Will Brain Implants tomorrow be akin to Laser Eye Surgery of today?
From downloading a lifetime's worth of golfing knowledge directly into your brain, to running Google searches with only your mind; brain implants (also known as neural implants or neuroprosthetics) are the cutting edge biological technology of the future.
We may be nowhere near to downloading the entirety of Rory McIlroy's sporting prowess into our brains , but many brain implants have now been successfully used to help restore hearing to people suffering from deafness and to restore "useful sight" to individuals suffering from genetic conditions like Retinitis pigmentosa.
The technology is so revolutionary, with so much real potential, that science commentators like NYU professor of psychology Gary Marcus and chief scientific officer Christof Koch have claimed that"brain implants today are where laser eye [treatment] was several decades ago".
Wind the clock back just a couple of decades and laser eye treatment was a revolutionary science, promising to miraculously improve vision with a fast, high-tech procedure. The technique was akin to a miracle – today we take the achievements of laser eye treatment almost entirely for granted. Comfortably undergoing procedures which are quick, painless and which can give many of us close to 20/20 vision, with minimal risk involved.
Who could benefit from brain implants?
The potential uses of neuroprosthetics are almost limitless; from enhancing your memory to reversing the effects of brain damage. In recent years the US army have been especially interested in the science behind neural transplants, particularly for veterans who have suffered physical neurological damage in conflict.
Yet the risks of brain implants are still high as this field of science is still very new. Currently the techniques used in neuroprosthetics are "not risk-free and make sense only for a narrowly defined set of patients — but they are a sign of things to come".
Today, only a handful of procedures carried out on humans use this technology. The most common are cochlear implants, implants to reduce the symptoms of Parkinson's disease and retinal implants – the latter is a science which could dovetail and grow with laser eye surgery in the UK, US and beyond.
You may already be familiar with the deeply moving viral videos which show formerly hearing-impaired individuals using their cochlear implants for the very first time.
These miraculous scenes are the result of neuroprosthetics. The devices capture sound from the world around the listener through a microphone, then feed this auditory information back to the wearer by stimulating their auditory nerve, allowing the brain to approximate the sound. It's not perfect, but this incredible science is today giving some hearing to some 30,000 people who may otherwise have never heard a sound.
Neuroprosthetics and Parkinson's
Although brain implants cannot yet treat Parkinson's, they can be used to decrease the severity of its symptoms. For some patients, these neural implants can even completely eliminate the symptoms, helping sufferers enjoy a better quality of life.
These prosthetics provide electrical simulation to specific parts of the brain. Powered by a sub-dermal battery pack, fed through a tiny hole in the skull, this electrode stimulates the parts of the brain which control motion, helping Parkinson's sufferers retain better control of their movements.
For those involved in the world of laser eye surgery, however, it is retinal implants which are the most interesting of all current neuroprosthetic techniques. Currently used only to restore sight to individuals with retinitis pigmentosa, this implant often takes the form of a tiny camera and processing unit, mounted onto a pair of glasses. These high tech glasses wirelessly transmit visual information to a bank of 60 minute electrodes implanted onto the retina.
More recently, scientists have developed a glasses-free retinal implant which is inserted directly into the back of the eye, processing light as it enters the eye and sending messages back to the brain.
The picture isn't perfect, but it does allow sufferers of retinitis pigmentosa (who have often gradually lost their sight due to their genetic degenerative condition), to see outlines of shapes and distinguish clearly between black and white.
The future for brain implants
So far, however, even these more common procedures are considered risky and relatively untested. Often they are undergone by individuals with no alternative treatment options, prepared to undergo comparatively experimental procedures.
Yet, just as laser eye treatment has progressed to a point where even radical procedures can be performed quickly, safely and painlessly; it is thought that neuroprosthetics will continue to evolve, becoming ever safer and ever more effective. Who knows how far this astounding technology could go.