Restoring Ability: Project NEUWalk

neuwalkIn the past few years, medical science has produced some pretty impressive breakthroughs for those suffering from partial paralysis, but comparatively little for those who are fully paralyzed. However, in recent years, nerve-stimulation that bypasses damaged or severed nerves has been proposed as a potential solution. This is the concept behind the NEUWalk, a project pioneered by the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland.

Here, researchers have figured out a way to reactivate the severed spinal cords of fully paralyzed rats, allowing them to walk again via remote control. And, the researchers say, their system is just about ready for human trials. The project operates on the notion that the human body requires electricity to function. The brain moves the body by sending electrical signals down the spinal cord and into the nervous system.

spinal-cord 2When the spinal cord is severed, the signals can no longer reach that part of the spine, paralysing that part of the body. The higher the cut, the greater the paralysis. But an electrical signal sent directly through the spinal cord below a cut via electrodes can take the place of the brain signal, as the team at EPFL, led by neuroscientist Grégoire Courtine, has discovered.

Previous studies have had some success in using epidural electrical stimulation (EES) to improve motor control where spinal cord injuries are concerned. However, electrically stimulating neurons to allow for natural walking is no easy task, and it requires extremely quick and precise stimulation. And until recently, the process of controlling the pulse width, amplitude and frequency in EES treatment was done manually.

brainwavesThis simply isn’t practical, and for two reasons: For starters, it is very difficult for a person to manually adjust the level of electrostimulation they require to move their legs as they are trying to walk. Second, the brain does not send electrical signals in an indiscriminate stream to the nerves. Rather, the frequency of the electrical stimulation varies based on the desired movement and neurological command.

To get around this, the team carefully studied all aspects of how electrical stimulation affects a rat’s leg movements – such as its gait – and was therefore able to figure out how to stimulate the rat’s spine for a smooth, even movement, and even take into account obstacles such as stairs. To do this, the researchers put paralyzed rats onto a treadmill and supported them with a robotic harness.

NEUWalk_ratsAfter several weeks of testing, the researchers had mapped out how to stimulate the rats’ nervous systems precisely enough to get them to put one paw in front of the other. They then developed a robust algorithm that could monitor a host of factors like muscle action and ground reaction force in real-time. By feeding this information into the algorithm, EES impulses could be precisely controlled, extremely quickly.

The next step involved severing the spinal cords of several rats in the middle-back, completely paralyzing the rats’ lower limbs, and implanted flexible electrodes into the spinal cord at the point where the spine was severed to allow them to send electrical signals down to the severed portion of the spine. Combined with the precise stimulation governed by their algorithm, the researcher team created a closed-loop system that can make paralyzed subjects mobile.

walkingrat.gifAs Grégoire Courtine said of the experiment:

We have complete control of the rat’s hind legs. The rat has no voluntary control of its limbs, but the severed spinal cord can be reactivated and stimulated to perform natural walking. We can control in real-time how the rat moves forward and how high it lifts its legs.

Clinical trials on humans may start as early as June 2015. The team plans to start testing on patients with incomplete spinal cord injuries using a research laboratory called the Gait Platform, housed in the EPFL. It consists of a custom treadmill and overground support system, as well as 14 infrared cameras that read reflective markers on the patient’s body and two video cameras for recording the patient’s movement.

WorldCup_610x343Silvestro Micera, a neuroengineer and co-author of the study, expressed hope that this study will help lead the way towards a day when paralysis is no longer permanent. As he put it:

Simple scientific discoveries about how the nervous system works can be exploited to develop more effective neuroprosthetic technologies. We believe that this technology could one day significantly improve the quality of life of people confronted with neurological disorders.

Without a doubt, restoring ambulatory ability to people who have lost limbs or suffered from spinal cord injuries is one of the many amazing possibilities being offered by cutting-edge medical research. Combined with bionic prosthetics, gene therapies, stem cell research and life-extension therapies, we could be looking at an age where no injury is permanent, and life expectancy is far greater.

And in the meantime, be sure to watch this video from the EPFL showing the NEUWalk technology in action:


The Future is Here: First Brain-to-Brain Interface! a first amongst firsts, a team of international researchers have reported that they have built the first human-to-human brain-to-brain interface; allowing two humans — separated by the internet — to consciously communicate with each other. One researcher, attached to a brain-computer interface (BCI) in India, successfully sent words into the brain of another researcher in France, who was wearing a computer-to-brain interface (CBI).

In short, the researchers have created a device that allows people to communicate telepathically. And it’s no surprise, given the immense amount of progress being made in the field. Over the last few years, brain-computer interfaces that you can plug into your computer’s USB port have been commercially available. And in the last couple of years we’ve seen advanced BCIs that can be implanted directly into your brain.

BCICreating a brain-to-brain connection is a bit more difficult though, as it requires that brain activity not only be read, but inputted into someone else’s brain. Now, however, a team of international researchers have cracked it. On the BCI side of things, the researchers used a fairly standard EEG (electroencephalogram) from Neuroelectrics. For the CBI, which requires a more involved setup, a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) rig was used.

To break the process down, the BCI reads the sender’s thoughts, like to move their hands or feet, which are then broken down into binary 1s and 0s. These encoded thoughts are then transmitted via the internet (or some other network) to the recipient, who is wearing a TMS. The TMS is focused on the recipient’s visual cortex, and it receives a “1″ from the sender, it stimulates a region in the visual cortex that produces a phosphene. is a phenomenon whereby a person sees flashes of light, without light actually hitting the retina. The recipient “sees” these phosphenes at the bottom of their visual field, and by decoding the flashes — phosphene flash = 1, no phosphene = 0 — the recipient can “read” the word being sent. While this is certainly a rather complex way of sending messages from one brain to another, for now, it is truly state of the art.

TMS is somewhat similar to TDCS (transcranial direct-current stimulation), in that it can stimulate regions of neurons in your brain. But instead of electrical current, it uses magnetism, and is a completely non-invasive way of stimulating certain sections of the brain and allowing a person to think and feel a certain way. In short, there doesn’t need to be any surgery or electrodes implanted into the user’s brain to make it happen.

brain-to-brain-interfacingThis method also neatly sidestep the fact that we really don’t know how the human brain encodes information. And so, for now, instead of importing a “native” message, we have to use our own encoding scheme (binary) and a quirk of the visual cortex. And even if it does seem a little bit like hard work, there’s no denying that this is a conscious, non-invasive brain-to-brain connection.

With some refinement, it’s not hard to imagine a small, lightweight EEG that allows the sender to constantly stream thoughts back to the receiver. In the future, rather than vocalizing speech, or vainly attempting to vocalize one’s own emotions, people could very well communicate their thoughts and feelings via a neural link that is accommodated by simple headbands with embedded sensors.

Brain-ScanAnd imagine a world where instant messaging and video conferencing have the added feature of direct thought sharing. Or an The Internet of Thoughts, where people can transfer terabytes worth of brain activity the same way they share video, messages and documents. Remember, the internet began as a small-scale connection between a few universities, labs and research projects.

I can foresee a similar network being built between research institutions where professors and students could do the same thing. And this could easily be followed by a militarized version where thoughts are communicated instantly between command centers and bunkers to ensure maximum clarity and speed of communication. My how the world is shaping up to be a science fiction novel!


The Future is Here: The Walking Bio-Robot

walking-bio-robot-spinal-muscleGiven that the field of robotics and electronics are making inroads into the field of biology – in the form of biorobotics and bionics – it was only a matter of time before applications began moving in the other direction. For example, muscles have been considered in recent years as a potential replacement for electric actuators, in part because they can run in a nutrient-rich fluid without the need for any other power source.

The latest example of this biological-technological crossover comes from Illinios, where bio-robotics experts have demonstrated a bio-bot built from 3-D printed hydrogel and spinal muscle tissue that can “walk” in response to an electrical signal. Less than a centimeter in length, the “bio-bot” responds to electrical impulses that cause the muscle to contract.

According to study leader, Professor Rashid Bashir, biological tissue has several advantages over other robotic actuators:

[Muscle] is biodegradable, it can run in fluid with just some nutrients and hence doesn’t need external batteries and power sources – and it could eventually be controlled by neurons in our future work.

walking-bio-robot-spinal-muscle-3Previous versions, using heart muscle tissue, were also able to “walk” but were not controllable, as heart tissue contracts constantly of its own accord. Spinal muscle, by contrast, responds to external electrical stimuli and provide a range of a range of potential uses. These include bio-robots being able to operate inside the body in medical applications, or being used outdoors in environmental services.

And though this design is very simple, it serves as a proof of concept that demonstrates that the technology works. Bashir and his team are now looking to start extending toward more complex machines – incorporating neurons that can get the bot walking in different directions when faced with different stimuli. Initially, they’ll look at designing a more complex hydrogel backbone that gives the robot the ability to move in more than one direction.

walking-bio-robot-spinal-muscle-6They’re also looking at integrating neurons to steer the tiny bots around, either using light or chemical gradients as a trigger. This would be a key step toward being able to design bots for a specific purpose. As Bashir said:

The idea of doing forward engineering with these cell-based structures is very exciting. Our goal is for these devices to be used as autonomous sensors. We want it to sense a specific chemical and move towards it, then release agents to neutralize the toxin, for example. Being in control of the actuation is a big step forward toward that goal.

This development is significant for a number of reasons. Not only is it a step on the road towards bionics and biorobotics, it also demonstrates that the merging of technology and biology works both ways. Not only are machines being designed to improve our biology, our biology is also inspiring machinery, and even being used for its unique and superior properties to make machines run better as well.

And be sure to watch this video of the muscle-powered bio-robot being explained:


Frontiers of Neuroscience: Neurohacking and Neuromorphics

neural-network-consciousness-downloading-640x353It is one of the hallmarks of our rapidly accelerating times: looking at the state of technology, how it is increasingly being merged with our biology, and contemplating the ultimate leap of merging mind and machinery. The concept has been popular for many decades now, and with experimental procedures showing promise, neuroscience being used to inspire the next great leap in computing, and the advance of biomedicine and bionics, it seems like just a matter of time before people can “hack” their neurology too.

Take Kevin Tracey, a researcher working for the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y., as an example. Back in 1998, he began conducting experiments to show that an interface existed between the immune and nervous system. Building on ten years worth of research, he was able to show how inflammation – which is associated with rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease – can be fought by administering electrical stimulu, in the right doses, to the vagus nerve cluster.

Brain-ScanIn so doing, he demonstrated that the nervous system was like a computer terminal through which you could deliver commands to stop a problem, like acute inflammation, before it starts, or repair a body after it gets sick.  His work also seemed to indicate that electricity delivered to the vagus nerve in just the right intensity and at precise intervals could reproduce a drug’s therapeutic reaction, but with greater effectiveness, minimal health risks, and at a fraction of the cost of “biologic” pharmaceuticals.

Paul Frenette, a stem-cell researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, is another example. After discovering the link between the nervous system and prostate tumors, he and his colleagues created SetPoint –  a startup dedicated to finding ways to manipulate neural input to delay the growth of tumors. These and other efforts are part of the growing field of bioelectronics, where researchers are creating implants that can communicate directly with the nervous system in order to try to fight everything from cancer to the common cold.

human-hippocampus-640x353Impressive as this may seem, bioelectronics are just part of the growing discussion about neurohacking. In addition to the leaps and bounds being made in the field of brain-to-computer interfacing (and brain-to-brain interfacing), that would allow people to control machinery and share thoughts across vast distances, there is also a field of neurosurgery that is seeking to use the miracle material of graphene to solve some of the most challenging issues in their field.

Given graphene’s rather amazing properties, this should not come as much of a surprise. In addition to being incredibly thin, lightweight, and light-sensitive (it’s able to absorb light in both the UV and IR range) graphene also a very high surface area (2630 square meters per gram) which leads to remarkable conductivity. It also has the ability to bind or bioconjugate with various modifier molecules, and hence transform its behavior. 

brainscan_MRIAlready, it is being considered as a possible alternative to copper wires to break the energy efficiency barrier in computing, and even useful in quantum computing. But in the field of neurosurgery, where researchers are looking to develop materials that can bridge and even stimulate nerves. And in a story featured in latest issue of Neurosurgery, the authors suggest thatgraphene may be ideal as an electroactive scaffold when configured as a three-dimensional porous structure.

That might be a preferable solution when compared with other currently vogue ideas like using liquid metal alloys as bridges. Thanks to Samsung’s recent research into using graphene in their portable devices, it has also been shown to make an ideal E-field stimulator. And recent experiments on mice in Korea showed that a flexible, transparent, graphene skin could be used as a electrical field stimulator to treat cerebral hypoperfusion by stimulating blood flow through the brain.

Neuromorphic-chip-640x353And what look at the frontiers of neuroscience would be complete without mentioning neuromorphic engineering? Whereas neurohacking and neurosurgery are looking for ways to merge technology with the human brain to combat disease and improve its health, NE is looking to the human brain to create computational technology with improved functionality. The result thus far has been a wide range of neuromorphic chips and components, such as memristors and neuristors.

However, as a whole, the field has yet to define for itself a clear path forward. That may be about to change thanks to Jennifer Hasler and a team of researchers at Georgia Tech, who recently published a roadmap to the future of neuromorphic engineering with the end goal of creating the human-brain equivalent of processing. This consisted of Hasler sorting through the many different approaches for the ultimate embodiment of neurons in silico and come up with the technology that she thinks is the way forward.

neuromorphic-chip-fpaaHer answer is not digital simulation, but rather the lesser known technology of FPAAs (Field-Programmable Analog Arrays). FPAAs are similar to digital FPGAs (Field-Programmable Gate Arrays), but also include reconfigurable analog elements. They have been around on the sidelines for a few years, but they have been used primarily as so-called “analog glue logic” in system integration. In short, they would handle a variety of analog functions that don’t fit on a traditional integrated circuit.

Hasler outlines an approach where desktop neuromorphic systems will use System on a Chip (SoC) approaches to emulate billions of low-power neuron-like elements that compute using learning synapses. Each synapse has an adjustable strength associated with it and is modeled using just a single transistor. Her own design for an FPAA board houses hundreds of thousands of programmable parameters which enable systems-level computing on a scale that dwarfs other FPAA designs.

neuromorphic_revolutionAt the moment, she predicts that human brain-equivalent systems will require a reduction in power usage to the point where they are consuming just one-eights of what digital supercomputers that are currently used to simulate neuromorphic systems require. Her own design can account for a four-fold reduction in power usage, but the rest is going to have to come from somewhere else – possibly through the use of better materials (i.e. graphene or one of its derivatives).

Hasler also forecasts that using soon to be available 10nm processes, a desktop system with human-like processing power that consumes just 50 watts of electricity may eventually be a reality. These will likely take the form of chips with millions of neuron-like skeletons connected by billion of synapses firing to push each other over the edge, and who’s to say what they will be capable of accomplishing or what other breakthroughs they will make possible?

posthuman-evolutionIn the end, neuromorphic chips and technology are merely one half of the equation. In the grand scheme of things, the aim of all of this research is not only produce technology that can ensure better biology, but technology inspired by biology to create better machinery. The end result of this, according to some, is a world in which biology and technology increasingly resemble each other, to the point that they is barely a distinction to be made and they can be merged.

Charles Darwin would roll over in his grave!

Sources:,, (2),

The Future is Here: Memory Implants Now Possible!

?????????????????????The concept of implanting a person with false memories has been featured in many a science fiction franchise. Between Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember it for you Wholesale” (which was the basis for Total Recall), the cult-hit Dark City, and the more recent Inception, the idea that memories could be tampered with – thus showing how reality and experience are subjective – has a long history.

And now it seems that once again, science fiction has proven to be the basis of science fact. As a result ongoing collaboration between the Japanese Riken Brain Science Institute and MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, a process has been devised for planting specific false memories into the brains of mice.

memory_implantsThis breakthrough, in addition to being mind-blowing and kind of scary, is also likely to seriously extend our understanding of memory. The ability to learn and remember is a vital part of any animal’s ability to survive, but with human beings, it also plays a major role in our perception of what it is to be human. What’s more, disorders effecting the human brain and memory have been growing considerably in recent decades.

These range from Alzheimer’s disease, where the abilities to make new memories and to place one’s self in time are seriously disrupted, to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, in which a memory of a particularly unpleasant experience cannot be suppressed. Such disorders are a powerful force driving research into discovering how healthy memory functions so that we can diagnose and treat problems before they become too serious.

Mouse-Hippocampus1In their previous work, researchers from the Picower Center for Neural Circuit Genetics were able to identify an assembly of neurons in the brain’s hippocampus that held a memory engram – a cell containing data about a sequence of events. In recalling a memory, the brain uses this data to reconstruct the associated events, but this reconstruction often varies from what actually occurred.

Working from this, the researchers were able to locate and identify the neurons encoding a particular engram (a specific set of memories) through the use of optogenetics. This technique is a relatively new neuromodulation process that uses a combination of genetic modification and optical stimulation to control the activity of individual neurons.ChR_memoryAfterward, they were able to genetically engineer the hippocampal cells of a new strain of mouse so that the cells would form a light-sensitive protein called a channelrhodopsin (ChR). These proteins activate neurons when stimulated by light, thus ensuring that specific memories could be triggered by exposing someone implanted with them to a light source.

Next, the researchers conducted a series of behavioral experiments in order to identify the set of brain cells that were active only when a mouse was learning about a new environment. The genes activated in those cells were then coupled with the light-sensitive ChR and monitored during the next phase of the experiment, where the mice were placed in a series of boxes.

memory_implants1In the first box, the mice were exposed to a safe environment, during which time the neurons that were actively forming memories were labelled with ChR, so they could later be triggered by light pulses. In the second box, mice were treated to a series of mild foot shocks, which created a negative association, while at the same time, a pulsing light was used to trigger their memories of being in the first box.

When the mice were returned to the first box, in which they had only pleasant experiences, they clearly displayed fear/anxiety behaviors. In short, the fear that they had learned in a separate environment was now falsely associated with the safe environment. Whats more, the false fear memory could be reactivated at will in any environment by triggering the neurons associated with that false memory.

brain-activityWhat this demonstrated was that the recall of this false memory drove an active fear response that was indistinguishable from a real memory. And according to Steve Ramirez, a graduate student in the Tonegawa lab and the lead author of the paper, the experiment provided some real insight into the nature of memory:

These kinds of experiments show us just how reconstructive the process of memory actually is. Memory is not a carbon copy, but rather a reconstruction of the world we’ve experienced. Our hope is that, by proposing a neural explanation for how false memories may be generated, down the line we can use this kind of knowledge to inform, say, a courtroom about just how unreliable things like eyewitness testimony can actually be.

Granted, it might not sound like Total Recall or Inception, but the basic premise is the same. And note how in those movies, no explanation was given as to how these false memories were fashioned – nor could they be, since no means yet existed. But now, using this technique, memories could be fashioned in one person, and then implanted in another.

total-recall-originalFrightened yet? Well, you should be! If memory is one of the very things that define us as human beings, and we can’t be sure if the memories we have are real, our own, or someone else’s, then how can we be sure of anything? How do we even know who we are? Man, I’d be writing this into a story outline right now if it hadn’t already been done to death!

Until next time, guard your experiences and memories jealously! You never know when someone might try to come along and steal them…


The Future is Here: The Neuromimetic Processor

Neuromorphic-chip-640x353It’s known as mimetic technology, machinery that mimics the function and behavior of organic life. For some time, scientists have been using this philosophy to further develop computing, a process which many believe to be paradoxical. In gleaming inspiration from the organic world to design better computers, scientists are basically creating the machinery that could lead to better organics.

But when it comes to Neuromoprhic processors, computers that mimic the function of the human brain, scientists have been lagging behind sequential computing. For instance, IBM announced this past November that its Blue Gene/Q Sequoia supercomputer could clock 16 quadrillion calculations per second, and could crudely simulate more than 530 billion neurons – roughly five times that of a human brain. However, doing this required 8 megawatts of power, enough to power 1600 homes.

connectomeHowever, Kwabena Boahen, a bioengineering professor at Stanford University recently developed a new computing platform that he calls the “Neurogrid”. Each Neurogrid board, running at only 5 watts, can simulate detailed neuronal activity of one million neurons — and it can now do it in real time. Giving the processing to cost ratio in electricity, this means that his new chip is roughly 100,000 times more efficient than other supercomputer.

What’s more, its likely to mean the wide-scale adoption of processors that mimic human neuronal behavior over traditional computer chips. Whereas sequential computing relies on simulated ion-channels to create software-generated “neurons”, the neuromorphic approach involves the flow of ions through channels in a way that emulates the flow of electrons through transistors. Basically, the difference in emulation is a difference between software that mimics the behavior, and hardware.

AI_picWhat’s more, its likely to be a major stepping stone towards the creation of AI and MMI. That’s Artificial Intelligence and Man-Machine Interface for those who don’t speak geek. With computer chips imitating human brains and achieving a measure of intelligence which can be measured in terms of neurons and connections, the likelihood that they will be able to merge with a person’s brain, and thus augment their intelligence, becomes that much more likely.


Controlling Epilepsy with Lasers

optogenetics-640x353For over a century, scientists have sought to learn more about epilepsy, the most common form of seizure activity in humans. Basically, these seizures are what happen when neurons misfire in response to sudden exposure to light. Arising in discrete regions on either pole of the brain, this neurological disorder effects many people worldwide and can have a drastic impact on their lives. Luckily, it seems that researchers may finally have a way to predict the seizures and even eliminate them  altogether.

It’s called optogenics: the science of using genetically modified viruses to insert light-responsive channels into the neurons and then following that up with the use of lasers to reduce and even eliminate TLE, or temporal lobe epilepsy. And thanks to ongoing research, there might just be a way to both predict and shut down these episodes of unwanted neurological activity just as they begin. And ironically, its all through the use of targeted laser light.

Mouse-HippocampusThe breakthrough came in a recent study by Nature Communications, researchers were able to trigger seizures in mice by treating the hippocampus section of their brains (the part involved in seizure activity). It began with the use of an acid named kainate that is derived from seaweed, which in turn left them susceptible to spontaneously generated seizure activity. Then, through the use of a series of implanted EEG electrodes, the researchers were able to detect signs that seizures were beginning and then shut them off with light.

Naturally, there are concerns about adapting the technique to humans. Not only were the mice specifically engineered for the study, there is also the issue of achieving full optical stimulation in human subjects. To address these issues, a number of solutions are in the works. For example, biocompatible polymer electrodes have been designed to ensure that the genetically-modified virus can be delivered properly to the human brain. In addition, a number of key developers have been working on compact devices that contain hundreds of discrete delivery electrodes that ought to provide the requisite neurological stimulation.

neurozeneIt is research, and it’s ongoing. But the results are encouraging and with ongoing development to adapt it to humans, anti-seizure medical devices are expected to be exploding in the near future. Much like the tiny electrodes used to stimulate brain activity and recollection in a simian, we could be looking at the prototype for a new type of brain implants that addresses and eliminates neurological disorders.