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Neural Engineering's Image Problem

Despite a string of successes, implanted prostheses remain in the shadows

12 min read

Jennifer French, who was paralyzed from the waist down in 1998 as a result of a snowboarding accident, has a new mission. Standing up? Walking? No. Been there. Done that. With the help of electronics implanted in her legs and lower torso, she can already stand up out of her wheelchair and even move around using her walker [see photos, " "and " "]. But now she's taken on a different sort of challenge: motivating others with neurological injuries and their caregivers to consider implanted devices. It's a tougher sell than you might think.

Neuroscientists are, at last, realizing one of the greatest ambitions in recent medical history: the ability to tap directly into the human nervous system to restore motor and sensory functions in patients who lost them because of injury, illness, or stroke. Those with certain birth defects could also benefit. The advances are being driven by a confluence of developments, including better understanding of the anatomy and function of nerve fibers and the availability of new electrodes for interfacing to those fibers. Also, and perhaps most significant, improved neuromuscular-control algorithms are permitting more natural movements in patients by applying more refined electrical signals to the nerves. All told, the advances are a small but significant step in what will surely be one of technology's most enduring quests: the medical restoration and ultimately even enhancement of human capabilities by advanced implanted prosthetic systems.

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Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
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A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic
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Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

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