Imagine you wanted to build a device that could allow people with severe speech impairment to engage in everyday conversation. If the impairment derived from the degeneration of motor neurons in the brain, you would need a smart electronic device that could be implanted in the brain and communicate between the brain’s speech centres and an external unit that converted these signals into words and speech. Quite a task, right?
Where do you start?
First you need a proper understanding of how language and speech are produced in the brain, so that you know what signals to look for and where to position the implant.
So you talk to your neuroscientist colleagues, experts in brain electrophysiology from Germany and France who record electrical signals from the brain, and try to convince them to help you to design the neural interfaces you will need. If you’re lucky, they accept!
“But wait,” they say, “we know all about brain signals in animals, but animals don’t talk like we do. Speech is a whole different thing!” There are many examples of communication in nature, but only humans have developed such a rich and complex tool as speech. “You need our colleagues from Switzerland, who are using electrophysiology on human subjects.” Indeed, as you discover, they specialise in recording the brain activity associated with language and speech in patients undergoing some brain surgeries. And so you have your language specialists onboard!
Now you ‘just’ have to make the brain implant, but how do you do that? What technologies lie at its core? Do you have access to the equipment you need to fabricate the implant once designed? What would a starting spec look like?
You know that language and speech are possible thanks to an extensive coordinated network of neurons distributed throughout the brain. That’s a lot of listening points for your device, a lot of sensors. The research done by your colleagues suggests that it could be enough to measure signals coming from the brain’s surface, from the cortex. Oh, but the sensors would need to be extremely sensitive. Like, hear-a-pin-drop-at-the-other-side-of-town sensitive, because the brain’s electrical signals are very weak. Wireless, flexible and slim, to be able to fit snugly to the bumps and creases of the brain and not miss the signals from hard-to-access areas.
You start to feel a bit dizzy; what have you got yourself into? Flexible electronics, ultra-sensitive sensors, micro-resolution, wireless transmission… Does such a technology even exist?
Well, not yet, no. You will need novel, state-of-the-art materials! So you call on your colleagues from Spain and the United Kingdom, who happen to be experts in nanomaterials for neural interfaces, in microcircuit design and signal processing. They can also fabricate prototype devices, which would solve that problem, at least.
You have even convinced a team of surgeons in France to try it out in patients once you’ve made your prototype devices.
Collaboration is key, but is tech, bio, neurology and medicine enough?
Not quite. At the heart of your project, you are developing an entirely new technology and that can lead you anywhere if you are not careful. Sure, you are restoring speech to patients who have lost this ability, a noble goal. However, how close does your device come to reading thoughts? What unintended uses might your implant find? You need to invite your philosopher colleagues from the United Kingdom to join the team and help you analyse the project from perspectives you would never even have considered. The ultimate achievement in multi-disciplinarity: a scientific project receiving counsel from the humanities.
BrainCom is born, a European project with the goal of developing a new generation of neuroprosthetic devices for large-scale, high density recording of electrical signals from the human cortex, suitable for exploring and repairing high-level cognitive functions, including the restoration of speech and communication. Such a multidisciplinary effort has been made possible thanks to the FET Proactive programme of the European Commission, which supports projects that lay the groundwork for radical new future technologies.