Computing and neuroscience are coming together fast — a convergence illustrated vividly by the first use of a computer algorithm to process electrical signals in the human brain, disclosed this week. The implant developed at the University of Southern California helps a damaged brain to encode memories and offers the hope of banishing extreme forgetfulness, whether caused by injury or disease.
Recent advances are taking neurotechnology into realms that would have seemed science fiction a decade or two ago. For example, paralysed people can operate robotic arms and even move their own limbs when their thoughts are channelled through electronic implants. Superscanners are beginning to unlock the minds of some patients who were thought to be in a permanently vegetative state. And experiments with lab animals, free of ethical constraints that apply to human subjects, give a peek at future possibilities, such as rewriting memories to obliterate bad experiences and reinforce good ones.
Apart from expressing sheer wonder at the speed of progress in bioelectronics, how should society respond? Using information technology to manipulate human thoughts and memories clearly raises moral and ethical issues, but first we should welcome the promised medical benefits. If clinical trials confirm that the USC prosthesis can restore memory in relatively young patients with head injuries or stroke, by encoding their brain signals to bypass the damaged brain region, that would be a fantastic advance.
Picture: Petter Kallioinen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons