Friday, June 17, 2016

Neural Lacing

One feature of blogging that I like are the comments. I don’t get many, but I appreciate those I do get. Each week I share my new blog entry on the Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology Facebook page, which provides another venue for comments, likes, and other interactions with readers. A couple weeks ago I received the following on Facebook:
Neeraj Kapoor
June 3 at 1:36pm
Yesterday, during a conference with Elon Musk at a coding conference, he mentioned something about Neural Lacing (this group at harvard seems to be one of the few major groups working on it... . I'm wondering if you have any knowledge of this Brad Roth and if so, if you could do a blog post on it.
After a bit of googling, I found a Newsweek article about neural lacing, Elon Musk, and the coding conference.
Billionaire polymath Elon Musk has warned that humans risk being treated like house pets by artificial intelligence (AI) unless they implant technology into their brains.

Musk believes that a technology concept known as “neural lace” could act as a wireless brain-computer interface capable of augmenting natural intelligence.

Speaking at the Code Conference in California on Wednesday, Musk said a neural lace could work “well and symbiotically” with the rest of a human’s body.

“I don’t love the idea of being a house cat, but what’s the solution? I think one of the solutions that seems maybe the best is to add an AI layer,” Musk said.
So what does all this talk about neural lacing mean, and how does it relate to Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology? As best I can tell, neural lacing would be used to monitor and excite nerves. The technology to stimulate nerves already exists, and is described in Chapter 7 of IPMB.
The information that has been developed in this chapter can also be used to understand some of the features of stimulating electrodes. These may be used for electromyographic studies; for stimulating muscles to contract called functional electrical stimulation (Peckham and Knutson 2005); for a cochlear implant to partially restore hearing (Zeng et al. 2008); deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease (Perlmutter and Mink 2006); for cardiac pacing (Moses and Mullin 2007); and even for defibrillation (Dosdall et al. 2009). The electrodes may be inserted in cells, placed in or on a muscle, or placed on the skin.
The best example of what I think Mr. Musk is talking about is the cochlear implant. A microphone records sound and analyzes it with a computer, which decides what location along the auditory nerve it should stimulate in order to fool the brain into thinking the ear heard that sound. For this technique to work, electrode arrays must be implanted in the cochlea so different spots can be stimulated, mimicking the sensitivity of different locations along the cochlea to different frequencies of sound.

What is different between a cochlear implant and a neural lace? Musk talks about the stimulating electrodes being wireless. Wireless neural stimulation is fairly common, and most cochlear implants are wireless (no wire passing through the skin). Most wireless systems work by transferring energy and information using electromagnetic induction. Chapter 8 of IPMB discusses induction, mainly in the context of magnetic stimulation. In fact, transcranial magnetic stimulation could be thought of as a low-spatial-resolution precursor to neural lacing. It allows neurons to be excited with no wires penetrating the body so the method is completely noninvasive. The problem is, transcranial magnetic stimulation provides a resolution of about 1 cm—some claim as low as 1 mm—which is a factor of a hundred to a thousand too coarse to stimulate individual neurons. If you could somehow build very small magnetic stimulators (there are enormous technical challenges in doing this), you still would not be able to excite deep neurons without simultaneously activating shallow neurons even more strongly. To make something like neural lacing work, you would need to use electromagnetic induction to transfer energy to a stimulator implanted in the body, and then distribute the excitation using small wires or some other technology that provides the necessary spatial resolution and the ability to excite deep neurons. Wireless deep brain stimulation is one example.

Spatial scale is a key factor in developing the technology of neural lacing. Cochlear implants only work because the electrodes are small enough that individual sites along the auditory nerve can be excited locally. I believe that neural lacing would require miniaturization to be increased dramatically. If you are going to stimulate the brain in a truly selective way, you need to be able to excite individual neurons. This means you need electrodes spaced by about ten microns or closer, and you need a lot of them. Neural lacing would therefore require advances in electrode array miniaturization. This is where the Lieber group at Harvard—which Kapoor mentioned in his Facebook comment—enters the picture. They are developing the arrays of microelectrodes that would be necessary to provide a fine-grained interaction between a computer and the human brain. For example, their paper “syringe-injectable electronics” (Nature Nanotechnology, Volume 10, Pages 629–636, 2015) discusses small scale arrays of electrodes that can be injected through a syringe.
Seamless and minimally invasive three-dimensional interpenetration of electronics within artificial or natural structures could allow for continuous monitoring and manipulation of their properties. Flexible electronics provide a means for conforming electronics to non-planar surfaces, yet targeted delivery of flexible electronics to internal regions remains difficult. Here, we overcome this challenge by demonstrating the syringe injection (and subsequent unfolding) of sub-micrometre-thick, centimetre-scale macroporous mesh electronics through needles with a diameter as small as 100 μm. Our results show that electronic components can be injected into man-made and biological cavities, as well as dense gels and tissue, with [greater than] 90% device yield. We demonstrate several applications of syringe-injectable electronics as a general approach for interpenetrating flexible electronics with three-dimensional structures, including (1) monitoring internal mechanical strains in polymer cavities, (2) tight integration and low chronic immunoreactivity with several distinct regions of the brain, and (3) in vivo multiplexed neural recording. Moreover, syringe injection enables the delivery of flexible electronics through a rigid shell, the delivery of large-volume flexible electronics that can fill internal cavities, and co-injection of electronics with other materials into host structures, opening up unique applications for flexible electronics.
Is neural lacing science or science fiction? Hard to say. I am skeptical that in the future we will all have electrode arrays hardwired into our brains. But 50 years ago I would have been skeptical that cochlear implants could restore hearing to the deaf. I will reserve judgment, except to say that if neural lacing is developed, I am certain it will be based on the basic concepts Russ Hobbie and I discuss in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. That is the beauty of the book: it teaches the fundamental principles upon which you can build the amazing biomedical technologies of the future.

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