It sounds like the stuff of science fiction – but a company in Utah has already implanted brain chips in dozens of patients.
Blackrock Neurotech, based in Salt Lake City, has the grand ambition of treating physical paralysis, blindness, deafness and depression.
The chip — known as NeuroPort Array — allow people to control robotic arms and wheelchairs, play video games and even feel sensations.
It works by using nearly 100 microneedles that attach to the brain and read electrical signals produced by someone’s thoughts. More than three dozen people have so far received it.
The device was first implanted in a human in 2004. Company leaders hope to bring it to market soon, announcing in 2021 they aimed for the next year.
Nathan Copeland (left) has had a BCI for eight years and has used his device to create art and play video games. James Johnson (right) has returned to his passion for Photoshop after an accident
The NeuroPort Array (pictured) was developed by Salt Lake City-based Blackrok Neurotech. The device can read a person’s brain signals and use them to control a robotic arm, type or perform other functions. Some hope that the rise of these devices will be a revelation for treating paralysis and other conditions
Tech mogul Elon Musk has also launched similar plans with Neurolink, an implantable device he hopes can help similar groups.
Mr Musk’s initial plans were deterred by regulators earlier this year, who rejected a bid to trial his implant in humans.
‘We are the only company with direct-brain BCI implants in humans,’ Marcus Gerhardt, Blackrock’s co-founder, told DailyMail.com.
‘Our implantable arrays have enabled people to connect directly to computers, control robotic arms and wheelchairs, play video games, even regain sensation – with just their brain signals.
Blackrock’s technology uses an implantable microchip that has 96 arrays — small needle-shaped brain chips that can read and stimulate electrical signals.
It can be placed anywhere on the brain’s surface. Multiple devices can be placed on the same person’s brain.
After implantation, the chip detects electrical signals generated by the wearer’s thoughts.
Machine learning software decodes these signals into digital commands such as cursor movements, which can be used to control prosthetics and computer equipment.
This can help a person draw using a robotic arm, use computer programs or control a wheelchair or prosthetic limb.
But the company is now seeking FDA approval for devices built for use outside the lab, to be used at home by people with paralysis.
Gerhardt said: ‘We are pursuing regulatory approval of the world’s first-ever BCI designed specifically for at-home use: MoveAgain.
‘This medical device aims to increase independence and mobility, and ultimately, quality of life, for people with paralysis.’
He hopes that BCIs will become as ubiquitous for paralyzed patients as pacemakers for people with heart issues.
He continued: ‘Once home-use BCIs are available, they’ll help people build new lives that may have seemed impossible following their disability; we think we’ll see people return to work, establish greater independence, and engage with the world in powerful new ways.
‘Our long-term vision is that our implants will become as readily available to people with paralysis as pacemakers are for people with heart issues.’
The company is already developing brain-computer interfaces to restore hearing and vision.
Mr Gerhardt said: ‘As the technology continues to advance, we’ll see BCIs with indications for memory and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.’
It has been used on more than three dozen people who Blackrock, which has no relation to the asset management firm, refers to as ‘BCI pioneers’.
The device has been implanted in patients for a combined 80 years without any reports of serious adverse effects.
However, the device does have some pitfalls. The arrays on the implant slowly break down over time, causing its signal quality to degrade after around two years.
The device has typically needed to be removed after around five years, though this has varied from patient to patient, requiring another surgery to take it out and then replace it.
Nathan Copeland has had a BCI for eight years and uses his BCI to create art with a robotic arm as well as play video games.
He is even able to feed himself, recently showing off his ability to eat a Taco Bell Cheesy Gordito Crunch using a robot arm controlled by his brain.
Mr Copeland’s art is now on display at The BCI Exhibit at AAAS in Washington DC.
Mr Gerhardt said: ‘When it comes to art, Nathan’s medium of choice is MS Paint or GIMP, but James Johnson is the most proficient BCI Photoshop user we’ve seen.
Marcus Gerhardt (pictured), CEO and co-founder of Blackrock Neurotech, told DailyMail.com he hopes his company’s devices will help treat mental health illnesses and help revitalize people’s memory
‘Before James became paralyzed, he had a small business doing photo manipulations for clients.
‘Using his BCI, he has been able to get back to using Photoshop in the lab, and some of his artwork is on display at The BCI Exhibit, as well.’
Mr Gerhardt says that Blackrock first implanted a BCI in 2004, but initially focused on research rather than seeking publicity.
‘As a company, we’ve also taken a much more active role in stepping out from behind the curtain and helping enthusiastic patients tell their stories,’ he said.
‘Once patients have access to these devices outside the lab, I think we’ll really see an increase in public interest.
‘The sky’s the limit for what BCIs will be able to do in the future.’
Mr Gerhardt believes that the technology could be used in the future to deal with everything from restoring lost memories to PTSD to depression.
‘For instance, with depression, BCI could show promise for modulating neural activity in the regions of the brain that are involved in mood regulation,’ he said.
‘When it comes to disorders like depression or PTSD, spatially and temporally focused electrical or magnetic stimulation of neural tissue could help disrupt or reprogram firing patterns that lead to the disorder.’
The data could also lead to new understanding of conditions such as depression – and how they are diagnosed and treated.
In the long term, BCI technology could be used to restore lost memories.
Gerhardt says, ‘Memory is a complex phenomenon, but advanced implantable BCI technologies can potentially use targeted electrical recording and stimulation of individual neurons and circuits to help restore some of the functionality associated with memory formation and retrieval.
‘It’s possible that BCI technology could also record the patterns associated with specific memories and recreate them as needed.’