Brain Implants: The Miracle Cure?

In 2011, Dutchman Gert-Jan Oskam was in a cycling accident that left him paralyzed. By early 2023, Gert-Jan was able to walk with assistance and even climb small flights of stairs. While it may seem like a miracle, he regained the ability to use his legs following being given a revolutionary brain implant in July 2021.

So, how do these brain implants work, and could they be the answer to spinal injuries, and much more besides?

What are brain implants?

Brain implants, sometimes also known as neural implants are electrical devices or electrodes that are inserted deep into the brain to interact with neurons in the brain matter, controlled by leads that usually connect to a control device placed on the chest. However, in recent years technology has developed in such a way that the surgery and equipment that make up the brain implant are much less invasive. 

How do they work?

Brain implants work by communicating with the neurons in our bodies. This is done by creating electrical signals and pulses, which is the same way that neurons communicate with each other. 

Deep brain stimulation using these electronic pulses can be used to activate and send commands to different parts of the nervous system. The most common stimulation is vagal stimulation, working with the vagus nerve responsible for many core functions and responses in the human body. When it comes to spinal injuries, the treatment and implants focus on stimulating the spinal cord itself, in a process called epidural stimulation. 

For example in the case of Gert-Jan, his brain implants help to send his thoughts to his legs and feet to move them via secondary receptors attached to his spine.

Who is developing the technology?

The technology for deep brain stimulation has been around and sanctioned since 1997, however, the interest in brain implants has been on the rise thanks to innovations in spinal and limb stimulation, allowing those without the use of their legs to walk, and amputees to control bionic limbs. 

The name that you might recognise the most in current discussions around brain implants is Neuralink. Owned by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, Neuralink’s goal through its PRIME study is to expand upon the capabilities of neural technology, not only to aid various medical conditions but also to explore how such implants can be used to enhance everyday life. 

In January 2024 Musk announced that the first Neuralink device had been successfully implanted into a human patient, who was apparently recovering well. It is unknown at this time what the brain chip will be used for and whether any further testing has taken place. 

Who can brain implants help?

There are a variety of medical issues that can be effectively managed and treated by the use of brain implants. These include but are not limited to:

  • Epilepsy
  • Parkinson's
  • Tremors
  • Dystonia
  • Paralysis and spinal injuries
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

These implants can also be used to control bionic limbs, such as bionic arms and hands, giving amputees a much more functional alternative to regular prostheses. 

However, the list of conditions that brain implants can help continues to grow. For example, Neuralink hopes to be able to develop its technology to be able to communicate a person’s thoughts to a computer or app. This would allow those with extremely limited mobility or full paralysis from trauma or a medical condition such as motor neuron disease to be able to communicate fluently without the need for painstaking inputs into a text-to-speech program. 

How effective are they?

It is important to remember that at this point in time, although the effects of brain implants have shown massive improvements for patients, they are not a cure for their conditions. It is very unlikely that they will be able to repair the physical damage done to the body, but instead, they give the body and the brain an effective workaround.

However, this does not undermine the fact that the impact that neural implants have had is astounding. From people with Parkinson’s being able to write, draw, and feed themselves, to stories like Gert-Jan’s where within 2 years of his brain implant he was able to stand unaided and walk short distances, this technology has been not only life-enhancing, but life-saving.

Ethical issues

Neuralink especially has sparked debates as to potential ethical and medical issues that could arise thanks to brain implant technology. This is due to the way in which Neuralink claims to be able to work, as the signals from neurons related to the person’s thoughts and intentions are translated via machine learning of the patterns onto a computer or device that they can freely control. 

This has raised concerns about who has access to this technology aside from the user, as it would contain data related to their exact thought patterns. If this data is not properly safeguarded and protected, then it paves the way for future risks around identity theft, password stealing, and even blackmail of the user. As the technology develops even further, scientists and ethicists also worry about the potential for others to be able to hijack the autonomy of the individual with the brain implant.

Other concerns lay around the longevity of these devices. It is unclear at this moment what the life expectancy of devices like this might be, and in the case of those implanted deep in the brain or close to the spine, how easy it would be to fix issues if anything should go wrong with them without the risk of causing the patient further harm. 

Tech of the future, or sooner than we think?

We are very likely to see more stories about successful brain implant surgeries in our headlines over the next few years, as existing companies and organisations conduct new studies and perform more brain implant surgeries. 

But, the main test of how viable this technology will be is a few years out yet. As brain implants that control motor function and thoughts are incredibly new, the jury is still out on what the long-term effects will be for patients and how sustainable the technology is in the long run for widespread use as a treatment option.

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