Why you should care
Advances in devices that we can stick in our heads are rapidly becoming more sophisticated.
Jonathan Viventi is a mind reader. He’s also a mind measurer and cartographer. But he’s neither a psychic nor a mystic. And he’s not a surgeon either.
Rather, he is an electrical engineer who makes microscopic implants for people’s brains. Brain implants are not new, of course, but what makes Viventi’s amazing is their tininess — they are many, many times smaller than existing versions — and in the world of medical implants, it turns out, size really does matter. For now, the chief application of Viventi’s implants is for treating epilepsy; he is configuring them to predict when a seizure might occur, and to stop it from happening. But the curly-haired, cleft-chinned scientist wants more. He hopes his brain implants will soon be able to see what people are thinking.
If all this sounds like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel, well, it’s worth knowing that neural prosthetics have graduated from infancy to childhood. Deep brain stimulation is a treatment for people with Parkinson’s, cochlear implants have become more sophisticated and retinal implants were approved by the FDA in 2013. While it will take years before scientists deliver on their quest for a memory chip — implants to improve or restore human memory — let alone nonbiological consciousness, it may not be that many years.
Today’s neural implants are especially promising for people with epilepsy. Medication can’t help about a third of “refractory” sufferers, and in the past, the only treatment for them was to remove a portion of their brain, says Dr. Brien Smith, a specialist in epilepsy and chief of neurology at Spectrum Health Medical Group in western Michigan. “You had to be sure the patient wasn’t going to miss the part that was cut away,” Smith tells me impassively. Smith is part of a groundbreaking program that’s already treating epilepsy sufferers with brain implants. But the devices are a hefty 3 centimeters by 5 centimeters, and the only alternative is to use depth electrodes, like needles, which, Smith explains, are “harpooned into the brain.”
It might soon be possible to decode what people are reading, to hear imagined speech, even to see what movie they’re watching!
Wires from these implants or electrodes pass through a hole in the skull to the electronics, housed in a box that’s also about 3 centimeters by 5 centimeters. The problem with this, says Viventi, is that the number of wires you can route out of a person’s head is quite limited. And what you get with these conventional implants is either a high-resolution picture of a small area of the brain or a very low-resolution picture of a large area.
Viventi studied electrical engineering at Princeton and started his working life in wireless technology — helping to build cellphone networks. But then he changed his mind; he wanted to use some of the technology he was working on to solve medical problems. So Viventi headed off to the University of Pennsylvania for a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. His supervisor was Brian Litt, a professor of neurology whose particular area of expertise was epilepsy. Together they started working on ways to improve current treatments. And that’s when Viventi’s breakthrough occurred.
What he did was combine the sensors with the electronics. And then he miniaturized this package until the whole thing was just 1 square centimeter and 300 nanometers thick — that’s 300 billionths of a meter. There’s no need for a bottleneck of wiring because it works the same way a digital camera works — with data from many tiny sensors fed through just one cable. What Viventi has achieved is the highest-resolution data recording ever of electrical activity over a large area of the brain.
According to Smith, breakthroughs such as this are key to making brain implants practical and affordable, pacemaker-style. And it has made Viventi hot property. Last year, MIT Technology Review named him one of its 35 Innovators Under 35 — a list of people doing exciting work that could shape their fields for decades.
Indeed, Viventi believes this is just the beginning. We don’t yet understand the processing in the brain that leads to complex thought and intelligence, he says, but it’s on the horizon. “It might soon be possible to decode what people are reading, to hear imagined speech, even to see what movie they’re watching!” he says.
And then there’s the prospect of enhancement. Imagine a retinal chip giving you 20/20 vision, a cochlear implant giving you perfect hearing or a miniature device giving you almost limitless memory. These possibilities raise serious ethical questions, according to Dr. Bertalan Meskó, author of The Guide to the Future of Medicine. The original purpose of brain implants was to help impaired patients, but what if they are used to make someone smarter, faster or more charming? Concern in the medical profession is so widespread that the European Commission set up NERRI, the Neuro-Enhancement: Responsible Research and Innovation project, with the aim of stimulating public debate about what’s acceptable in the field of neurotech.
Of course, Viventi’s ultraslim devices are still in the experimental stage. Human trials are a few years away, and he has yet to crack the toughest problem of all: corrosion. People are full of salt water, so it’s basically like putting the electronics in the ocean, he tells me. Now an assistant professor at Duke University, Viventi is working on finding a solution to that corrosion problem and on improving the resolution of his sensor array. The goal is to create implants that will remain stable for many years while recording and stimulating the brain at very fine detail. At 33, Viventi has barely started.