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The future of mind control

Neuron-like implants could offer a better way to treat Alzheimer’s disease or post-traumatic stress disorder, control prosthetics, or even enhance cognitive abilities. Wonderful or very scary stuff!

Electrodes implanted in the brain help alleviate symptoms like the intrusive tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease. But current probes face limitations due to their size and inflexibility. “The brain is squishy, and these implants are rigid,” said the lead author of the latest perspective.

In the paper, published in Nature Biotechnology, the authors says neurotechnology is on the cusp of a major boom.

“The next frontier is really the merging of human cognition with machines,” the authors said. They see what’s called “mesh electronics” as the foundation for those machines, a way to design “personalized electronic treatment for just about anything related to the brain (cognitive enhancement is a treatment??).

“Everything manifests in the brain fundamentally. Everything. All your thoughts, your perceptions, any type of disease,” they said.

Scientists can pinpoint the general areas of the brain where decision-making, learning and emotions originate, but tracing behaviors to specific neurons is still a challenge. Right now, when the brain’s complex circuitry starts to misbehave or degrade due to psychiatric illnesses like addiction or obsessive-compulsive disorder, neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, or even natural aging, patients have only two options for medical intervention: drugs or, when those fail, implanted electrodes.

Drugs like L-dopa can quiet the tremors that prevent someone with Parkinson's from performing simple tasks like dressing and eating. But because drugs affect more than just their target, even common L-dopa side effects can be severe, ranging from nausea to depression to abnormal heart rhythms.

FDA-approved electrodes can provide relief through Deep Brain Stimulation. Like a pacemaker, a battery pack set beneath the clavicle sends automated electrical pulses to two brain implants. However, each electrode looks like a pencil. And it's big.

Like with L-dopa, the large electrodes stimulate more than their intended targets, causing sometimes severe side effects like speech impediments. And, over time, the brain's immune system treats the stiff implants as foreign objects, reducing the device's ability to maintain treatment.

In contrast, mesh electronics seem to provoke almost no immune response. With close, long-term proximity to the same neurons, the implants can collect robust data on how individual neurons communicate over time or, in the case of neurological disorders, fail to communicate. Eventually, such technology could track how specific neural subtypes talk, too, all of which could lead to a cleaner, more precise map of the brain's communication network.

With higher resolution targets, future electrodes can act with greater precision, eliminating unwanted side effects. If that happens, they could obviously be tuned to treat any neurological disorder. And, unlike current electrodes, mesh electrodes have already demonstrated a valuable trick of their own: They encourage neural migration, potentially guiding newborn neurons to damaged areas, like pockets created by stroke.

A few major technology companies are also eager to champion brain-machine interfaces. Some plan to give paralyzed patients the power to work computers with their minds or are focused on other assistive applications. Others have broader plans: Facebook wants people to text by imaging the words, and others hope to enhance cognitive abilities.

In her research the lead author saw how just a short pulse of electricity – no more than 500 milliseconds of stimulation – could control a person's ability to make a safe or impulsive decision. After a little zap, subjects who almost always chose the risky bet, instead went with the safe option. "You would have no idea that it's happened," the researchers said. "You're unaware of it. It's beyond your conscious awareness.” And that, of course, is the problem with the whole idea.

Mesh electronics still, thankfully, has several major challenges to overcome: scaling up the number of implanted electrodes, processing the data flood those implants deliver, and feeding that information back into the system to enable live recalibration.

So, what?

Such power obviously demands intense ethical scrutiny. For people struggling to combat addiction or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, an external pulse regulator could significantly improve their quality of life.

But companies that operate those regulators could access their client's most personal data—their thoughts. And, if enhanced learning and memory are for sale, who gets to buy a better brain? “One does need to be a little careful about the ethics involved if you're trying to make a superhuman," the lead author said. Amen to that. "Being able to help people is much more important to me at this time," she mused.

Modern scientists are not immune from corruption in the pursuit of patents, funding or Nobel Prizes. Like genetic engineering, the excuse is always that “we can cure an illness or prevent a possible disability.” Soon enough the desire to heal becomes the desire to self-enrich. Thus, very rich people can acquire the minds they feel they need or the genetically engineered babies to boast about. Designer cognition is no different from designer babies.