The "Squishy" Future of Mind Control Brain-Computer Interfaces

A new type of "squishy" interface could prevent rejection of BCI devices in the brain.
Chris Young

Invasive Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) allow users to control a computer via electrodes that have been implanted into their brain.

Current models are limited due to the fact that they are made out of rigid material — the brain is soft, while implants are not.

Now, two researchers argue that neurotechnology is on the cusp of a major breakthrough with ultra-flexible brain-machine interfaces.


Rigid electronics

"The brain is squishy and these implants are [typically] rigid," Shaun Patel, a faculty member at the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, said in a press release.

About four years ago, however, he discovered Charles M. Lieber's ultra-flexible alternatives. Now, he believes these are the future of BCIs.

In a recent perspective titled "Precision Electronic Medicine," published in Nature Biotechnology, Patel and Lieber, a Joshua and Beth Friedman University Professor, argue that 'neurotechnology' is on the verge of breaking through the issue of rigid devices.

"The next frontier is really the merging of human cognition with machines," Patel said. "Everything manifests in the brain fundamentally. Everything. All your thoughts, your perceptions, any type of disease," he continued.

Electrodes can also be used to help with diseases such as Parkinson's. If drugs don't work, FDA-approved electrodes can provide relief of tremors through Deep Brain Stimulation.

Over time, however, the brain's immune system treats the rigid implants as foreign objects, often reducing the device's ability to treat the patient.

Mesh electronics

Lieber's mesh electronics, on the other hand, provoke almost no immune response. What's more, they collect data over time that can help improve how these devices work and treat patients.

These types of devices could be used without the prominent side effects of more typical BCIs and electrode devices.

Patel isn't shy about saying he thinks this work could provide a major breakthrough.

"The potential for it is outstanding," Patel said. "In my own mind, I see this at the level of what started with the transistor or telecommunications."

The potential is, in fact, highly impressive. Adaptive electrodes, for example, could have the ability to improve control of prosthetic or even paralyzed limbs.

Mesh electronics and BCIs, however, are technologies still in their early stages.

Companies like Elon Musk's Neuralink are also working on the technology. Musk, who famously sets very ambitious deadlines for his products, said "it will take time" to develop their technology.

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