Millions of people around the world currently live with epilepsy, a brain disorder that causes recurring seizures. While many medical treatments for epilepsy exist, there is still no predictable or guaranteed cure. Brain implants are now seen as a promising avenue of relief for those suffering from this condition, potentially transforming the lives of epilepsy patients.
Brain implants are small electronic devices that are surgically implanted in areas of the brain affected by epilepsy. The purpose of these brain implants is to monitor brain activity and detect abnormal patterns that could lead to a seizure, then prevent or reduce its severity. If they can reliably prevent seizures, brain implants could be an effective way to manage epilepsy without having to rely on medication alone.
The State of the Field
One company leading the development of brain implants is Neuralink, a startup founded by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk. Neuralink has created brain implants that not only detect abnormal brain activity but also stimulate certain parts of the brain with electrical pulses known as deep brain stimulation (DBS). This technology can be used to treat various neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and depression.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have developed brain implants that can help people with Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders manage their symptoms. This brain implant uses closed-loop stimulation to detect abnormal brain activity and adjust itself accordingly in order to reduce these symptoms. The device was tested on primates with Parkinson’s, who showed remarkable improvements in motor tasks after just two weeks of use.
However, it’s not just neurological disorders these brain implants can treat; they may also provide relief to those living with chronic pain, and help improve the motor skills of people with paralysis or other movement disorders. They might even enable us to control computers with our minds and become cyborgs — something Musk himself has suggested in recent interviews.
Brain implants are not only being developed by Neuralink, but also other companies and research groups around the world. A brain implant called a brain-computer interface (BCI) is an emerging technology that has been in development for decades and is now starting to enter clinical trials. BCIs work by recording brain activity, then translating it into digital output signals that can be used to control devices such as a computer cursor or robotic arm.
The Future of Brain Implants
The potential applications of brain implants are virtually limitless: from enhancing cognitive abilities such as memory and focus, all the way to restoring vision in the blind. While these technologies remain largely experimental for the moment, researchers are optimistic about the impact they could have on our lives in the very near future.
At the moment, several clinical trials have been launched worldwide involving implantable devices designed to manage epilepsy-specific characteristics such as the severity, duration, frequency, and predictability of seizures. Still, more research is needed before these devices become widely available to patients suffering from epilepsy or other neurological conditions.
Some brain implants are already being used by human patients. NeuroPace, a publicly traded company, manufactures RNS System, an implantable device designed specifically to treat drug-resistant epilepsy, and the only FDA-approved epilepsy device that delivers personalized treatment by responding to abnormal brain activity. It monitors brain activity and detects patterns that could lead to seizures, then emits electrical pulses when needed to prevent them from occurring. In many cases, this device has helped appreciably reduce the frequency and severity of seizures in epilepsy patients.
While brain implants are not yet a silver bullet, providing an immediate and definitive end to all cases of epilepsy, they do hold great promise as an effective treatment option for managing this disorder, especially given that they have fewer side effects than traditional medications.
As new technologies emerge every day, promising ever greater possibilities for controlling our own bodies using brain implants and other brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), it’s clear that this field will only continue advancing at accelerated rates in the years to come, offering hope and life-changing treatments both to sufferers from chronic illnesses such as epilepsy and those eager to command the enhanced cognitive abilities that come with being a cyborg.