Tag Archives: brain-computer interface (BCI)

Digi, Nano, Bio, Neuro – why should we care more about converging technologies?

Personality in focus: the convergence of biology and computer technology could make extremely sensitive data available. (Image: by-​studio / AdobeStock) [downloaded from https://ethz.ch/en/news-and-events/eth-news/news/2024/05/digi-nano-bio-neuro-or-why-we-should-care-more-about-converging-technologies.html]

I gave a guest lecture some years ago where I mentioned that I thought the real issue with big data and AI (artificial intelligence) lay in combining them (or convergence). These days, it seems I was insufficiently imaginative as researchers from ETH Zurich have taken the notion much further.

From a May 7, 2024 ETH Zurich press release (also on EurekAlert), Note: You’ll see in the ‘References’ some extra words, ‘external page’ is self-explanatory but ‘call made’ remains a mystery to me,

In my research, I [Dirk Helbing, Professor of Computational Social Science at the Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences and associated with the Department of Computer Science at ETH Zurich.] deal with the consequences of digitalisation for people, society and democracy. In this context, it is also important to keep an eye on their convergence in computer and life sciences – i.e. what becomes possible when digital technologies grow increasingly together with biotechnology, neurotechnology and nanotechnology.

Converging technologies are seen as a breeding ground for far-​reaching innovations. However, they are blurring the boundaries between the physical, biological and digital worlds. Conventional regulations are becoming ineffective as a result.

In a joint study I conducted with my co-​author Marcello Ienca, we have recently examined the risks and societal challenges of technological convergence – and concluded that the effects for individuals and society are far-​reaching.

We would like to draw attention to the challenges and risks of converging technologies and explain why we consider it necessary to accompany technological developments internationally with strict regulations.

For several years now, everyone has been able to observe, within the context of digitalisation, the consequences of leaving technological change to market forces alone without effective regulation.

Misinformation and manipulation on the web

The Digital Manifesto was published in 2015 – almost ten years ago.1 Nine European experts, including one from ETH Zurich, issued an urgent warning against scoring, i.e. the evaluation of people, and big nudging,2 a subtle form of digital manipulation. The latter is based on personality profiles created using cookies and other surveillance data. A little later, the Cambridge Analytica scandal alerted the world to how the data analysis company had been using personalised ads (microtargeting) in an attempt to manipulate voting behaviour in democratic elections.

This has brought democracies around the world under considerable pressure. Propaganda, fake news and hate speech are polarising and sowing doubt, while privacy is on the decline. We are in the midst of an international information war for control of our minds, in which advertising companies, tech corporations, secret services and the military are fighting to exert an influence on our mindset and behaviour. The European Union has adopted the AI Act in an attempt to curb these dangers.

However, digital technologies have developed at a breathtaking pace, and new possibilities for manipulation are already emerging. The merging of digital and nanotechnology with modern biotechnology and neurotechnology makes revolutionary applications possible that had been hardly imaginable before.

Microrobots for precision medicine

In personalised medicine, for example, the advancing miniaturisation of electronics is making it increasingly possible to connect living organisms and humans with networked sensors and computing power. The WEF [World Economic Forum] proclaimed the “Internet of Bodies” as early as 2020.3, 4

One example that combines conventional medication with a monitoring function is digital pills. These could control medication and record a patient’s physiological data (see this blog post).

Experts expect sensor technology to reach the nanoscale. Magnetic nanoparticles or nanoelectronic components, i.e. tiny particles invisible to the naked eye with a diameter up to 100 nanometres, would make it possible to transport active substances, interact with cells and record vast amounts of data on bodily functions. If introduced into the body, it is hoped that diseases could be detected at an early stage and treated in a personalised manner. This is often referred to as high-​precision medicine.

Nano-​electrodes record brain function

Miniaturised electrodes that can simultaneously measure and manipulate the activity of thousands of neurons coupled with ever-​improving AI tools for the analysis of brain signals are approaches that are now leading to much-​discussed advances in the brain-​computer interface. Brain activity mapping is also on the agenda. Thanks to nano-​neurotechnology, we could soon envisage smartphones and other AI applications being controlled directly by thoughts.

“Long before precision medicine and neurotechnology work reliably, these technologies will be able to be used against people.” Dirk Helbling

Large-​scale projects to map the human brain are also likely to benefit from this.5 In future, brain activity mapping will not only be able to read our thoughts and feelings but also make them possible of being influenced remotely – the latter would probably be a lot more effective than previous manipulation methods like big nudging.

However, conventional electrodes are not suitable for permanent connection between cells and electronics – this requires durable and biocompatible interfaces. This has given rise to the suggestion of transmitting signals optogenetically, i.e. to control genes in special cells with light pulses.6 This would make the implementation of amazing circuits possible (see this ETH News article [November 11, 2014 press release] “Controlling genes with thoughts” ).

The downside of convergence

Admittedly, the applications mentioned above may sound futuristic, with most of them still visions or in their early stages of development. However, a lot of research is being conducted worldwide and at full speed. The military is also interested in using converging technologies for its own purposes. 7, 8

The downside of convergence is the considerable risks involved, such as state or private players gaining access to highly sensitive data and misusing it to monitor and influence people. The more connected our bodies become, the more vulnerable we will be to cybercrime and hacking. It cannot be ruled out that military applications exist already.5 One thing is clear, however: long before precision medicine and neurotechnology work reliably, these technologies will be able to be used against people.

“We need to regain control of our personal data. To do this, we need genuine informational self-​determination.” Dirk Helbling

The problem is that existing regulations are specific and insufficient to keep technological convergence in check. But how are we to retain control over our lives if it becomes increasingly possible to influence our thoughts, feelings and decisions by digital means?

Converging global regulation is needed

In our recent paper we conclude that any regulation of converging technologies would have to be based on converging international regulations. Accordingly, we outline a new global regulatory framework and propose ten governance principles to close the looming regulatory gap. 9

The framework emphasises the need for safeguards to protect bodily and mental functions from unauthorised interference and to ensure personal integrity and privacy by, for example. establishing neurorights.

To minimise risks and prevent abuse, future regulations should be inclusive, transparent and trustworthy. The principle of participatory governance is key, which would have to involve all the relevant groups and ensure that the concerns of affected minorities are also taken into account in decision-​making processes.

Finally, we need to regain control of our personal data. To accomplish this, we need genuine informational self-​determination. This would also have to apply to the digital twins of our body and personality, because they can be used to hack our health and our way of thinking – for good or for bad.10

With our contribution, we would like to initiate public debate about converging technologies. Despite its major relevance, we believe that too little attention is being paid to this topic. Continuous discourse on benefits, risks and sensible rules can help to steer technological convergence in such a way that it serves people instead of harming them.

Dirk Helbing wrote this article together with external page Marcello Ienca call_made, who previously worked at ETH Zurich and EPFL and is now Assistant Professor of Ethics of AI and Neuroscience at the Technical University of Munich.

References

1 Digital-​Manifest: external page Digitale Demokratie statt Datendiktatur call_made (2015) Spektrum der Wissenschaft

2 external page Sie sind das Ziel! call_made (2024) Schweizer Monat

3 external page The Internet of Bodies Is Here: Tackling new challenges of technology governance call_made (2020) World Economic Forum

4 external page Tracking how our bodies work could change our lives call_made (2020) World Economic Forum

5 external page Nanotools for Neuroscience and Brain Activity Mapping call_made (2013) ACS Nano

6 external page Innovationspotenziale der Mensch-​Maschine-Interaktion call_made (2016) Deutsche Akademie der Technikwissenschaften

7 external page Human Augmentation – The Dawn of a New Paradigm. A strategic implications project call_made (2021) UK Ministry of Defence

8 external page Behavioural change as the core of warfighting call_made (2017) Militaire Spectator

9 Helbing D, Ienca M: external page Why converging technologies need converging international regulation call_made (2024) Ethics and Information Technology

10 external page Who is Messing with Your Digital Twin? Body, Mind, and Soul for Sale? call_made Dirk Helbing TEDx Talk (2023)

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

Why converging technologies need converging international regulation by Dirk Helbing & Marcello Ienca. Ethics and Information Technology Volume 26, article number 15, (2024) DOI: 10.1007/s10676-024-09756-8 Published: 28 February 2024

This paper is open access.

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.

Youthful Canadian inventors win awards

Two teenagers stand next two each other displaying their inventions. One holds a laptop, while the other holds a wireless headset.
Vinny Gu, left, and Anush Mutyala, right, hope to continue to work to improve their inventions. (Niza Lyapa Nondo/CBC)

This November 28, 2023 article by Philip Drost for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) The Current radio programme highl8ights two youthful inventors, Note: Links have been removed,

Anush Mutyala [emphasis mine] may only be in Grade 12, but he already has hopes that his innovations and inventions will rival that of Elon Musk.

“I always tell my friends something that would be funny is if I’m competing head-to-head with Elon Musk in the race to getting people [neural] implants,” Mutyala told Matt Galloway on The Current

Mutyala, a student at Chinguacousy Secondary School in Brampton, Ont., created a brain imaging system that he says opens the future for permanent wireless neural implants. 

For his work, he received an award from Youth Science Canada at the National Fair in 2023, which highlights young people pushing innovation. 

Mutyala wanted to create a way for neural implants to last longer. Implants can help people hear better, or move parts of the body they otherwise couldn’t, but neural implants in particular face issues with regard to power consumption, and traditionally must be replaced by surgery after their batteries die. That can be every five years. 

But Mutyala thinks his system, Enerspike, can change that. The algorithm he designed lowers the energy consumption needed for implants to process and translate brain signals into making a limb move.

“You would essentially never need to replace wireless implants again for the purpose of battery replacement,” said Mutyala. 

Mutyala was inspired by Stephen Hawking, who famously spoke with the use of a speech synthesizer.

“What if we used technology like this and we were able to restore his complete communication ability? He would have been able to communicate at a much faster rate and he would have had a much greater impact on society,” said Mutyala. 

… Mutyala isn’t the only innovator. Vinny Gu [emphasis mine], a Grade 11 student at Markville Secondary School in Markham, Ont., also received an award for creating DermaScan, an online application that can look at a photo and predict whether the person photographed has skin cancer or not.

“There has [sic] been some attempts at this problem in the past. However, they usually result in very low accuracy. However, I incorporated a technology to help my model better detect the minor small details in the image in order for it to get a better prediction,” said Gu. 

He says it doesn’t replace visiting a dermatologist — but it can give people an option to do pre-screenings with ease, which can help them decide if they need to go see a dermatologist. He says his model is 90-per-cent accurate. 

He is currently testing Dermascan, and he hopes to one day make it available for free to anyone who needs it. 

Drost’s November 28, 2023 article hosts an embedded audio file of the radio interview and more.

You can find out about Anoush Mutyala and his work on his LinkedIn profile (in a addition to being a high school student, since October 2023, he’s also a neuromorphics researcher at York University). If my link to his profile fails, search Mutyala’s name online and access his public page at the LinkedIn website. There’s something else, Mutyala has an eponymous website.

My online searches for more about Vinny (or Vincent) Gu were not successful.

You can find a bit more information about Mutyala’s Enerspike here and Gu’s DermaScan here. Youth Science Canada can be found here.

Not to forget, there’s grade nine student Arushi Nath and her work on planetary defence, which is being recognized in a number of ways. (See my November 17, 2023 posting, Arushi Nath gives the inside story about the 2023 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Awards and my November 23, 2023 posting, Margot Lee Shetterly [Hidden Figures author] in Toronto, Canada and a little more STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] information.) I must say November 2023 has been quite the banner month for youth science in Canada.

Virtual panel discussion: Canadian Strategies for Responsible Neurotechnology Innovation on May 16, 2023

The Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) sent a May 11, 2023 notice (via email) about an upcoming event but first, congratulations (Bravo!) are in order,

The Science Meets Parliament [SMP] Program 2023 is now complete and was a huge success. 43 Delegates from across Canada met with 62 Parliamentarians from across the political spectrum on the Hill on May 1-2, 2023.

The SMP Program is championed by CSPC and Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer [through the Office of the Chief Science Advisor {OCSA}].

This Program would not have been possible without the generous support of our sponsors: The Royal Military College of Canada, The Stem Cell Network, and the University of British Columbia.

There are 443 seats in Canada’s Parliament with 338 in the House of Commons and 105 in the Senate and 2023 is the third time the SMP programme has been offered. (It was previously held in 2018 and 2022 according to the SMP program page.)

The Canadian programme is relatively new compared to Australia where they’ve had a Science Meets Parliament programme since 1999 (according to a March 20, 2017 essay by Ken Baldwin, Director of Energy Change Institute at Australian National University for The Conversation). The Scottish have had a Science and the Parliament programme since 2000 (according to this 2022 event notice on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s website).

By comparison to the other two, the Canadian programme is a toddler. (We tend not to recognize walking for the major achievement it is.) So, bravo to the CSPC and OCSA on getting 62 Parliamentarians to make time in their schedules to meet a scientist.

Responsible neurotechnology innovation?

From the Canadian Strategies for Responsible Neurotechnology Innovation event page on the CSPC website,

Advances in neurotechnology are redefining the possibilities of improving neurologic health and mental wellbeing, but related ethical, legal, and societal concerns such as privacy of brain data, manipulation of personal autonomy and agency, and non-medical and dual uses are increasingly pressing concerns [emphasis mine]. In this regard, neurotechnology presents challenges not only to Canada’s federal and provincial health care systems, but to existing laws and regulations that govern responsible innovation. In December 2019, just before the pandemic, the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] Council adopted a Recommendation on Responsible Innovation in Neurotechnology. It is now urging that member states develop right-fit implementation strategies.

What should these strategies look like for Canada? We will propose and discuss opportunities that balance and leverage different professional and governance approaches towards the goal of achieving responsible innovation for the current state of the art, science, engineering, and policy, and in anticipation of the rapid and vast capabilities expected for neurotechnology in the future by and for this country.

Link to the full OECD Recommendation on Responsible Innovation in Neurotechnology

Date: May 16 [2023]

Time: 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm EDT

Event Category: Virtual Session [on Zoom]

Registration Page: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_-g8d1qubRhumPSCQi6WUtA

The panelists are:

Dr. Graeme Moffat
Neurotechnology entrepreneur & Senior Fellow, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy [University of Toronto]

Dr. Graeme Moffat is a co-founder and scientist with System2 Neurotechnology. He previously was Chief Scientist and VP of Regulatory Affairs at Interaxon, Chief Scientist with ScienceScape (later Chan-Zuckerberg Meta), and a research engineer at Neurelec (a division of Oticon Medical). He served as Managing Editor of Frontiers in Neuroscience, the largest open access scholarly journal series in the field of neuroscience. Dr. Moffat is a Senior Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and an advisor to the OECD’s neurotechnology policy initiative.

Professor Jennifer Chandler
Professor of Law at the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics, University of Ottawa

Jennifer Chandler is Professor of Law at the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics, University of Ottawa. She leads the “Neuroethics Law and Society” Research Pillar for the Brain Mind Research Institute and sits on its Scientific Advisory Council. Her research focuses on the ethical, legal and policy issues in brain sciences and the law. She teaches mental health law and neuroethics, tort law, and medico-legal issues. She is a member of the advisory board for CIHR’s Institute for Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction (IMNA) and serves on international editorial boards in the field of law, ethics and neuroscience, including Neuroethics, the Springer Book Series Advances in Neuroethics, and the Palgrave-MacMillan Book Series Law, Neuroscience and Human Behavior. She has published widely in legal, bioethical and health sciences journals and is the co-editor of the book Law and Mind: Mental Health Law and Policy in Canada (2016). Dr. Chandler brings a unique perspective to this panel as her research focuses on the ethical, legal and policy issues at the intersection of the brain sciences and the law. She is active in Canadian neuroscience research funding policy, and regularly contributes to Canadian governmental policy on contentious matters of biomedicine.

Ian Burkhart
Neurotech Advocate and Founder of BCI [brain-computer interface] Pioneers Coalition

Ian is a C5 tetraplegic [also known as quadriplegic] from a diving accident in 2010. He participated in a ground-breaking clinical trial using a brain-computer interface to control muscle stimulation. He is the founder of the BCI Pioneers Coalition, which works to establish ethics, guidelines and best practices for future patients, clinicians, and commercial entities engaging with BCI research. Ian serves as Vice President of the North American Spinal Cord Injury Consortium and chairs their project review committee. He has also worked with Unite2Fight Paralysis to advocate for $9 million of SCI research in his home state of Ohio. Ian has been a Reeve peer mentor since 2015 and helps lead two local SCI networking groups. As the president of the Ian Burkhart Foundation, he raises funds for accessible equipment for the independence of others with SCI. Ian is also a full-time consultant working with multiple medical device companies.

Andrew Atkinson
Manager, Emerging Science Policy, Health Canada

Andrew Atkinson is the Manager of the Emerging Sciences Policy Unit under the Strategic Policy Branch of Health Canada. He oversees coordination of science policy issues across the various regulatory and research programs under the mandate of Health Canada. Prior to Health Canada, he was a manager under Environment Canada’s CEPA new chemicals program, where he oversaw chemical and nanomaterial risk assessments, and the development of risk assessment methodologies. In parallel to domestic work, he has been actively engaged in ISO [International Organization for Standardization and OECD nanotechnology efforts.

Andrew is currently a member of the Canadian delegation to the OECD Working Party on Biotechnology, Nanotechnology and Converging Technologies (BNCT). BNCT aims to contribute original policy analysis on emerging science and technologies, such as gene editing and neurotechnology, including messaging to the global community, convening key stakeholders in the field, and making ground-breaking proposals to policy makers.

Professor Judy Illes
Professor, Division of Neurology, Department of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, UBC [University of British Columbia]

Dr. Illes is Professor of Neurology and Distinguished Scholar in Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia. She is the Director of Neuroethics Canada, and among her many leadership positions in Canada, she is Vice Chair of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Advisory Board of the Institute on Neuroscience, Mental Health and Addiction (INMHA), and chair of the International Brain Initiative (www.internationalbraininitiative.org; www.canadianbrain.ca), Director at Large of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Council of Canadian Academies.

Dr. Illes is a world-renown expert whose research, teaching and outreach are devoted to ethical, legal, social and policy challenges at the intersection of the brain sciences and biomedical ethics. She has made ground breaking contributions to neuroethical thinking for neuroscience discovery and clinical translation across the life span, including in entrepreneurship and in the commercialization of health care. Dr. Illes has a unique and comprehensive overview of the field of neurotechnology and the relevant sectors in Canada.

One concern I don’t see mentioned is bankruptcy (in other words, what happens if the company that made your neural implant goes bankrupt?) either in the panel description or in the OECD recommendation. My April 5, 2022 posting “Going blind when your neural implant company flirts with bankruptcy (long read)” explored that topic and while many of the excerpted materials present a US perspective, it’s easy to see how it could also apply in Canada and elsewhere.

For those of us on the West Coast, this session starts at 9 am. Enjoy!

*June 20, 2023: This sentence changed (We tend not to recognize that walking for the major achievement it is.) to We tend not to recognize walking for the major achievement it is.

Better recording with flexible backing on a brain-computer interface (BCI)

This work has already been patented, from a March 15, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily,

Engineering researchers have invented an advanced brain-computer interface with a flexible and moldable backing and penetrating microneedles. Adding a flexible backing to this kind of brain-computer interface allows the device to more evenly conform to the brain’s complex curved surface and to more uniformly distribute the microneedles that pierce the cortex. The microneedles, which are 10 times thinner than the human hair, protrude from the flexible backing, penetrate the surface of the brain tissue without piercing surface venules, and record signals from nearby nerve cells evenly across a wide area of the cortex.

This novel brain-computer interface has thus far been tested in rodents. The details were published online on February 25 [2022] in the journal Advanced Functional Materials. This work is led by a team in the lab of electrical engineering professor Shadi Dayeh at the University of California San Diego, together with researchers at Boston University led by biomedical engineering professor Anna Devor.

Caption: Artist rendition of the flexible, conformable, transparent backing of the new brain-computer interface with penetrating microneedles developed by a team led by engineers at the University of California San Diego in the laboratory of electrical engineering professor Shadi Dayeh. The smaller illustration at bottom left shows the current technology in experimental use called Utah Arrays. Credit: Shadi Dayeh / UC San Diego / SayoStudio

A March 14, 2022 University of California at San Diego news release (also on EurekAlert but published March 15, 2022), which originated the news item, delves further into the topic,

This new brain-computer interface is on par with and outperforms the “Utah Array,” which is the existing gold standard for brain-computer interfaces with penetrating microneedles. The Utah Array has been demonstrated to help stroke victims and people with spinal cord injury. People with implanted Utah Arrays are able to use their thoughts to control robotic limbs and other devices in order to restore some everyday activities such as moving objects.

The backing of the new brain-computer interface is flexible, conformable, and reconfigurable, while the Utah Array has a hard and inflexible backing. The flexibility and conformability of the backing of the novel microneedle-array favors closer contact between the brain and the electrodes, which allows for better and more uniform recording of the brain-activity signals. Working with rodents as model species, the researchers have demonstrated stable broadband recordings producing robust signals for the duration of the implant which lasted 196 days. 

In addition, the way the soft-backed brain-computer interfaces are manufactured allows for larger sensing surfaces, which means that a significantly larger area of the brain surface can be monitored simultaneously. In the Advanced Functional Materials paper, the researchers demonstrate that a penetrating microneedle array with 1,024 microneedles successfully recorded signals triggered by precise stimuli from the brains of rats. This represents ten times more microneedles and ten times the area of brain coverage, compared to current technologies.

Thinner and transparent backings

These soft-backed brain-computer interfaces are thinner and lighter than the traditional, glass backings of these kinds of brain-computer interfaces. The researchers note in their Advanced Functional Materials paper that light, flexible backings may reduce irritation of the brain tissue that contacts the arrays of sensors. 

The flexible backings are also transparent. In the new paper, the researchers demonstrate that this transparency can be leveraged to perform fundamental neuroscience research involving animal models that would not be possible otherwise. The team, for example, demonstrated simultaneous electrical recording from arrays of penetrating micro-needles as well as optogenetic photostimulation.

Two-sided lithographic manufacturing

The flexibility, larger microneedle array footprints, reconfigurability and transparency of the backings of the new brain sensors are all thanks to the double-sided lithography approach the researchers used. 

Conceptually, starting from a rigid silicon wafer, the team’s manufacturing process allows them to build microscopic circuits and devices on both sides of the rigid silicon wafer. On one side, a flexible, transparent film is added on top of the silicon wafer. Within this film, a bilayer of titanium and gold traces is embedded so that the traces line up with where the needles will be manufactured on the other side of the silicon wafer. 

Working from the other side, after the flexible film has been added, all the silicon is etched away, except for free-standing, thin, pointed columns of silicon. These pointed columns of silicon are, in fact, the microneedles, and their bases align with the titanium-gold traces within the flexible layer that remains after the silicon has been etched away. These titanium-gold traces are patterned via standard and scalable microfabrication techniques, allowing scalable production with minimal manual labor. The manufacturing process offers the possibility of flexible array design and scalability to tens of thousands of microneedles.  

Toward closed-loop systems

Looking to the future, penetrating microneedle arrays with large spatial coverage will be needed to improve brain-machine interfaces to the point that they can be used in “closed-loop systems” that can help individuals with severely limited mobility. For example, this kind of closed-loop system might offer a person using a robotic hand real-time tactical feedback on the objects the robotic hand is grasping.  

Tactile sensors on the robotic hand would sense the hardness, texture, and weight of an object. This information recorded by the sensors would be translated into electrical stimulation patterns which travel through wires outside the body to the brain-computer interface with penetrating microneedles. These electrical signals would provide information directly to the person’s brain about the hardness, texture, and weight of the object. In turn, the person would adjust their grasp strength based on sensed information directly from the robotic arm. 

This is just one example of the kind of closed-loop system that could be possible once penetrating microneedle arrays can be made larger to conform to the brain and coordinate activity across the “command” and “feedback” centers of the brain.

Previously, the Dayeh laboratory invented and demonstrated the kinds of tactile sensors that would be needed for this kind of application, as highlighted in this video.

Pathway to commercialization

The advanced dual-side lithographic microfabrication processes described in this paper are patented (US 10856764). Dayeh co-founded Precision Neurotek Inc. to translate technologies innovated in his laboratory to advance state of the art in clinical practice and to advance the fields of neuroscience and neurophysiology.

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

Scalable Thousand Channel Penetrating Microneedle Arrays on Flex for Multimodal and Large Area Coverage BrainMachine Interfaces by Sang Heon Lee, Martin Thunemann, Keundong Lee, Daniel R. Cleary, Karen J. Tonsfeldt, Hongseok Oh, Farid Azzazy, Youngbin Tchoe, Andrew M. Bourhis, Lorraine Hossain, Yun Goo Ro, Atsunori Tanaka, Kıvılcım Kılıç, Anna Devor, Shadi A. Dayeh. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.202112045 First published (online): 25 February 2022

This paper is open access.

Brain composer

This is a representation of the work they are doing on brain-computer interfaces (BCI) at the Technical University of Graz (TU Graz; Austria),

A Sept. 11, 2017 news item on phys.org announces the research into thinking melodies turning them into a musical score,

TU Graz researchers develop new brain-computer interface application that allows music to be composed by the power of thought. They have published their results in the current issue of the journal PLOS ONE.

Brain-computer interfaces (BCI) can replace bodily functions to a certain degree. Thanks to BCI, physically impaired persons can control special prostheses via their minds, surf the internet and write emails.

A group led by BCI expert Gernot Müller-Putz from TU Graz’s Institute of Neural Engineering shows that experiences of quite a different tone can be sounded from the keys of brain-computer interfaces. Derived from an established BCI method for writing, the team has developed a new application by which music can be composed and transferred onto a musical score through the power of thought. It employs a special cap that measures brain waves, the adapted BCI, music composition software, and a bit of musical knowledge.

A Sept. 6, 2017 TU Graz press release by Suzanne Eigner, which originated the news item, explains the research in more detail,

The basic principle of the BCI method used, which is called P300, can be briefly described: various options, such as letters or notes, pauses, chords, etc. flash by one after the other in a table. If you’re trained and can focus on the desired option while it lights up, you cause a minute change in your brain waves. The BCI recognises this change and draws conclusions about the chosen option.

Musical test persons

18 test persons chosen for the study by Gernot Müller-Putz, Andreas Pinegger and Selina C. Wriessnegger from TU Graz’s Institute of Neural Engineering as well as Hannah Hiebel, meanwhile at the Institute of Cognitive Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of Graz, had to “think” melodies onto a musical score. All test subjects were of sound bodily health during the study and had a certain degree of basic musical and compositional knowledge since they all played musical instruments to some degree. Among the test persons was the late Graz composer and clarinettist, Franz Cibulka. “The results of the BCI compositions can really be heard. And what is more important: the test persons enjoyed it. After a short training session, all of them could start composing and seeing their melodies on the score and then play them. The very positive results of the study with bodily healthy test persons are the first step in a possible expansion of the BCI composition to patients,” stresses Müller-Putz.

Sideshow of BCI research

This little-noticed sideshow of the lively BCI research at TU Graz, with its distinct focus on disabled persons, shows us which other avenues may yet be worth exploring. Meanwhile there are some initial attempts at BCI systems on smart phones. This makes it easier for people to use BCI applications, since the smart phone as powerful computer is becoming part of the BCI system. It is thus conceivable, for instance, to have BCI apps which can analyse brain signals for various applications. “20 years ago, the idea of composing a piece of music using the power of the mind was unimaginable. Now we can do it, and at the same time have tens of new, different ideas which are in part, once again, a long way from becoming reality. We still need a bit more time before it is mature enough for daily applications. The BCI community is working in many directions at high pressure.

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

Composing only by thought: Novel application of the P300 brain-computer interface by Andreas Pinegger, Hannah Hiebel, Selina C. Wriessnegger, Gernot R. Müller-Putz. PLOS https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0181584 Published: September 6, 2017

This paper is open access.

This BCI ‘sideshow’ reminded me of The Music Man, a musical by Meredith Wilson. It was both a play and a film  and I’ve only ever seen the 1962 film. It features a con man, Harold Hill, who sells musical instruments and uniforms in small towns in Iowa. He has no musical training but while he’s conning the townspeople he convinces them that he can provide musical training with his ‘think method’. After falling in love with one of the townsfolk, he is hunted down and made to prove his method works. This is a clip from a Broadway revival of the play where Harold Hill is hoping that his ‘think method’ while yield results,

Of course, the people in this study had musicaltraining so they could think a melody into a musical score but I find the echo from the past amusing nonetheless.

Quadriplegic man reanimates a limb with implanted brain-recording and muscle-stimulating systems

It took me a few minutes to figure out why this item about a quadriplegic (also known as, tetraplegic) man is news. After all, I have a May 17, 2012 posting which features a video and information about a quadri(tetra)plegic woman who was drinking her first cup of coffee, independently, in many years. The difference is that she was using an external robotic arm and this man is using *his own arm*,

This Case Western Reserve University (CRWU) video accompanies a March 28, 2017 CRWU news release, (h/t ScienceDaily March 28, 2017 news item)

Bill Kochevar grabbed a mug of water, drew it to his lips and drank through the straw.

His motions were slow and deliberate, but then Kochevar hadn’t moved his right arm or hand for eight years.

And it took some practice to reach and grasp just by thinking about it.

Kochevar, who was paralyzed below his shoulders in a bicycling accident, is believed to be the first person with quadriplegia in the world to have arm and hand movements restored with the help of two temporarily implanted technologies.

A brain-computer interface with recording electrodes under his skull, and a functional electrical stimulation (FES) system* activating his arm and hand, reconnect his brain to paralyzed muscles.

Holding a makeshift handle pierced through a dry sponge, Kochevar scratched the side of his nose with the sponge. He scooped forkfuls of mashed potatoes from a bowl—perhaps his top goal—and savored each mouthful.

“For somebody who’s been injured eight years and couldn’t move, being able to move just that little bit is awesome to me,” said Kochevar, 56, of Cleveland. “It’s better than I thought it would be.”

Kochevar is the focal point of research led by Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) Center at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center and University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center (UH). A study of the work was published in the The Lancet March 28 [2017] at 6:30 p.m. U.S. Eastern time.

“He’s really breaking ground for the spinal cord injury community,” said Bob Kirsch, chair of Case Western Reserve’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, executive director of the FES Center and principal investigator (PI) and senior author of the research. “This is a major step toward restoring some independence.”

When asked, people with quadriplegia say their first priority is to scratch an itch, feed themselves or perform other simple functions with their arm and hand, instead of relying on caregivers.

“By taking the brain signals generated when Bill attempts to move, and using them to control the stimulation of his arm and hand, he was able to perform personal functions that were important to him,” said Bolu Ajiboye, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and lead study author.

Technology and training

The research with Kochevar is part of the ongoing BrainGate2* pilot clinical trial being conducted by a consortium of academic and VA institutions assessing the safety and feasibility of the implanted brain-computer interface (BCI) system in people with paralysis. Other investigational BrainGate research has shown that people with paralysis can control a cursor on a computer screen or a robotic arm (braingate.org).

“Every day, most of us take for granted that when we will to move, we can move any part of our body with precision and control in multiple directions and those with traumatic spinal cord injury or any other form of paralysis cannot,” said Benjamin Walter, associate professor of neurology at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, clinical PI of the Cleveland BrainGate2 trial and medical director of the Deep Brain Stimulation Program at UH Cleveland Medical Center.

“The ultimate hope of any of these individuals is to restore this function,” Walter said. “By restoring the communication of the will to move from the brain directly to the body this work will hopefully begin to restore the hope of millions of paralyzed individuals that someday they will be able to move freely again.”

Jonathan Miller, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and director of the Functional and Restorative Neurosurgery Center at UH, led a team of surgeons who implanted two 96-channel electrode arrays—each about the size of a baby aspirin—in Kochevar’s motor cortex, on the surface of the brain.

The arrays record brain signals created when Kochevar imagines movement of his own arm and hand. The brain-computer interface extracts information from the brain signals about what movements he intends to make, then passes the information to command the electrical stimulation system.

To prepare him to use his arm again, Kochevar first learned how to use his brain signals to move a virtual-reality arm on a computer screen.

“He was able to do it within a few minutes,” Kirsch said. “The code was still in his brain.”

As Kochevar’s ability to move the virtual arm improved through four months of training, the researchers believed he would be capable of controlling his own arm and hand.

Miller then led a team that implanted the FES systems’ 36 electrodes that animate muscles in the upper and lower arm.

The BCI decodes the recorded brain signals into the intended movement command, which is then converted by the FES system into patterns of electrical pulses.

The pulses sent through the FES electrodes trigger the muscles controlling Kochevar’s hand, wrist, arm, elbow and shoulder. To overcome gravity that would otherwise prevent him from raising his arm and reaching, Kochevar uses a mobile arm support, which is also under his brain’s control.

New Capabilities

Eight years of muscle atrophy required rehabilitation. The researchers exercised Kochevar’s arm and hand with cyclical electrical stimulation patterns. Over 45 weeks, his strength, range of motion and endurance improved. As he practiced movements, the researchers adjusted stimulation patterns to further his abilities.

Kochevar can make each joint in his right arm move individually. Or, just by thinking about a task such as feeding himself or getting a drink, the muscles are activated in a coordinated fashion.

When asked to describe how he commanded the arm movements, Kochevar told investigators, “I’m making it move without having to really concentrate hard at it…I just think ‘out’…and it goes.”

Kocehvar is fitted with temporarily implanted FES technology that has a track record of reliable use in people. The BCI and FES system together represent early feasibility that gives the research team insights into the potential future benefit of the combined system.

Advances needed to make the combined technology usable outside of a lab are not far from reality, the researchers say. Work is underway to make the brain implant wireless, and the investigators are improving decoding and stimulation patterns needed to make movements more precise. Fully implantable FES systems have already been developed and are also being tested in separate clinical research.

Kochevar welcomes new technology—even if it requires more surgery—that will enable him to move better. “This won’t replace caregivers,” he said. “But, in the long term, people will be able, in a limited way, to do more for themselves.”

There is more about the research in a March 29, 2017 article by Sarah Boseley for The Guardian,

Bill Kochevar, 53, has had electrical implants in the motor cortex of his brain and sensors inserted in his forearm, which allow the muscles of his arm and hand to be stimulated in response to signals from his brain, decoded by computer. After eight years, he is able to drink and feed himself without assistance.

“I think about what I want to do and the system does it for me,” Kochevar told the Guardian. “It’s not a lot of thinking about it. When I want to do something, my brain does what it does.”

The experimental technology, pioneered by the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, is the first in the world to restore brain-controlled reaching and grasping in a person with complete paralysis.

For now, the process is relatively slow, but the scientists behind the breakthrough say this is proof of concept and that they hope to streamline the technology until it becomes a routine treatment for people with paralysis. In the future, they say, it will also be wireless and the electrical arrays and sensors will all be implanted under the skin and invisible.

A March 28, 2017 Lancet news release on EurekAlert provides a little more technical insight into the research and Kochevar’s efforts,

Although only tested with one participant, the study is a major advance and the first to restore brain-controlled reaching and grasping in a person with complete paralysis. The technology, which is only for experimental use in the USA, circumvents rather than repairs spinal injuries, meaning the participant relies on the device being implanted and switched on to move.

“Our research is at an early stage, but we believe that this neuro-prosthesis could offer individuals with paralysis the possibility of regaining arm and hand functions to perform day-to-day activities, offering them greater independence,” said lead author Dr Bolu Ajiboye, Case Western Reserve University, USA. “So far it has helped a man with tetraplegia to reach and grasp, meaning he could feed himself and drink. With further development, we believe the technology could give more accurate control, allowing a wider range of actions, which could begin to transform the lives of people living with paralysis.” [1]

Previous research has used similar elements of the neuro-prosthesis. For example, a brain-computer interface linked to electrodes on the skin has helped a person with less severe paralysis open and close his hand, while other studies have allowed participants to control a robotic arm using their brain signals. However, this is the first to restore reaching and grasping via the system in a person with a chronic spinal cord injury.

In this study, a 53 year-old man who had been paralysed below the shoulders for eight years underwent surgery to have the neuro-prosthesis fitted.

This involved brain surgery to place sensors in the motor cortex area of his brain responsible for hand movement – creating a brain-computer interface that learnt which movements his brain signals were instructing for. This initial stage took four months and included training using a virtual reality arm.

He then underwent another procedure placing 36 muscle stimulating electrodes into his upper and lower arm, including four that helped restore finger and thumb, wrist, elbow and shoulder movements. These were switched on 17 days after the procedure, and began stimulating the muscles for eight hours a week over 18 weeks to improve strength, movement and reduce muscle fatigue.

The researchers then wired the brain-computer interface to the electrical stimulators in his arm, using a decoder (mathematical algorithm) to translate his brain signals into commands for the electrodes in his arm. The electrodes stimulated the muscles to produce contractions, helping the participant intuitively complete the movements he was thinking of. The system also involved an arm support to stop gravity simply pulling his arm down.

During his training, the participant described how he controlled the neuro-prosthesis: “It’s probably a good thing that I’m making it move without having to really concentrate hard at it. I just think ‘out’ and it just goes.”

After 12 months of having the neuro-prosthesis fitted, the participant was asked to complete day-to-day tasks, including drinking a cup of coffee and feeding himself. First of all, he observed while his arm completed the action under computer control. During this, he thought about making the same movement so that the system could recognise the corresponding brain signals. The two systems were then linked and he was able to use it to drink a coffee and feed himself.

He successfully drank in 11 out of 12 attempts, and it took him roughly 20-40 seconds to complete the task. When feeding himself, he did so multiple times – scooping forkfuls of food and navigating his hand to his mouth to take several bites.

“Although similar systems have been used before, none of them have been as easy to adopt for day-to-day use and they have not been able to restore both reaching and grasping actions,” said Dr Ajiboye. “Our system builds on muscle stimulating electrode technology that is already available and will continue to improve with the development of new fully implanted and wireless brain-computer interface systems. This could lead to enhanced performance of the neuro-prosthesis with better speed, precision and control.” [1]

At the time of the study, the participant had had the neuro-prosthesis implanted for almost two years (717 days) and in this time experienced four minor, non-serious adverse events which were treated and resolved.

Despite its achievements, the neuro-prosthesis still had some limitations, including that movements made using it were slower and less accurate than those made using the virtual reality arm the participant used for training. When using the technology, the participant also needed to watch his arm as he lost his sense of proprioception – the ability to intuitively sense the position and movement of limbs – as a result of the paralysis.

Writing in a linked Comment, Dr Steve Perlmutter, University of Washington, USA, said: “The goal is futuristic: a paralysed individual thinks about moving her arm as if her brain and muscles were not disconnected, and implanted technology seamlessly executes the desired movement… This study is groundbreaking as the first report of a person executing functional, multi-joint movements of a paralysed limb with a motor neuro-prosthesis. However, this treatment is not nearly ready for use outside the lab. The movements were rough and slow and required continuous visual feedback, as is the case for most available brain-machine interfaces, and had restricted range due to the use of a motorised device to assist shoulder movements… Thus, the study is a proof-of-principle demonstration of what is possible, rather than a fundamental advance in neuro-prosthetic concepts or technology. But it is an exciting demonstration nonetheless, and the future of motor neuro-prosthetics to overcome paralysis is brighter.”

[1] Quote direct from author and cannot be found in the text of the Article.

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

Restoration of reaching and grasping movements through brain-controlled muscle stimulation in a person with tetraplegia: a proof-of-concept demonstration by A Bolu Ajiboye, Francis R Willett, Daniel R Young, William D Memberg, Brian A Murphy, Jonathan P Miller, Benjamin L Walter, Jennifer A Sweet, Harry A Hoyen, Michael W Keith, Prof P Hunter Peckham, John D Simeral, Prof John P Donoghue, Prof Leigh R Hochberg, Prof Robert F Kirsch. The Lancet DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(17)30601-3 Published: 28 March 2017 [online?]

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone  who’s interested, you can find the BrainGate website here.

*I initially misidentified the nature of the achievement and stated that Kochevar used a “robotic arm, which is attached to his body” when it was his own reanimated arm. Corrected on April 25, 2017.