As the year winds down, STAT reporters are taking a look at the stories they’re most eager to track in 2018. Find all our “three to watch” series here.
Technologies to detect brain activity — fine, we’ll come right out and call it mind reading — as well as to change it are moving along so quickly that “a bit of a gold rush is happening, both on the academic side and the corporate side,” Michel Maharbiz of the University of California, Berkeley, told a recent conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here are three fast-moving areas of neuroscience we’ll be watching in 2018:
Whatever you call these electronics, they’re really, really tiny. We’re eagerly awaiting results from DARPA’s $65 million neural engineering program, which aims to develop a brain implant that can communicate digitally with the outside world. The first step is detecting neurons’ electrochemical signaling (DARPA, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, says 1 million neurons at a time would be nice). To do that, scientists at Brown University are developing salt-grain-sized “neurograins” containing an electrode to detect neural firing as well as to zap neurons to fire, all via a radio frequency antenna.
Maharbiz’s “neural dust” is already able to do the first part. The tiny wireless devices can detect what neurons are doing, he and his colleagues reported in a 2016 rat study. (The study’s lead scientist recently moved to Elon Musk’s startup Neuralink, one of a growing number of brain-tech companies.) Now Maharbiz and team are also working on making neural dust receive outside signals and cause neurons to fire in certain ways. Such “stimdust” would be “the smallest [nerve] stimulator ever built,” Maharbiz said. Eventually, scientists hope, they’ll know the neural code for, say, walking, letting them transmit the precise code needed to let a paralyzed patient walk. They’re also deciphering the neural code for understanding spoken language, which raises the specter of outside signals making people hear voices — raising ethical issues that, experts said, neurotech will generate in abundance.
Musk isn’t the only billionaire interested in your brain. Facebook is moving full steam ahead on its “silent speech” program, said neuroscientist Mark Chevillet, who leads the project. Few people use voice assistants at work: “People don’t like to do it [speak aloud what they want to post] in front of other people,” Chevillet told a conference at the MIT Media Lab. But “what if you could type directly from your brain?” Early testing “tells us this is not science fiction,” he said. “There is signal in there [the brain] that you can harness.” Building 8, Facebook’s advanced-tech center where the thoughts-to-type project is housed, runs on two-year cycles; Chevillet joined in 2016 from Johns Hopkins, so 2018 could bring hints that the project is making progress toward turning thoughts into text at the hoped-for 100 words per minute, some 20 times faster than today’s brain-machine interfaces.
The three-dimensional organoids scientists are creating from human stem cells grow functional neurons, distinct layers of cortex, and other architecture that mimics the full-sized version. The technology for making brain organoids is advancing so quickly — just this month, researchers managed to jump-start the process and create brain organoids in a few weeks, rather than months — we can expect 2018 to bring ever-more-realistic versions. Those made from the stem cells of patients with inherited psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia promise to reveal what goes wrong in those patients’ brain development, but what we’re really anticipating are two technical developments. One is giving the organoids a blood supply, as George Church’s lab at Harvard says it has done but hasn’t published the results. “Vascularization” could allow organoids to grow much larger than their current quarter-inch or so diameter, perhaps casting off the “mini” and becoming a full-blown brain growing in a dish. Another advance getting a lot of buzz in brain organoid circles is giving one sensory input, probably via a retina, as one lab is rumored to have done. That could, in theory, give the tiny entities … experiences. Now things are getting interesting.