A less publicized component of the $5 billion program includes work on brain-machine interfaces, devices that essentially translate thoughts into commands. One recent project is a wireless brain implant that can record, stimulate, and disrupt the movement of a monkey in real time.
In a paper published in the top-notch scientific journal Nature on New Year's Eve, researchers with a division of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative called the CZ Biohub detail a wireless brain device implanted in a primate that records, stimulates, and modifies its brain activity in real time, sensing a normal movement and stopping it immediately. Scientists refer to the interference as "therapy" because it is designed to be used to treat diseases like epilepsy or Parkinson's by stopping a seizure or other disruptive motion just as it starts.
"Our device is able to monitor the primate's brain while its providing the therapy so you know exactly whats happening," Rikky Muller , a co-author of the new study and an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at UC Berkeley, told Business Insider.
The applications of brain-machine interfaces are far-reaching: while some researchers focus on using them to help assist people with spinal cord injuries or other illnesses that affect movement, others aim to see them transform how everyone interacts with laptops and smartphones. Both a division at Facebook formerly called Building 8 as well as an Elon Musk-founded company called Neuralink have said they are working on the latter.
Muller said her research at the Biohub is walled off from the other work on brain-computer interfaces being done at Facebook.
A brain device that changes behavior automatically
In Muller's paper , published on New Year's Eve in the science journal Nature , she and a team of researchers from Berkeley and a medical device startup called Cortera detailed how they used a device they label the "Wand" to stop a monkey from doing a trained behavior. In this case, the behavior involved moving a cursor to a target on a screen using a joystick and holding the target there for a set period of time.
The Wand could "sense" when the primate was about to move the joystick and stop that movement with a targeted electric signal sent to the right part of its brain, Muller said. And since the machine was wireless, the monkey didn't need to be physically confined or attached to anything for it to work.
"This device is game-changing in the sense that you could have a subject that's completely free-moving and it would autonomously, or automatically, know" when and how to disrupt its movement, said Muller.
We want people to do the thing thats crazy, the thing that other people wouldnt try
The Wand could one day have applications for a range of ailments that affect movement (also called motor skills), from spinal cord injury to epilepsy.
"Right now we can take a specific motor function, sense that its happening, and disrupt it," said Muller.
That's a big departure from current devices, which typically require multiple pieces of bulky equipment and can only either sense movement or disrupt it at one time. Muller's device does both at once. To do so, it uses 128 electrodes, or conductors, placed directly into the primate's brain roughly 31 times more electrodes than todays human-grade brain-computer devices, which are limited to 4-8 electrodes.
"I believe this device opens up possibilities for new types of treatments," said Muller.
Muller is also the co-founder and chair of the board of Cortera, which has received grant funding from The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Institutes of Health. Her work on brain-machine interfaces is just one component of a broader set of projects under the CZ Biohub umbrella.
Joe DeRisi , the co-president of the Biohub and a professor of biophysics at UCSF, told Business Insider that the initiative aims to help bolster the research projects being done by local scientists, to build important medical devices that wouldn't otherwise exist, and to "push boundaries."
We want people to do the thing thats crazy, the thing that other people wouldnt try," DeRisi said.
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