Neural Prosthetic Is a "Bridge" Over Damaged Brain Areas

Experiment in rats could show the way to treating traumatic brain injury in humans

2 min read
Neural Prosthetic Is a "Bridge" Over Damaged Brain Areas

A new idea for treating brain injury doesn't involve fixing the damaged regions. Instead, researchers want to detour neural impulses around the damage. 

Scientists used to think of the brain as an collection of discrete parts, with different regions taking charge of different neural functions. Today's emerging model of brain activity indicates that even a simple act of perception or cognition involves many different brain regions. Several projects are devoted to mapping those complex webs of interconnections, collectively known as the connectome.

The current experiment on brain injury banks on the idea that a lesion in the brain may be disruptive partially because it interrupts some neural circuit. The researchers, from Case Western Reserve University and the Kansas University Medical Center, thought that a little judicious rewiring could solve the problem. 

In the study, researchers caused brain injuries in rats' caudal forelimb area, which is involved in the movement of the rats' front legs. That brain region typically processes information from a sensory area that provides information about the limbs' positions, and it sends on the command to the premotor cortex, which in turn conveys the command to the spinal cord. In these injured rats, though, the signal couldn't make it past the sensory area. A rat presented with food pellets will still try to grab them, but it will grope around almost at random, and will have little success in nabbing the food.

To restore function, researchers implanted a microdevice in the rats. One set of electrodes recorded and digitized the signals in the sensory area, then the signal was routed to another set of electrodes in the premotor cortex, where they delivered precise electrical pulses. When these cyborg rats were tested for their pellet-grabbing skills, they performed almost as well as uninjured animals. 

The video below tells the tale. Warning: Don't watch if you don't want to look at post-brain-surgery rats. They have a somewhat Frankenstein-like appearance.

Such technology could one day help a broad swath of people who suffer from traumatic brain injury, including football players, war veterans, trauma victims, and stroke patients.

Image and video: David J. Guggenmos et al.

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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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