Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen, University of Utah
Imagine being able to buy a chip that you could slide into your brain to improve your memory processing or upload external data. This might sound like every student’s fantasy the night before a test but surprisingly, it’s not so far off.
Scientists have long been trying to understand the human brain and have made huge leaps in the past few years. Meanwhile, technology has become more compact and powerful. Combining these two developing realities has infinite possibilities, and scientists are already discussing the possibility of human cyborgs and raising ethical questions on the topic. For instance, what effect can a ‘neural interface’–that allows someone to connect their brain to an external device and ‘cyberthink’–have on human psychology? How would privacy be protected and should laws be enacted to prevent third-party access or ‘neuro-advertising’? These issues can give us a glimpse into what might be in the future… but how developed is this technology in the present?
The precedent for using technology to directly interface with the brain has already existed transiently, such as with the cochlear implant. Unlike a hearing aid that amplifies sound, the cochlear implant sends sound converted into electrical impulses directly to the auditory nerve, completely bypassing the ear. This so-called ‘hacking’ of the auditory system has given many people the ability to be able to decode speech and understand their environment. Scientists have also been using deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson’s disease tremors and other neurological disorders, such as treatment-resistant depression.
Now scientists are working on the next step–being able to understand neural activity and mimic it, so as to directly interact with the brain. The RAM Project, spearheaded by DARPA, is currently working on restoring memory to military service members who are suffering from a traumatic brain injury. By creating a closed-loop neural interface, they have managed to restore memory function by facilitating memory encoding using the patient’s own neural codes. This has shown 37 percent improvement in memory function in the short-term. They hope to be able to utilize this technology to assist those who have had strokes and those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or other age-related illnesses.
So what does the future look like for this technology? It’s hard to know, but scientists envision brain interfaces that will augment the brain and enable humans to be constantly logged on to the internet, to cyberthink, and to instantaneously retrieve encyclopedic stores of information. In this future, it might be possible to upload memories, personality, and emotions to create a sort of immortal human being. With scientists taking giant strides in this developing technology, it’s hard to know if anyone is ready for its consequences.