Neuronal implants and the race to merge the human brain with artificial intelligence

Neuronal implants and the race to merge the human brain with artificial intelligence

13. September 2019 0 Von Horst Buchwald

Neuronal implants and the race to merge the human brain with artificial intelligence

New York, 12.9.2019

There is a new race in Silicon Valley with artificial intelligence and no, it is not HealthTech, FinTech, Voice Commerce or Google, Facebook or Microsoft… this race affects the brain and especially the brain-computer interfaces.

This race is determined by technology licenses, the U.S. government, billion dollar arms companies, a strong connection to PayPal, and years of medical research to understand the human brain and implant devices so well that in the end a brain-computer interface becomes a reality for consumers. The new breed is therefore also called „neural implants that fuse the human brain with the AI.

What exactly are neuronal implants?

Brain implants, often referred to as neural implants, are technological devices that connect directly to the brain of a biological subject – usually on the surface of the brain or in the cortex. A common purpose of modern brain implants and the focus of much current research is the establishment of a biomedical prosthesis that replaces areas of the brain that have become dysfunctional following a stroke or other head injury. This also includes sensory substitution, e.g. during vision.

Other brain implants are used in animal experiments to measure brain activity for scientific reasons. Some brain implants involve the creation of interfaces between neuronal systems and computer chips. This work is part of a broader field of research called brain-computer interfaces. (Brain-computer interface research also includes technologies such as EEG arrays that provide an interface between mind and machine, but do not require direct implantation of a device.)

Neuronal implants such as deep brain stimulation and vagus nerve stimulation are increasingly becoming routine for patients with Parkinson’s disease or clinical depression and are proving to be a blessing for people with diseases that were previously considered incurable.

Which companies are at the forefront? .

1) Kernel

Kernel is the brain child of multimillionaire Bryan Johnson, who has only one goal: to increase human intelligence. With the support of researchers from NYU, MIT, Columbia, USC and Northwestern University, the company develops its own hardware and software for the treatment of neurological diseases such as epilepsy, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Kernel’s primary goal is to develop technologies to understand and treat neurological diseases in new and exciting ways. Once this is achieved, their goal is to interpret the complex functions of the brain to create applications for improving cognitive skills.

Kernel consists of a team of neuroscientists and engineers driven by the belief that brain research is the most pressing and important challenge of this century. They build on two decades of groundbreaking research and work closely with private partners and the world’s best scientists to develop the tools that will enable the future of neuroscience.

2) Neuralink

Neuralink is a US start-up company developing implantable human-computer interfaces such as a neural tip. The company was founded in 2016 by Elon Musk and first went public in March 2017.

#Neuralink Corp. was founded in the US state of Delaware, as is common for many companies, but is registered in California as a medical research company. According to CEO Elon Musk, the company’s goal is to complement people so that they continue to be economically useful in competition with machines.

Similar technologies are currently being researched and developed at universities and institutions. Other companies developing this technology include Bryan Johnson’s company Kernel, Facebook, NeuroSky, Netflix, Thync, NyVind, Neuroverse, Emotiv and DARPA.

3) Synchronous

Synchron, a US company for neuronal interfaces, is developing STENTRODE™, the world’s first endovascular electrode array. This is a minimally invasive implantable device for interpreting signals in the brain.

STENTRODE™ can ultimately help diagnose and treat a range of brain pathologies including paralysis, epilepsy and movement disorders. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) provided seed funding for the development of the STENTRODE™ technology.

Synchron is currently preparing a clinical pilot study of STENTRODE™ to evaluate the safety and feasibility of the device to enable patient-centered brain control via mobility devices.

Synchron works with many of the world’s leading medical, technical and bionics companies. CEO and founder, Dr. Tom Oxley, is Laboratory Director of the Vascular Bionics Laboratory, Department of Medicine (Royal Melbourne Hospital), University of Melbourne. Dr. Oxley led a team of 39 scientists from 16 departments to publish a groundbreaking paper on natural biotechnology in February 2016.

Over the years, Synchron has built relationships with strategic multinational equipment companies, innovative global manufacturers and a commercialization infrastructure within the Silicon Valley medtech industry.

Hype or Hope?

Is it all just science fiction? A big dream of rich Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, arms companies and futurists? No, the long-standing dream of building an artificial brain with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) has recently taken a significant step forward in Great Britain.

A team led by Professor Newton Howard at the University of Oxford has successfully prototyped a nanoscale, AI-operated artificial brain in the form factor of a neuronal implant with high bandwidth.

Qualcomm, Intel, Georgetown University, the Brain Sciences Foundation and Professor Howards Oxford Computational Neuroscience Lab have successfully collaborated to develop the proprietary algorithms and optoelectronics required for a high-bandwidth neural implant.

This important first step forward culminates in more than a decade of research by Professor Howard at MIT’s Synthetic Intelligence Lab and the University of Oxford, which resulted in several U.S. patents for the technologies and algorithms used to power the device.

Graphs and the Future

The majority of the latest developments include the design of next-generation neural interfaces with graphs and other two-dimensional (2D) materials. These materials have a number of properties (flexibility, electrical mobility, large surface area available for interaction with neural components and suitable for surface modifications) that can enable enhanced functional capabilities for neural interfaces.

Any neural interface designed for implantation should be as minimally invasive as possible, allow simple surgical intervention and provide efficient and consistent activity throughout its lifetime. Basically, three major technological challenges are required to achieve sufficient efficacy:

The recording possibilities should allow the detection of signals of individual neurons (up to a few dozen µV) and of neuron arrangements (inducing field potentials of a few dozen µV); recording should be possible over large areas (up to several dozen cm2) and with high spatial resolution (hundreds of µm2 of the active recording location).

Electrical stimulation requires a minimum of charge injection capacity to induce a response in the tissue to be stimulated. Typically, electrode materials should be able to deliver hundreds of µC cm-2 to a few mC cm-2 in pulses between 100 µs and 1 ms in the order of hundreds. Such a large charge injection capacity should allow focal stimulation with electrodes with active areas up to hundreds of µm2.

In order to minimize the reaction of foreign bodies, electrical neural interfaces should exhibit excellent biocompatibility and mechanical correspondence of the neural tissue surrounding the device.