The BrainGate implant
Curing debilitating cerebral problems may just be a memory chip away

A new brain implant that could potentially solve a number of brain-related problems, ranging anywhere from Alzheimer’s to memory loss.

The research for the brain implant is being headed by Ted Berger from the University of Southern California Los Angeles. A pioneer of his field, Berger earned his Ph.D. in 1976 at the age of 26. From there, though, he parted ways with the thinking of many of his colleagues.  

“The idea was that you could solve every brain problem with a drug or surgery,” said Berger to Stephen Handelman from Popular Science. Berger instead chose to look at the brain itself as a source to solve brain-related issues.

After years of research and hard work, Berger and his team of neuroscientists have finally able to create a working chip that could replace neurons in the brain. The chip, however, is by no means able to completely model the brain. So far, the chip simulates roughly 12,000 neurons. This is compared to the billions of neurons that are in the human brain.       

Popular Science reports the progress that Berger and his team have made so far is very impressive.  The promise that neural chips hold is stunning, and might be the answer to many modern brain-related problems.

Berger’s chip is very similar to Cyberkinetic’s BrainGate, a brain implant system that helps people who have lost control over their limbs. In BrainGate, a computer chip is implanted in the brain, which then monitors brain activity and converts user intention into computer commands. After the commands are decoded, they can be sent to a robotic arm or a computer cursor. It is important to note that the technology is still far from mainstream use. 

The real challenge for Berger and his team, however, lies in making their chip fully bidirectional. While BrainGate might be able to convert signals into computer commands, Berger wants his chip to be able to also send signals. The problem is, though, that brain cells communicate using “electrical code” that Berger’s chip needs to convert the signals too. This raises a number of issues, including how to regulate the heat that is created by the transistors during operations. As the brain is rather sensitive to temperatures, a chip that would run at high temperatures would most likely end up damaging healthy brain cells.
Despite the headway that Berger’s chip has made, the truth of the matter is that scientists are still not any closer to understanding exactly how the brain works. This is a point on which many scientists have criticized Berger and also attacked his work. In a conversation with Popular Science, Burger says, “They tell me I don’t know what memory is, which is true. And they ask how I can replace something that I don’t understand.”

Some scientists also argue that Berger’s chip might potentially change a person’s identity. The chip might end up affecting our “thought structure”, changing our personalities. In addition, they may even be able to add memories to our brains that we never had or damage real ones.

Despite the potential faults of the chip, funding is in abundance for Berger’s research. The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health both contribute money to Berger’s annual $3-million research budget. Pentagon’s Office of Naval Research and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency also helps foot the bill, as the advantages of a super chip in a soldier are quite obvious.

Later this year, Berger’s team at Wake Forest will begin placing more complex versions of the chip in live lab rats for testing. The rats’ memories will be temporarily disabled using drugs; all in an effort to prove that a fundamental function of the brain, such as memories, can be replaced using a microchip. Within four years the team hopes to use the chips in live monkeys. They also are aiming to have created a device that can actually replace damaged memory cells within 15 years. 

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