Neurotechnology and the Military

Nicky Penttila
December 5, 2017

“Every generation has been trying to figure out how to use brain-related technology to improve security,” from caffeine to computer enhancement, bioethicist Jonathan Moreno, Ph.D., said at the Capitol Hill briefing “Neurotechnology and the Military” last week. Moreno and neuroscientist Leigh Hochberg, M.D., Ph.D., had teamed up to give a similar presentation at a luncheon six years ago, and on Friday the two brought us up to date.

Leigh Hochberg used video clips to show how BrainGate works (photo courtesy of The Society for Neuroscience).

Thanks to a half-century of federally funded basic research, researchers have developed a chip carrying 144 electrodes that can be inserted into people’s skulls (over the motor cortex) and send impulses to computers to drive a cursor or a mechanical object, said Hochberg, the director of the Center for Neurotechnology and Neurorecovery at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Brown University and Harvard Medical School.

Twelve years ago, the technology called BrainGate (which Hochberg is on the research leadership committee of) could be used to move a cursor and spark a twitch in a prosthetic finger or hand. Six years ago, a person with the implant could think about reaching out and a robot arm would move following the thought, slowly and imperfectly. One woman using the investigational gear could take a drink solely on her own, the first time she had been able to do that in more than 15 years.

Now the robotic arm is on sale commercially, and people who cannot move their limbs can use the tech to type, some at a speed roughly equivalent to that of a non-injured person thumb-typing on a cellphone keypad.

The interface technology is still slow and “simple,” Hochberg said, but it’s “the beginning of reconnecting brain to limb,” for people who have lost that ability due to injury or disease.

Still, there’s much to learn to move such devices from the experimental stage to the commercial stage. “We can now replace the cable [from head to computer] with wireless,” Hochberg said, but need to find a way to replace or shrink the gray box that is attached to the volunteers’ head to do the signal processing. That—and the medical technician who has to be constantly on-hand during the clinical trials—can’t be part of any commercial release.

Researchers need to answer questions of engineering, communication, and basic science to move forward. Questions like what is the difference in brain signaling between an action that is merely imagined or considered and one which is intended as a call to action.

“This stuff is beginning to slough over into the science fiction I used to read as a kid,” said Moreno, who teaches at University of Pennsylvania and wrote the book Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense (first published by Dana Press in 2007; second edition by Bellevue in 2012). Defense agencies have experimented with all manner of tools to restore function and improve performance, from drugs that keep you alert for days to networks that might someday lead to wireless mind-to-mind communication. For people in the military, this raises questions like “will I be required to volunteer to be implanted?” and “is this reversible?”

Responding to a question about potential preventions for traumatic brain injuries (from bomb blasts, for example) that might later lead to degenerative disorders like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Moreno said most of the research focus right now is therapy, and much of that is still on bunches of cells in the lab.

In the current term, a big question for the military to ask itself is, “What is the problem I’m trying to solve? Is that the only option I have or is there something more straightforward?” Moreno said. “Because these tech now are invasive, costly, and will require maintenance while out in the field.”

Another perennial question, Hochberg said: “Is this improvement worth the danger?” Any tech that needs opening the skull to operate carries risk from surgery alone, and ongoing infection and damage to neighbor sites in the brain.

The luncheon was organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) through the support of the Dana Foundation and in conjunction with the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus.