During his military training in 1892, German psychiatrist Hans Berger was almost trampled to death by a horse-drawn cannon. At the exact same time, his sister had a sudden feeling he was in danger and decided to telegram her brother. Berger would later describe this as a “case of spontaneous telepathy,” which made him dedicate a lifetime to understanding how brain activity can change someone’s thoughts. That work would inspire him to create the electroencephalogram—a method for measuring brain activity that is now one of the most important technologies in all of neuroscience.
Almost a century after that invention, similar aspirations of decoding the electric activity of human brains have driven thousands of neuroscientists forward in the field of brain-computer interfaces (BCI), in which human brains are directly connected to external devices to facilitate communication between the two parts. The goal is to leverage these connections from brains to technology to improve the lives of people with conditions that affect movement, communication, and physical and mental health. Several of these scientists met this past week in San Diego for the 2022 Society for Neuroscience conference (SfN), the largest annual neuroscience conference in the world. While “spontaneous telepathy” remains to be seen, there were still incredible new findings presented.
Over 30,000 attendees made it to San Diego this year, and the whole city felt like it had been taken over by scientists of all levels, proudly carrying poster tubes and wearing their badges. Over 20 sessions were wholly dedicated to all aspects of BCI, not counting satellite events and workshops. The optimism among researchers for how BCI technologies could drastically transform lives was palpable from the outset.
But the conference was also notable in what was absent: the most well-known star players in current BCI research, like the Elon Musk-led company Neuralink, or the fast-moving startup Synchron. And for many at SfN, outside the labs and the discussion among the companies’ scientists, the tech sector seems more interested in cultivating a sci-fi laden hype that distracts from the more practical clinical applications that BCI work can deliver to those in need.
Remediating or even outright reversing paralysis is one of the most pressing potential applications. At the conference, neuroscientist Grégoire Courtine and his team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne showcased their work in helping patients with spinal cord injuries. They’ve developed what they call the Brain-Spine Interface (BSI), a technology first developed in 2016 in non-human primates (monkeys) that combines an implant made for the motor area of the brain with a different implant placed in the spinal cord.
In San Diego, however, the team showed that the BSI has the ability to record, decode, and predict the electric signals in human brains meant to convey movement to the body, while at the same time stimulating the spinal cord region that controls movement to further aid rehabilitation. In the latest round of clinical testing, the BSI was able to restore movement (standing, walking, and performing different exercises) in paralyzed patients after five months of rehabilitation. Those who previously had a small amount of function were able to walk even without the device.
At the same workshop, Dean Krusienski, co-president of the neurotechnology company g.tec and a biomedical engineer at Virginia Commonwealth University, showed how his research team found a way to use recordings from inside the skulls of patients with epilepsy to determine how our brains create speech. Their results show, for the first time, the specific types of activity our brains do when we imagine words, when we just move our mouths, and when we actually speak out loud. Krusienski told The Daily Beast he hopes this work paves the path for BCIs to be able to communicate the thoughts of patients who cannot speak into words.
That’s exactly what Richard Andersen at Caltech is pursuing in his effort to restore human communication to paralyzed individuals. In one recent study, Andersen and his team placed an implant in two brain regions responsible for speech in a patient with complete paralysis of all limbs. At the conference, they revealed they had found a way to use the observational data collected by the implant to train an algorithm to interpret individual words. They asked the patient to first imagine the word, and then say it out loud. In just 15 minutes of training, the algorithms were able to predict a word based only on the patient’s electrical brain activity, with 90 percent accuracy. The team is now working to extend this to other people who experience loss of speech, such as patients with ALS, or with locked-in syndrome.
Perhaps one of the biggest facets of SfN this year had nothing to do with new technological or scientific findings—but rather a new discussion on the ethics of brain research. Much of the discourse around BCI research in the last year has been dominated by nervous questions about how liable companies are if people suffer negative consequences from these technologies, as well as whether the suffering endured by animals in testing is worth it. The advent of stronger ethical considerations means BCI research must grapple more rigorously with whether human participants in BCI testing are being treated well and being properly informed of the risks involved.
On the first day of the conference, Juhi Farooqui, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh who’s developing neuroprosthetics, presented a pilot program aimed directly at discussing the ethical implications of neural engineering research at her university. She ran through the successes behind ethics-focused seminars and discussions carried on for the past three years, which culminated in a local conference with over 100 participants. Farooqui told The Daily Beast she hopes that these can teach scientists to, instead of aimlessly pursuing research, critically engage with topics such as the rights and experiences of participants, as well as equity, and dissemination of knowledge.
Along those sentiments, it was incredibly notable how different the discourse around BCI research seemed to be within SfN, as opposed to the public sphere. Many who spoke to The Daily Beast expressed respect and admiration for those who were working for companies like Neuralink and Synchron, but were dismayed at the lofty and unrealistic claims by tech moguls over what BCIs could be capable of doing, especially in the short-term future. A neuroscientist who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity described their work as “spending half a year coding to see small improvements only for people to think we’ll have an Ironman suit anytime now”. They said they had previously suffered waves of backlash when they had openly criticized Elon Musk’s claims of what Neuralink will be able to do—like the purported ability to connect brains to the internet, and “solve” autism, schizophrenia, and memory loss.
And the messaging from these companies seems to be less about clinical application more akin to computing prowess. Neuralink likes to tout that its Link implant boasts 1,024 electrodes that are used to interface with the brain—a nearly 10-fold increase from Blackrock Neurotech’s widely used Utah Array (which has 124 electrodes). Those numbers are likely to come up frequently when the company announces new findings at the end of the month.
Not to be left behind, Blackrock has said that its next-generation generation implant chip contains over 10,000 electrodes. New York-based Synchron recently announced that it will soon begin human trials for its Stentrode, an implant that only requires connection of the brain vascular system instead of longer brain surgeries.
It’s this hardware race that seems to take up most of the oxygen of the brain implant world—and one that SfN’s attendees bristle about. For scientists like Krusienski and Farooqui, the whole purpose of BCIs is to push them forward as medical tools that could improve lives. For the tech industry, however, this is merely the starting point.