Whether we’re taking about advanced neural implants, deep brain stimulation, or whatever, one thing is clear: science is well on its way to making our brains hackable.
We already have devices that can monitor and control our body’s glucose production, allow the deaf to hear with cochlear implants, and are even perfecting technology that will allow the blind to see. It should come as no surprise, then, that scientists are coming closer and closer to developing the technology to allow is to hack our brains in some exciting new ways. Granted, we’re still a long way off from having to worry about a mad scientist cackling in his lair while controlling our brains via a remote-control device, but the advances being made are either thrilling or horrifying, depending on your point of view.
Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine, the University of Illinois, and the University of Colorado Boulder have been successful in creating an implant the size of a human hair that can control emotions by altering brain chemistry via wireless remote control. Rather than rely on pills, that start in the stomach and move widely throughout the bloodstream, or electroconvulsive therapy, which stimulates large portions of the brain, this new method provides the ability to target specific cells and turn them on and off as needed. This effect is achieved by light stimulation and the direct insertion of pharmaceutical compounds into the brain to create a desired emotional state. In addition, it’s hoped that this approach will not only help with depression and anxiety, but also with chronic pain, epilepsy, mental illness, and brain cancer with few to no side effects.
Additionally, the US military is proceeding with the creation of implantable chips to treat PTSD. If their efforts are successful, these chips will be able to record, predict, and hopefully treat a host of brain- and emotion-related issues. Much like a defibrillator, this device will send electronic signals to specific areas of the brain. Testing has apparently begun on these devices, as well as an expansion by the military into the possibility of mind-controlled flying drones through similar implants, so only time will tell if these advances actually come to pass.
As should surprise no one, entrepreneur and futurist Elon Musk has jumped into this arena via his company, Neuralink. Musk’s idea is that by implanting flexible threads, each thinner than a human hair, into the brain, users will be able to control their computer or smartphone with their mind. There have been some notable successes in animal tests, but Musk wants to start human testing by the end of 2020. It’s an ambitious schedule, as FDA approval can be a long and torturous process, but if Musk’s technology works as anticipated, it could mean a huge step forward in providing a higher quality-of-life for people suffering from paralysis due to a spinal cord injury, for example. But Musk’s ambitions in this area are even grander: he hopes to “achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” and allow people to “mer[ge] with AI” so that humans won’t feel replaced by such systems as they inevitably improve and advance. A lofty ambition, to be sure, and not one without a great deal of controversy attached, but if anyone can make it work, perhaps Musk is the man.
Twenty years ago, LASIK eye surgery was largely considered groundbreaking and the stuff of science fiction. Today it’s a common procedure, its benefits enjoyed by millions of people worldwide. Who’s to say that brain implants won’t follow the same path? As always, only time will tell.