In the world of neurotechnology, the prospect of exploiting the brain’s inherently electrical quality by interfacing it with our own devices has become fairly commonplace. However, the main problem with such techniques is that the methods we have for making connections with the brain are inherently short term (on the order of weeks). This makes the dream of using implanted electronic interfaces for applications like controlling robot prosthetics one relegated to the future.
However, a study recently published in Nature details an advance in this field. The authors of this study were able to use brain signals from the motor cortex of a monkey to control his own limb (they’d anesthetized the normal neural pathways to make sure the endogenous connections were inoperable during the test). The unique quality of this feat lay, however, in the device used to read the signals from the monkey’s brain. The implanted electrode had small piezoelectric motors which allowed it to move around in the monkeys brain in small steps (1 micrometer at a time), so that it was able to move towards strong signals, and back off neurons when it got to close, to keep from damaging them.
The connections are still only maintainable for about a month, but this type of technology and thinking is exactly what is needed to turn long-term electrical interfacing with the human brain into a reality.
1. Moritz CT, Perlmutter SI, Fetz EE. Direct control of paralysed muscles by cortical neurons. Nature, doi:10.1038/nature07418