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Brain implants, often referred to as neural implants, are technological devices that connect directly to a biological subject's brain - usually placed on the surface of the brain, or attached to the brain's cortex. A common purpose of modern brain implants and the focus of much current research is establishing a biomedical prosthesis circumventing areas in the brain, which became dysfunctional after a stroke or other head injuries. This includes sensory substitution, e.g. in vision. Brain implants involve creating interfaces between neural systems and computer chips, popularly called brain-machine interfaces.
Brain implants electrically stimulate single neurons or groups of neurons (biological neural networks) in the brain. This can only be done where the functional associations of these neurons are approximately known. Because of the complexity of neural processing and the poor resolution of neuroimaging techniques, the application of brain implants is seriously limited. However, research in sensory substitution has made steep progress in recent years.
Especially in vision, due to the knowledge of the working of the visual system, eye implants (often involving some brain implants or monitoring) have been applied with demonstrated success. For hearing, cochlear implants have also proved useful in restoring patients hearing functions (however it is not clear whether these can be classified as "brain implants").
Breakthroughs include the control of physical device by rats brains (), monkeys over robotic arms (), remote control of mechanical devices in monkeys and humans (), remote control over the movements of roaches (), electronic-based neuron transistors for leeches (), control of the movements of rats, etc.
Since official statistics are not available, there is no way of knowing how many devices have been implanted in human brains. However The Times in 1994 estimated that there had been 15,000 cases in the previous decade.
Current brain implants are made from a variety of materials such as tungsten, silicon, platinum-iridium, or even stainless steel. Future brain implants may make use of more exotic materials such as nanoscale carbon fibers, nanotubes, and polycarbonate urethane.
Current research on neural implants is being conducted by Theodore Berger, a professor of neural engineering at the University of Southern California. For 30 years, Berger has been developing a neural-silicon hybrid microchip that will mimic neurons to send signals from one brain cell to another, forming a bridge across damaged or dead brain cells that would originally block the message. The chip and the software have both been developed, but the hurdle is finding a compatible material for the microchip that would allow a stable connection between the chip and the constantly changing neural tissue. Possibilities include building the microchips out of materials that are compatible with the brain tissue, or coating the silicon microchips with molecules that will adhere to the brain tissue. This microchip could possibly help Alzheimer’s patients in forming memories once again. As time proceeds, it is feasible that these chips could be used in aiding the general public in memory recollection. Berger’s work may be an inspiration for a new biological computing era.
Historical research on brain implants
(see also: History of brain imaging)
In 1870, Eduard Hitzig and Gustav Fritsch demonstrated that electrical strimulation of certain areas in the brain of dogs could result in movements. Robert Bartholow showed the same to be true for humans in 1874. By the start of the 20th century Fedor Krause could do a systematic mapping of human brain areas, using patients that had undergone brain surgery.
Starting from the 1950s, in the US, CIA-funded projects, as e.g. MKULTRA, did a lot of research in mind control techniques. According to Jose Delgado, "the feasibility of remote control of activities in several species of animals has been demonstrated [...] The ultimate objective of this research is to provide an understanding of the mechanisms involved in the directional control of animals and to provide practical systems suitable for human application." (cited in Keith, Mind Control, p. 130). Robert G. Heath did experiments with aggressive mental patients, where they could influence their own mood by electrical stimulation. Jose Delgado, involved in the Pandora Project, who later was to write a popular book on mind control, called "Physical Control of the Mind", invented the stimoceiver or transdermal stimulator a device that, implanted in the brain, can transmit electrical impulses.
Some futurologists, such as Raymond Kurzweil, see brain implants as part of a next step for humans in progress and evolution, whereas others, especially bioconservatives, view them as unnatural, with humankind losing essential human qualities. It is argued that implants would technically change people into cybernetic organisms (cyborgs). Some people fear implants may be used for mind control, e.g. to change human perception of reality.
Brain implants in fiction and philosophy
In the 1983 film Brainstorm, a scientist develops the technology to record thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and to transfer them to another mind. It also hints at ethical problems when the military is trying to possess the technology.
In the book The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton, a man suffering from brain damage caused by an accident undergoes experimental surgery to place implants in his brain. These implants are designed to calm him whenever it detects the start of a seizure. However, he soon abuses the chip, triggering it for pleasure; things deteriorate from there.
In the BBC serial "The Nightmare Man" the pilot of a high-tech mini submarine is linked to his craft via a brain implant. When the submarine is involved in an accident and is washed up on a beach the pilot releases himself by ripping out the implant and loses his mind completely, thus becoming a savage killer.
In another BBC series, 'Blake's Seven', a character called Gan has a brain implant known as a Limiter in the back of his skull. Convicted of killing an officer from the oppressive Federation, the Limiter is supposed to cut in when his stress levels might lead him to kill.
The anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, focuses on cyberbrain neural augmentation technology, which involves the implantation of powerful computers directly in the brain, giving a person a vastly increased memory capacity, total recall, as well as the ability to view his or her own memories on an external viewing device. Users can also initiate a "telepathic" conversation with another cyberbrain user, just by thinking it.
Drawbacks include possible alterations of one's sensory input, as was wittnessed in the laughing man incident, where the visual sensory input of an entire crowd was altered so that the perpatrator could escape from the police. Also rarely, a user may begin to suffer from Cyberbrain Sclerosis, or hardening of the brain tissues caused by the presence of the cyberbrain. It is ultimately fatal. Another drawback is possible cyberbrain autism, where users who are too compatible with cyberbrain technology eventually shut themselves off from the outside world to avoid harming others or themselves by forcibly accessing their cyberbrains. See also Closed Shell Syndrome.
While popular treatises of brain implants are rare, discussion of mind control is more widespread. Especially popular visions of the control a totalitarian state can have over individuals' minds are Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, and Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. Stanisław Lem's The Futurological Congress, deals with control by drugs.
- Sensory substitution
- Mind control
- Transdermal stimulator
- Biomedical engineering
- Direct mind-computer interface
- Artificial brain
- Cochlear implant
This article is based on the comprehensive illustrated essay "Brain Implants" by SkewsMe.com.
- Peter Passaro, Is it Possible to Download Knowledge into the Brain?
- What Types of Cyborg Implants Are Available Now?
- On Jose Delgado
- Theodore Berger's Website
- Jose Delgado's book Physical Control of the Mind
- Jim Keith, Mass Control: Engineering Human Consciousness. Adventures Unlimited Press. 2003. ISBN 1931882215.
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