We live in a world full of cyborgs, though most of us don’t notice it.
More than 200,000 men and women around the world wear cochlear implants - devices that look like hearing aids, but which actually convert sounds into direct nerve impulses that travel down the auditory nerve bundle and into the wearer’s brain.
On February 13th of this year, the FDA approved the world’s first bionic eye, the Argus II. The Argus uses a small video camera on the eye glasses to pick up light. That then wirelessly sends signals to a retinal implant that converts the image into impulses in the optic nerve, sending them straight into the brain.
Meanwhile, in the lab, we’ve placed implants in the brains of paralyzed men and women that allow them to move robot arms just by thinking about it.
In animals, we’ve gone further - augmenting memory and intelligence, and even bridging the gap between multiple animals. In rats we’ve used implants to restore and boost memory, even beyond normal rat memory. In monkeys we’ve used a brain implant to boost primate IQ, improving their performance on a pattern matching test well beyond those of un-enhanced monkeys. We’ve even wired the brains of two rats together allowing them to transmit crude thoughts back and forth while they were thousands of miles apart.
The technology behind this - brain computer interfaces, neural prosthetics, cyborg tech, or whatever you want to call it - is opening up a whole new frontier. Starting with the goal of helping people who are paralyzed, blind, deaf, or have suffered some sort of brain damage, we’re inching up on the ability to make humans smarter, faster, and more able to communicate with one another than ever before.
There is also a cybernetic treatment for epilepsy called a Vagus Nerve Stimulator! It’s essentially a tiny implanted generator with electrodes that wrap around the vagus nerve (one of the ten cranial nerves that run directly into the medulla and project out to control all kinds of autonomic nervous system functions). It works in a couple different ways: by sending regular electrical stimulation along the vagus nerve to help regulate electrical impulses in the brain and raise the seizure threshold, and by directly interrupting seizures by use of a magnet passed over the device by the patient if they feel a seizure coming on.
Research is being done to see if VNS might not be able to provide relief in other neurological and psychiatric conditions, like refractory (treatment-resistant) migraines, depression and anxiety disorders. It’s super-cool stuff and I’m still sad that I am not a good candidate for VNS myself (I’m epileptic but the type of seizures I have and their distribution in the brain don’t respond well to VNS enough of the time to warrant it.)