoul hospital. … “

Other players in the Macchiarini story

Pierre Delaere, a trachea expert and professor of head and neck surgery at KU Leuven (a university in Belgium) was one of the first to draw attention to Macchiarini’s dangerous and unethical practices. To give you an idea of how difficult it was to get attention for this issue, there’s a September 1, 2017 article by John Rasko and Carl Power for the Guardian illustrating the issue. Here’s what they had to say about Delaere and other early critics of the work, Note: Links have been removed,

Delaere was one of the earliest and harshest critics of Macchiarini’s engineered airways. Reports of their success always seemed like “hot air” to him. He could see no real evidence that the windpipe scaffolds were becoming living, functioning airways – in which case, they were destined to fail. The only question was how long it would take – weeks, months or a few years.

Delaere’s damning criticisms appeared in major medical journals, including the Lancet, but weren’t taken seriously by Karolinska’s leadership. Nor did they impress the institute’s ethics council when Delaere lodged a formal complaint. [emphases mine]

Support for Macchiarini remained strong, even as his patients began to die. In part, this is because the field of windpipe repair is a niche area. Few people at Karolinska, especially among those in power, knew enough about it to appreciate Delaere’s claims. Also, in such a highly competitive environment, people are keen to show allegiance to their superiors and wary of criticising them. The official report into the matter dubbed this the “bandwagon effect”.

With Macchiarini’s exploits endorsed by management and breathlessly reported in the media, it was all too easy to jump on that bandwagon.

And difficult to jump off. In early 2014, four Karolinska doctors defied the reigning culture of silence [emphasis mine] by complaining about Macchiarini. In their view, he was grossly misrepresenting his results and the health of his patients. An independent investigator agreed. But the vice-chancellor of Karolinska Institute, Anders Hamsten, wasn’t bound by this judgement. He officially cleared Macchiarini of scientific misconduct, allowing merely that he’d sometimes acted “without due care”.

For their efforts, the whistleblowers were punished. [emphasis mine] When Macchiarini accused one of them, Karl-Henrik Grinnemo, of stealing his work in a grant application, Hamsten found him guilty. As Grinnemo recalls, it nearly destroyed his career: “I didn’t receive any new grants. No one wanted to collaborate with me. We were doing good research, but it didn’t matter … I thought I was going to lose my lab, my staff – everything.”

This went on for three years until, just recently [2017], Grinnemo was cleared of all wrongdoing.

It is fitting that Macchiarini’s career unravelled at the Karolinska Institute. As the home of the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine, one of its ambitions is to create scientific celebrities. Every year, it gives science a show-business makeover, picking out from the mass of medical researchers those individuals deserving of superstardom. The idea is that scientific progress is driven by the genius of a few.

It’s a problematic idea with unfortunate side effects. A genius is a revolutionary by definition, a risk-taker and a law-breaker. Wasn’t something of this idea behind the special treatment Karolinska gave Macchiarini? Surely, he got away with so much because he was considered an exception to the rules with more than a whiff of the Nobel about him. At any rate, some of his most powerful friends were themselves Nobel judges until, with his fall from grace, they fell too.

The September 1, 2017 article by Rasko and Power is worth the read if you have the interest and the time. And, Delaere has written up a comprehensive analysis, which includes basic information about tracheas and more, “The Biggest Lie in Medical History” 2020, PDF, 164 pp., Creative Commons Licence).

I also want to mention Leonid Schneider, science journalist and molecular cell biologist, whose work the Macchiarini scandal on his ‘For Better Science’ website was also featured in my 2016 pieces. Schneider’s site has a page titled, ‘Macchiarini’s trachea transplant patients: the full list‘ started in 2017 and which he continues to update with new information about the patients. The latest update was made on December 20, 2023.

Promising nanomedicine research but no promises and a caveat

Most of the research mentioned here is still in the laboratory. i don’t often come across work that has made its way to clinical trials since the focus of this blog is emerging science and technology,

*If you’re interested in the business of neurotechnology, the July 17, 2023 posting highlights a very good UNESCO report on the topic.

Funky music (sound and noise)

I have couple of stories about using sound for wound healing, bioinspiration for soundproofing applications, detecting seismic activity, more data sonification, etc.

Same old, same old CRISPR

2023 was relatively quiet (no panics) where CRISPR developments are concerned but still quite active.

Art/Sci: a pretty active year

I didn’t realize how active the year was art/sciwise including events and other projects until I reviewed this year’s postings. This is a selection from 2023 but there’s a lot more on the blog, just use the search term, “art/sci,” or “art/science,” or “sciart.”

While I often feature events and projects from these groups (e.g., June 2, 2023 posting, “Metacreation Lab’s greatest hits of Summer 2023“), it’s possible for me to miss a few. So, you can check out Toronto’s Art/Sci Salon’s website (strong focus on visual art) and Simon Fraser University’s Metacreation Lab for Creative Artificial Intelligence website (strong focus on music).

My selection of this year’s postings is more heavily weighted to the ‘writing’ end of things.

Boundaries: life/nonlife

Last year I subtitled this section, ‘Aliens on earth: machinic biology and/or biological machinery?” Here’s this year’s selection,

Canada’s 2023 budget … military

2023 featured an unusual budget where military expenditures were going to be increased, something which could have implications for our science and technology research.

Then things changed as Murray Brewster’s November 21, 2023 article for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) news online website comments, Note: A link has been removed,

There was a revelatory moment on the weekend as Defence Minister Bill Blair attempted to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality in the Liberal government’s spending plans for his department and the Canadian military.

Asked about an anticipated (and long overdue) update to the country’s defence policy (supposedly made urgent two years ago by Russia’s full-on invasion of Ukraine), Blair acknowledged that the reset is now being viewed through a fiscal lens.

“We said we’re going to bring forward a new defence policy update. We’ve been working through that,” Blair told CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live on Sunday.

“The current fiscal environment that the country faces itself does require (that) that defence policy update … recognize (the) fiscal challenges. And so it’ll be part of … our future budget processes.”

One policy goal of the existing defence plan, Strong, Secure and Engaged, was to require that the military be able to concurrently deliver “two sustained deployments of 500 [to] 1,500 personnel in two different theaters of operation, including one as a lead nation.”

In a footnote, the recent estimates said the Canadian military is “currently unable to conduct multiple operations concurrently per the requirements laid out in the 2017 Defence Policy. Readiness of CAF force elements has continued to decrease over the course of the last year, aggravated by decreasing number of personnel and issues with equipment and vehicles.”

Some analysts say they believe that even if the federal government hits its overall budget reduction targets, what has been taken away from defence — and what’s about to be taken away — won’t be coming back, the minister’s public assurances notwithstanding.

10 years: Graphene Flagship Project and Human Brain Project

Graphene and Human Brain Project win biggest research award in history (& this is the 2000th post)” on January 28, 2013 was how I announced the results of what had been a a European Union (EU) competition that stretched out over several years and many stages as projects were evaluated and fell to the wayside or were allowed onto the next stage. The two finalists received €1B each to be paid out over ten years.

Future or not

As you can see, there was plenty of interesting stuff going on in 2023 but no watershed moments in the areas I follow. (Please do let me know in the Comments should you disagree with this or any other part of this posting.) Nanotechnology seems less and less an emerging science/technology in itself and more like a foundational element of our science and technology sectors. On that note, you may find my upcoming (in 2024) post about a report concerning the economic impact of its National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) from 2002 to 2022 of interest.

Following on the commercialization theme, I have noticed an increase of interest in commercializing brain and brainlike engineering technologies, as well as, more discussion about ethics.

Colonizing the brain?

UNESCO held events such as, this noted in my July 17, 2023 posting, “Unveiling the Neurotechnology Landscape: Scientific Advancements, Innovations and Major Trends—a UNESCO report” and this noted in my July 7, 2023 posting “Global dialogue on the ethics of neurotechnology on July 13, 2023 led by UNESCO.” An August 21, 2023 posting, “Ethical nanobiotechnology” adds to the discussion.

Meanwhile, Australia has been producing some very interesting mind/robot research, my June 13, 2023 posting, “Mind-controlled robots based on graphene: an Australian research story.” I have more of this kind of research (mind control or mind reading) from Australia to be published in early 2024. The Australians are not alone, there’s also this April 12, 2023 posting, “Mind-reading prosthetic limbs” from Germany.

My May 12, 2023 posting, “Virtual panel discussion: Canadian Strategies for Responsible Neurotechnology Innovation on May 16, 2023” shows Canada is entering the discussion. Unfortunately, the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC), which held the event, has not posted a video online even though they have a youtube channel featuring other of their events.

As for neurmorphic engineering, China has produced a roadmap for its research in this area as noted in my March 20, 2023 posting, “A nontraditional artificial synaptic device and roadmap for Chinese research into neuromorphic devices.”

Quantum anybody?

I haven’t singled it out in this end-of-year posting but there is a great deal of interest in quantum computer both here in Canada and elsewhere. There is a 2023 report from the Council of Canadian Academies on the topic of quantum computing in Canada, which I hope to comment on soon.

Final words

I have a shout out for the Canadian Science Policy Centre, which celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2023. Congratulations!

For everyone, I wish peace on earth and all the best for you and yours in 2024!

Ethical nanobiotechnology

This paper on ethics (aside: I have a few comments after the news release and citation) comes from the US Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) according to a July 12, 2023 news item on phys.org,

Prosthetics moved by thoughts. Targeted treatments for aggressive brain cancer. Soldiers with enhanced vision or bionic ears. These powerful technologies sound like science fiction, but they’re becoming possible thanks to nanoparticles.

“In medicine and other biological settings, nanotechnology is amazing and helpful, but it could be harmful if used improperly,” said Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) chemist Ashley Bradley, part of a team of researchers who conducted a comprehensive survey of nanobiotechnology applications and policies.

Their research, available in Health Security, works to sum up the very large, active field of nanotechnology in biology applications, draw attention to regulatory gaps, and offer areas for further consideration.

A July 12, 2023 PNNL news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the topic, Note: A link has been removed,

“In our research, we learned there aren’t many global regulations yet,” said Bradley. “And we need to create a common set of rules to figure out the ethical boundaries.”

Nanoparticles, big differences

Nanoparticles are clusters of molecules with different properties than large amounts of the same substances. In medicine and other biology applications, these properties allow nanoparticles to act as the packaging that delivers treatments through cell walls and the difficult to cross blood-brain barrier.

“You can think of the nanoparticles a little bit like the plastic around shredded cheese,” said PNNL chemist Kristin Omberg. “It makes it possible to get something perishable directly where you want it, but afterwards you’ve got to deal with a whole lot of substance where it wasn’t before.”

Unfortunately, dealing with nanoparticles in new places isn’t straightforward. Carbon is pencil lead, nano carbon conducts electricity. The same material may have different properties at the nanoscale, but most countries still regulate it the same as bulk material, if the material is regulated at all.

For example, zinc oxide, a material that was stable and unreactive as a pigment in white paint, is now accumulating in oceans when used as nanoparticles in sunscreen, warranting a call to create alternative reef-safe sunscreens. And although fats and lipids aren’t regulated, the researchers suggest which agencies could weigh in on regulations were fats to become after-treatment byproducts.

The article also inventories national and international agencies, organizations, and governing bodies with an interest in understanding how nanoparticles break down or react in a living organism and the environmental life cycle of a nanoparticle. Because nanobiotechnology spans materials science, biology, medicine, environmental science, and tech, these disparate research and regulatory disciplines must come together, often for the first time—to fully understand the impact on humans and the environment.

Dual use: Good for us, bad for us

Like other quickly growing fields, there’s a time lag between the promise of new advances and the possibilities of unintended uses.

“There were so many more applications than we thought there were,” said Bradley, who collected exciting nanobio examples such as Alzheimer’s treatment, permanent contact lenses, organ replacement, and enhanced muscle recovery, among others.

The article also highlights concerns about crossing the blood-brain barrier, thought-initiated control of computers, and nano-enabled DNA editing where the researchers suggest more caution, questioning, and attention could be warranted. This attention spans everything from deep fundamental research and regulations all the way to what Omberg called “the equivalent of tattoo removal” if home-DNA splicing attempts go south.

The researchers draw parallels to more established fields such as synthetic bio and pharmacology, which offer lessons to be learned from current concerns such as the unintended consequences of fentanyl and opioids. They believe these fields also offer examples of innovative coordination between science and ethics, such as synthetic bio’s IGEM [The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition]—student competition, to think about not just how to create, but also to shape the use and control of new technologies.

Omberg said unusually enthusiastic early reviewers of the article contributed even more potential uses and concerns, demonstrating that experts in many fields recognize ethical nanobiotechnology is an issue to get in front of. “This is a train that’s going. It will be sad if 10 years from now, we haven’t figured how to talk about it.”

Funding for the team’s research was supported by PNNL’s Biorisk Beyond the List National Security Directorate Objective.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

The Promise of Emergent Nanobiotechnologies for In Vivo Applications and Implications for Safety and Security by Anne M. Arnold, Ashley M. Bradley, Karen L. Taylor, Zachary C. Kennedy, and Kristin M. Omberg. Health Security.Oct 2022.408-423.Published in Volume: 20 Issue 5: October 17, 2022 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1089/hs.2022.0014 Published Online:17 Oct 2022

This paper is open access.

You can find out more about IGEM (The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition) here.

Comments (brief)

It seems a little odd that the news release (“Prosthetics moved by thoughts …”) and the paper both reference neurotechnology without ever mentioning it by name. Here’s the reference from the paper, Note: Links have been removed,

Nanoparticles May Be Developed to Facilitate Cognitive Enhancements

The development and implementation of NPs that enhance cognitive function has yet to be realized. However, recent advances on the micro- and macro-level with neural–machine interfacing provide the building blocks necessary to develop this technology on the nanoscale. A noninvasive brain–computer interface to control a robotic arm was developed by teams at 2 universities.157 A US-based company, Neuralink, [emphasis mine] is at the forefront of implementing implantable, intracortical microelectrodes that provide an interface between the human brain and technology.158,159 Utilization of intracortical microelectrodes may ultimately provide thought-initiated access and control of computers and mobile devices, and possibly expand cognitive function by accessing underutilized areas of the brain.158

Neuralink (founded by Elon Musk) is controversial for its animal testing practices. You can find out more in Björn Ólafsson’s May 30, 2023 article for Sentient Media.

The focus on nanoparticles as the key factor in the various technologies and applications mentioned seems narrow but necessary given the breadth of topics covered in the paper as the authors themselves note in the paper’s abstract,

… In this article, while not comprehensive, we attempt to illustrate the breadth and promise of bionanotechnology developments, and how they may present future safety and security challenges. Specifically, we address current advancements to streamline the development of engineered NPs for in vivo applications and provide discussion on nano–bio interactions, NP in vivo delivery, nanoenhancement of human performance, nanomedicine, and the impacts of NPs on human health and the environment.

They have a good overview of the history and discussions about nanotechnology risks and regulation. It’s international in scope with a heavy emphasis on US efforts, as one would expect.

For anyone who’s interested in the neurotechnology end of things, I’ve got a July 17, 2023 commentary “Unveiling the Neurotechnology Landscape: Scientific Advancements, Innovations and Major Trends—a UNESCO report.” The report was launched July 13, 2023 during UNESCO’s Global dialogue on the ethics of neurotechnology (see my July 7, 2023 posting about the then upcoming dialogue for links to more UNESCO information). Both the July 17 and July 7, 2023 postings included additional information about Neuralink.

Unveiling the Neurotechnology Landscape: Scientific Advancements, Innovations and Major Trends—a UNESCO report

Launched on Thursday, July 13, 2023 during UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) “Global dialogue on the ethics of neurotechnology,” is a report tying together the usual measures of national scientific supremacy (number of papers published and number of patents filed) with information on corporate investment in the field. Consequently, “Unveiling the Neurotechnology Landscape: Scientific Advancements, Innovations and Major Trends” by Daniel S. Hain, Roman Jurowetzki, Mariagrazia Squicciarini, and Lihui Xu provides better insight into the international neurotechnology scene than is sometimes found in these kinds of reports. By the way, the report is open access.

Here’s what I mean, from the report‘s short summary,

Since 2013, government investments in this field have exceeded $6 billion. Private investment has also seen significant growth, with annual funding experiencing a 22-fold increase from 2010 to 2020, reaching $7.3 billion and totaling $33.2 billion.

This investment has translated into a 35-fold growth in neuroscience publications between 2000-2021 and 20-fold growth in innovations between 2022-2020, as proxied by patents. However, not all are poised to benefit from such developments, as big divides emerge.

Over 80% of high-impact neuroscience publications are produced by only ten countries, while 70% of countries contributed fewer than 10 such papers over the period considered. Similarly, five countries only hold 87% of IP5 neurotech patents.

This report sheds light on the neurotechnology ecosystem, that is, what is being developed, where and by whom, and informs about how neurotechnology interacts with other technological trajectories, especially Artificial Intelligence [emphasis mine]. [p. 2]

The money aspect is eye-opening even when you already have your suspicions. Also, it’s not entirely unexpected to learn that only ten countries produce over 80% of the high impact neurotech papers and that only five countries hold 87% of the IP5 neurotech patents but it is stunning to see it in context. (If you’re not familiar with the term ‘IP5 patents’, scroll down in this post to the relevant subhead. Hint: It means the patent was filed in one of the top five jurisdictions; I’ll leave you to guess which ones those might be.)

“Since 2013 …” isn’t quite as informative as the authors may have hoped. I wish they had given a time frame for government investments similar to what they did for corporate investments (e.g., 2010 – 2020). Also, is the $6B (likely in USD) government investment cumulative or an estimated annual number? To sum up, I would have appreciated parallel structure and specificity.

Nitpicks aside, there’s some very good material intended for policy makers. On that note, some of the analysis is beyond me. I haven’t used anything even somewhat close to their analytical tools in years and years. This commentaries reflects my interests and a very rapid reading. One last thing, this is being written from a Canadian perspective. With those caveats in mind, here’s some of what I found.

A definition, social issues, country statistics, and more

There’s a definition for neurotechnology and a second mention of artificial intelligence being used in concert with neurotechnology. From the report‘s executive summary,

Neurotechnology consists of devices and procedures used to access, monitor, investigate, assess, manipulate, and/or emulate the structure and function of the neural systems of animals or human beings. It is poised to revolutionize our understanding of the brain and to unlock innovative solutions to treat a wide range of diseases and disorders.

Similarly to Artificial Intelligence (AI), and also due to its convergence with AI, neurotechnology may have profound societal and economic impact, beyond the medical realm. As neurotechnology directly relates to the brain, it triggers ethical considerations about fundamental aspects of human existence, including mental integrity, human dignity, personal identity, freedom of thought, autonomy, and privacy [emphases mine]. Its potential for enhancement purposes and its accessibility further amplifies its prospect social and societal implications.

The recent discussions held at UNESCO’s Executive Board further shows Member States’ desire to address the ethics and governance of neurotechnology through the elaboration of a new standard-setting instrument on the ethics of neurotechnology, to be adopted in 2025. To this end, it is important to explore the neurotechnology landscape, delineate its boundaries, key players, and trends, and shed light on neurotech’s scientific and technological developments. [p. 7]

Here’s how they sourced the data for the report,

The present report addresses such a need for evidence in support of policy making in
relation to neurotechnology by devising and implementing a novel methodology on data from scientific articles and patents:

● We detect topics over time and extract relevant keywords using a transformer-
based language models fine-tuned for scientific text. Publication data for the period
2000-2021 are sourced from the Scopus database and encompass journal articles
and conference proceedings in English. The 2,000 most cited publications per year
are further used in in-depth content analysis.
● Keywords are identified through Named Entity Recognition and used to generate
search queries for conducting a semantic search on patents’ titles and abstracts,
using another language model developed for patent text. This allows us to identify
patents associated with the identified neuroscience publications and their topics.
The patent data used in the present analysis are sourced from the European
Patent Office’s Worldwide Patent Statistical Database (PATSTAT). We consider
IP5 patents filed between 2000-2020 having an English language abstract and
exclude patents solely related to pharmaceuticals.

This approach allows mapping the advancements detailed in scientific literature to the technological applications contained in patent applications, allowing for an analysis of the linkages between science and technology. This almost fully automated novel approach allows repeating the analysis as neurotechnology evolves. [pp. 8-9[

Findings in bullet points,

Key stylized facts are:
● The field of neuroscience has witnessed a remarkable surge in the overall number
of publications since 2000, exhibiting a nearly 35-fold increase over the period
considered, reaching 1.2 million in 2021. The annual number of publications in
neuroscience has nearly tripled since 2000, exceeding 90,000 publications a year
in 2021. This increase became even more pronounced since 2019.
● The United States leads in terms of neuroscience publication output (40%),
followed by the United Kingdom (9%), Germany (7%), China (5%), Canada (4%),
Japan (4%), Italy (4%), France (4%), the Netherlands (3%), and Australia (3%).
These countries account for over 80% of neuroscience publications from 2000 to
2021.
● Big divides emerge, with 70% of countries in the world having less than 10 high-
impact neuroscience publications between 2000 to 2021.
● Specific neurotechnology-related research trends between 2000 and 2021 include:
○ An increase in Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) research around 2010,
maintaining a consistent presence ever since.
○ A significant surge in Epilepsy Detection research in 2017 and 2018,
reflecting the increased use of AI and machine learning in healthcare.
○ Consistent interest in Neuroimaging Analysis, which peaks around 2004,
likely because of its importance in brain activity and language
comprehension studies.
○ While peaking in 2016 and 2017, Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) remains a
persistent area of research, underlining its potential in treating conditions
like Parkinson’s disease and essential tremor.
● Between 2000 and 2020, the total number of patent applications in this field
increased significantly, experiencing a 20-fold increase from less than 500 to over
12,000. In terms of annual figures, a consistent upward trend in neurotechnology-10
related patent applications emerges, with a notable doubling observed between
2015 and 2020.
• The United States account for nearly half of all worldwide patent applications (47%).
Other major contributors include South Korea (11%), China (10%), Japan (7%),
Germany (7%), and France (5%). These five countries together account for 87%
of IP5 neurotech patents applied between 2000 and 2020.
○ The United States has historically led the field, with a peak around 2010, a
decline towards 2015, and a recovery up to 2020.
○ South Korea emerged as a significant contributor after 1990, overtaking
Germany in the late 2000s to become the second-largest developer of
neurotechnology. By the late 2010s, South Korea’s annual neurotechnology
patent applications approximated those of the United States.
○ China exhibits a sharp increase in neurotechnology patent applications in
the mid-2010s, bringing it on par with the United States in terms of
application numbers.
● The United States ranks highest in both scientific publications and patents,
indicating their strong ability to transform knowledge into marketable inventions.
China, France, and Korea excel in leveraging knowledge to develop patented
innovations. Conversely, countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy,
Canada, Brazil, and Australia lag behind in effectively translating neurotech
knowledge into patentable innovations.
● In terms of patent quality measured by forward citations, the leading countries are
Germany, US, China, Japan, and Korea.
● A breakdown of patents by technology field reveals that Computer Technology is
the most important field in neurotechnology, exceeding Medical Technology,
Biotechnology, and Pharmaceuticals. The growing importance of algorithmic
applications, including neural computing techniques, also emerges by looking at
the increase in patent applications in these fields between 2015-2020. Compared
to the reference year, computer technologies-related patents in neurotech
increased by 355% and by 92% in medical technology.
● An analysis of the specialization patterns of the top-5 countries developing
neurotechnologies reveals that Germany has been specializing in chemistry-
related technology fields, whereas Asian countries, particularly South Korea and
China, focus on computer science and electrical engineering-related fields. The
United States exhibits a balanced configuration with specializations in both
chemistry and computer science-related fields.
● The entities – i.e. both companies and other institutions – leading worldwide
innovation in the neurotech space are: IBM (126 IP5 patents, US), Ping An
Technology (105 IP5 patents, CH), Fujitsu (78 IP5 patents, JP), Microsoft (76 IP511
patents, US)1, Samsung (72 IP5 patents, KR), Sony (69 IP5 patents JP) and Intel
(64 IP5 patents US)

This report further proposes a pioneering taxonomy of neurotechnologies based on International Patent Classification (IPC) codes.

• 67 distinct patent clusters in neurotechnology are identified, which mirror the diverse research and development landscape of the field. The 20 most prominent neurotechnology groups, particularly in areas like multimodal neuromodulation, seizure prediction, neuromorphic computing [emphasis mine], and brain-computer interfaces, point to potential strategic areas for research and commercialization.
• The variety of patent clusters identified mirrors the breadth of neurotechnology’s potential applications, from medical imaging and limb rehabilitation to sleep optimization and assistive exoskeletons.
• The development of a baseline IPC-based taxonomy for neurotechnology offers a structured framework that enriches our understanding of this technological space, and can facilitate research, development and analysis. The identified key groups mirror the interdisciplinary nature of neurotechnology and underscores the potential impact of neurotechnology, not only in healthcare but also in areas like information technology and biomaterials, with non-negligible effects over societies and economies.

1 If we consider Microsoft Technology Licensing LLM and Microsoft Corporation as being under the same umbrella, Microsoft leads worldwide developments with 127 IP5 patents. Similarly, if we were to consider that Siemens AG and Siemens Healthcare GmbH belong to the same conglomerate, Siemens would appear much higher in the ranking, in third position, with 84 IP5 patents. The distribution of intellectual property assets across companies belonging to the same conglomerate is frequent and mirrors strategic as well as operational needs and features, among others. [pp. 9-11]

Surprises and comments

Interesting and helpful to learn that “neurotechnology interacts with other technological trajectories, especially Artificial Intelligence;” this has changed and improved my understanding of neurotechnology.

It was unexpected to find Canada in the top ten countries producing neuroscience papers. However, finding out that the country lags in translating its ‘neuro’ knowledge into patentable innovation is not entirely a surprise.

It can’t be an accident that countries with major ‘electronics and computing’ companies lead in patents. These companies do have researchers but they also buy startups to acquire patents. They (and ‘patent trolls’) will also file patents preemptively. For the patent trolls, it’s a moneymaking proposition and for the large companies, it’s a way of protecting their own interests and/or (I imagine) forcing a sale.

The mention of neuromorphic (brainlike) computing in the taxonomy section was surprising and puzzling. Up to this point, I’ve thought of neuromorphic computing as a kind of alternative or addition to standard computing but the authors have blurred the lines as per UNESCO’s definition of neurotechnology (specifically, “… emulate the structure and function of the neural systems of animals or human beings”) . Again, this report is broadening my understanding of neurotechnology. Of course, it required two instances before I quite grasped it, the definition and the taxonomy.

What’s puzzling is that neuromorphic engineering, a broader term that includes neuromorphic computing, isn’t used or mentioned. (For an explanation of the terms neuromorphic computing and neuromorphic engineering, there’s my June 23, 2023 posting, “Neuromorphic engineering: an overview.” )

The report

I won’t have time for everything. Here are some of the highlights from my admittedly personal perspective.

It’s not only about curing disease

From the report,

Neurotechnology’s applications however extend well beyond medicine [emphasis mine], and span from research, to education, to the workplace, and even people’s everyday life. Neurotechnology-based solutions may enhance learning and skill acquisition and boost focus through brain stimulation techniques. For instance, early research finds that brain- zapping caps appear to boost memory for at least one month (Berkeley, 2022). This could one day be used at home to enhance memory functions [emphasis mine]. They can further enable new ways to interact with the many digital devices we use in everyday life, transforming the way we work, live and interact. One example is the Sound Awareness wristband developed by a Stanford team (Neosensory, 2022) which enables individuals to “hear” by converting sound into tactile feedback, so that sound impaired individuals can perceive spoken words through their skin. Takagi and Nishimoto (2023) analyzed the brain scans taken through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) as individuals were shown thousands of images. They then trained a generative AI tool called Stable Diffusion2 on the brain scan data of the study’s participants, thus creating images that roughly corresponded to the real images shown. While this does not correspond to reading the mind of people, at least not yet, and some limitations of the study have been highlighted (Parshall, 2023), it nevertheless represents an important step towards developing the capability to interface human thoughts with computers [emphasis mine], via brain data interpretation.

While the above examples may sound somewhat like science fiction, the recent uptake of generative Artificial Intelligence applications and of large language models such as ChatGPT or Bard, demonstrates that the seemingly impossible can quickly become an everyday reality. At present, anyone can purchase online electroencephalogram (EEG) devices for a few hundred dollars [emphasis mine], to measure the electrical activity of their brain for meditation, gaming, or other purposes. [pp. 14-15]

This is very impressive achievement. Some of the research cited was published earlier this year (2023). The extraordinary speed is a testament to the efforts by the authors and their teams. It’s also a testament to how quickly the field is moving.

I’m glad to see the mention of and focus on consumer neurotechnology. (While the authors don’t speculate, I am free to do so.) Consumer neurotechnology could be viewed as one of the steps toward normalizing a cyborg future for all of us. Yes, we have books, television programmes, movies, and video games, which all normalize the idea but the people depicted have been severely injured and require the augmentation. With consumer neurotechnology, you have easily accessible devices being used to enhance people who aren’t injured, they just want to be ‘better’.

This phrase seemed particularly striking “… an important step towards developing the capability to interface human thoughts with computers” in light of some claims made by the Australian military in my June 13, 2023 posting “Mind-controlled robots based on graphene: an Australian research story.” (My posting has an embedded video demonstrating the Brain Robotic Interface (BRI) in action. Also, see the paragraph below the video for my ‘measured’ response.)

There’s no mention of the military in the report which seems more like a deliberate rather than inadvertent omission given the importance of military innovation where technology is concerned.

This section gives a good overview of government initiatives (in the report it’s followed by a table of the programmes),

Thanks to the promises it holds, neurotechnology has garnered significant attention from both governments and the private sector and is considered by many as an investment priority. According to the International Brain Initiative (IBI), brain research funding has become increasingly important over the past ten years, leading to a rise in large-scale state-led programs aimed at advancing brain intervention technologies(International Brain Initiative, 2021). Since 2013, initiatives such as the United States’ Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative and the European Union’s Human Brain Project (HBP), as well as major national initiatives in China, Japan and South Korea have been launched with significant funding support from the respective governments. The Canadian Brain Research Strategy, initially operated as a multi- stakeholder coalition on brain research, is also actively seeking funding support from the government to transform itself into a national research initiative (Canadian Brain Research Strategy, 2022). A similar proposal is also seen in the case of the Australian Brain Alliance, calling for the establishment of an Australian Brain Initiative (Australian Academy of Science, n.d.). [pp. 15-16]

Privacy

There are some concerns such as these,

Beyond the medical realm, research suggests that emotional responses of consumers
related to preferences and risks can be concurrently tracked by neurotechnology, such
as neuroimaging and that neural data can better predict market-level outcomes than
traditional behavioral data (Karmarkar and Yoon, 2016). As such, neural data is
increasingly sought after in the consumer market for purposes such as digital
phenotyping4, neurogaming 5,and neuromarketing6 (UNESCO, 2021). This surge in demand gives rise to risks like hacking, unauthorized data reuse, extraction of privacy-sensitive information, digital surveillance, criminal exploitation of data, and other forms of abuse. These risks prompt the question of whether neural data needs distinct definition and safeguarding measures.

These issues are particularly relevant today as a wide range of electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets that can be used at home are now available in consumer markets for purposes that range from meditation assistance to controlling electronic devices through the mind. Imagine an individual is using one of these devices to play a neurofeedback game, which records the person’s brain waves during the game. Without the person being aware, the system can also identify the patterns associated with an undiagnosed mental health condition, such as anxiety. If the game company sells this data to third parties, e.g. health insurance providers, this may lead to an increase of insurance fees based on undisclosed information. This hypothetical situation would represent a clear violation of mental privacy and of unethical use of neural data.

Another example is in the field of advertising, where companies are increasingly interested in using neuroimaging to better understand consumers’ responses to their products or advertisements, a practice known as neuromarketing. For instance, a company might use neural data to determine which advertisements elicit the most positive emotional responses in consumers. While this can help companies improve their marketing strategies, it raises significant concerns about mental privacy. Questions arise in relation to consumers being aware or not that their neural data is being used, and in the extent to which this can lead to manipulative advertising practices that unfairly exploit unconscious preferences. Such potential abuses underscore the need for explicit consent and rigorous data protection measures in the use of neurotechnology for neuromarketing purposes. [pp. 21-22]

Legalities

Some countries already have laws and regulations regarding neurotechnology data,

At the national level, only a few countries have enacted laws and regulations to protect mental integrity or have included neuro-data in personal data protection laws (UNESCO, University of Milan-Bicocca (Italy) and State University of New York – Downstate Health Sciences University, 2023). Examples are the constitutional reform undertaken by Chile (Republic of Chile, 2021), the Charter for the responsible development of neurotechnologies of the Government of France (Government of France, 2022), and the Digital Rights Charter of the Government of Spain (Government of Spain, 2021). They propose different approaches to the regulation and protection of human rights in relation to neurotechnology. Countries such as the UK are also examining under which circumstances neural data may be considered as a special category of data under the general data protection framework (i.e. UK’s GDPR) (UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, 2023) [p. 24]

As you can see, these are recent laws. There doesn’t seem to be any attempt here in Canada even though there is an act being reviewed in Parliament that could conceivably include neural data. This is from my May 1, 2023 posting,

Bill C-27 (Digital Charter Implementation Act, 2022) is what I believe is called an omnibus bill as it includes three different pieces of proposed legislation (the Consumer Privacy Protection Act [CPPA], the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act [AIDA], and the Personal Information and Data Protection Tribunal Act [PIDPTA]). [emphasis added July 11, 2023] You can read the Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada summary here or a detailed series of descriptions of the act here on the ISED’s Canada’s Digital Charter webpage.

My focus at the time was artificial intelligence and, now, after reading this UNESCO report and briefly looking at the Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada summary and a detailed series of descriptions of the act on ISED’s Canada’s Digital Charter webpage, I don’t see anything that specifies neural data but it’s not excluded either.

IP5 patents

Here’s the explanation (the footnote is included at the end of the excerpt),

IP5 patents represent a subset of overall patents filed worldwide, which have the
characteristic of having been filed in at least one top intellectual property offices (IPO)
worldwide (the so called IP5, namely the Chinese National Intellectual Property
Administration, CNIPA (formerly SIPO); the European Patent Office, EPO; the Japan
Patent Office, JPO; the Korean Intellectual Property Office, KIPO; and the United States
Patent and Trademark Office, USPTO) as well as another country, which may or may not be an IP5. This signals their potential applicability worldwide, as their inventiveness and industrial viability have been validated by at least two leading IPOs. This gives these patents a sort of “quality” check, also since patenting inventions is costly and if applicants try to protect the same invention in several parts of the world, this normally mirrors that the applicant has expectations about their importance and expected value. If we were to conduct the same analysis using information about individually considered patent applied worldwide, i.e. without filtering for quality nor considering patent families, we would risk conducting a biased analysis based on duplicated data. Also, as patentability standards vary across countries and IPOs, and what matters for patentability is the existence (or not) of prior art in the IPO considered, we would risk mixing real innovations with patents related to catching up phenomena in countries that are not at the forefront of the technology considered.

9 The five IP offices (IP5) is a forum of the five largest intellectual property offices in the world that was set up to improve the efficiency of the examination process for patents worldwide. The IP5 Offices together handle about 80% of the world’s patent applications, and 95% of all work carried out under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), see http://www.fiveipoffices.org. (Dernis et al., 2015) [p. 31]

AI assistance on this report

As noted earlier I have next to no experience with the analytical tools having not attempted this kind of work in several years. Here’s an example of what they were doing,

We utilize a combination of text embeddings based on Bidirectional Encoder
Representations from Transformer (BERT), dimensionality reduction, and hierarchical
clustering inspired by the BERTopic methodology 12 to identify latent themes within
research literature. Latent themes or topics in the context of topic modeling represent
clusters of words that frequently appear together within a collection of documents (Blei, 2012). These groupings are not explicitly labeled but are inferred through computational analysis examining patterns in word usage. These themes are ‘hidden’ within the text, only to be revealed through this analysis. …

We further utilize OpenAI’s GPT-4 model to enrich our understanding of topics’ keywords and to generate topic labels (OpenAI, 2023), thus supplementing expert review of the broad interdisciplinary corpus. Recently, GPT-4 has shown impressive results in medical contexts across various evaluations (Nori et al., 2023), making it a useful tool to enhance the information obtained from prior analysis stages, and to complement them. The automated process enhances the evaluation workflow, effectively emphasizing neuroscience themes pertinent to potential neurotechnology patents. Notwithstanding existing concerns about hallucinations (Lee, Bubeck and Petro, 2023) and errors in generative AI models, this methodology employs the GPT-4 model for summarization and interpretation tasks, which significantly mitigates the likelihood of hallucinations. Since the model is constrained to the context provided by the keyword collections, it limits the potential for fabricating information outside of the specified boundaries, thereby enhancing the accuracy and reliability of the output. [pp. 33-34]

I couldn’t resist adding the ChatGPT paragraph given all of the recent hoopla about it.

Multimodal neuromodulation and neuromorphic computing patents

I think this gives a pretty good indication of the activity on the patent front,

The largest, coherent topic, termed “multimodal neuromodulation,” comprises 535
patents detailing methodologies for deep or superficial brain stimulation designed to
address neurological and psychiatric ailments. These patented technologies interact with various points in neural circuits to induce either Long-Term Potentiation (LTP) or Long-Term Depression (LTD), offering treatment for conditions such as obsession, compulsion, anxiety, depression, Parkinson’s disease, and other movement disorders. The modalities encompass implanted deep-brain stimulators (DBS), Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), and transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS). Among the most representative documents for this cluster are patents with titles: Electrical stimulation of structures within the brain or Systems and methods for enhancing or optimizing neural stimulation therapy for treating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and or other movement disorders. [p.65]

Given my longstanding interest in memristors, which (I believe) have to a large extent helped to stimulate research into neuromorphic computing, this had to be included. Then, there was the brain-computer interfaces cluster,

A cluster identified as “Neuromorphic Computing” consists of 366 patents primarily
focused on devices designed to mimic human neural networks for efficient and adaptable computation. The principal elements of these inventions are resistive memory cells and artificial synapses. They exhibit properties similar to the neurons and synapses in biological brains, thus granting these devices the ability to learn and modulate responses based on rewards, akin to the adaptive cognitive capabilities of the human brain.

The primary technology classes associated with these patents fall under specific IPC
codes, representing the fields of neural network models, analog computers, and static
storage structures. Essentially, these classifications correspond to technologies that are key to the construction of computers and exhibit cognitive functions similar to human brain processes.

Examples for this cluster include neuromorphic processing devices that leverage
variations in resistance to store and process information, artificial synapses exhibiting
spike-timing dependent plasticity, and systems that allow event-driven learning and
reward modulation within neuromorphic computers.

In relation to neurotechnology as a whole, the “neuromorphic computing” cluster holds significant importance. It embodies the fusion of neuroscience and technology, thereby laying the basis for the development of adaptive and cognitive computational systems. Understanding this specific cluster provides a valuable insight into the progressing domain of neurotechnology, promising potential advancements across diverse fields, including artificial intelligence and healthcare.

The “Brain-Computer Interfaces” cluster, consisting of 146 patents, embodies a key aspect of neurotechnology that focuses on improving the interface between the brain and external devices. The technology classification codes associated with these patents primarily refer to methods or devices for treatment or protection of eyes and ears, devices for introducing media into, or onto, the body, and electric communication techniques, which are foundational elements of brain-computer interface (BCI) technologies.

Key patents within this cluster include a brain-computer interface apparatus adaptable to use environment and method of operating thereof, a double closed circuit brain-machine interface system, and an apparatus and method of brain-computer interface for device controlling based on brain signal. These inventions mainly revolve around the concept of using brain signals to control external devices, such as robotic arms, and improving the classification performance of these interfaces, even after long periods of non-use.

The inventions described in these patents improve the accuracy of device control, maintain performance over time, and accommodate multiple commands, thus significantly enhancing the functionality of BCIs.

Other identified technologies include systems for medical image analysis, limb rehabilitation, tinnitus treatment, sleep optimization, assistive exoskeletons, and advanced imaging techniques, among others. [pp. 66-67]

Having sections on neuromorphic computing and brain-computer interface patents in immediate proximity led to more speculation on my part. Imagine how much easier it would be to initiate a BCI connection if it’s powered with a neuromorphic (brainlike) computer/device. [ETA July 21, 2023: Following on from that thought, it might be more than just easier to initiate a BCI connection. Could a brainlike computer become part of your brain? Why not? it’s been successfully argued that a robotic wheelchair was part of someone’s body, see my January 30, 2013 posting and scroll down about 40% of the way.)]

Neurotech policy debates

The report concludes with this,

Neurotechnology is a complex and rapidly evolving technological paradigm whose
trajectories have the power to shape people’s identity, autonomy, privacy, sentiments,
behaviors and overall well-being, i.e. the very essence of what it means to be human.

Designing and implementing careful and effective norms and regulations ensuring that neurotechnology is developed and deployed in an ethical manner, for the good of
individuals and for society as a whole, call for a careful identification and characterization of the issues at stake. This entails shedding light on the whole neurotechnology ecosystem, that is what is being developed, where and by whom, and also understanding how neurotechnology interacts with other developments and technological trajectories, especially AI. Failing to do so may result in ineffective (at best) or distorted policies and policy decisions, which may harm human rights and human dignity.

Addressing the need for evidence in support of policy making, the present report offers first time robust data and analysis shedding light on the neurotechnology landscape worldwide. To this end, its proposes and implements an innovative approach that leverages artificial intelligence and deep learning on data from scientific publications and paten[t]s to identify scientific and technological developments in the neurotech space. The methodology proposed represents a scientific advance in itself, as it constitutes a quasi- automated replicable strategy for the detection and documentation of neurotechnology- related breakthroughs in science and innovation, to be repeated over time to account for the evolution of the sector. Leveraging this approach, the report further proposes an IPC-based taxonomy for neurotechnology which allows for a structured framework to the exploration of neurotechnology, to enable future research, development and analysis. The innovative methodology proposed is very flexible and can in fact be leveraged to investigate different emerging technologies, as they arise.

In terms of technological trajectories, we uncover a shift in the neurotechnology industry, with greater emphasis being put on computer and medical technologies in recent years, compared to traditionally dominant trajectories related to biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. This shift warrants close attention from policymakers, and calls for attention in relation to the latest (converging) developments in the field, especially AI and related methods and applications and neurotechnology.

This is all the more important and the observed growth and specialization patterns are unfolding in the context of regulatory environments that, generally, are either not existent or not fit for purpose. Given the sheer implications and impact of neurotechnology on the very essence of human beings, this lack of regulation poses key challenges related to the possible infringement of mental integrity, human dignity, personal identity, privacy, freedom of thought, and autonomy, among others. Furthermore, issues surrounding accessibility and the potential for neurotech enhancement applications triggers significant concerns, with far-reaching implications for individuals and societies. [pp. 72-73]

Last words about the report

Informative, readable, and thought-provoking. And, it helped broaden my understanding of neurotechnology.

Future endeavours?

I’m hopeful that one of these days one of these groups (UNESCO, Canadian Science Policy Centre, or ???) will tackle the issue of business bankruptcy in the neurotechnology sector. It has already occurred as noted in my ““Going blind when your neural implant company flirts with bankruptcy [long read]” April 5, 2022 posting. That story opens with a woman going blind in a New York subway when her neural implant fails. It’s how she found out the company, which supplied her implant was going out of business.

In my July 7, 2023 posting about the UNESCO July 2023 dialogue on neurotechnology, I’ve included information on Neuralink (one of Elon Musk’s companies) and its approval (despite some investigations) by the US Food and Drug Administration to start human clinical trials. Scroll down about 75% of the way to the “Food for thought” subhead where you will find stories about allegations made against Neuralink.

The end

If you want to know more about the field, the report offers a seven-page bibliography and there’s a lot of material here where you can start with this December 3, 2019 posting “Neural and technological inequalities” which features an article mentioning a discussion between two scientists. Surprisingly (to me), the source article is in Fast Company (a leading progressive business media brand), according to their tagline)..

I have two categories you may want to check: Human Enhancement and Neuromorphic Engineering. There are also a number of tags: neuromorphic computing, machine/flesh, brainlike computing, cyborgs, neural implants, neuroprosthetics, memristors, and more.

Should you have any observations or corrections, please feel free to leave them in the Comments section of this posting.

Biohybrid device (a new type of neural implant) could restore limb function

A March 23, 2023 news item on ScienceDaily announces a neural implant that addresses failures due to scarring issues,

Researchers have developed a new type of neural implant that could restore limb function to amputees and others who have lost the use of their arms or legs.

In a study carried out in rats, researchers from the University of Cambridge used the device to improve the connection between the brain and paralysed limbs. The device combines flexible electronics and human stem cells — the body’s ‘reprogrammable’ master cells — to better integrate with the nerve and drive limb function.

Previous attempts at using neural implants to restore limb function have mostly failed, as scar tissue tends to form around the electrodes over time, impeding the connection between the device and the nerve. By sandwiching a layer of muscle cells reprogrammed from stem cells between the electrodes and the living tissue, the researchers found that the device integrated with the host’s body and the formation of scar tissue was prevented. The cells survived on the electrode for the duration of the 28-day experiment, the first time this has been monitored over such a long period.

A March 22, 2023 University of Cambridge press release (also on EurekAlert but published March 23, 2023) by Sarah Collins, delves further into the topic,

The researchers say that by combining two advanced therapies for nerve regeneration – cell therapy and bioelectronics – into a single device, they can overcome the shortcomings of both approaches, improving functionality and sensitivity.

While extensive research and testing will be needed before it can be used in humans, the device is a promising development for amputees or those who have lost function of a limb or limbs. The results are reported in the journal Science Advances.

A huge challenge when attempting to reverse injuries that result in the loss of a limb or the loss of function of a limb is the inability of neurons to regenerate and rebuild disrupted neural circuits.

“If someone has an arm or a leg amputated, for example, all the signals in the nervous system are still there, even though the physical limb is gone,” said Dr Damiano Barone from Cambridge’s Department of Clinical Neurosciences, who co-led the research. “The challenge with integrating artificial limbs, or restoring function to arms or legs, is extracting the information from the nerve and getting it to the limb so that function is restored.”

One way of addressing this problem is implanting a nerve in the large muscles of the shoulder and attaching electrodes to it. The problem with this approach is scar tissue forms around the electrode, plus it is only possible to extract surface-level information from the electrode.

To get better resolution, any implant for restoring function would need to extract much more information from the electrodes. And to improve sensitivity, the researchers wanted to design something that could work on the scale of a single nerve fibre, or axon.

“An axon itself has a tiny voltage,” said Barone. “But once it connects with a muscle cell, which has a much higher voltage, the signal from the muscle cell is easier to extract. That’s where you can increase the sensitivity of the implant.”

The researchers designed a biocompatible flexible electronic device that is thin enough to be attached to the end of a nerve. A layer of stem cells, reprogrammed into muscle cells, was then placed on the electrode. This is the first time that this type of stem cell, called an induced pluripotent stem cell, has been used in a living organism in this way.

“These cells give us an enormous degree of control,” said Barone. “We can tell them how to behave and check on them throughout the experiment. By putting cells in between the electronics and the living body, the body doesn’t see the electrodes, it just sees the cells, so scar tissue isn’t generated.”

The Cambridge biohybrid device was implanted into the paralysed forearm of the rats. The stem cells, which had been transformed into muscle cells prior to implantation, integrated with the nerves in the rat’s forearm. While the rats did not have movement restored to their forearms, the device was able to pick up the signals from the brain that control movement. If connected to the rest of the nerve or a prosthetic limb, the device could help restore movement.

The cell layer also improved the function of the device, by improving resolution and allowing long-term monitoring inside a living organism. The cells survived through the 28-day experiment: the first time that cells have been shown to survive an extended experiment of this kind.

The researchers say that their approach has multiple advantages over other attempts to restore function in amputees. In addition to its easier integration and long-term stability, the device is small enough that its implantation would only require keyhole surgery. Other neural interfacing technologies for the restoration of function in amputees require complex patient-specific interpretations of cortical activity to be associated with muscle movements, while the Cambridge-developed device is a highly scalable solution since it uses ‘off the shelf’ cells.

In addition to its potential for the restoration of function in people who have lost the use of a limb or limbs, the researchers say their device could also be used to control prosthetic limbs by interacting with specific axons responsible for motor control.

“This interface could revolutionise the way we interact with technology,” said co-first author Amy Rochford, from the Department of Engineering. “By combining living human cells with bioelectronic materials, we’ve created a system that can communicate with the brain in a more natural and intuitive way, opening up new possibilities for prosthetics, brain-machine interfaces, and even enhancing cognitive abilities.”

“This technology represents an exciting new approach to neural implants, which we hope will unlock new treatments for patients in need,” said co-first author Dr Alejandro Carnicer-Lombarte, also from the Department of Engineering.

“This was a high-risk endeavour, and I’m so pleased that it worked,” said Professor George Malliaras from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who co-led the research. “It’s one of those things that you don’t know whether it will take two years or ten before it works, and it ended up happening very efficiently.”

The researchers are now working to further optimise the devices and improve their scalability. The team have filed a patent application on the technology with the support of Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s technology transfer arm.

The technology relies on opti-oxTM enabled muscle cells. opti-ox is a precision cellular reprogramming technology that enables faithful execution of genetic programmes in cells allowing them to be manufactured consistently at scale. The opti-ox enabled muscle iPSC cell lines used in the experiment were supplied by the Kotter lab [Mark Kotter] from the University of Cambridge. The opti-ox reprogramming technology is owned by synthetic biology company bit.bio.

The research was supported in part by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), Wellcome, and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme.

Caption: In a study carried out in rats, researchers from the University of Cambridge used a biohybrid device to improve the connection between the brain and paralysed limbs. The device combines flexible electronics and human stem cells – the body’s ‘reprogrammable’ master cells – to better integrate with the nerve and drive limb function. Credit: University of Cambirdge

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Functional neurological restoration of amputated peripheral nerve using biohybrid regenerative bioelectronics by Amy E. Rochford, Alejandro Carnicer-Lombarte, Malak Kawan, Amy Jin, Sam Hilton, Vincenzo F. Curto, Alexandra L. Rutz, Thomas Moreau, Mark R. N. Kotter, George G. Malliaras, and Damiano G. Barone. Science Advances 22 Mar 2023 Vol 9, Issue 12 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.add8162

This paper is open access.

The synthetic biology company mentioned in the press release, bit.bio is here