In a San Francisco laboratory, a woman named Ann interacts with an avatar using a groundbreaking brain–computer interface (BCI). Paralyzed by a brainstem stroke in 2005, Ann regained a semblance of speech control through a grid of more than 250 electrodes implanted by neurosurgeon Edward Chang. As she thinks of words, the BCI converts her neural activity into text at an impressive 78 words per minute, a significant leap from previous BCI capabilities.

Researchers have achieved remarkable feats in 2023, contributing to the growing enthusiasm around implantable BCIs. Beyond rapid text conversion, a study showcased a digital connection between the brain and spinal cord, enabling a paralyzed individual to walk by decoding intentions. This progress has ignited hopes of transitioning from proof of principles to transformative therapies within the next five years.

Despite these strides, the commercialization of BCIs is in its infancy. Current systems are customized for individuals, necessitating a shift toward scalable, reliable, and safe BCIs for broader use. Companies like Neuralink are making significant strides, with Elon Musk’s venture inviting paralysis-affected individuals to be the first recipients of implantable BCIs.

Simultaneously, a parallel ecosystem of wearable brain-reading devices is flourishing. These devices, while offering lower resolution than implants, aim to enhance mental health, productivity, and human-computer interaction. As these technologies gain prominence, efforts to guide and regulate neurotechnology are underway, with UNESCO contemplating international guidelines.

Amid these advancements, stakeholders acknowledge the need for a nuanced conversation, emphasizing the importance of reducing hype and focusing on pertinent developments. The journey involves decoding neural activity, whether through implants or wearables, to control external devices or provide users with valuable information. While implanted BCIs record richer signals, wearable devices, predominantly using electroencephalography (EEG), cater to a growing commercial market, targeting applications like mental well-being and productivity.

The quest for a ‘killer app’ in consumer-focused brain-reading headsets continues, with EEG-based products aiming to provide users with insights into their psychological states. However, challenges persist in making these devices reliable, practical, and affordable. Developers are cautiously optimistic about the potential impact of brain-reading technologies on therapeutic stimulation and disease identification. The consumer neurotechnology landscape is evolving, and EEG-sensing products are being explored for applications ranging from meditation facilitation to performance enhancement in sports.

As excitement grows, it is evident that a balanced and informed approach is crucial to navigate the complexities of advancing BCIs, whether for medical breakthroughs or consumer applications. The future promises transformative possibilities, provided challenges are met with thoughtful consideration and continued innovation.

By Impact Lab