Building the bionic man
At Newcastle University, Dr Andrew Jackson is working on neural implants as a solution for human motor dysfunctions, including strokes, spinal cord injuries and degenerative diseases.
They’re designed to reconnect affected areas of the brain, either to robotic systems or the original muscles and nerves they once controlled.
“We’re particularly interested in using these signals to control implanted stimulators that deliver electrical currents to the spinal cord, peripheral nerves or muscles, in order to reanimate paralysed limbs,” he says.
Similar work has already been used to partially restore sight to people suffering blindness, bypassing damaged photoreceptors to counteract degenerative retinal diseases.
However, direct integration with the brain could see medical science move beyond merely repairing the body: it opens up the potential for human upgrades. Improving “perfect” eyesight or placing strength-enhancing materials in the body are only two of the possibilities.
Craig Lundberg is a former British soldier who was blinded in a rocket-propelled grenade attack while serving in Iraq. In 2010, he became the first person to test the BrainPort system, a device that allows Lundberg to “see” with his tongue.
Another example of sensory substitution, the device works using a small camera embedded in a pair of glasses and a small pad of electrodes that rests on the tongue. When the tongue is stimulated by the electrodes, the brain recognises these signals aren’t related to taste, and instead sends them to the visual cortex.
Using the device, Lundberg is able to see the basic structure of objects, which significantly aids his mobility.
“Once we start viewing neural implants as tools rather than prostheses, it naturally leads to speculation about enhancement,” says Jackson. “We use tools all the time to enhance our natural functions, and physical interaction is increasingly usurped by the virtual connections afforded by computers, smartphones and the internet. So connecting these tools directly from the brain is perhaps not so far-fetched.”
In fact, bionically enhancing the body’s capabilities has already been achieved to a degree, albeit in attention-seeking stunts by pioneers who rely on funding to continue their research.
Professor Kevin Warwick of the University of Reading has performed multiple experiments into enhancing his own body using computers and extra-sensory devices.
One example involved controlling a robotic arm across the internet, using an array of electrodes – known as the BrainGate – implanted into his arm.
“I was in New York,” Warwick explains, “and the robot hand was in Reading. My brain signals were able to control the hand and feel the force the hand was applying through sensors in the fingertips. My nervous system was extended.”
Yet determining precisely how enhancement technology will evolve is extremely tricky. For example, Jackson believes that neural implants could take advantage of the brain’s ability to rewire itself, deliberately inducing its natural plasticity, so that a new part of the brain takes over lost functionality after a trauma, such as a stroke. This would ultimately be used, as he describes it, “like a crutch that helps someone recover from a broken leg”.
The US military’s future science hothouse, DARPA, has also used computers to connect the brain to artificial parts of the body, in a bid to give servicemen and women thought-control of robotic limbs.
Its initial intentions are remedial, with designs already demonstrated showing wounded soldiers controlling an artificial arm by sending signals from the brain to the chest, where the pulses are picked up by sensors in the robotic arm. It’s a huge breakthrough and one that could lead to brain- and muscle-controlled body suits.