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Silicon chips may become smarter than human brain

Posted: 25 Feb 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:silicon chips? brain-computer interface? brain implants? brain waves?

Can silicon chips outsmart the human brain? Researchers seek to produce silicon-based chips that can listen and respond to the brain to monitor and manage various medical conditions. Experts at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference discussed their work and debated on brain-computer interfaces in San Francisco, California.

Currently, there are three companies with systems in the field, said Tim Denison, Medtronic senior director of core technology. Medtronic's Activa PC+S brain implant has gathered over a year of data in some patients since it was first used in animal implants in 2009.

The Activa embeds a kind of silicon oscilloscope geared to listen to brain waves (see below). "We're gaining a lot of understanding now because [previously recordings] were limited to a few minutes or hours in an operating theatre and that's an unrealistic environment," said Dennison.

Denison co-authored a recent article with rivals NeuroPace and Cyberonics that also have systems in the field. About 350 patients have received the NeuroPace implant that listens for signs of oncoming epileptic seizures and applies stimulation to prevent them. Cyberonics is providing patients in Europe a vagus nerve stimulator that applies a similar closed-loop approach to automatically listening and responding to biological signs.

 Activa PC+S

Medtronics' Activa PC+S embeds the equivalent of an oscilloscope that listens to the brain.

Future implants could work in tandem with wristbands to try to predict patients' actions and apply stimulation. Denison showed an animation of such a system helping a Parkinson's patient pour a cup of coffee.

Many challenges lay ahead. Researchers are still working on ways to miniaturise and place electrodes to capture brain waves effectively. They are also working on how to interpret often very low-level brain signals, especially in the presence of relatively loud signals from stimulators. Understanding how such electrical stimulators can work in tandem with drugs is another hurdle, Denison said.

Reconnecting severed nerves

Minkyu Je, an associate professor from Korea's DG Institute of Science and Technology, presented a silicon transceiver sub-system that could link a limb with severed nerve endings back into the brain. The system aims to overcome the glacial pace of nerve regeneration after an accident. Such a system could also enable thought-controlled prosthetics or wheel chairs, Je said.

The medical industry has learned a lot from some four million cardiac implants to date, which are growing by about 700,000 new implants a year. That said, brain signals are much more ambiguous than those from the heart, he said, noting the challenges of creating a bi-directional interface for recording and stimulation.

16-channel chip

The DG Institute has tested its 16-channel chip in lab rats.

So far, the 16-channel 24V chip at the centre of his work has been tested in the leg muscles and sciatic nerves of lab rats. It uses a novel approach to waveform adaptation.

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