Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge, the fictional helmsman of Star Trek: The Next Generation portrayed by the actor LeVar Burton, was born blind, but could see using a 24th-century visor that transmitted images directly into his brain.
Now, real-life science looks set to outpace Star Trek technology by about 300 years.
A California-based startup called Paradromics is developing a new technique for connecting the brain to computers with the goal of transmitting data at over one gigabit per second, effectively creating a high-speed neural broadband interface.
In the near-term, the company is focused on using this “cortical modem” to restore speech functionality among people who have lost the ability to talk — for example, patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease, such as astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.
But if they are successful, the device will become a general brain-computer interface with broad implications for the field of prosthetics. High-definition cameras could be used to restore vision to the blind. Prosthetic arms could become far more deft, sending life-like sensations of touch from robotic fingertips to the brain.
“When you can connect a brain to a computer, you can connect a brain to anything that talks to a computer,” said Matt Angle, CEO of Paradromics. “Medical science can’t easily regrow your eye. But the quality of your life could be significantly enhanced by substituting for that connectivity with a brain-computer interface.”
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In July, Paradromics earned a big vote of confidence by winning an $18 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the US Defense Department’s emerging technology research facility, to develop a human-implant version of the device. Now, the company hopes to be ready for clinical trials in humans by 2021.
To be sure, recent advances have already allowed paralyzed patients to move prosthetic limbs using neural implants, and even experience a degree of sensation. Meanwhile, California-based Second Sight has even restored some degree of lost vision in people with an eye disease called retina pigmentosa using retinal implants, although so far the images are reported to be blocky and grayscale.
A significant outstanding problem in the field has been how to send much more information to and from the brain, much more quickly — in short, how to dramatically increase bandwidth.
Current state-of-the-art technology, embodied in a system known as the Utah Array, utilizes 128 electrodes in the brain at once. The Utah Array was enough to allow Nathan Copeland, a young man who lost all feeling from his chest down after a car accident in 2004, to use a robotic arm to give then-President Barack Obama a historic fist-bump in October 2016 — and even feel the president’s hand against his own.
“That is unbelievable,” Obama said at the time. “Nathan is moving this hand with his brain.”
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But while the Utah Array deploys dozens of electrodes, Paradromics wants to expand the number of individual channels to hundreds of thousands.
“If that’s what you could do with 100 channels, imagine what you could do with 100,000 channels, or a million channels,” said Angle.
Toward that end, the company is developing the Neural Input-Output Bus, or NIOB (pronounced “niy-OH-bee”). The unit aims to be, effectively, a brain modem, capable of both reading and stimulating the brain.
The NIOB incorporates an expandable modular design, with each centimeter-wide chip placed on the brain holding about 50,000 ultra-thin microwires. Every microwire connects with 3-5 individual neurons. Microwires, in lower numbers, have been used by researchers to monitor brain activity for decades, but Paradromics is working to scale up the technology.
The NIOB functions by interacting with the electrical activity of neurons, which Angle compared to electric eels firing in the sea. Each time a neuron fires, it releases an electrical pulse into its surroundings that can be recorded by the microwires. It will be able to both read neural traffic as well as drive it, meaning data from the brain will be able to travel out to computers, and computer data will be able to arrive directly into the brain at the level of individual neurons.
In fact, Paradromics is just one of several recipients of a total $65 million in grant money from the Defense Department’s DARPA recently awarded for work towards superior brain-computer interface technology — although the other recipients are big research institutions, like Brown University and Columbia University. Paradromics is notable for being the only startup.
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To achieve the kind of definition and signal strength Paradromics is targeting, the microwires must penetrate a few millimeters into the brain to within a tenth-of-a-millimeter of the neurons they are recording.
That means implanting the NIOB will require dangerous surgery — and could never function as a cap worn on top of the head.
In other words, getting a brain modem installed isn’t going to be a casual decision for anyone, anytime soon, Angle said.
“You need to open up the skull and put the device on top of the brain,” Angle said. “Brain surgery is invasive. Putting things in the brain is not trivial. It’s not like getting a tattoo. It’s for the people who need it.”