Nearly a century ago, one of the world’s first pacemakers revived a stillborn baby in Sydney, Australia. Today, about 40,000 people worldwide have had DBS devices surgically implanted in their brains to control tremors from Parkinson’s disease and other conditions. Surgeons have implanted hundreds more responsive neurostimulation (RNS) devices in patients with drug-resistant epileptic seizures. Both devices work like heart pacemakers to monitor and sense tremors or seizures as they begin and then activate to stop or mitigate them. More than 100,000 people in the US have restored or improved hearing thanks to cochlear nerve implants.
Other brain prosthetics are on the way:
Surgically implanted devices that access the optic nerve to restore basic levels of sight in the same way cochlear implants have restored hearing.
Implants in the motor cortex allow paralyzed patients to operate prosthetic limbs, use computer interfaces and control machines using only their thoughts.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has developed a brain-computer interface system that will enable a military pilot with an implant to operate multiple aircraft simultaneously via thought. In the next 15 years pilots may be able to control drones and fighter jets with noninvasive or superficially embedded devices that connect with genetically modified brain cells via infrared light signals; no surgery required—DARPA plans to modify the brain cells using nasally inhaled nanomolecular gene therapeutics.
Neurointerventional electrophysiology is another emerging approach to accessing brain activity without major surgery. Vascular neurosurgeons at the University at Buffalo in partnership with the Jacobs Institute can now insert stent-mounted electrode arrays made by neurotech startup Synchron through blood vessels rather than opening the cranium. The surgeons guide the devices into specific locations, allowing signals from the brain to operate mobile devices and computers.
40 KPeople, globally, with deep brain stimulation implants for tremor control