Apr 27, 2017

An optical link to the brain

Our expert voices conversation on "When computers merge with our minds."

Brain interfaces that rely on wires inserted into the brain already have a huge impact on people with neurological disorders. However, wires damage the brain, take up space, and can only provide crude control. The technology is poised for disruption.

A better approach is needed to achieve the ultimate goal: a brain interface that communicates vast amounts of information quickly and accurately with other devices and minds. Today, we can genetically engineer neurons to build their own communication devices that deliver messages to and from computers optically, rather than electrically. These tools are so precise, we can use them to erase the fear associated with the memory of a traumatic event in lab mice. They can process a thousand times more neurons than state-of-the-art electrical interfaces. Unlike wires, light travels through the brain without causing damage, and takes up no space.

The challenges: Human brain tissue is thicker than mice, making it more difficult to deliver light to the right spots, and methods to engineer the genes of neurons must be proven safe in humans. But more difficult challenges and limitations exist for wired devices. Optical interfaces, with their specificity and the bandwidth they allow, will win.The other voices in the conversation:

Sridevi Sarma, biomedical engineer, Johns Hopkins University: How and how much to change the brainSteven Chase, biomedical engineer, Carnegie Mellon University: What to fearSliman Bensmaia, neurobiologist, University of Chicago: The internet inside your mind

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