Small in-brain computer chips that give us superhuman capabilities seem like the stuff of summer blockbusters now, but scientists say that the possibility of a future where these implants not only exist but actually work is very real.
Stimulating the brain externally with electronic signals is already being experimented with by the medical industry, the U.S. military, and a growing number of DIYers. While we have successfully implanted artificial devices in others parts of the human body without rejection by the immune system, doing so with the brain is a largely unexplored frontier.
As researchers continue to develop smaller, more bio-compatible technology, and understand the processes of the human brain, we could be looking at a host of medical solutions and extraordinary abilities. Here are some of the likely enhancements that future brain implants could bring:
1. Seeing in the dark
Currently, retinal implants that restore a low level of vision to people blinded by genetic conditions already exist, meaning that we’re already on our way to enhanced vision. Once we further improve the ability of these implants to restore vision, augmenting “normal” vision isn’t just science fiction. We already know that certain sensory abilities humans lack exist in the natural world — like the ability to see in the dark. Night vision is likely to be a military investment at first, but perhaps it would become commercially available after that.
2. Restoring lost memories
Zapping the brain with controlled electric stimulation has a lot of potential, and some already tested, neurological benefits. This is being tested as an external stimuli, but what if we could implant a piece of technology in the brain that could directly deliver these pulses of electricity, and even be recharged without having to be removed? That’s the goal of researchers interested in using this method for memory-related problems. The primary interest in this research is, unsurprisingly, from the medical field, which is seeking new and more effective ways to treat patients with memory issues, whether it’s short term memory problems or severe memory loss. The U.S. military is also highly interested in memory, both as an additional treatment for PTSD and, possibly, an enhancement for soldiers.
3. “Download” new skills
It’s not yet clear if we’ll ever mirror The Matrix, but scientists believe the ability to wire our brains to rapidly learn a new skill is not impossible. Already research is being conducted to look into how the brain learns and stores skills, with the hope that the neurological process can someday be artificially replicated to allow people to effectively learn a new skill with a fraction of time and effort. This technology is still a long way off, but at least it’s not total science fiction.
4. Curing depression and other mental health issues
Brain implant technology could help treat and even cure mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, without the aid of pharmaceuticals that run the risk of dependency and various unwanted side effects. This is a lucrative investment for the U.S. military as well since, as mentioned above, the government has ramped up its efforts to find more effective treatments for service-related PTSD. PTSD is an anxiety disorder, which opens the door for the treatment of other anxiety disorders such as panic disorders, agoraphobia, and general anxiety disorders. Depression and its relatives, too, could be effectively treated by direct brain stimulation via implants. The potential to helps millions of people dealing with mental health problems without risking the side effects of prescription drug treatments is compelling.
5. Enhanced focus and alertness
In the same vein as treating mental health problems like depression and PTSD, brain implants could help people who suffer from neurological problems related to focus and alertness. This includes ADD/ADHD, narcolepsy, and dementia. While this would do wonders for people with legitimate problems in these areas, the technology would likely still be sought after by neurologically healthy people just as drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are today.
6. Making you better at math
There are actually already studies that show promising results for controlled brain stimulation to improve a person’s ability to understand and do math. With further testing to test the effectiveness of this technique, and to assure its safety, brain implants could directly deliver stimulation to improve our math skills, and possibly other cognitive abilities.
7. Control any device with your mind
Researchers are currently able to use a neuroprosthetic sensor to help paralyzed patients control a robotic arm with their minds, to varying degrees of success. The technology is still very new and research is currently focused on providing aid for physical limitations, so don’t expect to be turning your lights on and changing the TV channel with your mind any time soon. Once this technology is widely tested and available for medical patients, however, its uses as a consumer service are easy to imagine.
8. Search the Internet with your brain
Forget Siri and Google Glass, why not get the information you’re searching for delivered directly from the Internet to your brain? Pending the development of smaller, nontoxic implants that your body won’t reject, we could be using brain implants throughout our whole day to do a number of tasks, including surf the web. Researchers are working to better and more completely understand how the human brain works, the present scope of which is still rudimentary. The better we understand the networks of our brains and how it forms and processes information, the easier it will be to hook ourselves up to artificial networks.
Featured photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures via redcarpetrefs.com