Healthcare - The Use Of Neural Implants For Therapy & Enhancement
Research into neural implants for use in the healthcare sector is moving forward in leaps and bounds, helping people with a wide range of conditions, for example impaired vision and hearing, through innovative cochlear implants and visual neuro prosthetics.
Thanks to groundbreaking work by experts such as Professor Kevin Warwick, keynote speaker at this year’s Annual Healthcare Lecture, we are now looking at new and exciting ways to treat neurological conditions through the use of artificial intelligence (AI).
Warwick has been researching how, by linking the human brain with AI, we can better understand what happens with these conditions and develop improved treatment.
“Treating Parkinson’s disease with electronic stimulation has been around for a while, but now we can link the brain with AI, which is allowing us to understand and predict tremors before they begin. This is also opening up all sorts of potential treatments for conditions such as schizophrenia”, he notes.
Warwick has always been at the forefront of this research, using himself – and more recently, his wife – to experiment with new technologies and ideas.
“Linking brains with computers is still in its infancy, but it offers so many new ways to treat patients and enhance their abilities,” he says. “For example, we can control a robot hand by thinking about it, even feel what that hand is feeling. It’s an exciting time".
Warwick is pushing the boundaries regarding how we communicate and has already connected with his wife nervous system-to-nervous system.
“Our nervous systems were hooked up – she was sending me pulses by opening and closing her hand. I could actually feel her movement even though I couldn’t see her,” he enthuses.
He believes that by continuing the work already underway in this area, it’s no big leap to reach brain-to-brain communication.
“This could mean that someone who’s currently living with locked-in syndrome could potentially in the future be able to communicate – in an even better way. This technology has the ability to enhance all of us!”
Indeed, there’s been a growth in ‘biohacking’; a term used by people who are ‘augmenting’ themselves by implanting materials and chips into their own bodies. Warwick was actually the first human to implant an RFID tag, back in 1998, and interest still continues; just recently a US company announced that it was interested in ‘chipping’ its employees.
“There’s some interesting ethical questions there, but biohacking may have healthcare applications. It could potentially be useful for scanning patients to confirm ID and details – you’d never operate on the wrong person,” he highlights.
Warwick continues to push boundaries in his sector, and is currently working on several projects including further research into the treatment of Parkinson’s using AI, and working with surgeons to make brain-to-brain connections.
“Another project I’m working on is taking brain cultures, growing them and putting them in a robot body – creating a technological robot with a biological brain,” he says.
“With this we can investigate how the brain develops, how it learns over a period of time. We can apply different chemicals to get regions of the brain to learn faster or enhance growth. This research has the potential for treating stroke patients or even Alzheimer’s.”
Warwick’s a man turning science fiction into science fact and he’s proud to be leading the way for the UK.
“It’s a rollercoaster ride sometimes – it can scare your pants off. But then you get results and it’s tremendously exciting,” he says. “It’s not just the Michael Faraday’s of the past; today’s British engineers are still achieving world firsts,” he enthuses.