Cybernetic applications in Neuroscience

Robot with a rat brain

Robot with a rat brain

Research in Cybernetics intelligence, at the University of Reading, works at the frontiers of human machine interaction. Together with the Systems Neuroscience group and medical professionals, we have been investigating new methods for human enhancement and new therapeutic treatments. Research has:

  • led to the first human implantation of BrainGate, an intelligent deep brain stimulator, and the culturing of neurons within a robot body.
  • been used by neurosurgeons in clinical trials to enhance the standard of living of paralysed individuals
  • sparked widespread discussion and debate in the public sphere, within the media and at the government level on the use of machines to enhance humans and vice versa

Details of the impact

Beneficiaries of our research are on opening ethical and public discussions, medical and public policy.

  • Our research has garnered considerable public interest through magazine articles, radio and television pieces (international news, discussion and documentaries), e.g. cover story on Wired Magazine, Late Night with Conan O'Brien (NBC), Ideas that Changed the World (BBC) in 2010, YouTube clips, blogs and Wikipedia discussions.
  • An exhibition in London's Science Museum was devoted to our work using cultured neurons in a robotic machine, and was in place for 18 months from 2008. The Science Museum maintains a website specifically dedicated to our research, a resource used by schools and colleges as an integral part of their course structure.
  • Our work also featured in the 2012 Wellcome Trust (London) 'Superhuman' exhibition, which was visited by nearly 80,000 people.
  • The work was also included in the Faraday Schools programme in 2013.

Medical applications include:

  • As a direct consequence of our first successful BrainGate implant in a human, studies have subsequently been performed to assist individuals who are paralysed to considerably enhance their quality of life.
  • Our research showed that the concept of technological integration with the human nervous system was possible. We pioneered the first direct human neural control of a robotic arm and, because of its success, enabled ethical approval to be obtained for further implantations of the BrainGate system.
  • The use of BrainGate has improved patient outcomes, as demonstrated in clinical trials reported in Nature in 2012. Essentially this means that neural signals can be monitored in real time by means of the BrainGate and employed to directly control such as a robot arm (as in B) or the cursor on a computer. For a paralysed individual this means that without the ability to move, because of lesions in their nervous system, by the use of the BrainGate they can control technology around them directly from their neural signals.

Influence on government policy include:

In terms of these issues the group's direct, practical work across the spectrum of neural implants and growing brains, as described here, is of direct relevance in shaping future Government policy.

In (2010) The Danish Council of Ethics used our research to question the ethical aspects of cyborg technology, leading to the release of a suite of recommendations.

At the UK government's Future Horizon Scanning Meeting in 2009, the University of Reading team was specifically involved5 in developing the government's stance on national security. This included issues such as identity, neural control and communication as considered in our research.

The Reading team is also involved in the planning and presentation of the forward looking 'Cross-Government Futures Symposium' to be held in Feb 2014. The Symposium is designed to consider differing views and perspectives about the future and what they will mean for UK Government strategy and policy beyond the next Parliamentary term.

Underpinning research

The BrainGate Implant (aka Utah Array)

The BrainGate Implant, aka Utah Array

A team, led by Professor Kevin Warwick, worked from 1998 to 2002 on the first human trial of the BrainGate.

This was implanted into the nervous system of Professor Warwick on March 14th 2002 in a 2 hour operation. The research group then linked the implant to several experiments to investigate the future of neural implants.

The neural implant used was, the BrainGate, a 100-electrode implant, that could both measure and simulate the periphered nervous system of Professor Warwick. Manipulation of the implant was investigated through ultrasonic input and extension of the nervous system over the internet. It was also used for the first time to control a robot hand directly from neural signals.

This research achieved the first direct electronic communication between the nervous systems of two humans. Theoretical studies were followed by the practical experimentation.

Further work, from 2004 to present, with the Medical Research Council's support, used an artificial intelligence system connected to the brain via deep embedded electrodes to accurately predict the onset of Parkinsonian tremors up to 20 seconds in advance. The electrodes were then used to provide deep brain stimulation to counteract these tremors before they took hold. This research has raised questions, as to the nature of Parkinson's disease (PD) itself and is opening up other possible routes to treatment.

Finally, from 2007 to present, with various Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC) listed support, we cultured a population of approximately 100,000 to 150,000 living neuronal cells (rat and human) on a multi-electrode array within a closed loop robot body.

The culture/brain was given a robot body. The robot's sensory readings were used to stimulate the cell culture and the cell activity was then in turn used to change the robot's behaviour - for example, to control its movement inside a small corral.

The work demonstrated that cultures of neurons can be used to control a robot to avoid obstacles, thereby creating a platform for investigating culture plasticity (the capacity for neural pathways to change due to feedback).

These experiments have led to a basic reassessment of how the brain and nervous system operate. The work could lead to new therapies to directly help those with a disability or neurodegenerative disease such as Parkinson's. The work reveals the tantalising possibility of being able to change and possibly enhance the basic functioning of a brain by linking it directly with technology.

Our work has been carried out with a number of biomedical collaborators, including consultant neurosurgeons Tipu Aziz, Peter Teddy and Amjad Shad at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, UK and Dr. B. Whalley in the School of Pharmacy, University of Reading.

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