His colleague Caleb Kemere, who is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice, said demonstrating the safety of the technology is a major challenge.
“While a number of optogenetic tools have been demonstrated in rodent and primate models over the last decade, they are only beginning to be used in humans,” he said. “While so far there have not been any reports of side effects, this is probably the primary time-limiting challenge.”
Yet another challenge will be to eliminate the need for the device to be hooked up to a larger, more powerful computer.
“In the future, we expect that each FlatScope would have its own embedded system to process the images and apply a neural stimulus,” Robinson said. “The first clinical applications will likely be neural prosthetics that can restore lost senses like vision and hearing by measuring the activity in a sensory-related brain region and applying a stimulus directly to that cortical area.”
Few would question goals of restoring sight to the blind or hearing to the deaf. Similar technologies could also possibly be used in the future to develop new treatments for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and any condition that robs an individual of some form of brain function.
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Robinson explained that current probes that monitor and deliver signals to neurons for those with conditions like Parkinson’s and epilepsy are extremely limited. Even state-of-the-art systems have only 16 electrodes, which, he said, “limit how well we can capture and represent information from the brain.”
In contrast, the new system under development — inspired by semiconductor manufacturing — would have a thin interface that could monitor and stimulate possibly millions of neurons in the cortex. That amount represents just a small fraction of neurons with the brain, but it would nevertheless mark a biomedical breakthrough.
In the right hands, such work holds promise for improving the lives of countless individuals worldwide, including those with paralysis. As Kemere said, “DARPA has previously funded a number of programs focused on reading out neural activity to restore motor function in patients with partial or total paralysis. The FlatScope system also has the potential to revolutionize these sorts of prosthetic interfaces.”
The idea of a manmade device controlling a human brain in part or in full — particularly in the wrong hands — brings up ethical questions, however.
“Security is a major point of emphasis for this and any other biomedical implant that communicates with the outside world,” Robinson said. “DARPA recognizes this fact and, as part of our development plan, we must demonstrate that our system protects against unauthorized access.”
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