Category: Innovation

19 Oct 2017

Reversing Paralysis

Scientists are making remarkable progress at using brain implants to restore the freedom of movement that spinal cord injuries take away.

Availability: 10 to 15 years

Go, go!” was the thought racing through Grégoire Courtine’s mind.

The French neuroscientist was watching a macaque monkey as it hunched aggressively at one end of a treadmill. His team had used a blade to slice halfway through the animal’s spinal cord, paralyzing its right leg. Now Courtine wanted to prove he could get the monkey walking again. To do it, he and colleagues had installed a recording device beneath its skull, touching its motor cortex, and sutured a pad of flexible electrodes around the animal’s spinal cord, below the injury. A wireless connection joined the two electronic devices.

The result: a system that read the monkey’s intention to move and then transmitted it immediately in the form of bursts of electrical stimulation to its spine. Soon enough, the monkey’s right leg began to move. Extend and flex. Extend and flex. It hobbled forward. “The monkey was thinking, and then boom, it was walking,” recalls an exultant Courtine, a professor with Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

nimals and a few people have controlled computer cursors or robotic arms with their thoughts, thanks to a brain implant wired to machines. Now researchers are taking a significant next step toward reversing paralysis once and for all. They are wirelessly connecting the brain-reading technology directly to electrical stimulators on the body, creating what Courtine calls a “neural bypass” so that people’s thoughts can again move their limbs.

At Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, a middle-aged quadriplegic—he can’t move anything but his head and shoulder—agreed to let doctors place two recording implants in his brain, of the same type Courtine used in the monkeys. Made of silicon, and smaller than a postage stamp, they bristle with a hundred hair-size metal probes that can “listen” as neurons fire off commands.

Reversing Paralysis
  • BreakthroughWireless brain-body electronic interfaces to bypass damage to the nervous system.
  • Why It MattersThousands of people suffer paralyzing injuries every year.
  • Key Players– École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
    – Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering
    – University of Pittsburgh
    – Case Western Reserve University
  • Availability10 to 15 years

To complete the bypass, the Case team, led by Robert Kirsch and Bolu Ajiboye, also slid more than 16 fine electrodes into the muscles of the man’s arm and hand. In videos of the experiment, the volunteer can be seen slowly raising his arm with the help of a spring-loaded arm rest, and willing his hand to open and close. He even raises a cup with a straw to his lips. Without the system, he can’t do any of that.

Just try sitting on your hands for a day. That will give you an idea of the shattering consequences of spinal cord injury. You can’t scratch your nose or tousle a child’s hair. “But if you have this,” says Courtine, reaching for a red espresso cup and raising it to his mouth with an actor’s exaggerated motion, “it changes your life.”

Grégoire Courtine holds the two main parts of the brain-spine interface.

PHOTOGRAPH BY HILLARY SANCTUARY | EPFL

The Case results, pending publication in a medical journal, are a part of a broader effort to use implanted electronics to restore various senses and abilities. Besides treating paralysis, scientists hope to use so-called neural prosthetics to reverse blindness with chips placed in the eye, and maybe restore memories lost to Alzheimer’s disease (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2013: Memory Implants”).

And they know it could work. Consider cochlear implants, which use a microphone to relay signals directly to the auditory nerve, routing around non-working parts of the inner ear. Videos of wide-eyed deaf children hearing their mothers for the first time go viral on the Internet every month. More than 250,000 cases of deafness have been treated.

In this video made by EPFL researchers, a monkey with a spinal cord injury that paralyzed its right leg is able to walk again.

But it’s been harder to turn neural prosthetics into something that helps paralyzed people. A patient first used a brain probe to move a computer cursor across a screen back in 1998. That and several other spectacular brain-control feats haven’t had any broader practical use. The technology remains too radical and too complex to get out of the lab. “Twenty years of work and nothing in the clinic!” Courtine exclaims, brushing his hair back. “We keep pushing the limits, but it is an important question if this entire field will ever have a product.”

Courtine’s laboratory is located in a vertiginous glass-and-steel building in Geneva that also houses a $100 million center that the Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss funded specifically to solve the remaining technical obstacles to neurotechnologies like the spinal cord bypass. It’s hiring experts from medical-device makers and Swiss watch companies and has outfitted clean rooms where gold wires are printed onto rubbery electrodes that can stretch as our bodies do.

A close-up of a brain-reading chip, bristling with electrodes.
Flexible electrodes developed to simulate the spinal cord.

The head of the center is John Donoghue, an American who led the early development of brain implants in the U.S. (see “Implanting Hope”) and who moved to Geneva two years ago. He is now trying to assemble in one place the enormous technical resources and talent—skilled neuroscientists, technologists, clinicians—needed to create commercially viable systems.

Among Donoghue’s top priorities is a “neurocomm,” an ultra-compact wireless device that can collect data from the brain at Internet speed. “A radio inside your head,” Donoghue calls it, and “the most sophisticated brain communicator in the world.” The matchbox-size prototypes are made of biocompatible titanium with a sapphire window. Courtine used an earlier, bulkier version in his monkey tests.

As complex as they are, and as slow as progress has been, neural bypasses are worth pursuing because patients desire them, Donoghue says. “Ask someone if they would like to move their own arm,” he says. “People would prefer to be restored to their everyday self. They want to be reanimated.”

A model of a wireless neurocommunication device sits on a skull.

Source: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603492/10-breakthrough-technologies-2017-reversing-paralysis/

 

18 Oct 2017

We May Have Found a Pathway That Controls Aging

Cracking Aging in Animals

A team of researchers at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine has identified a conserved molecular pathway that controls health and lifespan in nematode worms (Caenorhabditis elegans) — a frequently studied model organism in biological research.

“We find that by artificially increasing or decreasing the levels of a family of proteins called Kruppel-like transcription factors (KLFs), we can actually get C. elegans to live for longer or shorter time periods,” study first author Dr. Nelson Hsieh said to Sci News. “Since this same family of proteins also exists in mammals, what is really exciting is that our data suggests KLFs also have similar effects on aging in mammals, too.”

Animal models are essential to biological research. To study a human disease or process you can’t perform most preliminary work on humans for ethical reasons. Therefore, you must instead develop a model. While some models can stay in vitro (outside a living body) eventually you must be able to produce the disease in a context that allows study — e.g. in a living body. Animal models, such as nematode worms and mice, enable a much closer approximation to a human response to disease and other processes.

Image Credit: Hsieh et al./Nature
Image Credit: Hsieh et al./Nature

Mice share 99 percent of their DNA with humans, and have short  lifespans compared to humans and other mammals. Therefore, studies with mice involving “knockout” genes allows researchers to observe the effects of removing single genes. C. elegans is also useful, especially in aging research, for several reasons. For one, the worms have a short three day lifecycle, allowing researchers to observe many generations quickly. They are very simple organisms, which makes the effects of single proteins much easier to see. C. elegans’ genome was sequenced by the end of 1998, so scientists have had ample opportunities to experiment with this relatively short, but very well-known, genome.

Lessons Applied to Humans

The research also demonstrated that C. elegans with high levels of KLF proteins lived healthier, longer lives than normal worms. Similarly, mice with elevated levels of KLF proteins were found to exhibit a delay in age-related blood vessel dysfunction. The team determined that the KLF proteins’ function is to control autophagy — a quality control mechanism that allows cells to clear up debris such as molecular byproducts and misfolded proteins that build over time, reaching critical mass in old age. Loss of this process of cleaning and recycling is a classic sign of aging.

Cells are less able to undertake these recycling functions as they age. Once an unsustainable level of toxic debris builds up, cellular survival is threatened. This is why the team observed worms without KLF proteins dying early, as their cells were no longer able to maintain autophagy. From here, the researchers plan to study how autophagy affects blood vessel function, and develop strategies for targeting KLF proteins in humans.

“The observation that KLF levels decrease with age and that sustained levels of KLFs can prevent the age-associated loss of blood vessel function is intriguing given that vascular dysfunction contributes significantly to diverse age-associated conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, and dementia,” senior author Professor Mukesh K. Jain said to Sci News.

“As our population ages, we need to understand what happens to our heart and arteries, as we rely on them to function perfectly later and later on in our lives,” Dr. Hsieh added to Sci News. “Our findings illuminate what can happen during aging, and provide a foundation to designing interventions which slow these processes.”

Source: Futurism

17 Oct 2017

In the Future, Your Home May Be Powered by a Tesla Battery

IN BRIEF

A shift in how electricity is generated and when it’s used is creating a massive need for home batteries. These home energy storage devices, like Tesla’s Powerwall, are particularly useful during natural disasters.

THE BATTERY-POWERED FUTURE

Battery technology has essentially been the same over the past years, albeit with a bunch of improvements that increase battery capacity and prolong battery life. Lithium ion batteries remain the popular choice, and they’re found in all of today’s battery-powered mobile devices and in many electric cars. Soon, these batteries might also be powering your houses, thanks to the likes of Tesla and other startups that now sell these home batteries to utility providers.

According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, homes located in New York, California, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Vermont, Arizona, and in other states are working on new ways to make their electric grids battery-powered, an infrastructural switch which Ravi Manghani of GTM Research says is a “powerful need.” Without home batteries, the ability of utility companies to deliver power is in danger.

Utilities often have difficulty allocating excess power, particularly those on interstate markets where at certain times the price of electricity tends to dip into the negative. Usually, utilities resort to dumping excess electricity or paying others to take it. With the rise of solar power, the same issue happens. Energy generated by solar panels depend on certain conditions and, more often, generation doesn’t match the needs of homes.

In California and Arizona, the Journal reports, there’s lost of solar electricity during the day at cool times of the year and too little at night, when usage spikes. “This is not a long-term theoretical issue that might happen—this is now,” Marc Romito, Arizona Public Service director of customer technology, told the Journal. Home batteries are sorely needed.

IN A TIME OF NEED

There’s wisdom in keeping spare batteries at home, or in this case, keeping your home plugged into one. Particularly during times of disasters, home batteries can be really useful. When the grid is down, home batteries coupled with solar panels can provide much needed electricity, as was the case in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, where customers of Tesla and German battery-maker Sonen were able to keep their houses powered. Tesla has also, in fact, started shipping batteries to Puerto Rico, which has been largely without power since Hurricane Maria.

It’s this self-sustaining energy ecosystem that Tesla’s been working on thanks to their Powerwall and Powerpack batteries. Both work as electricity storage units, with the former designed for homes, while the latter is meant for utilities. Instead of relying on the grid, the home batteries like the Powerwall allow households to source out electricity, so to speak, following what some have called a “grid defection.” It’s enough to even power a small island.

The likes of Tesla, Sonen, and even Ikea in the U.K., are making this grid defection into a reality, in the U.S. and abroad. For example, both companies have partnered with Green Mountain Power in Vermont, which offers 2,000 home owners the chance to install a Powerwall for just $15 a month. Meanwhile, real-estate developer Mandalay Homes recently announced plans to build some 4,000 energy-efficient homes each with an 8-kilowatt-hour battery from Sonen — 2,900 of which would be built in Prescott, Arizona.

In short, as the market for electricity undergoes a radical shift thanks to the availability of renewable energy sources — especially the increasing popularity of cheaper solar home panels — power storage is becoming an important factor. Home batteries are the future.

Source: Futurism

16 Oct 2017

Scientists Confirmed the Theory Behind the Quantum Networks of the Future

IN BRIEF

Scientists have finally been able to demonstrate and prove the theory of quantum entanglement of many atoms — 16 million, in fact — revealed by a single photon.

QUANTUM LIGHT ANALYSIS

Quantum theory predicts entanglement; that huge numbers of atoms can be intertwined due to quantum forces, across distances, or inside macroscopic structures. However, “predicts” has been the key phrase up until recently — as actual hard evidence from experiments has been lacking. Experimental evidence was just presented by University of Geneva scientists, who demonstrated the entanglement of 16 million atoms in a one-centimeter crystal.

Achieving entanglement hasn’t been the real challenge for physicists looking to generate empirical proof of the concept, though. Researchers can generate entangled photons by splitting a photon. It is the observation and recording of entanglement that has proven next to impossible — until now. With one caveat, as explained by UNIGE applied physics group researcher Florian Fröwis explained in a press release  about the team’s research. “But it’s impossible to directly observe the process of entanglement between several million atoms since the mass of data you need to collect and analyze is so huge.”

Image Credit: UNIGE
Image Credit: UNIGE

Therefore, Fröwis and his team took inventory of which measurements they were able to take, and of those, which might be able to generate the evidence they were searching for. They settled on the single direction of light re-emitted by the crystal, and analyzed its statistical properties. This was how the the team was able to show the entanglement of 16 million atoms, rather than a few thousand.

QUANTUM FUTURES

Quantum networks will be essential to data protection in the future, because they make it possible to send a signal and detect any interception of that signal by a third part immediately. To send and receive these kinds of signals, you need quantum repeaters which can unify entangled atoms with a strong quantum relationship despite being separated by great distances. These quantum repeaters house crystal blocks supercooled to 270 degrees below zero and enriched with rare earth atoms. Once these blocks are penetrated by a photon, entanglement is created.

Particle entanglement is at the heart of the coming revolutions in quantum computing and quantum encryption, which will themselves be driving everything from artificial intelligence to personalized medicine. And while this is high-level stuff, it all depends on the entanglement of atoms at the quantum level, which this research has demonstrated on an unprecedented scale.

Read more: Futurism

13 Oct 2017

Bitcoin Price Goes Over $5,800, Setting a New All-Time High Record in Less Than 24 Hours

After reaching a record high $5,300 price at the end of Thursday, Bitcoin surged even higher earlier this morning. Bitcoin’s renewed price vigor seems to indicate that the market has now gotten over the fears caused by recent policy concerns.

Bitcoin prices surged past the $5,300 mark on Thursday, closing at $5,363 — only to reach a new all-time high value at $5,856.10 some time early Friday morning, after markets had opened at a $5,439.

The increase in value comes after Russia banned Bitcoin and expressed interest in rival Ethereum. The Russian ban followed previous moves against cryptocurrencies by South Korea and China, which included prohibiting initial coin offerings (ICOs). The market, it would seem, finally got over the fears incited by these moves.

bitcoin-price-surge-coindesk
Image credit: Coindesk

At the time of writing, revitalized Bitcoin is now at $5,714.95 marking a more than 13 percent increase in value in less than one day, and an over 30 percent increase in just one week. It isn’t the only cryptocurrency benefitting from the price surge, as the overall cryptocurrency market cap peaked at $171.94 billion early Friday morning — almost reaching a high comparable to that of September 1, when it reached $172.5 billion. Bitcoin, which makes up more than 55 percent of the whole crypto market, capped at $95.5 billion today (Friday, Oct 13).

Cryptocurrencies are no stranger to fluctuations in prices, which critics are always quick to note. Experts say crypto is destined to be more than a fad however, and that Bitcoin’s popularity will herald a bigger blockchain revolution. Whatever the case may be, experts expect Bitcoin to go as high as $6,000 by the end of the year, and over $10,000 by the first half of 2018.

Disclosure: Several members of the Futurism team, including the editors of this piece, are personal investors in a number of cryptocurrency markets. Their personal investment perspectives have no impact on editorial content.

Read more at: Futurism

12 Oct 2017

Scientists Just Used Brain Stimulation to Literally Change How People Think

IN BRIEF

What if you could improve your mental aptitude and performance by directly stimulating specific parts of the brain? That’s what a team of researchers from Boston University wanted to find out, and they developed an experimental procedure that can change how you think.

HITTING THE RIGHT LOBES

A team of researchers from Boston University (BU) has explored the possibility of enhancing a person’s ability to learn and control their behavior — in short, to change how people think — by stimulating the brain. BU researcher Robert Reinhart used a new form of brain stimulation, called high-definition transcranial alternating current stimulation (HD-tACS), to “turbo charge” two brain regions that influence how we learn.

“If you make an error, this brain area fires. If I tell you that you make an error, it also fires. If something surprises you, it fires,” Reinhart said in a BU Research press release, referring to the medial frontal cortex, which he calls the “alarm bell of the brain.”

A scan of a brain involved in the study shows how brain stimulation lights up the medial frontal cortex and prefrontal cortex, both involved in how people learn.
The brain’s right hemisphere was more involved in changing behavior. Image credit: Robert Reinhart/Boston University

Reinhart and his colleagues found that stimulating this region, as well as the lateral prefrontal cortex, could change how a person learns. “These are maybe the two most fundamental brain areas involved with executive function and self-control,” he added.

In a study published in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Reinhart’s team described how applying electrical stimulation using HD-tACS quickly and reversibly increased or decreased a healthy person’s executive function, which led to a change in behavior.

SMART CHARGE

Reinhart’s team tested 30 healthy people, each wearing a soft cap with electrodes that conveyed the stimulation. The test was simple: each subject had to press a button every 1.7 seconds. In the first three rounds of tests, the researchers either cranked up the synchronicity between the two lobes, disrupted it, or did nothing.

The participants’ brain activity, monitored with an electroencephalogram (EEG), showed statistically significant results. When the brain waves were upped, the subjects learned faster and made fewer mistakes, which they corrected abruptly. When it was disrupted, they made more errors and learned more slowly.

Although their study still leaves much to learn, the BU team was actually the first to identify and test how the millions of cells in the medial frontal cortex and the lateral prefrontal cortex communicate with each other through low frequency brain waves. “The science is much stronger, much more precise than what’s been done earlier,” said David Somers, a BU brain sciences and psychology professor who wasn’t part of the study.What was even more surprising was when 30 new participants took an adjusted version of the test. This group started with their brain activity temporarily disrupted, but then received stimulation in the middle of the activity. The participants quickly recovered their original brain synchronicity levels and learning behavior. “We were shocked by the results and how quickly the effects of the stimulation could be reversed,” says Reinhart.

The bigger question, Somers noted, is how far a person can go with such a technology. Who doesn’t want to have their brain performance enhanced? This could produce the same effects as nootropics or smart drugs, but with fewer potential side effects, as the brain is stimulated directly. Having access to such a technology could be a game changer — but just as with smart drugs, there’s the question of who should have access to such a technology.

Source: Futurism

10 Oct 2017

New Eyeglass Accessory Translates Sound Into Light for the Hearing Impaired

IN BRIEF

A group of students from the Singapore University of Technology and Design have designed a clip-on accessory for glasses that turns nearby sounds into flashing lights. The project, called Peri, is meant to help those suffering from hearing loss.

Peri is an accessory that clips onto eyeglasses and translates nearby sounds into flashing lights — perfect for those with hearing problems, who sometimes miss out on what’s being said to them, or on noises that could alert them to events occurring nearby.

The design takes some inspiration from video games, which alert the player to nearby threats via a red glow. In games, however, they typically only appear when someone takes damage, while Peri could help the wearer avoid harm.

Pavithren Pakianathan, lead designer of the team from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), told Mashable it took about four months to complete the current prototype, which utilizes four microphones and LED lights. Peri’s circuits create a specific lighting pattern according to the loudest sound detected, and indicate the direction of the sound. The project was so impressive it won the James Dyson engineering award.

The Peri prototype, worn by one of the team members. (Image Credit: Peri/Pavithren Pakianathan)

Pakianathan and his team aim to improve the accessory’s design while maintaining the low cost to users. Future iterations may be able to better separate sounds in busy areas, and could include light sensors capable of adjusting the brightness of the LED lights.

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 5 percent of the world’s population(360 millions people) suffer from hearing loss, with 32 million being children. If Peri, or a similar idea, gets proper funding, development, and becomes mainstream, it could improve the lives of those with hearing problems, and provide some additional color to their quieter world.

Source: Futurism

26 Sep 2017

Researchers Restore Consciousness in Man After 15 Years in a Vegetative State

IN BRIEF

A new breakthrough study suggests that it’s possible to restore consciousness from patients who have been in a prolonged vegetative state. Researchers from the ISC Marc Jeannerod used a method that stimulates the brain via the vagus nerve.

ELECTRICAL STIMULATION

Current medical practices tend to look at people with consciousness disorders — those in a vegetative or comatose state — to be almost impossible cases. Recovery is uncertain at best. A breakthrough new study, however, suggests that this may no longer be the case. A team of researchers and clinicians from the Institut des Sciences Cognitives (ISC) Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France restored signs of consciousness to a 35-year-old man who had been in a vegetative state for 15 years through a method called vagus nerve stimulation (VNS).

Used to prevent seizures in those with epilepsy and to treat depression, VNS sends mild pulses of electrical energy at regular intervals to the brain via the vagus nerve. Because it’s the longest cranial nerve, the vagus nerve connects the brain to various parts of the body — even the gut — and is critical to maintaining certain essential body functions, like alertness and walking.

In this new research, a vagus nerve stimulator was implanted on the chest of the patient, who was in a vegetative state because of a car accident, a procedure conducted by Jacques Luauté and his team of clinicians. The results, published today in the journal Current Biology, was compiled by researchers led by Angela Sirigu from the ISC Marc Jeannerod.

IRREVERSIBLE NO MORE

After a month of VNS, the patient exhibited improved response capabilities. He was able to respond to simple commands, like following an object with his eyes or turning his head when asked. The patient also showed an improved attention span, by being able to keep awake when listening to his therapist reading a book. At the same time, his ability to respond to perceived “threats” was restored — like how his eyes opened wider, showing surprise when one of the examiner’s heads moved closer to his face.

Various brain tests also revealed improved brain activity. In areas of the brain involved with movement, sensation, and awareness, there was a marked increase in theta ECG signal activity, which is important in distinguishing between a vegetative and a minimally conscious state. Meanwhile, a PET scan spotted an increase in metabolic activity in the brain’s cortical and subcortical regions, which translates to improved neural functional connectivity.

Image credit: Corazzol et al.
Image Credit: Corazzol et al.

In short, after 15 years of existing in a vegetative state, the patient had minimal consciousness restored — a feat previously regarded to be impossible. Prior to this research, it was thought that patients suffering from consciousness disorders for longer than 12 months could no longer be helped. This study shows that “it is possible to improve a patient’s presence in the world,” Sirigu said in a press release. “Brain plasticity and brain repair are still possible even when hope seems to have vanished.” Not only that, the study also demonstrates “this fascinating capacity of our mind to produce conscious experience.” The researchers purposefully chose a difficult case for their study to eliminate the probability that such improvement could be due to chance. Still, Sirigu’s and Luauté’s teams are planning to conduct a much larger collaborative study to confirm their findings.

Source: Futurism

20 Sep 2017

Research Shows Communication Between Both Halves of the Brain Increases With Age

IN BRIEF

It has already been observed that, as we age, the two halves of the brain increasingly communicate. New research explores why and what that might mean for our health.

GROWING OLDER

We all age. It’s an inevitable part of life that brings with it adventure, experience, difficulties, learning opportunities, and so much more. It also, as explored in a new study published this week in Human Brain Mapping, includes increased communication between regions in the brain. According to the study, this change happens to compensate for the parts of aging that aren’t so positive.

Specifically, as we age there is an increasing amount of bilateral communication in the brain; meaning that the two halves of our brain communicate with each other more as we grow older. Now, this isn’t new information, but this study did step into previously unexplored territory in our understanding of this phenomena. The team of researchers accomplished a first by directly manipulating this communication, using a brain stimulation technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). This technique allowed them to better understand if the process is a positive or negative adaptation. It was performed while adult subjects undertook memory-related tasks, giving the research team practical insight into how their brains responded.

Image Credit: Seanbatty / Pixabay
Image Credit: Seanbatty / Pixabay

BRAIN AGE

According to lead author Simon Davis, Ph.D., “This study provides an explicit test of some controversial ideas about how the brain reorganizes as we age…These results suggest that the aging brain maintains healthy cognitive function by increasing bilateral communication.” This communication increases, according to the study, “as needed,” — depending on how your brain transforms over time.

The researchers also found that patients with stronger white matter pathways, which exist between the halves of the brain, showcased greater bilateral communication. This signifies that it is likely that the brains of those with similar pathways might retain higher levels of functioning later in life.

This study has unveiled crucial information about the inner workings of the brain as it ages. Not only is this phenomenon now understood to be a progressing method of compensation, but we better understand bilateral communication, as well as how the pathways between the halves of our brain contribute to our brain health over time. This study, and others like it, will continue to contribute to research that could support a more robust understanding of the biology of aging, and provide clues about how we and our brains can stay healthy throughout our lives.

Source: Futurism

17 Sep 2017

A Stanford Neuroscientist is Working to Create Wireless Cyborg Eyes for the Blind

IN BRIEF

Stanford neuroscientist E.J. Chichilnisky has a bold plan—Create implantable devices to restore vision to a number of people who have gone blind. But to do this, he’ll have to revolutionize the way electronic devices interface with the human brain.

Seeing The Light

For the nearly two million Americans who have degenerative eye conditions, the ability to see is anything but a guarantee. Although we can slow the progression of vision loss—for example, patients can take special vitamins for the disease—there is no cure. And once it’s lost, vision can’t be restored.

Two of the most notable conditions, retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cause cells on the retina, which is the region at the back of the eye that converts light into electrical signals, to die off. As a result, those afflicted with the diseases lose their sight as they get older. Thus, these conditions are of increasing concern, given our growing aging population.

Fortunately, a futuristic solution is on the horizon. And it has to do with becoming cyborg.

In the past few years, some patients have been fortunate enough to get devices implanted on their retinas to help them see again. Unfortunately, these devices aren’t very good, only illuminating blotches of light and dark, devoid of details. Alos, they’re expensive, costing patients upwards of $150,000. To some, that’s better than nothing. “I understand that I will not have 20/20 vision and that I won’t be able to distinguish faces. But at least I will be able to know that my grandchildren are running across the yard or walking into my house,” one recipient told the University of Michigan in 2014.

But E.J. Chichilnisky, a professor of neurosurgery and ophthalmology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, has a much grander vision for retinal implants. To fulfill it, he plans to create a device that revolutionizes the way electronic devices interface with the brain.

A Dialogue With The Retina

To break down the issue a bit more, in a healthy eye, light passes through the cornea and lens, entering the eye through the pupil. That light then falls on the retina, where a series of different cells turn light into electrical signals that are then transmitted into the brain via the optic nerve.

As previously noted, retinitis pigmentosa and AMD cause many of the cells in the retina to die, so the signals that transmit visual information are stopped before they can reach the brain. Current retinal implants simply take the place of those dead cells, turning light into electric signals.

But the disease doesn’t kill all cells in the retina—and this is where the problems arise with current implants.

Retinal ganglion cells, which pull in information from all the other cells in the retina, seem to survive the culling. There are about 20 different types of retinal ganglion cells scattered across the retina, each of which transmits a different type of information to the brain.

Timing is essential to the function of these cells. One type of cell could tell the brain a region on the image is brighter now than it was a moment ago, and another could tell the brain the image is darker. If both are activated at once, “that’s a nonsense signal sent to the brain,” Chichilnisky says.

That’s part of the reason current retinal implants are so limited. As Chichilnisky notes, they ignore the functioning retinal ganglion cells, activating them all at once. “Vision is like an orchestra trying to play a symphony. It depends on having [the right signals] at the right time and right place,” Chichilnisky tells Futurism. “If you instruct all the instruments to play indiscriminately, someone will hear you. But it’s not music.”

The tiling effect of cells on the retina. Image credit: Chris Sekirnjak

Chichilnisky aims to get each type of ganglion cell, each “instrument,” to play at its proper moment. Eventually, his team’s so-called smart prostheses will be surgically implanted into patients’ eyes and be powered wirelessly, probably from a pair of specialized glasses that the patient would wear.

But they’ve got to do a lot to get there. Getting the right signal to the right cell at the right time is difficult because the mixture of different types of ganglion cells varies between individuals and may even change over time, Chichilnisky says.

Chichilnisky’s solution is to create a device that can not only transmit the right signals to the ganglion cells, but also read the retina to figure out which kind of ganglion cell sits where. Then, the device can stimulate it at the right time to create a cohesive image. “It’s a dialogue with the retina—you have to talk back and forth to the circuit,” he notes. He envisions that the final version of the device will “write” all the time, but “read” the retina only occasionally.

But there are other technical challenges. The device has to be made of the right material so that it can stay on the retina for long periods of time without damaging it or sparking an immune response. It also demands a dense concentration of fine-grained electrodes on a small chip that doesn’t emit too much heat. “We have to take everything we know and program it effectively into chip that can sense its environment, figure out what’s going on, and do the right thing at right time in the right place, always. And it has to be smart enough to talk to a neural circuit,” Chichilnisky says. “It’s a tall order.”

A Bright Future

Chichilnisky’s team, made up of neuroscientists, circuit designers, and an eye surgeon, is still figuring out the exact design of their device. Currently, the researchers are testing different techniques on the excised retinas of animals used for other experiments. To perform all the tasks that their compact device will eventually perform, they need an entire room full of scientific equipment. They plan to reduce all this to a small implanted chip.

But this isn’t the only team in the game.

Other scientists are working to restore vision in patients with retinitis pigmentosa and AMD, and already, tests of gene therapy and stem cell therapy techniques have produced interesting results. But Chichilnisky isn’t worried. “I’ll be thrilled if someone comes along and cures AMD while we’re doing this stuff,” he says.

The retina—one of the best-understood and most accessible avenues to the brain—is only the beginning

This is because Chichilnisky believes that, regardless of what other developments in treating blindness come about, the technology he is developing will represent the future of neural implants, as their utility extends far beyond just sight. Devices that can both listen and talk to the brain in the same “language” will enable humans to treat neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s or control prosthetic limbs.

The same tech will likely be used to hack our own biology, augmenting our memory and pushing our vision to new limits. “It’s going to happen. If you think it won’t, you haven’t been reading enough,” Chichilnisky says. According to him, the retina—one of the best-understood and most accessible avenues to the brain—is only the beginning.

Chichilnisky hopes to have a lab prototype in the next couple of years and to start testing it on live animals within five years. Predicting when such a device could be tested in humans, to say nothing of when it could be widely available, becomes murkier. But he hopes that human studies could happen within the next decade.

Though the technology is still at too early a stage to spin off into a company and seek investors, Chichilnisky has no doubt that many will be interested…and soon. “The thing I’m talking about is a revolution,” he says. And we are fortunate enough to be here to witness the start of it all.

Source: Futurism