What if your brain could overcome the limitations of your body? No, this is not the preamble to a pep talk about mind over matter—not in the usual, figurative sense anyway. With more and more frequency, the scientific and medical communities are coming up with bioengineering that alters the circuitry of our brains to control limbs that no longer function and to create workarounds to sensory impairments like blindness.
One graffiti artist was suddenly able to paint again with his eyes and brainwaves after ALS caused his arms and hands to fail him.
Last month, researchers at Case Western Reserve University announced that by placing electrical implants on the motor cortex and implanting sensors in the forearm, they had made it possible for a man paralyzed from the neck down to control his hand. Now, for the first time in the eight years since he became a quadriplegic after crashing his bike into a truck, he is able to eat and drink on his own, essentially by thinking.
Similarly, Pat Fletcher, who lost both eyes in an accident, is having success with a software program called “vOICe” that enables her to “see with her ears” by converting pixels into sounds.
Veterans who return from battle and suffer from trauma and psychiatric disorders stand to benefit from bioengineering as well. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital are working on an implantable electronic device to monitor signals across the brain that are associated with issues like Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), severe depression, drug addiction, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and other neurological disorders. Once signals are detected the device will apply treatment by stimulating the appropriate areas. This Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) project was funded by a $30 million DARPA grant. DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which makes this story ripe for conspiracy theorists who wonder if the real purpose is to create “super soldiers” using these brain chips.
Whatever the future of medicine, science, and technology has in store for us, today’s advances in bioengineering will be some of the most influential forces behind it.