• Mr. Steven J. Muehler

Steve Muehler's Plan to Invest Federal Funds into Computer to Brain Technologies

Updated: Apr 23

Under my Administration, I would direct the Federal Government to increase funding into companies working to create the link between our technology / computers (existing and future) and the human brain, which is the next "frontier" of vast technological and medical / health advances.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Defense selected a small San Jose-based company, Paradromics Inc., to lead one of six consortia it is backing with $65 million to develop technologies able to record from one million individual neurons inside a human brain simultaneously.

Recording from large numbers of neurons is essential if engineers are ever to create a seamless, high-throughput data link between the human brain and computers, including to restore lost senses.

That goal has been in the news a lot over the couple of years. In April of 2017, Elon Musk announced he was backing Neuralink, a $100 million company working on a brain-computer interface. Facebook followed up by saying that it had started work on a thought-to-text device to let people silently compose e-mails or posts.

The announcements generated worldwide headlines but also skepticism, since neither Musk nor Facebook disclosed how they’d pull off such feats.

Now the federal contracts, handed out by DARPA, offer a peek into what cutting-edge technologies could make a “brain modem” really possible. They include flexible circuits that can be layered onto the brain, sand-size wireless “neurograins,” and holographic microscopes able to observe thousands of neurons at once. Two other projects aim at restoring vision with light-emitting diodes covering the brain’s visual cortex.

Paradromics’s haul is as much as $18 million, but the money comes with a “moonshot”-like list of requirements—the implant should be not much bigger than a nickel, must record from one million neurons, and must also be able to send signal back into the brain.

Since learning to use metal electrodes to listen in on the electrical chatter of a single neuron a century ago, scientists have never managed to simultaneously record from more than a few hundred at once in a living human brain, which has about 80 billion neurons in all.

While the company's CEO was at Howard University, a professor mentioned an obscure Moldovan company that had developed a way to stretch hot metal and mass-produce coils of extremely thin insulated wires, just 20 microns thick.

The technique, similar to the one that produces fiber-optic strands, is used to create antennas and to make magnetic wires that hotels can sew into towels to prevent customers from stealing them. But he realized the materials could let them make electrical contact with large numbers of brain cells at once.

Today, this team orders spools of the wire and then bundles strands together in cords that are 10,000 wires thick. One end of the wires can be sharpened, creating a brush-like surface that can penetrate the brain as needles would. The thickness of the wires is calibrated so that it is strong enough not to buckle as it is pushed into the brain, but thin enough not to cause much damage.

The other ends of the wires are glued together, polished, and then pressed onto a microprocessor with tens of thousands of randomly spaced “landing pads,” some of which bond to the wires. These pads detect the electrical signals conveyed through the wires from the brain so they can be tallied and analyzed. This “connectorizing” of so many wires is what’s held such concepts back in the past.

In Paradromics’s case, the eventual objective is a high-density connection to the speech center of the brain that could let the company tap into what words a person is thinking of saying. But if the technology works out, it could also vastly expand the ability of neuroscientists to listen in as large ensembles of neurons generate complex behaviors, knit together sensory stimuli, and even create consciousness itself.

At the same time, a team of neurobiologists at UCLA "transplanted" a memory from the nervous system of one snail into another.

In order to do this, the team repeatedly "trained" a snail with electric shocks. The team simply induced a very simple kind of memory in the snails called sensitization. The team likens this sensitization to experiencing an earthquake or other physically jarring event where you would be very jumpy for a time afterward.

The team gave the snails a series of electric shocks to their tails. The result were, the snail's reflexes were greatly enhanced. If the team members touched their skin, the snail contracted very strongly.

When the snails were good and jumpy, the team extracted RNA from their nervous systems and injected it into untrained snails.

Twenty-four hours later, the tested the reflexes of those snails, and they showed the same reflexes of those that had been given electrical shocks!

Why snails?

It's no coincidence that this breakthrough was conducted with the help of some slimy gastropod friends as the neurobiologists have been studying the machinations of snail brains for decades.

The team are reductionists in their approach to learning memory, as the human brain is so complex ... so snails have a lot of advantages in that they have relatively simple nervous systems.

And what applies to a snail, evolutionarily, probably applies to a human in some way.

The way science proceeds is, you figure out the simple things first, and then you build on them as many of the cellular mechanisms of learning and memory that we identify in all animals were first observed in the snail.

What does it mean for humans?

Memory transfer and transplantation are fascinating to think about. But just because it works on snails doesn't mean we'll soon be living in the realm of "Westworld" or "The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Actually, the human applications are much more practical -- and helpful.

The team was able to transfer the memory using RNA, so if you think about human disorders of memory like dementia, Alzheimer's and PTSD, if the technology can in the future identify some of the RNA that produces learning like alterations, it is possible we could use that knowledge to create new and more effective treatments.

In other words, a better understanding of how memories are physically formed in the components of the nervous system (which includes the brain) could lead to a better understanding of memory-related diseases and disorders.

The findings also challenges some popular understandings of how memory is stored. The dominant model of learning and neuroscience today is that when an animal learns something, there is growth in new synaptic connections or change in existing ones, so essentially, memory is stored in synapses.

This study suggests that can't be true.

These are just two examples of multiple advances in "Brain Technology", and the Medical and Technological Advances in this new industry are to important to not be the country leading the charge, being late to this party could be dangerous. My Administration would ensure that we would be far in the lead in developing this new market / industry.

Steve Muehler is the Founder & Managing Member of the Private Placement Markets:

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