by Leo Chalupa, George Washington University
In 2014 a paraplegic man, using a mind-controlled robotic suit, kicked a soccer ball at the opening of the World Cup. If the science continues to evolve, in 2034 it’s possible that a one-time paraplegic may compete for the World Cup.
The kick was a feat of science and international collaboration. That much was plain to see. But those of us who dedicate our careers to understanding the billions of neurons connecting the brain—and how they turn a lump of tissue into a mind—also knew that the moment merely hinted at the full capacity of neuroscience. Today it was a robot-assisted kick. Tomorrow, reasserting the brain’s dominion over flesh and muscle itself.
It is a not-too-distant future. While the World Cup demonstration picked up brain signals using a cap lined with sensors, other work with electrodes implanted in the brain promises to gather signals with increasing fidelity and specificity, and in turn powering more refined movements. Elsewhere, brain implants are restoring rudimentary sight to the blind. And leaning over the edge of modern neuroscience is optogenetics, in which DNA for light-sensitive proteins is sown into brain cells, giving scientists an on/off switch for neurons. For now, that’s enabling researchers to discern the roles of cells; in the future, it might be harnessed to correct misfiring neurons.
The technology, the techniques are primed for flight. Three things are going to give them liftoff: The continued shrinking of electrodes, allowing their placement to be more strategic and widespread; the increasing sophistication of software that records brain signals or, in the case of vision, creates them by igniting constellations of neurons to replicate normal function; and recently launched government-funded initiatives to map the Earth’s final frontier—the circuitry of the human brain—and decode its inner workings.
We’re on the cusp of making the breakthroughs that will restore brain function stolen by disease and trauma. What we need is the funding to hasten those discoveries. Without it this reality is still going to happen. But it’s going to take a lot longer.
Leo M. Chalupa, Ph.D. is the Vice President for Research at the George Washington University. He is a neurobiologist and researcher on the retina, visual pathways and development of vision. His research has been supported by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Fogarty Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, Human Frontier Science Foundation, and other funding agencies.