Neuron-computer Interface

Monkey Games

One of the ultimate goals in neurotechnology is to develop devices that will allow people tothink their computer to do things. “Hm. Let’s see… I’d like to search for cyber gear suppliers on Google”. Then, off you go.

A potentially more useful application could significantly aid individuals who are retrofitted with a prosthetic limb due to an injury. For example, you could just think about picking up that mouth-watering can of soda, instead of contracting shoulder muscles in complicated way to position the arm into place.

Brown University researchers implanted a small device into a Rhesus monkey’s brain to record the electrical activity from an amazingly small number of cortical neurons (they claim only six!). The monkey moved a cursor around on a computer screen with his hands on a joystick, then the device output the electrical activity from the set of connected neurons. The scientists next determined a mathematical model that will relate the neuron firing to moving the cursor.

Finally, they disconnected the control of the joystick, but allowed the monkey to continue to use it, and instead connect up the neuron device. The monkey continued to think about playing the cursor-moving game, and the cursor moved!

[Read the article from NewsFactor Sci-Tech]

[Read the complementary article from BBC News]

[Read another complementary article from ABC News]

Interfacing neurons at the Max Planck Institute

It’s been over 200 years since science has seen the connection between biology and technology when Luigi Galvani first stimulated a frog’s leg to contract with an electrical pulse. However, we are still stuck in a nescient stage of electrically coupling nerve cells will man-made devices.

Peter Fromherz of the Membrane and Neurophysics Department at the Max Plank Institute is guiding his lab to figure out how computer chips can be used to support neurons functioning in a living system, and even help us learn more about how the brain works.

The techniques they are developing involve manually placing large snail nerve cells (100 microns, which is quite large as far as brain cells go) on top of a patterned electrode on a silicon wafer. The electrode is surrounded by a fence of pillars that act to constrain the cell body from movement while it grows branching axons and dendrites to connect up with neighboring cells. Currently, they are focusing on establishing a contact-free method of interfacing where the nerve cell never actually comes into direct contact with the electrode and silicon surface.

Fromherz cautiously approaches the expectations of neuron device research. The brain is connected in such an enormously complicated tangle of dendrites that it is still unclear exactly how far we will succeed by interfacing the nervous system with semiconductor technology.

Fromherz also rightly stresses that any comparison between the computational methods of today’s computers with that of a neuron network is completely misguided. Our brain’s neuron networks function insanely slower than your common desktop computer. Still, your thought processes are much more powerful than your PC’s internal chugging. The computational mechanisms in biological nervous systems are not understood in any complete way, and a significant advancement will need to occur before we will be able to truly harness in the power of interconnected neurons.

[Read the article from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (English)]

[Visit the lab]

Mind over Matter

This group at Brown University is trying to develop an implantable electrode array that will transmit your thoughts into a corresponding action via a connected computer, robot, or electrodes elsewhere in your body.

Currently, they are working to provide patients with debilitating diseases, like locked-in syndrome, with more physical control in their lives. These research efforts will prove to be critical stepping stones for making neuron devices commonplace prosthetics and cosmetics in our culture.

The research group is also trying to finance a company, called Cyberkinetics, Inc., to help bring these new technologies into the marketplace.

[Read the Article from Brown Alumni Magazine Online]

Last updated October 26, 2021