Advances in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), neural implants, optogenetics and electroceuticals sit among the neurobionic innovations with far-reaching implications for bionics end-users.
Neurobionics is the science of directly integrating electronics with the nervous system to repair or replace impaired functions. BCIs play a key role, establishing links to the brain through scalp, subdural or intracortical electrodes.
Most BCIs are non-invasive (using brain signals and stimulation via electromyography (EMG), electroencephalogram (EEG) or near-infrared stimulation) to monitor and treat chronic health conditions such as epilepsy, autism, depression and dementia. However, BCIs are also used to restore, augment or enhance human capabilities.
Examples of these human capabilities (such as those delivered by The NeuroNode Trilogy) is the ability for people living with a disability, disease, brain or spinal injury to communicate via a computer or word processor, to control their wheelchair and/or a prosthetic device. However, BCIs are also increasingly viewed as a key element in purpose-built smart home environments of those living with a disability. For example, a cognitive controller system known as BCI-based Smart Living Environmental Auto-Adjusted Control System detects the mental state of the user and adjusts the nearby home environment accordingly.
BCIs are also being developed to enable paraplegic patients to control robotic exoskeletons and improve control of movement disorders. Most neural interfaces have an electrical interface to the tissue, where small stimulating or recording electrodes are placed in proximity to the area of interest. Usually there is a trade-off between the invasiveness of a high precision electrode (for instance penetrating deep brain stimulating electrodes) compared to less spatially precise surface mounted electrodes (for instance electrocorticography or electroencephalography).
In contrast to other BCIs, deep brain stimulation (DBS) is an invasive technique used to treat a range of chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and tremors associated with other neural disorders. DBS involves direct access to tiny areas in the brain and many people with significant tremors see lifechanging results. DBS is now a well-established treatment with research continuing on its varied applications. Work is progressing on the use of DBS to treat memory loss with closed-loop neuro-prosthesis systems used to simultaneously record brain signals and deliver precisely timed stimulation.
Clinical and community interest in neural interfaces has heightened markedly over the past decade as new technologies and treatments emerge, including optogenetics and electroceuticals.
In particular, optogenetics holds a great deal of promise for neural control of bionic devices and limbs. Genetically modified target neurons are activated by visible light, infrared neural stimulation, nanoparticle-enhanced optical stimulation, and photochemical tools. The prime purpose of neurobionic devices is to help people with disabilities. Looking ahead, memory augmentation, cognitive enhancement, infrared vision and exoskeletal enhancement of physical performance will all advance markedly.
Electroceuticals is an exciting area of growth bringing together novel bio-compatible materials, miniaturised electronics, software, stimulation patterns, and electrode geometry. There is considerable interest in how electroceutical devices and vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) produce therapeutic effects across a wide range of chronic conditions, such as inflammatory diseases, functional gastrointestinal disease, obesity and diabetes. A deeper understanding of the molecular and neurophysiological changes that VNS will be important in designing future therapies.
Next-generation innovations with practical benefits for health consumers could include:
Brain-computer interfaces (BCI) or brain-device interfaces, AI-enabled implanted devices or wearables that enable communication (interaction between thought, message formulation, speech and/or other communication)
BCI, DBS and AI-enabled devices that contribute to improved treatments and functionality for people living with emotional or nervous disorders, epilepsy, disabilities caused by stroke or spinal cord injury, chronic peripheral neuropathies and neurodegenerative diseases (such as Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone disease and cerebral palsy)
Electroceuticals that produce therapeutic effects across a wide range of chronic conditions, such as inflammatory diseases, functional gastrointestinal disease, obesity and diabetes
Optogenetics where modified target neurons are activated by visible light, infrared neural stimulation or nanoparticle-enhanced optical stimulation, to enable or restore human functions
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