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Neurotechnology: The brain wired for healthcare

The answer to some of mankind’s biggest medical problems is likely in the future to be found at the confluence of science and technology.
Read time 3min 20sec

A Peruvian physician used a crude instrument and began scraping a hole in her patient’s skull.

The doctor did not use anaesthetic or sterile procedures and most of her patient's shattered upper skull was removed before the surgery was finished. The head wound was a result of a battle between warring tribes. Surprisingly, the operation was a success and the victim survived.

One can only imagine that the hospital’s medical review board would be aghast when learning about this unorthodox procedure. Interestingly, this did not happen in a hospital but in a cave. And there were no review boards at the time, as we are talking about trepanation: operations performed in ancient times to treat head wounds, or for mystical reasons.

For millennia, humans have been peering into the skulls of others, interested in the workings of the brain and curious about why our cranium is smaller than those of other mammals. Thankfully, brain surgery is very advanced these days and we do not have to bite on a plank as the local witch doctor opens our skull.

The most recent breakthrough in brain-reading technology is the brain-computer interface. The brain may be regulated by a variety of variables, all of which can be controlled by devices implanted in the neural network.

In the realm of neurotechnology, it represents a new form of technological integration. Smart devices might lead to a cure for serious brain disorders as part of the long-term aim of human improvement known as transhumanism.

Nervous system injuries − often irreversible − are difficult to treat. However, the answer to some of the problems that people with paralysis or other disabilities confront is likely to be found at the confluence of science and technology.

Nerve-stimulating devices have been created by technologists to aid amputees suffering from phantom limb discomfort. The technique works by stimulating particular neurons and blocking chronic pain with a generator the size of a pacemaker and an electrode.

Neurotechnology-based treatments, which were previously considered science fiction, are rapidly becoming a reality.

The gadget might also be used to treat pain in other chronic diseases, such as post-surgical pain and migraine headaches.

Neurotechnology-based treatments, which were previously considered science fiction, are rapidly becoming a reality.

The field blurs the borders between technology and biology, utilising neurostimulation techniques and brain-machine interfaces. In order to do this, they either record brain impulses and "translate" them into technical control orders, or deliver electrical or visual stimulation to the brain in order to influence it.

Hybrid brain-machine systems are likely to become increasingly common in the future. Numerous neurotech firms, in various phases of development, are trying to do anything from forecasting an athlete's potential, to treating depression.

Scientists predict a big advance in neurotechnology, thanks to the development of ultra-flexible brain-machine interfaces that might reduce the immunological response of the patient.

It has the potential to be a game-changer for many patients, as well as having far-reaching societal consequences.

Brain-interface technology is still in its early stages, but it's vital to investigate ethical issues as devices are created, to ensure they're not harmful. We would not want scientists to create a new gadget and then discover that it has significant ethical implications.

When it comes to neurotechnology, ethical concerns are entrenched not just in the technology or research, but also in society.

Questions like these aren't only for scientists, engineers, or even professional ethicists; they're part of a wider discussion in society over technology's proper applications, the use of personal data, and when patients should be free to decline treatment.

Johan Steyn

Smart automation, artificial intelligence thought leader and management consultant

Johan Steyn is a smart automation and artificial intelligence thought leader and management consultant. He is chairman of the Special Interest Group on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics with the IITPSA (Institute of Information Technology Professionals of South Africa). He writes in his personal capacity.

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