The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants

A patient with an implanted neural device that connects to a prosthetic arm can sense, while blindfolded, which of the mechanical fingers are being touched.

(A still image of a video provided to leapsmag by DARPA and UPMC/Pitt Health Sciences)


You may not have heard of DARPA, the research branch of the Pentagon. But you're definitely familiar with some of the technology it has pioneered, like the Internet, Siri, and handheld GPS.

"Now we're going to try to go from this proof-of-concept all the way to commercial technologies that can powerfully affect patients' lives."

Last week in National Harbor, Maryland, DARPA celebrated its 60th anniversary by showcasing its latest breakthroughs and emerging research programs, one of which centers around using neurotechnology to enhance the capabilities of the human brain. This technology is initially being developed to help warfighters and veterans, but its success could have enormous implications for civilian patients and, eventually, mainstream consumers.

The field is moving ahead rapidly. Fifteen years ago, a monkey named Aurora used a brain-machine interface to control a cursor on a computer screen. In 2014, DARPA's mind-controlled prosthetic arm for amputees won approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Since then, DARPA has continued to push neurotechnology to new heights. Here are three of their research programs that are showing promise in early human testing:

1) A NEURAL IMPLANT HELP MANAGE PSYCHIATRIC ILLNESS

More than 2.2 million veterans and 44 million civilians are living with some form of psychiatric illness, and medications don't work for everyone. DARPA set out to create new options for people living with debilitating anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

"We can get somebody back to normal. It's a whole new set of tools for physicians," said Justin Sanchez, Director of the Biological Technologies Office at DARPA.

He told the audience about a woman living with both epilepsy and extreme anxiety, who has a direct neural interface that reads her brain's signals in real time and can be modulated with stimulation. He shared a recent video of her testing the device:

"Now we're going to try to go from this proof-of-concept all the way to commercial technologies that can powerfully affect patients' lives," Sanchez said.

2) A NEURAL IMPLANT TO HELP IMPROVE MEMORY

"We are right at the cusp" of improving memory recall with direct neural interfaces, Sanchez said.

All day long, our brains shift between poor and good memory states. A brain-computer interface can read the signals of populations of neurons in the lateral temporal cortex. The device continuously monitors the state of the brain and delivers stimulation within a fraction of a second after detecting a poor memory state, to improve the person's memory performance.

The improved memory lasts only seconds, so the system "delivers stimulation as needed in a closed loop to keep the performance in a good state, because of this natural variability of performance," said Dan Rizzuto, founder of NiaTherapeutics, whose technology was developed with support from DARPA and the United States BRAIN Initiative.

Check out this recently shot video of a patient testing the device, which Sanchez called "a breakthrough moment":

About 400 patients have been tested with this technology so far. In a pilot study whose data have not yet been published, patients with traumatic brain injury showed improvement in recall of around 28 percent, according to Rizzuto.

He estimates that potential FDA approval of the device for patients with traumatic brain injury is still 7 to 8 years away. The technology holds the potential to help many other kinds of patients as well.

"We believe this device could also be used to treat Alzheimer's because it's not specific to any brain pathology but based on a deep understanding of the way human memory works," Rizzuto said.

3) A NEURAL IMPLANT TO REVOLUTIONIZE PROSTHETICS FOR WARFIGHTERS AND VETERANS

Since 2006, DARPA has run a program to revolutionize prosthetics. The latest advances allow amputees to actually feel again with their bionic limbs.

Sensors in a prosthetic hand relay information to an interface in the brain that allows the person to detect which of their "fingers" are being touched, while their eyes are closed:

WHAT COMES NEXT?

DARPA is now turning its attention to non-surgical, non-invasive neurotechnology. Researchers hope to use advanced sensor technology to detect signals from neurons without putting any electrodes directly inside the brain. Under the direction of program manager Dr. Al Emondi, the N³ program is about to launch soon and plans to run for four or five years.

"We haven't even scratched the surface of what a human brain's capability is," said Dr. Geoffrey Ling, the Founding Director of the Biological Technologies Office. "When we can make this a non-invasive consumer technology, this will explode. It will take on a life of its own."

Then, inevitably, the hard questions will follow.

As Sanchez put it: "Will society consider some form of neural enhancement a personal choice like braces? Could there be a disturbing gap for people who have neurotech and those who don't? We must come together and all think over the horizon. How the story unfolds ultimately depends on all of us."

Kira Peikoff
Kira Peikoff is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.
Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on


Reporter Michaela Haas takes Aptera's Sol car out for a test drive in San Diego, Calif.

Courtesy Haas

The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."

If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Michaela Haas
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an award-winning reporter and author, most recently of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, and numerous other media. Find her at www.MichaelaHaas.com and Twitter @MichaelaHaas!

A stock image of a home test for COVID-19.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Last summer, when fast and cheap Covid tests were in high demand and governments were struggling to manufacture and distribute them, a group of independent scientists working together had a bit of a breakthrough.

Working on the Just One Giant Lab platform, an online community that serves as a kind of clearing house for open science researchers to find each other and work together, they managed to create a simple, one-hour Covid test that anyone could take at home with just a cup of hot water. The group tested it across a network of home and professional laboratories before being listed as a semi-finalist team for the XPrize, a competition that rewards innovative solutions-based projects. Then, the group hit a wall: they couldn't commercialize the test.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Christi Guerrini and Alex Pearlman

Christi Guerrini, JD, MPH studies biomedical citizen science and is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Alex Pearlman, MA, is a science journalist and bioethicist who writes about emerging issues in biotechnology. They have recently launched outlawbio.org, a place for discussion about nontraditional research.