07 April 2007

Repairing the brain

Some very promising work is being done in Los Angeles on using silicon chips to repair brain damage. This not only offers hope in treating brain disorders such as Alzheimer's disease; it also represents a step down the road toward the full integration of human and machine intelligence which will be crucial to the Singularity.

Notice that one does not even need to understand the functions of the affected part of the brain in order to make the technology work; one merely needs to have the chip send out the same impulses that the damaged area would have sent, and have the rest of the brain accept those signals. As Ted Berger, the project leader, says, “I don’t need a grand theory of the mind to fix what is essentially a signal-processing problem.....A repairman doesn’t need to understand music to fix your broken CD player.”

An interesting point the article notes is that Berger originally had trouble attracting support and research partners for his work, but his recent successes have generated broad interest in developing the technology further. This suggests that the oft-cited problems in getting large-scale funding for anti-aging research could similarly be overcome by achieving a spectacular success in the laboratory, as the Methuselah Mouse Prize aims to do.

Another important example of brain-machine interface is a neurosensor which can interpret the signals the brain sends along the motor neurons to control the body:

When placed over the brain’s motor-cortex area, the sensor enables quadriplegics to open and close a prosthetic hand merely by thinking about doing it. This technology, called BrainGate, allows the machine to convert the electronic signals coming from the brain (“I want to move this hand”) into motor activity by using algorithms embedded in a software chip. “The possibilities are limitless,” says Elizabeth Razee of Cyberkinetics Neurotech-nology Systems, a firm in Foxborough, Massachusetts, that hopes to bring BrainGate to market by 2009.

Work on brain-machine integration is already moving ahead rapidly. Just imagine what will be possible a few years from now, when visible success in helping quadriplegics and Alzheimer's patients starts to awaken the mass public mind to the possibilities, and creates pressure for allocating more funding and resources to research.



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