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The Scientist Who Controlled People with Brain Implants

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i09 | Decmber 28, 2011

by Keith Veronese

Brain implantation and manipulation is a mainstay of science fiction. Often, characters can gain extra memory or get smarter, by having chips placed within the brain. (Or you can wind up mind-controlled by a psychopath. It’s a mixed bag.)

But in real life, one scientist made huge strides towards creating workable brain implants. In the 1950s and 1960s. Here’s his story.

Jose Delgado performed experiments using permanent brain implants in bulls, primates, and humans beginning in the 1950s, with extremely successful results. Neuroscience often ignores this chapter of its history, but it’s worth taking a look at Delgado’s successes, and his long term goals for manipulation of humans and society.

Controlling the Movements of Primates
The bulk of Delgado’s stimoceiver research took place at Yale University in the 1950s and 1960s. Delgado manually positioned electrode assembles within the brain, assemblies that stimulate a desired area of the brain when a particular FM frequency is present.

After implantation, the monkeys lived well for several years after surgery, with no behavioral deficits. The implants appear quite grotesque, projecting inches above the scalp of the primates, but they provided a “plug and play” method of interacting with the animals without inflicting harm through multiple surgeries. Delgado’s stimulation research allowed for manipulation of complex, chained limb movements in primates.

A Scientist plays Matador
Delgado became a matador to demonstrate the abilities of stimoceiver manipulation, as he stepped into a closed ring with an implanted bull armed only with a radio frequency controllerin 1963. When the bull charged, Delgado stimulated the bull’s motor cortex with the remote control, causing the bull to come to a full stop only feet away.

In a 1965 New York Times interview about the matador experiment, Delgado foreshadowed the future of human experimentation:

The individual may think that the most important reality is his own existence, but this is only his personal point of view. This lacks historical perspective. Man does not have the right to develop his own mind. This kind of liberal orientation has great appeal. We must electronically control the brain. Someday armies and generals will be controlled by electric stimulation of the brain.

Human implantation
At least 25 humans (mostly women) received stimoceiver implants of a similar manner from Delgado – each patient received the implant willingly, and as a last resort in a course of psychiatric treatment. Delgado viewed the implants as a humane alternative to lobotomy.

Humans responded in a fashion similar to Delgado’s early animal research – limbs could be moved independently of the will of the patient, but not to the extent seen in primates. In one dramatic experiment, temporal lobe stimulation caused a calm epileptic woman playing a guitar to slam her instrument against a wall. Delgado noted in his human research that a specific behavior could not be directed, with only an increase or decrease in aggression possible.

Toward a Psychocivilized Society?
Delgado illustrated some of his hopes for mind control in 1969’s Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society. The
book makes for a phenomenal read, with Delgado going into the intimate details of his research with images, along with a treatise on ethical implications of the technology.

In his writings, Delgado truly appears to want the best for humanity. He exhibits a very Spock-like “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” belief system. He sums up his beliefs in this quote from the Ethical Considerations chapter of Physical Control of the Mind:

There is one aspect of human research which is usually overlooked: the existence of a moral and social duty to advance scientific knowledge and to improve the welfare of man. When important medical information can be obtained with negligible risk and without infringing on individual rights, the investigator has the duty to use his intelligence and skills for this purpose. Failure to do so represents the neglect of professional duties in some way similar to the negligence of a medical doctor who does not apply his full effort to the care of a patient.

An Opportune return to Spain
Controversy shrouded Delgado in the early 1970s, due to lawsuits from individuals who believed they received stimoceiver implants against their will. Delgado left the United States in 1975, taking an opportunity to return to his birthplace of Spain and start a medical school at the Autonomous University of Madrid.

In Spain, Delgado continued his stimoceiver research, experimenting on himself and members of his family. Delgado retired in the 1990s, but actively spoke about the field until his death in late 2011, making an ominous statement about the power of science in light of human ethics:

Can you avoid knowledge? You cannot! Can you avoid technology? You cannot! Things are going to go ahead in spite of ethics, in spite of your personal beliefs, in spite of everything.


Written by thiswasthefuture

January 12, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Will You Live Forever—or until Your Next Software Release—by Uploading Your Brain into a Computer?

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Scientific American | December 5, 2011

By Gary Stix

Ray Kurzweil and other so-called transhumanists have promised that in coming decades we will be able to transfer a digital copy of the trillions of connections among nerve cells in our brains into a computer. We would essentially reincarnate ourselves as non-biological beings that persist for eternity inside a laptop, on the endless links of the Internet or as avatars inside a television set. After achieving the ultimate copy and paste, we would wave goodbye to death as we know it.

For fairly evident reasons, biologists tend to dismiss out of hand the ideas of Kurzweil and the transhumanist lot as the ravings of computer jocks who know nothing about the real workings of the DNA and cells that make up living tissue. Into this debate comes Sebastian Seung, a young and well-regarded computational neuroscientist from MIT, who has taken a serious look at some of the questions put forth by the transhumanists.

In Connectome, due in February, Seung conveys the excitement of studying the complete circuit diagram of the brain for which the book is named. A full connectome might provide telling insight into what goes goes awry, for instance, in an autistic child or an Alzheimer’s patient (definitely worth reading for these bits alone). In the last chapters, though he takes up the claims of the transhumanists who desperately would like to get their hands on a full connectome for the ultimate upload into binary immortality.

Seung tries to come to grips with the controversial assertion that  someday you might be able to transfer the equivalent of a connectome.doc file to computer hardware, software or any other robot or avatar that you can pick from back issues of Analog.

Seung strikes a pose that mixes skepticism with fascination. The advance reading copy that Scientific American received acknowledges some doubts :

“In his book Live Long Enough to Live Forever, the inventor Ray Kurzweil predicts that immortality will be attained in the next few decades,” Seung writes. “If you can manage to live long enough to survive to that point, you will live forever. Personally, I feel quite confident that you, dear readers, will die, and so will I.”

But Seung remains intrigued by the notion that a unifying mechanism drives the workings of the meat machine between our ears and its mechanics might be decipherable and reproducible. And he is at least willing to cast a critical eye on  the prospect of a 2.0 version of the self that, when transferred into a supercomputer, laptop, or software avatar, might then live on as an electronic ghost. (Yes, some would say that ESPN and Facebook have already brought us there, but Seung doesn’t address social media as immortality.)

The central question for Seung—and the one that also keeps the transhumanists on tenterhooks—is whether you are your connectome. If you could deduce every connection point of every brain cell, the strength with which each neuron fires, and the way these firing patterns change as the cells interact with each other, would, in fact, you be left with a copy of you?

In a chapter called “To Freeze or to Pickle,” Seung undertakes, from multiple perspectives, an earnest and unsmirking analysis of the connectome as a pathway to immortality. All of his conclusions point to obstacles that could very well prove insurmountable.

First he considers what might called the meatlocker problem. Because it may take a while to create that complete wiring diagram, many transhumanists have plans to place their heads or whole bodies in a cryonic liquid nitrogen Dewar soon after death—or, as alternatives, to preserve themselves in a glassy solid or by another process called plastination. (Plastination is the form of preservation used in the Body Worlds tour of skinless corpses.)

Once the uploading technologies are perfected, the idea goes, the preserved tissue could be used for piecing out the wiring plan. On its own, this expectation may be a showstopper because of the difficulty of maintaining the integrity of the brain’s unfathomably complex circuitry. “At the present time, cryonics is closer to religion than to science,” Seung writes. “Its members believe that a future civilization will be able to resurrect them, based only on their faith in limitless technological progress.”

Even if this niggling detail can eventually be resolved, there remains the unresolved issue of what information the connectome contains exactly. To better understand brain connections, scientists have been trying to simulate at least parts of the brain for decades. They are now also taking on the larger question of recreating the whole thing. The Human Brain Project in Europe has targeted the task of crafting a model of the entire organ a decade from now. The model would, in principle, simulate the thousands of different neuron types as well as the connections among them—and their changing structures as the brain learns and forgets.

The Human Brain Project is intended as an exploration of basic science, not a preparation for eternal life. But Seung points out that even an impressive endeavor of its magnitude might fail to capture all the necessary information.

One potential flaw: The model of the brain might have to take into account the way neurons communicate outside known channels—foregoing the transmission of chemical and electrical signals across the small gaps, called synapses, between brain cells. To overcome this hitch, it might be necessary to create a simulation of each atom in the brain, an undertaking of such unimaginable complexity that it would verge on the impossible. “It seems absurd to even consider the enormous computational power required, and is completely out of the question unless your remote descendants survive for galactic time scales,” he writes.

Seung ends his book with an epilogue that calls for a “return to reality”—a recognition that “grand challenges” remain, beyond quixotic quests for eternal life. A 10-year effort to find the connectome of a mouse brain is on his wish list. Such a quest lacks the box-office appeal of contemplating eternity as a file on a flash drive. In the end, though, Seung believes a project of this more modest scale would, like The Human Genome Project push researchers to the limit but vastly deepen our knowledge about an organ that remains largely a mystery.

One thing that I didn’t understand after reading the book was why he didn’t end the chapter about uploading with a blanket condemnation of a seemingly absurd endeavor, a conclusion that would have been fully justified from his arguments.

I e-mailed Seung and asked him whether he thought these far-fetched technologies might ever materialize. He replied that he has received this question before but prefers not to respond. “People often think I’m being coy by not answering the question you ask,” he writes. “I’m not being coy; I just don’t want to waste my readers’ time with matters that are purely matters of opinion. It’s impossible to predict events so far in the future, and my opinion is no more likely to be correct than those of other people. In the book, I address questions that can be discussed scientifically.”

He continues later: “In my book, I compared transhumanism to religion. Effectively, you’d like to know whether I belong to this religion. (i.e. perhaps you’re just asking me a personal question.) Strangely enough, the answer doesn’t matter…I’ve realized that transhumanists view me as working for their cause, whether or not I believe in it. I’m part of their vision of manifest destiny, whether I like it or not.”

Seung undoubtedly retains a lingering fascination with the possibility of an intersection between connectomics and transhumanism. At a TED talk given last year, he commented that connectomics might eventually put to the test whether a technology like cryonics will eventually be feasible. And Seung is a member of an advisory board to the Brain Preservation Foundation, which is offering a prize for technologies that would successfully preserve the structure of either a mouse or large animal brain after death for “science,” “memory donation” or “continued life.”

Don’t let any of that deter you, though. Even without meditations on crossover dreams between science and fiction, this is a great book if you want to know where neuroscience is going during the next 10 years and maybe far beyond.

Written by thiswasthefuture

December 6, 2011 at 10:36 am

Controlling an avatar with your brain

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Kurzweil AI| November 1, 2011

The Advanced Virtuality Lab (AVL) at the Interdisciplinary Center Israel, is developing a system for controlling a virtual or physical body using only the mind, Israeli Innovation News reports.

The VERE (Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-embodiment) project is one of the first to use an fMRI brain scanner to control a computer application interactively in real time, — an innovation which could help severely disabled patients communicate better, says AVL head Dr. Doron Friedman.

“You could control an avatar just by thinking about it and activating the correct areas in your brain,” he said.

Another focus of the AVL is telepresence. The BEAMING (Being in Augmented Multi-modal Naturally-networked Gatherings) project aims to produce the feeling of a live interaction using mediated technologies such as surround video conference, virtual and augmented reality, virtual sense of touch (haptics), and spatialized audio and robotics.

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November 2, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Paralysed man controls robotic arm with his mind

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New Scientist | October 12, 2011

A paralysed man has high-fived his girlfriend using a robotic arm controlled only by his thoughts (see video above).

Tim Hemmes, who was paralysed in a motorcycle accident seven years ago, is the first participant in a clinical trial testing a brain implant that directs movement of an external device.

Neurosurgeons at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania implanted a grid of electrodes, about the size of a large postage stamp, on top of Hemmes’s brain over an area of neurons that fire when he imagines moving his right arm. They threaded wires from the implant underneath the skin of his neck and pulled the ends out of his body near his chest.

The team then connected the implant to a computer that converts specific brainwaves into particular actions.

As shown in this video, Hemmes first practices controlling a dot on a TV screen with his mind. The dot moves right when he imagines bending his elbow. Thinking about wiggling his thumb makes the dot slide left.

With practice, Hemmes learned to move the cursor just by visualizing the motion, rather than concentrating on specific arm movements, says neurosurgeon Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, who implanted the electrodes.

After this initial training, Hemmes navigated a ball through a 3D virtual world and eventually controlled the robotic arm, all with his mind. The electrode grid was removed after the 30-day trial.

The team is now recruiting people for a trial of a more sensitive electrode grid that detects messages from individual neurons, rather than a group. They plan to implant two electrode patches, one to control arm movements and another for fine hand motion. The ultimate goal is to allow paralysed people to move individual fingers on a robotic hand.

If you enjoyed this video, watch the first practical demonstration of a mind-controlled robot arm, used by a monkey to feed itself marshmallows.

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October 18, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Darpa: Fuse Nerves With Robot Limbs, Make Prosthetics Feel Real

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Wired: Danger Room | October 27, 2010

Controlling robotic limbs with your brain is just step one. The Pentagon eventually wants artificial arms and legs to feel and perform just the same as naturally grown ones. Which means step two is hooking up those prosthetics directly into severed nerves. That’ll allow the wearer to detect subtle sensations, respond to the brain’s neural signals, move with unprecedented agility, and “incorporat[e] the limb into the sense-of-self.”

Over the last decade, the Pentagon has made remarkable progress in creating life-like prosthetic devices. And most of the advances are because of programs funded by Darpa, the far-out military research agency that’s also behind this latest project, called Reliable Peripheral Interfaces (RPI).

Already, Darpa has funded ventures like the DEKA Arm, which relies on a joystick-style interface, and used “targeted muscle reinnervation surgery” for prosthetics that transmit neural signals from a bundle of nerves in the chest. Darpa-funded researchers at Johns Hopkins have even started human trials on their Modular Prosthetic Limb, which transmits cues to an artificial limb using brain-implanted micro-arrays.

But the RPI program taps into key shortcomings that persist in even the most sophisticated prosthetic devices. Existing neural-prosthetic interfaces aren’t sensitive enough to provide myriad signals — prototypes currently transmit around 500 events a second — or offer users a robust degree of freedom. Not to mention that current neural platforms have short life spans and are tough to repair without invasive surgery, making them ill-suited to troops and vets in their 20s.

So Darpa’s after a prosthetic that can record motor-sensory signals right from peripheral nerves (those that are severed when a limb is lost) and then transmit responding feedback signals from the brain. That means an incredibly sensitive platform, “capable of detecting sufficiently strong motor-control signals and distinguishing them from sensory signals and other confounding signals,” in a region packed tightly with nerves. Once signals are detected, they’ll be decoded by algorithms and transmitted to the brain, where a user’s intended movements would be recoded and transmitted back to the prosthetic.


The end result would be a prosthetic that acts as a veritable extension of one’s own body. And a platform capable of accurately distinguishing between, and interpreting, different sensory signals — temperature, pressure, motion — would “allow the incorporation of the limb into the sense-of-self” and offer unprecedented freedom of movement for a prosthetic wearer.

The agency also wants an ultra-reliable platform, with an error rate of less than 0.1 percent and a lifespan of around 70 years. By comparison, current neural-recording interfaces last around two years before they need to be replaced. Sounds far-fetched, but Darpa’s already got one major lead: The agency’s new Neurophotonics Research Center will investigate fiber-optic prosthetic interfaces that can incorporate thousands of sensors into a single filament.

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November 15, 2010 at 4:46 pm

Brain link lets people choose images by thought alone

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New Scientist | October 28, 2010

IMAGINE being able to manipulate images on a screen by thought alone. That’s the tantalising prospect raised by a brain-machine interface that lets you control which of two competing images you can see on a screen.

Moran Cerf at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, and colleagues recruited 12 volunteers who had electrodes implanted in their brains to record epileptic seizures. That meant the team could record activity in the normally inaccessible medial temporal lobe. The MTL houses the hippocampus and amygdala, which are involved in memory and emotions.

Cerf first talked to each person about their interests and recent experiences – the concepts making up their recent memories.

His team then created a database of images to correspond to those concepts, such as a picture of the Eiffel Tower for a person who recently visited Paris, France. Next each person had their brain activity recorded as they looked at 100 of those pictures six times. The team could then identify the individual neurons that fired in response to each image.

The team then chose two images for each person that caused firing in different individual neurons. The two pictures were superimposed, and the person asked to control the strength of each image by focusing on the concepts related to each picture. A brain-machine interface translated the neural activity related to an image so that it was portrayed more or less vividly on the screen. In 70 per cent of tests, volunteers were able to bring one image to the fore (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature09510).

Although humans and monkeys can already control the movement of a robotic arm via the brain’s motor cortex, this is the first time anyone has been able to tap into the neurons associated with individual concepts.

Fabien Lotte at the Institute for Infocomm Research in Singapore says the findings could be useful clinically. “A paralysed person could increase the activity in a neuron that corresponds to the person they want to call, for example,” Lotte says.

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November 9, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Electronic implant allows the blind to see

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New Scientist | November 3, 2010

Groups in Germany and the US have been testing electronic implants aimed at restoring vision to people with retinal dystrophy. The condition is hereditary or age-related, and causes degeneration of the photoreceptors – light-sensitive cells in the retina – leading to blindness. It affects 15 million people worldwide.

Eberthart Zrenner and colleagues at the University of Tübingen in Germany have developed a microchip carrying 1500 photosensitive diodes that slides into the retina where the photoreceptors would normally be. The diodes respond to light, and when connected to an outside power source through a wire into the eye, can stimulate the nearby nerves that normally pass signals to the brain, mimicking healthy photoreceptors.

The team reports that their first three volunteers could all locate bright objects. One could recognise normal objects and read large words.

Nerves in the eye normally adapt to visual input and stop transmitting signals after a short time. Tiny movements of the eye overcome this by constantly projecting the image back and forth between neighbouring nerve cells so that each has time to recover and resume transmitting signals. Because the implant is inside the eye, this mechanism worked normally in the trials. Another device being tested sends images from a head-mounted camera to ocular nerves, but as the image forms outside the eye the tiny movements cannot maintain it and patients must rapidly shake their head instead.

As a safety precaution, the implants in this first pilot study were removed after several weeks, says Walter Wrobel, head of Retina-Implant, a company based in Reutlingen, Germany, formed by the researchers to eventually market the implant. “Based on the results of this study, we have designed a new system, which is being implanted permanently, or as long as patients like it.”

In the new system, the power source connects to the retinal implant via a mechanical coupling through intact skin, not via a wire through an incision in the skin as the earlier system did. “That means they can shower easily, leave the hospital and go around town on their own,” says Zrenner. “They can go out for a meal, and really see things, like a nice glass of beer.”


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November 5, 2010 at 11:39 am