The Brain-Machine Interface, Unplugged

Researchers report prototype wireless neural interfaces

3 min read

In experiments and even limited human clinical trials, electrode arrays implanted on the brain's surface have given monkeys and humans the ability to move objects with their thoughts. The experiments are proof that brain-computer interfaces could improve the lives of severely paralyzed people. But these systems rely on wires snaking out from the skull, which would affect a person's mobility and leave an opening in the scalp prone to infection.

Wireless brain-machine interfaces would be much more practical and could be implanted in several different areas of the brain to tap into more neurons. A typical scheme would have electrodes penetrating brain tissue, picking up neuronal electrical impulses, called spikes. A chip would amplify and process the signals and transmit them over a broadband RF connection through the skull to a receiver. Then, just as in wired systems, algorithms would decode these signals into commands for operating a computer or a robot.

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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler
Blue

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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