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Neural Lace and Programmable Cells

3 April 2017
Giulio Prisco


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Elon Musk, the maverick tech entrepreneur who, after creating luxury electric cars with Tesla Motors and reusable rockets with SpaceX, plans to colonize Mars and then bootstrap an interplanetary civilization, is working to develop operational, high-speed Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) based on a family of futuristic technologies that he calls “neural lace.” Future neural lace tech could permit sending information back and forth between the brain and a computer - or the cloud - at ultra-high bandwidth.

“Your phone and your computer are extensions of you, but the interface is through finger movements or speech, which are very slow,” said Musk, as reported by Vanity Fair. “For a meaningful partial-brain interface, I think we’re roughly four or five years away.”

That might be a little over-optimistic. But last week scientists funded by the European Commission reported BCI advances based on graphene transistor arrays for high resolution brain imaging, which can be seen as precursors and enablers of full-blown neural lace tech. Other scientists are beginning to cross the bridge between life and computers in the other direction as well, with genetically engineered programmable cells that could one day act as tiny computers and robots within the body.

Many Facebook friends liked (and some even believed) my April Fools joke: “BREAKING NEWS - In a press release still under embargo, Elon Musk's new company Neuralink Corp. reveals that signals from 'neural lace' implanted in a hamster's brain have been used to successfully upload the hamster's mind to a supercomputer operated by the NSA. The hamster belongs to Ivanka Trump, daughter of US President Donald Trump, who, according to people familiar with the matter, is first in line for upcoming human trials.” I think my 2017 April Fools joke could be a reality in, say, 2047 for hamsters in the lab, and a few decades later for humans on the street.

We might have to wait a little while for promising research advances in neural lace and programmable cells to become medical reality for therapy and enhancement. But other forms of enhancement could become practical reality sooner and, for example, allow older women to become pregnant by having their ovaries rejuvenated.

The future is marching toward us, perhaps even running. If you find that stressful, you could talk to your doctor about medical marijuana, whose anti-stress properties have been confirmed by a recent study.

New experimental treatment seems to rejuvenate ovaries and allow older women to get pregnant. Researchers at the Genesis Athens Clinic in Greece have found ways to allow menopausal women, thought to be infertile, to become pregnant using their own eggs, New Scientist reports. The scientists have used a technique that seems to rejuvenate ovaries, but how that happens isn’t clear at the moment. The researchers are now planning clinical trials in Greece and the US. If these research findings are confirmed and shown to work in practice, a treatment could be developed to enable older women to get pregnant.

Endogenous cannabinoids play a critical role in stress-resilience. Scientists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center have discovered that a molecule that activates cannabinoid receptors in the brain boosts the ability to adapt to repeated and acute exposures to traumatic stress. The research results, published in Nature Communications (open access), show that endogenous cannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) plays a critical role in stress-resilience: In a study conducted with lab mice, increasing 2-AG supply has been found to promote stress-resilience, also in mice previously susceptible to stress. The findings, which seem to confirm the benefits of therapeutic marijuana use, could open the door to treatment and prevention of mood and anxiety disorders.

Elon Musk’s new company Neuralink wants to develop visionary brain implants. Elon Musk, the superstar futurist and entrepreneur who founded and runs Tesla Motors and SpaceX, wants to merge human brains and computers next, WSJ reports. Tesla Motors Club has a non-paywalled copy of the WSJ article. Musk co-founded Neuralink Corp. to pursue "neural lace" technology - brain implants that may one day upload and download thoughts. A first iteration of neural lace technology could consist of thin and flexible tissue-like electronic chips rolled up in a needle, injected in the brain, and then unrolling and blending with the brain’s neural circuitry. The WSJ spoke with Neuralink co-founder Max Hodak and Boston University Prof. Timothy Gardner, who joined the company. Bryan Johnson, the wealthy founder of online payments company Braintree, launched a well-funded startup called Kernel to pursue similar developments.

Flexible graphene probes record brain activity in high resolution. Researchers associated with the Graphene Flagship project of the European Commission have developed flexible devices, based on graphene field-effect transistors, for recording brain activity in high resolution. The research work, published in 2D Materials, shows that arrays of 16 graphene-based transistors, each with an active area less than the cross section of a human hair, arranged on a flexible substrate and placed on the surface of the brain, permit recording of neural activity by detecting electric fields generated when neurons fire. The researchers suggest that this technology could lay the foundation for a future generation of in-vivo implants for therapeutic brain stimulation technologies and interfaces for sensory and motor devices. Of course, hidden between the lines of the aseptic bureaucratese favored by the European Commission, there’s the prospect of visionary technologies like Musk’s neural lace.

Synthetic biologists advance toward programmable mammalian cells. Scientists led by Wilson Wong, a synthetic biologist at Boston University, have found ways to genetically engineer the DNA of mammalian cells to carry out complex computations, in effect turning the cells into biocomputers. By cutting, pasting and reassembling DNA strands, the researchers built 113 different circuits, each designed to carry out a different logical operation, with a 96.5 percent success rate, The study, published in Nature Biotechnology, has been covered by Wired. The researchers hope programmable cells will have a big impact on medicine, for example by improving the immune system with artificial genetic circuits that detect and wipe out tumors, or synthetically generating biological tissues on demand.

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