Brain Implants, machines that will be surgically implanted into a person’s brain to perform one or more functions, are going to be reality in the very near future. And the technology has gotten far enough for us to at least categorize what many of these implants will possibly do once we’ve developed them. We understand that most if not all will fall into two main categories: Restorative Implants and Enhancement Implants.
The structure of the human brain and the functions that each of the major sections of the brain enable us to identify the types of implants that might be implanted in specific areas.
CEREBRUM: As the largest part of the brain, the cerebrum will also be the site in which the largest assortment of implants will be located.
Restorative Cerebrum Implants: The brain implants would mainly be used for restoring or repairing damage caused disease or trauma. For instance, an implant that can return muscle control, motor reflex and speech to a strok victim. Or an implant in the Temporal Lobe to return lost memories.
Augmenting Cerebrum Implants:
Cognitive Enhancement: Super-enhanced memory recall, on-demand photographic memory through implants in the Temporal Lobe.
Sensory Enhancement: Brain implants that would most likely be placed in the Occipital Lobe to offer night vision, telescopic vision, video recording through your eyes, vision into different spectrums (ultraviolet or infrared for example), enhanced hearing; Internal compass letting us always know which direction we’re heading.
Increased Reaction Time: An implant into the Frontal Lobe enhancing processing speed to the Perietal Lobe to enable someone able to have a much faster than normal reaction speed.
Direct Brain-to-Brain communications: It would almost be like telepathy, with two or more people being able to communicate with each other using their brain implants.
Neural Net: An Internet for brains. The brain implant would enable access to the Internet for data retrieval and uploading.
Before we are able to build these types of brain implants, we will need to better understand how the brain codes, stores, recalls, and uses information.
Spinal Cord: Although this is not part of the brain and would thus seem to be a subject for another article, I would be remiss if I did not address implants that interact directly with the brain via the Central Nervous System. This exciting category of implants could one day soon enable paralyed individuals to once again walk.
WHERE THE TECH IS TODAY: There are already brain implants in use today. Pacemakers for the brain that help control Parkensins Disease have been around since 1997. Thousands of people walk around with Cochlear Implants that restore their hearing. And we are at the early stages of using implants to restore the movement to paralyzed people. And there are many other exciting projects that are closing in on the useof brain implants to either restore or enhance functionality:
– Electrodes: This first part of the process is also the most important. How do you bridge the natural with the artifical? Electrodes connect the brain to the implant but in doing so can cause scarring and are attacked by the immune system as a foreign body. Current technologies wrap them in materials that enable them to smoothly slide through tissue or cover them in neurotransmitters and encourage surrounding neurons to grow new connections. Hydrogels, like those used in contact lenses are under development. It is possible that stem cells from a person that is going to receive the implants could be grown into neural connectors so that the brain accepts the implant as a natural extension of itself.
– Powering the Brain Impant: The implant will need power to run whatever functions it has. Current technology is geared towards that types of wireless charging seen on cell phone charging pads. But there is also some research being currently conducted to use body chemistry as a method of powering the implant.
– Controlling Artificial Limbs: Direct brain control of artificial limbs has been demonstrated repeatedly over the past year as patients have had electrodes implanted into their brains that interface.
– Brain Communication: You know that inner voice of yours? You talk to yourself and it’s such a personal thing that it almost seems hard to imagine that everyone else is doing the same thing? What if that inner voice could be projected and heard by others? Some of you might say that would result in you getting slapped a lot. But there are some interesting opportunities that are being investigated that could take advantage of this ability. Scientists at the University of California, Berkley, are trying to build a prosthesis that can read your inner voice and convert it to speech. This would enable those you cannot speak because of paralysis to communicate. It could also possibly be combined with other technology, such as a wireless broadband brain implant, to enable non-verbal communication between two or more people with such implants.
The field of brain implants is rapidly growing. The ever-increasing capabilities of medical imaging are enabling researchers to map brain activity as it relates to motor and sensory actions in ways that have never before been possible. As we increase our knowledge of how the brain works, we will find amazing ways to augment ourselves beyond what nature ever intended.
There are many promising areas of study that show we can dramatically extend human lifespan to 120 years, 150 years or even longer. Genetic manipulation, blood replacement, artificial organs, brain chip implants and other options for extending our lives will soon be available.
By Ed Ruth
Some very interesting advances have been made in the past couple of years to make the idea of significantly extending the human lifespan much more realistic. Living to 120 years, 150 years or even longer may become the norm if some of these advances come to fruition.
The idea of significantly increasing human lifespan may sound unrealistic until one considers the fact that we have already basically doubled the average human lifespan over the past 200 years. In the year 1800, disease and other social factors let some individuals live into their 70s but it was much much more common for people to die in their 30s and 40s. That fact had not changed a whole lot by the year 1900 but it has changed drastically since then. Most people in modern industrialized countries today have a life expectancy of around 75 years. Where it was once a rarity it is now commonplace for young adults to still have one or more of their grandparents alive.
Our ability to extend the average human lifespan today primarily stems from an increase in hygienic living conditions and our ability to fight infectious diseases and treat wounds and other injuries that previously would have lead to death. Diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis and smallpox along with the extremely deadly bubonic plague which limited much of humanity’s lifespan in the past are no longer the death sentence they once were. So medical science has already extended the average human lifespan significantly.
We now seek to extend the human lifespan to its maximum natural extent and thus run into age-related diseases such as coronary artery disease, certain age-related cancers, diabetes, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Many scientists believe we are reaching the maximum lifespan our species is capable of achieving under natural circumstances. Which leads us to find circumstances that nature did not intend. Homo Sapiens is reaching the next step in our evolution. It is a step towards mankind using our science and technology to guide our evolution toward goals we choose rather allowing natural selection a freehand as it has always had in the past.
The goal of extending human lifespan is a very complicated goal. The aging process involves many factors so it makes sense that efforts to extend lifespan come from many different directions. Those directions can be categorized into two distinct sections: The Body and The Mind.
THE BODY: One of the primary focuses in human life extension is manipulation of our genetic structure. Take a big swig of coffee or whatever you need to wake up a bit because this next paragraph is the somewhat boring part. I’ll keep it short but it is important to include at least the basics of DNA structure to explain what is being done in regards to longevity research.
Telomerase is a ribonucleoprotein enzyme that is found at the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes. That mouthful, said in a little bit more plain English, means that every time a chromosome is copied, it knows it has reached the end of the strand by running up against this particular enzyme. But every time a chromosome is copied, the telomere region that holds these enzymes gets a little shorter. At some point, the strand is no longer long enough to maintain viability. So successful cellular division is reduced as telomerase enzymes reach their limited number of copies. Bone mass, muscle mass, immune systems, etc are thus reduced as we age. A large amount of work has been done over the past two decades to see how increased telomarase can affect aging and multiple studies have shown an increase in lifespan of over 20% for mice receiving such treatment. But the capability of telomarase to remove the limitations of cellular replication also bring with it a much increased chance for cancerous growth. You can bet that decades more research is ahead on using telomarase for extending human lifespan.
Longevity Genes: We are quickly beginning to understand how specific genes affect longevity. Scientists have the spent that last decade or so identifying “longevity genes” that are shown to significantly affect those that carry these variants. A recently completed study that analyzed the DNA of 152 Spaniards aged between 110 and 111 years and 742 Japanese people aged between 100 and 115 years identified several gene variations these groups share. This study also included information that supported the long-known association of lower caloric intake with longevity. Another recent study expands on this association by identifying the protein that holds the key to the lifespan-enhancing effect of caloric restriction. The study on yeast showed that gene therapy involving the ISW2 protein could potentially extend lifespan by up to 25 percent without any caloric restrictions. If this proves to be a successful line of study, this alone could extend average human lifespan to almost 100 years of age. And there are other paths, such as the FOX03 gene that have been shown to extend lifespan as well. Combined with the recent advances in creating artificial DNA that can enable us to make custom proteins that have longevity properties we select, we are looking at a future of very extensive and very effective genetic manipulation for extended our lives.
Young Blood: One exciting, if slightly ghoulish, advancement has been in the study of using fresh blood to replace old blood in an effort extend lifespan and vitality. Several studies have shown the protein called GDF11 is abundant in young mice and scarce in old ones. Recent studies have shown that an increase in GDF11 proteins increases skeletal muscle and heart strength significantly. It has many scientists believing that you could significantly increase lifespan and vitality by putting fresh blood into an older person. Our increasing knowledge on how to create artificial blood could make it very possible for rejuvenation treatments in the not-so-distant future that could significantly extend our lifespans. Don’t be too surprised if within the next decade or so you start seeing advertisements offering rejuvenation treatments to 50-60 year old people that say they can extend lifespans by 10-20 years. They’ll likely be offered overseas so they wont have to clear FDA hurdles and you can bet they will have long lines of waiting customers. After all, what price can you put on realistically adding a decade or two to your life?
Technology:Bioprinted replacement organs, Robotic prosthetics, Artificial implants, Nanotechnology and other technological advances could have a profound affect on our ability to extend lifespan. The various technologies will be further enhanced as Artificial Intelligence (AI) gains grounds. It is not too hard to see a time in the next few decades where an AI designs artificial organs and prosthetics that meet or exceed the efficiencies of the natural parts.
Personalized Medicine: One of the major problems with today’s drugs are the side affects. A drug is designed to have a certain beneficial affect on most people. That beneficial affect is more evident with some and less with others. And the negative side affects are also more evident in some and less in others. Soon, you will be taking a drug customized to your genome, body chemistry, age, weight, etc. This will eliminate or much reduce side affects while maximizing effectiveness of medicine. Expect this advancement with the next 10 years.
THE MIND: One of the most common statements heard when you ask about “How would you like to live to 100 or longer?” is the reply that they would only want to do so if they retained their memories and not be affected by age-related maladies like Alzheimer’s or Dementia. As I mentioned above, there is a lot of research on genetic factors that affect the brain as we age. For example, the Cholesteryl Ester Transfer Protein (CETP) gene variant increases blood levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL). This is often called “the good cholesterol” and it has been shown to help protect against Alzheimer’s disease. APOE ε4, a gene variant involved in cholesterol metabolism that is known to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s among those who carry it has also been identified. Researchers are working on drugs that can mimic the ability of the CETP protein to create affective treatments for retaining our mental abilities as we age. Another interesting study that was recently released revealed the longevity gene called “KLOTHO” improves brain skills such as thinking, learning and memory regardless of age, sex, or whether a person has a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. And a decade worth of studies had shown that the aforementioned GDF11 protein spurs the growth of blood vessels and neurons in the brain.
Many other genes are being studied for their possible ability to extend lifespan and general health as we age. Of particular interest is the IGF-1 gene, which seems to offer protection from cancer and diabetes. And a hormone produced by the brain called dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) is known to be important in memory, enhancing the immune system, and to be beneficial in preventing diabetes, obesity, and cancer. As we expand our knowledge of the genetic factors affect the brain and memory as we age, more treatments will become available to ensure we stay mentally sharp as we extend our lifespan.
One very interesting recent study shows that new brain cells erase old memories. This correlates well as to why childhood memories become increasing vague as we age. It’s like our brain is telling us that we need less and less of our earliest memories as we age so it gets rid of those memories and keeps the more current memories. Could it be that, as we enhance our ability to live much longer lives, humans will selectively choose which old memories to retain so as to make it possible to “make room for new memories”. Will we be able to target and retain those cherished older memories that define how we became who we are while still keeping the ability to gain new memories that let us develop who we will be in the future?
Maybe our technology will make it so we don’t have to limit ourselves to such biological constraints. Brain implants may offer us the ability to have super memory capabilities and prevent many age-related memory problems. A new $100 million dollar program to better understand the brain and how it stores and processes memories is underway. This program’s ultimate goal is to help the millions of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease and the nearly 300,000 US military men and women who have sustained combat related traumatic brain injuries that have affected their memories. The idea would be to develop neuroprosthetic devices that can directly interface with the hippocampus part of the brain to restore memories. Current technologies are already assisting people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Technologies under development should ensure that those who live artificially enhanced lifespans retain the mental ability to enjoy doing so.
No one knows how long we’ll be able to extend human lifespan. We don’t know what affect it will have on families or society in general. Will it be limited to just the super rich? Will overpopulation lead to more wars and food shortages or will it energize our deep-seated nature of exploration and encourage us to spread out to other planets? It is heartening to realize that the longer one lives, the more options exist to help you live even longer. Each passing year brings us new answers and teaches us to ask new questions. While these questions and answers are never ending and will always lead to new advances, the general goal will stay the same: To extend lifespan AND to have that lifespan be healthy, vigorous and mentally sharp right up to the end.
Recent advances in 3-D printing technology are creating whole new subsectors of the healthcare industry and enabling healthcare organizations to offer healthcare solutions that just a few years ago would have been unimaginable. In healthcare, there is 3-D printing of objects, such as implants and other items that will be discussed below. And then there is 3-D printing of living cells, sometimes called “Bioprinting”.
The affect 3-D printing will have on healthcare is going to be amazing. According to InformationWeek, 3-D printing in the Healthcare Industry is only set to continue growing. The market is expected to expand to more than $4 billion by 2018. Custom prosthetics, braces, casts, etc will be created in very short time at a very low cost. And custom medical implants, such as hip joints, can be produced at a fraction of the time and cost. The customized creation of parts specific to an individual is a key advantage to 3-D printing in Healthcare. For example, a 3-D printed implant in a child would be printed to the exact size needed for their body. As the child matured and their body grew, the part might need to be replaced. The replacement could just as easily be custom printed to meet their changing needs. The customization also enables quicker surgeries and faster healing.
The healthcare industry is seeing a large assortment of uses for 3-D printing. 3-D printing of dental implants creates much faster and less expensive implants that the current process of milling out a block of polymer. Many people with custom-manufactured hearing aids, replacement knees and prosthetics can already thank 3-D printing for changing their healthcare. For example, a researcher at the famed MIT Media Lab has developed a method of using MRI scans to identify stress points on an amputee patient’s remaining limb portion to develop a limb socket that is unique to that patient and drastically improves the comfort of wearing the prosthetic. 3-D printing has also been already used in the creation of reconstructive implants for jawbones and other parts of the skull. 3-D printing even offers the ability to print complete lab devices. But some of the most exciting recent developments in 3-D printing in healthcare are related to Bioprinting, the printing of living cells.
Challenges of Organ Printing: The holy grail of Bioprinting is 3-D printing of whole functional organs. Nearly 120,000 people in the United States are on the waiting list for an organ transplant that may save their lives, according to the American Transplant Foundation. If you’ve ever read anything on organ transplants, you know that a huge problem with transplanting a donor organ is what is known as “organ rejection”. Basically, a transplant recipients’ own immune system recognizes the transplanted organ as foreign and tries to fight it off. A variety of immuno-suppressant drugs are given to the organ recipient to fight off those rejection efforts. but doing so is sometimes not successful and opens the patient up to other issues since they have a much lowered immune system.
The ideal way to reduce or stop this rejection of the organ would be to use the patients own stem cells to grow a replacement organ. This would drastically reduce the danger of rejection, offer a higher rate of healing and improve the patients chances of long-term recovery. There are, however, several significant challenges that must be overcome before this becomes a reality. The two most daunting challenges seem to be the growth of tissue or organs with the complexity and structure to include both vascular and nervous system capabilities.
Hospitals have for many years been able to grow single layers of epithelial cells on wounds or burns. But those single layers are much simpler than trying to create actual skin, which is multi-layered, uses diverse types of cells and has a network with blood vessels that can be attached to a recipient’s vascular system. If multi-layers of living cells are printed, the interior level(s) of cells die as they quickly become starved of oxygen and nutrients and have no way of removing carbon dioxide and other waste. Cells must be within 150 to 200 microns of the nearest capillary to survive. Researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have recently revealed a technique they’ve developed to try to overcome the vascularization issue using a unique ink that dissolves while those around it solidify, created an interconnected network of hollow tubes. The Harvard team has tested the method on 3-D constructs with blood vessels and injected human endothelial cells into the vascular network, resulting in the cells regrowing the blood-vessel lining. Further testing is necessary to confirm the the constructed vascular network can be connected to natural vasculature.
Researchers are still years away from being able to create vascular/capillary networked living tissue with the cell density and size of a human organ. Ironically, the heart will probably be much easier to construct than some other organs, especially those dealing with biochemistry functions like the kidneys or liver. Each of those organs has dozens of types of cells, making the idea of Bioprinting a billion-plus cell organ that much more daunting.
Then there is the nerve cell issue. When it comes to 3-D printing of nerve cells, there are two different end goals. The first goal and the one that will hopefully be accomplished in the near future is the development of patient-specific 3-D conduits that could be inserted between severed nerve cells to reestablish connection. This would have obvious implications in the treatment of spinal paralysis victims and those suffering from nerve degenerative disorders. In December of 2013, the Biofabrication Journal reported that UK scientists had successfully printed retinal ganglion cells and glial cells for the first time. This marks the first 3-D printing of cells derived from the central nervous system. The scientists plan to print other cells of the retina and to investigate if light-sensitive photoreceptors can be successfully printed using their technique. If successful, this could ultimately lead to an effective treatment for Macular Degeneration, a major cause of blindness. Also, researchers at the Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF) have also reported success in the creation of 3-D conduits that can be inserted between damaged or severed nerves and used to grow new, reconnected cells.
The second goal and one which seems much further down the road is the ability to 3-D print the neural paths/receptors into 3-D printed organs so as to enable them to correctly interface with the recipient’s peripheral nervous system (PNS) and autonomic nervous system (ANS). This adds several levels of difficulty to the previously mentioned challenges of organ production and will likely be many years down the road before such a intricate system could be printed. Perhaps an interim step will be the used more successfully. The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is one of the pioneering institutions that combines bioreactors that grow human tissue and organs with 3-D Bioprinting.
But the technology does not have to get to the level of full production of working organs to be useful in healthcare. According to a January 2014 Forbes report, doctor’s at Louisville’s Kosair Children’s Hospital were able to print a 3-D model of a 14-month-old child’s heart that had been born with a unique defect. In less than 24 hours, the hospital was able to print a 3-D model of the defective heart which enabled the doctors to extensively study the defect and come up with the corrective procedure that saved the child’s life. This is not the only recent example of using 3-D Printing to produce incredibly accurate models of biological structures. Yale neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd of the Yale Center for Engineering Innovation and Design (CEID) recently produced a 4.25 inch x 5 inch 3-D model of a neuron, exact in every way other than size. The researchers believe the 3-D modeling will lead to new insights and discoveries as scientists are able to better visualize the complicated 3-D architecture of the brain’s microcircuits.
Hardware and Software Advances: 3-D Printers have actually been around for decades. But they were very large industrial-sized machines that used very expensive 3-D CAD software and were mainly limited to large corporations that used them for prototype development. But several changes have occurred over the past year or so that have the industry set for major growth. On the hardware side, the machines have significantly dropped in size and in price. Most of the 3-D printers use some variant of ink-jet technology to deliver the “ink”. For those involved in Bioprinting, they must customize the printer to incorporate cartridges capable of holding and sustaining living cells and modify the print heads to deliver the cells. Many 3-D printers use one arm with multiple heads to print multiple materials one after the other. But a University of Iowa device has multiple arms that can print several materials concurrently. This advance could be a faster option for bioprinting because one arm can be used to create blood vessels while the other arm is creating tissue-specific cells in between the blood vessels.
The actual delivery of the cells as the printer is working involves careful consideration of the viscosity and surface tension of the cell-laden fluid, sometimes referred to as “Bio-ink”. Correct delivery speed and concentration is just as important as positioning. There is not, as of yet, an industry-norm as to what liquid medium is used to hold and convey the cells but several institutions have revealed information on the makeup of their “Bio-ink”. The Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology (IGB) in Stuttgart, Germany recently gave details on their gelatin-based Bio-ink. This could be the ideal medium as Gelatin, a derivative of collagen, is one of the main constituents of human tissues.
The ink-jet printing technique used by most researchers tends to leave a significant percentage of the printed cells damaged or dead. A recent development by the Houston Methodist Research Institute uses an alternate delivery method they call BloC-Printing that manipulates microfluidic physics to guide living cells into hook-like traps in a silicone mold, resulting in a almost 100% survival rate of the living cells. This method cannot as yet produce multi-layered structures so it is unknown whether it will ultimately end up being feasible for more complex Bioprinting.
On the software side of Bioprinting, an explosion of much lower cost 3-D modeling software has matched the drop in hardware prices to make it much more affordable for institutions to look into developing uses for 3-D printing where they might have in the past thought it outside their budget. Also, a key patent for ultrahigh-resolution 3-D printing technology expired in January, 2014. The technology, known as “Selective Laser Sintering” will soon allow consumer-grade 3-D printers to create complex 3-D creations that were previously limited to expensive industrial-grade 3-D printing. The technology uses a high-powered laser to enable the fusing of plastic, metal, ceramics and other materials into a physical object, one layer at a time.
And another recent advance is the availability of much more affordable 3-D scanners, which use fixed or sweeping lasers to capture the 3-D geometry and color data of an object. This drastically reduces the development time but has, up until recently, been a very expensive add-on technology. These scanners have the potential to increase the speed and affordability in the 3-D printing of custom appendage prosthetics, ears, spinal discs, heart valves, bones and facial prosthetics.
All of this adds up to some significant advancements in healthcare-related 3-D printing over the past 12 months or so. Suddenly the long-sought abilities to repair serious spine injuries, blindness and other serious health issues that have previously been beyond our medical capabilities are seemingly close to being within our grasp. Much like the Internet boom of the 90s, there are many start-ups eager to use 3-D printing in the healthcare industry in new and innovative ways. No one can know exactly where 3-D printing is going and what its ultimate limitations might be. But those at the forefront of the technology are already testing technologies that just a decade ago would have sounded like science fiction.
Barbara Lorber, Wen-Kai Hsiao, Ian M Hutchings, Keith R Martin. Adult rat retinal ganglion cells and glia can be printed by piezoelectric inkjet printing. Biofabrication, 2014; 6 (1): 015001 DOI: 10.1088/1758-5082/6/1/015001
Author: Ed Ruth writes about politics, health and science