An Ongoing Revolution in Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering

Transvision 2007 is presently underway; there's already a good report online from the Longevity Dividend meeting held yesterday. So with that in mind, why not a look at the some of the first steps towards the medical technology of tomorrow:

There's kind of a revolution going on right now in the neurosciences and biomedical engineering. People are trying to take engineering approaches for directly interfacing with the brain.

"The hope is we can cure more immediately a variety of diseases."

Researchers have been able to decode brain activity for years using electroencephalography. Referred to commonly as an EEG, this technology involves placing a sensor-wired net over the head to measure brain activity through the scalp. But the technology wasn't quite sensitive enough to allow researchers to decode brain signals as precisely as needed, Sanchez said. Now researchers are focusing on decoding signals from electrodes placed directly into the brain tissue using wires the width of a strand of hair.

"(Scientists have) realized that by going inside the brain we can capture so much more information, we can have much more resolution," Sanchez said.

The chip UF researchers are seeking to develop would be implanted directly into the brain tissue, where it could gather data from signals, decode them and stimulate the brain in a self-contained package without wires. In the interim, UF researchers are studying implantable devices in rats and are evaluating an intermediate form of the technology - placing electrodes on the surface of the brain - in people.


The day may not be too far off when patients can control a prosthetic hand or leg just by thinking about it, Sanchez said.

"It's becoming a reality," Sanchez said. "We're designing electronics that we can interface with biological systems and we can use that to help people."

You might also recall a Popular Science article on more ambitious research along the same lines as well. Remember that a mere half century ago, computers were clumsy and the size of a room; consider where medical biotechnology will be another half century from now. Today's proto-interfaces to your biology will have shrunk from clunky electronics visible to the naked eye to devices the size of a cell - to devices made of assembled macromolecules, just like your cells, but better designed.

The eventual future of medicine is not perfect control over biology - although that is a step along the way - but rather an industry producing machinery to better serve and improve upon the purpose of biology. It will be just as complex as biology, but wholly designed by humans rather than evolution and happenstance. It will be far more reliable and cost-effective, in the same way that a plastic fork beats out a pointed stick. It will be built upon the very early work in nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing taking place today.

Your biology is the house you live in: why live in a cave over a wood cabin, and why live in a wood cabin when a modern house in the city is just as affordable? There is a lot to be said for the obvious future of nanomedicine and computation; we will have the choice of augmentation and ultimately replacement for the tissues of our body, with every step bringing greater capacity, reliability and life.

Why live in a body that can grow old and become cancerous when you don't have to? That will be a serious question not too many decades from now.

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I'm delighted to see NIH money being put towards this goal - I remember how hostile many medical commentators were to Kevin Warwick's early experiments in human nerve-computer interfaces. Clearly the potential benefits have won out over institutional conservatism.

Of course, such interfaces have many applications beyond simply restoring or replacing failing biology; totally immersive virtual reality, and dramatically faster and more efficient communication with one another and our technology, are only two of the more obvious possibilities.

Bring on the cyborgs!

Posted by: Ben at July 25th, 2007 1:34 AM
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