Interfacing brains and machines

In the gleaming facilities of the Wyss Centre for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva, a lab technician takes a well plate out of an incubator. Each well contains a tiny piece of brain tissue derived from human stem cells and sitting on top of an array of electrodes. A screen displays what the electrodes are picking up: the characteristic peak-and-trough wave forms of firing neurons.

To see these signals emanating from disembodied tissue is weird. The firing of a neuron is the basic building block of intelligence. Aggregated and combined, such “action potentials” retrieve every memory, guide every movement and marshal every thought. As you read this sentence, neurons are firing all over your brain: to make sense of the shapes of the letters on the page; to turn those shapes into phonemes and those phonemes into words; and to confer meaning on those words.

This symphony of signals is bewilderingly complex. There are as many as 85bn neurons in an adult human brain, and a typical neuron has 10,000 connections to other such cells. The job of mapping these connections is still in its early stages. But as the brain gives up its secrets, remarkable possibilities have opened up: of decoding neural activity and using that code to control external devices.

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