15 July 2017

Next-Level Brain Implants

Current brain implants are less than ideal. They are crude brain-computer interface (BCI) devices that are implanted during an invasive procedure, and a relatively small number of electrodes make contact with the brain despite the large size of the devices. While they are somewhat effective in the mitigation of the effects of epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and other neurodegenerative conditions, they’d be far more useful with more electrodes making contact than the mere tens of thousands that is possible now. To dramatically improve BCIs, scientists need to create an implant device that is less invasive than current methods and can still offer more interactive channels, including direct interfaces with the visual and auditory cortices. This kind of BCI would create a vastly expanded range of contact points for brain function support by artificial systems.

Enter the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and its Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program. Their goal is to invent exactly this kind of device, with the specific intent to help people with hearing and vision impairment and neurodegenerative diseases, and they’re using flexible silicon electronics to do it. The team plans to develop an implantable device with one million channels and they hope to apply for approval for regulatory testing by the time the four-year grant expires. The implanted chips from this research team are unique; they are flexible enough to avoid damaging the brain tissue, very lightweight, and ultra-conformable on the surface of the brain. The chip itself has no need to pierce the brain tissue, instead it uses data telemetry and wireless power.

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