CZ Biohub Supporting Research on Brain-Machine Interfaces

CZ Biohub Supporting Research on Brain-Machine Interfaces

The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub is supporting a project to develop brain-machine interfaces, implantable devices that essentially translate thoughts into commands, Business Insider reports. 

With the goal of engineering implants that can simultaneously sense and alter physiological responses to neuropsychiatric disorders, CZ Biohub investigator Rikky Muller, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, is developing wireless microsystems that directly interface with the brain. A study (30 pages, PDF) co-authored by Muller and published in the journal Nature describes a brain implant that can record, stimulate, and disrupt the movement of a monkey in real time — a device that potentially could be used to treat diseases such as epilepsy and Parkinson's by stopping a seizure or other disruptive motion as soon as it starts. As detailed in the study, researchers from Berkeley and medical device startup Cortera — which Muller co-founded and chairs — developed a palm-sized device called the WAND (wireless artifact-free neuromodulation device) that, placed on the monkey's head and communicating wirelessly with electrodes placed in its brain, could sense when the animal was about to start a trained behavior and stop it. 

"Our device is able to monitor the brain while it's providing the therapy, so you know exactly what's happening," Muller told Business Insider. "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.

While Muller and other researchers are focused on assisting people with spinal-cord injuries and other illnesses that affect movement, others are looking to use brain-machine interfaces to transform how people interact with laptops and smartphones. A division at Facebook formerly called Building 8 and Neuralink, a company founded by Elon Musk, both have said they are working on the latter. Muller told Business Insider that her Biohub research is walled off from other work on brain-computer interfaces being done at Facebook.

In the meantime, Biohub continues to support efforts aimed at creating medical devices that might not otherwise be developed. "We want people to do the thing that’s crazy," Biohub co-president Joe DeRisi told Business Insider "The thing that other people wouldn’t try."

(Photo credit: Chan Zuckerberg Biohub)