Silicon Valley’s race to develop a brain-computer interface

Wentz has been involved with developing electronics for high-speed reading of data emitted by wireless implants. Already, the flow of information that can be collected from a mouse’s brain in real time outruns what a laptop computer can handle. The team also needs a way to interface with the human brain, hence the brain-computer interface. Boyden’s lab has worked on several concepts to do so, including needle-shaped probes with tiny electrodes etched onto their surface. Another idea is to record neural activity by threading tiny optical fibers through the brain’s capillaries, an idea roughly similar to Musk’s neural lace.

More sophisticated means of reading and writing to the brain are seen as potential ways to treat psychiatric disorders. Under a concept that Boyden calls “brain coprocessors,” it may be possible to create closed-loop systems that detect certain brain signals—say, those associated with depression—and shock the brain to reverse them. Some surgeons and doctors funded by another DARPA program are in the early stages of determining whether serious mental conditions can be treated in this way.

Boyden says Johnson’s $100 million makes a big difference to how he and his students view the entrepreneur’s goals. “A lot of neurotechnology has come and gone. But one thing is that it’s very expensive,” he says. “The inventing is expensive, the clinical work is expensive. It’s not easy. And here is someone putting money into the game.”

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