Experimental Brain-Computer Interfaces: The Potential and Pitfalls of a New Science

Category Biotechnology

tldr #

Experimental brain-computer interfaces are being trialed to help treat paralysis and epilepsy – but when research funding runs out, the implications for trial volunteers can be devastating. Burkhart volunteered for a trial nine years ago, which enabled him to partially regain movement of his limbs. But when funding ran out, he was forced to have the implant removed, which took away his regained mobility. Informed consent is essential, but as Burkhart’s experience shows, it may not provide all the answers.

content #

Experimental brain-computer interfaces are being trialed to help treat paralysis and epilepsy, among other things. They can transform a person’s health, independence, and very sense of self. So if a company or research team runs out of money and wants to remove the implant, it can have devastating consequences for the recipient.

Burkhart's device was implanted in his brain around nine years ago, a few years after he was left unable to move his limbs following a diving accident. He volunteered to trial the device, which enabled him to move his hand and fingers. But it had to be removed seven and a half years later.His particular implant was a small set of 100 electrodes, carefully inserted into a part of the brain that helps control movement. It worked by recording brain activity and sending these recordings to a computer, where they were processed using an algorithm. This was connected to a sleeve of electrodes worn on the arm. The idea was to translate thoughts of movement into electrical signals that would trigger movement."It worked really well," says Burkhart. "We started off just being able to open and close my hand, but after some time we were able to do individual finger movements." He was eventually able to combine movements and control his grip strength. He was even able to play Guitar Hero.

Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) have been used to help with a range of medical conditions, from paralysis to epileptic seizures

For example, he could pour a bottle out, but it was only a bottle of beads, because the researchers didn’t want liquids around the electrical equipment. "It was kind of a bummer it wasn’t changing everything in my life, because I had seen how beneficial it could be," he says.

At any rate, the device worked so well that the team extended the trial. Burkhart was initially meant to have the implant in place for 12 to 18 months, he says. "But everything was really successful … so we were able to continue on for quite a while after that." The trial was extended on an annual basis, and Burkhart continued to visit the lab twice a week.

The technology uses a combination of electrodes placed in the brain, recordings of brain activity and an algorithm to interpret those signals

But there was bad news ahead. "It was probably around the five-year mark that we started running into some issues with funding," he says. When the team did manage to secure funding, it was only for six to eight months. At one point, Burkhart says, he was told to have the implant removed, but assured that he could have it put back in once funding had come through.

In 2021, he started developing an infection at the point where the cable led into his scalp. "That was the final nail in the coffin," he says. He agreed to have the device removed in August of 2021 and has been without it since.

The first successful BCI was created in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that BCIs were successfully tested on humans

Having the implant removed was difficult, he tells me. "When I first had my spinal cord injury, everyone said: ‘You’re never going to be able to move anything from your shoulders down again,’" he says. "I was able to restore that function, and then lose it again. That was really tough." .

I spoke to a neurologist involved in clinical trials for brain-computer interfaces, who told me that informed consent is vital—trial volunteers need to know exactly what’s going to happen. But it’s not that simple, as Burkhart’s experience makes clear. "I knew the device was going to have to come out at some point," Buerkharts says. "But it was a shock when I heard it had to be immediately." .

The technology is most commonly used to control prosthetic hands or artificial limbs, but researchers are also exploring its potential to treat conditions such as depression and anxiety

hashtags #
worddensity #