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Technology

Mark Zuckerberg-funded researchers test implantable brain devices

  • The Facebook CEO and his wife have raised US$5 billion to fund an initiative with a goal of curing all disease within a generation
  • Part of that programme works on devices that essentially translate thoughts into commands
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 3:00pm

Mark Zuckerberg and his paediatrician wife Priscilla Chan have sold close to 30 million shares of Facebook to fund an ambitious biomedical research project, called the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), with a goal of curing all disease within a generation.

A less publicised component of that US$5 billion programme includes work on brain-machine interfaces, devices that essentially translate thoughts into commands. One recent project is a wireless brain implant that can record, stimulate and disrupt the movement of a monkey in real time.

In a paper published in the highly cited scientific journal Nature on Monday, researchers detail a wireless brain device implanted in a primate that records, stimulates, and modifies its brain activity in real time, sensing a normal movement and stopping it immediately. Those researchers are part of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a non-profit medical research group within the CZI.

Scientists refer to the interference as “therapy” because it is designed to be used to treat diseases like epilepsy or Parkinson’s by stopping a seizure or other disruptive motion just as it starts.

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“Our device is able to monitor the primate’s brain while it’s providing the therapy so you know exactly what’s happening,” Rikky Muller, a co-author of the new study, told Business Insider. A professor of computer science and engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, Muller is also a Biohub investigator.

The applications of brain-machine interfaces are far-reaching: while some researchers focus on using them to help assist people with spinal cord injuries or other illnesses that affect movement, others aim to see them transform how everyone interacts with laptops and smartphones. Both a division at Facebook formerly called Building 8 as well as an Elon Musk-founded company called Neuralink have said they are working on the latter.

Muller said her research at the Biohub is walled off from the other work on brain-computer interfaces being done at Facebook.

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The company’s notoriously secretive Building 8 programme underwent a recent reshuffling that included killing off the Building 8 label and shifting its experimental projects to new divisions. Earlier this year, Business Insider reported that the programme’s director had helped create an armband that transformed words into understandable vibrations.

In Muller’s paper, she and a team of researchers from Berkeley and a medical device start-up called Cortera detailed how they used a wireless implantable brain device, called the “Wand”, to stop a monkey from doing a trained behaviour. In this case, the behaviour involved moving a cursor to a target on a screen using a joystick and holding the target there for a set period of time.

Placed on top of the monkey’s head, the wireless, palm-sized Wand device connected directly to its brain. From there, it was able to record, stimulate, and modify the monkey’s behaviour in real time.

We want people to do the thing that’s crazy, the thing that other people wouldn’t try
Joe DeRisi, co-president at Chan Zuckerberg Biohub

The Wand could “sense” when the primate was about to move the joystick and stop that movement with a targeted electric signal sent to the right part of its brain, Muller said. Since the machine was wireless, the monkey did not need to be physically confined or attached to anything for it to work.

“This device is game-changing in the sense that you could have a subject that’s completely free-moving and it would autonomously, or automatically, know” when and how to disrupt its movement, Muller said.

The Wand could one day have applications for a range of ailments that affect movement (also called motor skills), from spinal cord injury to epilepsy.

“Right now we can take a specific motor function, sense that it’s happening, and disrupt it,” Muller said.

That is a big departure from current devices, which typically require multiple pieces of bulky equipment and can only either sense movement or disrupt it at one time. Muller’s device does both at once. To do so, it uses 128 electrodes, or conductors, placed directly into the primate’s brain – roughly 31 times more electrodes than today’s human-grade brain-computer devices, which are limited to 4-8 electrodes.

“I believe this device opens up possibilities for new types of treatments,” Muller said. Her work on brain-machine interfaces is just one component of a broader set of projects under the CZ Biohub umbrella.

Joe DeRisi, co-president of the Biohub, said the initiative aims to help bolster the research projects being done by local scientists, to build important medical devices that would not otherwise exist, and to “push boundaries”.

“We want people to do the thing that’s crazy, the thing that other people wouldn’t try,” DeRisi said.