Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Liberating brains from bodies by capturing them with brainets?

by Karen Rommelfanger

Miguel Nicolelis is dedicated to liberating the human brain from the physical constraints of a body.

Recently, brain-machine interface engineer extraordinaire Miguel Nicolelis connected nonhuman animal brains in a modern-day mind meld called the brainet. For those who don't already know him, Nicolelis is an innovator, dedicated to pushing the limits of what is possible with neurotechnology, and a media darling to boot.

One focus of Nicolelis' work has been developing neural prostheses whose function is mediated through wired or wirelessly transmitted electrical activity from arrays of electrodes implanted on the surfaces of nonhuman animal brains. One well-known experiment from the Nicolelis lab involved monkeys that learned to feed themselves a marshmallow  or even operate a robot on a treadmill via direct connection electrodes implanted in their brains and a prosthetic arm. For extra flash, Nicolelis had a 12-lb monkey (based out of a Duke laboratory) operate a 200-lb robot on a treadmill in Tokyo by transmitting its brain activity through an Internet connection. In this same 2013 interview he waxes philosophical, “Our sense of self does not end at end of the cells of our bodies, but it ends at the last layer of the electrons of the tool that we’re commanding with our brains.”

His work has intended applications for humans. One recent media stunt involved a "Mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton"  donned by an individual who was paralyzed from the trunk down. 29-year-old Juliano Pinto kicked off the first ball at the World Cup in 2014 through an electrode studded cap on his head that transmitted recorded electrical activity from his brain to a robotic suit. Hailing from
Brazil, it's no surprise that Nicolelis chose to embark on this project the year the World Cup was hosted by Brazil.

While connecting one brain to a machine or computer is pretty impressive, many would attest that there is still no better computer than the human brain.  Nicolelis's most recent book even advances the notion that the brain cannot be simulated by a Turing machine. In fact, central to the much of the EU's Human Brain Project and the US BRAIN Initiative is the goal of understanding the complex connections of the brain that might enable us to recreate one from scratch.

It only seems only natural then that Nicolelis' group pioneered the connection of the first brain-to-brain interface wherein two rats were able to exchange tactile and motor information. In brief, one rat (the encoder rat) learned a task such as a nose poke or lever press. Choosing the correct lever resulted in the delivery of a reward such a sip of water. After the encoder rat learned the task, electrical activity from electrodes implanted in its brain were transferred to another untrained rat (the decoder rat). The decoder rat, through receiving signals from the encoder rat's brain, was able to correctly choose the lever that would deliver the reward. This study has also been discussed in more detail on this blog here. This study was followed by the connection of a human brain to a rat brain pioneered by a group at Harvard wherein electrical activity via an EEG cap worn by the human participant was transmitted to a rat through focused ultrasound to elicit a rat tail flick. And more recently researcher at the University of Washington connected two human brains with the goal of playing a video game (which in truth boiled down to having one brain transmit electrical activity to another brain to elicit a finger press of a hand carefully positioned over a keyboard.)

And that brings us to Nicolelis' most recent endeavor: brainets. In these recent experiments 3-4 rats were connected and without external training or stimuli the rats synchronized their electrical activity to engage in problem solving. Perhaps more impressive and closer to home in translation to humans was the experiment where Nicolelis and his colleagues connected 3 nonhuman primate brains to collectively operate an avatar.

Nicolelis was quoted recently in Vice saying, "This is the internet of brains. In a sense, when people are already using the internet, you're synchronizing your brain already—but in the future, that same thing could happen without you typing or using your mouse."

Is a brain truly liberated from a body when we bypass the peripheral system either through connecting multiple brains or connecting a brain directly to the Internet? Individuals like Matt Nagle, paralyzed from the neck down after being stabbed (featured below) may say yes. Nagle was the first recipient of a device called BrainGate, a device that connected his brain and its electrical activity through an Internet connection to a computer, making Mr. Nagle the first individual to have his brain directly connected to the Internet. One important consideration is whether that was a secure, protected Internet connection. Shouldn't such a connection be at least protected through a https line? Neural privacy issues abound. See this previous blog post to read more about those trenchant issues.

Perhaps the bigger question is whether we are liberating minds from bodies and whether a mind can exist without the conduit of a body. Is the brain simply a filter for the mind as neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero (who by the way intends to conduct the first head transplant) says the brain is for consciousness? Or will we find that networking our brains directly – without the body as mediator – will somehow constrain our minds and our existence? Is the brainet (rather than an inter-net) capturing or expanding who we are?

Further Reading:

I recently discussed some of the ethical implications of such technologies here in The New York Times and in our article on the ethical issues of brain-to-brain interfaces that can be found here.

If you're interested here are the links to the primary research article on the rat brainet and the monkey brainet.

Michael Chorost also wrote a relevant book entitled World-Wide Mind

Want to cite this post?

Rommelfanger, K. (2015). Liberating brains from bodies by capturing them with brainets? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2015/07/liberating-brains-from-bodies-by.html

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