In April 2013, President Obama announced a highly ambitious multi-year BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, focused on expanding and revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain. The BRAIN Initiative has five participating federal agencies, including the FDA, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Brain advances are happening both within and outside of this initiative. At Duke University, researchers are experimenting with “brain-machine interfaces” to allow paralyzed patients to walk using an exoskeleton that moves in response to the patients’ brain waves. This research may eventually help develop a “brain pacemaker” implant that, they say, could control future robotic prosthetics. At Caltech, scientists are exploring the use of non-invasive, high-resolution ultrasound to impact neural activity deep in the brain and modify behavior. University of Minnesota researchers are using smaller magnets than those used in existing MRI to create a portable, less expensive brain scanner. Boston University scientists are developing ultrathin electrodes designed for long-term recording of neural electrical activity.
DARPA projects aim to mitigate the long-term consequences of traumatic brain injury on memory. Through its Restoring Active Memory program, DARPA seeks to accelerate the development of technology to help service members and others overcome memory deficits by developing new neuroprosthetics to bridge gaps in the injured brain.
At Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, a bilateral shoulder-level amputee made history when he became the first person to wear and simultaneously control two modular prosthetic arms by simply thinking about moving his limbs, performing a variety of tasks.
University of Louisville scientists report that advances using spinal implants have allowed four paralyzed patients to stand and move their legs. In addition, the implants improved the patients’ bowel, bladder, and sexual function.
A team of researchers at Brown University and Blackrock Microsystems have commercialized a wireless device that can be attached to a person’s skull and transmit commands collected from a brain implant to steer a wheelchair or direct a robotic arm.
And, numerous research institutions are exploring functional changes in the brains of athletes who’ve had concussions or sub-concussive head injuries while playing football. The same research that focuses on injuries to football players’ brains, may also translate to brain injuries common among soldiers, which contribute to many neurological and psychological symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
What breakthrough brain technologies will we see this year? Stay tuned, we’ll be sure to report them.
Beth G. Sisk