Smartphone-Controlled Brain

While “bird brain” might sound like a good way to insult someone’s stupidity, it is quite flawed. The brain, even a bird’s, is the most complex organ in any organism. The human brain, made up of 100 billion neurons, is a field of continuous new discoveries. A neuron, simply put, is a nerve cell that transfers information within the body. Neurons within the brain form commands and tell the rest of the body how to operate and what functions to accomplish. Neurons, which are all over the body, never function on their own; they are organized into circuits that are more complex than the world’s most powerful supercomputers. However, just like any part of our body, neural circuits can encounter failures. As a result, certain functions may be hindered or lack complete function. But, in typical response, scientists seek a solution. Recently, a team of scientists from both Korea and the United States invented a device that can control neural circuits using a tiny brain implant controlled by a smartphone.

Each neural circuit has a specific function, such as the knee-jerk (myotatic, the stretching of a muscle) reaction. If the leg buckles, the patellar tendon in the knee is stretched. Sensory neurons detect the stretching and quickly tell motor neurons in the thigh to flex the quadriceps muscles. This prevents a person from falling. All the neurons involved in a function, such as muscles preventing a fall, are grouped into a single circuit for that specific purpose. For the circuit, and thus a bodily function, to work properly, every part needs to be flawless. However, due to sin, not everything is flawless. One common problem in neural circuits involves the space between individual neurons, called a synapse. The synapse transfers information signals between neurons. However, when it fails to properly deliver signals, it “may critically impair information processing in the brain and may underlie many neurodegenerative diseases”. Some commonly known diseases are Alzheimer’s, ALS, and Huntington’s. In order to remediate this malfunction, neuroscientists can stimulate neurons to work properly by using light and drugs in a human’s brain. However, the current method is difficult because it requires probes to be implanted into the brain. “Apart from limiting the subject’s movement due to the physical connections with bulky equipment, [the probes’] relatively rigid structure causes lesion in soft brain tissue over time, therefore making them not suitable for long-term implantation”. While the current method works, some people are never satisfied and continuously seek a better way until they discover the best.

Most recently, a team from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and the University of Washington in Seattle invented an implant with a replaceable drug cartridge. The new device could allow neuroscientists to study the same brain circuits for several months without worrying about running out of drugs. The new device has been compared to Legos, where an emptied cartridge can be removed and another one put right back in. It is about the size of a human hair “which consists of microfluidic channels and tiny LEDs (smaller than a grain of salt), for unlimited drug doses and light delivery”. The device is controlled by a simple program through a smartphone, which allows scientists and doctors to combine various amounts of light and drugs to try and correct whatever issue arises in an entire neural circuit. Another way scientists are furthering research is by studying how the release of light and chemicals affects the behavior of current animal test subjects. Jae-Woong Jeong, a professor of electrical engineering at KAIST, said: “We are interested in further developing this technology to make a brain implant for clinical applications.” With the increase of research in this field, new cures may possibly be discovered.

It is always difficult to see the effects of sin. One common question is “Why would a loving God allow bad things to happen to good people?” The sad reality is that mankind brought trouble upon themselves when Adam and Eve sinned. It was not in God’s plan, but He had to separate Himself from our sin. However, He is a compassionate God — the gospel story being a prime example. Even though our bodies grow old and begin to fail, like neural circuits may, He allows us to develop new technology and discover treatments for our benefit.

Reece, Jane B., et al. Campbell AP Biology. Pearson, 2014.

One Comment

  1. Great job on this article William. Looking forward to reading your column this year!?