British semiconductor and software company ARM has announced that it's partnering with the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering to create a distinctly sci-fi sounding brain implant that can counter the debilitating effects of a range of neurological conditions, including spinal injury and more.
If successful, the chip could revolutionize the treatment of paralysis. According to the World Health Organisation, every year between 250,000 and 500,000 people suffer spinal cord injuries that leave them with some form of long term damage. Injuries in this instance means not only trauma but also degeneration.
On top of this, approximately five million people are left paralyzed by stroke per year, according to the World Heart Federation.
For many of these people, this paralysis is hugely debilitating and permanent. With advances in our understanding of the human brain and processors, ARM now believes it is capable of making a chip that works bi-directionally.
To understand what bi-directionally means and quite how epic that is, you first need to understand a little of how the nervous system works. Imagine that your brain is a computer that communicates with the rest of your body via tiny electrical impulses.
A quick science lesson
These impulses go both ways, so let's quickly look at both. When you want to pick up an object, in a fraction of a second impulses are sent from your hand, through your nervous system to your brain, telling it how heavy the object is, how fragile it is, its temperature and its texture. These are known as afferent signals.
Based on this information, your brain decides the appropriate amount of force needed to pick the object up, the right grip strength, how long you can hold it for and how easy it'll be to hold,
It then sends signals back through your nervous system to the muscles of your hand and arm to allow you to pick up the object. These are known as efferent signals.
When there's a break in the line between the hand and your brain (as in a spinal injury), those signals can't be communicated and without the efferent signals, the hand doesn't know to move and is paralyzed.
If successful, this chip would artificially bridge the gaps in the neural network, working for both afferent and efferent signals (bi-directionally) to end the paralysis.
What's incredibly exciting about this is the possibility of communicating afferent signals. When you see demonstrations of robots being wildly inappropriate in the amount of force they use, it's usually because they only have the equivalent of efferent signals. This is one of the main hindrances of using an external system, like a robotic brace, to overcome paralysis.
According to ARM: “Research is also demonstrating that use of such a system may eventually help to coax brain neurons to rewire in ways that help the brain recover from stroke”.
While stroke and spinal injury aren't the only causes of paralysis, they are two of the primary causes worldwide so eliminating these would be an immense achievement.
The idea of having a computer chip inside your brain may sound like a bizarre concept, but there is already a growing field of work in Parkinson's treatment that includes brain implants. What will be really interesting is to see whether there'll be any application of this technology outside the world of medicine.
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Andrew London is a writer at Velocity Partners. Prior to Velocity Partners, he was a staff writer at Future plc.